The Tuckahoe School Board voted unanimously this week to put a proposed merger with the Southampton School District to a community vote next month, but a pair of forums last week left some residents of both districts concerned that the annexation might ultimately be voted down by Southampton residents who do not want to see a resulting increase in their school taxes next year.
If the merger is approved, Southampton taxpayers can expect to see an increase of roughly 21 cents to their annual property tax rate, which would be about 8.7 percent, or $105 more a year on a house assessed at $500,000, according to early estimates. Meanwhile, Tuckahoe’s property tax rate would be slashed by $4.82—nearly two-thirds of the current rate—saving the owner of a house similarly assessed at $500,000 more than $2,400 in annual property taxes.
But even though Southampton taxes are expected to go up, district officials have warned that if the merger fails, the Southampton School District will face the possibility of losing all of its students from Tuckahoe—and the roughly $3 million of annual tuition revenue from Tuckahoe that goes with it. That could force massive cuts at all three Southampton schools and might prompt the district to raise the tax rate to compensate, school officials have said.
With the Tuckahoe School Board’s vote on Monday, the vote on the merger in that district is scheduled for October 29. The Southampton School Board is expected to decide whether or not to hold a similar community vote at its October 1 meeting. If the residents of both districts were to approve a merger, there would still be a second vote involving all of the residents of both districts before it would be finalized.
“The study team did a great job presenting a road map of what would happen in the merged school district,” Tuckahoe Board President Bob Grisnik said during Monday night’s meeting. “We plan on working with Southampton and their School Board and getting that information out, educating both communities on a lot of different things having to do with the merger, so everybody is fully informed and can make a good decision when they go to vote yes or no.”
Last week, members of the SES Study Team—which conducted a nine-month study of the proposed merger that was approved by State Education Commissioner John B. King in August—painted a potential picture of the newly merged district, stressing to both school boards that it was just a suggestion.
“The study holds up a mirror and reflects information to help the communities determine if a reorganization makes sense and asks, ‘Is it doable?’” SES Study Team member Paul Seversky said. “It provides a picture—not the picture, but a picture of what it might look like.”
The possibility of the merger has long been discussed, but the study was not begun until last October, when both school boards voted to move forward. According to Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer, the difficult decision was forced by the financial situation of his district. Mr. Dyer estimates that due to the state-mandated 2-percent cap on tax levy increases, the district will have exhausted all of its reserve funds by the 2015-16 school year.
The current 2013-14 budget for Southampton is $61.9 million, and the current budget for Tuckahoe is $18.5 million. According to the study, the 2014-15 budget for the newly merged district would be about $71.5 million—approximately $8.9 million less than the two districts’ combined 2013-14 budgets, even without taking into account increases that could be expected in their separate budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15.
During the Tuckahoe presentation attended by about 25 people on Thursday night, September 19, most community members seemed in favor of the proposal, noting the tax incentive for Tuckahoe residents as well as the potential for a better education for all students. However, there was a nagging fear that Southampton residents would not see the educational benefits for that district’s children and would vote down the proposal simply because of the projected tax increase.
“I am a little concerned,” one Tuckahoe resident, Bill Dalsimer, said. “I think there are financial and educational advantages to approving this merger. But I am scared another group of voters will say, ‘This is not for me.’”
In Southampton, only a handful of residents asked questions at the sparsely attended forum on Wednesday night, September 18, which drew about 50 people. Most questions revolved around the financial ramifications of the proposed merger. While no one was outright opposed, some did express strong support for the plan.
“I am very much in favor of this annexation,” said resident David Rung, whose house lies on the border of the two school districts and who pays taxes to both. “I think it is for the common good of the community.”
A key concern expressed at the meeting was what would happen if the merger fails. According to the study team, if it fails, or the districts opt to wait a few years, the financial situation could worsen for both. If the Tuckahoe district were annexed now, the Southampton district would acquire little to no debt, as Tuckahoe would pay off its debt services at the time of the merger using its reserve funds.
Another concern was that if the State Education Department forces a merger a few years from now—a possibility—increased state aid that would be available now to the new merged district may no longer be available.
“I understand there is a movement afoot by Southampton district residents who ask, ‘Why should I pay for their taxes?’” Mr. Rung said. “But I would hope the community would rather support the common good of both districts, and know that the common good can offset their particular concerns. However, I do understand their stance in the issue.”
At the Tuckahoe forum, Mr. Grisnik addressed one parent’s concerns about the Tuckahoe students currently attending Westhampton Beach High School who could be pulled from the district and sent to Southampton. According to Mr. Grisnik, the board was aware that many parents were upset, and he added that the issue has not been closed yet. Mr. Grisnik said the first step is for the merger to be approved, and that energy can then be spent fighting to keep the Westhampton Beach students in the district.
The Southampton School Board is expected to vote to move the merger to a public vote by next week. After that, the first public vote will be held on October 29, when both districts will hold their own referendums. If both districts approve the referendum, a second, combined vote will be held on December 5 to decide the final fate of the merger.