By Tessa Raebeck
Educators and business owners, lifetime locals and recent transplants, parents and grandparents, are all represented in the diverse pool of candidates vying for four spots on the Sag Harbor School Board.
The six contenders debated during a Meet the Candidates forum on Friday, May 10, an annual event hosted by the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA). It was moderated by Sag Harbor Express publisher Bryan Boyhan.
The candidates include three incumbents: Noyac resident Edward Drohan, whose grandson attends Sag Harbor Elementary School; Southampton native and Pierson parent Susan Kinsella; and Chris Tice, who has three children in the district.
The three challengers are social worker Daniel Hartnett, who has served two previous terms on the board; David Diskin, a parent and local business owner; and attorney Thomas Ré, whose daughter attends Pierson Middle/High School.
When asked what kind of priority the school district should give substance abuse education and which grade levels this effort should involve, all the candidates agreed it should be a top priority.
“It should be involved from the lowest grade level on up,” said Drohan. “It has to be set by family example. I’d like to see more of the clergy and parishes and different churches involved. That’s part of the family community.”
“Our issues are national issues and there’s always two ways to look at it,” said Hartnett. “There is the enforcement piece and there is the treatment piece. I believe strongly in a balance of both.”
“What we really want is a cultural change here,” Kinsella said. “Because we are a small area and because we don’t have a lot of services outside the district, our alternative would be to implement these programs inside the district.”
“It’s an environmental issue,” explained Ré. “We have to approach it not just from the children and not just from the parents. We have to have our vendors get involved; we have to have our faith-based community get involved; we have to have our enforcement involved. It should start right away.”
Tice agreed that preventative education “should start at a very young age.”
“The conversations obviously are different, but it should be at every age, at every grade,” she said. “While the school is going to improve what they do, this is truly where it takes a village.”
“It’s a spectrum that needs to be done at every level,” agreed Diskin. “The district can do a great effort in supplying the support and resources that kids that don’t have support at home — or in other things — can look to and find that.”
Candidates were asked how the new International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum should be evaluated and whether there are ways it should be changed or expanded.
“IB is a no-brainer in this community,” said Hartnett. “It builds skills that kids need to work in this century. Every student in this district is going to benefit from IB because of its inquiry based methodology.”
“We’re going to have to depend on our administrators to evaluate the program,” said Kinsella who said she favors expansion in the future but added, “what should be happening now is there should be training not only at the current levels, but at the lower levels so that we’re prepared.”
“We made a decision that the program has value for our children and for our community,” said Ré. “I think we should have a freshman and a sophomore exposure, so that the children themselves can see the differences and the parents can also.”
“It’s not just about training the teachers who are directly teaching IB course,” said Tice, “but it’s making sure that training trickles down to the entire staff, so that from the very first classroom experience that a student has here, the IB way of learning is reinforced.”
“The real measures of success in this program will be the enthusiasm the children have to collaborate and get engaged in it and to see the feedback of the parents and educators,” responded Diskin. “Is it sparking attachment to learning and critical, engaged thinking? That’s why we brought it here.”
“We’re the 16th most expensive school in the state out of 694 on a cost-per-pupil basis and we’re by far the smallest school. These are both difficult factors to get by,” said Drohan. “It has the potential to be a great program. We’re into a process.”
When asked how the search for a full-time superintendent should be conducted and what qualities the next superintendent should have, Kinsella cited the desirable qualities of the current interim superintendent, Dr. Carl Bonuso.
“I love that Carl is really immersed in our community,” she said. “We also need someone who is innovative in that we are facing a lot of financial challenges.”
“The search should be conducted the same way it has been in the past with the same School Leadership firm that we’ve used before,” added Kinsella referring to the independent consulting firm used by the district in previous administrative staff selections.
“I’m not sure that we should have the same firm,” countered Ré. “I want to understand why we are doing it.”
As for qualities in a superintendent, he added, “one of the most important things is that they have leadership. We have the ability to be able to hire somebody that has that kind of educational background and experiences and has the children at heart.”
“We should really continue to involve the community in the process,” Tice said. “It’s important to hear from the different constituencies what you’re looking for.”
Referencing Dr. Bonuso, Tice added, “You want someone who viscerally understands what it’s like to be in a classroom with students and motivate their learning.”
“The primary quality is, of course, somebody who is passionate about education,” said Diskin. “Someone who understands that the end goal of this is to make sure that each and every student gets from our district the best education that they possibly can. You’ve got to marry that with someone who’s got fantastic administrative skills, understands finance, and understands how to put a budget together properly.”
Drohan also questioned the effectiveness of School Leadership after a community survey conducted by the firm failed to ask respondents how they would feel about having “somebody local as opposed to somebody that’s outside” filling the position.
“We may as well be grooming the next leader internally,” said Drohan. “We have some great administrative people and we’ll have what we want.”
Boyhan asked the candidates to contemplate ways through which the district would be able to share services with other school districts and whether Sag Harbor should consider consolidation with another district. Tice responded that the district already engages in shared services in many areas.
“But it’s not enough,” she said. “And I think we should do more. We have to explore every opportunity.”
Tice also expressed her desire to have community forums on the subject.
Diskin agreed that “on every logistical level, it would probably make a lot of sense. It could be fantastically beneficial. It’s something that has to be studied and something that the people of all the districts would have to want.”
“I think people are afraid of [shared services] because they think it’s a move toward consolidation,” said Drohan, adding that any implementation “should have very good planning.”
Hartnett expressed his disappointment “that the consolidation study wasn’t pursued and that local districts didn’t look to continue it.”
He cited issues such as autism and bilingual education that each district must address, saying that it is “as if we were all inventing our own wheels.”
“We’re really working very hard” on sharing services, said Kinsella. “We have to have every community on board that wants to join forces. It does seem silly to have all these districts with all the same repetitive capital costs, etc.”
Ré agreed in finding more opportunities for shared services. Regarding consolidation, “I would not take it off the table, I would look at it,” said Ré. “All these things have to be examined openly.”
The Sag Harbor School Board election will be held on May 21 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the Pierson High School gymnasium.