November 08, 2006

Consolidations and Mergers

It's curious that while many of our school districts float bonds to finance huge expansions, others just miles away seek to consolidate or merge with larger districts because of declining enrollment or rapidly escalating costs.

Bridgehampton School is reportedly evaluating sharing services with another district, if not an out-and-out merger. No one can deny the rich tradition of the district, but in recent years the cost of educating a child there has spiraled out of control, often three times as much as neighboring schools and five and six times as much as some districts spend elsewhere in the state.

Taxpayers in the district have been marvelously patient, but we suspect come budget time most of those likely to vote "No" are in New York City, as many of the homeowners have their primary residences there. That leaves a small cadre of parents and locals to keep the school going, and though a noble effort, the question must be raised: what kind of education are their kids getting for the buck?

The frank answer is: not a very good one. Test scores, and the number of graduates who attend and graduate four-year colleges, are significantly below where they should be.

Just down the road, two of the smallest districts in the state exist, Sagaponack and Wainscott, with a combined enrollment of approximately 20. Both districts are extremely wealthy, so the tax bite to maintain a quaint little school for the younger students to be near home seems harmless enough.

In the larger picture though, combining those districts with Bridgehampton would ease the burden on taxpayers there while giving the little ones from Sagaponack and Wainscott a genuine school experience by allowing the students to share classrooms with other students their age.

East Hampton, as we've written before, has pushed through an $80 million expansion, citing overcrowding at its high school. But Amagansett and Montauk, two elementary schools that feed its graduates into EHHS, have experienced steep declines in enrollment over the last year, and might well continue to do so. What's worse for East Hampton taxpayers, Springs School is growing quickly, and though its current school board has rejected opening its own high school, future school board members might not be so obstinate, especially with steadily rising tuition rates paid by feeder districts to East Hampton for its high school students.

It would not be unusual to have a Springs High School of the future bid to siphon Montauk and Amagansett graduates away from East Hampton, leaving that district with a cavernous, empty building.

Still, the East Hampton School Board and its empire building superintendent move blindly into the unknown, determined to build, determined to spend, determined to pretend that they can predict the future. It's the old "build it and they will come" philosophy, but, we suspect, without the happy ending.

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