From cutting extracurricular activities to limiting busing to removing prekindergarten and kindergarten programs — all ideas tossed around at a school board meeting last week — the Wainscott School District is figuring out how it will reopen in September with essentially the same budget that it had last year but with more students to accommodate.
The June 28 school board meeting was so well attended that the location had to be switched from a classroom in the new schoolhouse to the open space of the old schoolhouse, where parents and community members sat on rows of plastic benches.
The problem Wainscott faces is this: After the proposed budget increase from $4.13 million to $6.16 million failed at the May 16 community vote, and the contingency budget of $6.14 million was defeated in a second vote on June 20, the district can only do one thing, according to state law: return to the 2022-23 budget of $4.13 million, even though it has an anticipated paying tuition for 20 new district students attending nearby schools.
Because it is mandatory that a public school district provide in-house schooling or pay tuition for students to attend school elsewhere, after students age out of the kindergarten-through-third-grade Wainscott School the district pays for children in fourth grade and up to attend school in East Hampton, Sag Harbor, or Bridgehampton. Wainscott also gives its prekindergarten students the option of attending the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center. The district also has to pay for any individualized special education programs that the students may need, sometimes sending them to expensive programs UpIsland.
According to William Babinski, a member of the Wainscott School Board, the board is discussing what to keep and what to cut. “We have to do the things we’re mandated to do before we do the things we want to do,” he said. “Pre-K and kindergarten are not mandated by the state.”
The board, however, arrived at no final decisions at the meeting as to what would be cut. It anticipates making those decisions on Tuesday during its organizational meeting at 6:30 p.m.
One potential solution to Wainscott’s problems is getting money from the state. Deborah Haab, the school superintendent, made the point that Wainscott is a small, wealthy community that is less likely to receive grants from a finite pot of education dollars than poorer school districts upstate. “Because of our location and because of our demographics, we’re not perceived as a needy area,” said Ms. Haab. School board members said they will still pursue state aid.
According to Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., Wainscott is already going to receive “bullet aid” from the state to help with certain programs, but these grants are relatively small — for instance, sums of $25,000 or $50,000. Wainscott is ineligible for “foundation aid,” the largest pot of state money for school districts, because it has fewer than eight teachers, he wrote in an email to The Star.
“The nearly universal reaction from education officials in Albany is that such small districts should merge,” Mr. Thiele continued. “Also, Wainscott’s very high property wealth and very low tax rate don’t get a lot of sympathy in the rest of the state.”
He pointed to the disparity between the property values and the school tax rate in Wainscott — which is the lowest school tax rate out of all the school districts in East Hampton Town — and those in larger districts like Springs and East Hampton. The proposed 2023-24 budget increase was $2 million, but it was a 50-percent increase from the 2022-23 budget, which made it seem, to some, greater than it actually was.
The district’s East Hampton Town tax rate would have gone from $202.66 to $336.07 per thousand of a house’s assessed value, or an increase of about 66 percent. For a house assessed at $6,000 — which roughly translates to $1 million in fair market value in East Hampton Town — taxes would have gone from about $1,216 up to $2,016. A handful of school district properties are situated in Sagaponack, which is in Southampton Town, but the tax rate would have gone up by a similar amount.
By contrast, in the Springs School District, which has the highest tax rate in town, the newly approved tax rate is $1,230.26 per thousand in assessed value. Owners of that same house would pay $7,380 in school taxes — upward of three and a half times more than the proposed taxes in Wainscott.
“It’s almost embarrassing that this happened in Wainscott,” said Kelly Anderson, a school board member, about the vote failing. Later, she said, “It’s a real lesson in democracy. . . . We can only hope that this is a one-year problem, that we solve it, and next year we’re back on track as normal.”
Melanie Hayward, a parent who attended the school board meeting and who ran unsuccessfully for a school board seat this year, proposed holding fund-raisers over the summer to help pay for school expenses. She said it was sad that Wainscott is going to have to cut so much from the budget.
The school board has proposed the idea of bringing the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades into the Wainscott schoolhouse so that it does not have to pay the tuition for those children to attend other schools — which can vary by tens of thousands of dollars from district to district — but said that was a last resort.
“Changing schools is extraordinarily stressful for the child,” said Barry Raebeck, a Wainscott resident who attended the meeting.
Parents brought up becoming an “administrative district,” which would mean sending children in all grades to other schools on a tuition-paying basis, but the board said that this would be much more expensive than keeping kids in the Wainscott School.
Acknowledging that the district is in a difficult financial situation, the parents and school board members agreed they are committed to providing a stellar education for all of the children in Wainscott, and that the teachers will rise to the occasion.
“We’re trying to get to a point where we can say. . . we’ve done everything that we can,” said David Eagan, the school board president. He later continued, “We need to enter September with some sense of stability and some sense of comfort that we’ll get through the year.”