Guest Spot: North Fork School District: Why not?

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Students in Ms. Salmaggi's class work with iPads Tuesday morning at Southold High School.
Students work with iPads in 2012 at Southold High School. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder, file)

There is no doubt that the largest portion of any local property tax bill is the amount funding the public school district. It’s a bill that causes taxpayers agita each and every year.

The 2 percent state cap on year-to-year tax levy increases is a temporary control tactic, not a sustainable strategy. And as we tighten our belts as a result of the cap, there are significant negative outcomes: pre- and after-school program cutbacks minimize opportunities for youth; increasing class sizes to maximum allowable levels results in instruction that cannot possibly address the needs and diversity of any given classroom population; lobbying for “our fair share” produces great photo-ops but makes us look like pigs at the trough; and staff layoffs are temporary fixes and only hand more responsibilities to someone already working at capacity, creating resentment and loss of pride in work.

So, what is the answer?

Well, perhaps it is time to consolidate the North Fork schools. Our history in the early part of the 20th century demonstrated that not only could we educate our youth within a single administrative regional district, but that we were very successful at it, overcoming obstacles such as the demands of agricultural work, vast distances between schools, multiple languages spoken within each school, scarcity of faculty and populations as diverse then as they are today.

Suffolk County public schools are currently working together to find a responsible and cost-effective solution to the recent influx of homeless children, demonstrating that the will to solve a common problem exists and can be applied for the good and benefit of all communities.

There are seven separate school entities on the North Fork. Approximately 115 positions currently exist that provide administrative functions, including those of school principals. The salaried functions include superintendent, accounts payable, district clerk, district treasurer, facilities/building and grounds, parent and pupil services, instructional technology, security, school food program, purchasing, principal, assistant principal, associate principal, academic directors, business and finance, HR/payroll/pension and benefits, public relations, data management and analysis, transportation and requisite clerical, secretarial and administrative support positions.

Assume that all these functions are either mandated by state education and state finance laws or are intrinsic to the orderly and sufficient operation of our academic campuses. By consolidating the seven separate districts on the North Fork, we would maintain the requisite functions but reduce the size of the workforce responsible for these day-to-day operations. A single central administrative office would be established for the region. The need for separate student transportation, purchasing, business and finance, HR, data management and analysis, district clerk, district treasurer, parent and pupil services, IT, public relations, academic directors, and school food programs would be eliminated, and instead be replaced by a single department with appropriate staffing levels.

At the local academic campus level, principals, associate principals, assistant principals, clerical and secretarial support and security would be maintained appropriate to a particular school’s needs.

Not a perfect picture, but certainly one worth discussion. Consolidation, while most assuredly having a bright side regarding possible economic efficiencies, also has a dark side. We still do not know if the creation of the Eastport-South Manor Junior/Senior High School as a single entity from two districts (a structural anomaly allowed by education law) yielded economies of scale, as no follow-up study has been completed to date. The successes and failures of the recent consolidation of the superintendent’s function between the Southold and Greenport school districts need to be analyzed. The absence of evidence and examples we can point to locally should not stop interested parties from meeting to examine the pros and cons of regional consolidation. The challenge is to begin to look at how we can continue to provide excellence in education across the North Fork while simultaneously containing costs at affordable levels. We have nothing to lose and hopefully much to gain. Let the talks begin.

Angela DeVito is a Jamesport resident and longtime workplace safety advocate who previously served as president of the Riverhead school board.