December 13, 2006
Residents of Suffolk County's 69 school districts are "very turf-conscious," according to County Executive Steve Levy. For that reason, consolidating districts to cut costs, he believes, is simply not going to happen anytime soon. He's been focusing on another type of consolidation, an interdistrict sharing of services to pare down the price of educating kids.
Traditionally, county government has steered clear of issues relating to school districts. Upon taking office, however, Levy acknowledged the huge tax hit school taxes mean to his constituents. While the county government can strive to keep its portion of the tax bill low, Levy said, "We all hear the hue and cry from residents having a hard time making ends meet."
Last spring, Levy convened a coalition of school district officials with the goal of brainstorming ways the county can help districts save money. Last Wednesday, he offered an update on progress to date.
The group is exploring the concept of borrowing in bulk to receive lower interest rates and a reduction of such soft costs as attorney fees and bonding costs.
Levy believes there's "great potential" for districts that pursue self-insuring. The county and the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association have applied to New York State for a grant to be used to hire a consultant who would lead districts through the process of becoming self-insured. The same measures can be used to stem the burgeoning cost of workman's compensation insurance too, he said.
Lots of districts already pool their resources and garner savings when it comes to bulk purchases. The working group is also now looking at pooling professional services, like plumbers or electricians. Each year, the county compiles a list of certified plumbers, carpenters and electricians for work on county projects. The professionals are pre-qualified and can be used in an emergency without a lengthy bidding process. Those same tradesmen can be shared with schools for a cost cut. "There could be a lot of nice savings there," Levy opined.
Other avenues for cost savings include creating transportation consortiums, as have been suggested on the East End, working with the community college to give high school kids the chance to earn college credits, providing free wireless Internet access via the county's proposed Wi-Fi initiative, and working with LIPA to pursue energy conservation and rebate programs for school buildings, and, of course, lobbying for increased state aid.
For years local officials have lamented unfair state formulas used to calculate aid to Long Island schools. "We need a cost of living differential," Levy said, vowing to join with school districts to "make sure we're heard in Albany."
"I'm tired of all the pie in the sky [solutions] like consolidation," Levy said. "We are starting this process with something real." He anticipates the cost-saving measures can be implemented within a year. Excited about the collaborative effort, Chief Deputy County Executive Paul Sabatino summarized the operative philosophy for the coalition: "Incremental progress creates its own momentum."