Tag Archive | "board of education"

First Draft of Bridgehampton School Budget Asks for 12-percent Increase

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By Tessa Raebeck

Bridgehampton School District officials were quick to stress last week that a newly unveiled budget calling for a 12.59-percent spending increase for the 2014-15  school year was only a first draft that would see significant cuts in the coming months.

“It always looks like we need to panic,” said Superintendent/Principal Dr. Lois Favre at the Bridgehampton Board of Education (BOE) meeting last Wednesday. “I have no doubt that we’ll get this where we need to be.”

The $12.62 million budget contains many “wish list” items and would carry a $1.4 million increase over last year’s budget.

Enrollment at Bridgehampton School is projected to increase by three students next year. The projected numbers for 2014-15 are 24 students in the pre-kindergarten program and 145 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Total enrollment is expected to reach 169 students, the largest enrollment at school in recent years, according to Dr. Favre.

“If everything remains the same,” Dr. Favre told the board, “and we add in what we believe we’d like to see happen here, it would be a [nearly] 12.6-percent increase, which we know is unreasonable. It’s not in the realm of things right now.”

“In this age of the tax cap, it’s a big number,” added Dr. Favre, referring to the 2-percent tax levy limit that prohibits school districts from raising the tax rate by more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, unless the district can secure a 60-percent majority vote in favor of its budget. “So, I’m just saying that I know that that’s not where you want to stay, but you just need to see all the numbers and we’ll go together as a team to see where we can get.”

The large increase is attributed to several unavoidable costs, such as “ever increasing” employee/retiree benefits, as well as desired items like laminating machines and technology updates to keep in line with the district’s five-year plan, Dr. Favre said.

It also budgets for a new outdoor sign and opportunities for state-mandated staff development (staff must be trained for the state-imposed educational curriculums).

“I think this board,” said Dr. Favre, “has done an exceptional job every year of cutting back and giving a good budget to the community.”

What really stands out, Dr. Favre said, is the amount of money that has been asked for in preliminary budgets, but which has ultimately been cut over the last six years, which amounts to $4.5 million. Last year’s budget actually called for less spending than the budget that was requested in 2010. In 2012-2013, the final budget was $636,678 less than the administration’s original proposal. In 2013-2014, the district proposed a budget of $11.37 million and ended with an actual budget of $11.21 million, a difference of $158,064.

The budget does not consider the impact of raises beyond the step increase factored in each year. Dr. Favre noted contract negotiations are just beginning with the teachers’ union.

Dr. Favre told the board it would need to discuss whether or not it should pursue piercing the tax cap.

Sag Harbor Students Plea to Save Their Prom

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Image: School bus

By Tessa Raebeck

Speakers at the podium at Sag Harbor school board meetings are generally thrifty community members or concerned parents; rarely do students appear to express their views — except, of course, when the prom is threatened.

At Monday’s board of education (BOE) meeting, members of the student council came to address the board as representatives of the Pierson High School senior class.

The students expressed their concerns over an administrative notion to ban limousines from the prom and instead make students take the school’s yellow buses to the event. The discussion came following incidents at last year’s prom where students consumed alcohol in the limousines before arriving at the school-sponsored event.

At the January 13 school board meeting, Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols said the Nutrition/Wellness/Health and Safety Committee had “sort of endorsed” a tentative plan to have students who are attending prom meet at the school beforehand and be transported to the prom via school-sponsored buses, thus “eliminating the limousines that currently transport students to the prom.”

A significant part of the prom tradition is a group of friends renting a limo or party bus, essentially a larger limo, together to take them to and from the event. Students and their parents decide who rides in their limo and where those in the limo will meet for pre-prom photos. The limo, they argue, is as much a part of the prom as the dance itself.

The move, Nichols said, “Could be seen as an invasion of students’ rights [but] would help us to more closely monitor students on that evening.”

Speaking on behalf of her class, student council and prom committee member Olivia Bono made it clear that the students do, in fact, see the idea as an invasion of their rights.

