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Southampton-Tuckahoe school merger fans push to unite districts

Residents who want Southampton and Tuckahoe schools to

Residents who want Southampton and Tuckahoe schools to merge made emotional appeals for the districts to unite during a meeting of about 75 residents. Pictured is the exterior of Tuckahoe Common School on Magee Street in Southampton on Sept. 19, 2013. Credit: Randee Daddona

Residents who want Southampton and Tuckahoe schools to merge made emotional appeals for the districts to unite during a meeting of about 75 residents last week.

Southampton school board members said they organized the forum after sensing disinterest in the merger attempt -- the districts' second in two years -- among Southampton residents this summer.

But proponents from both Southampton and Tuckahoe, many of them parents, teachers and students, broke their silence in the cafeteria of the Southampton Intermediate School on Thursday.

"We are all members of the same community," said Diana Yastrzemski, 47, a parent of children in Southampton.

Southampton school officials are trying again to annex neighboring Tuckahoe after Southampton voters rejected a similar plan in a referendum last year.

Southampton superintendent Scott Farina, whose district educates about 1,500 students in an elementary, intermediate and high school, said the annexation would save the districts a combined $4 million a year. Because Tuckahoe's tax rate is higher than Southampton's, a merger would lower Tuckahoe's rate and increase Southampton's.

But, due to a state budget amendment this year, the tax rates will equalize gradually, over a decade, instead of all at once. Southampton school officials said they hope that development will sway reticent taxpayers in their district.

The Southampton school board will likely vote Tuesday on whether to go forward with a "straw vote" -- an advisory referendum that precedes a second, binding referendum -- in October or November, said school board president Heather McCallion.

Southampton residents who spoke at the forum said children in the two districts already share sports teams and a sense of community, and a tax hike is a small price to pay to ensure they stay together.

"This merger is about what is right, not about a few dollars," said Zach Epley, 26, of Southampton.

Southampton's tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value would rise over a decade to $2.77 from $2.44. Tuckahoe's would fall from $7.57 to $2.77 as a result of a merger.

Farina said Thursday that he fears Tuckahoe, which has a single K-8 school with 400 students and pays Southampton to educate its high school students, could someday contract with another district in an attempt to save money, costing Southampton 25 percent of its high school students and $3 million in tuition revenue.

"That's a possibility," Tuckahoe school board chairman Robert Grisnik said Thursday, adding that his district has made painful cuts as it has struggled to adhere to the state-mandated tax cap in recent years.

McCallion said Thursday's meeting resolved "some ambivalence from the community. We really just wanted to put the word out that we needed to hear from the Southampton community. We got that last night."

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