Southampton School District Voters Reject Proposed Merger

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A proposed merger between the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts was vetoed by taxpayers this week and will not move forward to a second, final vote.

On Tuesday night, Southampton residents voted down the proposal, 1,075 to 693, which would have merged the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts, effective July 1, 2014

In Tuckahoe, taxpayers overwhelmingly voted in favor of the proposition, 565 to 35—a moot point once their neighbors to the east rejected the proposition, as state law dictates that both would have to approve the measure separately in order for it to move forward to a joint vote of the two districts.

Now, with a merger off the table for at least six months, as required by state law before another vote can be held, both districts face uncertainty as they head into the budget season for the 2014-15 school year. In Tuckahoe, district administrators will have to find a way to save tuition money while still educating all of the district’s high school-age students as they leave the eighth grade in the K-8 district.

In Southampton, administrators either must find a way to lower tuition rates to accommodate Tuckahoe, or face losing all of the smaller district’s students—Tuckahoe students currently make up roughly a third of the Southampton High School population—and the tuition they pay each year, which totals $3 million in revenue for the larger district.

“At this point, the district is now going to be faced with some challenges it has not been faced with in the past,” Southampton School District Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina said after the results were announced. “We are still going to continue to work with our legislators to see if there is something we can do about the tax impact on the Southampton voters.”

In total, 2,368 taxpayers from both communities weighed in on annexation. If the merger vote had been a joint district vote, the merger would have been approved, with 1,258 in favor and 1,110 opposed.

In Tuckahoe, Superintendent Chris Dyer said the district will be considering all of its options in the next few weeks.

“We will continue to have guidance from our board, which has a meeting on Monday night that we’d like to invite everyone to, and we will start planning our budgetary plans for next school year,” Mr. Dyer said. “We look forward to having community input as we move forward to plan for school year 2014-15, and we’ll be looking at all options available to us.”

Southampton also has a Board of Education meeting scheduled for next week, on Tuesday in the Southampton Intermediate School music room at 7:30 p.m.

Now, both districts will be forced to create separate budgets, a process that typically starts in November, though numbers are not expected to be presented to the public until March.

“The big challenge we have right now is, we don’t want to compromise the level of the education we provide,” said Tuckahoe School Board President Bob Grisnik on Monday night. “We don’t want to eliminate any programs that will benefit our kids—they come first, no matter what. So we’ve got a lot of work to do over the next few months in building a budget.”

While the merger was voted down this week, it does not take the proposition completely off the table. The merger study, which was released in September and took six months for the SES Study Team to complete, is valid for two years. State law says the districts must wait six months before bringing a merger proposal to another public vote—an option that Dr. Farina said will be considered.

“I think the merger is a good idea, and it is needed,” he said. “I just don’t think that some of the community could get over the tax increase.

“Certainly, we are going to explore every avenue at this point to move forward,” he added.

In the meantime, both districts have committed to continuing to work with the East End politicians, mainly Senator Kenneth P. LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele, to make the merger a reality in the future. Both superintendents have said the legislators are working on new legislation to either ease the tax impact on the Southampton district, or to create separate tax rates for the two communities.

On Wednesday morning, Assemblyman Thiele said although he wants the merger to go through, he was not surprised by the results, adding that it was unlikely that Southampton taxpayers would approve anything with an 8.7 percent tax increase.

He added that although the merger is on hold right now, he and Senator LaValle are still working to make the merger happen in the future. He said in January, the pair will be able to petition the state to eliminate any tax increase related to the merger for Southampton voters, while still decreasing taxes for Tuckahoe.

“This is still just the beginning of the discussion,” he said. “We have the ability to work with our colleagues in Albany and the governors office wants to promote consolidation where it makes sense. I am hopeful we will have a receptive ear in Albany and can come up with options to make this, from a financial point of view, palatable for everybody now.”

Board members from both districts agree.

“What we need to do is stay in business for another year and then hope that a year from now, we can talk to Southampton and have another vote,” Mr. Grisnik said. “That’s an option, but in the meantime, maybe our legislators, Senator LaValle and Assemblyman Thiele, might be able to help the greater community of Southampton through the state budget. We’ve met with them, they are both committed to seeing this merger through.”

Mr. Grisnik encouraged everyone to call or write their local representatives asking for help in both districts’ budgets for next year and for legislation to help the merger.

“That’s all we can do right now,” he said. “Stay in business, educate children, and hope. We thought that by July 1st we would be part of a new district. That didn’t happen tonight.”

Staff writer Brandon Quinn contributed to this story.

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