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OpinionEditorial

The pressures to consolidate LI's school districts

The Edward W. Bower Elementary School on Montauk

The Edward W. Bower Elementary School on Montauk Highway was closed in June 2011. Credit: Steve Pfost

In recent stories about education on Long Island, we've read that:

Two specialized high schools run by Nassau BOCES are struggling and facing closure.

The Westbury school district is trying to figure out how to fund tens of millions of dollars in facility upgrades made necessary in part by a big and unexpected spike in students.

Other districts are grappling with the implications of shrinking enrollments.

And school officials across Long Island are finding it increasingly difficult to craft budgets under the grinding power of the state tax cap.

We tend to look at these problems in isolation. School districts handle their own issues. That's the point of local control. But every one of these problems would be easier to solve if our districts were bigger.

Big districts have more flexibility to handle enrollment fluctuations, and economies of scale when it comes to budgets. Instead, Long Island has 124 fiefdoms with their own administrative structures and physical plants, much of the system redundant in the context of one region. New York Federal Reserve Bank president William C. Dudley, a suburbanite himself, said flatly in an interview with Newsday that Long Island has too many districts for its population. He criticized the costs and burden on taxpayers as well as the unnecessary complexity.

Consider our recent experience with Common Core: Each of those 124 districts was responsible for its own curricula to meet the new standards. It's the definition of insanity.

Consider the Nassau BOCES high schools, one for the performing arts and one for science, technology, engineering and math. They are needed because some districts can't supply such high-quality programs and students would otherwise be cheated of opportunity. The schools struggle, however, because districts can't afford the tuition for their students. But if a group of six or eight or more districts in a geographic area joined as one, they could offer a mix of high schools -- from regular to vocational to some with academic specialties -- in their existing buildings. Students would have choices and be better served.

Larger districts also would help break down the deplorable segregation in our schools, introducing students to more of Long Island's remarkable and enriching diversity. Some argue that our communities are different, with unique needs, and require separate school systems that reflect that. But our region is stronger when we embrace our differences and learn from them instead of building walls around them.

We often have argued on these pages for school district consolidation. The need has not abated. Many of the East End's small systems are talking about merging. But progress is so darn difficult. There are obstacles. Some are legitimate concerns. But they can, and must, be overcome to serve students better and more economically.

We have yet to reach the tipping point when masses of people demand change. But the ranks of the frustrated are growing. And so will our problems, unless we act to end them.

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