On Monday night, at the second Springs School Board meeting of the fiscal year, tensions quickly erupted as a packed house argued against the elimination of the sports program that seventh and eighth graders have enjoyed at East Hampton Middle School.
Last year, 39 students participated in the combined program, which included football, cross-country, track and field, wrestling, and lacrosse, which Springs could not provide by itself, according to Kathee Burke Gonzalez, president of the board. The program cost $19,562, plus an additional $14,000 for transportation.
The school had previously budgeted for the program. But since the imposition of a 2-percent cap on any increase in property taxes, all that has changed.
Districtwide, adhering to the tax cap resulted in a 30-percent cut, or nearly $800,000 in the 2012-13 budget. Besides the cut for the combined sports program, the board eliminated five teachers, two teaching assistants, and an educational summer school, among other things.
“With all of the cuts we were making across the board, everything was on the table. At the time, $120,000 for middle school sports was more than we could afford,” said Ms. Gonzalez. The $120,000 figure includes the roughly $34,000 for the combined sports program and another $86,000, which remained in the budget, for sports on campus, such as after-school tennis, volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball, and baseball.
A few weeks ago, the new Springs School superintendent, Dominic Mucci, was told by the school’s attorney that, legally, the district would not be able to fund the program season by season and that busing would be mandatory. The fate of the program apparently now rests on whether $35,000 can be raised privately.
Earlier this summer, Janice Vaziri and Mary McPartland, Springs parents, started a booster club to raise the necessary funds. Ms. Vaziri said that while they have already raised around $8,000, with less than three weeks to go until the start of school, the clock is ticking — and not necessarily in their favor.
Ms. Vaziri remains cautiously optimistic. Her older son, who now plays football at East Hampton High School, had previously participated in the combined sports program. Her younger son, who will soon enter the eighth grade, hopes to resume football practice come fall. Mostly, she sees the program as helping to bridge the gap between the two communities.
“It’s hard enough as a Springs student to go into high school because you’re always considered an outsider,” Ms. Vaziri said. “This program helped make for an easier transition.”
But Tom Talmage, who sat on the Springs School Board for six years, disputed the need for a booster club. In forceful language, he said the money could be found in the budget.
“I know the money is there, but it’s now just a matter of them deciding whether or not to spend it,” Mr. Talmage said. He has three children in the Springs School, one of whom is about to enter seventh grade and is hoping to play football.
“They’ve eliminated a program as essential as athletics during an era when children are becoming more and more sedentary and getting less and less physical activity at school,” Mr. Talmage said. “It’s crazy. And it’s especially crazy when the money is just sitting right there in the school budget.”
As talk of money continued, a handful of parents openly bristled at the announcement of Springs’s new assistant principal’s salary. At $120,000 plus benefits, Dr. Katherine Byrnes will assume a three-year probationary post later this month. One parent intimated that had she been paid less, the combined sports program might have escaped the chopping block.
Later in the evening, one parent wondered why waivers could be used to send students on field trips with parents but not for private transportation for after-school sports. After hearing that busing by the district would be mandatory, another member of the audience said Montauk parents had shuttled their children back and forth to practice and games privately for a long time.
While the nearly three-hour meeting remained contentious at times, Ms. Gonzalez urged for a more balanced perspective.
“Depending on who you are and what grade your child is in, different things and different priorities change your perspective,” Ms. Gonzalez said. Her daughter is also set to begin seventh grade at Springs.
“It’s been a heart-wrenching year, and we’ve had to make some difficult decisions,” she said. “We’re balancing the needs of the students with the pocketbooks of the taxpayers. These are challenging times.”