For the first time since merger talks began between the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts, members of the Southampton School Board expressed doubts this week about moving forward with re-votes this fall, saying they have heard no interest in doing so from their constituents.
At the district’s first work session of the new school year on Tuesday night, several board members said that although they still believe the merger will benefit both districts, without support from Southampton residents, there is not much the district can do to make it happen. Board members said that to date they have heard only from people who oppose the merger, and now they are calling for Southampton School District taxpayers who support the merger to come forward and be heard.
People are “ambivalent at best,” said School Board Vice President Donald J. King.
In a few weeks, if officials feel there is enough support to warrant continuing exploration of a merger, the district will organize a series of debates for Southampton residents before holding a second straw vote to determine if a final referendum will be held. If not, the district will reevaluate whether dedicating a considerable amount of time to moving forward is a good idea.
“The merger has become almost a distraction,” Mr. King said. “We are at the point where we either need to do it or move on. We have problems in our own district that we need to worry about.”
The Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts have for several years been discussing a merger to alleviate a bleak financial future for Tuckahoe, but no action was taken until October 2012, when the two districts commissioned a merger study. A plan that outlined details for the Southampton School District to annex Tuckahoe was approved by State Education Commissioner John B. King’s office in August 2013. Voters in the two districts were able to cast the first of several votes on the proposal—and in the first round, the plan was overwhelmingly approved by Tuckahoe voters but rejected by voters in the Southampton School District.
Last month, the Southampton district released preliminary figures for a new study conducted in-house using what it said were more solid financial predictions than an original merger study approved by the state. The original study estimated that Southampton taxpayers could expect to see an increase of roughly 21 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to their annual property tax rate, which would be about 8.7 percent, or $210 more per year, on a house assessed at $1 million.
But in the new study, the tax increase is projected at a total of 33 cents per $1,000, spread out over a decade. The increase would not go into effect until the 2018-19 school year. At the 10-year mark, the total tax impact for a $1 million house would be $330 higher due to the merger, not including non-merger-related increases to the district budget over the 10-year span. This year, a home assessed at $1 million is paying an estimated $2,410 in school taxes.
However, district officials are saying that projection could be misleading because it is not all-inclusive. The district has opted not to include it in future presentations.
“The average of 33 cents over 10 years is a debatable number,” Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina acknowledged. “You could say it is oversimplified. That is an average, and it is when you are talking compared to the years before or the beginning of the merger, so it is confusing.”
Mr. King said he is most disappointed with recently passed legislation aimed to help the district, saying it is not what was asked for. Originally, the board was under the impression that the legislation would completely eliminate a tax increase for Southampton residents, but instead the bill delays the increase, which Mr. King said will be significantly higher than $330 for a home assessed at $1 million when all is said and done.
“Being a resident with two kids in college, that is a lot of money for me and a lot of money for my family,” he said. “I am just having a hard time saying it is a good thing at this point.”
He was also unhappy with a second piece of legislation passed in Albany that would allow the district to use its reserve funds to offset the tax increase. According to Mr. King, the district did not ask for that, and it should be up to residents how the reserve money should be spent.
“I do believe that this is the right thing for the entire community for the two districts to merge, because I believe that a divided community is a weakened community,” Board President Heather McCallion said, adding that she urges parents who support the merger to be more active in the effort, “so that we can see what kind of appetite there is to move forward.
“Without that,” she continued. “I am having a hard time seeing how the seven of us can move forward. We can lead the charge, but if there is no one behind us, I don’t know how that is going to work.”
Board member Andy Brindle also talked about the financial ramifications of the merger, saying that it is unfortunate, but at the end of the day money is an important factor in the decision. Mr. Brindle also said it will be important to see how the educational impact of the potential merger, versus the impact on the taxes, will affect future discussions.
“We have heard from little pockets of people who are clear and bring intelligible points about why the merger should not go forward,” he said. “I think it is a very interesting case study on the long-term benefits of a merger versus a tax hike. I think everybody that I know would agree that if the tax wasn’t important that adding the 400 neighboring students would make all sorts of sense to have a bigger district. But money is in play, and we can understand how people will be forced to vote along those lines.
“What I haven’t heard,” he continued. “Is the other side of the argument. And I would like to hear from them.”
During the meeting, Dr. Farina also explained that the impacts on the high school will not be as severe as originally projected if the Tuckahoe students are pulled from the district down the road. After a class-by-class comparison, Dr. Farina said the district will still have enough students to maintain all college and Advanced Placement classes. The biggest change, he said, will be smaller class sizes and fewer sections, meaning several teachers will be let go—a move that would help offset the loss of tuition payments for Tuckahoe students. At the same time, the district already has trouble maintaining some sports and extracurricular programs, several of which would not survive losing the Tuckahoe students.
On Wednesday morning, Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer—who was present at the Southampton meeting on Tuesday night—said that he was surprised by the comments made by the board, but that he appreciated their candor and hopes annexation discussions can continue in the next few months.
“The solidarity of the community to support our schools clearly impacts the tax burden,” he said in a statement. “We continue to believe as a Tuckahoe community that the benefits educationally and financially in the long term are paramount to a quality of life for all in Southampton Town.”
The Southampton School District is now looking to find its next step. In the next few days, the officials will be reaching out to district residents soliciting those in favor of the merger to come forward, possibly through reforming a joint Citizens Advisory Committee. The district has not yet announced how people should make contact, but asked them to check the district website for updates.