Parents, administrators and Board of Education members in Tuckahoe are unhappy with part of a proposed merger that, if approved, will pull all of the district’s students from Westhampton Beach High School and force them to attend the Southampton High School starting as early as September 2014.
The agreement was one of four assurances approved by both the Tuckahoe and Southampton school boards this month, the final step before the results of a proposed merger study involving the two districts can be sent to New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King Jr. for review.
On Monday night, Tuckahoe Board of Education members approved the assurances, 2-1, with Dr. Daniel Crough and Harald Steudte approving, and Robert Grisnik dissenting. Still, all three board members said they were unhappy about the decision, explaining that their hand was being forced by their district’s dire financial situation and the demands of the Southampton Board of Education.
Board members stated that Tuckahoe would be bankrupt within two years if it does not merge with Southampton, a move that will force the estimated 40 tuition students expected to be enrolled at Westhampton Beach next school year to switch to Southampton High School. Prior to graduation, 51 Tuckahoe tuition students attended Westhampton Beach High School. There will be 28 students enrolled in the school in fall 2014.
The Southampton Board of Education unanimously approved the measure on June 18.
“I think it is important that our community hears that we have been doing our due diligence for the past six months,” Dr. Crough said. “We have been working as hard as we can for our community, and the best we have to offer after six months of work is this plan—and that is a disappointment to all members of the Tuckahoe board.”
Talks about consolidation and shared services have long been a topic between the two districts, especially in light of the state-mandated 2-percent tax levy cap, increasing financial pressures due to properties being removed from the tax rolls, and other state mandates. Last year, the two joined several East End districts to file a joint application with the Department of State for a $200,000 grant to finance an efficiency study, which would have looked at the possibility of merging all or some of the districts. The application was not approved and Tuckahoe, which only has a K-8 school, and Southampton, which has an elementary, middle and high school, decided to pursue their own study last summer, splitting the $70,000 fee.
Another cause for Tuckahoe’s financial troubles are the rising tuition costs it must pay to educate its high school-age students. Last year, the district paid approximately $22,000 for each student who attended Southampton High School, and $76,212 for every special needs student. For those students attending Westhampton Beach, the district shelled out $19,000 per student, $61,000 for every special needs student.
In December, Tuckahoe signed an exclusivity agreement with Southampton, meaning that all future Tuckahoe students would attend Southampton High School at a reduced rate. Southampton agreed to lower the fees to $19,700 for students, and $57,000 for special education students. That agreement is expected to save Tuckahoe approximately $600,000 during the 2013-14 school year alone. Under that deal, Tuckahoe students already attending Westhampton Beach were able to stay in the district.
But if the merger is ultimately approved, the approximately 40 students expected to be enrolled at Westhampton Beach High School next September—including 31 of whom would be entering their junior or senior years in 2014 when the merger would take place—would be forced to enroll at Southampton High School. According to Dr. Crough, the assurance also includes special education students who would be placed in Southampton schools unless the district cannot offer a specific program for the student. Special education students will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Tuckahoe has 587 students—382 are in the elementary school, and 205 are high school tuition students. Of those students, 89 attend Southampton High School and 51 are enrolled at Westhampton Beach. The remaining 65 students attend private high schools or BOCES.
Under the approved assurances, which are also being sent to the state education commissioner’s office, both districts agree to allow a representative from the other district to sit in on executive session meetings as an observer. Also, the Tuckahoe School will retain its name, and all out-of-district tuition students will be pulled back to Southampton unless they require services not offered by the district. Teachers from both schools will be combined into one staff list for tenure and seniority purposes.
According to Dr. J. Richard Boyes, superintendent of schools for Southampton, the decision to not allow students to attend Westhampton Beach if the merger is approved will save the Southampton School District an anticipated $1 million in tuition fees. According to Dr. Boyes, with Tuckahoe students a part of Southampton, it would fall on Southampton to pay the estimated $1 million in annual tuition fees to allow the students to attend Westhampton Beach. The district can save that money, Dr. Boyes said, by educating the students in-house.
“I am sympathetic to the fact that the Tuckahoe board is concerned for those students who are already at Westhampton,” Dr. Boyes said. “I understand that, but, at the same time, there is a financial consideration, and if that money can be used to hold down taxes or put in our reserves, then the Southampton board said that is very important, and Tuckahoe agrees with that.”
On Monday night, Mr. Grisnik said his main concern is for the soon-to-be-dislocated students. While he understands concessions are necessary for the merger to work, he said they should not come at the expense of the students. He added that while he agrees with the other three assurances, students enrolled at Westhampton Beach High School should be allowed to finish their education there, a sentiment echoed by the other two Tuckahoe board members.
“We all agree that something has to be done within the school district,” Mr. Grisnik said on Monday. “But this is not in keeping with what I am on this school board for, and that is to keep the children first and to give them an education that will prepare them for the future.”
One option, according to Mr. Grisnik, is for the Tuckahoe district to use reserve funds to fund the tuition payments to Westhampton Beach for the enrolled students. That option, he said, will be explored by board members in the future.
Now, all three school districts have to wait for the merger to be approved. The study, which is being sent to Albany this week, is expected to be approved or denied by the commissioner by the end of August. If approved, it will be up to the districts to take action. According to Dr. Boyes, several public meetings will be held in the fall, culminating in a public referendum on the proposal by December. If approved, the schools would officially merge on July 1, 2014, for the 2014-15 school year.
Westhampton Beach Schools Superintendent Michael Radday said if the merger is ultimately approved, something should be done for the tuition students attending his high school. He added that students who are forced to change schools so late in their high school careers could end up paying a price with their education.
“To me, the larger issue is doing what is right for the students,” Mr. Radday said. “These kids chose a high school and, in doing so, planned to graduate from that school. It does impact these students as they proceed through their academic careers and apply to colleges.”
Mr. Radday, who had not heard of the change when reached earlier this week, said he hopes the districts will reconsider their stance and allow the those students now attending Westhampton Beach to graduate as Hurricanes.
One parent, David D’Agostino, said he is outraged by the decision made by Tuckahoe board members, adding that if students cannot stay in Westhampton Beach, then Tuckahoe should abandon plans to merge with Southampton. Mr. D’Agostino, whose son is a freshman at Westhampton Beach, said he will move into the Westhampton Beach School District so his son can continue his education where he started.
“It is terrible news,” he said. “It is a slap in the face and they lied to us. They misled us and they should drop the merger. We and other people moved to this district specifically because of that option, and we are going to be forced to move out of the district in order to keep our children in what we consider a superior school.”