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Schools React to the Consolidation Pitch

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A new proposal coming from New York State has a number of school districts and administrators on the East End wondering what the future might hold for them.
While students and programs would be largely unaffected, administrations in school districts in the state with less than 1,000 students could face mandatory consolidation, according to a statement fram Governor David Paterson last week. Between Southampton and East Hampton Towns, plus Shelter Island, there are currently 12 school districts with fewer than 1,000 students.
The recommendation came in the final report by the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief, which was presented to the governor’s office and suggests that schools with under 1,000 students — which would include local districts like Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton — should combine their resources to allow for greater tax relief for property owners.
In order for the state to be able to mandate the consolidation of schools, new legislation would have to be proposed. As of now, it is up to the local school boards and community members to vote on changes to any particular district. The report suggests a change to the current system, but does not say how it will be implemented, according to State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.
“It’s very general,” Thiele said on Friday of the report.
Currently, Sag Harbor School district has just under 1,000 students — if Sag Harbor students attending Stella Maris, Ross School and other private schools are included in the total, however, those numbers would likely exceed 1,000.
Thiele noted that the minimum number of students is not firmly set at 1,000 when talking consolidation, and he believes that number may be fluid and up for discussion, possibly with a minimum threshold that could be higher.
Thiele said on Friday he believes, however, consolidation will not cause any schools to close down, but rather combine their resources and administration to cut costs to property owners.
“I don’t think they are talking about consolidation in the classroom,” Thiele said and added, “but there are a lot of administrators in these school districts.”
Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said that consolidation could be very feasible.
“That is not unheard of upstate,” Gratto said on Friday of the area where he once lived and worked. Gratto explained that in that part of the state, there are schools that are 15 miles apart that may be under the same superintendent.
“I am surprised about the small schools here,” Gratto, who came to the Sag Harbor district last June. By upstate standards, for example, Gratto noted that a single superintendent would likely oversee schools located within a range similar to that of Bridgehampton, Springs and Sag Harbor.
But he explained that there are social reasons this change might not work here.
“Some people like their neighborhood schools, they may like the fact that their kid can play on the soccer team,” said Gratto. He added that political reasons could trump the social. “By consolidating schools the districts could see savings in administration, teachers, supplies and other costs.”
“My position is if the state can play a greater role, I think we should provide incentives,” Thiele said.
But Gratto said there are already state incentives for consolidation in place that neighboring districts have not explored.
“Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor have been next to each other for years,” Gratto said “and have not taken advantage of the incentives so far.”
Gratto noted that the state would provide greater aid if the schools combined their resources. Thiele believes greater incentives could be given while still including the local community in the decision making process.
Dianne B. Youngblood, superintendent of the Bridgehampton School District said on Tuesday that there are currently 150 students in her district.
“We are certainly a small school and that’s what we pride ourselves on,” she said, “that is my immediate reaction.” She added that she can understand the interest in consolidation from a taxpayer’s standpoint; but added “Working from a school administration position, I can see the benefits of a small school.”
“I think it’s a decision that needs to be discussed in detail and weigh all sides very carefully,” she said.
Further, Youngblood added that it is a misnomer that by combining schools it will lower the tax rate.
“That doesn’t always happen,” she said. “I know in Bridgehampton they did a study a year-and-a-half ago and found that we have the lowest taxes in the entire metropolitan region.”
“It is a discussion worthy to be had but people have to come to the table with all of the facts,” she said.
As far as sharing administrators, Youngblood said that currently her district has similar practices such as sharing a treasurer and other administrators with the Sag Harbor School District.
When asked about having one superintendent for more than one current school district on the East End, Youngblood said that it would be a matter of looking at the entire structure of the school and require more than just looking at the position itself.
“We don’t have a lot of details,” Thiele said on Friday. “Perhaps when Governor Paterson issues his budget on the 16th [of December] it will have more specifics about school consolidation.”
The New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief was formed in January of 2008 and has held 14 public meetings to discuss alternative options for tax relief for members. Some of the other 30-plus recommendations in their final report included an implementation of a property tax cap, mandated relief and School Tax Relief (STAR) “circuit breakers”– a relief program offered to individuals based on income and ability to pay.
On Monday, Thiele released a statement saying that he was working on this issue independently. Thiele suggests that the State Department of Education would be directed to review every school district with 1,000 students or less as a potential candidate for consolidation. Thiele’s proposal suggests that a draft report of potential consolidators would be made public by the state and public hearings in the local communities would be heard on the matter, allowing for more public input. Then, Thiele suggests a public referendum to approve or disapprove.
“I don’t have a problem if it is initiated by the state, as long as the local community and voters in the local school district are involved,” Thiele said on Friday. “I don’t have a problem with the state being involved but ultimately I think it has to be made by the people in the district.”
Thiele said his plan is “direct, simple and better serves the public interest.”