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Really, school boards, now’s the time to share superintendents

July 7, 2012
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

We've said this before, but we need to say it again: Local school districts absolutely need to start sharing superintendents. We believe that strongly and will beat the drum on it as long as it takes - but especially now.

This subject keeps coming up in our conversations around the Tri-Lakes, especially with such a huge opportunity at hand: the Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Keene superintendents departing in a year's time. Everyone we talk to about it - teachers, parents and taxpayers - seems to agree that sharing top administrators is logically the best solution.

But our local school boards - with the exception of Keene's, which is looking to share but has had trouble finding takers - are strangely silent on this issue which seems to us as glaring as an elephant in the room.

We urge the school boards of Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Keene and perhaps other neighboring districts to schedule a joint meeting and seriously discuss the possibility of hiring one superintendent for their three districts. Yes, this would be a big geographic area for one person to cover, but with a strong principal at each school and, for starters, strong staffers at each district office, it's an attainable goal.

We encourage the Tupper Lake school board to consider the possibility of sharing a superintendent with Long Lake, Clifton-Fine and Saranac Lake.

We're not talking about merging school districts. No district would have to give up its identity, its sports teams, its culture, its board oversight or anything affecting students.

But any two districts that share a superintendent would together save roughly $150,000 in pay and benefits - $75,000 each. If three shared one, it would be more like $300,000 - $100,000 each.

This may not be "the answer" to schools' funding woes, but it is the best way forward.

The alternatives are worse.

For one thing, the job pool for superintendents is shallow, so it's hard to hire someone from the outside who works out in the long run - as several local districts have learned the hard way. Going in together makes districts more competitive.

More importantly, what our schools keep doing instead is cutting costs at the teacher level, and while there is some fiscal fat to trim there, most of it is the meat of education. We need to chop at the top instead.

As teacher numbers, course offerings and teaching tools are reduced and class sizes are increased, the quality of education generally goes down. Granted, much depends on the quality as well as quantity of teachers, but faculty reductions are not done in a way that keeps the best and lets the worst go. They're either by seniority or attrition.

All this is to say, when our schools make cuts to teachers and/or courses, it usually hurts our local kids in a real, noticeable way.

But those kids and their parents will barely notice whether a superintendent covers one school or 10.

We tend to think of superintendents as distant and removed, and that's because, in most the country, they are. Rural school districts that cover areas the size of our counties and contain 20 schools each, and city school districts with 100,000 students - these often have single superintendents.

The idea that every neighboring district of 100 to 1,000 students needs its own, $150,000-a-year superintendent just doesn't make sense, yet it's accepted as status quo here. With a new property tax cap and our schools draining their fund balances, we need to change that.

Once districts share a superintendent, school officials may see the common sense in sharing a clerk, then a business manager, then maybe the whole district office, perhaps some bus services, perhaps some high school teachers - but only as far as the locally elected school boards are willing to go.

Sen. Betty Little has made it clear that as the state crunches to balance its own budget, it is intentionally pressuring small school districts to make these kinds of consolidation efforts. If that's how state officials have decided New York education is going to be, and if they're telling us how to best fit in with that structure, there's no good reason to buck it.

A big reason we aren't sharing superintendents already is that they don't want to lose their jobs; Saranac Lake Superintendent Gerald Goldman told us as much after a Tri-Lakes superintendent summit resulted in nothing. Superintendents have power to make a large number of school policy decisions on their own, and school board members, despite their elected accountability to the people, almost always follow their executives' lead. Yes, superintendents usually are knowledgeable and make good decisions, but there will always be times when the executive insider's priorities don't jive with those of the parents, the taxpayers and the rest of the community.

This is one of those times, with three superintendent vacancies at once, but it will soon pass. We beg local school boards to check out and take advantage of this opportunity. If they don't, we fear it may be held against them for many years to come.

Finally, think about this: Any school boards that share a superintendent should hold joint meetings regularly, at which they look at bigger-picture issues like North Country enrollment trends and census data, which languages are taught, changing educational methods, new technology, etc. Hyper-local issues tend to dominate most school board meetings, and while these are certainly important, some of the broader perspective is lost. Sharing could present a major opportunity.



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