The proposed merger between the Tuckahoe and Southampton school districts, the subject of a vote next week, has been a hot-button issue in both communities. Pros and cons of a merger, and the effects it will have on students from both districts and on taxpayers, have been discussed and debated in several public forums.
The merger decision will have far-reaching consequences for both communities in a wide range of areas—including sports.
Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said he is concerned about the future of sports programs in the district if the proposed merger fails, and he said earlier this week that he’s concerned that people in the community aren’t aware of the far-reaching negative impact it could have on the school’s athletic programs.
Tuckahoe’s decision to move forward with the merger proposal was forced by the district’s financial situation. The district has estimated that due to the state-mandated 2-percent cap on tax levy increases, it will have exhausted all of its reserve funds by the 2015-16 school year. Tuckahoe pays roughly $3 million in tuition fees to Southampton each year to send its students to high school there, and 26 percent of the high school students at Southampton are from Tuckahoe.
If the merger is approved, Southampton taxpayers can expect to see an increase of roughly 21 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in their annual property tax rate, which would be about 8.7 percent. That would translate to paying $105 more a year on a house assessed at $500,000, according to early estimates. Meanwhile, Tuckahoe’s property tax rate would be slashed by $4.82—nearly two-thirds of the current rate—saving the owner of a house similarly assessed at $500,000 more than $2,400 in annual property taxes.
But even though Southampton taxes are expected to go up, district officials have warned that if the merger fails, the Southampton School District will face the possibility of losing all of its students from Tuckahoe—and the roughly $3 million of annual tuition revenue from Tuckahoe that goes with it. That could force massive cuts at all three Southampton schools and might prompt the district to raise the tax rate to compensate, school officials have said.
The next step in the merger will be the first public vote, scheduled for October 29. Southampton and Tuckahoe residents will be asked to cast a vote on the proposition through straw votes in each of their own districts. If either district fails to approve the merger, it will fail, and it will be back to the drawing board for Tuckahoe. If approved by both, a second formal vote would be held in December.
Phillips said that the negative impact of a failed merger on the sports programs is twofold. The loss of Tuckahoe students would dramatically decrease the number of student-athletes at the school—he estimated that 50 percent of high school students from Tuckahoe are involved in sports programs—and for certain programs that already have low numbers, it could be a death knell. Additionally, the loss of $3 million in revenue will mean cuts across the board at the high school, and the sports programs would not be an exception to those cuts.
The future for Tuckahoe students if the merger fails is still unclear—Tuckahoe could pay tuition to send them to another nearby high school, such as Westhampton Beach, Hampton Bays or Pierson, could attempt to create its own high school, or the state could step in and make a decision. The uncertainty, and the very real specter of losing 25 percent of the high school population and $3 million in tuition fees, has Phillips worried.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said. He added that, if the Tuckahoe students were indeed lost, he’d be forced to make some tough decisions. “We would probably have to see how many teams we could actually field. We struggle now with [numbers] for lacrosse. We haven’t had [a JV and varsity] in lacrosse for awhile. And we haven’t had JV field hockey. The Tuckahoe students have been a big part of our baseball program, too. We’d have to look at numbers and rosters, and we’d be in jeopardy of losing some teams.”
Phillips said he also believes that having Tuckahoe students attend Southampton High School is the most natural fit. “These kids grow up playing sports together,” he said, referring to children in both Tuckahoe and Southampton. “It’s a part of this community. From a social aspect, the kids all hang out together. It only makes sense for them to have one unified school district.”
Phillips said he isn’t trying to tell people how to vote, but rather he wants them to have all the information at their disposal.
“I just want people to be educated and informed,” he said. “However they vote, it’s their personal choice. The possibility of losing Tuckahoe students will impact our sports programs. It would be a shame in so many ways. So many of the banners we have hanging on the wall in the gym wouldn’t be there without Tuckahoe students.”