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Jan 1, 2013 10:57 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Merger Study Team Slated To Meet With Southampton And Tuckahoe School Communities

Jan 2, 2013 9:16 AM

Officials from the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts are encouraging parents and taxpayers to sit in on the first joint meeting with the firm conducting a merger feasibility study involving the two districts, which will take place on Wednesday, January 9, at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Memorial Library.

The SES Study Team, based in Syracuse, will outline a schedule of meetings with different focus groups and compile concerns about issues that each district and its community face or may face in the coming years with the possibility of the consolidation of the two districts.

In December, officials from both districts agreed to a one-year tuition exclusivity deal between the two districts, which will send Tuckahoe’s ninth grade students to Southampton High School in the 2013-14 school year, lowering tuition rates paid by Tuckahoe. Students currently can choose to attend either Southampton High School or Westhampton Beach High School, and Tuckahoe, which does not have a high school, pays the cost of tuition directly to the host school district.

Tuckahoe School District officials have said in the past that this move was a temporary one until something more substantial could be done to alleviate Tuckahoe’s financial issues, stemming from high tuition rates for high school students, unfunded state mandates, soaring employee benefits costs, and decreasing assessed property values. The merger feasibility study is the schools’ long-term attempt to resolve the problems.

After a two-month-long search for the best, affordable option, both school boards voted to enter into contract with the SES Study Team, which will charge just under $70,000 for its services. The districts agreed to split the cost—Tuckahoe will use money from savings on interest paid for tax anticipation notes, and Southampton will pay out of its general fund.

According to both Southampton School Superintendent Dr. J. Richard Boyes and Tuckahoe School Superintendent Chris Dyer, the SES Study Team was the better option because of its plan to include community members in the process. The first meeting with both districts’ officials is meant to get the process “out in the open,” according to Dr. Paul Seversky of the SES Study Team.

“What we have found when we have done this in other districts is that this first step is a powerful step, because the communities and public get to see two boards sitting down together and examining the key question, which is, ‘Would instructional opportunity be enhanced for all students at a similar or reduced cost to taxpayers by combining the two districts?’” he said this week.

The meeting is the firm’s first attempt at “tapping into local point of view” to create a “road map” for the study, according to Dr. Serversky.

According to Dr. Boyes, the school boards expect to voice their concerns and get a preview of what the firm will collect data on, including academic program needs and options, school facilities’ use, non-instructional operations, labor issues such as contracts and seniority, budgeting and taxes.

“Our job is to hold up mirror to all kinds of data, organize and share it so that the community can make a well-informed decision about their own communities and how they choose to serve their children,” Dr. Seversky said.

As the information is collected, all the data sets will be available to each school community via the schools’ websites at the same time, he added.

“When you have this type of examination of school districts where there is potential for reorganization, we certainly know it brings a lot of feelings and emotions to the table,” said Doug Exley, another member of the SES Study Team. “In our experience it is critical to the overall process from the beginning that the public and the boards realize all our work is done out in the open.”

The SES Study Team has completed six reorganization feasibility studies and many other cost-efficiency, programming and shared services studies for several school districts across the state. According to Mr. Exley, an actual merger of districts is a very challenging process. The firm last witnessed a school consolidation in 2004 after completing a study. By law, consolidation can happen only if both district communities approve the move in a referendum.

“We take no advocacy—it’s a local decision,” Mr. Seversky said. “We’ve found that all our client districts use the wealth of information to explore more sharing options and to continue the discussion with their partnering district or others nearby.”

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