Less than a week before a revamped merger plan is put before Southampton and Tuckahoe school district voters for a second time, officials believe they are slowly beginning to persuade some Southampton residents to vote this time in favor of annexing the smaller district next year.
It is still unclear, however, if there will be enough new “yes” votes to move forward on the second try.
Voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, November 18, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Southampton residents can cast their vote in the music room of the Southampton Intermediate School on Leland Lane, while Tuckahoe voters can head to the library at the Tuckahoe School on Magee Street.
The merger plan, which has been in discussion for several years, would eliminate the Tuckahoe School District starting on July 1, 2015, absorbing it into the Southampton district. The proposal will have to survive two rounds of voting among community members. The first vote, scheduled for Tuesday, November 18, to be held separately in each of the two districts, is considered a straw vote, and it will determine whether taxpayers of both districts think the proposal is worthy of moving forward to a formal vote in January. A majority of voters in both districts must approve the proposal on Tuesday. A January vote in the two districts would then finalize the merger.
Last year, Tuckahoe voters overwhelmingly approved the merger in a straw vote, but Southampton voters rejected it, 1,075-693.
This week, district officials and residents are making a last push—both for and against the proposal—to encourage residents to head to the polls on Tuesday. The big question: Will this vote be different?
“I think the community forums and written promotional materials provided from both the Southampton and Tuckahoe districts have much more clearly defined the impact of the merger,” Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer said this week. He said a study commissioned by the two districts on the feasibility of a merger was “a good starting point,” but added, “I think some points were not as well-defined last year as they are now.”
According to Tuckahoe officials, the district made the decision to pursue the merger after looking at financial projections for the next few years. If the two districts were to merge this year, Southampton would gain roughly $16 million in assets from Tuckahoe. However, in the next five years, increasing tuition costs, contractual payments and unfunded mandates will make it nearly impossible for Tuckahoe to operate independently.
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 state officials, 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. Tuckahoe voters approved the idea 565-35, while Southampton taxpayers voted 1,075-693 against the proposition.
A key factor appeared to be the tax impact of a merger. In Southampton, the merger will raise tax bills, while Tuckahoe voters would see sweeping cuts in their property tax bills if the two districts are combined.
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 resulting tax increases for Southampton residents, and another that would allow the district to use capital reserve funds to offset tax increases. District officials also released a line-by-line comparison of both districts’ budgets to create a new, joint spending plan without redundancies.
According to Southampton officials, the current Tuckahoe school tax levy is $16,855,182, while the Southampton school tax levy is $50,749,238. A merger would create a district with a combined school tax levy of $67,604,420 for the 2015-16 school year. By combining services and joining the two districts, Southampton officials believe they can curb unnecessary spending in the two districts.
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 reevaluated figures from Southampton, the tax rate for a home in Southampton valued at $1 million would at first decrease and then increase incrementally over the next decade from $2.44 to $2.77 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That means that in the 2024-25 school year, the tax increase associated exclusively with the merger would add no more than $330 to the current overall school tax for a house valued at $1 million. In the years in between, the taxes paid to cover the merger would rise gradually until reaching that $330 cap.
Currently, Tuckahoe property owners are paying $7.57 per $1,000 in school taxes, a number that would drop until leveling out at $2.77, saving $4,800 for a home valued at $1 million.
Even with a clearer financial picture for the merger, some Southampton residents are not convinced, saying they should not have to bail out Tuckahoe residents at their own expense. Some residents, like Lori Tutt, say the Southampton School District would survive without the Tuckahoe students if the merger fails and Tuckahoe pulls its students from Southampton High School to save on tuition costs.
“Many people complained last year regarding the lack of information—this has not changed,” Ms. Tutt wrote in a letter to the editor of The Press last week. “The district still has not put out a budget of what Southampton School District would look like without Tuckahoe’s involvement. The district does not have a firm projection on the budget, nor does it have a firm plan on implementation.”
Others disagree. Southampton resident Roger Blaugh said in a letter to The Press this week that the district has succeeded in changing his mind this year. He said that while Southampton officials were unprepared last year—prompting him to vote against the merger—he has seen much more information in the last few months. He added that although his taxes will still go up, he feels the district has done its due diligence in presenting a combined budget, making him comfortable to say that now it should be all about the children and bettering the community.
“Last year, I strongly felt that the vote was premature, and that some of the information was suspect,” he said this week. “I think that in the year that has passed since the last vote, the School Board has gotten the message. We are all, I think, at heart supporters of good education.”
Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley is also in favor of the merger, saying that he believes it is the best option for the entire community. A Tuckahoe School District resident himself—the district line is in Southampton Village—Mr. Epley said separating the two districts will serve only to hurt the joint Southampton/Tuckahoe community. “For me, it is more about the quality of education and the impact that a failure to merge would have,” he said. “I want this to be one community.
“We are one community here,” he added. “These kids all grew up together, they play ball together, are Boy Scouts together, go to dances together, and do all of these things. To potentially have that disrupted would have a very negative impact on the community itself.”