East End Schools Seek Shared Cost Savings

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With Governor Andrew Cuomo expected to propose special state funding for local tax districts that are taking steps toward cooperative cost-saving measures, East End school districts are looking for a lesson in sharing.

While school district consolidation has been a hot topic lately, the less drastic approach of districts sharing services has been embraced by many stakeholders—school boards and superintendents, and state and local legislators, as well as the governor himself.

At the Sag Harbor School Board meeting on Monday, January 13, plans were announced to host a summit this summer on how to broaden the sharing it already does with Bridgehampton and East Hampton in terms of collaborative purchases, transportation and athletic programs.

In addition to district administrators, Sag Harbor Interim Superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso said he has discussed the meeting with State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who has expressed interest in taking part in the summit. Sag Harbor School Board member Mary Anne Miller said in an email that both Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming and East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez also will be involved.

“I called Fred Thiele’s office yesterday,” Dr. Bonuso said, “and after the budget vote in late spring, he will have an opportunity to gather all the East End districts and help facilitate a nice, long and fruitful discussion about how to cut spending in the age of this 2-percent tax cap.”

Because of the cap on tax levy increases, instituted by Gov. Cuomo in an effort to curb local property tax increases, the funding of extracurricular programs, and much more, has been hampered across the East End. According to Mr. Thiele, the need for cost-cutting measures was an intentional consequence of the tax cap.

“I think that was exactly what the governor was thinking with the tax cap,” he said. “When you do that without providing mandate relief to districts or increasing state aid, it by definition makes schools consolidate services and functions.”

Mr. Thiele went so far as to say that he has seen more cooperation between districts in the past year than he has in his entire career in politics. “Clearly, since he’s been governor, a lot of his education initiatives have been directed toward fewer districts and consolidating things,” he said.

In terms of specifics, Dr. Bonuso said, “I’d like to see us maybe share services like mental health specialists, regular health services [and] expanded transportation flexibility.

“Even something more creative, like guest speakers or professional development for our faculty—let’s share the cost of those,” he continued, ruling out, at least for the near future, sharing a superintendent with a nearby district like Bridgehampton, as the Greenport and Southold school districts elected to do in November. “Given all that is going on today, the best schools will have the most effective, expansive partnerships,” he said.

Mr. Thiele agreed that getting more creative was a must, and he sounded more positive about consolidating administrative positions.

“I think they’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities,” the assemblyman said, adding that the summit was triggered by the bold step taken by the Greenport and Southold districts.

“When you look out here, we have some of the smallest districts in the state,” Mr. Thiele said. “If you look across upstate New York, you talk to my colleagues, they represent at most eight school districts. I represent 20—some are one-room schoolhouses, and more schools than not have under 1,000 students. These conditions lead to these conversations.”

Calling the governor’s promise of state funding in exchange for the local efforts “a dangling carrot,” Mr. Thiele predicted that the talks will most certainly lead to action because “the tax cap is here to stay.”

During a recent press conference, the governor’s rhetorical questions spelled out the type of sharing he’d like to see done. “Does everyone need to do fleet maintenance? Does everyone need to do payroll or insurance or legal affairs?” he asked. “Let’s cooperate, let’s collaborate. Not by merging, not consolidating, just sharing back office functions. It requires [districts] to get past their turf, and get past their silos.”

While the specifics of the state funding being dangled are still fuzzy, as the idea was just floated during the annual State of the State address, a clearer picture is bound to emerge following Tuesday afternoon’s budget presentation by the governor.

“The main burden in New York State isn’t the income tax, it is the property tax,” the governor said through a press liaison early this week, noting that New Yorkers have the highest average property tax rate in the country.

“We propose a property tax credit, which will freeze the residential property taxes for two years. First, the locality must stay within the property tax cap,” the liaison said of a plan scheduled to be announced on Tuesday afternoon.

“In year two, the locality must stay within that cap and they must take concrete steps to reduce costs through shared services and/or consolidation.”

Either way, the school districts seeking cost savings this summer at the summit hope to learn from each other.

“The governor’s efforts are obviously working, as the tax cap is playing a huge role in this search for shared costs,” said Ms. Fleming. “It is forcing the hand of local people to look at expenses, but after this summit, hopefully, we can do it in a way that won’t sacrifice the education of our children. We force our kids to share, it isn’t such a bad idea.”

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