By Kathryn G. Menu
A vote of confidence was clearly levied Tuesday night in the Sag Harbor School District, as residents turned out overwhelmingly in favor of the 2015-16 budget and re-elected two incumbents and one newcomer to the school board by landslide margins.
Bridgehampton voters also overwhelmingly supported that district’s budget and re-elected three board members who ran unopposed.
Newcomer Stephanie Bitis will join incumbents Thomas John Schiavoni and Chris Tice on the board come July. Ms. Bitis and Mr. Schiavoni will serve three-year terms, with Ms. Tice earning a one-year term. They defeated James Ding and James Stanford by more than 200-vote margins.
Mr. Schiavoni, who was appointed just nine months ago to fulfill the term of Dan Hartnett, who resigned after moving out of district, led all candidates with 723 votes. Mr. Schiavoni was favored by almost 50 votes more than any other candidate despite taking what some viewed as an unpopular stance against the school district to record board meetings in their entirety. Mr. Schiavoni cited liability concerns as his reason for voting with a 4-3 majority to remove public comments from those recordings, and was the only board candidate to state he would not rescind that policy.
After the results were read, Mr. Schiavoni received a round of applause and hearty congratulations from most in the room, including his wife, Sag Harbor and Southampton Town Justice Andrea Schiavoni, and their young children—both of whom attend school in Sag Harbor. He said he was honored to have such support, and was pleased an appointment nine months ago led to an opportunity to see through some projects already in the works and continue to plan for the future.
The Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum has worked with the district on created paid internship opportunities that Mr. Schiavoni said he would like to see come to fruition. Fixing the heating system at Sag Harbor Elementary School, a project “near and dear to my plumbing heart,” he said referring to his family’s lineage in the trade, is another project he would like to see finished.
“I want to continue to be the legislative liaison—I teach a government course on the college level, and I think it fits me well,” said Mr. Schiavoni.
He added he was also intrigued at the possibility of the district purchasing the former Stella Maris Regional School property on Hampton Street, a stone’s throw away from the Sag Harbor Elementary School.
“We will look at that with a lot of public input, but I think that would be a win for the district,” said Mr. Schiavoni. “Something else I am interested in is utilizing the greenhouse in the elementary school by installing an aquaponics program. We have some private donors interested—it’s in the nebulous formation stage so we have some work to do, but we could produce all our lettuce in-house for our cafeteria.”
Ms. Bitis will join Mr. Schiavoni with a three-year term, after receiving 677 votes. She was followed by incumbent Chris Tice, who had 605 votes, meaning she will fulfill the one-year term left by Mr. Hartnett and will be up for re-election next year.
Mr. Ding, who had 243 votes, and Mr. Sanford, who had 348 votes, did not attend the reading of the budget and school board election results Tuesday night.
“I want everyone who voted today to stay as involved as they have been leading up to today, no matter what side they stand on,” said Ms. Bitis. “As much buzz as we saw here today, I want to see that tomorrow and the next day.”
“I am most excited to work on continuing to expand the educational program and to work with other districts not just to save money but to find other opportunities,” said Ms. Tice.
She praised the community for supporting the school budget as well, noting the wide margin of victory that spending plan earned Tuesday.
“It tells me there is an enormous amount of community support for how the school is doing and the direction we are going in,” said Ms. Tice. “We are very grateful for that and we will continue to work as hard as we can to continue to earn your trust.”
The budget for 2015-16 was approved by 74.5 percent of voters who turned out at the polls Tuesday, with 720 ballots cast in favor of the $37.5 million spending plan. It carries a 1.85-percent spending increase of $826,082 and a 2.49-percent tax levy increase. Under the state mandated tax levy cap, the district was limited to increasing the levy by 2.53 percent.
According to figures compiled by school district business administrator Jennifer Buscemi, voters approved the 2015-16 budget by the greatest margin seen in the last 10 years. Last year, 72.25 percent of voters supported the budget; in 2013 it was 68.64 percent in 2012 it was 67.99 percent and in 2011 it was 56.78 percent.
The lowest margin of support the district received for its budget in the last decade came in 2006 when the budget passed by just 50.28 percent voters despite a tax levy increase of 1.05 percent, the lowest increase in the last 10 years.
Because the district has filed an efficiency plan with the state, any residents who qualify for STAR exemptions will not see an increase in their school taxes.
A second proposition, to create a Repair Reserve Fund, was also passed with resounding support, 709-243. The reserve fund would be for projects that do not exceed $2.5 million and will not cover annual repairs or maintenance. The reserve fund would be created out of unassigned fund balance and appropriations remaining from the previous year’s budget and under this policy cannot be funded by more than $750,000 a year.
“It really give us a nice savings account so when things happen we will still need taxpayer approval but we don’t have to go out and raise taxes to accomplish those repairs,” said Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Katy Graves.
Ms. Graves said she was overwhelmed with the support the district earned for its budget.
“I want to thank the Sag Harbor community for supporting us and the children of Sag Harbor,” she said.
The sentiment was echoed by school board president Theresa Samot.
“I think the school district is in a very good place,” she said. “I want to thank the community for their support of not only the district but for all the students in district as well, because that is what it is really about.”
Bridgehampton voters also turned out in big numbers to support the 2015-16 budget and support existing board members in an uncontested race for school board.
A total of 124 residents voted in favor of the budget with 31 voting against the spending plan. Board member Lillian Tyree-Johnson led all candidates with 134 votes. Board president Ronald White received 133 votes and Douglas Degroot was elected with 130 ballots. All the races were uncontested.
“We are very proud of the 80 percent passing rate,” said Bridgehampton School Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre. “It tells us that we continue to have the community’s support. It’s been a great year here at Bridgehampton and we look forward to continuing that momentum. Our school board is a strong team of decision makers—we are happy that Doug, Lillian and Ron will remain and we can continue to stay focused on our goals.”
“I think the margin was exceptional,” said Mr. White. “I am always a stickler about not being complacent—we can’t let our guard down. We have to continue to grow and build our district. I thank the teachers and front office are doing an exceptional job and we have a board that really works as a group. I think the community is also realizing we are a district to be reckoned with.”