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Sag Harbor School Board Defends Practices While Community Group Forms Amid Resignation Questions

Posted on 10 April 2013

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Former school board member and president Walter Tice comes to the Sag Harbor School Boards defense during Monday night’s meeting, which, in part included continued debate about the school board’s openness following the resignation of school board member Gregg Schiavoni. 

By Amanda Wyatt

With the Sag Harbor School Board still mired in controversy following the resignation of Gregg Schiavoni last month, tensions reached a boiling point during the public input portion of Monday’s board of education meeting.

The second half of the four-hour long meeting was marked by intense debate, some of which centered around a petition created by the newly formed Sag Harbor Education Best Practices Group. The group — which has over 60 members on its Facebook page — was co-founded by community members John Battle, Jonathan Glynn and Gordon Trotter.

The petition had 163 signatures as of press time and it asks the school board to publically address concerns community members have had following recent resignations and “implement necessary reforms to insure a respectful and effective approach to governing.”

It also asks the board to follow the practices outlined by the National School Board Association and state law, and to “commit to open communication, transparent governance and continuing education for its members to better serve the public and our community.”

However, at the start of public input, Theresa Samot, board president, and Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim superintendent, addressed the community on executive session practices, board transparency and other matters.

Dr. Bonuso said that to date, the board had their attorney present for eight of the 18 executive meetings they had held, which is more often than in the past.

“In fact, this was intentionally done to alleviate any concerns regarding appropriateness of items for the sessions,” he said. “And the attorney has been consulted often by phone to clarify items for the agenda or to clarify the proper parameters for executive vs. open agendas.”

“I have been around many boards — this one keeps its toes on the right side of that fine line better than most I have worked with or seen,” added Dr. Bonuso who said the board would continue to take steps to “maximize their transparency and effectiveness in general.”

One of these steps was to hold executive sessions in the library, which the board began to do on Monday, rather than in the district conference room as it has in the past. Other steps included being more specific when listing executive session agenda items, as well as explaining why they would qualify to be kept in executive session, polling all board members and encouraging verbal feedback.

According to Samot, the BOE’s process had been the same since she joined the board eight years ago, and she noted it was one recommended by the NY School Boards Association. She also said each board member undergoes training and attends retreats to work on becoming better board members.

“As a member of this board, I am committed to a process of continued improvement,” said Samot.

On Monday, Helen Atkinson-Barnes said she agreed with the goals of the petition but hadn’t signed it “because it implies the board has not taken seriously its responsibility to promote good governance practices and respect.”

In response to claims of poor behavior among board members, Atkinson-Barnes believed the tone of the board members had been “quite open and respectful.”

On the other hand, Jocelyn Worrall did sign the petition, although she pointed out that she “appreciated the board’s hard work” and did “not mean to be critical.”

“I was at the last board meeting and I didn’t feel like at public input II the board was taking the comments of the public seriously,” she said. “Hence the petition was prompted and is now being currently circulated and will continue to circulate.”

“The people here are begging for some dialogue,” added Elena Loreto. “Let’s have an informal dialogue. Let’s clear the air. It’s for the benefit of the students and the taxpayers, because if the board is not getting along, if things are left here for people to wonder about, it begins to fester.”

At the same time, some board members disagreed with the way they believed certain members of the community had portrayed them.

Sandi Kruel said it appeared as though “there’s no trust.” With the amount of time she and others had spent on the board, she added, members should know what is and isn’t valid to discuss in executive session.

Walter Tice, a former school board member and board president, said the board was much more careful about executive sessions than when he served, stating the board had faced rumors and slander as of late.

Some board of education members were critical of the negative comments made in the resignation letters of both Schiavoni and Walter Wilcoxen, the latter of whom abruptly resigned from the BOE last summer shortly after his re-election.

Battle said while he disagreed with “the way they spoke up,” he did not believe the comments of those former board members should be discounted. He also believed they were important in light of the fact that current board member Mary Anne Miller has gone on the record agreeing with some of those statements.

“It’s a game change to me when one of your own says, I agree with them,” he said.

“Just so everybody knows, I didn’t sit here silently,” Miller pointed out. “I followed the protocol. Often times in executive session I expressed my concern about certain topics, and sometimes it wasn’t received well…”

Also at the meeting, Miller said that the BOE needed more training, and also that there needed to be more clarity over public input.

“Whatever training we have, we have to agree that when there’s a disagreement on the board, the majority rules,” said board member Susan Kinsella. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be passionate and advocate for your position, but you cannot suggest that we are unethical people if we don’t agree with you.”

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