May 10, 2006
Schools: No Bang For The Buck
Are East End taxpayers getting what they are paying for? When it comes to our school districts, no. School budgets continue to rise, yet, with some notable exceptions, academic performance continues to be mediocre.
For the second consecutive year, The Independent has analyzed New York State Department of Education data and ranked our East End schools. Based on the data, Mattituck-Cutchogue once again placed first, and Westhampton Beach finished second again.
The Independent also analyzed cost per student data, comparing the school districts not with each other but with similarly sized schools on Long Island. Most East End school boards and superintendents are quick to note their cost-per-student is far less than Bridgehampton, for example, which is $49,186, one of the highest in the state. However, it is also one of the smallest schools in the state. Typically, a tiny school will have higher costs because there are no economies of scale. For example, it must have a teacher to teach every state-mandated course, even if there are only two or three students in a room. In fact, Bridgehampton averages 12 students per class while the other districts average about 20.
"They should compare similar school districts," said Dominic Annacone, The Independent's education guru who pens this newspaper's "Eye On Education" column.
In comparison to its peers, some of our schools are spending at an alarming rate. The Southampton school district, according to the numbers, may be one of the most inefficient districts in the state, spending $25,022 per students, a whopping 75.3% more than Hampton Bays ($14,274), which has 22 more students. Westhampton Beach ($18,178) and Mattituck-Cutchogue ($16,213) all educate approximately the same number of students for far less than Southampton does.
"Part of the discrepancy is the huge difference in salaries. Southampton and East Hampton's are considerable higher," said Annacone, who has been a school superintendent for three districts including Wainscott, where he currently serves. Sag Harbor (eighth) and East Hampton (seventh) also scored especially poorly in this category.
Though local administrators claim they need the higher salaries to attract teachers because of the high cost of living here, Annacone disagreed: "That belies the whole fact that people commute. It's no big deal — you have to drive to work." Annacone also said a lot of the local districts are bloated from "high administrative salaries."
The Sag Harbor School District spends $22,245 per student, yet Southold, with nearly 1000 more students, comes in at $17,324, 28.4% less. More alarming, the two districts had almost identical budgets as recently as 10 years ago.
Academically, the results for our schools were middle-of-the-pack at best.
Mattituck-Cutchogue had the best graduation rate (90%) followed by Sag Harbor and Westhampton Beach (both 88). Mattituck tied for 16th countywide out of 58 districts reporting, but East Hampton (82%) finished in the lower half of Suffolk's districts and Greenport (78%) was one of the worst.
Mattituck-Cutchogue had 95% of its graduating students earning Regents diplomas, the best of the East End and one of the top nine in the county, followed by East Hampton and Southold (tied), Westhampton Beach and Greenport (tied), and Riverhead. Southampton's (77%) rate was one of the worst on Long Island, and Hampton Bays and Sag Harbor didn't fare much better.
Mattituck-Cutchogue also had the best percentage of graduates headed for four-year colleges, with Westhampton Beach second and Southold and Sag Harbor tied for third. Riverhead placed last in the category among local schools.
The mediocrity associated with our local schools is puzzling, especially on the South Fork. "In terms of achievement, I've always felt schools like Southampton and East Hampton should be the Scarsdales of Long Island given the wealth in the districts," Annacone said. "They should be [among] the leading districts in the state."
The state also released the percentages of eighth graders who passed English and Math tests. In English, Montauk School, which runs through the eighth grade, had the highest percentage (82) followed by Westhampton Beach (81), and Southold, Mattituck, and East Hampton, with 77 each. Springs School (49), Hampton Bays (45), and Greenport (44) were the three worst districts.
In eighth grade math, Mattituck once again came out on top with 89 percent, followed by Westhampton Beach (87), Montauk and East Hampton (84 each), Greenport (61), Springs (56) and Hampton Bays (46) brought up the rear.
It is generally conceded among educators that the lower the poverty rate in a given district, the better the academic performance should be. That is because there is a correlation between students who do well academically and parents who are well-educated and more likely to make a good salary.
Based on that criteria, districts with low poverty rates should be expected to perform better academically than those with a higher percentage of poor families. Greenport has the highest poverty rate (37%) on the East End, followed by Riverhead (26 percent). Sag Harbor (2%), Mattituck (4%) Westhampton (5%) Southold (6%), East Hampton (7%) and Southampton (9%) all have low poverty rates. Hampton Bays has a 16% rate according to the report.
Dr. Annacone and other experts stress there is no single method to measure a school's worth or the performance of its students.
Bridgehampton and Shelter Island were excluded from this analysis because those districts are too small to provide a valid test sample.