Superintendent Patrick Darfler Sweeney talks master consolidation

Superintendent Patrick Darfler Sweeney talks master consolidation

Patrick Darfler Sweeney’s master consolidation plan would provide new learning.
Patrick Sweeney spoke at last spring’sTannersville’s Memorial Day Observance, where community and American Legion members gathered. Photo credit: Bob Mazon

Patrick Darfler Sweeney, superintendent of Hunter-Tannersville Central School District nestled in the Catskill Mountains just a couple of hours north of New York City, took the bull by the horns. While nearly half the district’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch, Sweeney was tired of seeing budget cuts that interfered with delivering an exceptional student experience. In February, he developed a bold master consolidation plan, presenting it to the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and other government and non-governmental organizations. His plan shows how, through shared resources and some unique thinking, his district and others can continue to be forward thinking despite a shrinking budget. We spoke with Sweeney about the benefits of his plan.

Your most cutting-edge idea may be open enrollment, where families can choose the school within the district to which they want their children to go. What’s involved?
That goes hand in hand with the idea of redistributing faculty and programs to where the students are actually located, rather than having the burden of physically moving the student body. It’s easier to have 20 teachers move rather than 500 students. This would also allow the board to see exactly what parents are looking for in their child’s education. Many boards of education are actively pursuing shared services, so this is not as great a leap as one might think. And neighboring districts would have additional faculty and resources for meeting their students’ needs. I also can see an expanded district offering magnet school-like opportunities that include an accelerated two-year associates degree accreditation.

How much can be saved by consolidating administrative costs?
Shared business-office functions are already happening with many of our Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) throughout New York state. These organizations help rural school districts get services that would be prohibitive or too small by themselves to do. Currently, my district uses BOCES for payroll, accounts payable, and business management functions for a net cost savings of between $22,000 and $34,000 annually. To put that in perspective, we get one-and-a-half more personnel for the same price it would cost if we hired them independently.

Positions such as pupil service director, athletic director, cafeteria supervisor, facilities director, technology coordinator, transportation director, these are examples of positions that could all be centralized and shared among districts, and the savings would be approximately one-third to one-half the cost of the salaries/benefits. The new consolidated school district would be billed for the costs of these positions. Also, fewer people in the mix would provide better oversight and perhaps better and more reliable research data, with bigger sample sizes.

And if the state took over managing health benefits for all school employees in New York, the state would have huge leveraging ability due to the sheer number of people to be covered and would be able to negotiate a more stable and predetermined premium level to be paid by both employees and the school districts.

If superintendents became employees of the state, how would their opportunities change in terms of their vision and leadership in schools?
Local superintendents can customize their vision and leadership to their districts with the superintendent answerable directly to his/her local board of education. With the superintendent as a direct employee of NYSED, he or she would still be held to the local BOEs they serve, but now would be more focused on ensuring their local plan was consistent with the state’s vision of education.

Your plan suggests that superintendents be responsible for multiple districts. Are you equalizing district assignments based on numbers of students?
Yes, but, because of varied geography and road conditions, it’s much more than that. A district should be the embodiment of the superintendent. This is why I state that it is far easier to move faculty/staff and superintendents around than hundreds of students, especially where the geography does not work.

I feel the benefits of consolidation should not be limited to children who happen to live in a “geography-friendly” area. My district is 164 square miles in rural and  mountainous territory; our neighboring districts are similar, so busing children to another location would be a huge challenge.

You suggest that people whose labor agreements expire would have to sign new labor agreements under the new regime. How would tenure be affected?
Perhaps the biggest impediment to school district consolidation currently is the law that requires consolidated districts to “level-up” employee contracts (meaning the salary of any employee retained cannot be lower in wage/benefits to what they received previously). This proposition is the most controversial for labor unions and employees.

New agreements would allow negotiations to start from scratch under my proposal. If they had tenure previously, their probationary period would be two years; if they were probationary or new, the probation would be three years. Regarding seniority, there are three schools of thought: carry over their number of years in the field, or, as is done when a district takes on a veteran employee, assign a number of years of service (equivalent to a specific pay scale assignment), or everyone would start again from zero.

What are your ideas regarding affordable distance learning options?
Distance learning is already happening in many districts; however, what is not often discussed is the cost. The technology for distance learning is up to $70,000, and that doesn’t include negotiated costs with labor unions to change school and teacher schedules to coincide with the host school.

I believe an enlarged district could conduct a one-to-one broadcast using free video conferencing (such as Skype or Face Time). Couple that with a teacher using a free platform such as Google Tools and you are facilitating high-tech learning skills, encouraging collaboration, and empowering student-teacher engagement without a huge investment.

If your plan is approved, how long will it take to implement?
From the time of assigning a superintendent to full realization of employee contracts and realignment of schools, I think it would take about three years. Is there enough political will to make these changes happen? I don’t know, but I do believe I have constructed enough options that they could assist with some of these changes, and, perhaps if there is merit, it could create its own momentum to push that needed political will.

What do you think it will take to get something like this passed?
I’m disappointed that I haven’t heard from my local legislators. I think I’m early in promoting an idea, but late in the game of trying to save some districts financially. We’re at a very dangerous and dark moment in New York state. A great majority of our districts are within three to five years of looking at educational insolvency and financial insolvency with it. If we can get the idea of the shared superintendent district office model moving, I think once they (NYSED, BOCES, and BOEs) take that half step out, they’ll see we really can do this and will be open to other ideas.

Patrick Darfler Sweeney, superintendent of Hunter-Tannersville Central School District nestled in the Catskill Mountains just a couple of hours north of New York City, took the bull by the horns. While nearly half the district’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch, Sweeney was tired of seeing budget cuts that interfered with delivering an exceptional student experience. In February, he developed a bold master consolidation plan, presenting it to the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and other government and non-governmental organizations. His plan shows how, through shared resources and some unique thinking, his district and others can continue to be forward thinking despite a shrinking budget. We spoke with Sweeney about the benefits of his plan.

Lynn Russo Whylly is newsletter/copy editor.


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