The shared future of North Fork schools

FILE PHOTOS | The changing educational environment will lead North Fork school districts to share more in the future.

“Shared services” is fast becoming a popular phrase in school districts across the North Fork, as administrators look to simultaneously answer the state’s call for more rigorous instruction, reorganize classes and programs to address dwindling enrollment and comply with a state-mandated, year-to-year tax cap.

In a series of recent interviews conducted by The Suffolk Times, superintendents and school board members agreed that sharing services — such as sports teams and facilities, administrative functions and special education services — should be part of the region’s future.

“Duplicating services doesn’t make sense,” said Southold School District Superintendent David Gamberg. “We have to keep looking at novel ways to save.”

Local school officials also agree that sharing services is a better approach than outright consolidation, which can cost communities their sense of identity.

State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said that although consolidating North Fork high schools has been discussed for a number of years, he believes tradition is important to communities and shared services will help schools keep their identities while pooling resources to offer more services and cut costs.

Mr. LaValle is known for encouraging the sharing of educational services but, he says, most schools within his First Senatorial District haven’t been quick to embrace the concept, even though the state offers incentives for such agreements. For example, Greenport and Southold school districts were able to secure grant funding through Mr. LaValle last year for their iPad programs after developing a joint agreement. School districts can apply for these types of state grants if they’re able to demonstrate how their shared-service agreement expands educational opportunities while reducing costs.

As an alternative to shared services, Mr. LaValle said he’s been kicking around the idea of legislation to establish a regional high school in his district that’s open to all Suffolk students.

“I think we should look at as many opportunities as we can for our school districts and communities to consider how they can provide a quality education at less cost,” Mr. LaValle said. “If one thing doesn’t work, then you explore other opportunities.

“If you don’t like a regional high school, then how about sharing, where you would also get additional state aid?” he said.

When Mr. LaValle talks about shared-service success stories, he highlights Greenport and Southold schools, which he fondly calls his “all-star team” because they’ve approved several shared-service agreements in recent years to cut costs and offer more programs for students.

In addition to creating a joint track team this year, the districts recently agreed to share a technology director.

“We couldn’t afford that on our own,” said Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda. “It worked out for both districts perfectly.”

Mr. Comanda also believes schools should discuss sharing special education programs, since those high-cost services are usually duplicated among neighboring schools.

Mr. Gamberg agreed and said the arrangement would also provide a support structure to allow special education students to remain on the North Fork as opposed to traveling to Eastern Suffolk BOCES centers.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “Being that we’re living under a tax cap, we want to find avenues that could produce at least equivalent level of services and programs, I think or better, at a cost that could realize savings at the same time.”

When asked if he believed the tax cap has pressured schools into entering into shared-service agreements, Mr. Gamberg said he believes that, given the struggling economy, joint discussions would be going on even without the tax cap.

He pointed out that in 1980s, before the cap, North Fork school districts did more sharing, especially with special ed and AP classes, than they do today.

“What we need to do is be very open to all opportunities that come our way, whether they’ve been done in the past or ones that we have yet to discover,” he said.

Although there hasn’t been any serious discussion of school consolidation on the North Fork in recent years, Oysterponds School District officials may consider the possibility of sending its fifth- and sixth-graders to Greenport schools in the future.

The Oysterponds district, which consists of one elementary school, currently sends its secondary students to Greenport.

Oysterponds Superintendent Richard Malone said the school board hasn’t discussed the idea but anticipates such a move will be explored when the district puts together a long-range reorganization plan.

For the second year in a row, Oysterponds has accepted Greenport’s offer to allow its sixth-graders to take technology and home and career courses at Greenport.

Mr. Comanda said Greenport isn’t charging Oysterponds for those classes, because it’s an important opportunity for soon-to-be Greenport students. He said the program is part of a larger plan to develop more of a middle-school atmosphere at Greenport that would prepare students to take more rigorous math and English classes in upper grades.

When asked if the Greenport district would be able to accommodate fifth- and sixth -graders from Oysterponds, Mr. Comanda said, “Absolutely. I have the space. I’m ready now.”

Greenport school board president Heather Wolf concurred. “We have the room. We have the enthusiasm for it,” she said. “It would be a wonderful way to coordinate the middle-school students’ entry into junior and senior high school. We would love for the Oysterponds students to be a part of that.”

Ms. Wolf and Oysterponds school board member Linda Goldsmith both embrace the concept of establishing a more middle-school feel in the Greenport school building, which currently houses pre-K through 12th grade.

“If you look at the big picture, freed-up periods could turn into internships or independent studies,” Ms. Goldsmith said. “It will help kids find out what they’re interested in.”

As for consolidating high schools, Mr. LaValle said those changes pose much greater challenges for communities.

When he worked on merging the Eastport and South Manor districts, which eventually happened in 2000, Mr. LaValle said parents and other community members had several concerns, including which high school siblings would attend during the transition period, as well as concerns over sports and other opportunities. For example, would consolidation mean a student would miss out on becoming a starting football quarterback or playing first chair in the orchestra?

“That has been talked about for more years than anyone is still alive,” Mr. LaValle said. “[Consolidation] makes sense, maybe, on the basis of numbers when you look at enrollment. It’s hard enough to do it between two, no less many entities. So, I would say that would be most difficult, even though it would make sense to have a school district of 3,000 students.”

Declining enrollment on the North Fork is among the biggest reasons administrators have been discussing shared services. In the past four years, enrollment at Mattituck-Cutchogue, Southold, Greenport and Oysterponds has dropped by a combined total of 228 students.

Numbers in New Suffolk have increased about 25 percent to 37 students.

The last local school consolidation on the North Fork took place in 1997, when residents approved a merger of the Laurel and Mattituck-Cutchogue districts. School officials in Laurel, which was designated as a common school district, had looked to consolidate because of growing enrollment and a lack of space.

“Everyone was getting a good education, but the time had come,” Mr. LaValle said of that merger. “It has to be the right time. The superintendents have to legitimately be interested in doing this and you have to have school boards that want to do it. Then the communities have to vote on it.”

In tiny New Suffolk, school board president Tony Dill described consolidation talks within his community as a “real flashpoint” over the years between residents whose children attended the school in New Suffolk and newcomers unfamiliar with the district.

However, Mr. Dill said he believes those concerns have subsided in recent years after newer residents were invited into the school through community events.

“We get them involved and it helps them to understand what’s going on in the school,” Mr. Dill said.

Bob Feger, a longtime East End educator who retired last year as New Suffolk’s part-time superintendent, said the historically low taxes in the New Suffolk district, as well as community pride, have kept the district from merging.

But local districts should be looking into sharing business functions, such as processing payroll, and team up on purchase agreements to buy fuel for heating and transportation, he said.

Like many school officials, Mr. Feger also pointed to the North Fork-wide NJROTC program as a good example of a successful shared arrangement.

Combined services are a good option that allows different communities to maintain their own identities, he said.

“People from Greenport love being Porters,” Mr. Feger said. “In Mattituck, they love being the Tuckers and in Southold they love being the Settlers. When you get right down to asking parents, they’ll tell you they want their kids to go to the school they went to.

“It’s an ingrained social issue that’s not going to change quickly.”

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