For the past year or so, members of the Noyac Civic Council have taken a keen interest in the local public school district, specifically its budget. On Tuesday evening, newly appointed Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto was guest speaker at the council’s regular monthly meeting, and took fire from many in the room who raised questions about school spending and student performance.
Gratto began by explaining his background included many different experiences, which he believes will help him at the school.
“One of my strengths is bringing different perspectives to address the issues,” said Gratto.
Noting a set of goals the district is considering, he pointed to a chart that tracked the performance of student classes on Regents exams, where a specific goal would be to increase the percentage of students achieving a mastery of a subject by five points.
“These are achievable goals that will not cost money,” Gratto told the audience. “That teacher is going to work a lot harder to make sure those students have all the information they need.”
But many in the audience were concerned that the goals at the school were ultimately costly and designed to favor the teachers and administrators.
“We think you’re managing about six or seven diverse groups with different goals,” said resident Ed Grohan.
Noting that one goal which had been articulated in a mission statement from the school urged maintaining current programming, Grohan said that keeping the same programs “might be the be thing for these splinter groups, like the unions, but not the best thing for the students. It may produce nothing but stagnation.”
“It talks about zero-based budgeting and transparency; there’s no more closed agenda I have seen than what the current board exhibits,” continued Grohan.
To make changes at the school, Grohan charged “You would have to change the mindset of the district.”
Gratto said he agreed with the premise of providing a high quality education at a reasonable cost, but said the school board worked hard last year with a zero-based budget model.
“It doesn’t go forth with the belief that all programming and staff must be preserved,” said Gratto, noting that they recently combined two positions into one, saving the district money.
Council president Chuck Neuman asked about negotiations with the teachers union, and wondered if salary increases might “blow the 3.2 percent” already budgeted for.
“We’re not there yet,” said Gratto. “It’s like a dance.”
When asked what “painful realities” the school will have to face, Gratto responded “Everybody can’t get what they want. We might not have a tax reduction that some may want; or we may not have a 7th grade program for violin that others may want.”
Gratto told the audience that the district is looking for ways to reduce costs, and said they have successfully made about $175,000 in cuts by eliminating some contracts from outside services, without affecting programs. He said he didn’t believe in the proposed 4 percent spending cap proposed by the state.
“It presumes the board and the superintendent can’t control costs,” said Gratto. “I prefer local control.”
Among other economies, Gratto said he would look at ways the district can share services and programs with other districts
In addition to AP classes, which Sag Harbor will share with Bridgehampton, they will also be sharing food services, and hope to put out joint bids with other districts for school supplies, and heating and fuel oil.
Patrick Witty asked if the AP classes were mandated by the state. No, said Gratto, “but we want to challenge our students. If we can offer them in a reasonable cost effective way, we want to do it.”
One audience member, a part-time resident of Noyac who lives in Georgia, criticized the district for not sending its students to Ivy League schools.
“I’ve been paying taxes here for 47 years,” he said. “You don’t send your kids to Harvard or Brown… You’re a joke.”
School board president Walter Wilcoxen leapt to his feet charging: “That’s inflammatory. We send our kids to Brown to Bard to Harvard. One student who graduated Harvard is now back here teaching.”
“In Georgia we do it for half the cost,” said the man.
“Good for you,” replied Wilcoxen.
Elena Loreto wondered if anyone was monitoring the number of special education students in the district, which she said, was high.
“The special ed rate is now 17 percent, not 20 percent as someone said,” replied Gratto. “But, we can’t reduce staff unless there is enough of a common group that no longer requires staff.”
Stacey Pennebaker wondered about a five year plan for capital improvements.
“A review of the whole school indicates it will cost about $5 to $7 million over time, of which $1 million has already been done,” said Gratto. “The community is going to review this and come to terms with how to fund it.”