McKinstry: A school district gets creative to raise revenue
In a region where private high schools command tuitions that rival those at most colleges, a public school district in Westchester County wants in on the market.
If you're like me, writing tuition checks for any school outside the ones I'm already paying taxes for is a nonstarter.
But if you're among the thousands of parents in this county willing to pay tuition, then it's worth knowing that Blind Brook Public Schools is "one of the highest-achieving school districts" in New York State and "one of the best-kept secrets" -- at least according to Superintendent William Stark.
Stark is offering a very marketable combo of small class sizes, high test scores and quality music, athletic and club programs. Its high school was ranked 80th on the U.S. News and World Report's top 100 schools -- and 16th in New York.
Stark also says his district is an "affordable option" -- and at cool $21,500 a year, he might just be right. Schools like The Hackley School in Tarrytown, The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry or Rye Country Day hit the $35,000 a year mark. With board, those schools can reach $50,000 a year.
Blind Brook's push to attract paying pupils is a reaction to a new norm. Like most districts -- in fact, one in six in the Hudson Valley -- it's losing students, but its costs continue to rise. This sort of idea reflects how school districts are changing the way they're doing business.
And if classes aren't full, what district wouldn't mind some extra cash? The more students a district can enroll from the outside, the fewer layoffs or program cuts, presumably. The plan might even help control taxes.
And at the district's asking price, it would only take a dozen or so students to cover the superintendent's nearly $260,000-a-year salary.
For sure, enrolling a few tuition-paying students would help raise some cash in this small district, which has a $41-million budget. But it's not likely to avert the systemic problems facing school districts: explosive costs, pensions and expensive program mandates from Albany.
So why not consolidate? Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo favors combining districts, and taxpayers surely want savings. Blind Brook, with roughly 1,500 students and only three schools, seems like an ideal candidate to merge with say, Rye or Harrison.
"In New York, you have to vote on consolidation. It's not imposed on you," said John Yinger, a professor of economic and public administration at Syracuse University. "A lot of parents, particularly high-income parents, don't like consolidation."
In Blind Brook, there's no movement to consolidate -- and that's the district's right. Parents like access to teachers, proximity to the schools and a sense of identity.
We've seen this all over the state -- that's why there has only been a few mergers -- just three consolidations of school districts in New York -- in recent years.
Consolidation is a heavy lift.
Collecting tuition isn't.
Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.