Saturday, January 8, 2011

Good Grief, Charlie Brown, Newsday Continues to Favor Fictional Headlines

Well, once again, Newsday has managed -- with an inflammatory headline that did not even reflect what was said in the article, much less reflect what was actually said at the Elwood School District's meeting on Thursday -- to mislead Newsday readers.

The article, posted on late Thursday night, was captioned: "Parents protest Elwood school merger proposal." Maybe Newsday editors will realize their mistake before the article is printed in Friday's edition. Then again, maybe pigs will be able to fly by Friday afternoon.

But, it was even more disappointing because most of the quotes which Newsday included were obtained prior to the start of the meeting, and many of the more important comments from our Superintendent were not even included in the article.

First, there never was an "Elwood school merger proposal," as the letter posted to the district website makes clear; you can link to it from the Home Page,

Second, there was a presentation of information by three professionals with varying areas of expertise related to the complexities of merging school districts; the audience was advised by the Board president that some time Friday afternoon, or Monday at the latest, their powerpoint slides (really from just two, as Counsel to the district had a purely oral presentation) should be posted on the district website. There you may study some of the incentives which New York State uses to create interest in district consolidation, as well as review some historical elements relating to the subject.

Third, the Superintendent made clear, to anyone not asleep or reading their Blackberry or focusing instead upon what they could say later to be destructive, that this issue is being studied because of the potential for damaging cuts to programs that would be caused by a proposed property tax cap that might be imposed by New York State (without simultaneous cuts in pension fund contributions or salaries or other expenses over which each school district has little or no control).

To that point, Mr. Scordo noted that if the State imposed the proposed 2% cap, it would probably mean (a) the elimination of all extracurricular activities, and (b) the elimination of our athletic program, and (c) a reduction in high school programs including fewer AP classes, and (d) an average class size of 34 in grades K through 8.

Mr. Scordo asked the audience, and all in the Elwood community, to join in a major personal lobbying effort with our Assembleymen and State Senators; this effort is beginning with our various PTA units, and will be expanded to the entire community through information which will be posted to the district website. But, if the State still goes ahead with the proposed 2% cap, then our district, and others, will be faced with finding ways to lower our costs.

When a cap was proposed during the final year of the administration of Governor Patterson, it was a higher level, 4%, and there would have been a somewhat complex series of super-majority votes which could override that cap; you may read more about that on the blog of the NY State Council of School Superintendents: Whether or not there would be an ability to override the cap currently proposed, and whether or not such a vote would be a likely event in this or other school districts, is a matter of pure speculation at this point.

Fourth, and finally, Newday did not take account of the full spectrum of the twenty-six commenters (twenty-two original commenters, and four who accepted the Board president's invitation, and came back to the microphone after all others had been able to comment, as people were asked to limit their microphone time to three minutes).

Yes, there were many people who said why they did not want Elwood to merge -- should that ever be proposed, which it has not been -- largely for reasons of (a) liking a small school district and the friendliness that engenders, (b) loss of identity as a community, (c) perceived lack of good special ed programs in other neighboring districts, or (d) not liking one of more of the other potential (under State law) merger partners, particularly South Huntington and Northport.

But, many of the others had questions more of a clarification nature, and given that this was intended as an information session, that was a very good and logical thing to do; these questions included (a) what has been the response from other districts (one has said their BOE would discuss the question), (b) would a potential merger vote be a formal referendum (yes; moreover, it was later clarified that BOTH districts have to vote yes, individually, or it cannot happen), (c) since salaries are the biggest cost factor, when does the teachers contract expire (2013/14), (d) what would be the cost of a study of the potential for merging Elwood with "x" district (about $35,000 to $45,000), and (e) what about shared services, instead (we have explored this before, and would do what we can, but there is no special State aid associated with shared services, only with mergers).

And a few others had comments, including (a) people need to keep an open mind as no decision is being made tonight, (b) we appear fairly vulnerable to a larger potential partner, (c) merger potential has to be studied by school districts, just as it must be studied by companies, and it's not possible to tell whether it would be good or bad without doing a proper analysis, and the more colorful but succinct (d) the rain is coming so let's build an ark.

In summary, while there was significant emotional pressure against a potential merger, should it ever be proposed, it was by no means universal, and it was not even conclusively a majority of the twenty-four individuals, among the several hundred in the audience, who chose to speak Thursday night.

The audience, by the way, was about four hundred plus by my very rough count (I was sitting in the middle, on the aisle), and it included the Superintendents of the Commack, Half Hollow Hills, and Northport school districts, and the Board president of the South Huntington school district, and a Trustee of the Harborfields school district. There could have been others in attendance, but those are the ones I could see and identify.

Let's hope that we can accentuate the accurate story, both within our community and from external media sources, as we go forward.