Historically, each Labor Day weekend is the start of high school football season in Upstate New York. This year a few school districts didn’t begin their football season with the rest of the league. These latecomers to the gridiron will field 8-man teams, and they’re planning to start later when schedules get organized - which is still better than dropping the sport altogether.
8-man football was quite popular in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, but ended when small school districts began merging. After merging there were finally enough students for 11-man teams. But if you look at the current list of school districts returning to 8-man football you’ll notice a common theme; hyphenated or regionally combined names, such as; Sherburne-Earlville, Morrisville-Eaton, Unadilla Valley, West Canada Valley, South Lewis County and Altmar-Parish-Williamstown to name a few.
It wasn’t too long ago the New York State Department of Education encouraged, cajoled and sometimes threatened small school districts to consolidate with neighbors. The State said this would be more efficient, save tax dollars and most importantly give students more opportunities, programs, and choices.
The problem rural districts face now is the loss of one million people who fled from Upstate New York’s economy - and weather - which eroded the tax base, increased the level of poverty and left us with an older tax-paying population. According to information from the Rural Schools Association of New York (www.rsany.org) 85% of upstate school districts have lost at least 10% or more of their student population over the past few years.
In order to lessen the tax blow to residents and offer more opportunities to students, schools could be asked to consolidate further. However, with further consolidations come longer bus rides to school, which for some districts is already hovering around an hour. Then there is some residents’ fear of losing ‘identity’ which is always a difficult hurdle. Lastly, there is the issue of large school buildings left idle in rural communities. Look no further than the middle of Mount Upton for an example of good intentions gone bad as a landmark edifice crumbles along with the building owner’s promises.
It may now be time to leave the districts, buildings, and students alone and begin to consolidate employees. At some point elected rural school board members need to face reality and recognize populations are declining, both students and taxpayers. Boards need to decide if their district-fiefdom really needs employees earning well over $130K - not including benefits.
For instance, there are at least four nearby school districts that have only one building housing Kindergarten through 12th grade. Couldn’t those districts somehow combine their Superintendents and Principals to some degree? Further, couldn’t Superintendents in different districts be combined, shared or somehow melded to offer relief to taxpayers? With the potential savings in personnel costs, dollars could be used to hire additional teachers to lessen class sizes or offer more courses to students. Specialty courses could be taught by one teacher at more than one district on different days. It’s time to think outside the box when spending school tax dollars and it’s better to plan now than be forced into a hasty decision later.
By counting up the number of all the high school seniors graduating last June from all the districts in - or partly in - Chenango County, the number is about 500 students. This required nine school districts and well over $1 million in superintendent salaries. Compare that to Cicero-North Syracuse who graduated almost 700 students a few weeks ago. Cicero-North Syracuse did this with just one superintendent and one high school principal. At some point in the future the rule of “economy of scales” will have to be realized by Boards of Education in rural school districts. I suggest school boards start by counting heads in your kindergarten class tomorrow morning to see a preview of your school’s future.