Merger talk hits dead end

06/03/2010 12:00 AM |

Southold Board of Education president Judi Fouchet struck a blow last week to school merger talk, telling the public, “I’m just kind of done with consolidation.”

Her words came at the district’s May 26 meeting in response to a call from former school board member Donald Wagner, who represents Southold senior citizens, to begin concentrating on consolidation of North Fork school districts. He characterized the idea as a way to cut the per-pupil costs of education.

Southold never meant to step forward as a leader of the school consolidation movement, Ms. Fouchet replied.

The district held an open forum several months ago to give its taxpayers a chance to weigh in on the subject, following up with a survey aimed at determining if there was an appetite in the community for a consolidation study. There was no overwhelming evidence that there was such a desire in Southold. Both the forum and survey drew more interest from other districts.

That doesn’t mean other districts are burning to explore consolidation, according to Ms. Fouchet. Greenport and Mattituck-Cutchogue districts have been mostly silent about it, she said.

“I don’t know why Southold has to take the lead,” she added. The goal for consolidation is to broaden educational opportunities in certain districts, she said, and “I don’t think we need consolidation for that.”

“It has not been a discussion point at Board of Education meetings,” Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent James McKenna said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “But we’re never going to say we’re not doing that.”

He and board members Lynne Krauza and Jeff Smith, along with board president Gerard Diffley and several Mattituck-Cutchogue activists, have been the backbone of North Fork United Schools’ efforts to save money by consolidating some services among area schools.

“I have always been an advocate of the shared services concept,” Mr. McKenna said.

Whether it’s overall consolidation or partial consolidation of services, it’s something to work toward,” said Greenport Board of Education president Heather Wolf. “But I don’t think the community has the appetite to swallow it in one gulp,” she said.

She said she’d like to see North Fork schools develop one big program together, such as having one of the buildings become a magnet school for an international baccalaureate program that could attract students from throughout the East End.

Oysterponds Board of Education president Walter Strohmeyer had no comment on Ms. Fouchet’s statement, but said his district is exploring consolidating transportation services with Greenport. That’s an idea Ms. Wolf embraced, noting that it’s “a huge budget item” that doesn’t have a direct connection with educating students.

Southold board member Scott DeSimone pointed out at that district’s meeting last week that if saving money is the objective, consolidation wouldn’t necessarily achieve it. When Eastport and South Manor merged they had to spend $100 million to build a new high school, he said.

Ms. Fouchet did pledge that she and her fellow board members are committed to continuing to work with North Fork United Schools — a group of officials and parent volunteers from several districts, including Mattituck-Cutchogue, Greenport and Riverhead — to explore ways to consolidate some services to try to save money.

Much of the work of that group has been concentrated on consolidating business functions. North Fork United Schools and Southold Superintendent David Gamberg were the forces behind the One Island, One Voice letter-writing campaign for a new state school aid formula that members say would be more fair to Long Islanders.

Mr. Wagner, in bringing his renewed argument to the school board last week, provided calculations of per-student costs for North Fork school districts and also figures for Smithtown and Patchogue. His figures did not correlate with State Education Department calculations because the state takes out certain unavoidable extra costs for items including transportation and special education in an effort to even the playing field.

Saying that Southold now spends $28,530 per student, consolidation could reduce that to $22,000 per student, Mr. Wagner said,

Board member Dr. John Crean called the figures “a little deceptive” and said, “It doesn’t really tell the whole story.” New Suffolk, with the highest per pupil cost on the North Fork at $31,548, according to Mr. Wagner’s figures, has the lowest tax rate, he said.

After the meeting, Mr. Wagner said he still thinks consolidation of districts on the North Fork could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by reducing administrative expenses. Four of five school districts in Southold Town have full-time superintendents, he noted.

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