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Future of north country public schools focus of SLU symposium

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CANTON — Struggling north country school districts will likely find more success getting additional state funding by filing a lawsuit against the state rather than lobbying politicians, according to the director of the state’s Center for Rural Schools.

The political power of downstate, including densely populated Long Island, continues to dominate the state Legislature, leaving upstate schools less likely to win political battles over equitable distribution of state funding, said John W. Sipple.

“I think this will involve getting a judge down the road to make a decision,” Mr. Sipple said Monday. “I think there is much more hope for that than a political decision.”

Mr. Sipple, who is also an associate professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, was the keynote speaker at the 11th annual Ellen C. Burt Symposium at St. Lawrence University.

He stressed that the state is not obligated to provide an equal education to all its students. The state constitution requires the state to provide a “sound, basic education,” to all students.

“The lawyers will argue about what that means,” he said.

About 130 people attended the event, which this year focused on the challenges and opportunities facing education and the north country’s future.

Eric F. Thatcher, a retired professor from Clarkson University, Potsdam, said he tries to attend the symposium every year.

“They’re very informative, and they always consider issues that are important to me. Sometimes you get solutions,”said Mr. Thatcher, Potsdam. “I can also ask questions of experts. There are very few forums where you can do that.”

Community members need to take into a consideration a variety of factors when it comes to deciding whether school mergers and regional schools are better options than leaving districts intact, Mr. Sipple said.

He noted that people looking for data on schools throughout the state can find a large volume on the Center for Rural Schools website that provides such information as student enrollment, community wealth, student performance, school tax rates, real estate trends and more.

The data can be useful when schools are considering forming partnerships with other districts.

St. Lawrence Central Superintendent Stephen M. Putman noted that while state funding for education has decreased since the gap elimination adjustment was implemented three years ago, the state’s overall budget has increased from roughly $115 billion to $135 billion.

Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said the difference in school districts’ tax rates is an issue that could prevent school mergers from winning approval from the public.

People living in school districts with lower tax rates, he said, would be less interested in merging with neighboring districts that have higher rates. The differences could be evened out with incentive money that would be provided by the state. However, large rate differences would use up much of the incentive aid.

Giving an example, he said Potsdam Central’s school tax rate is about $22 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared with neighboring Parishville-Hopkinton Central, where the tax rate is about $12.

“You can’t convince me that people in Parishville-Hopkinton will agree to merge with Potsdam,” Mr. Burns said.

From an academic standpoint, he said, merged schools and regional high schools could provide enhanced chances for students such as advanced placement classes and more electives.

“There’s no data whatsoever that smaller districts get better academic results than larger districts,” Mr. Burns said. “There are some excellent small districts and some poor small districts. There are some excellent large school districts and some poor large districts.”

The Center for Rural Schools website is at http://nyruralschools.org

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