Many schools in Southampton could be targeted by a mandatory school consolidation recommended this week by The New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief.
The commission, which is overseen by Governor David Paterson’s office, released a report on Monday, December 1 that recommends a mandatory consolidation of schools with fewer than 1,000 students. Twelve of the schools on the South Fork currently fall below that threshold, including those in Wainscott, Montauk, Amagansett and Springs. The study also recommends that the commissioner of education have the authority to consolidate schools that have fewer than 2,000 students.
In Southampton Town, the Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, Sag Harbor, Quogue, Remsenburg-Speonk and Tuckahoe schools have fewer than 1,000 students. Shelter Island has fewer than 1,000 students, though it is unclear how consolidation would work for a school on an island.
The commission was formed in January 2008 to find ways to control property taxes throughout the state. The consolidation recommendation is just one of a number of suggestions, including a property tax cap, examination of the costs of new state mandates, restructuring of the School Tax Relief (STAR) program, increased purchasing and budgeting collaboration between districts and integration of special education with general education.
Thomas Quinn, the superintendent of the 645-student pre-K-8 Springs School, said this week that consolidation is a hot potato that his and other local districts have been kicking around since at least 1965.
“Springs would love to see consolidation and it ain’t going to happen,” he said.
He’s keen on the idea because, due to the lack of a business base in Springs, the school property tax rate there is as much as twice the rate in neighboring districts. The rate in Springs is $70 per $100 of assessed valuation, while in the East Hampton School District, it is $43 per $100. In tiny Wainscott, which has a business strip as well as highly assessed oceanfront residential properties, the rate is $16.75 per $100.
“Nobody wants to pay more,” said Mr. Quinn. “Springs is basically a bedroom community for all the businesses out here. You’re relying on homeowners to foot the bill. I think it’s seriously discriminatory to just have property owners pay school costs.”
Mr. Quinn has been closely following the commission’s work, and he said that roughly 55 schools in the state have fewer than 1,000 students. Eighteen of those schools are in Suffolk County.
“Its been going on since easily 1965,” he said of the talk of school consolidation. “The only way that will happen is if the commissioner forces it. That’s a political bombshell. I’m used to small schools. I think small schools work well. Is there a way to save money? Yes. They should go for sales taxes.”
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, a Sag Harbor resident who is the ranking minority member on the Assembly Education Committee, said that the notion of consolidation is the one new aspect of the commission’s final report that had not been addressed in earlier drafts.
“It has particular relevance on the East End of Long Island,” he said. “Right now the process is strictly driven by home rule. It is all voluntary. It is all local option. The state would have a greater role in ordering consolidation.”
Mr. Thiele added that, while he believes that consolidating the large number of small schools on the East End is impractical, consolidation of the administration structures at the schools might be a good idea. He said that property owners who are facing skyrocketing bills here are particularly offended when they see “numerous school districts with the superintendents making six figure salaries.”
Mr. Thiele added that any further steps toward fleshing out the mandating of consolidation must be taken up by the State Legislature.
“It’s extremely general,” he said of the report. “The mechanics of how to do that are missing from this report … The one thing the governor’s commission has done is put this squarely on the front burner in Albany. The legislature will take some kind of action this year, after what I expect will be a rather spirited debate.”