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Editorial: A smoother path to school consolidations

Students sit in the front hallway at Southampton

Students sit in the front hallway at Southampton High School in Southampton to protest the defeat of a proposed merger with the nearby Tuckahoe School District. (Nov. 1, 2013) Credit: Gordon M. Grant

The bumpy road to school consolidation has become a lot smoother, thanks to language in the state budget that addresses the most intractable of merger issues: property taxes. In most mergers, taxes fall in one district but rise in the other, which often leads to voters rejecting consolidation plans and missing the opportunity to reduce costly bureaucracy. The change outlined in the budget allows districts to spread out tax increases over 10 years, greatly reducing the impact. This is a good step and one we have strongly supported.

The phase-in improves the prospects for proposed mergers around the state -- and the local consolidation of the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts. A merger was approved last fall by Tuckahoe voters, whose taxes would have plummeted, but rejected in Southampton, where taxes would have risen nearly 9 percent. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's property tax relief package offers additional help for Southampton taxpayers by essentially freezing their taxes for the first two years.

Now Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) are working with the governor's office to address unique issues that crop up in any merger. In Southampton's case, it's a $9-million capital reserve fund for a new district office building, which would not be needed in a merger. The pitch is to convert that into a tax stabilization fund that would eliminate tax increases for a longer period. It's a sound idea and Cuomo, LaValle and Thiele, who teamed up on the phase-in, should make sure this happens, too.

Assuming the remaining issues are addressed, it seems likely Southampton and Tuckahoe will submit a new plan to voters in the fall. There is a lot riding on the effort. Thiele says each of the 21 school districts in his Assembly district is closely watching the outcome. A successful merger could be the first in a series of dominoes. That would be a big win for Long Island.