Board Member Files Petition To Close Bridgehampton High School

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The future of Bridgehampton High School, which in the past was the subject of a highly contentious community debate, might be brought up for a vote this May if School Board member Joseph Berhalter gets his way.?Mr. Berhalter acknowledged that he had submitted a petition last Thursday, March 20, requesting that a referendum calling for the high school to be closed be placed on the May 20 ballot.?Mr. Berhalter, who was elected to the board last year, first raised the idea of closing the high school in November. At a board meeting at that time, he suggested that the district could phase out the high school starting in the 2008-09 school year by eliminating the freshman class. The next year, the sophomore class would be eliminated, and the year after that the junior class would be eliminated, making the 2011 senior class the last to graduate from Bridgehampton.?Under his plan, the district would pay tuition to send students to other area high schools of their choice.?Mr. Berhalter would not discuss the specifics of his proposal this week, saying he wanted to wait until the full board had an opportunity to discuss the matter.?The board has scheduled a work session for 7 p.m. on Monday, March 31, in its band room, but District Clerk Joyce Manigo said she did not know if Mr. Berhalter’s proposal would be on the agenda.?The school is on spring break, and Superintendent Dr. Dianne Youngblood is on vacation and unavailable for comment. School Board President James Walker is also on vacation and did not return several calls seeking comment.?Ms. Manigo said that Mr. Berhalter had collected 30 signatures, five more than are necessary to place a proposal on the ballot.?The proposed referendum would mirror Mr. Berhalter’s earlier proposal that the high school be phased out, one class at a time, starting with next year’s freshman class. In a letter to Ms. Manigo accompanying the petition, Mr. Berhalter stated that the costs of sending students to outside high schools could be recovered either through reduced spending as a result of “teacher attrition” or by using some of the “estimated $600,000 to $700,000 surplus built into the proposed 2008-09 budget.”?There are currently 10 students in the eighth grade and 49 students in the high school.?”I’m disappointed,” said School Board Vice President Elizabeth Kotz of Mr. Berhalter’s decision to submit the petition. “We’re working so hard, and we’re on the cusp of doing so many great things for the school.”?When Mr. Berhalter first broached the idea of phasing out the high school last November, he presented results of a student survey conduced by the school’s strategic planning committee, which highlighted the discouragement of some students over attending such a small school and the perception that there is a lack of opportunity there.?He also suggested that a South Dakota state law prohibiting any school from serving fewer than 100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade should guide the school’s decision-making process. This year, 134 students attend the school from prekindergarten through high school.?Though Mr. Berhalter has decried the fact that the district only has one Advanced Placement class and had said that students who graduate from Bridgehampton do not perform well in college, parents who attended the November forum said that they were happy that their children received individualized attention at Bridgehampton.?The board did not take any action on Mr. Berhalter’s proposal late last year and did not indicate whether its members wanted to discuss the matter further.?Superintendents of two of the neighboring schools, East Hampton and Southampton, did not return calls seeking comment on whether their schools would be willing to assimilate Bridgehampton’s students, though Sag Harbor Superintendent Kathryn Holden said her district had not engaged in any talks regarding a possible tuition arrangement to accept any Bridgehampton students. Ms. Holden had been planning to meet with Bridgehampton representatives to discuss sharing other services.?The school’s small size has been the source of contention for many years. In 1987, district residents filed a petition to close the high school. The School Board at first rejected that petition before organizers won the right to hold the vote. The referendum was defeated at the polls.?The 1987 fight over the school’s future largely divided the community along racial lines. Members of the black community pointed out that nobody who signed the petition to close the school was black and charged that the school was being targeted for closure because nearly 70 percent of its students were black. Those who backed the proposal denied those charges and said they only wanted to provide students with more educational opportunities and possibly save district taxpayers money.?In the 20 years since that effort, the school, which has historically been one of the smaller schools on the East End, has seen its demographics slowly shift until now its student population is about equally split among whites, blacks and Latinos. Still, efforts to encourage more community members to send their children to the school have largely fallen on deaf ears.?At the same time, the board has reversed a longstanding policy that allowed out-of-district students to attend the school without paying tuition.?The district’s $10.2 million budget is far smaller than neighboring districts, but its cost per pupil is higher primarily because of operating costs that may remain the same even if more students were assimilated into the district.?Last year, after the East Hampton School District announced a $7,000-per-student increase in tuition for feeder schools to attend East Hampton High School, the Springs School began talks with Bridgehampton to potentially transfer its high school students to Bridgehampton, but those talks ended when Springs struck a new deal with East Hampton.?With the budget vote and School Board vote and the potential referendum on the May 20 ballot, residents have until April 21 to turn in nominating petitions for the board. Petitions require 25 signatures and must be delivered to the district clerk’s office.?Two incumbent board members, Ms. Kotz and Joe Conti, are up for reelection this year.

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