Bridgehampton School District Makes Case for Extra Bond

Bridgehampton School District Superintendent Robert Hauser and a panel including the district's architect, construction consultants, and attorney, fields questions from audience members at a community forum Thursday about the district's request for an additional $4.7 million in funding that residents can vote on Thursday. Johnette Howard

About 30 people turned out at a Bridgehampton community forum Thursday night to ask pointed questions and hear Bridgehampton School District officials and contractors explain the confluence of events that is sending the district back to residents on Thursday for a vote to approve an additional $4.7 million in funding for renovation and expansion of the school, on top of the $24.7 million that voters greenlighted two years ago.

But the rationale for the project — which would double the size of the 80-year old building, update its mechanical systems, and add badly needed classrooms, a regulation-size gym, and other basics — was only mildly debated during the 90-minute forum in the school’s gym.

Lillian Tyree-Johnson, a vice president of the Bridgehampton School Board, who was seated in the audience, drew applause when she said, "We’re the only school district on the East End that has not done capital improvement in the last 25 years, and we are direly in need. We have kids testing in hallways and it’s not right. We’re asking for what we need. It is not a wish list." 

The vote will take place next Thursday from 2 to 8 p.m. in the school gym. Proof of residency in the district is required, and people may not also be registered to vote elsewhere. Absentee ballots are also available at the district office through Wednesday. Completed absentee ballots must be received by the school by mail or in person no later than 5 p.m. Thursday in order to be counted.

If the additional funding is approved, district Superintendent Robert Hauser estimated that individual taxpayer’s bills would rise about $20 a year for every million dollars of assessed value on their home.

If not approved, Mr. Hauser said, the district could revisit downsizing the project. But that would require redesigning the plans and then going back to the school board, then the New York State Education Department for new permit approval and would add years to the completion of the project. Originally, the district had hoped to break ground on it last May.

Joyce Weinberg, who has a child in middle school, said waiting will be difficult as it is.

"I’m a brand-new homeowner in Bridgehampton. I moved here from New York just for this school," Ms. Weinberg said. "This building, while it seems enormous, is so overcrowded. The library for the school already is not sufficient for the needs of the kids. What can we do to get bids from good contractors that make sense?"

Pamela Harwood of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee came to the forum prepared with a list of questions from C.A.C. members. She was among the residents who wanted to know how such a significant cost overrun could have happened? Did officials consider eliminating features of the project to make budget?

Mr. Hauser and the district’s architect, John A. Grillo of Port Jefferson, provided some detailed answers.

Mr. Grillo said the district was set back when its permit from the State Education Department to proceed with the $24.7 million renovation took nearly a year to obtain, or twice as long as expected -- a delay he attributed to the department’s backlog and staffing shortage. 

The permit delay pushed the district's ability to even solicit construction bids for the project into June of this year.

"June is the absolute worst time of year to go out for bids," Mr. Grillo said, adding that most public works/school contractors are already into their "summer craze" and occupied with other projects by then. 

The result? When the bids came back, even the lowest of them were higher than the district budgeted for. The district put out the project for a second round of bidding in July, with a few minor changes. Again, the bids came in over budget. 

Mr. Grillo said the district had allowed for some cost overruns, but not $4.7 million. He said it is a bidder’s market right now.

"I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and I've never seen anything come close to this -- nearly a 25-percent increase in two years," Mr. Grillo said.

"With the total number of bond issues being approved by school districts across Long Island, there is just too much work out there, not enough manpower out there," Mr. Grillo said. "I don’t think it's that concrete [prices] went up more than asphalt, or steel went up more than sheetrock. . . . What we’re seeing [from bidders] is, 'There’s a ton of work out there, so if I normally charge $100 a ton for asphalt, I’m going to charge $125. . . . If I get it, lucky me.’ That’s what I’m seeing across the board."

Downsizing the project rather than seeking the additional $4.7 million in funding was considered. But William Jackson, the district’s attorney, said the district has to be sensitive about cutting features that voters thought they were getting when they approved the original $24.7 million in funding.

"The general test that we use is you have to deliver the project as originally designed in all material respects," Mr. Jackson said.

The proposed additions and renovations will allow the prekindergarten to be moved into the main building and out of 40-year-old modular classrooms on the west side of the school. The school will get a new regulation-size gym, locker rooms, and cafeteria, as well as new science, technology, English, math, and music rooms. Part of the current gym is to become an auditorium and the remainder a new school library.

Mr. Hauser said if Thursday’s funding vote passes, the district would seek new bids immediately and hope to break ground by November since its permit and building plans are already in place. "That’s the one bright side in all of this," Mr. Hauser said.