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Neighbors' debate on school merger

Dr. Scott Farina, right, the superintendent of the

Dr. Scott Farina, right, the superintendent of the Southampton school district, speaks to a crowd gathered at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, about the upcoming vote on a proposed merger with the neighboring Tuckahoe school district. The Southampton school district president, Heather McCallion, is at left. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Residents in the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts will vote Tuesday for the second time in slightly more than a year on whether their neighboring systems -- whose students already share a high school and sports teams -- should merge.

Southampton school officials have held nearly a dozen community meetings this fall as they worked to convince residents that the academic benefits of annexing Tuckahoe are worth a modest tax hike.

A few miles away, administrators of tiny Tuckahoe said the system, slammed by an eroding tax base and swelling costs, could become financially insolvent if it does not merge with another district in the next few years.

The proposed merger, if approved, would be the first such consolidation on Long Island since Eastport-South Manor combined in 2004. Tuckahoe operates a single schoolhouse with 350 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, while Southampton has 1,500 students in three schools spanning grades K-12.

Critics argue, as they did before the unsuccessful merger vote in October 2013, that Tuckahoe would reap the benefits, while the burdens -- principally, an increase in property taxes -- would fall on Southampton.

The potential financial impact this time around, however, would not be as sudden. The situation shifted after state lawmakers passed a bill in the spring that would allow the tax hike in Southampton to phase in over 10 years.

Still, the tax issue remains the central point of contention.

"I don't mind spending more money if you get something for it, but I don't see what you would get for it," said Lori Tutt, a parent with two children in Southampton Elementary School.

Susanna Herrmann, who attended Southampton's final pre-vote forum on Wednesday, spoke in favor of consolidation.

"I value education and community, and that means more to me" than a tax hike, said Herrmann, whose son attends Southampton Elementary School.

Tuckahoe's tax rate of $7.57 per $1,000 assessed valuation is triple Southampton's $2.44 per $1,000, so a merger would cause Tuckahoe's rate to fall and Southampton's to rise.

In last year's vote, the merger passed in Tuckahoe, where the tax rate would drop 63 percent, but failed in Southampton, where the rate would rise 14 percent, equating to a hike of $330 for a home valued at $1 million.

The defeat sparked a student sit-in in the halls of Southampton High School and complaints that part-time residents of Southampton -- mostly wealthy summer residents whose children do not attend local schools -- played an outsized role in derailing the plan.

This year, in addition to the law allowing the phase-in of a Southampton tax increase, administrators in that district produced financial projections that show the cost of running a combined district would be $4 million less than continuing to operate two systems.

A state law passed in the spring also would allow the Southampton school board to tap $8 million in reserves to lower tax rates. However, Superintendent Scott Farina said the district intends to use some or all of the funds to construct a new administration building.

Tuesday's balloting is the first of two votes. If the measure passes in both districts, residents vote again in January. If it passes then, the districts would merge July 1.

Southampton officials said they fear that if the merger fails, Tuckahoe could contract with another nearby district, meaning the loss of the students it sends yearly to Southampton High School -- usually about 150 kids -- and $3.5 million in annual tuition dollars.

Farina pointed out potential positives from a merger, saying the district could expand academic offerings and turn Tuckahoe's schoolhouse into a specialized center for pre-K through first grade.

"Last year, we had two community meetings," Farina said. "This year, we had 11 -- just to get the information to as many people as we could."

On the other side, the Southampton Association, a civic group whose members are mostly part-time residents, continued to run newspaper ads this year saying the merger plan "penalizes Southampton" and "provides no concrete strategy to improve education for all students." A representative of the group declined to comment last week.

Tuckahoe school board chairman Robert Grisnik, who has sought the district's dissolution as its financial fortunes declined, said he senses "more positive energy this year than there was last year."

Southampton Town reassessed the property values of four golf courses in the district three years ago, which school administrators said has drained $2 million to $4 million a year from Tuckahoe's $18 million budget. The district, as a result, has cut a quarter of its employees.

"We're in a financial situation where we will not be able to stay in business after another year or so," Grisnik said.

 

 

Joining resources?

 

Tuckahoe Common School District

* 350 students in grades K-8

* About 90 employees

* 2013 merger vote: 565 in favor, 35 opposed

Southampton Union Free School District

* 1,500 students in grades K-12

* About 300 employees

* 2013 merger vote: 693 in favor, 1,075 opposed

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