It is difficult to imagine a more convincing argument for the immediate consolidation of school districts than the president of the Wainscott School Board’s plea that a modest affordable housing development be kept out of that school district. That this was not roundly rejected from the start is disappointing, to say the least.
David Eagan, the board president, cautioned East Hampton Town officials last week that it would be difficult to accommodate the perhaps 40 additional students the housing would bring in and that it could lead to higher taxes and the need to expand the tiny lower-grades schoolhouse. Take it elsewhere, he seemed to say, like Springs or East Hampton. And therein should lay the death knell of the anachronistic smaller South Fork school districts.
The housing plan is worthwhile. A local nonprofit, with county, state, and federal money, would build a 48-apartment complex on about 31 acres of town-owned land off Stephen Hand’s Path. Current residents of East Hampton Town would be eligible for preference as renters. One of the project’s backers estimated that in addition to the 20 students who would be educated at the Wainscott School, the costs for another 20 who would attend middle school and high school elsewhere could well be added to tax bills. Even so, these numbers are small when compared to several neighboring school districts.
If a school system is too microscopic to handle even the children of a modest work force residence project, something is out of balance. What Wainscott’s board members seem to be saying is that they might welcome the labor of those who live in publicly underwritten houses, but that they had better live elsewhere. One might easily expect the same walls to be thrown up in Sagaponack and Amagansett. The latter school district, in what may be an effort to maintain the exclusivity inherent in its tiny size, has a no-visitors policy that crimps district-shopping by prospective parents.
Speculating, we have long been under the impression that much of the resistance to district consolidation comes from the respective small-school administrators, some of whom stand to lose high-paying jobs in the inevitable shakeout. Scare tactics in the form of studies claiming huge tax increases are trotted out as these leaders begin to see a threat to positions with top compensation packages of around $300,000 a year, when benefits are added.
Larger districts might make for positive change on the school boards, which are made up of well-meaning ordinary citizens who find themselves in thrall to superintendents and their intricate knowledge of the complex functions of running an educational system. So complete is the capitulation that in several districts, notably East Hampton’s, the superintendent sits at the head of the table at board meetings, instead of in the audience.
From the parents’ perspective, small schools are a dream come true. Who wouldn’t want a good education in an idyllic setting for their children that is paid for by someone else? But parents’ wishes do not always make for sound policy. By all accounts, East Hampton Town is in an affordable housing crisis; even less-desirable neighborhoods are priced out of reach of working people as gentrification goes on. There are many causes for this, including the impact of more than a decade of nearly complete town failure to enforce group-housing laws, which has lead to an artificial inflation of prices at the low end of the market.
Let’s amplify that point for a moment: Houses in Springs, for example, are priced beyond the means of local middle-class families in part because illegal multiple rentals allow owners to cover mortgages that would otherwise be unaffordable. This is yet another reason why code enforcement matters, but whether at this point there is any way back is an open question. The result is that there really is little hope for someone starting out or getting by on the area’s modest average salaries to find a decent, year-round rental, and almost no way toward homeownership without breaking the law along the way.
Wainscott’s position is understandable, but must not be the end of the discussion. A neutral analysis could resolve the question about higher taxes, but its not-in-my-backyard stance should be ignored. A regional school district that could spread the tax burden around would be the best course. Of course, a change in state law about how schools raise money might help shift some of the cost off the backs of property owners and more equitably onto this area’s considerable summertime sales and hotel tax income. Then, too, townwide property reassessment might reveal large untapped reserves among long-undervalued parcels.
Education, housing, and taxes are massive and interrelated issues. Progress on these fronts is not going to be made by Wainscott’s thumbing its nose at the rest of the community.