Saying that the “stakes are indeed high," Superintendent Peter Scordo painted a grim scenario at Thursday's public workshop on school district consolidation.
Citing Governor Cuomo’s 2 percent tax-cap proposal, Scordo said that $5 million would need to be cut from Elwood’s current $51 million budget if such a proposal were enacted for fiscal year 2011-12.
In the face of this possibility, as well as that of rising costs of pension contributions and health care, Scordo stressed the need to look at consolidation as an option. “I know the idea of consolidation is upsetting to many,” he told a packed auditorium at Elwood Middle School. “But I must assure you there is no agenda here.”
Scordo had first raised the idea of consolidation at a Dec. 2 workshop. Letters were sent to the five area districts which actually touch Elwood— South Huntington, , Harborfields, , and — to gauge interest in exploring the possible benefits of consolidation.
Scordo said the only district which had formally responded to the letter was South Huntington, which said that it would raise the issue with its board of education and superintendent.
Scordo said that members of the other school boards had not been formally invited to the Jan. 6 meeting but knew about it. Northport Board of Education Vice President Karen Wills was present in the audience. She said President Steve Waldenburg had planned to attend as well but was ill, and Northport Superintendent Marylou McDermott was attending , a Northport High School ALS fundraiser taking place last night as well.
The idea of consolidating Elwood with another district is not new. Scordo said that in the 1960s a possible merger with the Commack district was defeated. The idea arose again in February 1988. Scordo noted that “22 years later we are living the same reality but with much more urgency.”
Benefits/Disadvantages of Consolidation
Merger consultant Daniel Porter, a Syracuse-area consultant and former school superintendent, explained that there are several reasons to look at consolidation as an option, including: declining enrollment (usually seen in rural or upstate areas); decreasing fiscal resources; local property tax pain; increased efficiency; and an upgrade to facilities, which New York State offers as an incentive to consolidate.
Scordo clarified that Elwood’s enrollment has actually been increasing, not decreasing.
Saying that it’s “not for the faint of heart," Porter explained that there are two types of reorganizations, or mergers: consolidation and annexation. In consolidation, two or more districts merge together but remain basically intact. Under annexation, one district – usually the larger one – absorbs the other.
Several tests must be met for reorganization. First, the involved school districts must be contiguous. Potential partners must be members of New York State’s 1958 Master Plan for School District Organization Committee or receive permission to reorganize from the state Board of Regents. Last, high school programs must merge.
Elwood School Board Trustee Andrew Kaplan questioned the need to combine high schools, and asked if it included facilities. Porter replied that the state is looking at physical properties. He said more investigation might be needed but that it was his understanding that the state wouldn’t want the merger to be in name only.
The first step would be for the two interested school boards to meet with their district superintendents and/or a consultant to determine the level of interest. Porter said more than two districts could be involved, but the process would then be much more difficult.
A neutral third party would be engaged to conduct a feasibility study, which would take four to six months. It would assess whether instructional opportunities would be enhanced for students at a similar or reduced cost to taxpayers by combining the districts. It would take into consideration: governance or how many school boards would there be, with how many members and with what length of term; enrollment; personnel, including contract negotiations, labor documents, employee rights; facilities; instruction; co-curricular opportunities; transportation; and school finances or tax rates, assessing practices as they currently exist.
The level of local support would then be gauged through petitions and an advisory referendum. If evidence of support is shown, the districts would petition to form a new district. An order would be issued by the Commissioner of Education, and it must be approved by a majority of voters in each separate district. If the two districts are split, the district that voted no would have the opportunity to vote again up to two years after the feasibility study was done. The district that approved the reorganization would not be able to take another vote.
Reorganization Incentive Operating Aid
Under current law, each merging district would receive 40% of their 2006-2007 formula operating aid for five years. Thereafter, that amount would decrease by 4% per year for the next 9 years. For Elwood, the incentive amount for the 14-year period would be $15 million, not counting the savings to the other district.
Porter said that in his experience as a consultant in other mergers, the districts involved didn’t experience a significant decrease in property taxes. For instance, some used the money to add to reserves.
Stephen Golas, a representative from Questar State Aid Planning Services, explained that the New York State Board of Regents is proposing a commission to update the state’s 1958 plan for school district organization. Under the new proposal, aid would be restructured based on goals to reduce cost and improve student achievement. The commission could recommend certain districts for organization, and could penalize districts that chose not to reorganize. He stressed that at the current time, there are no penalties.
Kaplan noted that in light of the proposed tax cap, and the district’s obligation to pay pensions, the additional money would end up going towards the obligations. John Gross from Ingerman Smith, the district’s legal counsel, explained that many of the obligations, including the 3% per year step increments in teachers’ salaries, is mandated by the state.
Approximately two dozen community members expressed their opinions. Elwood resident Dan Rodrigo said he had researched the district before moving here a year and a half ago so that his 6-year-old daughter could get a quality education and didn’t think reorganization would make sense. “Smaller school districts make better students. There’s less bullying and higher test scores. That’s why I moved here.”
Liz Franzese, a mother of three whose 12-year-old daughter has cancer, spoke movingly about the care and attention her daughter has received from all the Elwood teachers and administrators throughout her illness. “Isn’t it great to know that we’re in a community that cares?” she asked. “You can’t put a price tag on that.”
Christopher Clark, another Elwood parent, questioned the district’s vulnerability and how a merger might not be beneficial. “Who wouldn’t want to merge with us? We’re little. We’re union-free. I hope we can come together as a community to defeat the proposed tax cap.”
Elwood Board of Education Trustee Dan Ciccone said that the details of the tax cap have not been made public yet. He called it a “financial tsunami” and strongly condemned New York State Senators John Flanagan, R-East Northport, and Carl Marcellino, R-Syosset, for embracing the cap. Noting that 2% is less than a contingency budget, he said that voters’ rights were being taken away, and that the idea of reorganization arose out of need.
DoreeAnn Kohl-Moszczyc, a 27-year resident of Elwood whose family has lived in Huntington since 1917, asked the Board to specifically not consider merging with Northport-East Northport because of the which could seriously impact the district.
The Next Step
Scordo said that a campaign to protest the proposed tax cap would be unveiled on the district’s website next week. Using the guidelines presented there, he asked community members to write an email or letter to local politicians expressing their opposition to it. The complete presentation from the meeting will also be posted.