Tuesday could represent a pivotal moment for public education here, with several school districts asking voters to approve larger than usual property tax increases. In Springs, the annual school tax would rise by about $240 for a property valued at about $900,000. In Wainscott, the tax rate would almost double. In both cases, the spending proposals are mostly due to an increase in the cost of sending older students to other districts for middle and/or high school and an increase in the number of upper-grade students.
For Montauk, where voters will also be asked to approve a substantial tax increase, the situation is different, though it, too, pays to send students to East Hampton High School. Because the state forced the district to spend money from its improperly rich reserve funds beginning with the 2017-18 school year, taxpayers had not felt the sting of rising expenses until now. Montauk voters will be asked to approve a budget that increases the amount of money raised by taxes by more than 18 percent. Wainscott was also forced to spend some of its excess reserves. Budget plans for the other districts from Bridgehampton east, including East Hampton and Sag Harbor, stay within a state-mandated cap on tax-levy increases. A school budget must win with at least 60 percent of all votes cast to override the tax cap.
In the past, voters have been very reluctant to ultimately vote down spending proposals even when they go above, or “pierce” in school board lingo, the cap. However, the double-digit tax hikes in Montauk and Wainscott, and the more than 5-percent jump in Springs could challenge that history.
For East Hampton, the Wainscott tax problem could have townwide implications. Until now, its school board has successfully battled back plans for work force housing initiatives in its sprawling but relatively less-populated district. Wainscott’s 2022 kindergarten-through-third-grade enrollment was just 25 children. Anything that might increase that total would require changes to the tiny schoolhouse, as well as increased costs to taxpayers. Looked at from the perspective of the broader community, the board’s clinging to a charming but outdated educational model as a way to block much-needed affordable housing is problematic. In this, it has long seemed that Wainscott was happy to have adults who live in other places mow the lawns and keep the houses clean, as long as their children did not go to school there. One might sympathize with some Wainscott parents and taxpayers hoping to maintain their cozy two-room approach to education, yet it is no longer acceptable to continue in defiance of the changed reality.
For years, there has been talk of the smaller districts dissolving and consolidating. Though we do not expect that this will be the year, “no” votes on the over-the-cap budgets might force school boards to begin seriously looking at that alternative.