Southampton High Students Protest Merger Vote Defeat

Mackenzy Goleski, Christian Westerhoff, Stefania Gonzalez, Emily Pepitone and Sebastian Cuyjet.
Mackenzy Goleski, Christian Westerhoff, Stefania Gonzalez, Emily Pepitone and Sebastian Cuyjet. Photo credit: Brendan J. O’Reilly

Southampton High School students are staging a sit-in at the school lobby Friday in protest of voters’ defeat of a straw vote that would have brought Southampton School District and Tuckahoe School District closer to merging.

Students from both school districts said they are one community and do not want to be divided—which could happen should Tuckahoe School District determine financial constraints mandate sending its ninth- through 12th-graders to a high school with a cheaper tuition rate. Because Tuckahoe does not have a high school of its own, the district pays tuition to send its students to Southampton High School.

“Most of us are concerned where we’re going to go …” Mackenzy Goleski, a freshman from Tuckahoe said Friday morning at the sit-in. “We want answers.”

While 94 percent of Tuckahoe voters were in favor of merging with Southampton School District in Tuesday’s vote, the proposal only mustered the support of 39 percent of Southampton voters. Officials had said Tuckahoe School District residents could see their tax rate dip 65% under a merger, while the tax rate could go up 8.7% for current Southampton School District residents.

Planning for the sit-in began on Wednesday night, when Sebastian Cuyjet, a sophomore and resident of Southampton School District, sent out a Facebook invite.

“The word was spread throughout all the students,” said student Emily Pepitone, who helped keep the sit-in orderly. Fellow student Stefania Gonzalez said she called the media in the morning to bring attention to their cause.

Even though he is not from Tuckahoe himself, Cuyjet said,”I’m passionate about this because Tuckahoe is just as much a part of Southampton as we are. They make up almost 25 percent of the student body at Southampton High School. Tuckahoe kids, they’re our friends. The school is our family to us. We really appreciate the diversity that it brings to the school and the social flow that happens every day.”

Cuyjet said he decided on a sit-in to maximize student participation, and speak volumes to the adult community of Southampton.

With 585 student enrollment at the school, student organizers and administrators estimated that there were  between 150 and 200 students in the lobby at any given time since the sit-in started at 7:40 a.m., with some students skipping classes, and some joining the protest during lunch periods.

“All the freshman class from Tuckahoe is here,” Goleski said.

Southampton High School Principal Brian Zahn said that on Wednesday, the day after the vote was defeated, he encouraged the students to let their voices be heard. So when they staged their sit-in Friday, he said, he advised the students that they will be permitted to carry on as long as the protest remains safe and peaceful.

The only peep he heard about the protest before Friday was one teacher on Thursday telling him it was a possibility, Zahn said.

Senior class Co-President Christian Westerhoff, who explained the details to students and took their questions, said that both he and Co-President Johan Morales come from Tuckahoe. “That really shows that our community has nothing to do with where we come from. We’re here as students; there’s not Tuckahoe on one side, Southampton on the other. We are one community, one school.”

Though Westerhoff is set to graduate, he said he and other students have spoken at every public meeting about the merger to encourage voters to cast their ballots in favor.

Westerhoff thinks the merger vote failed because many voters did not understand the consequences. He said he wants voters to be cognizant of both the emotions and the facts behind a merger.

“This was not a final vote; this was a straw vote,” Westerhoff said, explaining that passing the straw vote would not have been binding. But it would have given the school board more time to make an accurate budget for a potential merged district and present numbers it did not have at hand in the past, he said.

By losing Tuckahoe students, and the $3 million in tuition each year that they come with, Southampton will have to cut Advanced Placement classes, electives, athletics and clubs, he said.

“The less students we have, the less opportunities we have to take classes,” added Tiffany Nano, a senior from Southampton.

Speaking to the gathered students, Pepitone said, “We’ll be losing our friends, we’ll be losing our teammates, we’ll be losing the kids in our classes.”

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