By Tessa Raebeck
With three candidates vying for two seats on the Bridgehampton School Board, the district PTO hosted a Meet the Candidates forum on May 7 to give those running a chance to share their ideas on the future of the district.
During the debate, which was moderated by Michael Mackey of WPPB 88.3 FM. Candidates Michael Gomberg, Jeffrey Mansfield and Kathleen McCleland, all three of whom have young children in the district school, are running for three-year terms, which start July 1 and end June 30, 2017. None of the candidates are incumbents.
With a degree in finance and accounting, Mr. Gomberg, 41, lives two blocks from the school and works in Southampton.
Mr. Mansfield, 49, worked on Wall Street for 17 years and is now a stay-at-home dad, active in many groups in the Bridgehampton community and Southampton Town. Last year he ran an unsuccessful bid for Southampton Town Board. His mother was a teacher for over 30 years and Mr. Mansfield said he considers himself “a champion of education.”
A Bridgehampton native, Ms. McCleland, 43, has previously worked as a personal chef and as vice president of corporate event planning at Goldman Sachs. She now works as the pastry chef at the Beacon and the Bell and Anchor, of which her husband Sam is chef and co-owner.
The school board is presenting voters with a $12.3 million budget for 2014-15 that would pierce the state-mandated cap on property tax increases, making it one of four districts on Long Island to do so. Mr. Mackey opened the forum by asking the candidates whether they supported piercing the cap.
Mr. Gomberg said he is “all for it,” adding that not doing so would “send the school spiraling.”
“The sacrifices that we would have to make as a school and school district if we were to not pierce the cap would be too great,” Ms. McCleland agreed.
“I am in favor of piercing the cap, but I would also like to say I will work like heck over the next two years to come in under the cap,” said Mr. Mansfield, adding he is conservative fiscally but “education is one area that we cannot afford to skimp on.”
When asked how they would get members of the community who are not involved in the school to be involved, Mr. Gomberg said, “call them up, go door to door.”
“It’s a small enough community and we have fabulous resources and it’s a shame that they’re not being utilized,” he said, adding he would like to see opportunities for internships and mentoring set up with local businesses.
Ms. McCleland said, “The more we can publicize to the community through social media, the local newspapers, all the wonderful things we have … we can capitalize on those types of events to invite the community in.”
“The school unfairly suffers from a perception that it’s lackluster,” said Mr. Mansfield. “We need to get out and be an advocate for the school and it’s a two-way thing.”
Mr. Mackey asked the candidates how they would increase the population in the district, which is by far the smallest on the East End, and whether they believe getting more students is important.
Ms. McCleland said growing the school is important and pointed to the success of the pre-kindergarten programs and the larger sized classes in the lower grades.
“The more we get out there and can show the community all of the great things we have to offer, that in and of itself will allow them to consider us an option when they are deciding where their children should go to school,” she said.
“I definitely think we have to do something about getting the class sizes bigger. We have to get out there and we have to sell ourselves,” Mr. Gomberg agreed, saying offering more foreign languages and other programs would entice “outsourced kids back to our school.”
Although he was in favor of increasing size, Mr. Gomberg said the expansion should be to a limit because “part of what’s great about the school is the small, nurturing environment that these kids are able to excel in.”
“You have to be careful what you wish for,” agreed Mr. Mansfield, adding that many private schools are desirous because of their small class sizes and Bridgehampton is able to avoid many of the problems of larger districts. “I think it would be nice to increase the class size, but I don’t think it’s of the utmost importance.”
Citing studies that have indicated consolidating school districts “would be economically beneficial,” Mr. Mackey asked the candidates whether they feel Bridgehampton should continue as an independent school district or merge with another local district.
“I would be open to seeing a study certainly, because I want to make sure that we’re providing the best education we can in the biggest sense of the word,” replied Ms. McCleland. “I can’t say yes or no without having all the facts.”
“I’m definitely against consolidating at this point,” Mr. Gomberg said. “Right now, what’s great about the Bridgehampton community is that it’s small and nurturing.”
“Consolidation is tricky,” said Mr. Mansfield, citing a referendum in 2009 that would have given parents a choice on whether to send their children to Bridgehampton School’s high school or send them to another public school. Critics said the referendum, which was rejected by voters, was a move aimed at eventually shutting down the school.
“The people have spoken as far as I’m concerned and instead of trying to continually tear this school down, it’s time for the people in this community to build this school up,” Mr. Mansfield.”
The school board elections and budget vote are Tuesday, May 20, from 2 to 8 p.m. in the school gymnasium.