Immigration Enters Springs Bond Debate

Residents sound off on expansion vote
Hallways at the Springs School must sometimes double as instructional spaces, as there are 734 students in a building intended for 350. Residents will decide on March 6 whether to approve the funding needed for a building expansion. ­­­David E. Rattray

“I want you all to take a look at that sign,” said Eric Casale, the principal of the Springs School, during Monday’s school board meeting. Approximately 70 or 80 adults and children in the packed library craned their necks to look where Mr. Casale was pointing: a sign at one end that read, “Maximum Occupancy: 54.”

“We break that every single day,” Mr. Casale continued. “We’re breaking it right now. Because we do not have the space.”

On March 6, taxpayers in the Springs School District will head to the polls to approve or reject the funds needed for a major expansion of the school, which was built for 350 students but currently serves 734. The cost of the work is capped at $22,963,298. Approximately $6 million from the district’s capital reserve fund would be applied to that sum, leaving Springs homeowners to decide whether they want to shoulder the balance of $16.9 million. 

An additional 23,801 square feet is proposed, including a new gymnasium, seven new classrooms, new playing fields, a nitrogen-reducing septic system, new roofing, and renovations to existing classrooms.

“Sure, state-of-the-art facilities will be good for the students,” said Manny Vilar, the Republican and Conservative Party member who ran unsuccessfully in November for East Hampton Town supervisor, during a phone conversation the morning after the board meeting. Nonetheless, he said, he represents “a groundswell of community opposition,” consisting of about 30 to 40 Springs residents who are determined to vote down the bond and “get the board refocused.” Mr. Vilar’s four children attended the Springs School; his youngest is an eighth grader there. 

According to Mr. Vilar, cost-saving alternatives have not been adequately explored by the school board. “All they’ve done is push this expansion,” he said, adding that the board has failed to pre­sent, despite his requests, projected upkeep and maintenance costs for the proposed expansion. 

“The addition will need to be heated,” he said. “There will be additional staff employed with benefits — what are those costs? The community needs to understand the true costs of this expansion, but the school has yet to give me those numbers.”

Mr. Vilar also said that over the last 18 months he has suggested alternatives to the expansion, such as pursuing legislative change for Springs to get its own ZIP code, thus creating a separate school district that would receive its own state funding.

“I have even suggested that we appeal East Hampton Town to allow the Springs School to utilize the former Child Development Center of the Hamptons building in East Hampton, given Springs’s special circumstances and needs. And I proposed the possibility of noncontiguous schools like Montauk, Springs, and Amagansett forming their own high school.” And in the meantime, he said, how about temporary classrooms?

Debra Winter, the school’s superintendent, did not agree. ”After yesterday,” she said last week, the day after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., “I want all Springs students under one roof.” Her steely tone made it clear there would be no negotiation on that topic. Currently, prekindergarten, kindergarten, and some first-grade classes are held in other buildings, including a church in East Hampton where, Ms. Winter said, “There is no security. None. . . . For health and safety factors alone, I will continue to stay positive and believe that the bond will be approved.”

Joe Sullivan, who lives in Springs, echoed the superintendent’s views. “Having all students of Springs under one roof is not a want but a need,” he said. His wife teaches second grade at the school. ”Every day, a large portion of instructional time is spent walking students back and forth from outside buildings for music, art, and physical education classes.” Mr. Sullivan said he has three children under 4, and wants to ensure that the school they attend in the future is safe and functional.

But Mr. Vilar expressed a much more pessimistic view of the future. “So much is happening on a broader, national level that will dramatically impact the population of Springs over the next few years.”

When asked to explain what he meant and how it might factor into an expansion plan, he replied, “You can’t live in a bubble. With today’s immigration laws, I believe we will see far fewer legal and illegal residents in Springs over the next few years.” In short, Mr. Vilar believes that a population decline might nullify the need for an extensive expansion. 

That politics has entered into the discourse of a school’s expansion does not make Gavin Menu happy. A lifelong Springs resident, he is married to a Springs School alumna, and their third grader attends the school. “While some would like to politicize this issue, and make it about something other than our overcrowded school being in desperate need of expansion, that is not what this debate should be about,” Mr. Menu told the school board and community members on Monday.

“Understand that this project will also help our local environment with a nitrogen-reducing septic system,” he continued. “Also understand that if this school is deemed unattractive, it will drive our real estate values down,” he said. “We would support this plan even if we did not have children.”

Agreed, said Markie Hancock, a Manhattan-based filmmaker with no children but a second home in Springs. “I’m happy to pay taxes for public education. It’s expensive but not near as costly as an uneducated citizenry,” she said.

Sunsh Stein, who lives year round in Springs, appeared resigned on the issue. “Who wants taxes increased?” she said. “But the school needs it, so what can we do?” 

According to Michael Henery, the school’s business administrator, projected taxes for a Springs house valued at $600,000 would be raised by approximately $163 a year, while those valued at $800,000 would face a $217 increase and residences around the $1 million mark would see an increase of about $272 annually.

Carole Campolo, a vocal member of Mr. Vilar’s opposition group, sent a mass email to some Springs residents, citing evidence that Mr. Vilar’s projection of a decreased Springs population is correct: “I have a complete January 2016 [Board of Cooperative Educational Services] study, which maintains that the overall Suffolk County population is increasing, but the Springs School population will decrease in the years 2024 to 2025,” she wrote in her email. “I asked at many school board meetings for an explanation as to why they were proceeding with the expansion when in fact data shows a decrease in population by the time the construction will be completed. I was told those reports are often wrong and their real world experience showed more students.”

The BOCES study, conducted in 2014, does indeed show declining enrollment figures for the school. At the time of the study, the current school year was projected as having 683 students while the 2024-25 school year shows 599. However, there are not 683 students at the Springs School but 734, 51 more than predicted, placing a question mark over the accuracy of such forecasts. 

Barbara Dayton, the school board president, said the projected enrollment decrease was “only a small number,” not enough to make a substantial difference in filling classrooms.

Ms. Campolo remained resolute, however, and in an email to The Star, she offered this reassurance to the community: “If the school bond referendum were to be defeated, I, and many others in the community, will be happy to work with the school board and administration to craft a solution that will be beneficial for not only the schoolchildren, parents, and school staff, but Springs taxpayers as well.”

But the school superintendent cautioned that in the event of a defeat, the board would seek public approval of the approximately $6 million in a capital reserve fund to be reallocated toward a new roof, a new septic system, and upgrades to windows and doors, none of which would solve the school’s overcrowding problem.

A comprehensive list of questions and answers on the subject, including projected operational costs, is available on the Springs School website, as are architectural renderings of the expansion and budget and property tax details.