Tuckahoe School Board members pushed forward this week with steps to drastically reduce spending and preserve its programs—a feat which has proven difficult in the past few years because of unfunded state mandates, lowered tax assessments and increasing tuition rates, officials said.
The Tuckahoe and Southampton school boards selected the SES Study Team LLC from Albany to conduct a merger feasibility study for the two districts, and officials from both districts agreed to start making plans for a one-year exclusivity deal between the two districts. As a result, Tuckahoe’s high school age students will go only to Southampton High School, which will lower tuition rates for Tuckahoe while the long-term study gets under way.
Following closed-door executive session meetings on Monday and Tuesday nights, the Tuckahoe and Southampton school boards, respectively, voted to enter into a contract with the Syracuse firm and approved the exclusive tuition deal.
On Tuesday, Southampton School Superintendent Dr. J. Richard Boyes said the SES Study Team was the better option for both districts. “Both administrations and board members reviewed the proposals independently and decided that SES offers the best proposal to complete this study,” he said.
In October, both Southampton and Tuckahoe put out requests for proposals to find a firm that could explore the feasibility of a merger of the two districts. The SES Study Team originally quoted a price of $73,975 for their services but reduced the number to $69,975 in light of the districts’ budget of $70,000, Tuckahoe School Business Official Keri Loughin said at a November 26 board meeting. The districts will split the cost.
The study will include several meetings with the school community. Tuckahoe will take $35,000 from savings on interest paid for tax anticipation notes and allocate the funds to pay for the study, meaning there would be no new spending for the study. Southampton will pay out of its general fund.
The districts received a second response to the RFP from the University of Rochester, which would have cost the district approximately $50,200 for a more research-based study and only three days of meetings with the school community. More meetings would have cost an additional $2,000 per meeting.
Tuckahoe School Superintendent Chris Dyer said the SES Study Team had exactly what the two school boards were looking for in a firm to lead the study. “The emphasis on open communication with the community, transparency to the study data, and the involvement of the community members were large influencers,” he said, noting that the Tuckahoe and Southampton district officials’ decision was guided by the State Department of Education and the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “The personal matter in which SES communicated and answered our questions built trust and confidence that they would work well with our community.”
Over a period of several months, SES, which has completed six other similar reorganization feasibility studies, will look at both districts’ governance, finances, personnel, student enrollment, transportation and facilities, programs, and co-curricular offerings, and other issues within the school communities.
The state requires a merger feasibility study be completed before any consolidation is undertaken. Both involved district communities must then approve a merger in a referendum.
Consolidation and shared services have long been a topic between the two communities, especially in light of the state-mandated 2-percent tax levy cap, increasing financial pressures and other state mandates. Earlier this year, Southampton and Tuckahoe, along with several East End districts, filed a joint application with the Department of State for a $200,000 grant to finance an efficiency study, which would have looked at the possibility of merging all or some of the districts. The application was not approved by the state, and so Tuckahoe and Southampton decided to march on with their own study.
Since the results aren’t expected until next summer, Tuckahoe officials said they need to find a short-term solution to their financial woes—decreased tuition rates—or incur a $1 million deficit in the 2012-13 school year. Currently, graduating eighth-graders have the choice to attend either Southampton High School or Westhampton Beach High School. The choice between the two schools has become expensive—29 percent of the district’s annual budget is spent providing tuition for its high school students.
On Monday night, Tuckahoe School Board members agreed to go forward with plans to work out a one-year exclusivity deal with Southampton High School, which would lower tuition for students by 15 percent and by 25 percent for special needs students.