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St. Lawrence County schools mull regional options

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As Morristown, Heuvelton and Hermon-DeKalb central schools discuss the possibility of forming a regional high school, questions have surfaced about the definition of such a school.

In lieu of a regional high school, for which no legal framework exists in the state, schools also could decide to merge with a neighboring district or pay tuition for their students to attend another high school.

While regional high schools are not spelled out in state law, area administrators are confident legislation will move forward in Albany to enable schools to create them.

Senate Bill 7486 was proposed by Sen. John J. Flanagan, R-Smithtown, at the tail end of the 2012 legislative session and failed to gather any momentum. But the bill, written by the state Education Department, would have added regional high schools to the list of options for school districts to consider as they pursue efficiencies in their programs.

St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Thomas R. Burns said he believes there is a good chance Mr. Flanagan’s bill will become law next year.

Because regional high schools are not codified, their exact structure is up for a certain amount of speculation, Mr. Burns said. But the fundamentals are clear based on Mr. Flanagan’s bill.

“You would still have separate districts” for a regional high school, Mr. Burns said.

Local school districts would continue to exist along with their administration and boards of education.

“The school district wouldn’t have to be dissolved, and you would maintain your local school board,” Mr. Burns said.

The cost of educating students at the regional high school would be shared by participating districts.

Philip M. Martin, a former superintendent at Fayetteville-Manlius Central School, was recently hired by the BOCES and Morristown, Heuvelton and Hermon-DeKalb central schools to study the potential costs and benefits of a regional high school. His study is expected to be completed by June 30.

Mr. Martin has already conducted a study of the potential costs and benefits of a regional high school in Wayne County, east of the Rochester area.

“We worked very closely with 11 schools,” Mr. Martin said. “As the study progressed those superintendents were not only interested in possible regional high schools, but also what other ways could districts share and accomplish similar things.”

And there are several other, legal options for schools looking to cut costs and preserve a high-quality education.

In mergers, which are allowed under state law, districts combine to form a new entity. A new board of education would be elected to represent the new district.

“The state is encouraging districts to merge because there is typically more efficiency and expanded opportunities,” said Mr. Martin, who added there is a certain amount of state aid given to help lubricate the merger process. How much aid is given depends on the needs of the schools merging.

But that is only true of central school districts that merge. If a central school district attempts to merge with a city school district, such as Ogdensburg, the central school is annexed. The city’s board of education remains the same and, while local elementary schools may remain, the smaller community could stand to lose much of its control over its school.

“Ogdensburg has always been willing to talk about a merger-type situation with any neighboring school,” said Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey of the Ogdensburg City School District. Recognizing that some districts may be concerned about losing representation on the board of education, Mr. Vernsey said Ogdensburg would be willing to attempt to get legislation passed that would treat small city schools like central schools to allow for a merger as opposed to an annexation.

“All we’ve got to do is get the state to change the law to allow small city school districts to merge instead of annex,” said Frederick P. Bean, president of the Ogdensburg Board of Education.

“We are working on the legislation front,” Mr. Vernsey said.

He said the administration has already talked with state lawmakers about the issue.

Another option for schools is tuitioning.

In a tuitioning arraignment, one school district would send its students to another and pay tuition there.

“Usually it involves the high school,” Mr. Burns said. “The sending district would essentially dissolve their high school.”

With tuitioning arraignments, multiple schools could send students to other districts that may have more specialized courses. For instance, if students want to take advanced placement courses, they would go to a school that offers them.

Mr. Martin said schools could decide to tuition students out on a case-by-case basis.

But Mr. Burns cautioned tuitioning might not be beneficial to the receiving district. The amount schools can charge for tuition “is designated by the State (Education) Department. Because school aid has been frozen since 2008, that’s going to limit the (number of students) that the receiving district could take in.”

Mr. Vernsey said, “If another district was interested in sending their students to us in a tuitioning format, we would really have to do an analysis to see what the impact would be both financially and educationally.”

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