Three years ago, Lillian Tyree-Johnson, Doug DeGroot and Ronald White battled through a contentious school board race which revolved largely around the question of whether or not the Bridgehampton School District should allow students to go to high school elsewhere. The concept sparked emotional debates and ultimately united a community intent on supporting its school — Tyree-Johnson, DeGroot and White easily elected for their pro-high school stance.
After the drama that surrounded her election in 2009, for Tyree-Johnson this year’s school board race is a breath of fresh air, and a testament to how far the school district has come in just three short years.
“It seems like just yesterday we were fighting for our lives,” she said in an interview this week. “I think in the last three years we have changed a lot of minds. We don’t have everyone on the same page yet, but I think we are headed down the right path.”
Tyree-Johnson, DeGroot and White will all vie for a second term next month. They are joined on the ballot by newcomer, and parent, Gabriella Braia, who will also seek one of the three seats up for grabs during the budget vote and board election on Tuesday, May 15.
Tyree-Johnson, a bookkeeper and wife of Bridgehampton Bees basketball coach Carl Johnson, said not seeking a second term was never an option.
“I think we have more to do and are in a really good place,” she said. “We have a good group of people on the board who are willing to work together, a great new superintendent [Dr. Lois Favre] and a lot more to accomplish.”
Tyree-Johnson said she would like to see the district continue to develop an individual education plan for each student, a specialty of Dr. Favre and one of her initiatives at Bridgehampton School, as well as consider the possibility of expanding the actual school building.
“We are definitely outgrowing our space,” she said. “I think we have always been good enough to say that we will just get by, but it is time to update the building.”
Tyree-Johnson said she would like to see a discussion about expansion to begin next year, with an eye on building a new gym.
“It is also a way to make the school more attractive,” she said, noting that has been an ongoing priority for her as a board member — to show the Bridgehampton community at large how special Bridgehampton School truly is despite preconceived notions.
Similar to Tyree-Johnson, DeGroot feels a connection to the school because his children are a part of the community.
“I feel attached to the school,” he said. “My children are here and I want to try and influence the direction of the school and create better educational opportunities for all the kids.”
DeGroot, the owner of the Buckskill Tennis Club, also views himself as a fiscal conservative who has kept an eye on the school’s budget and keeping spending at a minimum without taking away educational opportunities.
“We have done an outstanding job — I know that sounds self congratulatory, but I mean it for the whole school board — in being very careful in how we look at our budgets, squeezing them and holding the line on spending,” said DeGroot.
He also credited the school’s faculty and staff, which recently agreed to freeze its salaries for next year to keep the budget below a state mandated two-percent tax levy cap.
DeGroot said he would like to focus on expanding curriculum at Bridgehampton, including creating more language options for elementary school children and continuing to expand Advanced Placement course offerings.
Achieving that without drastically raising spending, said DeGroot, is done through hiring faculty with diverse certifications, allowing them to move throughout the school and teach a variety of subjects.
Touching on points made by Tyree-Johnson and DeGroot, White said he would like to remain a school board member so he can continue to focus on the budget, but also bring people in the Bridgehampton community into the school to see what they are supporting.
“I would like to make the community more aware of what we are doing and why,” said White “There is a buzz about Bridgehampton School right now, but I think in the community there are still some caught up in a cloud of speculation. It is not enough for us as a school to send mass mailings letting people know about what we are doing, we need to talk to people face to face, knock on doors, make phone calls. This is a small enough community where we should all know each other on a first name basis.”
White, a parent and real estate agent, said he believes the current board works well together and would like to see the original slate elected.
However, Braia believes she has something to offer the board. She decided to run because. as a parent with children in the Bridgehampton School, she felt it was her responsibility to get more involved.
Braia is also a real estate agent whose husband is a general contractor. Residents in the Bridgehampton School District, the Braia family lives just outside Sag Harbor Village.
“I would like to see more opportunities developed for our children,” said Braia. “I think we need more after school programs and more variety.”
Similar to Tyree-Johnson, Braia believes the school is in desperate need of a new gymnasium and said she was interested in fundraising around that expansion project. An enclosed swimming pool, she added, would make the school more attractive to prospective parents, added Braia.
“The school has a great academic program,” she said. “I see that things are getting better and I want to get involved.”