Editorial: Ease the path for school district mergers
Another proposed school merger has been derailed, at least for the time being, now that Southampton district residents have voted down an annexation of Tuckahoe. That gives rise to legitimate worries about whether any consolidation can get done on Long Island, given that this one made sense.
Southampton's high school students, who come from both districts, staged a sit-in protest a few days after the vote. Their message was clear: Make this work. Officials in both districts still support the merger and are working to make it happen. But the vote underscored the obstacles along Merger Road.
And it's not just a Long Island problem: Two other proposed mergers -- both upstate -- also were defeated by voters this fall. One of the major issues in all three cases was taxes: In most school mergers, taxes rise for residents in one district and fall in the other. The greater the disparity, the more likely voters are to reject the proposed merger. Given that many state officials, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and education commissioner John B. King Jr., have embraced consolidations as a way to reduce the high cost of education, it's clear that Albany has to add a little more muscle to the process. Both the State Legislature and state Education Department need to take action to minimize the tax implications of merging -- because there is a continuing appetite for school consolidation.
Two North Fork districts, for example, have announced their own brand of consolidation. Southold and Greenport plan to share a superintendent beginning in June. The move is more powerful symbolically than as a real cost savings -- each current superintendent earns around $200,000 and the districts' combined budgets are nearly $44 million -- but it deepens their record of shared expenses and could lead to other similar moves.
Southampton and Tuckahoe also share some history, which helped make them seem as close to an ideal merger match as one could imagine. They have similar demographics, Tuckahoe as an elementary school district already sends most of its high-schoolers to Southampton, and the combined district would save an estimated $9 million in its first year.
The rub was in the taxes: Tuckahoe residents now pay more than three times as much as Southampton residents. In a merged district, where rates are equalized, taxes would drop an estimated 65 percent in Tuckahoe; Southampton homeowners faced an increase of 8.7 percent. The actual dollars were modest: $210 more for a Southampton resident who has a $1 million home and a current school tax bill of $2,420. But a tax hike is a tax hike -- and this is the era of the 2 percent state tax cap. The 8.7 percent increase was part of a spirited anti-merger campaign by the nonprofit Southampton Association, a group of mostly second-home owners that complained about financial consequences for taxpayers.
The state Education Department offers financial incentives for merged school districts in the form of building aid and reorganization aid. The latter can be used to reduce tax levies but would not have helped in Southampton's case. The State Legislature needs to consider ways to flatten out the tax impacts -- for example, by phasing them in over time to keep increases under the tax cap -- and the state Education Department needs to push for that to happen. State Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) say making post-merger taxes more equitable will be a high priority during the upcoming budget process.
That's good news, because a no-merger future is worrisome -- for both districts. Tuckahoe is running out of reserves, cannot significantly increase revenue through taxes, and would have to send its high school students elsewhere to save money. That tuition loss would be a $3 million hit for Southampton -- the equivalent of a 6 percent tax increase -- and leave the high school without the critical mass of students it needs for many programs. The district likely would have to cut staff, advanced placement courses, electives and sports offerings.
Clearly, this merger needs to happen. If Long Island can't get this one done, what will it ever get done?