Here’s my column from today’s LI Business News. Read more at www.LIBN.com
Hahn: Consolidation is public schools’ best hope
Next week our kids go back to school at 118 school districts on Long Island. With a sagging economy and a state budget that some project will create a $20 billion hole next year, now’s the time to start thinking about how we deliver education and if we are preparing our children properly.
Today, Long Island schools are among the best in the nation with several regularly ranking at or near the top. We consistently produce Intel Scholars and most graduates are college-bound. At first glance, Long Island is doing a great job educating its kids. But a closer look paints a different picture. Some districts struggle to meet basic needs. Children who live on the same block may have very different education experiences because of an invisible line that separates a high-performing district on one side of the street from one that underachieves on the other.
This year has been especially tough with many districts forced to cut a variety of programs due to the state’s budget crisis. In the Central Islip School District, junior varsity athletics would have been cut but for the efforts of business leaders who raised funds to keep the program afloat. And to complicate it all, a majority of the funding comes from property taxes, and few can afford a tax hike.
No one would argue the system is perfect and few have been willing to step up with good ideas to make things better. Consolidation is referred to as the “third rail” for a reason: No one wants to touch it and those who do usually get burned. Long Islanders love their local control but don’t want to, and no longer can, pay for it. Something’s got to give.
Some say the administrative savings are not worth the effort or the loss of local control that would come with consolidation, but look at it this way – we have 118 districts. The average district spends 78 percent of its budget on instruction, supplies for the students and classroom upkeep. Another 22 percent is spent on administration and other noninstructional activities.
That’s a fair ratio but it could be better. The principle of economy of scale dictates that the 22 percent should shrink if districts consolidate. We spend approximately $7.4 billion on education on Long Island. Twenty-two percent is approximately $1.7 billion. If we save 10 percent of that, or $170 million, that’s more money than the total budgets of any one of all but nine districts. These savings can keep classes small and keep programs intact. In these tight budget times we need all the savings we can get.
If we can’t consolidate, why not make greater strides toward shared services? Does every district need its own purchasing department? I know it’s just one of many things school administrators do, but districts buy a lot of stuff. It seems like a no-brainer to have districts purchase collectively. Unless chalk and dry erase boards work differently in Kings Park and Deer Park, I don’t see what stops districts from combining this function when senior purchasers retire. At worst, maybe it would lead to better prices.
Finally what are we teaching our kids anyway? Long Island sends well over 80 percent of our kids to college and we should be proud of that. But the world has changed and perhaps it’s time to revisit the high school curriculum to better prepare kids for careers.
Perhaps it’s time for us to abandon the agrarian calendar that gives students 100 days off to pick crops. I don’t see many kids picking crops. They could use that time to study. Maybe if we save 10 percent on administrative costs we could cut summer vacation by 30 percent and use that time to teach real-world skills.