The Southampton School Board voted on Tuesday night—against the wishes of a majority of community members in the audience—to send the proposed merger with the Tuckahoe School District to a public vote.
The vote was unanimous among the board members to allow the straw vote to proceed on October 29, although a couple of board members expressed only a desire to allow the public to decide rather than support for the merger.
A majority of the members, though, outright endorsed the merger—their last chance to do so, because they are legally unable to campaign for either outcome after Tuesday night’s meeting.
If the merger is ultimately approved, Southampton School District taxpayers are estimated to see an 8.7-percent increase in the annual property tax rate. That is equivalent to about $105 more per year on a house assessed at $500,000, according to estimates.
On the other hand, Tuckahoe’s property tax rate would be cut by about two-thirds, saving the owner of a house of equal value about $2,400 a year.
In previous meetings, Southampton officials had warned that if the merger failed, the Southampton School District would likely lose all of its tuition-paying students from Tuckahoe. That would mean a loss of roughly $3 million per year—the tuition currently being paid by Tuckahoe students. Such a loss likely would force massive cuts at all three Southampton schools, or an increase to the district’s tax rate anyway, school officials have said.
Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer has said in the past that the decision to pursue a merger was forced by the financial situation of his district. Mr. Dyer estimated previously that due to the state mandated 2-percent cap on tax levy increases, the district would exhaust all of its reserve funds by the 2015-16 school year.
Southampton School Board member Nicholas Palumbo was the first to speak in favor of the merger, saying that the decision should have no bearing on the 2014-2015 school budget. “You can weigh in on that in the spring,” he said to those in attendance, noting that they should instead look to resolve the long-term future of the district. “And the future looks better with our neighbors from Tuckahoe,” he concluded.
Board Vice President Donald J. King agreed with that sentiment, saying the decision was all about preserving Southampton’s future. “This merger should’ve happened 25 or 30 years ago,” he stated.
Board member Jake Wilson said it was simply the right thing to do for all involved, including the children of Tuckahoe, who may otherwise be left without a sufficient alternative. “My mom was in a one-room school district for many years, and she can’t figure out an iPhone now,” he joked. “I would hope we aren’t looking at saving a couple of nickels in our pocket … when we are looking at losing a quarter of the students from our high school.”
Following the board member comments, the audience had a chance to comment, starting with Lori Tutt, a Southampton School District resident who attended Tuckahoe schools in her youth. “There is really no reason for a Southampton resident to want to put this through,” she said. “It doesn’t logically make sense. We can’t benefit from the Tuckahoe School District in any way.”
Ms. Tutt went on to claim that Tuckahoe’s infrastructure, school security, educational programs, and even faculty were inferior to that of Southampton schools.
“I walked up to the [Tuckahoe] School,” she said, describing her experience a number of days before Tuesday’s meeting. “Nobody buzzed me in—there was no security guard or monitor—and I stood in front of the secretary for two minutes before she recognized me. … I could’ve easily walked into the school with a gun and nobody would’ve stopped me.”
Ms. Tutt concluded by pointing to Tuckahoe student test scores from the past decade, referenced in the merger study, calling the numbers alarming. “Those numbers are scary low, in my opinion,” she said.
Another Southampton district resident, Orest Bliss, said he had heard comments from the board about doing what is right for the children, but never heard “the relevant facts” being discussed by board members. “I heard nothing about the fact that Tuckahoe, in the last 10 years, has had a modest increase in enrollment, but a 93-percent increase in their budgets,” he said. “There are an awful lot of people coming from Tuckahoe to lobby for this merger tonight—I wonder why that is—but their voices should hold no water here.”
“I heard [the board say] tonight that you’ll let the taxpayers vote on it,” added Todd Goodwin, a Florida resident with a home in the Southampton district. “I hope you mean taxpayers and not just registered voters.” Board members informed Mr. Goodwin they had no authority to allow that.
The audience comments got heated toward the end of the meeting. With Tuckahoe residents in attendance—four of whom spoke in favor of the merger—and after repeated attacks from Southampton district residents on Tuckahoe’s reputation, one more Southampton resident approached the microphone. She started her statements by saying, “To say that Tuckahoe is a stagnant cesspool would be generous …”
The woman was cut off by board members, and the meeting was called to order. But following her statement, two more Tuckahoe parents rose to directly answer the woman and defend the school’s integrity.
“What does Tuckahoe have to offer? It has me, and my wife, who spent all day setting up a book fair today, and our children, who will spend a third of their school years in this high school regardless of this vote,” said a visibly upset Tuckahoe parent.
The School Board will be sending out a “merger statement of fact” on Wednesday morning to all Southampton district residents, and plans are in the works for meetings between concerned parents and the board, meetings the board phrased as a listening tour.