About 30 people came out to the Tuckahoe Common School...

About 30 people came out to the Tuckahoe Common School to listen at a meeting held by SES study team as they discuss a possible merge between Tuckahoe Common School and Southampton UFSD. (Sept. 19, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

Southampton and Tuckahoe school district voters, in referendums later this year, will decide whether to merge under a plan already drawing emotional reactions from taxpayers.

The decision will test whether Southampton residents, who pay significantly lower property taxes because of second-home mansions, are willing to boost their taxes to preserve programs for their students and lower their neighbors' taxes.

The combined $71.5 million budget, outlined as part of a $65,000 study commissioned by the districts, could save millions of dollars a year, advocates said.

Those savings would be realized by reducing staff and adding efficiencies in things such as bus routes, according to the report by consultant SES Study Team.

But taxes in Southampton would increase in the first year by 8.67 percent. Tuckahoe's tax rate would decrease by an estimated 65 percent.

Tuckahoe's school tax rate is currently three times higher than Southampton's.

District officials and consultants warned that the figures used are only a framework.

Advisory votes will be held in the districts Oct. 29, where the school boards will gauge community support. Binding votes would be Dec. 5.

At a community meeting on the study last week at Southampton High School, David F. Rung, a CPA, pleaded with Southampton taxpayers to "look beyond your own self-interest."

"This annexation makes great sense for the good of the community," he said. His house is partially in both districts.

But Pam Spellman of Southampton was skeptical. Tuckahoe residents knew their taxes were higher when they bought houses, she said after the meeting.

"Tuckahoe is going to benefit." But, she said, "Southampton is going to pay more."

Spellman said she's undecided until she can see long-term cost estimates.

Tuckahoe Common School District has 354 kindergartners through eighth-graders. This year, it will pay to send its 149 high school students to Southampton, which has about 1,500 kindergarten to high school students.

Tuckahoe's district faces costs rising faster than the state's tax cap, Superintendent Chris Dyer said.

The districts went into the study asking questions. "Is this thing feasible? Does this make sense?" he said. "The study seems to provide credence for that."

Southampton Superintendent Scott Farina said a merger would be able to preserve offerings at the school. It has a flat population now, but Tuckahoe could decide to send its high school students to another district.

"It's very difficult for small districts to have a rich offering of programs in an economically responsible way," he said. "I think we have the chance to improve educational programming at a reduced operating cost," said Frank Zappone, a retired school administrator and member of Tuckahoe's advisory committee on the annexation.

"Tuckahoe is struggling to survive" under the tax cap law, he said. "There are not oceanfront homes worth millions and millions of dollars."

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