This week, we learned that the Sag Harbor School District is joining with other South Fork school districts to apply for a state efficiency grant that would allow the districts to study shared services and consolidation.
This is the second time the district has joined with BOCES and several other districts in pursuit of the grant. The first time around, the grant was denied (for a variety of reasons), so this is good news and we’re glad to hear they’re giving it another shot. It has become increasingly clear, particularly in communities like Springs in East Hampton, the savings found in consolidation, as well as shared services, is something to be seriously explored, particularly in the wake of a two-percent property tax levy cap that threatens educational programing in the face of staggering rises each year in the cost of health care and retirement.
With word of this application came reassurances from members of the Sag Harbor School Board that their interest in pursuing this grant is primarily in exploring options for shared services — as opposed to consolidation — which actually involves the merging of school districts.
Consolidation is still something of a dirty word on the East End and it’s something that administrators and boards have typically shied away from in conversation.
It’s understandable. The notion of merging districts and potentially altering long-valued aspects of school identity is uncomfortable territory to be sure.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start having the conversation.
Consolidation. It’s a word that we have been hearing more frequently in recent years from friends and acquaintances — and not in relationship to school identity or mascots — but because of pure finances. And there may be ways to consolidate aspects of districts without totally losing identity.
Many districts don’t want to go there. But here’s the truth. School districts across the state are now operating under the specter of a two-percent property tax levy cap. That means when they sit down to do their annual budgets every year, boards are severely limited in how much they can raise taxes in order to cover their ever-increasing budgets.
Before long, something will have to give. There is going to come a time when taxpayers around the state (and the country) will start looking at other aspects of those budgets — like administration salaries for example — and wonder if all those positions, in fact, need to be there. Duplication of educational offerings and personnel is another area where merging (dare we say consolidation) could go a long way to reducing budgets, particularly in very small districts where a limited number of students might be using those resources.
We fully understand that this grant, if secured, will study sharing services — not just school districts. And we understand why. There’s a lot currently invested in the identity and community of each district on the South Fork and residents are protective of what they have that is unique in each.
But when it comes to education, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start talking about what’s possible and, more importantly, researching what might actually make the programming we have better. There have been a lot of great educational initiatives instituted around the country in recent decades which not only have advanced what’s available to students, but created new opportunities that were never there before. The magnet school system and its ability to offer schools specifically geared toward the sciences, arts and vocational trades is one that immediately comes to mind.
The point is, avoiding a topic like consolidation altogether before we have even had a chance to study this on a regional basis is a non-starter. When it comes to education, we’re not looking to reinvent the wheel, but rather start a conversation about ways to get it rolling a little more efficiently.