May 10, 2006
Suffolk + Schools = Partners In Cost Cutting
It could lead to an unprecedented level of cooperation between Suffolk County and its 69 school districts. Last week, County Executive Steve Levy announced plans to lend the expertise of Suffolk's planning and budget professionals to local school districts. The goal? To brainstorm new ways to cut school budget costs.
Next Tuesday residents will vote on district budgets. Levy said that by the 2007 budget cycle, ideas developed between county and school district officials could mean savings.
Last Thursday Southold School district Superintendent Chris Gallagher lauded Levy for reaching out to the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association in an effort to initiate collaboration. Working with the county is a new idea, he said, noting that in some places districts are forming collaborations with town governments. "I think that's a healthy development," he said, reporting that Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell has expressed an interest in forming a partnership to eye cost containment.
The county has expertise in planning that school districts will tap into, Gallagher explained. On the fiscal front, the county budget office will also help ferret out new strategies for saving.
Sometimes you need a catalyst to bring the school districts together, Levy noted, expressing his goal of being that "conduit." Over the years it's been acknowledged that in most cases consolidating districts just won't work. Consolidating resources might, however.
So far school and county officials have identified several areas where pooling resources may be beneficial. Economies of scale may be realized if purchases are combined, Levy pointed out. Many districts do work through BOCES to reap "buy in bulk" savings. Maybe it's time to take that concept to the next level and combine purchases with the county, the CE said.
Pooling resources for functions like security and buildings and grounds maintenance is another strategy. By sharing equipment used in building and grounds upkeep among districts, savings may be derived. Levy and the SCSSA are contemplating a pilot program within a certain section of the county to check it out.
In many districts, health care costs and capital improvements are the biggest budget busters. Over the next several months Levy and district officials will analyze whether districts might reap savings through self-insuring as Suffolk has. Combining borrowing power could result in lower interest rates.
Recently the county executive announced plans to expand Suffolk's wireless capabilities. Allowing schools to tap into the county's network is another cost savings concept under consideration.
"That would be terrific," local education expert Dr. Dominic Annacone observed last Friday.
The Independent's "Eye on Education" columnist said he was "all in favor" of exploring cost-cutting measures, with just one caveat. Officials have to be leery of interfering with the process of open contract bidding, a legal requirement that can't be circumvented. He also wondered how the idea of pooling resources to provide services like grounds maintenance and security would go over with local enterprises. "It could be a negative PR move if the little guy is shut out of the process," he said.
This month the legislature is expected to vote on a measure sponsored by Legislator Lou D'Amaro (D. Deer Park) creating a task force to evaluate the cost- cutting ideas.