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NY schools chief eyes consolidation plan

Senior Kayla Rakower, left, speaks to the Commissioner

Senior Kayla Rakower, left, speaks to the Commissioner about one of her art projects. The new education commissioner, John B. King Jr., with Sen. John Flanagan is touring Commack High School to talk with students and teachers about current programs and projects occuring in the school. (Sept. 16, 2011) Credit: Steve Pfost

The state's new education chief is floating the idea of large-scale school consolidations on Long Island, contending that countywide systems could save money and distribute funds more equitably, especially when money is tight.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. has stirred a regional buzz with a recent series of pronouncements on possible school consolidations in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties. His office does not have the authority to order mergers without the consent of the districts involved.

"I think one of our biggest challenges is that we have the consolidation conversation as though it were an upstate or western New York rural question when, in fact, it may be that the place where we could get the greatest savings from consolidation would be downstate, Long Island and Westchester," King told 1,000 school board delegates attending a state convention in Buffalo in late October.

In a Nov. 18 Albany radio interview, the commissioner reiterated his message that money could be saved through mergers on the Island and in Westchester, which are now served by "lots of very small districts in a very concentrated geographic area."

The commissioner acknowledges that the concept of countywide consolidation is controversial. But he notes that county systems work well in other regions of the country -- most notably, in suburban counties of Maryland and Virginia adjoining Washington, D.C., which, like Long Island, have a population that is largely well-educated.

King, 36, became the state's top education executive in July after serving as senior deputy education commissioner. Before that, he was managing director of a nonprofit charter-school management organization based in Manhattan.

The Island's school leaders, who have seen dozens of merger plans fail, remain skeptical. Still, many say that King's message must be taken seriously -- especially because Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his prior role as attorney general, also was a strong advocate of achieving dollar savings through local government consolidation.

"I think it's in our future -- at least, I see the state leading us in that direction," said James March, president of the Long Island School Boards Association and a Bayport resident, who heard the commissioner's Buffalo speech. "So I can't ignore it. But Long Island has communities where people moved specifically for the schools, and if those districts disappear, people are going to be upset."

In 1993, the Bayport-Blue Point school district considered merging with neighboring Sayville. The plan was dropped due to financial obstacles and fears of losing community identity. Last December, the Elwood district sounded out five neighboring districts about whether any had an interest in potential consolidation, but ultimately none wanted to take part in a feasibility study.

King's remarks come against a backdrop of growing financial uncertainty for the Island's 124 public school districts. On Nov. 14, Cuomo appeared to retreat from an earlier commitment that schools -- which have taken significant cuts in state aid in each of the past two years -- would get a 4 percent increase in state financial aid next year. If state assistance remains flat, schools will have a tougher time next year making up the difference through local property taxes, because the state is about to impose a 2 percent cap on those tax increases.

Bottom line: More teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and fewer student services appear likely on the Island and elsewhere, especially in poorer districts.

With this in mind, King contends that New York State needs to consider the example of countywide school systems such as Montgomery County, Md., where student achievement rivals that on Long Island, but with what he says is greater cost efficiency. Moreover, the commissioner said, Montgomery County is able to target more services for students from low-income families who need help most.

"What one sees is actually a higher degree of equity in spending across communities, because you have the broader, county-level tax base," King said.

Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, agreed that countywide school systems such as that in Montgomery County, Md., eliminate some of the stark disparities often found between schools in wealthy communities and those in poor communities on the Island.

Levy cautioned, however, that any large-scale push for school mergers on the Island would face "enormous" political opposition and require a major infusion of state cash incentives now available only in limited amounts.

"Absent a lot of financial aid from Albany, it is an uncertain future," he said of any prospect of consolidation.

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