Bridgehampton School Board rejects petition to close high school

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Taxpayers in Bridgehampton won’t get the opportunity to vote this month on a proposition to close the high school after the School Board this week rejected a petition to put it on the ballot.

Board member Joseph Berhalter submitted the petition to close the high school on April 18, but it was rejected by board members on Monday because they said its potential financial impact was not sufficiently fleshed out. Mr. Berhalter filed a similar petition in March, which was also rejected by the School Board because members said it contained even fewer financial details.

The new document detailed the costs of sending this year’s seventh grade class to neighboring districts in the 2009-2010 school year, but did not include costs to send the remainder of the high school students to other schools.

The petition was signed by 43 voters, 18 more than are necessary to place a measure on the May 20 ballot. The School Board has the final say, however, on whether such a petition is complete enough for voters to make an informed decision.

Mr. Berhalter was out of town for Monday’s meeting, but fellow board member Joe Conti, who signed the petition, voted in favor of it. Still, the board rejected the proposal by a 5-1 vote, stating that, among other factors, it did not include a complete enough breakdown of costs associated with educating its students at neighboring districts.

Mr. Berhalter’s proposal estimated that it would cost $660,150 to educate 21 ninth-graders at neighboring districts in the 2009-2010 year, including the cost of transportation, though it did not take into account special education students, or any costs associated with the number of future students projected to attend the high school.

“The figures are not accurate enough,” said board member Carol Kalish.

“I think it’s very rushed,” said School Board Vice President Elizabeth Kotz, adding that she encourages the district to do a careful, more detailed analysis of whether it is feasible to close the high school. “This is an issue people need to explore, and we need to explain it very clearly to the tax base,” she said.

Before rejecting the proposal, the board presented its own analysis of the costs associated with sending students to other districts. Parent Kathryn DeGroot, who formerly worked as a financial analyst and served on the school’s audit committee for three years, volunteered to work with Superintendent Dianne Youngblood, and the two spent the past two weeks compiling the costs of sending all of Bridgehampton’s high school students to surrounding districts, not just ninth-graders. Under Mr. Berhalter’s proposal, grade levels in the high school would gradually be eliminated as those students graduated.

Ms. DeGroot, who has four children in the Bridgehampton School District, calculated her results based on the district being responsible for a total of 56 high school students, although 49 now attend the school. She estimated that it would cost nearly $1.8 million to send all of the district’s high school students to Southampton, $1.68 million to send them to Sag Harbor and $1.76 million to send them to East Hampton. Meanwhile, the district would save a total of $1.62 million in teaching salaries, counseling and administration expenses if the students were sent to other districts.

As a result, Ms. DeGroot said, the district would actually lose money through Mr. Berhalter’s proposal.

Ms. Youngblood also noted that it’s unclear whether there will be room for Bridgehampton’s students at the other districts. “Some might be more likely to assimilate the students,” she said on Tuesday, though there have been no negotiations with the neighboring districts. “It’s hard to know what course they’d chart.”

Ms. DeGroot, who has publicly voiced her support for maintaining the high school, also compiled recent test results for East End schools, which indicate that, with the exception of math and biology, Bridgehampton students did as well as or better than students in neighboring districts in the 2005 to 2006 school year. In both of those years, Bridgehampton was the only district surveyed in which every student went on to college.

Some taxpayers in attendance Monday weren’t convinced that their money was being put to good use at the school.

“As a mother, I’m more concerned with the academics. I think the quality is not up to snuff,” said Laurie Gordon, who added that she’d seen bad test scores on the state Board of Education’s website.

Principal Jack Pryor said that information on the state’s website was likely at least three years old and that the school had done much better on state tests in recent years.

At the same meeting, the board tabled a controversial policy for the admission of students who do not live in the district. Many students currently attend the school at no charge and district officials are attempting to change that in response to criticism from state auditors who said in January that Bridgehampton should be charging tuition.

Mr. Conti, who is an advocate for charging tuition, said that “the real issue is that public school districts are only required to educate those students living in their district. By not charging a reasonable and fair tuition, we are depriving taxpayers of revenue and not living up to our fiduciary responsibility.”

The board will likely reexamine the policy at its May 12 meeting.

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