The new normal.
That's a phrase Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES Superinten-dent Patrick Michel is using in relation to public school funding. Districts across New York state -- including the Mohawk Valley -- are struggling to stay intact.
School boards have been forced to cut programs and staff, and budget problems have reached a point where nothing outside of state and federal mandates is safe any longer.
Some districts have taken a proactive approach at keeping schools afloat. The St. Johnsville and Oppenheim-Ephratah districts agreed to merge and are in the processing of finalizing the issues associated with that before becoming one July 1. The Broadalbin-Perth Central School District has explored alternative funding sources to keep programs and services -- including the pursuit of grants that actually added classes and establishing a foundation to help cover costs taxpayers can no longer afford.
Other districts are staring down the abyss. Money problems have forced the Fonda-Fultonville Central School District to make massive mid-year cuts, including layoffs, and those moves don't even begin to solve next year's budget crisis. The Mayfield and Northville districts had proposed a merger when officials there realized their budgets were in jeopardy, but voters in Northville rejected that idea.
The bottom line is school districts can no longer afford to operate as they always have. Everything -- from salaries and programs to simple things like gas for buses and heating oil for buildings -- is more expensive than it was 10 or 20 years ago. And it's not going to get cheaper over time. Cuts in state aid have devastated budgets, especially since Albany continues to add mandates without providing the money to pay for them. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed an increase in aid to schools, but it's not known at this point if it's going to be enough to stabilize local school finances. Unfortunately, early signs point to no.
So what are schools supposed to do?
Area educators are kicking around an idea presented by Michel at a large gathering last week and again at a Greater Amsterdam School District meeting Wednesday that would enable districts to adopt a more regional approach to education while keeping local schools intact. The idea is to take the districts in Hamilton, Fulton and Mont-gomery counties and divide them into three zones. The schools in those zones would share teachers in specific subject areas, combine transportation costs, and explore funding alternatives.
Michel said the move would enable the districts to offer more educational opportunities for students and help local schools remain competitive with wealthier districts, particularly those in the capital region which are benefiting from the emergence of high-tech industry -- such as the construction of GlobalFoundries in Malta, which will provide high-paying jobs and pump millions into the state and local economies.
Obviously, there are many questions that come with taking a regional approach to education. What are the start-up costs? What are the actual savings to local schools? Which classes can be better taught through distance learning, and which ones need to remain in local schools? How many teachers are needed to keep educational programs intact? How do schools prevent more students from falling through the cracks if there's less one-on-one time with teachers in individual buildings?
The bottom line, however, is school districts cannot operate the way we are accustomed, and the answer is not simply making massive cuts and stripping education down to reading, writing and arithmetic. The days of one-room schoolhouses with students sharing McGuffey Readers and ciphering on chalkboards have long since past. We live in a more global society, and to not provide our children with the same opportunities youths in other parts of the country and world have borders on the criminal.
There are some who are quick to advocate keeping things the way they are. Yet they are not as quick when it comes to offering reasonable or realistic alternatives. Simply being opposed to consolidation and regionalization doesn't solve the very real issues school districts face today. They'll often say "no," but can rarely answer the "OK, now what?" question that follows.
The jury is still out on the proposal presented by Michel, and it may be that implementing such a plan would be too cost-prohibitive and wouldn't necessarily improve our education system.
But anything that could get school districts out of their financial difficulties and help better prepare our children for the real world is worth a closer look.