June 21, 2006

Schools Of Excellence? Yeah, Right!

The State Department of Education's list of school districts of excellence included 28 in Suffolk County, but none on the East End. Of 144 schools cited, only one local — Hampton Bays Elementary — made the list.

What's annoying, and sad, is how our local school superintendents and board members keep telling the public how wonderful our schools are. Our guileless local newspapers pick up the mantra and repeat it as fact. Yet every objective analysis, every criteria used to rate a school district, tells the same story:

Test scores, graduation rates, the number of Ivy League candidates, the number of Honor Society members, the number of Westinghouse Science winners — in every instance our local schools fare worse than they should.

We lead the pack in only one category: how much we spend. Our schools are awash in mediocrity, yet our boards continue to spend, spend, spend and throw more and more money at the teachers. It's a sad state of affairs to be sure.

We need to get over the blame game and seek solutions. Where does the money go? Most of our districts seem to spend far more on administrative personnel than they should. Superintendents, principals, assistant principals, business managers, budget managers, office managers, secretaries and the like may all play an important role, but their presence must be weighed against how much the district can afford to spend.

East End schools have been caving in to the local teachers unions for decades. By averaging wages in the mid-pack of the contiguous districts, the school boards think they are practicing fiscal prudence. But, in fact, the practice has led to automatic pay scale increases every year, because the median wage paid consistently goes up.

Benefits paid to school employees are an outrage. Some districts provide health insurance for employees and their families for life. The average family plan costs almost $1,000 a month nowadays and is rising steadily. No entity funded by taxpayers can afford this kind of generosity. This practice must stop: employees earning six figure salaries should be required to contribute a substantial sum for the medical benefits.

It's time school districts run themselves like a real business. Budgets are set first, and then expenses are limited to how much the district can afford. In our current system, the schools decide how much they want to spend and then simply raise taxes to accommodate their whims.

School board members are admirable: they serve for free, and it is a thankless job. But most simply do not have the financial acumen to understand the intricacies of a multi-million dollar business. Boards should hire a business manager who answers only to them and not the administration.

Finally, when voters turn down a district budget, the only cuts that are mandatory adversely affect students. The law should be changed to require salary reductions when budgets are defeated.

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