Poised to unveil the district’s proposed 2015-16 budget on Wednesday night, Wainscott School officials said this week that they are not sure what to expect in the coming years, with two possible affordable housing projects on the horizon—with a significant increase in both enrollment and taxes being on the table.
As a result of the uncertainty, the board decided to forgo a 5-percent discount on the tuition rate it pays to the East Hampton School District to educate its students after they graduate from the third grade. To get the discount, Wainscott School would have had to agree to send its students exclusively to the East Hampton School District for the next five years.
School Board President David Eagan said this week that without knowing how many students the district will be obligated to educate, or where to place them, it would be impossible to enter into any kind of contract.
“Let’s be honest: We are confronted with an unbelievably uncertain future of what our district will look like, and it would be imprudent for us to commit to some long-term plan, even though it has forced us to go without the 5-percent discount,” Mr. Eagan said. “If anyone has any doubts of the impact of two affordable housing projects—it’s already being felt.”
Windmill Village LLC is proposing a 49-unit housing complex on a 31-acre site on Stephen Hands Path, which would be built for low- to medium-income residents. Last week, the town’s Planning Department said that the Wainscott housing project would add approximately 28 students to the district over a period of 10 years, and would not change the demographics of the district significantly.
However, the school district’s own report, completed last September, showed very different numbers—an expected addition of 43 to 56 students in 10 years as a result of the Stephen Hands Path complex. Anywhere from 31 to 37 students would be enrolled at Wainscott School in the 2019-20 school year, for example. Mr. Eagan said previously that the school would be forced to expand its facilities to accommodate more children.
Currently, the Wainscott School educates 21 students and has a capacity for only 24 students, according to Mr. Eagan. The building has one classroom, which can be divided into two as necessary, but there isn’t much room for more students.
These additional student estimates do not include the second proposed housing project on Route 114, which already houses lower-income residents on a 2-acre parcel known as The Cottages. The Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust plans to upgrade that facility, which has eight dwellings, some of which already serve as housing for families with children attending the Wainscott School. The trust has said there are no plans to increase the density at the property; therefore, it will have no greater impact than what currently exists.
Mr. Eagan said the district plans on responding to the town’s demographic projects after it reviews the report. He said that advocates of the affordable housing projects are “putting blinders on” to the impact they could have on the school district.
By not taking the 5-percent discount, the district will already realize an increase in tuition paid to the East Hampton School District next year.
Currently, Wainscott School pays $24,965 in tuition for each of its elementary school students and $63,731 for its special education elementary school students. Next year, the district is expecting to pay $26,847 for each elementary school student and $73,395 for each elementary special education student.
For Wainscott children to attend East Hampton middle and high schools, the district now pays $26,255 for each student and $65,021 for each student in special education. But next year those figures will be set at $25,945 per student and $72,493 per middle school special education student.
“It’s, frankly, unfair,” Mr. Eagan said, noting that the district has been known for saving its taxpayers money. “We have a five-year program to reduce the budget and the tax rate. We’ll still reduce the rate to 2 percent, but it could have been significantly more. Frankly, the whole program we have been going through could have been for naught.”
Mr. Eagan said this is the fourth year that the budget has decreased and the third year in a row that the tax rate has gone down.
Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said he wants to discuss the proposed affordable housing with Mr. Eagan and his School Board going forward, despite Mr. Eagan’s concerns that the town hasn’t been considerate of them.
“We don’t want to turn the Wainscott School upside down,” Mr. Cantwell said during last week’s Town Board work session. “We’re trying to find that balance between a viable proposal and a way to provide some assurances to the school district.”
When asked about how the district will prepare for the change that will come from the possible addition of more students, Mr. Eagan couldn’t answer. “How do you brace for something like this?” he asked. “There is no precedent like this on Long Island anywhere. There is no blueprint for it. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that is not looking at this with any objectivity.
“I don’t know how to answer … other than saying Wainscott will never be the same, and the taxpayers will be asked to carry a significant burden.”