“We just wanted to voice to you the opinions of the seniors,” Bono told the board from the podium, “because limos and party buses are part of the experience of the prom, even though we understand why you would be taking them away and we do appreciate your concern, it’s not really fair because what happened last year wasn’t necessarily our fault.”

“We just feel,” she continued, “that we would like the right to make our own impact, we would like the chance as our grade to not be punished for someone else’s choices.”

Carly Fisher, also a student council member, reminded the board that students and parents have to sign a waiver prior to the prom saying they will not partake in illegal activity, “which I assume is similar to what would be done if we were to take school buses — it’s the same idea,” she said.

“We feel it’s a rite of passage to have the limos,” said Fisher. “It also makes it easier for us after prom.”

Fisher said without designated limousines, students would have no ride home and many (who could be consuming alcohol regardless of whether the school bus rule is enacted) would have to drive later on.

After the young women left the meeting, Nichols said he had advised Bono to address the board after she came into his office with the assumption that a decision had already been made.

“That’s what we encourage in our students,” he said, “participation in government. I think it’s great that she came out tonight and expressed her views.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, BOE member Sandi Kruel was honored by the New York State School Board Association for putting in extra time and effort as a board member.

A meeting of the Educational Facilities Planning Committee to discuss the bond capital projects will be held Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the Pierson Library.

“Grading” Sag Harbor Teachers: Administrators Discuss Goals Updates at Board of Education Meeting

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External Auditor Alexandria Battaglia, CPA, addresses the Sag Harbor Board of Education Monday night.

External Auditor Alexandria Battaglia, CPA, addresses the Sag Harbor Board of Education Monday night.

By Tessa Raebeck

“This has been a week of very special teams,” said Dr. Bonuso, interim superintendent for the Sag Harbor School District, congratulating the champion Lady Whalers field hockey team and the community team that helped pass the district’s two bond propositions.

Passing the bond was a key component of the district goals for the 2013/2014 school year, which Dr. Bonuso presented to a small group of people gathered Monday for the Board of Education (BOE) meeting.

Dr. Bonuso discussed the headway made on the first three of the district’s nine goals. He said progress was made on the first goal, improving academic achievement, through the resubmission and implementation of Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR), an evaluation system required by the state since 2012. It rates teachers as highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective, based on a 100-point scale. Half of the review relies on administrative observations, 10 percent on an “evidence binder” of components like electronic posting and 40 percent on test scores. For teachers whose students are not yet being tested regularly, that portion is determined by a project the district assigns in order to produce a score. Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said the majority of Sag Harbor teachers were graded “effective.”

“We need to take a second look at this emphasis on testing, the over testing,” said Dr. Bonuso. “We need to take a second look at whether or not we have the materials and modules – let alone the mindset – to approach this in a manner where people are feeling good about what’s happening instead of anxious and discouraged.”

Susan Hewett, a parent, asked the board how teachers are rewarded or reprimanded based on their APPR performance. Dr. Bonuso replied teachers are not rewarded, but if they are determined to be “developing” or worse for two years, “we can literally remove them…even if they are tenured.”

If a teacher is rated “ineffective,” the superintendent said, “We don’t have to go through all the gyrations and all the bureaucracy that in the past we had to in order to remove you.”

The administrators reported on the progress of the newly formed shared decision-making teams, a component of the second goal: to build partnerships with the community. Two teams have met, one for the elementary school and one for Pierson. The district-wide team is looking for two replacements for members who left the committee prior to the first meeting.

Board member Mary Anne Miller questioned the inclusion of the middle and high schools in the same team, which BOE Vice President Chris Tice agreed should be revisited.

The third goal is to ensure sound fiscal operation and facilities management. The district added experienced security personnel and hours at both school, enhanced systems at school entryways and held its first lockdown drill of the year last week. External auditor Alexandria Battaglia said Monday the district is in good financial health, with an unassigned fund balance of about $1.4 million.

In other school news, BOE member David Diskin again asked the board to discuss starting to video record their meetings. Board President Theresa Samot said it was a good idea to look at further.

