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Elwood district seeks school merger partner

Exterior of John Glenn High School. The Elwood

Exterior of John Glenn High School. The Elwood school district has begun to explore the possibility of consolidation. (Dec. 16, 2010) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Elwood school officials are asking five neighboring districts to consider a merger - and at least two say they are open to learning more about the proposal.

Elwood's efforts come as the state Board of Regents has expressed interest in creating a commission to identify districts considered ideal for consolidation.

Elwood eliminated 14 positions and cut student programs this year so it could balance its budget. The district cited a drop-off in federal stimulus dollars, continued reductions in total assessed value of property in the district, and the possibility of a tax cap, predicting "an ominous portrait" for the district's future.

"We do not take this matter lightly; we are proud of our school/community identity and realize this is a very serious issue that will require enormous research, community input and evaluation," the district said in a statement on its website, noting it has begun discussions about merging with one or more of its neighbors.

Officials at Northport-East Northport and Half Hollow Hills say they are open to talks about a possible merger. A Commack spokeswoman said the district would attend an exploratory meeting planned by Elwood, but that "it is premature to comment on any potential interest."

A South Huntington spokesman declined to comment, but one superintendent doubted the wisdom of the proposal.

Frank Carasiti, schools chief of Harborfields, said he's been through four merger studies in his 40-year tenure as a superintendent and has studied the issue as a consultant.

"It just doesn't work," he said. "I don't think it's going to save money, from my experience and from the studies I have read. I don't see how a district like Harborfields could benefit educationally."

The superintendent said he was speaking for himself, not for the school board. Elwood and Harborfields held unsuccessful merger talks in 1992.

The last Long Island school consolidation took place in 2003 when the Eastport and South Manor systems merged.

Stephen V. Waldenburg Jr., president of the Northport-East Northport school board, said he would consider every option in an effort to provide his students the best education at the most reasonable cost.

"I think we may be interested to hear what they've got in mind," he said. "It never hurts to listen. I can't say what will come out of it. It would need to be beneficial to the Northport district."

Elwood officials declined to comment beyond their initial statement.

Christine Geed, a spokeswoman for the Half Hollow Hills district, said school officials there want to learn more.

"We need to find out what kind of impact it would have," she said. "The only way to know that is by getting involved in the discussions. We need to learn what consolidation would mean for the other districts and how cost-effective it would be, how it would impact savings and the existing student population."

Deborah Cunningham, coordinator for educational management services with the state Education Department, said her department helps assess the educational value of all proposed mergers and advocates for transparency in terms of each district's financial standing.

Cunningham predicts an uptick in mergers despite fierce long-standing desire around the state for local control; she said New York's generous financial incentives for districts to consolidate will become increasingly appealing as state and federal funding continues to falter. State incentives allowed Eastport and South Manor to build a new high school at limited cost to local taxpayers.

"There is also some pressure on the educational side because of the push for higher standards to make students college and career ready," she said.

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