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“IT’S INEVITABLE”: Auburn superintendent says mergers are coming with high schools tailored to student pathways

Auburn Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo is going to be retiring after 32 years in education. The outspoken administrator who leads one of the region’s largest districts outside of Rochester or Syracuse doesn’t mince words.

Earlier this week, he was in-studio, talking about the changing landscape of education. As you can imagine, the evolution Pirozzolo has seen since walking into a classroom for the first time in the early-1990s is significant. That said, he’s quick to point out that the biggest changes in education lie ahead for every district in New York no matter size.

“I love what I do. I love Auburn. I love the kids, our staff, the whole community. But, you know, everyone needs a change, and somebody coming in with new ideas, new strategies,” he said of the decision to make 2023-24 his final full-year. “That is always good for a school district.”

Thinking back to his early days in education, Pirozzolo said he’s happiest to see the state accepting new pathways to graduation for students. “Back then, and for decades really, it was one box for everyone,” he recalled. “There was just a Regent diploma, and as you know, one box for everyone doesn’t work. I’m really excited about these new pathways.”

Pirozzolo said students will continue having more options to receive a high school diploma, which is critical in a changing world. “If society is changing around us we have to change what we’re doing in schools too,” he said. “In a lot of cases, we’ve been doing the same thing for the last 100 years, and the state is finally listening.” Greater emphasis on technology, manufacturing, and trades are just a few of the things he expects to see much more of in high schools. “When we talk about education plans for students — it needs to start at kindergarten and go all the way through high school — giving every student the advantage of an education that is useful for them in the modern world.”

The types of diplomas and skills students walk across stage with at graduation won’t be the only thing to change in the coming years, according to the longtime administrator. He’s served in administration since the mid-2000s, and one significant change he sees is the structure of school districts.

Pirozzolo talked about how he sees school districts across the region dealing with declining population, declining enrollment, and less funding from the state to staff schools. In short, he sees the answer being something along the lines of countywide districts. “I wish educators would look at the positive spins of it,” he said, speaking to the resistance that has historically existed within districts and communities that entertain ‘mergers’. “All these small towns and villages can keep their elementary schools, right? The elementary schools aren’t going to change — you’ll still have your neighborhood schools. It’s going to be at the secondary level where change happens.”

This isn’t a new conversation for Pirozzolo. He said he’s talked with leaders in other districts across Cayuga County about the prospect of combining efforts to better serve students. “We could open up multiple high schools — we could tech high school, we could have a general education high school, we could have a performing arts high school — there’s so many different opportunities and possibilities,” he explained. At the end of the day, though, these decisions will eventually be driven by dollars-and-cents. “But again, it’s about saving money. And if we don’t start looking at it ourselves, and I said this a few years to you, the state is going to take control of it and whatever the state tells you to do — you’re going to have to do.”

Pirozzolo says he understands that things like athletics would need to be ironed out, but it doesn’t mean students would have fewer opportunities. “Unfortunately, what we’re looking at financially in New York State — we’re going to be broke here. We have to find different ways to have success in education. And I think it’s going to eventually happen, whether school districts merge, or countywide districts are formed. It’s going to happen.”

As for the trigger that starts the process, Auburn’s superintendent says it’ll likely be when class sizes get too large for parents’ comfort. “It’s inevitable. We’re going to end up getting there, when parents are going to start complaining because class sizes are 30, because [the district] can’t afford more teachers. That’s where you’re going to start seeing administrators and educators say ‘OK, now we have to do something different’ to get class sizes back down.”