Debate over Bridgehampton High School renewed


The fight over whether to close Bridgehampton High School will continue this week now that School Board member Joe Berhalter has submitted a second petition to the board, detailing the costs of his plan to send high school students to other districts.

Mr. Berhalter’s petition, which was signed by 43 Bridgehampton taxpayers, contains a detailed analysis of the cost to send this year’s seventh-grade class to other neighboring schools when the students are in ninth grade in the 2009-2010 school year.

Mr. Berhalter’s ultimate goal is to phase out one additional grade of the high school each year after that, until all students in the high school are enrolled in other districts.

The School Board will discuss Mr. Berhalter’s new petition, which he filed with the district Friday, at a work session on Monday, April 28, at 7 p.m. in the middle school band room.

“Certainly it seems appropriate in terms of signatures, which have been verified for accuracy,” said Superintendent Dianne Youngblood. “It boils down to looking at it from two vantage points: to accept it or reject it.”

The School Board rejected Mr. Berhalter’s original petition last month, citing a lack of information about the costs of sending the students to other districts. It is unclear whether his new proposal will meet its requirements. Ms. Youngblood said she believes the school’s attorneys will discuss the proposal in detail before Monday’s meeting.

If accepted, Mr. Berhalter’s proposal will be placed on the May 20 ballot.

School Board President Jim Walker did not return calls for comment on the proposal.

Mr. Berhalter’s proposal states that the average cost per student at the neighboring Sag Harbor, Southampton and East Hampton school districts is $23,000. In an e-mail, he added that the district’s enrollment is expected to drop to 110 students next year, which would raise the cost per pupil in Bridgehampton to $89,000.

School officials anticipate that 123 students will attend the high school next year, down from 143 this year. That figure includes the 14 students who do not live in Bridgehampton, but do attend school there. Using those figures, the cost per student would be a little more than $80,000 per student.

The figures offered by Mr. Berhalter were calculated by dividing the district’s total budget by the total number of students. When the New York State Department of Education determines per pupil costs, it eliminates fixed costs for items like building maintenance, resulting in a lower figure.

Mr. Berhalter wrote via e-mail that it is his goal for the students to choose which district they would like to attend.

In his analysis, Mr. Berhalter also included a detailed breakdown of where the 57 Bridgehampton children who attend private schools currently attend classes. He estimated that, if the Bridgehampton’s eight current seventh-grade students and all 13 of the students currently attending private schools attended public schools in other districts, it would cost the district $660,150 in the 2009-2010 school year, including the cost of transportation. Mr. Berhalter believes that the money saved by teacher attrition due to the decreased number of students will eventually cover the cost of sending the students to other districts, though he stressed that his proposal was to provide the best education for the students, not to save money.

“The position that this is a cost issue is a deflection designed to keep debate away from the real issue; what is in the best interest of the students,” he wrote.

Mr. Berhalter added that, in a survey taken by the school’s Strategic Planning Committee last year, 50 percent of the Bridgehampton students in grades seven through 12 said they wanted a bigger school environment and/or more activities.

Mr. Berhalter said he was not surprised by the animosity toward his proposal from community members, who turned out in droves to protest his plan at recent School Board work sessions and community meetings.

“Many of the people speaking out are not Bridgehampton residents or voters,” he said. “Many are employees of the district. The larger environments available in other districts offer our students greater opportunities for learning than they presently have.”

School Board member Joe Conti, who signed both of Mr. Berhalter’s petitions, has also come under fire for his support of the proposal. Mr. Conti is up for reelection this year and two Parent Teacher Organization members are vying for his seat.

“In November, there was a healthy debate over whether to close the high school,” said Mr. Conti, adding that reports in the media have since polarized the school community. “We don’t attack people. We attack issues. We need to explore every option that’s available to our students and take that wherever it takes us.

“It’s a matter of opinion, what is in the best interest of the children,” he continued. “We need to make intelligent decisions, not emotional ones.”

He said he thinks the school should expand its pre-K program and offer as many programs for elementary school students as possible “to prepare children for opportunities when they get to bigger venues in life.”

“We live in a community that is blessed with the resources to do lots of things,” Mr. Conti said. “The dwindling population is a continuing concern.”

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