By Emily J. Weitz and Claire Walla
Imagine a community where various local school districts work together to offer all kids the best possible education, while keeping costs down and making administrations more efficient.
Sound like a pipe dream?
For six East End school districts, it might not be.
This year, the Sag Harbor Union Free School District will join East Hampton, Montauk, Southampton, Springs and Tuckahoe school districts — along with Eastern Suffolk BOCES — to apply for a grant from the state, which would help these districts explore the idea of consolidation. The school districts would potentially be able to cut costs by combining a variety of services, from superintendents and extra-curricular activities, to course offerings for students .
Michael Hartner, Superintendent of the Springs Union Free School District, will act as the lead applicant for all seven districts.
After discussing the idea at a school board meeting February 29, Sag Harbor School Board members voted this week in favor of a resolution to officially join the grant program, called the Local Government Efficiency Grant. The cost for each participating district is $2,777, and the state would kick-in an additional $175,000 for the regional study. The money would go toward hiring a consultant who would analyze ways the regional school systems could potentially combine services.
According to Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, the Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, Shelter Island and Wainscott school districts have opted not to join in on the grant program.
“It’s about thinking beyond the boundaries that we all work under,” said Sag Harbor School Board President Mary Anne Miller at February’s meeting. The “[The consultant] would be looking at various types of reorganization for the school districts, with the focus being to improve educational opportunities and reduce costs for the public.”
Miller added that the fee associated with participating in the grant program would be paid for with money left over in this year’s budget.
“We didn’t spend as much [money] on fuel oil this winter,” she said. “So there’s money in the undesignated fund balance to allot to this.”
The study itself is expected to take place over the course of nine 10 months, during which time the consultant would take a look at school programs as well as administrative functions.
“We’re all struggling to be all things to all students singly and separately, which creates a lot of challenges,” Miller continued, adding that some possible considerations might include centralizing the schools’ business departments.
“Maybe one office would take care of the payroll for all [seven] school districts,” she speculated. She also said foreign language offerings, which vary so much from school to school, could potentially be shared.
“In Sag Harbor, we only offer Spanish and French. East Hampton also has Latin and Chinese. How could we partner together to provide these opportunities for all students?”
Another topic brought up during February’s discussion was class size.
“Montauk has smaller numbers in [its] elementary school,” says Miller. “Maybe there could be some partnering that wasn’t just based on geographical lines. Choices are good. We shouldn’t always try to be so single and separate from one another.”
Miller acknowledged the importance of a hometown school and the sensitive nature of discussing any kind of consolidating or regionalizing schools. But, in the end, she added, “districts can blend a little more, and geographical lines don’t have to be so rigid. Everybody wants to keep the identity of their local hometown school, but there may be opportunities for something better.”