The Promise of a Premier High School in the Heart of Syracuse

When in 2017 the Consensus Commission recommended that the City of Syracuse merge with Onondaga County, no one took the idea very seriously because no one could agree on what to do about the schools. Coordinated snow plowing, consolidated procurement, a single water board? Fine. That all was easy, any hint that city and suburban kids might go to school together was dead on arrival. They tried to fudge it by implying that some future commission could look into reforming Onondaga County’s balkanized education system, but Consensus’ comments on consolidating government debt told City residents all they needed to know:

“FIRST, the City’s pre-existing debt and long-term liabilities (e.g. post employment  benefits) should remain the City’s responsibility. It should not become the burden of the County or any other municipality in our community. New York State law provides clear precedent on this issue. In the case of a consolidation or dissolution, “debt districts” are typically used to pay any pre-existing debt until it is fully retired. In this way, even though two entities may combine functions and governance, separate tax rates can be established to segregate pre-existing debt.

“SECOND, under state law the Syracuse City School District is a “dependent” district of the City of Syracuse. This means that, unlike non-dependent districts, SCSD does not have the power to levy its own taxes. Nor can it issue debt on its own. Rather, it relies on the City to levy property taxes and do capital borrowing on its behalf… In the event the County and City combine, a legal accommodation would be required to ensure both a) the SCSD’s local property tax revenue / debt access remains and b) that property tax burden remains only in the former City (i.e. it does not extend to the rest of the County).”

This extraordinary passage calls the Syracuse City School District a “burden” that needs be “segregated” from the rest of the County as a “debt-district.” The County didn’t want to touch the City’s schools with a ten-foot pole.

So it was an incredible thing this week when the Onondaga County Legislature voted to request permission to issue debt in order to fund the creation of a County-wide STEAM high school at the corner of Warren and Adams Streets in Downtown Syracuse. It was incredible that this group—one dominated by the same suburban interests that absolutely refused to accept SCSD debt in the 2016 Consensus report—would borrow money to build a school where kids from the Northside would sit next to kids from North Syracuse.

This STEAM school is an opportunity to do something new in Syracuse. It’s an opportunity to provide city kids with the high-quality education that they deserve, and it’s also an opportunity to heal some of the wounds that prevent the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County from reaching their full potential. If this really does become a premier high school, if families from all across the County see their children’s best hope for a bright future in the heart of Syracuse, if that hope overpowers the fear and resentment and prejudice that divide the entire community now, then this community has a brighter future ahead of it.