By Annette Hinkle
Last week, the Sag Harbor School Board met to outline goals for the coming school year. These were goals largely based on a bond proposal for this November and related to issues such as improving facilities and expansion of the growing Pre-K program as well as wellness goals and implementation of the IB program in the middle grades.
On Tuesday night, the school board met again to focus on goals — but this time, the goals were far more procedural based and related to improving the functioning and communication between board members and the larger community.
“Over the past year there have been several board workshops where we said we would like to have some board specific goals,” said Theresa Samot, school board president who opened the discussion by offering three recommendations herself.
“The first is to develop a year long meeting calendar with agenda items on it,” said Samot who offered as an example a calendar from an upstate school district outlining major subjects of board meetings in the coming year.
“It has what informational items will be presented, retreat agenda items and specific actions,” she said. “I think this would be extremely helpful as we want to have more educational workshops this year. If we want people to come to a math workshop they will know it will be at the January meeting for example. Not only is that useful for us, but as a planning tool for the community. So I’d like to recommend that.”
Samot also put forth the idea of developing a code of conduct for school board members as well as more thoroughly involving key stakeholders from the community in committees with a stated purpose and function.
“I actually have a fourth recommendation too,” she added. “That’s to plan another board retreat. We had three of those this past year and made so much progress. I would like to have another so all of us are on the same page.”
Board member Dan Hartnett, however, felt that many of the items Samot offered sounded more like tasks than goals.
“I’d like to talk about more vision driven goals,” said Hartnett. “Number one for me, I think we need to promote student achievement. Everything we do should be through the lens of student achievement. In these complicated, litigious times under the 2 percent tax cap, the state is throwing things at us left, right and center.
“We have 1,000 or so students here and I feel charged to promote their achievement and make sure they have every opportunity to achieve,” he said. “I think that drives who we hire, what we pay, what we cut, what we build, what we repair and how we talk to each other.”
“Our budget is a road map for achievement,” he added. “I think we need to put student achievement out there in everything we do.”
While board member Chris Tice agreed that promoting student achievement was important, she felt it was more of a vision statement than a goal.
“There is a mission statement for the district which probably needs revisiting,” she said. “If we’re going to have actionable goals we need to be more specific. But I like putting it out there and stating it collectively.”
Board member David Diskin said ultimately, the goal is to promote the mission of any board. Based on what he has seen in other public schools, he feels this does not happen often enough in Sag Harbor,
“We decide what we want to happen and measure it, but we don’t post what’s happening very well,” said Diskin. “Southampton High School posts the pictures outside the board room of their students and where they’re going to college.”
“Within the space we should be posting who’s doing great things,” he added.
Improving communication between board members, the administration and the public was something Tice felt the board could do better. Tice also felt it was important the board implement a full policy review.
“Some of the policies have not been reviewed in a long time and we need to make sure we’re in compliance with the law and current regulations,” said Tice. “What’s the methodology? There are a lot of ways to make a process for addressing it, but I’m not comfortable our polices are as current as they need to be.”
Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim school superintendent, countered that the board could have an organization such as BOCES or the School Board Association review the district’s policies in terms of legal citations and compliance. He added that individual board members could also take on a section of the district’s policy and review it themselves.
“We did the BOCES service when I was here before,” noted Hartnett who was previously served on the school board from 2005 to 2011.
“Maybe it’s time to do that again,” said Tice. “But do you do that then make changes to the policy? if you do the changes after you get the green light from BOCES, it may no longer be compliant.”
Board member Mary Anne Miller suggested starting with updates to the five policies that are mandated by the state.
“The idea of a policy committee to do all that work is a lot,” said Miller. “There are a lot of polices that don’t need to be changed.
“And the board is the committee,” reminded Dr. Bonuso.
Board member Susan Kinsella felt the board should read a policy at least every two years to see whether or not it needs to be changed and Samot suggested implementing a calendar system to determine when the board looks at certain sections of the policy.
“Except when laws change, I think we should create a process for reviewing them,” said Tice. “Now it’s when some board member raises it as an issue.”
Dr. Bonuso added that if the whole board hasn’t read through all the district’s policies, members should come up with a process to accomplish that.
“The entire board should become very acquainted with the policy book,” he said. “If seven years have gone by since you’ve done that, it’s time.”
The board also discussed ways to make the district’s website more user friendly and searchable in terms of documentation related to board agenda items or policies and procedures.
Kinsella added maintenance of an online “to do” list as a potential board goal.
“We can have an itemized list that never goes away and it stays there until we accomplish it,” she said. “That way we make sure we are following up on items and they don’t get lost in the waves.”
Miller noted that the New York State School Board Association has a blueprint for school boards that offer suggestions for just that sort of thing.
Also discussed Tuesday was the lead time board members required to get up to speed on agenda items coming up at their next meeting. With agenda letters going out Thursday and board member informational packets on Friday for a Monday meeting, several members felt there wasn’t sufficient time to request more documentation from the administration if needed.
“We have to get the packet early enough to have time to ask questions and give Carl and his team time to get us answers as a board before Monday,” said Tice.
To improve the lead time for members looking for more information, the board decided the agenda letter should go out on Wednesday with the packet following on Thursday.
Regarding development of a code of conduct for board members, Tice recommended including that code on the agenda.
“We need to institutionalize that,” she said. “We haven’t always lived up to that as a board — and neither has the public. We need to make it part of the vernacular at meetings.”
“I would also like to see our board do a pledge – a pledge of commitment and what that means,” she said.
That led Diskin to bring up the notion of civility and respect at board meetings.
“One thing I’ve seen here relative to other public meetings is where single board members get into discussions with the public,” he said. “All discussion should be directed toward the chair. It takes out the personal back and forth. Sometimes individual members want to speak to members of the public. But even that should be directed toward the chair, not the person. It’s not fair to either.”
That discussion also led to the notion of public input, and the idea that public comments at meetings should be just that — rather than extended back and forth exchanges with the board.
“We’ve gotten in the habit because we want to hear from the public and engage them,” said Tice. “Actually we were doing the wrong thing, engaging in long conversations. That’s not what public input is for.”
Kinsella felt that holding more workshops throughout the year was an ideal way to encourage that back and forth with the community.
“We want to have an ongoing and rich dialogue every other month or so on something,” added Tice.
“I think people feel the need to talk and give us information which they can’t do the way the board meetings are set up and designed,” said Hartnett who felt that it was important the public have the opportunity to voice whatever concerns they had, whether or not they related to a board introduced topic at a workshop. “I think people would like to tell us what they feel and hear.”
As part of the effort to improve communication and access to information, the board agreed to arrange for a presentation on Board Docs, a computer program that allows boards to consolidate documentation in a way that all interested parties can easily access. The presentation will be scheduled for an upcoming meeting where the board will learn more about how the program works, the cost and solicit public comment on it.