Southampton, Tuckahoe School Boards Still Working Toward Merger

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The Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts are continuing to work toward a merger following a failed straw vote last month.

After a closed-door executive session meeting last week, the superintendents, Dr. Scott Farina of Southampton and Chris Dyer of Tuckahoe, released a joint statement saying the two districts will work together to explore every aspect of a merger, including financial aid, tax breaks and legislative help, that could facilitate annexing the Tuckahoe School into the Southampton School District.

Questions were raised this week about the legality of the executive session, which was advertised to discuss “legal” issues between the two districts—which, according to Robert Freeman of the state’s Committee on Open Government, is not a valid reason to enter executive session. This week, both Mr. Dyer and Dr. Farina clarified that the meeting was to discuss the impact on specific district employees if the merger should go through, including their health benefits, salaries and possible terminations—and that would be a discussion that could be held behind closed doors.

“The executive session for the joint meeting between the boards was framed around clause F of the code,” Mr. Dyer said. “We were really talking about how to move forward with what would be the impacts of the merger on our personnel.”

He was referring to the portion of the state’s Open Meetings Law that allows a closed-door meeting to discuss “the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation.”

Mr. Dyer explained that the meeting was advertised as addressing “legal” issues because of the legal ramifications if health care, salary or personal staff information had been discussed publicly. According to Dr. Farina, the districts were also discussing the financial history of both districts.

“The school code allows for executive sessions in particular where you are discussing the financial history of corporations, which is one topic we discussed,” he said. “The other is the hiring or dismissal of personnel, which is another item we discussed.”

While neither superintendent would go into detail about the agenda for the meeting, Mr. Dyer did confirm that a proposed timeline for bringing the proposal back before the voters would be tight if it were in fact possible. He said a lot of details hinge upon the actions of local legislators, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle and New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.

If the politicians can enact legislation in early January to alter the tax impacts of a merger for Southampton residents, the districts may consider bringing the measure to a vote, possibly in February, to allow enough time to inform the community, hold a straw vote in Southampton and possibly in Tuckahoe, and then wait the required 45 days before the final vote, possibly in early April. That would give just enough time for both districts to finalize either a joint or separate budget for the next school year.

Last month, Southampton residents voted down the proposal, 1,075-693, in the straw vote. The proposal would have merged the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts, effective July 1, 2014, if a subsequent joint vote by both districts went on to be approved in December. In Tuckahoe, taxpayers overwhelmingly voted in favor of the proposition, 565-35, in the straw vote. Because Tuckahoe taxpayers have already approved the merger, a new straw vote would be necessary only in the Southampton School District.

However, if legislation in January would change the financial impact on Tuckahoe residents, Mr. Dyer said the district will hold a new straw vote. If it passes, it would move on to the final vote with both districts participating.

For now, it is unclear when the proposal will be brought back to the taxpayers. “We remain hopeful to find a merger solution that is both academically enriching and allows both districts to realize the savings created by the economies of scale,” the statement says.

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