In the face of declining enrollment and the pressing need to save money, the Patchogue-Medford Board of Education began discussing the possibility of closing a school at its meeting Monday night.
While continually citing that it needed more information on the topic before making any decisions, board members were open with their opinions on the issue.
“When you look at this study it seems that you have a lot of space available and it's a shame because over the last year we had to layoff 56 teachers,” said board member William Lavelle, citing a recent study conducted by Western Suffolk BOCES on the district's demographics and facilities.
That study showed that the district's three middle schools are at 50 percent capacity or lower; none of the district's schools are over 80 percent utilized except Bay and River elementary; and that the high school operates at 61 percent operation capacity. Those figures are expected to drop even further through 2020.
Superintendent Michael Locantore said, at this point, he couldn't recommend closing a school without more data. Something, however, must be done to cut costs, Locantore said.
“Patchogue-Medford is a extremely special community, there’s roots in here that dig very very very deep deep here, and none of us like to uproot children,” Locantore said. “But we have to do something, we have to put our minds together so we can do this something to make up this terrible deficit.”
The Board of Education Monday tabled, by a 4-3 vote, a proposal to create a community committee to look into ways to save money. Although a school board can decide to close a school on its own, New York State Education Law highly recommends that a community-based study is performed six months prior to an actual school closure, according to board member Brett Houdek.
“It is my adament hope that if we do perform a study, that we keep it on a shelf," Houdek said, "but we do need to be cognizant of the fact that we have classes that are approaching 36 in the high school and further cuts along the same magnitude would totally destroy the educational opportunities of our children, and we have to have options going into the March-April time frame."
With a new two-percent tax increase cap taking effect for the next budget cycle, school districts across Long Island are under the same pressure to cut costs and several have already voted to close schools. West Islip school officials recently to shutter two elementary schools next year.
The Pat-Med district also chose to absorb a $1 million tax hike passed by the state last June, instead of passing that cost onto taxpayers for this year, said Donna Jones, assistant superintendent of business.
Although the BOCES study projects the district will lose 483 students through 2020, some board members were skeptical of the long-range accuracy of those projections, as well as the benefits of closing a school.
“To me a school closure in this district is a short fix that will no doubt have long lasting consequences,” board member Joseph Loschiavo said.
One possibility is to close South Ocean Middle School and rent it out to St. Joseph's College, said Lavelle, mentioning that the college has expressed interest in the past of using the school building.
"You need to see whether St. Joseph’s still wants to rent South Ocean Middle School, because if they are willing to give you $300,000 a year to rent this building, that makes the pot a lot sweeter, because now you are not talking about heating it...you’re not talking about maintenance on it, you’re not talking about insurance on it, you’re not talking about plowing on it," Lavelle said.
“If we can get a good rental income from one of our buildings," he added, "that would be a win-win because we would save a lot of money in maintaining and moth-balling, plus we would have revenue, revenue would be year after year after year, so we use that to offset your losses in revenue, we can also use it to bring back programs that we lost like BOCES and freshman sports."
Board member Thomas Donofrio said that he is opposed to closing a school, but is not against any kind of study to see impact.
“I don’t oppose a plan, we should always have a plan, it should be a contingency plan, it should be something we can easily pull off the shelf and act on if necessary, but that’s going to take time,” said Donofrio, who added closing a school and combining programs into one school could be a disservice to students.
"You cannot service the same number of students you serviced in the past," Donofrio said.
One resident questioned whether it was a good idea for the district to essentially become a realtor, speaking of the idea of renting the South Ocean building to St. Joseph's.
“Do we want to hold properties and rent? It’s not as cut and dry as that,” the resident said. “I truly believe as a district, we have to re-build from within.”