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Long Island

Expert: School mergers could save millions

A file photo of school bus in a

A file photo of school bus in a bus depot in Bohemia. Photo Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

Townwide consolidation of Long Island school districts could save millions of dollars each year while preserving a large degree of local control, an economic consultant told the region's top planners Tuesday.

Martin R. Cantor, a former Dowling College think-tank director, outlined a plan he has drafted that would merge dozens of local school districts, eliminate most superintendents' jobs, and turn hiring and budgeting over to building principals. Cantor made his presentation before a monthly meeting of the Long Island Regional Planning Council in Farmingdale.

Before a largely skeptical audience, Cantor said a looming statewide property-tax cap and other financial pressures make it imperative that school districts consider cost-saving moves they might have rejected in the past. Otherwise, he added, many districts, especially poorer ones, may have no choice except to continue raising class sizes and cutting student services.

"Clearly, financing education on Long Island is a chronic problem, and it needs a structural solution," said Cantor, who is a certified public accountant and a former director of the Long Island Economic and Social Policy Institute at Dowling.

Cantor calculates, for example, that the 47 school districts in western Suffolk County could save a total of $32 million annually in central office expenses by forming five townwide systems serving Babylon, Brookhaven, Huntington, Islip and Smithtown.

Overall, initial annual savings for that area would equal about six-tenths of 1 percent of the districts' total budgets, Cantor said. While that saving might seem slight, Cantor said it represents a significant portion of the annual 2 percent increases in taxes to which districts will be restricted under the statewide cap that takes effect in July.

Many veteran school administrators acknowledge that consolidation would provide certain benefits -- especially by providing more equitable financing for schools in poorer communities.

But those officials also warn that mergers actually might boost costs in the short term, as employee unions in districts with relatively low pay scales scramble to "level up" with higher-paid colleagues elsewhere.

"The concept of townwide school districts has an immediate advantage in reducing the disparity between the haves and the have-nots," said Alan B. Groveman, superintendent of Connetquot schools and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. "Whether it would save any money is questionable."

At Tuesday's council meeting, some panelists noted that any push for large-scale consolidation would certainly encounter political resistance. The East Moriches district's board rejected a proposed merger with Center Moriches in 2008, and Elwood announced in August that it had found no takers for its proposed consolidation with other Huntington Town districts.

"I just don't know if it's worth the fight to get there," said John D. Cameron Jr., the council's chairman. The panel advises Nassau and Suffolk county government leaders on regional development and other issues.

Calls in the past for countywide school mergers have been rejected, largely on the grounds that systems so large might be unresponsive to parents.

Cantor asserted that his plan could overcome such objections. Townwide systems are common in New England, but they usually have fewer students than those that Cantor envisioned for the Island.

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