The East End is peppered with school districts large and small, and with a population that dwindles after the summer, many districts serve but a few students—but two districts on the South Fork are poised to merge, changing a long-established paradigm for the education of local students and who bears the brunt of the tax burden.
Southampton and Tuckahoe residents will vote next week on whether Southampton School District should annex the smaller Tuckahoe School District.
Small districts on the East End don’t have their own high schools—or even middle schools in some cases—but rather pay tuition to bigger districts who accept their students. For instance, Westhampton Beach High School serves residents of the Westhampton Beach School District as well as students from the Quogue, East Quogue and Remsenburg-Speonk districts. East Hampton High School accepts students from Springs, Sagaponack, Wainscott and Montauk school districts.
Merging school districts could save money by eliminating redundant administrators or closing school buildings, but wild swings in property tax rates make mergers a hard pill to swallow, especially in times of economic stress.
Southampton School District has been the receiving district for most of Tuckahoe’s 9th- through 12th-graders for decades, but in recent years Tuckahoe residents have decried how their taxes keep rising to be able to afford Southampton High School tuition.
The 2013-14 tax rate for the Tuckahoe School District is estimated at $7.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That means that taxes on a home assessed at $500,000 would be $3,750 for the year, and for a $1 million home annual school taxes would amount to $7,500. In Southampton School District, the tax rate is just $2.42 per $1,000.
A study commissioned by both districts to analyze a potential merger estimates that if Southampton annexes Tuckahoe the tax rate for the 2014-15 school year will be $2.63 across the board. Current Tuckahoe School District residents could see their tax rate dip 65%, while the tax rate could go up 8.7% for current Southampton School District residents.
Southampton residents may balk at the tax hike, but district officials say that if the districts don’t merge, Tuckahoe could send its high school–age students elsewhere. Southampton would stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue annually and could have to cut programs and lay off faculty as a result, all while raising taxes anyway.
Initial referendums—straw votes among residents of each district—are scheduled for Tuesday, October 29. If the majority of voters in Southampton and the majority in Tuckahoe both approve the idea, a second round of voting, which will be binding, will follow before the end of the year.
“For the East End, I think a lot of school districts are watching the Tuckahoe-Southampton situation very, very closely,” said New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, of Sag Harbor, whose assembly district includes the South Fork and Shelter Island.
Other school districts have contacted him to inquire about consolidation, he said, and Tuckahoe and Southampton are a test case for many.
“My assembly district has 21 school districts in it,” Thiele pointed out. “There’s no other assembly district that has as many school districts as I do.” He said that any district with fewer than 1,000 students should at least look into consolidation, adding, “It’s not only about taxes; it’s also about the quality of school programs, etc.”
Thiele said the state should never force consolidation on districts, but it should encourage a merger when the circumstances call for one by offering financial incentives. Special state legislation may also be required, he said, noting that was the case when Eastport and South Manor school districts merged to form Eastport South Manor School District in 2003.
The merger came after 20 years of substantial population growth, and it was a way of keeping taxes relatively stable, according to Thiele. He could not say whether the move was objectively necessary. “Necessity is in the eye of the beholder,” Thiele said, “but in the case of Eastport South Manor, if they had not undertaken that merger, taxes would have been much higher in that area.”
Vote on the Proposed Merger:
Southampton School District residents: Tuesday, October 29, in the Southampton Intermediate School Music Room, 70 Leland Lane, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Tuckahoe School District residents: Tuesday, October 29, in the Tuckahoe Common School District Library, 468 Magee Street, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.