Tuckahoe School District officials had few answers Monday night for parents who are concerned about the future of the district, especially where today’s eighth-graders will attend high school next September.
Monday’s School Board meeting took place only six days after a merger of the Tuckahoe and Southampton school districts was rejected by Southampton voters. Even so, Tuckahoe School Board President Bob Grisnik said the board still believes that, with some tweaks, a merger with the Southampton District is the best course of action.
Southampton Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina had a different point of view on Tuesday morning. After Southampton voters rejected a proposed merger in two separate votes, he said that drastic changes would have to be made to any proposal before the district would even consider asking for a third vote.
On November 18, Southampton voters for a second time rejected the merger proposal, 1,066-972, while Tuckahoe residents overwhelmingly approved the proposal, 533-25, also for a second time. The merger would have dissolved the Tuckahoe School District on July 1, 2015, gradually raising taxes in Southampton while lowering them in Tuckahoe, which sends a significant number of students to Southampton for upper grades, thus providing tuition revenues to that district.
According to Mr. Grisnik, Tuckahoe’s first step is to see if it can get grant money to fund the merger from $500 million that Governor Andrew Cuomo has set aside to encourage municipal and school mergers and the use of shared services. Tuckahoe officials said a grant could prevent Southampton taxes from increasing at all—and Mr. Grisnik said he believes that would be enough to swing the vote. He has already requested a meeting with the governor.
This week, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said state money is definitely a possibility but that he is not positive it will be a game-changer for Southampton voters. “Absent of something rather dramatic, I think that after two votes, the voters have spoken,” Mr. Thiele said. “I think that we need to take a look at what is next.”
Mr. Thiele said both he and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle will do whatever they can to help Tuckahoe, whether by merging with another district, keeping ninth-graders at Tuckahoe’s Magee Street building to reduce tuition costs, or sending students to a regional high school, if one were to be created on the East End in the years to come.
A regional school has been discussed for years, and roughly a half dozen districts without their own high schools could benefit. Mr. Thiele said smaller school districts in similar or worse financial binds than Tuckahoe could see reduced tuition.
Mr. LaValle agreed. “Well, the people in Southampton have spoken,” he said. “Not once, but twice. My plan is to talk to Tuckahoe and see how we can help Tuckahoe, because that is critically important right now. We need to focus on them right now.”
At the Tuckahoe meeting on Monday night, parents questioned the district’s plans to move forward with merger discussions or an exclusive tuition deal with Southampton after being rejected twice in the merger votes. They wanted to know what the district plans to do to sustain Tuckahoe, and where students will attend high school next year.
“Why are we looking at a Band-Aid when, down the road, what we should be looking at is surgery?” Tuckahoe resident Matt Zukoski asked.
Mr. Grisnik said it would not be so easy to pull Tuckahoe students from Southampton High School. Even if other districts, like Westhampton Beach or Hampton Bays, can offer a better tuition deal, it would be impossible to send current eighth-graders there without committing for all four of their high school years, he said. “We are committed to keeping our children on the course they are going now,” he added.
Although Tuckahoe hopes to maintain a relationship with Southampton, Westhampton Beach Superintendent Michael Radday said this week that Tuckahoe students have always been welcome at Westhampton Beach, and that the district would be open to negotiations with Tuckahoe—even talks about a merger.
“Tuckahoe students have excelled at Westhampton Beach High School for many years,” Mr. Radday said in an email. “Prior to the exclusive tuition agreement between Tuckahoe and Southampton, the majority of Tuckahoe eighth-graders were choosing Westhampton Beach High School. We would certainly welcome an opportunity to continue to serve them … we would certainly be interested in exploring the possibility of a merger [between Westhampton Beach and Tuckahoe] to determine if it is financially viable for both communities.”
According to Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer, the district has enough reserve funds to pay high school tuition for the 2015-16 school year. However, the district will not be able to maintain its programs much longer, he said. “The status quo right now means we are on a downward trend, because our revenues are not as great as our expenses,” he said. “Something needs to change.”
For now, district officials are asking residents to be patient while they evaluate tuition options for the next few years, with Mr. Grisnik saying the district will have more answers in January after meeting with other East End districts. The main priority, he said, is the education of the students and keeping stability in their lives, which he still believes can be achieved through a merger.
If the merger had been approved, the tax rate for a home in Southampton valued at $1 million would have increased 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 have added 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 have risen gradually until reaching that $330 cap.
For Tuckahoe residents, who currently pay a much higher tax rate of $7.57 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, the tax rate would have dropped to $2.77, saving $4,800 for a home valued at $1 million by 2024-25.
Tuckahoe officials plan to meet in executive session and with state legislators and other school district officials over the next few months. “We are all in this together,” Mr. Grisnik said. “We need help. Whether it is financial help or some other help, we need it.
“It is frustrating that we, and Southampton, spent so much time trying to educate the community on the pros and cons because we are here for one reason, to educate our children and give them the best education we can,” he said. “We feel the best way to do this is to merge and create one unified school district. We all live here together and do things together.”