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Improving schools through regional cooperation will be the subject of a three-day conference next month at the Chautauqua Institution, organizers announced Wednesday.

The session -- which is designed to draw national participants and attention -- will be similar in scope to a 1997 conference that focused on restructuring government, said Kevin P. Gaughan, the founder of both events.

"The educational system has defects," said Carol Lorence, the co-chairwoman of the conference and an administrator at Fredonia State College. "People are falling through it. We can't afford to do that anymore."

A series of speeches and panel discussion from Oct. 27 to 29 will examine, among other topics, cooperation between school districts, consolidation, student performance, charter schools, vouchers, the state reform effort, teacher accountability and a funding formula that is widely viewed as shortchanging poor urban and rural districts in New York.

It is likely that attention will also be given to teacher tenure and other contract provisions that are often considered impediments to reform, said Thomas R. Frey, a conference co-chairman who served previously as Monroe County executive and a member of the state Board of Regents.

"This whole concept of 'You've got to get away from the book' is something that has to be discussed," he said.

The 1997 summit is widely credited with advancing the implementation of regional efforts in local government.

Education was chosen as the topic for the second conference because more than half the state's property tax dollars go to schools and because quality education is crucial to both the future of young people and the economic vitality of communities, organizers said.

"Businesses follow education -- they follow higher education and they follow kindergarten-through-12," said Frank G. Pogue, president of Edinboro College in Pennsylvania.

Former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine said that while consolidation of schools will get a full airing, it is not necessarily the centerpiece of the conference.

"Collaboration is the first step in regional thinking," he said. "Consolidation is the last step. This is not an effort to say we ought to consolidate all the school districts."

Participants will include James R. Houghton, former chairman of Corning; Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard University's graduate school of education; Theodore Hershberg, director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania; educators and government leaders from Montpelier, Vt., and Austin, Texas; and state Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills.

A 45-member steering committee includes Muriel A. Howard, president of Buffalo State College; Buffalo School Superintendent James Harris; Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of the Erie I Board of Cooperative Educational Services; Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation; Robert M. Bennett, a Buffalo representative on the Board of Regents; Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership; and John B. Sheffer, director of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth at the University at Buffalo.

Gaughan, a Hamburg attorney, said the group has secured about $150,000 in grants and is seeking about $35,000 more.

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