A decades-long debate over consolidating some of Long Island's 124 school systems in order to equalize taxes and student opportunities is getting a fresh look as educational leaders search for ways to operate more effectively in the face of growing academic and financial pressures.
Reorganization of school districts -- always an explosive subject -- faces a benchmark decision Tuesday when residents of two East End districts vote on a much-disputed merger.
The proposed combination of the Tuckahoe district with neighboring Southampton carries significance far beyond local borders. The consolidation, if approved, would allow the first use of financial incentives that were crafted specifically to promote a merger and could apply to dozens of other districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as upstate.
Broader state support worth hundreds of millions of dollars could be available in the near future for districts squeezed between the rollout of rigorous new Common Core academic standards, now in its third year, and property-tax caps that restrict local systems' ability to raise money.
"Momentum is everything," said state Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), a leading architect of the bipartisan merger initiatives and a senior member of the Republican majority that regained control of the state Senate in the Nov. 4 election. "I believe we need to do more consolidation, reorganization, and as localities endorse the concept, the more likely that it would spread to other districts. I think the time is right."
Newly re-elected Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who has trumpeted the success of the tax cap in holding down increases, has long campaigned in favor of streamlining school districts and other local governments. In a campaign position paper issued Oct. 23, the governor set reorganization as a major goal for the coming year, calling for $500 million to be used as incentives for school systems and other municipal entities to consolidate and share services.
"These are fire districts, school districts, villages, towns -- all sorts of special districts -- one created after the other, after the other, after the other, all overlapping and no desire and no appetite to reduce them," the governor told a September meeting of the Business Council of New York State, which endorsed his re-election. "Each one is its own little political power source, its own patronage mill. And the politicians, frankly, on the local level, haven't attacked the problem. And that is what is the main tax problem for this state."
With school taxes making up 60 percent or more of a property owner's bill, the effect of district unification on tax rates is a crucial issue that often has stymied merger attempts. Recent changes at both the state executive and legislative levels provide cushions to hold down a merger's tax impact.
One new law, for example, would give the Southampton district more latitude in using about $8 million from its cash reserves to hold down tax rates if the merger is approved. LaValle, who chairs the Senate's Higher Education Committee, teamed up with Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) to push the law through.
Cuomo, in this year's state budget, included a broader part of the incentives, allowing districts that merge to phase in any tax impact over 10 years rather than within a single year, as in the past. In addition, districts will be required during the 2015-16 school year to show cost savings equivalent to 1 percent of their tax levies, either through mergers or other cooperative arrangements.
Few recent mergers
No one in education or political circles believes any consolidation will come easily. Since the mid-1960s, Albany has shied away from the kind of statewide mandates that once gave education commissioners broad powers to decide which small districts would be annexed by neighbors. In recent decades, districts have combined only voluntarily, usually two at a time, and rarely at that.
Larger consolidation concepts -- on a countywide or townwide basis, or involving regional clusters of districts -- have been proposed in studies at the state and local levels, but have not gained political traction in recent years.
Since 2010, 18 mergers have been attempted statewide and only two reorganizations have succeeded, according to the New York State Association of School Business Officials. The last consolidations on the Island occurred in 1997, when the Mattituck-Cutchogue district annexed Laurel, and in 2004, when Eastport and South Manor formed a new centralized district.
Mark Nocero, the Eastport-South Manor superintendent, said consolidation has allowed the 3,700-student system to offer enriched academic and sports programs not otherwise possible. The district's high school has more than 25 courses bearing college credit, and student participation in interscholastic sports has risen more than 50 percent since 2004, he added.
"It's not something that could have happened with two small districts," Nocero said.
Consolidation across the Nassau-Suffolk region remains a goal worth pursuing, proponents said, especially as maintaining the status quo has grown more difficult.
"You know, there is no such word in politics and government as 'never,' " said Lee Koppelman, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University.
"Whether it's school consolidation or anything else, it all comes down to timing and how it's presented to the public," said Koppelman, who is widely considered the dean of regional planners in the bicounty area. "I'm more and more inclined to believe that if it's ever going to succeed, there have to be enough carrots to make it attractive to school districts."
A long-standing state statute already provides districts with a 40 percent increase in state financial aid during the first five years of a merger. After that, the extra money gradually decreases by 4 percent a year. That challenges the common assumption that consolidation usually saves money, though experts say savings are possible.
