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August 15, 2013

School bells and tax bills go hand in hand ...

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Cooperstown Crier

---- — Given the way time is flying by we realize, much to our horror, that sooner than we might think possible students will be back in school and school tax bills will be in mailboxes throughout the district. And while we do not have anyone heading back to school, we are fairly certain that our school taxes will arrive without fail at our door. And when they do we will no doubt find ourselves musing, as we do each year, about the value we receive from our school taxes.

We think it is relatively safe to say that the future of education not just at Cooperstown Central School, but across the entire county is uncertain. While we were in Michigan, there was a front page article in The Grand Rapids Press, dated July 9, with the rather unsettling headline “Superintendents react to state consolidation plan.” The subtitle of the article was “Proposal calls for countywide school districts, could save more than $600M in three years.” We found the article to be rather interesting.

Michigan State Superintendent of Schools, Mike Flanagan, is quoted in the article as saying: “I believe that it makes sense to realign in this configuration — providing administrative efficiencies and a better ability to utilize state funding; better absorb the enrollment fluctuations one local school district might be suffering; and providing a more equitable education for all students.”

The article also pointed out that: “School consolidation has long been a controversial topic. In 2010, the Grand Rapids Press, along with seven MLive Media Group-affiliated newspapers, commissioned a study by Michigan State University’s Education Policy Center to answer questions such as potential cost savings.”

“The study found that by trimming management, eliminating district boundaries and recasting administration around county lines, state taxpayers save $612 million a year after three years without closing a school. The findings also revealed that a less involved change, a shared services model with no district boundaries erased, could save Michigan taxpayers $328 million. That put all public school transportation, food service and operations and maintenance at the county level.”

Now we must admit that we have no idea what the state of New York might have in store for education any more than we have any idea what CCS might have in store. However, while we have seen some movement here toward the concept of shared services, we are not convinced, given what little we have read about upcoming ventures, that CCS is taking a path forward that would seem to be in step with what other districts in the area might be trying to do.

It seems obvious that many districts have, as enrollment has dropped, cut back in not only what is being offered to students but in administrative costs as well, in order to meet the current cap on property taxes in the state. And while CCS has met the prescribed property tax cap, there seems to have been a decision to increase, not decrease, costs. In fact, as was pointed out to us recently, CCS is currently educating less than 900 students for $4 million more than was spent to educate 1,147 students six years ago.

Plus this year, CCS has added a new position of Executive Principal that might well seem to be an additional layer of administration. In addition, from what we have read in the newspaper reports, the hope is, with the additional principal on board, the school will expand the curriculum to include more electives such as AP courses and dual-credit college courses. And while we think the argument could be made that it is not the responsibility of the taxpayers to provide a K-12 education which includes college credit, we think the bigger question is just exactly who is going to be able to take the new courses. Given the ever shrinking student population, expanding the curriculum makes little sense unless CCS is actually going to offer classes which have only two or three students in them. Instead of expanding the curriculum at this time, it would seem the bigger need is to expand the student population.

Additionally, we were somewhat puzzled by the claim that it will now be more important in the classroom to understand the process of arriving at a correct answer instead of actually getting the correct answer. And while we would be the first to argue that understanding the process of problem solving is key to education, we do not think it trumps arriving at the right solution. Knowing how to do something without actually being able to do it seems rather pointless to us.

Thus we find ourselves musing over the direction that CCS seems to be taking. We can but hope that as they move forward they will keep not only students and their parents informed but the residents of the entire district as well. We have often felt that the school is somewhat dismissive of district residents who do not have students in the system. Yet as parents of former students and grandparents of current students, we believe district residents are concerned about the education the present students are getting. And while we are accustomed to hearing from former parents who are puzzled about the current educational system, this summer has been the first time when we have talked with a number of parents who expressed displeasure, or even dissatisfaction, with the education their children are receiving.

To say that we found such discussions to be somewhat troubling is an understatement. Our hope is that CCS is on the right track and that down the road the district will be well positioned for whatever the future of education in NYS might be. But we do have to wonder what will happen if that is not the case.

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