A recently released merger feasibility study focusing on the Southampton and Tuckahoe schools suggests that combining the districts would have positive financial ramifications for taxpayers in years to come.
According to the study, which was approved by New York State Education Commissioner John B. King, the proposed combined budget for the newly formed school district would be approximately $71.5 million in its first year, the 2014-15 school year.
The current 2013-14 budget for Southampton is $61.9 million, and the current budget for Tuckahoe is $18.5 million. A budget of $71.5 million for 2014-15 for the merged districts would be approximately $8.9 million less than the two districts’ combined 2013-14 budgets, which total about $80.4 million, even without taking into account increases that could be expected in their separate budgets between 2013-14 and 2014-15.
The savings would come in part from eliminating Tuckahoe’s tuition payments to Southampton, cutting staff positions and combining transportation routes.
The possibility of the merger has long been discussed by the two districts, but the study was not started until last October, when both boards voted to move forward. According to Tuckahoe School District Superintendent Chris Dyer, the difficult decision was forced by the financial situation of his district. Mr. Dyer estimates that due to the state mandated 2-percent tax levy cap, the district will have exhausted all of its reserve funds by the 2015-16 school year.
“It is with reservation that the merger action is being taken,” Mr. Dyer said. “We had reservations because we are very proud of who we are and what we have been able to do—we like being a community school, we like being focused on the right thing for kids. But the fiscal reality is that we are running through our reserves and we are in the position where we really need to look at what is right for the kids and what is right for our taxpayers.”
While the report, conducted by the SES Study Team from Canastota, does paint a positive picture for the new combined districts’ spending—noting an estimated $3.3 million in state aid over the first 14 years, $1.8 of which will come in the first five years—a merger would have its costs. Based on several assumptions—including stabilities in property values and tax rates—the report estimates that Southampton tax rates would increase by roughly 21 cents, or 8.7 percent, from $2.42 to $2.63 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
That means that for the average Southampton homeowner with a home assessed at $500,000, taxpayers could expect to pay approximately $1,315 in school taxes for the 2014-15 school year, an increase of $105 from the current year’s projected tax levy of $1,210.
In Tuckahoe, residents would save money, with the tax rate dropping nearly two-thirds, from $7.50 to the same $2.63 per $1,000 of assessed valuation that would be levied in the new merged district.
For a home assessed at $500,000 in Tuckahoe, a taxpayer could expect to pay the same $1,315 in school taxes, a decrease of $2,435 from this year’s projected tax bill of $3,750.
Without the merger, both districts could face serious financial repercussions. According to Mr. Dyer, Tuckahoe will have to cut after-school activities, learning programs, and some staff to save money.
In order to survive, Mr. Dyer said the Tuckahoe School District would be forced to reduce the roughly $3 million it pays in high school tuition to Southampton in any way possible. One option would be to negotiate significantly lower tuition rates with Southampton. Another would be for Tuckahoe to sign a tuition contract with a different school district.
In the past, Mr. Dyer said, the district has talked with other districts, like Sag Harbor and Hampton Bays, and it would still consider changing high schools from Southampton.
Another option, Mr. Dyer said, would be for Tuckahoe to eliminate having to pay tuition altogether by somehow offering high school courses itself. Mr. Dyer said the district could either invest in a high school building, or try to work out a partnership with Stony Brook to use its space at the Southampton campus for high school students.
Without the benefit of the Tuckahoe students, the Southampton School District would also face financial problems. According to Southampton Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina, that district would lose approximately $2 million in revenue if the Tuckahoe students, who make up one-third of the district, leave Southampton.
If that happens, Dr. Farina said, the Southampton School District would also be forced to make cuts, including Advanced Placement and college level courses, sports teams, clubs and music programs.
“It is possible we would not have enough students to run certain academic programs and extracurricular programs,” he said. “The current programs that the students and community enjoy could possibly be jeopardized.”
While the fate of the merger will not be determined until December, there are several possibilities for what the new district would look like. The most likely scenario, which was recommended in the study, suggests separating the districts’ elementary students.
For pre-k through first grade, all students would attend the Tuckahoe School on Magee Street, currently a K-8 school. For second through fifth grades, all students would attend the current Southampton Elementary School. The Southampton middle and high schools would remain the same, teaching students from Tuckahoe and Southampton at the same age levels as they do now.
While the new format would deviate from tradition, both Mr. Dyer and Dr. Farina agree that it would present opportunities to improve learning, noting that by grouping all students of the same grade level together, the districts can stress new Common Core standards more readily.
“Certainly having a larger student population at any given grade level allows you to more efficiently educate the students,” Dr. Farina said this week. “I think there are many positive programmatic changes that are possible.”
The second biggest change would come in terms of staffing. Currently, the Southampton district has the full-time equivalent of 188.2 teachers, 53.5 assistants and aides and 10 administrators, among other positions. Tuckahoe employs 39.5 teachers, nurses and counselors, 12 assistants and 4 administrators.
Under the merger, the state would combine the staff lists for the districts to determine seniority levels. Staff members would be given credit for amount of time served in their school, and neither school would receive preferential placement on the list.
According to the report, the tax numbers assume that the 2014-15 budget for the new, merged school district will increase by 2.5 percent, to $71,470,013 above what this year’s might have been. It also includes a projected tax levy of $60,471,648. These figures are based on teaching and administrative needs for all four of the district schools.
In total, staff expenditures for the first year of the new district are expected to be approximately $6,104,634.
Next week, representatives from the SES Study Team will make trips to both districts to present the study findings and field community questions. The study team will be at Southampton High School on Wednesday, September 18, at 7 p.m. in the auditorium. The same team will be in Tuckahoe the next day, September 19, also at 7 p.m.
The first hurdle for the merger to pass will be separate school board votes. Each district will have to approve a proposal for a public vote. Tuckahoe plans to vote on the merger at its board meeting on September 23, while the Southampton School Board intends to vote on October 1, according to both superintendents. On October 29, residents in both communities will have their first chance to veto or pass the merger. If either community fails to approve the measure, the merger will die immediately. If it passes, it will move to a final vote, scheduled for December 5, that will decide the fate of the districts.