By Marianna Levine
Once again, the question of closing Bridgehampton’s High School was at the heart of a lively “Meet the Candidates” night last Monday, just as it has been in recent weeks. Sag Harbor Express publisher and editor Bryan Boyhan moderated the panel of seven candidates, who answered several prepared questions in front of a large audience.
Joe Conti, a former school board member, Laurie Gordon, and Nathan Ludlow, were up-front about their desire to close the school’s upper-classes which would, in their opinion, reduce taxes while improving the lower school. The candidates in favor of keeping the school intact as a K-12 institution include Doug DeGroot, Lillian Tyree-Johnson, current board President Jim Walker, and Ron White.
After brief introductions, the candidates were asked what opportunities they saw for Bridgehampton to share services with other districts.Â
Walker related that the board had been in talks with Sag Harbor’s school board and its superintendent concerning shared services, and that there had been discussion with the Hayground School about sharing food services.
DeGroot, Tyree-Johnson, and White noted the school already shared athletic and academic services with Sag Harbor and East Hampton. DeGroot added he thought Bridgehampton could have a tennis program to share with Sag Harbor by next year.
Conti, Gordon, and Ludlow said that Bridgehampton’s high school students should be tuitioned out of the district to other local schools. Conti thought what shared services there were are just small steps and something bold needs to be done — such as tuitioning out the high school students.
In rebuttal, Walker added that Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton have also discussed the possibility of sharing business office personnel.
Gordon answered him by saying that sharing activities “is not the same as having your own team or AP classes.”Â
To which Tyree-Johnson replied, “For your information Pierson shares with East Hampton as well, so students would still be sharing teams.”
Although Conti, Gordon, and Ludlow had already brought up the discussion on closing the high school, the candidates were asked whether they supported the idea of closing the upper grades and tuitioning out students, and thereafter how taxpayers would benefit.
“It’s a terrible idea, and it will actually raise taxes in a very large way,” said DeGroot.
“A town without a school is a town without a heart,” added White who suspected that closing the high school was just the beginning of a campaign to close the whole school. “The more we take away from the kids living here the more we get away from all of us being able to live here.”
Conti, Gordon, and Ludlow believed that tuitioning out students would improve their test scores, the curriculum, and students’ sports opportunities as well as lower taxes. “Seventy-five percent of your budget is teachers and salaries,” noted Gordon.
“Only 30 percent of students who go here graduate from a four year college,” added Conti. “It’s not true that it will cost more. It will cost less in the long run.”
Walker countered their argument by saying, “When you tuition out students you no longer have any say over their education because you’re not a voter in the district. Look what’s happened to Springs — East Hampton keeps raising the tuition they charge.”
“There’s never been a study done by an impartial group about whether it will raise or lower taxes to tuition out students,” said Conti.
Walker ended the rebuttals with the comment, “Many of the kids who didn’t finish a four year college program probably didn’t finish for socio-economic reasons, because they couldn’t afford tuition, not because the school didn’t properly prepare them for college.”
While Conti, Gordon, and Ludlow talked about lessening the per student cost to $20,000 by tuitioning students out of district, DeGroot, Tyree-Johnson, and Walker had their own numbers which pointed to the high cost of tuitioning out special education students who make up almost 20 percent of the school’s student body.
They were asked how each candidate would strengthen the academic and extra-curricular activities at the school in order to keep the small school dynamic and viable.
Conti, Gordon, and Ludlow once again said closing the high school would improve the school by focusing only on the lower grades. Ludlow thought the children currently attending private schools might be attracted to a stronger Bridgehampton elementary school.
DeGroot, Tyree-Johnson, Walker, and White all thought the school was already pretty dynamic. All noted the abundance of opportunities students have to be involved in activities. Because it is a small school, they said, the children have an opportunity to get pulled into a wide variety of activities.
The panel then took questions from the audience. The first asked each candidate, since they are so concerned about children’s education and social well-being, how many school events had they attended in the last six months.
Ludlow couldn’t answer, while Conti and Gordon noted they had attended a lot of board meetings. Tyree-Johnson said it was easier for her to state what she hadn’t attended than what she had. DeGroot, Walker, and White had all attended numerous basketball games.
They were asked what improvements candidates would like to see for the high school, as it exists today.
Tyree- Johnson and DeGroot wanted facility improvements such as a larger gym and an outdoor track, while Walker wanted to see more summer programs at the school. White wanted to metaphorically break down the school’s walls and let everyone feel a part of the school and the community.
Conti said he didn’t want any improvements since he was in favor of tuitioning out students. Gordon and Ludlow both wanted better academic offering such as college prep courses and an SAT prep course, which Tyree-Johnson said the school already had.
Ludlow elicited a strong reaction from the audience when he said, “a ‘C’ shouldn’t be good enough for everybody.”
Walker responded by saying, “Nathan, a ‘C’ is not good enough here either. There have been changes since you’ve been here. Our students work hard, score well, and they do succeed.”
“The new state test results are just in and the winner for the English test score is Bridgehampton for 4, 5, 6, and 7 grades among all the local schools,” DeGroot added.
Gordon responded, “ I don’t know about current test scores, and I think congratulations are in order, but let me read out the past scores.” Although Gordon’s reading of the scores was drowned out by the audience, she implied they were not as good.
“Those scores are great,” said Conti of the lower grades, “But we’re talking about the high school.”
The final question from the audience asked each candidate if their dream of either closing the high school or keeping the school pre-K through 12 didn’t come true, what would they do on the school board.
Both DeGroot and White said they would have to rebel against any school closing. The other of the candidates said they would try to make sure students still got the best education.Â
However Tyree-Johnson pointed out, “I would make board members realize it is not their decision. The community would have to vote on a school closing.”
In their closing remarks, all candidates restated their position on whether the school should house the high school or not.Â
DeGroot asked people “to remember what’s at stake here.” While Conti ended with “change is painful but we need to change for the future.”
Walker reflected, “I’ve seen so much change and progress over the last four years. We have a great school. Let’s continue what we’re doing. It turns out wonderfully well rounded kids.”
Following the forum, several Bridgehampton High School students surrounded Conti, Gordon, and Ludlow engaging the candidates in further discussion about their school.Â Many people lingered in the gym, and chatted one on one with the candidates.