The school merger movement on Long Island has been marked by many more failures than successes. The last consolidation -- of the Eastport and South Manor districts -- was completed in 2003. Now comes a proposal to merge two East End systems, Southampton and Tuckahoe, that highlights the many benefits of combining resources with your neighbor.
The plan is good news for residents in both districts, who would see significant budget savings, as well as more and improved class and extracurricular offerings. They would be wise to approve it in voting later this fall. The proposal also is food for thought for other districts where financial struggles are making it more difficult to strengthen educational programs and better prepare students for more rigorous state testing.
Merging certainly is not for everyone. In many ways, Southampton and Tuckahoe are an ideal pairing. Their demographics are similar, no new building or major renovation would be needed, the tax implications are promising, and many of the districts' students know each other from outside sports, scouts and the local youth center. And Tuckahoe, whose one school building educates students from pre-K to eighth grade, already sends most of its high schoolers to Southampton. But paying that tuition bill was becoming too expensive for Tuckahoe. Sending them to a different district with cheaper tuition would have been too big of a budget hit for Southampton. The state tax cap makes it difficult for each district to raise taxes enough to solve its problems.
A feasibility study released this summer estimates a budget for the combined district of $71.5 million, $9 million less than the combined budgets of the two districts this year. That's a significant savings.
There are educational benefits, too, that other districts should note, including the opportunity to combine best educational practices to improve instruction. Officials also are excited about the possibility of turning the Tuckahoe School into an early learning center for pre-K, kindergarten and first grade. With research stressing the importance of strengthening early childhood programs, and with state testing beginning in third grade, Tuckahoe and Southampton officials see that as one of the biggest benefits of the proposed merger.
The districts deserve credit simply for exploring the merger option. They were among seven South Fork districts, along with Eastern Suffolk BOCES, that applied last year for a state efficiency grant to study everything from shared services to re-forming the South Fork into two school districts along town lines. Even though State Education Commissioner John King has been a vocal proponent of mergers, the application was not funded. So Southampton and Tuckahoe funded their own study.
It would be a stretch to say this is the beginning of a trend. Two years ago, the Elwood district abandoned its quest to do a consolidation study because none of the five neighboring districts wanted to participate. But a merger of Tuckahoe and Southampton could inspire districts grappling with similar problems to take a harder look. A merger would give Southampton and Tuckahoe the flexibility -- financial and otherwise -- to adapt to changing financial times and better serve students. That's a model to which everyone can aspire.