By Amy Patton
With all three Bridgehampton School Board candidates coming out of the gate in support of a referendum on this year’s ballot — one that would extend busing to non-public schools outside of district to 25 miles— on Tuesday night the uncontested candidates fielded queries about the future of the school at a “Meet the Candidates” event sponsored by the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO).
The three candidates include Jennifer Vinski who is running for the first time and works as a kindergarten inclusion teacher in the Southampton school district. Vinski is a parent to twin boys enrolled in Bridgehampton’s elementary program.
Gabriela Braia, who was appointed to the board last summer to replace Elizabeth Kotz after her resignation from the board, is also running for election as is incumbent Lawrence LaPointe, who is seeking is second, three year term. Board member JoAnn Comfort, who was elected to the board in 2010, is not seeking reelection.
Sag Harbor Express publisher Bryan Boyhan moderated the evening. While the candidates offered their support of the busing referendum which voters will weigh in on when they go to the polls next Tuesday, they also vowed to find ways to attract new students to the school.
“All we can do is work to strengthen our programs,” said Braia, a local real estate agent whose two young children attend the school. “My goals as a candidate are basically to improve things here. The needs of the students, like all of the board members, are my top priority.”
The referendum, if passed, would allow busing limits to be extended for private school students in the district from a state mandated 15 miles to 25 miles at a cost not to exceed $60,525. This would specifically enable transportation for Bridgehampton students to attend Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School in Riverhead, the closest Catholic high school to the East End.
“It will make it easier on parents who have work obligations,” noted LaPointe. “I think the public will vote in favor of it. They are taxpayers who contribute to the district also and we’re only talking about a few students here who need this service.”
“I’m in favor of it,” said Vinski. “There are already students attending schools in other districts and you don’t want to put the kids in a compromising position where they already have friends and are established. For them, it’s the most beneficial answer.”
Not all who attended the meeting, however, were pleased with the proposed funding and availability of extended-mileage transportation.
“A rule is a rule,” opined Dorothy White, who is the grandmother of two Bridgehampton children in fifth grade and ninth grade. “I’m a little upset about it. What’s the point of the board setting these types of things if they then just vote to change them?”
“But,” she conceded, “Everyone has opinions. I have mine and they have theirs.”
During the meeting, questions about the district’s financial management were also put to the candidates by Boyhan.
“Are there any concerns that you have about the upcoming budget in general,” he asked the panel.
“So far we’ve been lucky about crunching the numbers,” said Braia. “We don’t want to have to cut off any programs. The two percent tax cap though is affecting what we can do. Taxes are an issue but we don’t want to have to deny students anything.”
“I hope that the budgetary tax cap doesn’t affect programs or directly affect opportunities for children in the district,” she said. “The most important thing for me is that we have to look carefully at every number and every dollar that comes in and out of the door here.”
LaPointe, who is parent to a seventh-grader, has two more children who have already graduated from the district.
“We’ve done our homework,” he said of the budget. “We have unchangeable teacher’s salaries to deal with and the state-mandated benefits that come with that. So much of the budget deals with things we can’t work around. But, that said, in my second term, I’d like to work on building a better system.”
LaPointe added, “It’s not easy passing budgets. We don’t want to see taxes going up in our district. We work hard to find cost-cutting solutions without seeing our children sacrifice educational opportunities.”
LaPointe said that he would like to see a stronger athletic program in place at the school.
Also addressed was the issue of career counseling for high school students, particularly in the Bridgehampton School’s “Career Academy.”
Several years ago, the school unveiled a learning academy focused on landscape design and began to develop the school’s edible schoolyard as a result. The idea is to give students an experiential educational experience. Originally, the concept involved expanding the learning academy into other areas of focus like business or health care.
All three board candidates voiced support for the program.
“I would like to expand it further,” said LaPointe. “We have a lot of college acceptances linked to this. I would like to see it continue to grow.”
District residents can vote for school board candidates and referendums on Tuesday, May 21 from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Bridgehampton School gym.