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Officials compare notes on creating regional high school on East End

Students listen to a lecture on May 1,

Students listen to a lecture on May 1, 2013. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

South Fork school officials are exploring the formation of a regional or central high school for some of the tiny districts that dot the East End.

Five school leaders, state representatives and other officials converged Thursday at the Tuckahoe School to discuss the idea, viewed as a possible solution to small districts grappling with rising costs and the state-mandated 2 percent tax cap.

"Small districts, even small districts that are wealthy -- that 2 percent is unsustainable," said Montauk Superintendent Jack Perna. "We're all here because of money, not so much because of programs."

The East End is a patchwork of small school districts, many with just hundreds or dozens of students. Nine of the 15 school districts in Southampton and East Hampton stop at eighth grade or earlier and pay larger districts tens of thousands of dollars per pupil to educate their students in higher grades.

Superintendents from East Quogue, Hampton Bays, Tuckahoe, Bridgehampton and Montauk attended the meeting. Also present were Eastern Suffolk BOCES Superintendent Dean Lucera and chief operating officer Julie Davis Lutz, and Southampton Town Deputy Supervisor Frank Zappone.

Robert Long, acting superintendent of the K-6 school system in East Quogue, which educates about 430 students, said his district has cut academic programs as high school tuition to Westhampton Beach has risen to about $20,000 per pupil.

"It now costs more to run the 7-12 portion of our program than the K-6," Long said. "We have no representation on Westhampton's board."

New York State law would need to change to allow noncontiguous districts to form a central high school district. Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), and a representative of Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) attended the meeting.

Thiele said there is a "reasonable chance" a bill could pass in the final five weeks of the state legislative session to allow formation of a central high school district. Creating one would require approvals from the individual school boards and a taxpayer referendum, he said.

Another option would be to form a regional high school, allowing districts to jointly run a high school without creating a new district. Thiele said that would require new legislation that is "on the radar screen" in Albany.

Details like where a central or regional high school would be located and which districts would participate are far off, Thiele said. "These are decisions that local school districts and parents and teachers need to come together and make together," he said.

Tuckahoe school officials, who organized the meeting, have failed twice in two years to merge their struggling K-8 school of about 350 students with the Southampton district, which has about 1,500 students. Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer proposed forming a group to meet again on the topic.

"This issue is not going to go away," he said.

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