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A path to follow; Schools should emulate SUNY's task-sharing

School boards across New York's expansive public school system should monitor and perhaps one day emulate the consolidation effort recently kicked off in the State University of New York system. With more than 700 school districts, New York simply has too many, and consolidations are too rare. Hopefully, the SUNY experiment will illustrate the possibilities.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher expects SUNY campuses to share certain administrative chores with other SUNY campuses nearby. In Western New York, the community colleges in Erie and Niagara counties would share services with the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State. The tasks of purchasing and the management of both human resources and information technology could be entrusted to directors who serve all of the campuses in a region. Zimpher and the SUNY trustees expect that any savings would be plowed back into academic programs at the respective colleges. That's the way it should be, especially when considering students are paying more for tuition.

The initiative doesn't stop with the merger of back-office operations. Zimpher also wants college presidents at some smaller state institutions to preside over a second campus nearby. The president of the state's agricultural and technical college at Morrisville, in Central New York's Madison County, would also serve as president of the state Institute of Technology at Utica, in nearby Oneida County. The head of the two-year college at Cobleskill, closer to Albany, would also head the nearby campus at Delhi. In the North Country, the state colleges at Canton and Potsdam would share a president.

The savings that the "Campus Alliance Networks" might generate has yet to be estimated. But with campus presidents making about $200,000 a year, plus usually generous benefits, the savings from one presidential vacancy could add at least a couple of instructors.

For years, most local school systems have made only modest stabs at merging services. Further, the outright mergers of two small and adjacent districts have been rare. Meanwhile, school district tax rates have risen consistently. School boards and administrators have used the property-tax savings that the STAR program granted homeowners as cover to raise tax rates even more.

An optimist believes that a new day has dawned for New York -- with implementation of a property tax cap that will likely force school systems to find more economies, just like SUNY will do. Could neighboring school districts pool such resources as, say, purchasing offices, curriculum coordinators and bus maintenance? What about information technology managers and personnel directors, transportation managers and food-service bosses?

Determined movement to merge services among districts would foster even more movement in that direction. Someone overseeing, say, bus maintenance for two adjacent school districts might start to see more possibilities for savings. More importantly, turf-conscious superintendents and their school boards might see the other possibilities as well. And better yet, maybe the school officials and their taxpayers might ask, why are two districts needed in this corner of a county when there really could be one?

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