Having watched the workings of school boards here for as long as we have, one thing has become obvious: The chummy closeness between elected board members and district administrators is not necessarily a good thing. With this in mind, the over-arching yardstick, if you will, with which we think voters should measure candidates for the boards in Tuesday’s votes is independence. The question should not be who is easiest to get along with. Rather, it should be who is most likely to maintain sufficient distance. Nor should voters view polling as a popularity contest; the most well-known or likeable person may not necessarily be the right one.
Election to a school board is just the beginning. For those who are successful Tuesday, the work will begin when they are sworn in. Board members find themselves asked to balance among taxpayers’ interests, the needs of the district’s children, and mind-bogglingly complex state and federal rules. Add to this the difficulty inherent in responsibility for personnel, athletics, transportation, and school buildings, and you have what sounds like a full-time job.
Given the tasks board members are asked to master — and the nearly never-ending roll of scandals, lawsuits, or parent outcries — it is a wonder that anyone at all would stand for election. In fact, we have thought for some time that the structure of school boards in New York State should be overhauled to assure that the policy-making efficiency of elected officials is insulated from the day-to-day fireworks that tend to otherwise consume them. That is a matter for another day. For now, those who do choose to run are to be commended in the strongest terms. On to our recommendations.
For the East Hampton School Board we endorse Wendy Geehreng and Richard Wilson. Ms. Geehreng works part-time as a pediatric nurse-practitioner and sells real estate here. She is the parent of four children in the district and is smart and energetic. Mr. Wilson taught science in the Sag Harbor schools before retiring. That background, his focus on academics, and his interest in strengthening East Hampton’s already impressive technical and scientific programs makes him a compelling choice.
In Springs, Jeff Miller and Adam Wilson get our support. We have known Mr. Miller for many years in his capacity as an East Hampton Village employee and as a former chief of the Springs Fire Department. He has strong ties in the hamlet and the ability to look at things with a discerning eye. Mr. Wilson, as a Little League coach and board member, has demonstrated his commitment to Springs and its future generations.
Montauk presents a tough call with Lee White and Honora Herlihy facing off for one open seat. Mr. White is a member of the East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals, where he has demonstrated fair-mindedness and impartiality. Both he and Ms. Herlihy have two small children at the Montauk School. Because we know him better and have confidence in the job he could do on the board, Mr. White gets the edge from us, but only just.
In Amagansett, Bridgehampton, Wainscott, and Sagaponack the races for school board are uncontested.
As to the school budgets, the state-imposed discipline of the 2-percent cap on tax-levy increases has appeared to work. Each of the districts within The Star’s coverage area has held its 2013-14 spending plan down in order to keep the tax-levy increase to a single-digit, although some mandated expenses are exempt from the calculation. This is a remarkable turnaround from pre-tax-cap days, when year-to-year hikes of 10 percent or more were common. At this point, there is little opportunity for boards to change the numbers. A defeat in any district would mean the failing budget is put before the voters a second time. If defeated again, state law would require adoption of a severely bare-bones budget. Most districts held ostensibly public budget work sessions during the spring, which few residents attended.
It should be noted that in too many instances the boards, including East Hampton’s, flatly violated a state law that requires copies of documents under discussion to be provided to those in attendance, including the press. Even after this was pointed out by The Star and other newspapers, boards continued to break the law.
This should give residents pause and underscore the need for independent-minded candidates who are willing to defy administrators when they seem to be in the wrong. In the end, it is the public’s business they are elected to conduct.