The East End school districts of Southampton and Tuckahoe are exploring a possible merger to contain mounting costs, with local boards of education this week approving a feasibility study of consolidation.
"A lot of districts are under financial pressure," Southampton Superintendent Richard Boyes said. "Would it make sense for the districts to merge? People speculate on what it would mean, and there has been no independent objective study done of that."
Southampton and Tuckahoe board members, in separate votes, approved hiring the Syracuse-based SES Study Team to conduct a reorganization feasibility study. The districts will split the $69,000 cost.
Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. is a proponent of consolidation. He singled out Long Island and Westchester County, about a year ago, as places with "lots of very small districts in a very concentrated geographic area" where mergers could save money.
The "fiscal realities" facing the state and local districts "require us to consider bold new initiatives like regional school consolidations," Education Department spokesman Jon Burman said Tuesday. "We know that declining enrollments and limited resources continue to erode educational opportunities for many students, and there are real efficiencies that can be gained by consolidating groups of districts."
Long Island's 124 school districts, like others across New York, also face the challenge of devising financial plans for the second year of the state's property-tax cap. Districts must stay within their cap, which imposes a ceiling on the increase in local tax levies, unless they succeed in getting a 60 percent voter override. The cap varies by district.
Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said he expects other districts to conduct similar studies. Districts thinking of a merger have a major question to ponder, he said: "Is it going to be mutually beneficial?"
Southampton and Tuckahoe were among six East End districts, with Eastern Suffolk BOCES, that sought state funding this year for examination of consolidation and shared services. That grant was not awarded, and Tuckahoe and Southampton pursued the study on their own, school officials said.
Tuckahoe, with less than 350 students in pre-K through eighth grade, borders the Southampton district and pays tuition for high school students to attend Southampton or Westhampton Beach high schools. The Southampton district has more than 1,500 students in pre-K through 12th grade.
The study will begin soon. Extensive data -- including enrollment projections, and the finances and demographics of each district -- will be collected. The study team will meet on-site with groups including board members, administrators, staff and community members.
Paul Seversky, with SES, said the study could be sent to the Education Department by the end of June. If approved, the plan would go before both boards, which would determine whether to move forward.
If the boards approved, two community votes in each district would follow -- an advisory vote and then a binding referendum.
"There are always efficiencies that can be found," Seversky said. "The next wrinkle is, 'Will those efficiencies translate to improvement in school programs and lower tax rates?' "
The Tuckahoe school superintendent could not be reached. The district posted a notice on its website stating that projections show a deficit.
In May, Tuckahoe voters rejected a budget with a local tax-levy increase of 1.99 percent. Tuckahoe trimmed its budget by more than $150,000, and it passed on a revote. Southampton's budget, with a local tax-levy hike of 4.31 percent, passed easily in May.
Tuckahoe officials cautioned the process is in the early stages.
"Authorization of a merger feasibility study does not mean that a merger will take place," the notice said. "It is merely the beginning of a process that will provide accurate information for future decision-making. Voters of both school districts have the final say."