With annual school votes on Tuesday, the nearly complete lack of public controversy is striking, especially as two districts are seeking 60-percent support for budgets that will increase the amount brought in by taxes by more than a state-mandated cap. Notable as well is the absence of competitive races for school boards.
We wonder whether everyone is just too busy now that the South Fork economy is humming again, whether the absence of heat reflects tacit public understanding that the schools are being managed satisfactorily, or something else. One possibility is that the constrained budgets and increased standardized testing have decreased the power of elected school boards, while the ever-increasing consolidation of authority of hired administrators and bureaucrats has diminished what elected overseers can actually accomplish. In many cases, superintendents sit at the head of the table at board meetings, signaling an inversion of the system of checks and balances. Almost no one appears to care that school boards and parents are now taking at best a supporting role in districts throughout the state.
In East Hampton, voters will be asked on Tuesday to approve a spending plan that increases their taxes by 1.3 percent. This is a modest amount, but it does go beyond the state cap. Our sense is that the district should be given a pass this time around after digging relatively deeply in the search for cuts. However, the district should be forewarned that the next time around residents might demand that it take a harder line on what appears to be excessive administrative costs. The two incumbent board members running unopposed, Pat Hope, a no-nonsense former East Hampton High School teacher, and Jackie Lowey, a parent of two students in the district with a deep and impressive résumé, merit unequivocal support.
Bridgehampton is the other South Fork district seeking voter approval to exceed the tax cap. No incumbents are running. Michael Gomberg, Jeffrey Mansfield, and Kathleen McCleland are on the ballot for two open board positions. We are impressed by Ms. McCleland’s and Mr. Mansfield’s clear commitment to the school and endorse them over Mr. Gomberg. We are less enthusiastic about the budget’s 8.8-percent tax levy increase. The district administration has said that the additional $1.1 million in the 2014-15 budget is necessary just to keep things where they are. Given that other districts are staying within the cap or close to it, that explanation isn’t quite good enough. Even if the spending plan is approved, however, a serious time of reckoning appears to have arrived for the district. Bridgehampton must quickly begin to explore how to cut non-program costs for the long term, whether by further sharing of services with nearby districts, or even consolidation.
Despite all the pressures the Springs district faces in terms of a large and diverse student population its spending plan will stay under the tax cap. Teachers and administrators there have done an admirable job doing more with less, but how long that can continue is a worry.
In Wainscott, voters have the curious pleasure of being asked to return David Eagan, unopposed, to the board. This follows a rebuke from the state comptroller last year over the district’s surplus income and Mr. Eagan’s arrest in February on a tax-fraud charge. He has laid the incident to a mistake, but there is reason for concern; it is not all that easy to get oneself arrested on such allegations. It is notable that residents either do not care or are willing to look past these red flags.
Montauk has a bit of a competitive race for school board in an election that features a budget that stays well within the state limit. Jason Biondo and Cynthia Ibrahim are battling for one seat. We know Mr. Biondo well, his having been a reporter at The Star for several years. He is both outspoken and deeply involved in the community, which would bode well for his contributions to the district. Ms. Ibrahim likewise has a lot to offer. She has been involved with the Montauk Playhouse Community Center Foundation and is on the PTA. It is an extremely difficult call between two excellent candidates. The budget is actually down about $100,000 from last year’s and should cruise to approval.
In Amagansett all appears well, with happy parents, no race for board seats, and a budget with only a modest increase that remains within bounds. Sagaponack’s increases are modest as well and stay within the cap. Cathy Hatgistavrou is running unopposed.
Sag Harbor has three board seats in play, with Theresa Samot and Sandi Kruel hoping to stay on and Thomas Re and Diana Kolhoff opposing them. We are impressed by Ms. Kolhoff’s considerable education and teachers-advocate credentials. Ms. Samot has had three previous terms, and been the board president for three years; we respect her commitment and experience. And its budget also stays within the cap.
Over all, the complacency sensed around this year’s school votes bodes well for those districts seeking to get above the 60-percent margin and break through the tax cap. Looking ahead, the time will soon come for consolidations. Millions are spent each year on administrative and back-office expenses that could be eliminated as smaller districts are joined into one or two larger systems. A potential benefit of regional school boards is that parents and taxpayers alike would become more engaged and demand greater accountability, better candidates, and more competitive elections.
In the long run, the ennui that has gripped most districts this time around may be as much a cause for concern as an endorsement of a job well done.