Gurney's Inn
November 28, 2007

Saving Springs

Consolidation: Springs Runs The Numbers

The fiscal crisis in the Springs was a moving force behind the idea, Chuck Hitchcock, front man for the Bonackers for a Unified East Hampton School District said.

He hosted the first meeting of the group on November 20, with the goal of sparking a grass roots effort to lobby for a look at the idea of reorganizing the East Hampton and Springs School districts.

Reorganization could mean creating a centralized high school that serves all seven districts in the town. It could also mean consolidating all the districts, or, it could mean simply blending the Springs and East Hampton school districts, Chris Kelley, Springs School Board president explained.

Speaking to an audience of about 50, Kelley presented an overview of statistics predicting what might occur to local tax rates should East Hampton and Springs merge.

Compiled by Springs School officials, the numbers rely on current budget information from the East Hampton district. They also underscore a financially harrowing result, should East Hampton make good on a threat to increase the tuition it charges for accommodating Springs high school students.

Currently, Springs pays about $5 million to East Hampton in tuition. If East Hampton charges the maximum allowable amount (also known as the Seneca Falls rates) that figure could jump by a whopping $3 million in just one year. Tax rates in Springs would soar by 17 percent, while they dip in East Hampton by 7 percent. East Hampton would have the distinction of charging the highest tuition, $23,382 per student, in New York State.

Over the years, the idea of Springs building its own high school has surfaced periodically. A bar graph presented last week depicts a less than immediately optimistic result should Springs move to build its own high school. Savings over what Springs pays in tuition would not be realized until the year 2015. Additionally, it was noted that state approval for a Springs High School would be difficult to achieve.

A second graph compared projected tax rates should Springs and East Hampton merge. Currently East Hampton residents pay $41.33 per $100 of assessed valuation while Springs property owners pay $63.75 per $100 of assessed valuation. Consolidation would result in a tax rate of $49.42 per $100 a/v across the board.

According to Kelley, the state offers state aid incentives, both for operating and building project costs. A Springs-East Hampton consolidation could mean a total of $8.7 million in incentive aid over the course of the next 15 to 20 years.

The State Department of Education favors district consolidation over creating a central high school, Kelley noted. Consolidation can mean cost efficiencies, such as the elimination of excess administrative staff and streamlined coordination of departments.

The financial burden increased tuition will mean for Springs was just one of the reasons why Hitchcock wants to take a new look at reorganization, he said, noting he's harbored concerns through the years that feeder districts have no say in the operations at the high school. "That amounts to taxation without representation," the one-time teacher at Southampton College opined.

But, beyond the fiscal concerns, Hitchcock has worried about the lack of curriculum coordination between East Hampton and its feeder district. When students aren't prepared the same way in elementary school, they don't enter high school at the same level.

Consolidation could eliminate that issue.

"This all needs to be studied anew," Hitchcock stated. A study conducted in 1998 didn't consider a Springs/East Hampton merger alone, and didn't look at the idea's pros and cons so much as make a judgment about political feasibility. Changed circumstances, since the last study, such as increases in state incentive aid, make a new study necessary. "Many feel some kind of school consolidation is an idea whose time has come," Hitchcock said.

Last night the Springs School Board was slated to hold a public hearing to consider options for educating high school students. The district has been in discussions with the Bridgehampton School district about sending its ninth grade class there next year if East Hampton follows through with the tuition increase.

Springs and Montauk students comprise 45 percent of the current population at East Hampton High School. The loss of Springs kids could mean a financial hit for the district, but that's not all. As the population decreases the curriculum and variety of classes offered may be affected. Kelley noted that Bridgehampton would like to accommodate Springs kids because it would allow for an expansion of course offerings in their district.

The Springs School Board has promised to make a decision regarding next year's high school classes in early December.

Bonackers for a United East Hampton School District plans to meet again in January.

The "People" Part

After close to an hour of statistics and tax rate comparisons, Theresa Quigley was moved to speak. "My taxes would be increased and I don't care, I would vote for it . . . it's the people part," the one-time East Hampton School Board member declared. She has five children in the East Hampton district and they all benefit from their interactions with Springs kids. She urged the group to "get the message out that this is about people and about kids and not about dollars." Rameshwar Das agreed. He sees the idea of school consolidation as a social issue, and an attempt to address a "basic inequity." There is a feeling that one district is "getting soaked" at the benefit of another, he said, adding, "These are the forces that are fracturing our community."

East Hampton Village resident John Ecker offered a passionate commentary that elicited applause from the audience. The numbers aren't going to sell the idea, he opined. "I'm here because I feel a responsibility to my neighbors in Springs," Ecker said. He believes the concept of reorganization should be presented to the public as "This is better for us all and this is our responsibility to do."

Every discussion of the issue has centered on money, rather than people, or the kids, Springs teacher Tracy Frazier pointed out. She appeared to favor a focus on the human aspect of the issue as well, and stated, "The kids in Springs need the kids in East Hampton just as much as the kids in East Hampton need the kids in Springs . . . we all need each other."

Arthur Gold, an EHHS teacher and Springs resident pointed out that town residents often vote to raise their own taxes, saying yes to open space bond acts and supporting school district budgets.

Mention was made several times, that over the years, the Amagansett School district has been staunchly opposed to even discussing consolidation. Springs resident Howard Lebwith quipped, "We're going to have to spread angel dust all over Amagansett" to get residents there on board.

Maybe not.

Betty Mazur identified herself as an Amagansett resident. "I am completely in favor of something that will ease the burden on Springs and I know I am not alone."

"I'm embarrassed to be lumped in with the naysayers in Amagansett," Mazur continued, adding that she wished people would stop projecting a negative reaction on the hamlet's residents. The voters of the district have not been polled, she emphasized, only the school board has weighed in.

As audience members and founders of Bonackers for a Unified East Hampton School District brainstormed ways to garner community support for reorganization, Pat Hope suggested that when the group meets again in January each person should "bring someone from Amagansett."

By the end of last week, organizer Chuck Hitchcock reported that $2800 in donations for operating costs and advertisements was raised the first evening.

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