Economies of scale
A 2005 study by Syracuse University researchers found that two districts of 300 students each could cut costs 23.7 percent by combining, due to economies of scale. Combining two districts of 1,500 students each could save 3.9 percent, the study showed. Many experts have concluded that consolidations involving districts with enrollments of more than 1,500 each should be attempted only if the reorganization meets some other goal, such as giving students a wider choice of advanced courses.
Twenty-one districts in Suffolk and eight in Nassau enroll fewer than 1,500 students. Statewide, 360 of nearly 700 systems are that enrollment size.
The drive here to combine small districts often has focused on the East End, home to a patchwork of tiny elementary districts that feed older students into high schools in neighboring systems. In recent years, rising costs of high school tuition has created friction between sending and receiving districts.
Thirteen East End districts, with separate superintendents and hierarchies, have enrollments of fewer than 500 students each and hold classes in one school building. Three of those districts -- New Suffolk, Sagaponack and Wainscott -- enroll fewer than 20 students apiece.
The Springs district, in the Town of East Hampton, pushed in 2012 for a state grant that would have allowed it and five neighboring districts to study a possible merger. The grant request fell through, much to the disappointment of many local residents. Springs, which fronts on Accabonac Harbor, struggles to pay tuition charges and other expenses because it lacks the taxable oceanfront property of wealthier districts nearby.
"It's absolutely ridiculous!" said Phyllis Italiano, 78, a Springs resident and civic activist, who formerly worked as an assistant school principal in Yonkers. "Consolidation won't happen with the snap of a finger. But it has to be done, because it's a waste."
Farther west on the Island, school districts are somewhat larger -- and so are gaps in student achievement. Educational and social activists have pointed to consolidation as a way of addressing such disparities, though they also have acknowledged that the political obstacles to reorganization are great.
More than 20 public high schools in Nassau and western Suffolk counties, including those in Jericho, Garden City and Cold Spring Harbor, regularly rank among the best in the nation and the state, according to annual surveys by U.S. News & World Report and other publications.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, five secondary schools in Central Islip, Hempstead, Roosevelt and Wyandanch all consistently rank academically in the bottom 5 percent statewide, according to annual listings posted by the state Education Department.
Educational and legal analysts blame much of the performance gap on the effects of housing patterns that concentrate large numbers of low-income families in a handful of school districts with little taxable wealth.
These experts contend district consolidations would spread tax revenues more evenly, allowing schools in poor neighborhoods to provide broader choices of advanced courses for their students -- the overwhelming majority of whom are black or Hispanic.
"We are among the most segregated suburban counties in the country," said Terry O'Neil, a Garden City attorney and authority on state laws governing district mergers and other cooperative arrangements. "It's a pretty sad situation, and it's going to blow up eventually. There couldn't be a place more ripe for consolidation than Long Island. And yet, nobody seems to have picked up on it."
Historical trend to merge
District mergers used to be common, both locally and across the nation.
In New York State, the number of operating districts dropped from 11,372 in 1870 to 691 this year, largely as part of a movement toward more centralized high schools.
Results of the unification movement on the Island are reflected in the hyphenated names of many school districts -- Oyster Bay-East Norwich and Northport-East Northport, for example.
Recent merger attempts across the state have mostly fizzled. The latest setback occurred upstate last month, when voters in the Potsdam and Canton districts rejected consolidation by ratios of more than 2-to-1.
The size of the defeat surprised local and state leaders who had projected a merger would generate more than $35 million in extra state aid, allowing both Potsdam and Canton to expand advanced courses at their high schools.
"This made a whole lot of sense academically," said Michael Borges, executive director of the state's association of school business officials. "But voters didn't see the long-term benefits to students."
State education officials cited a half-dozen reasons attempted mergers typically fail. Some are strictly financial.
Consider, for example, the problem of "leveling up." When two districts combine, teachers and other unionized workers in the district with the lower pay scales naturally seek to match their better-paid colleagues in the neighboring system. In this scenario, payroll costs can rise the moment a merger is completed.
Another problem arises from one district involved in consolidation being invariably wealthier than the other district, at least to a slight degree. Once those districts combine, taxes rise in the wealthier one, unless organizers find some way to avoid it. This consequence is one reason state authorities offered an incentive package to Southampton and Tuckahoe.
