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REPORT OFFERS PLAN TO IMPROVE COUNTY SCHOOLS

A yearlong study of Erie County schools has yielded a host of suggestions on ways the schools can achieve better results, save money and increase equity across districts.

The Erie County Association of School Boards on Thursday night unveiled to its members the results of the $350,000 study. The 84-page report details 28 recommendations, many of them urging schools to explore certain possibilities, rather than suggesting particular courses of action.

"It's a vision for the future," said Jacqueline J. Paone, the group's executive director. "It's not an instant 'solve everything overnight' report, but it's a process that's going to get us from where we are today to something more hopeful and positive."

Two of the more concrete recommendations have the potential for multimillion-dollar savings.

School districts across the state have been grappling with huge increases in health insurance over the past few years. The report encourages school districts to join a group that was founded two years ago by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services' 750 employees to handle their health insurance.

The group, called a trust, has moved to a single provider, Independent Health, which was selected by the employees. That change expanded their benefits while cutting the latest cost increase in half, according to the report by Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Hamburg, Maryvale and Frontier are considering signing on, according to Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 BOCES. Each of the districts would begin by enrolling a small number of administrators.

The report also encourages schools to lobby for a bill that would change the state law to enable the Buffalo School District to buy up to $2 million in services through BOCES. The city would be eligible for state reimbursement of as much as 80 percent.

"Nested in there is the belief that the region includes Buffalo public schools as well as the suburban districts," Ogilvie said.

Other recommendations include:

Creating a common calendar among all public and private schools. Under the current system, districts pay as much as $9,000 in transportation costs every day that public schools are closed but private schools are open.

Establishing a regional "Principals Academy" to help train building administrators. The report notes that more than half the principals in the county will reach retirement age in the next five years.

Using distance learning to make advanced placement courses available to more students. Only two local districts offer AP Latin, and just one offers AP German. Those courses -- and others -- could be offered to students in other places by broadcasting the courses.

"Partnering" with a school in another district with different demographics. That could include anything from talking about curriculum with one another to having a student exchange. A more extreme outcome could lead to regional magnet schools.

Instituting mandatory training for new school board members. Topics might include school finance, labor relations and state standards for academics.

Working with local business groups to establish internships for students and coordinate some school programs with the needs of local employers.

The study did not explore the politically sensitive question of mergers.

"Bigger is not necessarily better or more efficient," the report said. "There is tension between the obvious efficiencies of combining local educational programs and the greater effectiveness of programs that are 'locally owned.' "

The report is available at www.ecasb.org/collaborationreport.htm.

The study was funded by grants from Erie County, the John R. Oishei Foundation, Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, the Rev. A Joseph Bissonette Memorial Foundation, Hyde Family Foundation and several local school districts.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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