by Andrew Rudnasky
In anticipation of the May 15 Bridgehampton School budget vote and board of education election, a “meet the candidates” forum and debate was held Tuesday in the gymnasium at Bridgehampton School. All four of the school board candidates who are vying for three available seats were in attendance — incumbents Ronald White, Lillian Tyree-Johnson and Doug DeGroot and newcomer challenger Gabriela Braia.
White, a life-long resident of Bridgehampton, is running for his second three year term on the board. A real estate agent, White currently has a 9-year-old child in the school and coaches four different sports teams around the East End.
Tyree-Johnson, a resident of Bridgehampton for 20 years, is also seeking a second term. She is the president of the Bridgehampton Community House, and is the wife of long-time Bridgehampton basketball coach Carl Johnson.
DeGroot has been a local business owner on the East End for the past 26 years. He has four children in the district, and like the other incumbents is running for his second term.
Braia, originally from Romania said she moved to Bridgehampton to raise her family. A real estate agent and self professed stay at home mom, she has two kids in Bridgehampton School.
One of the biggest issues facing the Bridgehampton School District this year, and the candidates during the debate, was the budget. Over the past few years the school has had to deal with rising costs while remaining under the state mandated two percent property tax cap.
“I think that the tax cap put a stranglehold on this school,” said Tyree-Johnson, who added that the cap has forced the board to make cuts in essential services at the school.
“Over the next three years it is going to be very challenging,” she said, adding she would ask taxpayers to consider voting to pierce the cap in coming years.
White went further, calling the two percent cap “barbaric.” He added that despite the cap restrictions, the district’s superintendent, Dr. Lois Favre, and the district’s business office have done a good job so far of working around the cap.
DeGroot feels more can still be done, however, and believes the district should continue on a path of fiscal responsibility. He called the two percent cap a “wake-up call” to the district and the entire state.
“I believe that most bureaucracies have inefficiencies in them,” said DeGroot. “I still feel that there is a few more savings to be rung out of the budget.”
DeGroot added that he was reticent to cut any single program from the school, and would much rather continue the current fiscal policy of placing small budget cuts across the board.
Tyree-Johnson disagreed with this plan to cut more from the budget.
“I think it is hard because I think we have already trimmed a lot of the fat,” said Tyree-Johnson.
Braia said that while finding savings in areas around the budget sounds great, she was afraid the two percent tax cap would be too tight for some projects in the school to fit in.
“It is not a certain program we should cut, we can’t just cut programs, we don’t have many to begin with,” said Braia.
Braia said, like DeGroot, she was open to finding small budget cuts to many of the school programs.
Despite the fiscal realities facing the school, as a result of the cap, most of the candidates expressed a desire to move forward with expanding the school.
“I would definitely say that we have outgrown our space,” said Tyree-Johnson, who bemoaned Bridgehampton’s inability to host basketball playoff games due to the inadequate size of the school’s gymnasium.
Tyree-Johnson said that she would support measures to build a new gym for the school.
“I think it is a big project,” said Tyree-Johnson, “but I think it is time for us to say that this school is worth spending money on.
DeGroot said that the real issue wasn’t the gym but rather the continued use of temporary outbuildings as permanent classrooms and offices.
“As far as the physical plant of the school, the main building is really fantastic, but the outbuildings have all been meant to be temporary and they have already been used for longer than their intended lifespan,” said DeGroot.
White was less enthusiastic about further construction, saying that the board of education’s first priority should be to getting Bridgehampton’s “outsourced kids” to return to the school from surrounding schools like Our Lady of the Hamptons and McGann-Mercy.
“My goal would be to pack out this place first before we expand,” said White, “to make sure there is no elbow room in the class rooms.”
DeGroot and Braia both brought up the idea of the addition of building a swimming pool behind the school building.
“The facilities really do need to be expanded,” said Braia, “One of my dreams would be an indoor swimming pool and a gym for the kids to go.”
Braia said that the pool could attract private school students in the district back to the school. DeGroot agreed saying that an indoor swimming pool would be something he would be willing to look into.
“I do see the need for a gym and an auditorium,” said White, “possibly a swimming pool, but that it is not on my list my top five, I would much rather see increased classroom size.”
Beyond physical expansion of the school, the candidates also debated the merits of increasing the size of certain programs within Bridgehampton.
Braia said that she would like to see expanded programs for adults in the school district, as well as athletic teams for girls.
“Right now we only have cheerleading for girls, we have nothing else for the girls,” said Braia, “it would be in their best interest to be able to participate in a team sport.”
Tyree-Johnson thought the next focus for the school board, in terms of school programming, would be to increase the foreign language department at the school.
“Our world is becoming very small, and I think it is beneficial for our kids to be fluent in several languages,” said Tyree-Johnson.
DeGroot agreed that instruction in French and Spanish need to be a priority at Bridgehampton, suggesting that education should begin at the school starting as early as first grade.
White was concerned that many of Bridgehampton graduates would not be prepared to enter the current job market. To deal with this issue, he suggested creating a career development program for the students.
“Whether we like it or not the world is trade based, the person going out and getting a four year bachelors degree….that job is not there anymore,” said White.
In order to offer more educational and extra curricular programs to Bridgehampton students, the school district has long worked with other schools on the East End through shared service programs. Tyree-Johnson said that the school board has to be more creative and assertive in pushing for these shared programs.
“It’s tricky because even though we are a small district we need big things,” said Tyree-Johnson. “I would like to see us expand and continue the combined drama program with Pierson, like what happened this year.”
DeGroot said that the he saw an opportunity to use the shared services program to allow Bridgehampton students to take academic classes not offered in Bridgehampton.
Rather then seeing the shared program as a way to let Bridgehampton students go to other schools, Braia said that the board should look into sponsoring their own programs and inviting students from other schools to participate.
White said that the use of technology like Skype could open up new opportunities in shared services programs.
“I see that happening, that is what the world is coming too, I was just teleconferencing with somebody from Hong Kong and they were having breakfast,” said White, “it is just that easy, and school needs to do that.”
After the debate, the Bridgehampton board of education presented its proposed budget for the 2012-2013 school year. The big number presented to the taxpayers has been increased to $10,696,364, a 1.13 percent increase from last year.
The proposed budget would increase the tax levy to about $1.62 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The Budget vote and board elections will both be held at the Bridgehampton High School on Tuesday, May 15 from 2 to 8 p.m.