Draft of Bridgehampton Budget Shows Nearly 20-Percent Spending Increase

The Bridgehampton School is a K-12 school on Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton. Christine Sampson photo

The Bridgehampton School District last Wednesday released an early draft of its 2019-2020 budget, which shows a 19.52-percent increase in year-over-year spending, and which school officials said they anticipate whittling down slightly.

The preliminary budget figure is $19,478,674, which is about $3.18 million more than the current year’s budget.

According business administrator Melisa Stiles, who presented the draft budget to the School Board on January 23, the district is facing increases in costs for: health insurance ($373,379) and Social Security ($61,905) for employees; transportation, services and programs for special education students ($662,003); hiring an assistant principal and a curriculum director ($245,870), and two new faculty members to teach Advanced Placement classes ($126,550); debt payments for the ongoing construction project on the main building ($1,099,122); salary increases for the teachers and civil service employees, which the district has not yet disclosed publicly; additional busing costs ($207,727), and more.

The district’s enrollment is projected to increase by six students next year, up to 233, although past years’ enrollment estimates have usually proven low, school officials said.

While the year-over-year spending jump is at about 19.5 percent, the approximately $19.48-million budget figure is only $66,655 over the New York State-imposed cap on tax levy increases.

The New York State comptroller’s office has said the “tax cap,” which can vary to reflect the Consumer Price Index, is at 2 percent this year. Schools are also able to take advantage of individual “tax base growth factors” that reflect real estate development and changes in assessed value, which has been up sharply in Bridgehampton over the last few years.

The tax base growth factor raises the school districts’ tax-cap limit, giving them a little extra room under the cap. Also, payments on debt for capital projects are excluded from tax cap calculations, which gives Bridgehampton more room.

The school board agreed last Wednesday to find ways to trim the budget so Bridgehampton can avoid “piercing the tax cap,” as it did in the 2014-2015 and 2016-2017 school years.

Board vice president Lillian Tyree-Johnson called the budget draft “really, really good.”

“I’m absolutely floored,” she said, “because I thought there was no way we weren’t going to pierce the cap.”

Board member Mark Verzosa, a member of the school’s Budget Advisory Committee, said the last draft he saw had the district about $126,000 over the cap. “What happened?” he asked Ms. Stiles.

She explained the district’s state funding is projected to increase, up 2.8 percent to about $802,000, in Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed budget. That sum may change, Ms. Stiles said, because the state budget has yet to be finalized.

Another budget presentation is scheduled for the school board’s next regular meeting on February 27.

Bridgehampton Signs Onto Rachel’s Challenge

Special education teacher Joe Pluta told the Bridgehampton School Board last Wednesday that one of the most eye-opening experiences when he was in high school was the arrival of Rachel’s Challenge, a social and emotional curriculum based on the experiences and philosophies of Rachel Joy Scott, the first student killed in the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.

“That philosophy is that by creating small change, by doing small acts of kindness, you create a chain reaction that creates a big change,” Mr. Pluta said. “It radically changed my life. It helped me develop what kind of person I wanted to be.”

He and Jeff Neubauer, another special education teacher at the Bridgehampton School, made a pitch to the board to bring Rachel’s Challenge to Bridgehampton during the 2019-2020 school year. The program, which includes an academic component called “Awaken the Learner,” is identical to one implemented last January at Pierson Middle-High School. The board approved the program after a robust discussion about its merits.

“It pulls at our heart,” Mr. Neubauer said. “That’s what locks you in for that moment, but how do we get that motivation to continue, and that’s where the boots hit the ground. … It just becomes the culture of the school.”