Public schools lack independence to analyze cost-savings

First published in Newsday

Lately, everyone seems to be offering ideas about how to save money in the public schools. People familiar with business or even household budgets look at the problem and want to apply a little common sense. One of the most popular suggestions: Cut the number of superintendents down to one each for Nassau and Suffolk counties, for a potential savings of more than $25 million.

That may sound like a lot, but it would amount to just one-third of 1 percent of the $7.5 billion that Long Island's 124 school districts spend each year. Even so, it's clear that residents are ready for some sign of good-faith reductions from schools.

Decreasing the number of superintendents gained wattage last week as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo addressed crowds around the state and talked about how much these school leaders are paid. He says that 40 percent make $200,000 or more.

Teachers' raises, "steps" (built-in longevity raises) and credits for coursework - which add up to increases of about 6 percent a year - also have Long Islanders reaching for their budget shears. So do the cadres of assistant superintendents, directors, assistant directors, principals, assistant principals - and on and on.

Per-pupil costs reach $23,000 in some Long Island districts, more than double the national average of $10,259. So, yes, Long Island's school costs appear fat. That's why it's surprising that study groups charged with finding savings always come up with so little.

Take the years-long initiative by Nassau County school districts to consolidate non-classroom operations. Albany gave the districts a $1-million grant to figure out how to save money, in part by jointly bidding contracts. The study group looked at student busing, school inspections and cell-phone use. It spent half its grant money - and came up with a mere $760,000 in potential economies. Early estimates were $5 million in savings a year. What a disappointment.

Then there's the Suffolk County study that was supposed to save money through pooled health insurance. A consultant concluded that the reduction would amount to two-tenths of 1 percent of current costs. That useless exercise was funded by a $45,000 state grant.

These studies are plainly approaching the question the wrong way. They seem to eliminate from the outset any possibility that would cause a friend or ally to forfeit cash. For example, the Nassau County group declined to consider using the county attorney's office for legal work, preferring instead to continue paying outside lawyers "experienced" in school law. As if the county attorney couldn't gain adequate experience within a short time.

People inside the school community, who are invariably leading these studies, just aren't independent enough to ask the hard questions. But outsiders are rarely invited in. Instead, those outside the school corridors are essentially told: You don't understand the requirements and pressures on schools. And outsiders are never trusted with essential information to make smart decisions. If you've ever tried to read a school budget, you know what I mean.

We need some sort of hybrid, an independent study group with insider knowledge, like the 2006 state Berger Commission on hospital closings. Budgets are tight. It would be wonderful to find the $1.5 billion in school savings that Gov. Cuomo has targeted without sacrificing music or art, accelerated programs or special education resources, late buses or athletic programs. Maybe that's impossible. Anyone with a novel approach, please drop me an e-mail. This problem needs all the brainpower Long Islanders can bring to bear.