Just beginning the merger feasibility study process, board members and administrators from the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts have a lot of questions.
At the first of several public meetings concerning the study, which took place at the Rogers Memorial Library last Wednesday, January 9, officials from both districts identified key concerns they have—primarily how a merger would affect taxes, students, staff and the districts’ facilities and programming.
The SES Study Team, the consulting firm conducting the study, opened the floor up to board members and both superintendents to voice concerns and to specify what they think the feasibility study should address. The results of the study are not expected to be completed or published until early August, according to Doug Exley, a member of the study team. The boards could put a potential merger to a vote as early as the summer of 2014.
“A merger study is a big undertaking—it’s an emotional undertaking when talking about local school districts,” Mr. Exley said to the officials. “This will be helpful for you, but it’s not something you’re going to be making a decision on now.”
After about an hour of collecting board members’ thoughts, the study team asked the boards to choose what they thought were the most important discussion points out of the 30 collected from their forum.
Roles were reversed as the board members and administrators got out of their seats to tally their choices, much like a game in a classroom.
District officials said they felt that the most pressing issues were what the impact of consolidation would be on taxes and finances for both districts; what would happen to staff members; identifying the different types of reorganization and how a chosen structure would affect students, staff and the boards; and determining how the districts can move forward together and respect each district’s unique identities, traditions and cultures, and create a new unified identity. Also identified were questions regarding the use of facilities and how they would be used to serve the students under a reorganization; setting a clear time line; identifying the opportunities, expectations and challenges with respect to student athletics and co-curricular activities; choosing programs that could be enhanced and created for special education students, and determining if reorganization would allow more special education students to be taught in their home districts; and, finally, what incentives would support a reorganization.
Tuckahoe School Board member Robert Grisnik expressed difficulty in seriously discussing reorganization, especially considering how it might affect those directly involved.
“The two districts have been working together for many, many years, but for me, being on the board as long as I have been, it’s very hard for me to sit down and talk about a merger because I believe in our district and over the years we’ve provided great education for our students and hired great staff members,” he said. “Those two things right there are my number one items I’m concerned about.”
Despite Mr. Grisnik’s reservations, the SES Study Team commended him and the boards for coming together to finding a solution to Tuckahoe School’s sinking financial future, but remained on point about the study’s purpose.
“First and foremost, this is about your kids and the programs for your kids,” Mr. Exley said. “Couple with that how we can do it more efficiently and more cost effectively.”
At the end of the meeting, the SES Study Team stressed the importance of having a joint community advisory committee to help with the merger study. According to Mr. Exley, the 30-member committee will review documents and provide insight, helping to answer the study’s key question: whether instructional opportunity will be enhanced for all students at a similar or reduced cost to taxpayers by combining the two districts.
Currently, the school districts are looking for parents, taxpayers, and other stakeholders—15 from each district—to take part in five to seven meetings led by the consulting firm over the course of seven months, beginning on January 30. Each meeting will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. at a central location.
Those interested in participating in the advisory committee should contact Terri Sutherland at the Southampton School District by calling 591-4510 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or Linda Springer at the Tuckahoe School District by calling 283-3550, extension 317, before January 22.