Schools challenged to cut costs, preserve quality

First published in Newsday A couple of weeks have passed since I asked people in this space to send ideas about cutting school costs, without harming the things we all cherish -- our best teachers, high academic goals, and the extracurriculars that inspire kids to find their place in the world.

I've been overwhelmed by the response. Not so much the volume -- about 45 calls, e-mails and letters -- but by the quality. People have sent thoughtful, 4- and 5-page letters with good ideas about how to cut spending without hurting students. Former and current school superintendents, school board members, teachers and their spouses, parents -- they all want to get in on the conversation.

The response made me wonder whether, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo tries to target his $1.5-billion cuts to school budgets statewide this coming year, it might be worth convening a panel of informed citizens to come up with recommendations.

Here's your best advice:

--Salaries make up 60 percent to 75 percent of school spending. Freeze salaries, including the automatic yearly longevity "step" raises, and stop giving increases for extra training that, while important, adds little to classroom effectiveness -- such as courses on sexual harassment or peanut allergies.

--Give school boards more spine. Require that contract negotiations take place on a townwide, regional or statewide basis. Prohibit school districts from hiring board members' families. Stop "loading up" school boards with people who work as school administrators or teachers in neighboring districts.

--Do the math. One man wrote that his district had 6,687 students and 725 teachers. Figuring about 24 students per class . . . that leaves 446 teachers who aren't in the classroom. What are they doing, exactly? Those who wrote me seem very concerned about the large numbers of adults in schools.

--Consolidate neighborhood schools. Lawrence has closed two school buildings, netting $30 million. That money was used for maintenance to other buildings ($17 million) and a reduction in property taxes.

--Make athletics and other activities pay-to-play. Parents should pay for their kids to participate, and the group could raise money for families who can't afford it.

--Increase class sizes, especially in the upper grades. Why can't high schools use lecture halls, like colleges do? Or offer online classes?

--Charge parents whose kids are earning college credits while in high school. They would be paying the college for those credits otherwise.

--Require schools to "go green," inspiring energy savings of 10 percent or more.

--Penalize teachers who are absent a lot. (Although it's not a cost savings, another idea is to reward teachers who work in difficult school districts.)

--Put high school and college students in kindergarten and first grade classes, and give them college credit to help out.

--Consolidate school districts. This was mentioned a lot, but the political reality doesn't seem to favor it.

--Do away with universal bus service.

--Get rid of tenure.

When my family moved here in 2003, the schools were a big draw. Long Island needs to treat the quality of its schools as a treasure, even as we pare them down to a more reasonable cost.

The most depressing response when I asked for ideas about cutting school costs was this: "There have been no solutions and likely never will be any." The best? "It only takes some good ideas and those with the strength of conviction to get the job done."

So, what's it going to be, Long Island?