The Hampton Bays and Springs school districts are often painted with the same brush, and for good reason. Both enclaves are comprised of working class people who live, for the most part, in modest houses — that is, when compared to the opulence that is the rest of the Hamptons.
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That makes the two communities similar in many ways. The relatively affordable real estate market makes them magnets for young couples that in many cases have or intend to have children. Also, the percentage of second homeowners in both hamlets is comparatively low. More homeowners live in those communities year-round, as opposed to most other areas in Southampton and East Hampton townships, where a large percentage of the homes is often unoccupied, especially during the school season.
It all adds up to one thing: children. Enrollment has swelled over the years in both districts.
But the long-held argument that undocumented immigrants are enrolling in the schools and causing the upswing — and overcrowded conditions — is a simplistic conclusion often not supported by facts, according to data compiled by the New York State Education Department. In fact, a study by The Independent of enrollment trends shows attendance at most local public schools has or will decrease, and that most school districts have probably peaked already.
That does not mean a new school expansion project in Springs isn't needed, however.
Voters approved a $23 million expansion by a vote of 484-323 on March 6, though opponents maintained the added space wasn't necessary. In the days before the vote, bloggers complained if the district and town eliminated "illegal" residents in the hamlet, the current building would suffice.
Other critics, like Manny Vilar, who ran for East Hampton town supervisor last year, said the future is too uncertain to burden taxpayers with a huge bill. "If home prices go up, enrollment will go down," Vilar said, noting Springs is the most affordable place in town to purchase a house. "Locals can't afford a $6 million house. They are bought by second homeowners," he opined.
Springs School Superintendent Debra Winter said there is no question the district needs more classroom space, and disputes the assertion undocumented immigrants are swelling the population rolls.
Winter said she recently checked the residential status of the graduating class. More than half of the children lived in homes their parents owned, and about 33 percent lived in rented, legal single-family homes. More important, "Ninety nine percent of the students were born here. There is no doubt about it." That's because they are required to produce a birth certificate when they come into the school, Winter pointed out.
The expansion is needed for obvious reasons, she said. The original school, always tight, is now dangerously overcrowded. "In 2008, we had 577 students [kindergarten through eighth grade]. There are currently about 730 students," Winter said. In addition, there are about a third more students who attend East Hampton High School. They do not use the Springs School building, but the district pays tuition for them (about $23,000 per student) and supplies busing services.
The student population is no longer rising precipitously in Springs, however. According to documents obtained from the NYSED, upcoming classes are all about the same size – 77 in the second grade, 73 in the fourth, 76 in the fifth, though the eighth grade was a bit larger.
In Hampton Bays, battle lines have formed, and even President Donald Trump is indirectly involved. The school district is suing Southampton town, claiming lax code enforcement is to blame for the rising influx of students.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman bristles at the suggestion. His contention is aggressive code enforcement has put a dent in the number of illegal residents in the district and thus in the school.
School population in Hampton Bays is trending down, according to the numbers. "The kindergarten class at the school is the smallest in 20 years," Schneiderman pointed out. The first grade is small as well.
The supervisor attributes the decline to increased emphasis on code enforcement. In Hampton Bays, grades K-2 average about 133 students. The 12th grade class has about 200 students.
Hampton Bays School District Superintendent Lars Clemensen said there are a number of good reasons to sue Southampton town and that the action is "long overdue." The problem is one-time motels and hotels that have been converted to illegal year-round residences. That means 80 students currently enrolled in the school district are living in illegal housing. The district wants the town to pay the $10 million it costs to educate the students in question.
Clemensen bristled at reports in some media outlets, specifically the New York Post, that suggested the school district was cracking down on "illegal" immigrants. "It's not about the kids. I don't know who they are. I'm prohibited from even asking their immigration status," he stated. He said where the kids come from has nothing to do with the problem. "'Illegal" is a word that gets thrown around a lot. But it's a non-conforming use," added Clemensen.
Schneiderman recently blasted Congressman Lee Zeldin, who used Hampton Bays as a case in point while stumping for President Trump's border control policy. Schneiderman said Zeldin took verbiage from the school district's lawsuit without checking the facts. The town has already closed some of the offending motels, he pointed out, and there are hundreds of violations issued against some of the others.
A Newsday study of enrollment in Long Island schools reported a five percent decline 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, 643 students in 2014, is down to 507 students this year.
The situation is similar at most East End schools, even on the North Fork. At Mattituck High School, incoming classes average about 90 students while 111 students graduated according to 2016 numbers compiled by the NYSED. In Southold Senior High, there are 42 coming in and 71 going out. At the Riverhead Middle School, attendance was pegged at 849 students, with 95 coming in and 112 exiting.
Enrollment in elementary schools will likely continue to decline in the foreseeable future, said experts quizzed by Newsday who reported births are declining. The US Census Bureau also found the number of children between the ages of five and 14 is down compared to a decade ago.
Robert Hannafin, dean of the College of Education, Information and Technology at LIU Post, told Newsday that 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," he said.
Declining population may increase calls for more consolidation. Southampton School District sought voter approval to merge with Tuckahoe but was rebuffed. Tuckahoe, where school board members also complain about illegal housing, has a population of 312, with almost 70 percent Latino, according to its board of education. But there is no indication the school population is still growing. There are 32 students in the first grade, 34 in the second, and 29 in the third. The higher classes average a bit more, about 35 students.
Southampton, though, is experiencing a student population drop. According to the BOE, there are about 1650 students in the district, and it is among the most diverse population on Long Island, with 119 Native Americans, 49 Black, 652 Hispanic, 33 Asian, and 18 multi-racial. The upper grades average about 150 students per grade. The first three grades average only about 90. It is this precipitous drop that led school board members to consider a merger with Tuckahoe.
In Amagansett, critics are becoming increasingly vocal about rising administrative costs. Class sizes have shrunk from 12 to eight students per grade.
"There are multiple variables," Vilar said. "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, he said.