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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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High School Plan No Big Help

Taking its cues from the governor, whose school plans revolve vaguely around “consolidation and streamlining,” the Board of Regents has proposed the creation of regional high schools, fed students by local school districts. They’re calling this “partial consolidation,” but we’ve been there and done that. Central High Schools of exactly this type were invented specifically for Nassau County in 1917. They worked, but evolving suburban challenges passed them by, so we stopped creating them.

Sewanhaka Central High School (1926), Valley Stream Central High School (1932) and Wellington C. Mepham Central High School (1934) were “fed” by three or four districts with elementary schools only. None of the feeder districts could afford to build or maintain their own high school, and this new arrangement, unique at the time to Nassau County, made sense.

In 1944, however, the state revoked the ability to create this type of district. Suburbs needed a lot more schools, secondary and elementary, and it no longer made sense to separate the two types of districts. The state wanted centralized K-12 districts, and drew up plans to create them.

Like almost everything else we sometimes take for granted here on Long Island, things did not have to look the way they do now, and almost didn’t. The state’s 1947 Master Plan for school districts proposed combining all but a few larger districts into new central districts. It offered a very different vision of Long Island schools than the one we know today. Maybe not better, but different. This plan had some merits, and the number of districts across the state was reduced from over 7,000 to under 800 in a decade, and three new central districts were created in this county.

The 1957 updated Master Plan included a “watch list” of nine Nassau districts that might not have the enrollment or the tax base to permanently support a full, well-developed high school program on their own. Within several years, all nine had their own high school. Why?

The state was mostly concerned that some school districts were too small, but the concern of most parents was that schools not get too large. Many Nassau County residents didn’t want enormous high schools, they wanted modern schools with science labs and small classes. Local control was seen as a way to ensure all that. Also, tuition fees for students from feeder districts were rising, and the expense of building a local high school didn’t look so scary. Many area high schools were filling up, and building a local school seemed like prudent insurance against getting shut out at some point.

It was also very difficult to predict exactly what the benefits and costs would be for some mergers. In 1953, a new Central District was designed for the existing districts at Sea Cliff, Glen Head and Glenwood Landing. Glenwood Landing was home to a new Long Island Lighting Company plant and contained 63 percent of the district’s assessed property valuation. School board members there sued to delay the final referendum. The referendum passed, but more than 40 percent voted no. Today, what is now called the North Shore Schools is an elite district, and there would be no support for breaking it up.

Good consolidation plans that make sense have had strong support in Nassau County. The referendum to create the Syosset Central School District out of three smaller districts passed with 96 percent in 1954; creation of Plainview-Old Bethpage district got 99 percent in 1957. Between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, eight Nassau County districts were involved in mergers and centralizations.

Unfortunately, merging for the sake of “economy” is usually overrated. Merging school districts produces short-term savings (administrator salaries, for example), but there are significant savings only if the districts are fairly small to begin with. Larger districts already have achieved economies of scale. Most Nassau County residents identify with their school district above any other designation. There’s a lot going on here.

Creation of central high schools will be even more controversial today, because the potential feeder districts already have their own secondary schools, past, which local kids will have to be bused to the central school. What will happen to those schools? What, indeed.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net