Sharing school services is on the table again in western Catskills

Above: Andes Central School's tiny graduating class of 2014. Photo by Joe Damone of Joe Damone Photography

A long-stalled conversation about sharing school services is being revived at a meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 22 in the Delaware County village of Margaretville, prompted by the departure of Margaretville Central School's superintendent this fall. 

The meeting, initially intended as a discussion about Margaretville's next superintendent, has become an impromptu regional summit on the painful issue of rising costs and declining enrollment in Catskills schools. Officials from four Catskills school systems in three counties will attend. 

No one in Margaretville has seriously considered sharing services since 2010, when a proposal to share sports teams with the neighboring Andes Central School caused an uproar. 

But the pressure for small schools to consolidate has mounted. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for schools to merge their high schools into larger districts. Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, a nonprofit policy organization, issued a report this year urging small public schools to share school superintendents between two or even more schools. When Margaretville's superintendent announced that he was resigning, the board of education received a barrage of letters from taxpayers.

"There's obviously public outcry that we need to cut spending and we need to make things more affordable," said Terry Johnson, the president of the Margaretville board of eduction.

So even as Margaretville looks for a replacement, it is also considering whether it needs it own superintendent at all. Hunter-Tannersville Central School in Greene County has proposed sharing its superintendent with Margaretville, and both boards of education are mulling over the idea. 

Other forms of sharing, including school mergers, are also on the table, Johnson said. 

"The state is pushing for centralized high schools, which is a really interesting concept," he said. "There's a lot more that we can do, and a lot more things we can do that in the long run would save a lot more money than just sharing a superintendent."

But sharing services isn't a panacea. John Evans, one of the first shared superintendents in the state, began splitting his job between the two Catskills districts of Roscoe and Downsville last year. 

"I think this is your last resort," he said. "I don't think it's the answer for everybody. It's got to be the right fit, and the right personality for both communities. I'm still on the fence about whether it's the best thing for me."

Evans, along with administrators from Roxbury, Hunter-Tannersville, and the Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES will be at the meeting, which be held at 6:30 p.m. in the Margaretville gym. Representatives from the tiny Andes Central School, which has only 100 students, won't be able to make it because of illness and scheduling conflicts. But they are interested. 

"We are receptive to having the conversation, in terms of really trying to look short term and long-term, with the ultimate goal of how we can financially and  academically provide kids in rural schools with access to a rigorous curriculum," said Robert Chakar, the superintendent of Andes Central School. "It's about salvaging rural school life." 

Shared superintendents

Sharing superintendents is a particularly hot idea, because they are the most visible--and most highly-paid--employees in a school system, and school districts are required to have them by law.

Patrick Darfler-Sweeney, the superintendent of Hunter-Tannersville, thinks that he could become a shared superintendent with Margaretville, even though the two schools are 35 miles apart.

"Patrick seemed to think that that distance isn't prohibitive," said Penny Frome, the president of Hunter-Tannersville's board of education. "He felt that it was doable."

Barbara Gref, a vice president at Pattern for Progress who wrote a report advocating shared superintendents earlier this year, spent time with John Evans in Roscoe and Downsville earlier as part of her research. She came away thinking that the concept worked.

"It paves the way for other sharing," Gref said. "Maybe there could be a superintendent for the entire county."

Roscoe-Downsville superintendent: It's a last resort

But Evans himself has his doubts. He is a year into his job as the joint superintendent of Roscoe and Downsville. He tries to be on both campuses in person every day, making the 14-mile drive between them in all weathers. 

"Doing two is absolutely exhausting," he said. "All of the mental stress of being a superintendent, dealing with all the different issues that come up in a given week related to students or staff or communities, to have that times two--there has yet to be a week for there isn't some type of drama in both districts."

Parents expect Evans to personally appear at every school function and sports game, an impossible task for two schools at once. There are grumbles. 

"The issues that have some up with conservations with people are little comments," he said. "'You're not there, you don't know what's going on,' that kind of stuff. Which are legitimate concerns."

