Bridgehampton School Officials Explain Need for More Money

Superintendent Robert Hauser addresses the audience on September 6. Christine Sampson photo

Bridgehampton School officials last week retraced their steps and explained why they are returning to taxpayers for more money for the school district’s expansion project, for which they are seeking an additional $4.74 million in a vote to be held Thursday, September 13, from 2 to 8 p.m. in the school gym.

Those residents who were in attendance at a forum hammered architect John M. Grillo, Superintendent Robert Hauser, financial expert Noah Nadelson, attorney William Jackson and others with questions over why the project had exceeded its original $24.7 million price tag, why the district was not immediately considering scaling down the project and what could be done to save money to render Thursday’s vote unnecessary.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that two sets of bids — divided into general contracting, heating and air conditioning, plumbing and electrical — that collectively came over Bridgehampton’s budget. In June, three general contractors bid on the project, ranging from $17.3 million to $19.3 million. In July, two general contractors bid on the project, one for $16.85 million and another for $17.76 million. The heating and air conditioning, plumbing and electrical bids then put the total sum of all of the lowest proposals over the budget in both sets of bids. Only the plumbing schematics were advertised for bids one time, the district later clarified. All of the bids have been rejected by the school board.

“I’ve been doing this for 27 years and I’ve never seen anything close to this. I’ve had bids come in over budget and under budget, but never anything like this with nearly a 25 percent increase,” architect John M. Grillo on Thursday told the audience of about 30, which included the seven-member school board, a few school administrators and four members of the media in addition to some community members.

The reactions ranged from a suggestion to eliminate the library from the plans altogether, with resident Pamela Harwood suggesting the students take advantage of the Hampton Library for their studies, to all-out support of the project, with resident Philippe Cheng saying, “lives are changed here.”

“It’s a financial question, yes, but more so, it’s a human question. … This school district is striving to make a difference in kids’ lives,” Mr. Cheng said. “See beyond the numbers. … Let’s all make a difference.”

The district blamed the inflation on the lengthy approval process its plans had to go through with the New York State Education Department. This time around, working in Bridgehampton’s favor, the school officials said, is that with building permits already in hand, they can seek proposals a third time immediately without having to wait for any more approvals from the state. Mr. Grillo said the district might even see lower prices from contractors who have wrapped up their summer projects with school districts and are looking for more work.

John Grillo, the school’s architect, addresses the crowd during a September 6 forum. Christine Sampson photo

“Once we bid, those guys are locked in,” he said. “That’s why if the vote is successful, we want to bid as fast as possible and award as soon as possible.”

However, he said, if the district changes the architectural plans — such as a significant redesign to eliminate square footage and reduce costs — that would send the project back up to the state for approval once again.

The district’s financial consulting firm, Munistat, has estimated the monetary impact of the additional funding at about $40 a year for the life of the 20-year bond for a taxpayer with a house valued at $1 million. Some residents said they wanted more information.

“I don’t think that we have the numbers we need to see before we can vote,” said Joyce Weinberg, a Bridgehampton parent who also acknowledged the school is experiencing overcrowding. “I don’t see any chart showing us how you get to the $4.74 million. I don’t think it’s fair to ask us to vote on this because the bids came in this way. I think we need to see where the increases are, what they’re from, in order to make an educated decision.”

In response to a resident’s question, Mr. Jackson said the district has to tread carefully if it decides to take out parts of the plan that voters originally approved.

“You have to deliver the project as originally designed in all material respects,” he said. “In my mind, you don’t have a lot of flexibility to start removing components from the project.”

Those in attendance recognized another issue — that they represented only a fraction of the 1,245 people who were registered to vote in Bridgehampton as of August 14.

“I’m persuaded that the intelligent decision is to approve the increase,” said John Kriendler, a resident for the last three-and-a-half years. “What concerns me is the very small number of people who are here and the danger that lots of other people will not have been persuaded.”