The next BOE meeting will be held December 2, at 7:30 p.m. in the Pierson Library.

Pursuing a Super

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By Amanda Wyatt

As the Sag Harbor School Board looks for a new member, there is also an ongoing search to replace Superintendent John Gratto, who recently announced his retirement.

Yesterday, August 1, the Board of Education was expected to conduct preliminary interviews with three potential candidates for the position of interim superintendent. Dr. Gratto said in an interview this week that even if the board settles on an applicant after these interviews, the board would not immediately make a formal announcement.

“Even if they all agree upon a candidate, then they would need to enter into some contract negotiations with them, and that may take a little bit longer,” he said. “But the board is shooting for making an appointment at the August 13 Board of Education meeting.”

School Board President Theresa Samot echoed Gratto’s comments.

“A decision will not be made on Wednesday evening,” she said. “Our hope is to make an announcement at the August 13 Board of Education meeting.”

“I think everybody is hoping that this decision can be made and secured before Dr. Gratto leaves,” said former President Mary Anne Miller. She mentioned that Gratto’s last day is August 17, which is just four days after the board meeting.

However, Gratto, Samot and Miller all kept mum about potential candidates. They refused to name the applicants, noting that information would be released in the weeks to come.

Miller did say that they had received resumes of the candidates, which were provided to the board by School Leadership, LLC.

A consulting firm that has overseen the search for the superintendent since 2008, School Leadership does “all of the footwork to gather appropriate, interested candidates,” Miller said. “They really do a lot of the prescreening for us.”

One rumored potential candidate was former Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Joan Frisicano, who resigned from the Oysterponds School District in Orient in early July. However, Dr. Gratto denied the rumor.

School Leadership has “found three candidates and Joan [Frisicano] isn’t one of them,” he said. “I don’t know if Joan was not interested or if they considered her and didn’t select her.”

Gratto, who was originally brought to Sag Harbor by the same firm, believed that it would find the right person for the job.

“School Leadership has done a good job of finding three very capable superintendents,” he said.

Four Up for Three Board Seats in Bridgehampton

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by Andrew Rudnasky

In anticipation of the May 15 Bridgehampton School budget vote and board of education election, a “meet the candidates” forum and debate was held Tuesday in the gymnasium at Bridgehampton School. All four of the school board candidates who are vying for three available seats were in attendance — incumbents Ronald White, Lillian Tyree-Johnson and Doug DeGroot and newcomer challenger Gabriela Braia.

White, a life-long resident of Bridgehampton, is running for his second three year term on the board. A real estate agent, White currently has a 9-year-old child in the school and coaches four different sports teams around the East End.

Tyree-Johnson, a resident of Bridgehampton for 20 years, is also seeking a second term. She is the president of the Bridgehampton Community House, and is the wife of long-time Bridgehampton basketball coach Carl Johnson.

DeGroot has been a local business owner on the East End for the past 26 years. He has four children in the district, and like the other incumbents is running for his second term.

Braia, originally from Romania said she moved to Bridgehampton to raise her family. A real estate agent and self professed stay at home mom, she has two kids in Bridgehampton School.

One of the biggest issues facing the Bridgehampton School District this year, and the candidates during the debate, was the budget. Over the past few years the school has had to deal with rising costs while remaining under the state mandated two percent property tax cap.

“I think that the tax cap put a stranglehold on this school,” said Tyree-Johnson, who added that the cap has forced the board to make cuts in essential services at the school.

“Over the next three years it is going to be very challenging,” she said, adding she would ask taxpayers to consider voting to pierce the cap in coming years.

White went further, calling the two percent cap “barbaric.” He added that despite the cap restrictions, the district’s superintendent, Dr. Lois Favre, and the district’s business office have done a good job so far of working around the cap.

DeGroot feels more can still be done, however, and believes the district should continue on a path of fiscal responsibility. He called the two percent cap a “wake-up call” to the district and the entire state.

“I believe that most bureaucracies have inefficiencies in them,” said DeGroot. “I still feel that there is a few more savings to be rung out of the budget.”