But sharing a superintendent has enriched the offerings of both Downsville and Roscoe, Evans said. Both schools now give their kids a wider variety of sports teams at different levels of ability, a physics class and a college-level Spanish class with shared teachers, and better special education options.

"Not a huge money-saver"

Many think that sharing school superintendents, who pull down salaries in the mid-$100,000 range, will save a school district a lot of money. 

That's not the case, every source interviewed for this story told the Watershed Post

"It's not a huge money-saver," Evans said. "After the first couple of years, that money gets reallocated to other things."

"The thought is that they're saving half of a salary and benefits package," said Nick Savin, the district superintendent for the Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES, who will also be at the meeting. "But if all of a sudden a superintendent is doing half of what they did, then who does the rest?"

A superintendent's salary is "a drop in the bucket" compared to entirely of a school budget, said Gref.

"The benefits are not huge monetary savings," she said. "However, that savings may be a teacher. And getting a new teacher or preserving a job for one is huge in small communities."

Sharing and merging

Many Catskills schools have already given sharing a try.

Some have completely merged with each other. In 1999, three Sullivan County school districts of Narrowsburg, Delaware Valley, and Jeffersonville-Youngsville merged to become the Sullivan West Central School District.

Most of western Ulster County is in the Onteora Central School District, a 300-square-mile school zone covering towns from Shandaken to Woodstock. In 2012, Onteora avoided closing one of its several elementary schools by clustering lower grades in a "book-end" plan

Patrick Darfler-Sweeney, the superintendent of the Hunter-Tannersville, has been pushing Greene County administrators to consider an aggressive plan to consolidate the county's schools into large merged school districts since 2013.  

This school year, Hunter-Tannersville began sharing a cafeteria manager with the Catskill Central School, 30 minutes away down the mountain in Greene County.

"That was something we decided just last year, " said Frome, the president of Hunter-Tannersville's board of education. "So far, so good. We're just at the beginning. We're taking baby steps each year."

The sports problem

But a much smaller effort to share services between Margaretville and Andes in 2010 failed.

When Andes Central School asked to share sports teams with Margaretville Central School, a group of Margaretville parents showed up at a board of education meeting to protest the scheme.

Although a survey of Margaretville students at the time found that they supported sharing sports team by a large majority, the plan was voted down by the board of education. Andes students now bus to a different, and much farther, neighboring school to play sports. 

"It was kind of a black eye for Margaretville," said Johnson, who was not on the board of education at the time.

"The feeling was, 'Really, the adults made this decision?'" said Chakar, Andes superintendent, who was new to his post at the time.

Gref, who lived through a the merger of schools in Sullivan County in the 1990s as a parent, said that combining the sports teams was painful.

"People want to protect their turf," she said.

But there is an upside. The sports team at Sullivan West, which draws on 1,300 kids for players, "now wins," she said. 

Sports are also the most logistically-difficult school activity to share, according to Evans. While Roscoe and Downsville shared a girls' basketball team last year, this year they are separate once again. Traveling between the two campuses in the snow was just too hard.

"That transportation piece through through the winter months was a challenge," he said. "Schools either open or close, but sports, a lot of time, we cancel after-school activities."

But mainly, objections to sports mergers are cultural.

"People have a lot of pride in their community resources of the school," said Savin, the BOCES superintendent. "School has become the village green. You don't give that up easily."

In the Catskills, it's getting to the point where communities must begin giving things up.

"These are appropriate and prudent things to be considering," Savin said. "It would be wrong for a board not to investigate options for sharing services. If they didn't do anything, you could have a whole different set of people asking why."

"If two communities can survive sharing sports, then they're more than likely compatible to share a superintendent," said Evans. "There are parents on both sides who would rather it just be the way it was, and then there are parents on both sides who think it's absolutely awesome, and that their kids will have opportunities they wouldn't have."

School shared services forum. Wednesday, Oct. 22, 6:30 p.m. Margaretville Central School, 415 Main Street, Margaretville. For those that can't attend, the Margaretville board of education will post a video of the meeting online, along with a poll asking for the community's input.

Editor's Note: Julia Reischel, who wrote this story, is the parent of a child enrolled at Margaretville Central School.