Other obstacles are more personal and emotional. Local residents often fear, for example, their community will lose its identity when it merges with a neighboring system. Teenage students worry about facing greater competition in tryouts for varsity teams and school musicals.
Dan Ciccone, vice president of the Elwood school board, has heard such arguments firsthand. Four years ago, the district asked five other school systems in Huntington Town if they would be interested in conducting a feasibility study of consolidation.
Elwood at the time faced a financial squeeze that eventually forced it to reduce kindergarten sessions from full-day to half-day. The district is solidly middle-class, but lacks the commercial property base that would allow it to raise the same amount of tax revenues as wealthier districts nearby.
"Back in 2010, we had no takers," recalled Ciccone, 57, who works as a private media executive. "Nobody wanted to even address the issue. There are sports teams and bands and a sense of community that people don't want to lose, and that does have an intrinsic value that is lost on politicians and even the business community."
Unifying to expand
Persistence can pay off, under some circumstances.
The Mohawk and Ilion districts in central New York State began studying reorganization in the mid-1990s, after fire destroyed Mohawk's junior/senior high school and students spent eight months at the other district's high school while their own was rebuilt.
The two systems ultimately agreed to combine -- but not until nearly 20 years later, in spring 2013. Unification followed prolonged merger negotiations with two other districts that eventually fell through, as well as heated debates over issues that included the naming of a new district mascot.
A deciding factor in the merger, local officials said, was that both districts had lost academic, arts and sports programs because of dwindling enrollments and declining revenues. Ilion and Mohawk concluded that unification -- with combined enrollment of 2,380 -- would allow them to restore and expand such programs.
Ilion's former superintendent, Cosimo Tangorra Jr., took over the newly unified and renamed Central Valley district in 2013. Earlier this year, he was named the state's new deputy commissioner for elementary and secondary education.
Tangorra, in a phone interview, vowed to continue pushing for district reorganizations, both to promote educational equity and to expand opportunities for schools to share operations with towns and other municipalities.
"If we limit our efforts to school districts alone, we may be missing the bigger picture," he said.
Other state officials and policy planners also have urged a broader approach to consolidation, with some arguing schools should be reorganized on a townwide -- or even countywide -- basis, to achieve the greatest equity.
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. raised that possibility in a 2011 speech to a school boards convention and in a subsequent radio interview, when he noted county school systems worked well in affluent suburbs outside Washington, D.C.
The commissioner has since backed away from that position. But the state Board of Regents, to whom he reports, has called for more state financial incentives to encourage regionalization of school services.
Some education and political leaders have suggested school financing be reorganized on a regional or state basis to ensure economic fairness. This approach, they say, would leave day-to-day school management mostly in local hands.
State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the Senate's Republican majority leader, urged in 2007 that newly hired teachers be made state employees, with salaries and benefits paid by Albany. The plan would have gradually shifted most school costs from localities to the state.
Martin R. Cantor, a Melville-based economic consultant who advised on the teacher plan, recalled in a recent interview that a major goal behind the plan was easing burdensome local property taxes on the Island, without weakening the region's educational system.
"When you take a look at the big picture, the quality of education on Long Island is really superb," Cantor said. "But how we pay for it is not."
Merger proposals over the years
1957: The Education Department's new master plan recommends cutting the number of school districts statewide from 1,465 to about 700. Sixty-seven districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties would combine into 16 systems.
1965: An Education Department advisory committee calls for merging 47 of 76 then-existing Suffolk County districts. Three years later, the NAACP requests that the Wyandanch district, with a mostly African-American enrollment, be combined with five predominantly white districts on the grounds that Wyandanch lacks the tax base to provide adequate education.
1972: A state commission named by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller calls for mergers of school systems with fewer than 5,000 students. The plan would affect 45 Suffolk districts and 29 Nassau districts.
1989: A Suffolk County task force proposes consideration of mergers for districts that enroll fewer than 5,000 students. The plan would cut the number of systems from 71 to as few as 30.
1992: The Long Island Tax Relief Commission, appointed by the state, proposes cutting the number of districts on the Island from 124 to 66. The proposal would reduce the number of Nassau districts from 56 to 29, and those in Suffolk from 71 to 37.
2010: The state Board of Regents unanimously approves the concept of a commission to identify clusters of school systems deemed ripe for consolidation, with the prospect of withholding state financial aid from districts that balk. The Regents' proposal is submitted to the Legislature, which does not approve the commission.
-- John Hildebrand