It is fair to say the Wainscott School District’s financial situation has reached crisis level: A budget with a 49.27-percent jump in overall spending — carrying a tax-levy increase of more than 95 percent — is on the table for the 2023-24 school year.
In a letter sent to taxpayers on Tuesday, the school board said it was “forced” to propose the $6.16 million budget, which will need at least 60-percent voter approval to pass on May 16. Additionally, a separate proposition is on the ballot seeking another $1 million in taxes to cover a shortfall for the rest of the current school year. That proposal will need only a simple majority to pass.
“We assure you these unprecedented increases are not discretionary expenditures,” wrote the board members, David Eagan, president; Billy Babinski, and Kelly Anderson. “They are primarily ‘ordinary contingent expenses’ which we are legally required to spend. . . . The size of the increases could not have been reasonably anticipated by your board.”
A public hearing on the budget will be held on Monday at 6 p.m. in the district’s old schoolhouse. Voting is from 1:30 to 8 p.m. on May 16 in the main school building.
The school’s in-house enrollment in kindergarten through the third grade of 28 children has been fairly stable, the board said, but the number of students sent to other schools on a tuition-paid basis is at “an all-time high” of 92 — an increase, in a single year, of 20. “Historically, the district typically netted no more than three new tuition students in any given year,” the board noted.
Special-education costs are expected to rise by $869,655, including $540,000 in tuition, busing, and related services for three students to attend more intensive programs elsewhere — programs that Wainscott and other local schools cannot offer. Of the $2.03 million year-over-year increase, just $314,950, or 15 percent, is for the in-house educational program. An amount of $669,071 is allocated to tuition for the students who arrived this year, so that the district isn’t walloped the same way next year.
Wainscott is one of three districts here — the others are Springs and Montauk — seeking this month to override the state-imposed cap on tax-levy increases, which has been in place since 2012. Wainscott has sought, and received, voter support three other times for over-the-cap budgets — in 2019, 2020, and 2022.
The current state of affairs has been developing for several years, ever since state auditors admonished the district for holding on to more surplus money than New York law allows — 4 percent of the prior year’s school budget. Had Wainscott not been instructed to spend down that surplus, school officials say, it wouldn’t be in as dire a situation now.
The tiny district is not eligible for state funding because it has fewer than eight full-time employees.
Near the end of its letter, the Wainscott School Board also addressed East Hampton Town’s proposed 50-unit community housing project on Route 114, which falls within district borders.
“Importantly, none of the above numbers and dollar amounts reflect the impact” of that project, the letter said. The town projects that 35 children will live in that development, a number the Wainscott trustees and administration say is an underestimate. They are in talks with the town “aimed at mitigating the project’s potential significant adverse impacts on the District.”
The town has told school officials that the housing project will likely be completed in the 2025-26 school year.
“Your trustees continue to believe,” their letter continues, “that there is a path forward that will result in a town-built housing project on Route 114 that will be a significant step toward addressing the town-wide housing shortage while ensuring that the Wainscott School will survive and continue to operate as the impactful and community defining institution that has served our community well for many generations.”