Time to move on

There are five school districts in Southold Town, but the idea of uniting as a single system has come up for discussion of late in only one district, Southold. School watchdog and former Board of Education member Don Wagner has prodded the board to examine the potential of consolidation with other districts for cutting costs, particularly in administration, and easing the local property tax burden. Mr. Wagner thinks the schools could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But it’s become clear that, if there’s to be any forward movement on consolidation, it won’t be at Southold’s urging. Seeing little local interest in the idea within her district or in neighboring school systems, school board president Judi Fouchet said rather plainly last week, “I’m just kind of done with consolidation.” So too, it seems, is most of the town.

A formal consolidation study conducted two decades or so ago, prior to the merger of the Mattituck-Cutchogue and Laurel schools, concluded that taxes would rise in three districts and fall in three. Odd as it may seem, there was little, if any, support for consolidation within the districts most likely to gain financially.

Money, it seems, wasn’t the primary concern.

Separate schools with separate identities is central to Southold’s legacy and a prime example of the community’s stubborn insistence on being like the rest of Long Island. That mind-set is shared by natives and newcomers alike and it would be wrong to dismiss it as either longtime local isolationism or the “close the door behind me” syndrome among the recently transplanted.

For those with deep roots in our sandy soil, it would be unthinkable to have, say, a single girls’ soccer team or one combined boys’ baseball team for the whole North Fork. It’s important to remember, too, that many who moved here from points west did so to escape urban or suburban settings, including mega-school systems with much higher budgets and considerably higher property-tax rates. Bigger definitely isn’t cheaper.

The last local school district merger, joining Laurel with Mattituck, won voter approval for several reasons. While picturesque, the old Laurel schoolhouse had long outlived its usefulness. As an incentive to consolidate, the state offered a sizable one-time grant to offset the construction of new school facilities. Facing an unprecedented budget crisis, the state is in no position to offer that type of aid again.

Mr. Wagner and other merger advocates say consolidation would reduce the need for so many superintendents and other administrators. While that may be true, Southold’s five districts spend more than $82 million combined each year so any such savings would be minimal.

Unspoken in all this is the impact of mergers on student transportation. The districts cover an area stretching from Herricks Lane just east of Jamesport to Orient Point. How much time would a student from either end of the combined district spend on a bus to reach a central high school, perhaps in Mattituck or Southold? Too much time.

In theory, consolidation makes sense, but in reality it seems less than practical. There is opportunity aplenty to share services and some expenses, but under present circumstances a merger just doesn’t add up.

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