School District Taxes: Top Leadership Needed

A $20 million reward to the local government partnership that achieves the greatest reduction in property taxes

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo renewed his push for a smaller New York this week. Well, not exactly, but for a smaller bite into its residents’ pocketbooks, to be achieved through municipal consolidation. The governor is putting the state’s money where his mouth is, offering a $20 million reward to the local government partnership that achieves the greatest reduction in property taxes. Here on the South Fork, when one thinks about consolidation, one thinks of school districts, among which taxing disparity can be stunning. 

Some examples to illustrate the point: Sag Harbor School District taxes are almost three times those in Amagansett, and Springs’s are approaching seven times those of Wainscott. 

Among the districts, classroom opportunities are far from equivalent. The Springs School struggles for more space every year and faces perennial budget crises, while Amagansett enjoys virtual country-club exclusivity. Considering that much of the work force to keep all those big houses in Amagansett up and running probably lives in Springs, it would be much more equitable for the larger community to pay for schools altogether. And, tangentially, it is reprehensible that the Wainscott School Board agitated successfully to block town affordable housing that would have added only a relative handful of students to its small school. Taxes should not be so high in one part of East Hampton Town, or so low in another.

The problem with the governor’s $20 million bounty is that in order to work, all participants in a hypothetical partnership would have to want to take part. It has been generally understood that Amagansett does not want to be part of a consolidated school entity of any kind, and it appears that Wainscott is simply opposed to any change.

  School consolidation is not new. Far from it. For decades now, people have looked at the patchwork of small districts and thought that something had to be done. Studies have been commissioned, reports completed, but generally the conclusion has been that consolidation was not worth it. We have long believed that the opposition came as much from individual school administrators concerned about losing their jobs as from anything material. Certainly, among the first cuts as districts were combined would be the newly duplicative six-figure superintendents’ and assistant superintendents’ salaries.   

Looking past the resistance, the numbers have long been thought to be favorable for taxpayers should the number of districts be reduced. A citizens group that looked at the problem in 2009-10 observed that the East Hampton district spent far more per pupil than the county average. Consolidation, it found, would cut as much as 10 percent from tax bills. It was no surprise though, that no action ensued.

For there to be meaningful improvement in the way schools are funded — and to assure equal education for all — leadership will have to come from the top, whether from Mr. Cuomo or the Legislature. Left on their own, most school districts will simply maintain the status quo.