November 22, 2006

Eye On Education

"Letter To Rick"

Dear Rick. Confident in your broad shoulders, openness, and willingness to countenance divergent points of view, I'm taking the liberty of addressing The Independent's 11/8 editorial, "Consolidations and Mergers." If my remarks are deemed out of line or insubordinate please feel free to dock my salary since my monthly Social Security check will cover that financial loss, and I will be able to sustain my opulent life style.

Now to "Consolidations and Mergers." Some aspects of the editorial are spot on. School officials aren't talking about it much, but school populations on the East End are decreasing and not increasing. This fact should provide a cautionary note to school boards and superintendents contemplating school facilities expansion.

The editorial questions the $80 million East Hampton School District expansion plan approved by voters in a recent referendum. I supported that proposition and my support hasn't waned. I've witnessed the disastrous effects of past East Hampton School boards and former chief school officers neglecting the obvious need to renovate their schools to alleviate overcrowding, address modern curriculum demands, and provide a safe and habitable environment for students and staff.

As I've said before, East Hampton High School resembles a downtrodden airport with all of the annexes and outbuildings they've tacked on through the years. And the Middle School on Newtown Lane has teachers and students in cell-like classrooms in the basement with poor ventilation and other problems. Space doesn't allow me to expand on the other needs and deficiencies articulated by the East Hampton Board and Superintendent Gualtieri during public meetings, but they were valid, in my view.

You've suggested this costly expenditure may prove wasteful should the Springs School District decide to construct their own high school building. Excuse the English, but it ain't gonna happen. When I served as interim superintendent in Springs in 1994 for six months, one of my parting recommendations was for that district to crunch the numbers and compare the cost of constructing and operating their own high school with the long term costs of multi-million dollar payments in tuition bills. For the past 12 years I have talked and written about the value of Springs conducting a study, even in one of these columns.

There have been two primary excuses given for Springs not attempting such an analysis. The first one had to do with the advice of the First Supervisory District's BOCES office (they're the liaison between the State Ed Department and East End Districts), that the SED would not issue high school charters to school districts having fewer than 700 students. Well from what I've heard, that criterion has been lifted. But even if it still existed, I would think the SED would have a hard time rejecting a charter to a school district that demonstrated it could save its constituents significant tax dollars by running their own high school program.

The second excuse, heard more recently, was that a study to determine the feasibility of Springs constructing and operating its own high school would be too expensive. I read somewhere that a Springs school official reported it would cost about $40,000. Well I think I've got an idea of how that cost could be mitigated. Have the Springs personnel, business administrator, superintendent, board members, and a community committee do the study. How hard could that be? Get an architectural firm to give a cost estimate of the construction costs of high schools with similar school populations. Crunch the numbers on staffing, equipping, and maintaining the building. Compute the bond cost extrapolated over a time period. Then compare these expenses with the tuition costs over that same time period, and voila! You have your study.

This isn't rocket science, and I would submit the task is well within the scope and abilities of Spring's constituents. Minimal use of outside consultants would be required to get a pretty accurate estimate of whether an in-district high school would be feasible. But since no one's come up with a can-do attitude for the past 12 years or more, I doubt it's going to happen sometime in the future.

Finally, Rick, let's talk about the issue of Wainscott and Sagaponack's situation, two of the smallest school districts in the state, as you've accurately stated. It's also true they have two of the lowest tax rates in the state. I know quite a bit about Wainscott's school situation since I've been the superintendent there for the past eight years (notice the full disclosure).

The reason Wainscott is constructing a new building is because the present building is totally inadequate. At the risk of sounding vain and self-serving, I believe we have an excellent staff and a modern comprehensive curriculum so that's not the problem. If one wishes to use test results as a form of measurement, Wainscott kids excel at the Wainscott School, and from what we've researched, they fare well academically in the higher grades when they go to East Hampton after grade 3.

The kids' physical learning environment is another story. Let me cut this short by saying if anyone is wondering why Wainscott is constructing a new school with such a limited population, just go take a tour of the building and no further explanation will be necessary. However, it's true that Wainscott's and Sagaponack's school populations are problematic.

The reason why those two districts and Bridgehampton will not consolidate (a suggestion in the editorial) is because the tax rate in Bridgehampton is several times more than those two districts and consolidation would require equalizing the tax rates. Wainscott's and Sagaponack's rates would probably double and Bridgehampton's would decrease supporting your assertion it would ease the burden on their taxpayers. But, needless to say, that would be at the expense of the Wainscott and Sagaponack taxpayers.

Can Wainscott and Sagaponack effect a school district merger? That would be up to the respective school boards and voters in each district.

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