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OFF THE SCENE: Education; time for a change?

March 18, 2011
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed a cap on public school superintendent salaries, $125,000 for rural districts and $175,000 for the largest districts, with districts being able to opt in or out. That got me to thinking about, not only how much local superintendents get paid, but how their salaries compared against the number of students in their school — what did they get paid per student.

The numbers I found were all on the state education web site and

In Essex County, taking in a superintendent’s salary plus benefits package, the best bang for the buck per student is Ausable Valley, which pays their superintendent $183,073 to care for 1,239 students or $148 per student. Moriah is second lowest: their superintendent gets $122,638 for 706 students or $173 per student. Ticonderoga averages $196 per student, and Lake Placid’s salary of $167,414 equals $234 per student. Crown Point is $251 and Westport $267.

Then the cost starts leaping up to a much higher bracket with Elizabethtown at $532 and Willsboro at $534 per student, Crown Point at $556 and Schroon Lake at $621. Hold on to your wallets, because the Keene superintendent gets paid $1,029 per student, Minerva $1,134 and the whopper is Newcomb, which gets paid $163,347 to manage 77 students or $2,127 per student. In cash outlay, Westport is a taxpayer deal at a salary of $60,771, or half the salary of Moriah and nearly a third of Ausable Valley and Keene.

Meanwhile Plattsburgh pays their superintendent $202,924 for a school population of 1,848 or $109 per child. That’s good, but not great. The people of Albany pay their supervisor $193,741 (less than Plattsburgh) to supervise 27 schools (more than 1.5 times the number of schools in Essex County) and 9,650 students (twice Essex County) for a rate of $20 per student. Measure that against the people of Essex County paying $1,796,674 to supervise 5,251 students for an average of $342 per child — a difference of 1.6 million dollars. How many potential teacher salaries does that represent?

In contrast to the blanket approach proposed by the governor, one wonders if it might be better to allow counties to explore other options for saving money. Would local taxpayers and students be better served with a central supervisor and business office and standard teacher contracts throughout, providing some of the smaller schools the flexibility to say, split a physics, biology or language teacher rather than not having one.

Think in terms of a chain of stores; what functions are centralized and what are kept separate? In a chain of stores each doesn’t have its own complete administrative structure as is currently in place in the 12 individual Essex County school districts. Instead purchasing, data systems, legal and accounting, payroll, contracting, marketing and administration are among the services centralized. Yet each store has its own manager — a principal in school terminology — and associates (teachers, maintenance and food services).

In discussing these ideas with locals I learned that self- interest is a great motivator to leave things as they are; superintendents don’t want to lose their jobs, teachers who get higher salaries than another district don’t want pay cuts that centralized contracting implies many feel that their school does a better job than another and there is a fear of the potential loss of community control over the way their tax dollars are spent.

At the same time there are growing concerns of what is being lost by maintaining the status quo as the bulk of cuts are hitting teachers hard, the reduction of the diversity of academic offerings and the potential ability for kids to participate in the school band, chorus, drama, the arts, sports, advance placement courses and other aspects of a quality education that individual schools can no longer afford to provide.

In tough economic times, the best way to provide young people the chance of getting a quality job is through education, being able to advance from the local high school into a quality higher education modality — and there is nothing more vital to giving kids that chance than access to good teachers and a well-rounded education. Current teacher retirement incentives are saving schools money by reducing the number of higher paid teachers, but at what cost? With these teachers goes experience, their wealth of contacts, and, at times, their children as many school teacher’s own children attend school.

Some people in Lake Placid are trying to organize a foundation to raise additional money to support arts and other programs from being cut. Perhaps instead of trying to raise more money to spend on education out of a cash-strapped community, an independent committee should be organized to analyze the education system itself and consider if some form of consolidation — be it on a Tri-Lakes, BOCES or County level — could reduce the huge administration burden, implied by the combined salaries of the superintendents, and put the emphasis of education back on teaching. As part of that, the committee should identify what state education mandates — what red tape — should also be cut.

It might be interesting to know what percent of the various Essex County school budgets goes to administration — to those aspects that can be centralized — and to identify what would be the total potential savings, if any? How many teacher salaries might that translate into? Should school taxes rates be standardized, or levied individually by town with each town, in effect, purchasing administrative services from a central office leaving school boards and principals in place to supervise, monitor and otherwise advocate for excellence in their school?

Continuing on the path we are on will mean more and more cuts at the core function of education. If we wish to provide local kids the best education possible, now may be the right time to consider alternatives, weigh them against the status quo and chart our own future rather than being told what to do by Albany. What do you think? Let us at the paper and your school boards know.

Editors note: Letters to the editor on this topic may be e-mailed to or sent to the LPN office at 6179 Sentnel Road, Lake Placid, NY 12946.



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