The New Suffolk school district closed its schoolhouse and sent...

The New Suffolk school district closed its schoolhouse and sent all its half a dozen or so students to the Southold district. Credit: James Carbone

Residents of the tiny North Fork hamlet of New Suffolk voted 83-14 last week to close the doors of their small red three-room schoolhouse built in 1907. There are about half a dozen students immediately affected, ranging from pre-K to sixth grade.

They will be sent to the Southold Union Free School District, perhaps 15 minutes away by car or bus. Seventeen older kids have already been going to the Southold district for grades 7-12. 

The local vote came as a follow-up to parents’ concerns and complaints about the limitations of their school caused by a minuscule student population. Clubs, sports teams and certain services are only available in larger schools. New Suffolk itself had 353 people counted in the 2020 census.

The shift makes sense but it's unlikely to pave the way for more consolidation as enrollment declines in most districts. The nonprofit Empire Center’s latest payroll data lists the tiny district’s payroll at $294,927;  eliminating most of it will reduce some costs.  

Sadly enough, some well-liked full-time teachers and several part-time staff, including physical education, art and music teachers, will be laid off. Officials promise to help them get jobs elsewhere. The superintendent and clerk will remain employed while the schoolhouse remains in use as a community center or leased to a day care or pre-K program. 

Still, there is something instructively odd about the Orwellian bureaucratic terminology for this scenario: The facility, the district says, will transition into “a non-instructional school.”

It takes a class in mental gymnastics to imagine how valuable a school can be if it doesn’t instruct anyone. How about non-recreational parks or vehicle-free bus terminals?

New Suffolk's school district will remain. Under its aegis, the hamlet on behalf of its kids will pay tuition to the Southold district under a four-year agreement to be ratified. Only a community vote could have dissolved the district, and that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon.

“New Suffolk School will continue to operate as its own district — negotiating tuition agreements, engaging with receiving districts, providing transportation, and monitoring the education of its students,” the district’s website explains. The state comptroller has found the district “chronically stressed” for years, and officials describe the new arrangement as relieving that pressure but there is no prediction of a lower tax bill.  “Taxes would stay relatively the same” with the transition, according to the district.

The change appears practical. But it reminds us how resistant to efficiency all kinds of regional fiefdoms throughout Long Island can be. After New Suffolk's new system settles in, an outright merger might merit earnest consideration there and elsewhere, especially if North Fork enrollments keep declining.

Efforts have come and gone to create regional consolidations. Efficiencies come sporadically, slowly, and with many qualifications. New Suffolk’s partial step shows that bigger consolidations could make educational operations leaner. Yet, prodding even modest change is a Sisyphean task.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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