By Amanda Wyatt
On the heels of Walter Wilcoxen’s sudden resignation last month, the Sag Harbor School Board — already troubled by rumors of internal conflict — is scrambling to replace the longtime trustee.
The board, which emailed a letter of solicitation for the position for interim trustee on July 13, has received five letters of interest. According to their bylaws, the board has several options: they can appoint one of the interested individuals, select the runner-up from the previous election, or hold a special community-wide election.
According to President Theresa Samot, the decision to elect or appoint the new member will not be made until the board’s upcoming meeting.
“At this point, the next scheduled Board of Education meeting is August 13,” she said. “All options for filling the vacant board position will be discussed by the Board of Education at this meeting.”
However, the board’s approach to filling the seat has been publicly questioned by Sag Harbor resident Laura Avedon. In an interview, she pointed out that the original email from the board stated they intended to appoint someone for the position of interim trustee. The appointed trustee would have to run for election after their interim term is up in May 2013.
Avedon criticized the board for their initial decision to appoint a trustee, rather than immediately calling for a special election.
“In America, publicly elected officials are meant to be publicly elected,” she stated. “In an age when voter rights are being suppressed all over the country, I think it’s a terrible direction for Sag Harbor to go in.”
Avedon also pointed out that if the board does hold a special election, it must be held within 90 days of a member’s resignation, and the public must be notified within 45 days of the election.
Since it has already been a month since Wilcoxen’s resignation, she said, this gives candidates a short window of opportunity to campaign.
Still, Samot said that “if the decision of the board is to hold a special election to fill the board vacancy, we will be within the timeframe to hold an election.”
According to former president Mary Anne Miller, the board had not been given much time to decide on a course of action.
“The night of July 2, the board received the news of both Walter [Wilcoxen’s] resignation and [Superintendent John] Gratto’s resignation, in addition to about 75 agenda items, so it was a packed evening,” she explained.
Furthermore, Miller said they did not anticipate receiving so many letters of interest. For this reason, among others, the board has reconsidered the idea of simply appointing a new trustee.
Meanwhile, the board is reviewing letters from the five candidates — Marian Cassata, Stephen Clarke, David Diskin, Tom Gleeson and Thomas Re.
“The position is going to be appointed for the rest of the year, and I don’t think at this point in time we should go ahead and spend additional money to hold an election when we’re going to be doing it next year,” said Gleeson.
Gleeson, who ran for trustee in May, pointed out that he had received over 500 votes.
“So some people clearly think that I’m worthy of being appointed to the board,” he said.
Gleeson also said that with such pressing issues as the selection of a new superintendent and the implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, there were a number of issues that he could help the board tackle.
Cassata, who once served as a secondary assistant principal and director of pupil personnel services at Pierson Middle High School, said the board was facing many changes.
“Most notably, they need to recruit and select a superintendent for schools, both as an interim as well as a long-term superintendent,” she said. “So that’s a tremendous job that will have long-term consequences for the community.”
Cassata believed she could play a role in mediating board struggles.
“I’ve been a stabilizing force in places during times of change,” she said, adding: “If what is written in the local paper [is true] it seems that the Board of Education itself needs to come together as a team in a more meaningful way, rather than be at odds with one another.”
Diskin, who owns a nation-wide art business based in Bridgehampton, said that in the past he has been involved in helping others get elected to the board.
“I’m quite knowledgeable about how the district operates,” he explained.
He added that he could be a “good bridge-builder and good middle ground voice to help with what’s going on with the board right now.”
Although Diskin volunteered to be appointed, he said: “I would prefer that the board run a special election versus an appointment, because I think an appointment is always fraught with problems.”
Re, who could not be reached for comment, had also contacted the board about becoming a member.
Another interested candidate was Clarke, who said he spent 15 years in “corporate America.” He believed the board could benefit from someone with a business background and cited the need to manage the budget as a major concern.
However, Clarke said: “I think the most important issue right now is continuing to keep transparency and open communication as it relates to the board, and making sure that the community knows everything that’s going on.”
Like several other candidates, he stated he would prefer the board hold an election rather than appoint a candidate.
“I think it’s more important for the community to decide who should be on the board, not the board deciding who should be on the board,” said Clarke.
Still, it appears that no decision will be made until the Board of Education meeting on August 13, which is open to the public. And as both Samot and Miller noted, the board needs to hold their discussion publicly, rather than in an executive session.
“I hope that the school board meeting is well-attended and if people have opinions, they come and speak about them,” Miller said, adding: “It’s the only way we can democratically figure out what to do.”