SARANAC LAKE - A government efficiency consultant hired by the political action group AdkAction.org encouraged the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid school districts Thursday to keep talking about sharing services and to look for small victories to get the ball rolling.
"Date before you get married," said Jaime Saunders of the Rochester-based Center for Governmental Research. "It sounds like you guys have been dating for a little while, and you're doing more of that.
"Even the process itself about learning how to work together and finding out where you're similar is a win in itself. I'm challenging you to think across the spectrum and get uncomfortable about a range of options, but when you pick one to implement, start with a low-hanging, non-threatening one, because you need a win first."
Members of the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake school boards listen to a presentation on shared services by Jaime Saunders of the Center for Governmental Research Thursday night at the Saranac Lake High School.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Saunders met with the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake school boards for about an hour at Saranac Lake High School. Hired by AdkAction.org in September, with the blessing of both boards, Saunders outlined shared-services concepts and provided a framework for the two districts to use in their ongoing dialogue. She reviewed some data from the two districts but didn't provide an in-depth analysis or make any recommendations to the boards.
All sectors of government are looking at shared services, largely as way to save money, but Saunders delivered a "reality check" early in her presentation. She said the savings from sharing, at the start, are minimal.
"All the studies show that there's only between 2 to 6 percent savings when you look at shared services," Saunders said. "The savings are modest. If you're looking for a big windfall, this is not exactly the way to go about it, but there's still lots of other reasons to look at it."
Sharing resources is one big reason to look at it, Saunders said. She said sharing teachers and staff can help spread expertise across a greater range, provide districts with a "deeper bench" to handle staff turnover, reduce redundancies and redirect resources to other neglected areas. Looking at shared services is also something school districts should consider in the interest of being good stewards of their public funding, Saunders explained.
The challenges are that there's no single model for the most effective form of shared services. Saunders also said there is typically resistance when deep changes are proposed, such as eliminating jobs. These are also emotional issues because they involve history and community identity.
If sharing services is going to be successful, it needs to have a champion to carry the ball forward, and there has to be a mutual benefit, Saunders explained.
"All parties must win a little, or at least not lose," she said.
Saunders encouraged the two boards not to be afraid to "think about the most extreme way of sharing services.
"You might not like it and it might make you uncomfortable, but thinking about that opens up a whole range in between," she said. "If you just focus on the least amount of change, you miss a lot of opportunities."
Saunders reviewed some basic data about the two districts, noting that their combined enrollment has dropped by 23 percent over the last 13 years. That path will continue in the future, she said, will the two districts' enrollment projected to drop by an average of 7 percent through the 2016-17 school year.
Saunders also provided data and suggestions for each of the four different shared-services committees the two districts have formed: facilities and equipment, food service, instruction and business operations.
Following the presentation, Lake Placid school board President Mary Dietrich said she was reassured that the two school boards are headed in the right direction. She also said it was a real "reality check in terms of, don't expect huge savings.
"I personally went into it thinking we could save a couple teaching positions; initially that might not be the case," Dietrich said. "We might not see much savings, but we certainly can see better efficiency in terms of how we're providing the service, and in the long term I think that will result in savings."
Both Dietrich and Saranac Lake school board President Debra Lennon said the two districts are making progress in their ongoing shared-services meetings.
"Each committee is trying to pinpoint the low-hanging fruit that Jaime was talking about," Lennon said. "We've identified those areas, and we've actually even discussed some of the broader ideas and more far-fetched, painful conversations. I think we're right on track with that. We're really serious about making some changes and seeing this happen."
Sharing professional development, matching the two districts' calendars and sharing instruction are some of the ideas that Lennon said may be the easiest to implement.
A link to Saunders' PowerPoint presentation has been posted on www.AdkAction.org.