Southampton HS students protest merger defeat

Students sits in the front hallway at Southampton

Students sits in the front hallway at Southampton High School to protest the defeat of a proposed merger with the nearby Tuckahoe School District. (Nov. 1, 2013) (Credit: Gordon M. Grant)

About 200 Southampton High School students protested voters' rejection of a move toward merging the school district with Tuckahoe's by staging a sit-in Friday in the front hallway and corridors.

"We don't have a direct vote," said Christian Westerhoff, 17, the senior class president. "We want to make people aware."

Friday was the last day of the academic year's first quarter, so students had exams or makeup tests and rotated in and out of the sit-in depending on their schedules. The event, organized through social media and word-of-mouth, was orderly and lasted from the 7:26 a.m. opening bell to the school day's end at 2 p.m.

The referendum, with votes held Tuesday in both school districts, would have opened the door to a future merger vote in December. Passage in each district was required. The proposal passed, 565-35, in Tuckahoe but was defeated in Southampton, drawing 1,075 "no" votes to 693 "yes" votes.

Tuckahoe, too small to have its own high school, sends its students to Southampton High. Several protesting students said they worry that their Tuckahoe counterparts may in two or three years be sent to Hampton Bays or another district.

Several students said they hope another vote on a merger can be held next year."Tuckahoe is as much a part of Southampton as we are," said Sebastian Cuyjet, 16, a sophomore who lives on the Shinnecock Reservation.

If Tuckahoe students go elsewhere, some said, classmates who have been on the same teams or taken classes together would be separated. They also voiced concern that Advanced Placement and other special programs may have to be cut because there would be fewer students to fill those classes.

Brian Zahn, the high school principal, said he was not surprised by the students' demonstration, and he congratulated them on the way it was carried out, with no interruption of normal school activities.

"The day after the vote, it was almost like a funeral for our students," he said. "They were clearly, visibly upset. The hallways were quiet."

Residents of Southampton had expressed dismay at the proposed increase in their school property taxes, which would have increased 8.67 percent in the first year had the merger been approved.

The Tuckahoe district's tax rate is three times higher than the wealthier Southampton district, which includes oceanfront and vacation homes.

A study said the merger would result in an $8 million savings for the two districts.

The Tuckahoe Common School District has 354 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and 154 high school students. Southampton has about 1,500 students.

Scott Farina, superintendent of the Southampton school district, said he was at the high school for the start of the protest.

"I was proud of the students," he said. "They were very respectful. They were passionate about a topic that was very important to them."The issue is expected to come up when the Southampton school board holds its regular meeting Tuesday.

In a statement provided to Newsday and read at the beginning of the sit-in, students said they had gathered "to protest against the denial of the merger."

"We are doing this because Tuckahoe students are just as much a part of Southampton as we are in our high school," the statement said. "We can't allow separation of our close friends."

It went on to say: "We are making an example of our dissatisfaction toward the adult community in Southampton . . . We must give them a reminder that we are not only students of Southampton but WE ARE the future community of Southampton."

With John Valenti

and Ellen Yan

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