SARANAC LAKE - The Lake Placid and Saranac Lake school boards have agreed to pursue grant funding for a consolidation study of the two school districts.
The surprising move happened during a Wednesday joint meeting of the two school boards, held in the Petrova School library. It wasn't on the meeting's agenda, but it came up during a discussion of the two districts potentially combining their business offices, one of several shared service ideas the boards have been looking into jointly since the fall.
"I've brought this up before," said Saranac Lake school board member Terry Tubridy. "The more I look at this, and all these shared services are great, but I'm thinking that as a long-term thing, we ought to look at this sharing with the ultimate goal of consolidating the two districts. I just can't see how we can't do that."
Saranac Lake School Board President Debra Lennon said maybe the two districts should "start small."
Tubridy responded that the districts should continue to look into sharing services, but "with a focus toward eventual consolidation."
Saranac Lake board member Miles Van Nortwick suggested the districts ask a representative of the state Education Department to speak to the boards about what funding is available to study shared services and consolidation.
"There is a lot of money available for consolidation of school districts," said Saranac Lake School Superintendent Gerald Goldman. "It's out there. It's for a true consolidation. It's not for a regional high school. It's for actually merging two school districts."
Goldman said consolidation has some big hurdles that would have to be overcome for it to happen, including a series of votes by residents in each school district. Merging Lake Placid and Saranac Lake schools has been studied several times in the past and rejected, most recently in 1989.
"There was a big difference then," Goldman said. "There was plenty of money available for each of us to run our own school districts exactly how we wanted to run them. That's what has changed.
"I can say this with a clear conscience. You are both faced with the very real likelihood that your school systems will not be able to be run the way you're used to running them with the funding you're accustomed to having. The only way you're only going to be able to do this long term is to think creatively."
Lake Placid school board member Patti Gallagher noted that a government efficiency consultant from the Rochester-based Center for Governmental Research told the two boards last year that "our districts are crying for a consolidation study," and that there are grants available to do so.
"If there's a way for us to get a study done that wouldn't cost our districts anything, would there be any harm in a study being done while we look at what services we can share?" Gallagher asked. She also said she's heard the state is looking to scale back some of the regulatory hurdles faced by districts that want to consolidate, such as not having as many votes.
"You might see a day when the commissioner comes in and says, 'You and you, you're going to do it," Goldman said.
If Lake Placid and Saranac Lake schools are going to study consolidation, Saranac Lake board member Clyde Baker asked if the Tupper Lake Central School District should be involved.
"Only if Tupper Lake agrees to it," Tubridy said.
Dan Bower, Saranac Lake's assistant superintendent for business, said he'd contact the CGR to see if it could help the districts pursue a grant for a consolidation study.
Lennon said the study would be "a great start.
"There's a lot of information that's still out there that we don't have, and I think the consolidation study would be the first step," she said. "I'm not ready to say one way or another, but yes, I'm very much in favor of this study."
In the meantime
Leaders from both districts discussed other shared services projects they've been studying at Wednesday's meeting.
Combining business offices is one idea that will continue to be looked at, but Baker said it may have to be done as people retire. Bower also noted that the two districts' respective offices have some different responsibilities. For example, Lake Placid school Business Manager Leonard Sauers is more involved in running his district's facilities than Bower, since Saranac Lake has its own facilities manager.
Sauers said his district needs "to get some stable leadership" in place before it goes down the road of merging business offices. The Lake Placid district will replace Superintendent Randy Richards, whose contract wasn't renewed at the end of the school year.
One area where the two districts agreed to move forward Wednesday was on sharing some of their curriculum. Lake Placid students will be given the opportunity to take a Cisco computer networking class offered at Saranac Lake High School, while Saranac Lake students will get to take some Advance Placement courses that are offered at Lake Placid High School but not at their own.
Bower said the two districts have also been offered discounted rates to have separate transportation efficiency studies performed by Walworth, N.Y.-based Transportation Advisory Services. Saranac Lake's would cost $6,500 while Lake Placid's study would cost $5,500. Goldman said Saranac Lake schools will have the study performed, while Lake Placid school officials haven't made a decision yet.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.