Two communities on Long Island’s North Fork are taking joint management of their public schools to a new level in a rare initiative that supporters hold up as a model for localities across the state.
The partnership between Greenport and Southold schools got a boost two summers ago, when Superintendent David Gamberg started running both districts. It has expanded since, and the newest development came July 1, when Charles Scheid, assistant superintendent for business in Southold, took over the same administrative duties in neighboring Greenport.
The shared-management team includes Ryan Case, director of educational technology; Marcus DaSilva, assistant plants and facilities administrator; and Frank Mazzie, a business administrator and purchasing agent.
Last week, school administrators from both communities met at a diner on the Southold-Greenport border — “neutral ground,” as one participant put it — and heard a pep talk from Gamberg on the rewards and risks of double duty. The meeting was part of a daylong retreat to plan for the 2016-17 school year and beyond.
“None of this could work if each of you around the table was not able to be flexible,” said the superintendent, who had stressed the benefits of joint operations in an earlier interview. “The more we make these arrangements for sharing, the more opportunities there are for kids.”
Gamberg, 54, has spent many years in public education, including the past eight years as Southold’s school chief. An avid gardener, one of his pet projects is a “mini-farm” outside Southold Elementary School where students harvest hundreds of pounds of produce each year for sale and free distribution.
The superintendent, who technically is employed by Southold, has thrown himself into the cause of joint supervision. He divides his time equally between the two districts, and half his $243,280 annual salary is paid by Greenport under a cooperative arrangement known as an Inter-Municipal Agreement, or IMA.
Southold and Greenport are among a handful of the state’s 700-plus public school systems that share superintendents — and currently it is the only such arrangement on Long Island. In the past, several East End districts have shared school chiefs, including Greenport, where former Superintendent Michael Comanda also served several years as part-time head of the tiny New Suffolk district.
What makes the relationship between Greenport and Southold stand out, one Albany expert observed, is cooperation that goes far beyond the front office.
“This is the most extensive sharing of personnel that I’ve heard of, and it’s certainly more substantial than just sharing a superintendent,” said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Others on Gamberg’s administrative team split their time under agreements with school boards in both districts. Scheid, for example, spends 60 percent of his time in Southold and 40 percent in Greenport, which has a smaller budget. Mazzie devotes 75 percent of his time to Greenport and 25 percent to Southold.
Participants acknowledged the plan’s complexities and said they would review school-management operations in six months to make sure the system is working to everyone’s satisfaction. Most said they are optimistic.
“I think people see it works with David as superintendent, so people can say, ‘Why wouldn’t the other positions work as well,’ ” said Paulette Ofrias, president of Southold’s school board.
Her counterpart on the Greenport board, Babette Cornine, noted that the two districts began talking about cooperative management in 2013, months before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a statewide drive for greater streamlining and efficiency in local governments.
“We were kind of ahead of the curve,” she said.
Gamberg estimated the two districts now are saving a combined $400,000 a year on administrative salaries and benefits. By the close of the 2016-17 school year, cumulative savings from the shared arrangement will exceed $1 million, he added.
“It does two things: It saves money, and it provides programs for students in both districts that they couldn’t do on their own,” said state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), whose constituency includes Greenport and Southold.
LaValle, who chairs the Senate’s Higher Education Committee, called the shared-management initiative a potential model for other districts. Pressures for financial savings have mounted since 2012, when the state imposed tax caps on schools and municipalities, he pointed out.
Some experts said school districts might find joint administration appealing, because it avoids complications that can accompany outright consolidation. When two districts merge, for instance, the wealthier of the two typically experiences a rise in taxes, while the other sees taxes reduced.
Measuring the financial impact of shared administration in Southold and Greenport is difficult, however, given their socioeconomic differences.
The 800-student Southold district is more affluent, with a higher median family income and fewer children on the subsidized lunch program. It traditionally has spent more money per student — about $36,300 to Greenport’s estimated $26,600, according to a calculation of budget divided by enrollment. Between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the district has maintained student programs and services while raising its budget less than 1 percent cumulatively — far below the Suffolk County average of 3.9 percent.
Greenport, on the other hand, recently added teachers and other staff in an effort to make up for cuts imposed during an earlier economic downturn. In addition, local residents in May approved a budget that exceeded the district’s tax cap. Spending in the system between 2014-15 and 2016-17 jumped more than 9 percent cumulatively as a result of staff additions and tax-cap overrides.
With the extra spending, though, Greenport’s offerings for its 675 students have improved. In 2014, for example, the district opened prekindergarten classes for 38 youngsters — a program that already was provided in Southold.
At the state level, fiscal experts said it was predictable that money saved through administrative streamlining would be used, in part, to restore or expand services.
In 2013, researchers at Cornell University’s Department of City and Regional Planning surveyed officials in 946 localities across the state and found that such funding shifts were common. One result, researchers said, was that efforts to achieve greater efficiencies failed to reduce spending 50 percent of the time.
“But this is not a bad thing,” said Mildred Warner, a professor in the planning department, who noted that plowing back fiscal savings into schools often improves student services.
Southold and Greenport both have a strong sense of local identity, tracing their origins as English settlements back to the 1600s. Even so, the two school districts, like many in the East End, have found over the years that cooperation allows them to offer programs that they otherwise could not manage because of their small size.
Since 1983, students from Greenport and Southold have played on the same varsity football team, along with students from the nearby Mattituck-Cutchogue district. The three systems also share a varsity lacrosse team and a U.S. Navy Junior ROTC program. Greenport and Southold share teams in softball and volleyball, as well as advanced high school courses and an annual play.
Still, school administrators remain sensitive to community distinctions. Gamberg, who makes the eight-minute drive between Southold and Greenport on a near-daily basis, honors the districts’ respective colors by wearing red neckties when in Southold and purple ties in Greenport.
“People notice that,” he said.