A kindergarten teacher instructs young students at Moriches Elementary School....

A kindergarten teacher instructs young students at Moriches Elementary School. (Feb. 9, 2010) Credit: Newsday File / Pablo Corradi

Long Island's public schools are a "really good asset" overall, but the school tax burden is approaching "crush depth" levels, a situation the Long Island Regional Planning Council has deemed "unsustainable."

The council, made up of government and community leaders from across Long Island has been meeting with a working group of educators - superintendents, school board leaders, the teachers union - since last month. Their goal is to try to come up with solutions to the high cost of education that drives up property taxes.

"We're not interested in just launching rockets," council chairman John D. Cameron said in an interview Tuesday. "If we can come up with a unified approach to deal with the issue, we're very fine with that. Whether we're able to come to agreement, we will see."

The sensitivity of the issue was apparent when educators contacted by Newsday took issue with the accuracy of statistics cited by the council's executive director, Michael White, at the council's meeting Tuesday.

"Long Island is home to many top performing" school districts, White said, adding there was "room for improvement." He noted some of the bright spots for LI student performance: 8th-graders scoring better than others around the state on English Language Arts, science, social studies and math. Yet, White said other schools in the state were often close behind, and in some categories - such as in the physics and math regents exams - Long Island was not in the lead.

"When we compare those regional areas around the state and comparable regions around the country, they are giving quality education for less money" than Long Island, White said in an interview.

White also said the average per-pupil spending on Long Island was the highest in the state - $22,085 in 2008, compared with $19,956 for other areas, excluding New York City. Moreover, he said Long Island had the highest average teacher salaries in the nation in 2008.

William Johnson, Rockville Centre schools superintendent, disputed many of those statistics, saying "None of the statistics are verified at this point." He contended the statistics did not give a complete picture of education costs here. He said the cost of education on Long Island "is tied to the cost of living on Long Island. . . . Therefore, you need to come up with a plan for dealing with both."

Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, thought the data White cited were based on county-by-county comparisons, which he said would be a "flawed" analysis because counties are vastly different in size. When told White said the statistics compared Long Island to large regions of the state instead, Bixhorn said, "I would still say if you compare outcomes, by every measure our kids outperform kids in the rest of the state."

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