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Bridgehampton to revote on cap-busting school budget

Bridgehampton schools superintendent and principal Dr. Lois R.Favre

Bridgehampton schools superintendent and principal Dr. Lois R.Favre details the district's proposed budget on Monday, June 9, 2014.

Long Island's smallest K-12 school district is going all-out Tuesday in what even some staffers call a big gamble to pass the same cap-busting $12.3 million budget that voters rejected May 20.

Should the budget again go down in defeat, the 169-student Bridgehampton district would face a tax freeze for the 2014-15 school year, which Superintendent Lois Favre said would mean job losses and deep cuts in student programs.

A double rejection would be a first among the 124 public school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties since the state's tax-cap restrictions took effect in spring 2012. Bridgehampton's financial squeeze has revived local debate over closing down the district's tiny high school program or even consolidating with another district -- both ideas rejected in the recent past.

The Sayville and West Babylon districts also are holding revotes Tuesday. School boards in both whittled back their budgets to either equal or come in beneath their cap limits.

Bridgehampton's proposed budget would boost spending 9.93 percent and taxes 8.76 percent -- the highest tax increase on the Island this year. Under tax-cap rules, approval requires a 60 percent majority of those voting. In May, the district fell short with 54 percent -- 133 "yes" votes to 112 "no" votes.

Districtwide, expenses work out to more than $58,000 per student. The state average is less than $21,000.

The district serves a growing number of Spanish-speaking students -- many the children of workers in the area's resort and landscaping businesses -- and more than half of all students qualify for subsidized lunches because of low family incomes.

Enrollment is 37 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black and 28 percent white, according to the state's latest figures.

Class sizes in grades K to 12 in Bridgehampton average 10 students or less. Program offerings for students include college-level Advanced Placement courses, a marimba band, field trips to Broadway shows and a greenhouse where teens grow vegetables for the school cafe.

"Stakes are high for our students," said Jeff Hand, 38, a third-grade teacher who has worked in the district seven years.

Eighth-grader Montse Udave, 14, said that she and classmates have been following recent budget developments. "I'm actually worried about it," she said.

Revotes at other districts

Revised budgets in Sayville and West Babylon need approval by only simple, 50 percent-plus voter majorities because they are adhering to state-imposed tax-levy limits. Caps vary from district to district because of differing local factors, including costs of school construction that are excluded from the computation of caps.

Sayville's $90 million budget would raise property tax collections, known as a levy, by 1.22 percent -- the same as its cap. West Babylon's $99.3 million plan would raise taxes 1.36 percent, coming in just under its cap of 1.3617 percent.

West Babylon won a majority vote in May, but not the 60 percent needed to pass its budget, which at that time exceeded the cap. Sayville did not get even a simple majority for its initial plan.

At local budget hearings last week, the few residents who showed up seemed mostly supportive of efforts by school officials in Sayville and West Babylon to reduce spending.

"Most of the people I know that voted 'no' are at least somewhat satisfied with their efforts," said Alia Richards, 36, a Sayville attorney and parent.

School administrators in Bridgehampton, Sayville and West Babylon, like counterparts in other districts, have ticked off a familiar list of cost factors to explain their rationale for higher taxes. Those include salaries, employee pensions, health insurance and other benefits.

Bridgehampton, in addition, must deal with the extra per-student costs of operating the Island's smallest high school program, with a wide range of electives that include four college-level AP courses. The high school also fields a varsity basketball team known as the Killer Bees, a perennial champion in small-school competitions.

Debate over high school

Many Bridgehampton taxpayers -- especially retirees -- contend the district could provide a fuller, more efficient education for teenage students by sending them to nearby high schools in Southampton, Sag Harbor or East Hampton on a tuition basis. This already is done in Sagaponack, Tuckahoe and other East End districts that do not have high schools of their own.

Bridgehampton has 38 students in grades 9-12, including six seniors who will graduate June 29.

A petition filed by a board member in 2008 to shut down Bridgehampton's high school grades was rejected by the board's majority. Calls for that have continued, however, as the district has encountered increased financial pressures driven by tax caps.

"The number of graduates is incredibly small, so cost per-student is inevitably high," said one resident, Leonard Davenport, 72, who backs elimination of the high school grades. Davenport formerly taught in Lynbrook and moved to Bridgehampton in 1997 after retiring.

School supporters responded that, while per-pupil costs may be high, many property owners' taxes are low. That's a result of stratospheric Hamptons property values, which generate ample tax revenues at relatively low rates for individual homeowners.

For example, the owner of a three-bedroom cottage in Bridgehampton valued at about $1.5 million would pay $2,700 to $3,700 in property taxes. Taxes on comparably valued homes in western Suffolk and Nassau run seven or eight times higher.

Favre -- who doubles as principal of the stately Bridgehampton School on Montauk Highway, the district's lone permanent student facility -- told residents recently that the budget's approval would mean a mere dollar a week in extra taxes on a $500,000 home.

The superintendent, 58, is completing her fourth year in the post, coming from the Lakeland district in Westchester County, where she was an assistant superintendent. She is paid $197,760, with an additional $30,000 stipend as principal.

A second "no" vote, Favre said, would result in the loss of five district employees out of a total staff of 60, as well as deep cuts in elective courses, extracurricular activities and full-day prekindergarten classes."To be honest, I was surprised it didn't pass the first time around," the superintendent told a reporter.

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