School Study In Jeopardy

Districts failed to meet March funding deadline

    As East End school districts, like others throughout the state, concentrate on preparing budgets for the next academic year, which are to be presented to voters in May, momentum has lapsed on the exploration of school consolidation. Initial discussions among school leaders,  begun a year ago, held great promise and the potential for compromise. But, as Jack Perna, superintendent of the Montauk School District, said this week, “Here we go again.” 
    The idea behind school consolidation is that small districts lack economies of scale and that by combining resources schools would operate with more efficiency and cost savings, as well as added resources. But while some school districts would see a lower tax rate, others would see a significant increase. As a result, the opinion among school officials remains in a virtual deadlock.
    Officials from the Springs, East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Montauk, Tuckahoe, and Southampton districts, as well as the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services, joined forces a year ago to apply for a $220,000 grant through the state’s Local Government Efficiency Program to study potential reorganization. It was a significant step in a direction that proponents of consolidation describe as badly needed, especially during a time when budgets are shrinking and districts face a 2-percent cap on increases in tax levies.
    The grant would have explored a wide array of options — from sharing services to the wholesale consolidation of some of the districts in the hope of improving the quality of instruction while reducing costs and saving taxpayer dollars.
    But in October, word came from Albany that the East End grant had been denied, with state officials saying the application was too broad and lacked specificity. Three months later, district leaders sat down with state officials and were urged to reapply in time for this year’s March 13 deadline.
    While representatives of most of the districts that were among the original grant applicants, and the Bridgehampton district as well, attended the meeting, East Hampton and Montauk declined to participate. Mid-March came and went, with districts citing the impossibly quick turnaround during a time of year that coincides with budget preparation.
    “There was suddenly two weeks to take it apart and resubmit it. It was too short a time frame,” said Michael Hartner, the former superintendent of Springs, who participated in the planning meeting. Now retired, he was the lead author on last year’s application. “No one was stepping forward to say, ‘I’ll spend the next two weeks doing nothing else to get it done.’ ”
    Some officials are now questioning what a formal study would achieve. In recent weeks, as Bridgehampton is weighing whether to participate, East Hampton and Montauk have opted out.
    At last week’s East Hampton School Board meeting, George Aman, board president, said that while the board was willing to consider shared services, it was not planning to reinvest in what he termed a “costly study.” Even though the state would fund the bulk of the more than $200,000 study, each district would be required to contribute nearly $3,000.
    “We’re doing everyone a disservice if we put aside the idea of consolidation,” Arthur Goldman, a teacher at East Hampton High School and a Springs resident, said at last week’s meeting. “The board has to take a leadership role here.” Board members appeared unmoved. The board will consider shared services, but participating in a study seems unlikely.
    “If you were starting from scratch, we would all be one district. That would make sense,” Mr. Aman said. “The difficulty is that once they are established, in small school districts particularly, people are very happy with the status quo. And human nature being what it is, folks are not going to give up their local control to absorb someone else’s higher tax rate.”
    Multiple calls to the East Hampton district’s superintendent, Richard J. Burns, were not returned.
    “This state isn’t going to be able to support 700 school districts going forward,” said Mary Anne Miller, a Sag Harbor School Board member and former board president. She expressed disappointment that the March deadline to reapply had come and gone. “The end is coming soon. We should be talking about this much more aggressively. Our job as board members is to push this kind of uncomfortable discussion on the community.”
    Dowling College conducted a formal study of consolidation in 1998, looking at East Hampton, Montauk, Springs, and Amagansett. The conclusion was that only taxpayers in Springs stood to benefit, while taxpayers in Amagansett were likely to see their tax rates rise by as much as 50 percent. More than 15 years later, such a conclusion still holds.
    “We have been involved with studies over the years and the topic of consolidation has been discussed many times over many years,” said Eleanor Tritt, the superintendent of Amagansett School District. The district, which operates one school, enrolls 110 students in grades pre-K to 6 and sends students to East Hampton schools from the seventh grade through high school.
    “For Amagansett, the results consistently show that consolidation would cause the tax rate in Amagansett to rise significantly,” Ms. Tritt said. Even though she thinks consolidation remains unpalatable, she said she remained a staunch advocate for sharing services whenever possible.
    Stuart Rachlin, the superintendent of the Wainscott School, similarly expressed disinterest in consolidation. “When you have a small district such as Wainscott and the tax rate is so low, if you consolidate, the tax rate will go up,” Dr. Rachlin said. The Wainscott School enrolls 15 students in kindergarten through third grade.
    Carl Bonuso, the superintendent of the Sag Harbor district, remained cautiously optimistic, however. He said an opportunity for a wide coalition of districts to again reapply for grant money was a possibility.
    Regardless of whether a study was done, however, he said shared services were soon to become an increasing reality for all local districts — grant or no grant.
     “As we develop our budgets, the only way we can survive is to concentrate on the expenditure side and be more creative at looking at the revenue side of the equation. Sharing services is one way of dealing with the revenue side,” Dr. Bonuso said.
    He described the East End districts as having a family-like quality, like different households working to help each other. “It just makes sense to work together,” he said.
    “Consolidation is the word everyone is hung up on,” said Kathee Burke Gonzalez, the Springs School Board president, offering that the word reorganization might be more acceptable. Ms. Burke Gonzalez, who will step down from her position this spring, is hopeful that come summer everyone will come back to the conversation with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
    “New boards and superintendents will have a bit more free time than they do in February and March to sit down and figure out exactly what it is they want to study,” she said. “I’m hopeful that once everyone’s budget passes, they can all come up for air and pursue the conversation once again.”