October 25, 2006
Are Million-Dollar School Expansions Premature?
Many parents and concerned residents have footed the bill for pricey, multi-million dollar school expansions that have hit East End taxpayers hard.
School superintendents have justified the ever-climbing costs, claiming that burgeoning school populations have warranted exorbitant expansions.
And yet, an investigation by The Independent has revealed that, contrary to common belief, the student enrollment on the East End is decreasing, especially in East Hampton, where a huge school expansion is planned, and Sag Harbor, where one was recently completed.
District residents there were told the $20 million-plus expansion was needed to house the ever-burgeoning student population. But although the district has seen some growth over the past few years, evidence exists it may have peaked, and may be entering a period of shrinking enrollment.
East Hampton residents turned down a $91 million bond proposal before approving a $79 million expansion; the project is scheduled to go out to bid in the spring and hopefully, said East Hampton School Superintendent Dr. Raymond Gualtieri, ground will be broken in the 2007-08 school year. Much of the money will be spent on a huge addition to the high school.
But by the time it is completed, the high school population may well be significantly smaller. Current figures show a precipitous decline in the population rolls of grammar and middle schools.
Although the student population has increased slightly in East Hampton High School, from 1000 in 2005 to 1051 in 2006, enrollment in the East Hampton Middle School is down from 500 in 2005 to 434 in 2006. And, in the John Marshall Elementary School, numbers have decreased from 471 in 2005 to 439 in 2006.
The same holds true for feeder districts; numbers for the Montauk Elementary School, grades K-8, have decreased from 387 in 2005 to 325 in 2006.
Jack Perna, Superintendent of the Montauk School District, said a decreasing student population is a sign of the times.
"When was the last time you looked at the price of a home in Montauk?" he asked. "It's out of control."
Even in Springs, where town board members and the administration forecast explosive growth, grades K-8 have shown a drop in students since last year from 591 to 586; Amagansett students through grade six have decreased since last year from 125 to 69. In Wainscott's one-room schoolhouse, which serves students from grades 1-3, enrollment is down from 14 in 2005 to 8 in 2006.
A similar situation exists in Sag Harbor, where a recent expansion and rising school budgets have hit the pockets of taxpayers hard. And yet, enrollment in the Sag Harbor Elementary School is down from 432 in 2005 to 396 today; with the number of students registered in Pierson's grades 6-12 down from 537 last year to 487 in 2006.
The question looms: Were the numbers miscalculated? And were taxpayers left holding the bag?
Gualtieri said the bond vote was based on a major increase in student population during the last 10 to 20 years. In 1989, the East Hampton School District sported 1115 kids; today, that number has "almost doubled" to 2000, he said. That explosion led to cramped quarters.
Yet by the time the expansion is completed all the current high school students will be long gone and replenished by lower grades with sparser populations.
Gualtieri has attributed the surge in past population to the influx of immigrants to the area. The East Hampton School District has grown from a 5% minority population 16 years ago to a minority population approaching 40% this year, he reported.
But while Gualtieri believes expansion was necessary, Perna forecasted that his school's population was peaking.
A number of factors indicate the districts that predicted increased growth in the future were in error. A study by The Independent concluded student population would decrease for three reasons; 1) Community Preservation Fund purchases continue to take buildable lots off the market; 2) the rising price of homes makes it nearly impossible for young couples to live on the East End: 3) increasing code enforcement weeds out more and more immigrants living in illegal houses within the school districts.
Families are leaving the districts, moving either out of state, to areas such as Florida and North Carolina, or to other communities where more affordable homes or year-round rentals are available. Montauk has a dearth of year-round rentals, Perna pointed out, and escalating property values have made buying a home in the area a distant dream for many. "I bought my house for $275,000 six years ago. My neighbor's house just sold for $1.1 million — and we're not living in million-dollar homes. People just can't afford to live here anymore."
Dr. Judith Wooster, principal of the Amagansett Union Free School, acknowledged the drop in student population. "Our district is so small, fluctuations like that are not uncommon," she said. "It actually varies. There's no real pattern to it."
But while elementary schools have seen a steady decline in student enrollment recently, Sag Harbor's Catholic Stella Maris, which enrolls students pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, has seen an increase.
"It's anywhere from eight to 10 students a year," said principal Jane FitzGerald Peters, who added the total student body is currently 186. "It's significant for us; right now, we seem to be trending upwards."
Stella Maris's test scores have far exceeded the local public schools of late, and other private schools like Ross School and Hayground School also siphon kids away from the public schools.
Will the expansions prove to be money poorly spent? The results remain to be seen.
Sag Harbor School Superintendent Kathryn Holden did not return calls for comment by press time.