Legislators And Tuckahoe, Southampton Contemplate A Future Without A Merger

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While administrators at the Tuckahoe School District are still moving full steam ahead on a proposed merger with the Southampton School District, parents concerned about their children’s futures are anxiously awaiting details about what will happen if the annexation fails to pass muster with voters.

One week after the Southampton School Board and community members expressed lingering concerns about the proposed annexation, members of the Tuckahoe community questioned their own School Board about alternative plans in case the merger fails, saying that parents have a right to know all the options their children will have come next September.

At a Tuckahoe Board of Education meeting on Monday night, Tuckahoe board members asked residents to be patient, saying that at the moment they still feel the best course is for the district to continue pursue a merger. The district is encouraging Tuckahoe residents to discuss the proposal with their Southampton counterparts as often as possible, but at the same time hinted that there are alternatives in the works that could be implemented if need be.

Meanwhile, this week New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle confirmed that there are plans afoot to help Tuckahoe should the two districts not be annexed next year. While there are several options, the most viable, they both said, would be to create a regional high school program that would allow students from any participating district that does not have its own high school program to attend. According to Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle, the regional high school would make particular sense on the East End, with several lower-grade districts that could benefit from a program.

“I think that while Tuckahoe is in this position now, it is just the first,” Mr. Thiele said. “This is something that all of the smaller school districts are going to be faced with in the future. There is legislation pending to create such a regional high school where Tuckahoe may be able to join with other similarly situated school districts without a high school.”

While the idea of a regional school is being floated, both the legislators, like the Tuckahoe administrators, said they would still rather pursue the annexation of Tuckahoe by Southampton.

The idea of a merger between the two neighboring districts has been discussed for several years, and both boards commissioned a joint merger feasibility study two years ago. Last year, the study was approved by New York State, and the two districts put the prospect to a straw vote in each district to see if it should go to a full public referendum. In the straw votes Tuckahoe approved the idea, while Southampton taxpayers overwhelmingly voted against the proposition, which would have raised Southampton taxes.

Since the vote failed, Southampton has come up with a new “merger concept,” which includes two pieces of legislation from Albany—one that would slowly roll out the tax increases for Southampton residents, and another that would allow the district to use capital reserve funds to offset tax increases—as well as using a line-by-line comparison of both districts’ budgets to create a new, joint spending plan without any redundancies between the two districts.

With the new spending plan, the district believes it can offer more concrete numbers to taxpayers. According to Southampton officials, the current Tuckahoe school tax levy is $16,855,182, while the Southampton school tax levy is $50,749,238. By combining services and joining the two districts, Southampton officials believe they can curb unnecessary spending in the two districts, creating a combined school tax levy of $67,604,420 for the 2015-16 school year.

According to Southampton Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina this week, the combined tax levy would make a significant difference for Southampton voters. He said the district did not have similar figures before the last vote, making it hard to predict actual tax impacts. The district has also asked the state to allow the $67.6 million figure to be used as the base for the next year’s cap on the tax levy increase, which would allow Southampton to stay under the cap in the event of a merger.

With the re-evaluated figures from Southampton, the tax rate for a home in Southampton valued at $1 million would increase incrementally over the next decade from $2.44 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $2.77 per $1,000. That means that for the 2024-25 school year, the tax associated exclusively with the merger would add no more than $330 to the overall school tax for a house valued at $1 million. For the years in between, the taxes paid to cover the merger would rise gradually until reaching that $330 cap. Currently, the Tuckahoe residents are paying $7.57 per $1,000 in school taxes.

The Southampton School District is expected to discuss the findings of its budget review on Thursday, September 11, at 6 p.m. in the Southampton Intermediate School cafeteria.

While the district is working to paint a picture of what merged districts would look like, should Tuckahoe be annexed, Southampton is also evaluating what will happen should the Tuckahoe students be pulled from Southampton High School.

That is also the case in Tuckahoe, where parents think an alternative plan should be presented.

On Monday night, Tuckahoe parent Sharon Grindle said Tuckahoe needs to consider its options for life without the Southampton district, pointing out that Southampton District officials made it clear they can survive without the roughly 121 Tuckahoe students and the $3 million in tuition money associated they bring in. Ms. Grindle referred to a September 2 Southampton meeting where officials said that although some sports programs would have to be cut, the Southampton district would still be able to operate most of its Advanced Placement and college courses, although there would be fewer class sections, and teachers would have to be let go.

“I think Dr. Farina’s comments said it all,” she said. “They can live without us academically. They can live without us in the sports arena, in the music arena. They feel they really don’t need us. We are a cash cow for them. You are our board and we are your community. Our children depend on you to make these decisions. What are you going to do if this merger goes down?”

While the Tuckahaoe board did not respond in much detail, Board President Bob Grisnik said the district is currently operating as though it will still be around next year, and has already started the budget process for next year.

“We are working on a budget and as we develop this budget we will let the details out as we hear what the Southampton district wants to do,” Mr. Grisnik said. “We are not sitting still. We are moving forward as if we will be here next year. The children come first.”

While the board did not go into specifics for alternative plans at the meeting on Monday, Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer did reference a February 2012 meeting that outlined several options, all of which, he said, are still viable. These options included keeping ninth graders at Tuckahoe to save tuition money, pursuing a merger or tuition agreement with the Hampton Bays School District, and creating a regional high school.

“We hope not to have to go to plan B, but we are prepared to go there,” Mr. Dyer said. “There are members of our community pursuing those options independently of this board, but plan A, the merger, is still our primary focus. But, we do have other plans we can follow if it is not successful.”

According to Mr. LaValle, if the merger fails, the most viable option for Tuckahoe, and other interested school districts, would be the creation of the regional high school. The new school, for which a location has not yet been publicly discussed, would be funded by having a dedicated, equalized tax within each school district’s overall tax levy. The more districts that participate in the regional program, the lower the tax levy for the regional school would be.

This week, Mr. LaValle said districts that might benefit from this type of program include Remsenburg-Speonk, East Quogue, Quogue, Tuckahoe, Springs, Wainscott and Montauk.

While Tuckahoe is remaining mum on any other plans, Mr. LaValle said he and Mr. Thiele are ready to work should Southampton pull out of, or vote down, the merger option. The legislators said they will hold an emergency meeting the day after a decision is made by the Southampton community on the merger, and that they can have a proposal ready to go before the legislative session in January. Mr. LaValle also said it would be possible to have phase one of any changes in place for next September, whether that means having Tuckahoe students temporarily attend a different East End high school, or having them attend school at a temporary regional facility.

For now, Tuckahoe administrators are encouraging residents to attend any information sessions they can.

“As parents, we are sitting here not hearing specifics,” another Tuckahoe parent, Laura Rissone, said on Monday. “All we are hearing is that there is a plan B. That is a frustrating place to be, because we have to make decisions and we cannot make them on a split-second notice, we need to know in advance.”

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