A Springs resident concluded that Springs School District officials misled the public about the need for a $23 million building expansion.
Davis Buda, a retired New Jersey attorney who now lives in Springs, said school officials misstated the need for more classroom space, manipulated attendance data, and encouraged BOCES to overestimate the future school population by using figures provided by the town.
“As for the true enrollment picture of the Springs School, it is my firm belief, based on reviewing the official annual State Education Department’s Basic Education Data System Day enrollment statistics, that our school’s K-8th grade population actually reached its apex last year (2016-2017),” Buda said. “It has decreased by three percent this year (2017-2018), and there is no sound reason to believe it will increase again anytime in the future.”
The most common measurement of school population is the New York State Department of Education BEDS.
The district’s position is that attendance has yet to peak and that the current building cannot support the student population.
Superintendent Debra Winter and Principal Eric Casale repeatedly stated that the school was originally built for approximately 340 students. They calculated 66,950 square feet of available classroom space and stated, “The State Education Department calls for 200 square feet per student — that is their recommendation.”
Casale said at a public meeting, and reiterated the contention on the district’s website, “The [current] building was built to hold 350-400 students.”
Not so, Buda charged.
One widely used method of calculation, the “statewide average square foot allowance” states that 100 square feet per pupil is acceptable when calculating adequate space in a school building.
Winter discounted Buda’s methodology. “The figure of 100 square feet includes hallways and closets. I urge him to walk through the building when there are children here.” In addition, there is scant space for science labs and the like, she added.
The Springs School was originally built in 1931 to replace one that had burned down in 1929. There was a building addition in 1960. Two portable classrooms were built in 1967-1968. There was a building addition in 1994. There was another building addition completed in 2001-2002, which added seven classrooms for the junior high school students (seventh and eighth grades).
More recently, East Hampton Town built a building on the school grounds originally intended to service the needs of the Springs Youth Association. Instead, the building ended up housing three classrooms.
There are several key indicators that suggest school population has peaked and is trending down. The Independent reported in March that enrollment in Long Island schools was down five percent from 2008 through 2015. Six districts closed elementary schools.
In East Hampton, a decline in student enrollment at the John M. Marshall Elementary School over the past four years might make room to bring the pre-K program back to the building for the first time since 1997.
The number of students attending John Marshall was 643 students in 2014. The school’s population has decreased to 507 students this year. Robert Hannafin, Dean of the College of Education, Information and Technology at LIU Post, told Newsday Long Island is experiencing a “perfect storm that likely assures a decline in student enrollment.”
“Taxes are high on Long Island, real estate is expensive, and it is difficult for younger people to replace the older population,” Hannafin said.
Buda suggests Springs School, in its zeal to get the building proposal approved by voters, used bogus numbers to support its claim the building is bursting at the seams.
“There are multiple variables,” said longtime Springs resident Manny Vilar. “There is going to be a national change in immigration policy, a dramatic change. How will that affect enrollment down the road?”
With East End real estate on the upswing, the middle class could be forced to move where housing is more affordable, Vilar added. The birthrate across the East End is also down from a decade ago, he noted.
Buda said a BOCES official acknowledged the district enrollment data as of September 15, 2016 was used because, “the district was working on plans for expansion and requested that the enrollment update be completed as soon as possible.” Winter did not dispute Buda’s assessment.
More telling, the latest BEDS numbers show grades one through three averaging about 76 students. The estimate the district relied on from a year earlier showed average population in those grades to be about 82 students per class.
On March 6, more than 800 Springs residents participated in a referendum to authorize a $23 million bond and reserve fund expenditure for a major school expansion and renovation. Just less than 60 percent voted “Yes.”
“After the votes had been cast I started to wonder, and worry, whether the outcome had been predetermined by a slick, ‘Big Lie’ propaganda campaign,” Buda said.
Winter said the district doesn’t necessarily plan to spend the entire amount. “We can borrow what we need. We did not overbuild,” she said.