DeGroot added that he was reticent to cut any single program from the school, and would much rather continue the current fiscal policy of placing small budget cuts across the board.

Tyree-Johnson disagreed with this plan to cut more from the budget.

“I think it is hard because I think we have already trimmed a lot of the fat,” said Tyree-Johnson.

Braia said that while finding savings in areas around the budget sounds great, she was afraid the two percent tax cap would be too tight for some projects in the school to fit in.

“It is not a certain program we should cut, we can’t just cut programs, we don’t have many to begin with,” said Braia.

Braia said, like DeGroot, she was open to finding small budget cuts to many of the school programs.

Despite the fiscal realities facing the school, as a result of the cap, most of the candidates expressed a desire to move forward with expanding the school.

“I would definitely say that we have outgrown our space,” said Tyree-Johnson, who bemoaned Bridgehampton’s inability to host basketball playoff games due to the inadequate size of the school’s gymnasium.

Tyree-Johnson said that she would support measures to build a new gym for the school.

“I think it is a big project,” said Tyree-Johnson, “but I think it is time for us to say that this school is worth spending money on.

DeGroot said that the real issue wasn’t the gym but rather the continued use of temporary outbuildings as permanent classrooms and offices.

“As far as the physical plant of the school, the main building is really fantastic, but the outbuildings have all been meant to be temporary and they have already been used for longer than their intended lifespan,” said DeGroot.

White was less enthusiastic about further construction, saying that the board of education’s first priority should be to getting Bridgehampton’s “outsourced kids” to return to the school from surrounding schools like Our Lady of the Hamptons and McGann-Mercy.

“My goal would be to pack out this place first before we expand,” said White, “to make sure there is no elbow room in the class rooms.”

DeGroot and Braia both brought up the idea of the addition of building a swimming pool behind the school building.

“The facilities really do need to be expanded,” said Braia, “One of my dreams would be an indoor swimming pool and a gym for the kids to go.”

Braia said that the pool could attract private school students in the district back to the school. DeGroot agreed saying that an indoor swimming pool would be something he would be willing to look into.

“I do see the need for a gym and an auditorium,” said White, “possibly a swimming pool, but that it is not on my list my top five, I would much rather see increased classroom size.”

Beyond physical expansion of the school, the candidates also debated the merits of increasing the size of certain programs within Bridgehampton.

Braia said that she would like to see expanded programs for adults in the school district, as well as athletic teams for girls.

“Right now we only have cheerleading for girls, we have nothing else for the girls,” said Braia, “it would be in their best interest to be able to participate in a team sport.”

Tyree-Johnson thought the next focus for the school board, in terms of school programming, would be to increase the foreign language department at the school.

“Our world is becoming very small, and I think it is beneficial for our kids to be fluent in several languages,” said Tyree-Johnson.

DeGroot agreed that instruction in French and Spanish need to be a priority at Bridgehampton, suggesting that education should begin at the school starting as early as first grade.

White was concerned that many of Bridgehampton graduates would not be prepared to enter the current job market. To deal with this issue, he suggested creating a career development program for the students.

“Whether we like it or not the world is trade based, the person going out and getting a four year bachelors degree….that job is not there anymore,” said White.

In order to offer more educational and extra curricular programs to Bridgehampton students, the school district has long worked with other schools on the East End through shared service programs. Tyree-Johnson said that the school board has to be more creative and assertive in pushing for these shared programs.

“It’s tricky because even though we are a small district we need big things,” said Tyree-Johnson. “I would like to see us expand and continue the combined drama program with Pierson, like what happened this year.”

DeGroot said that the he saw an opportunity to use the shared services program to allow Bridgehampton students to take academic classes not offered in Bridgehampton.

Rather then seeing the shared program as a way to let Bridgehampton students go to other schools, Braia said that the board should look into sponsoring their own programs and inviting students from other schools to participate.

White said that the use of technology like Skype could open up new opportunities in shared services programs.

“I see that happening, that is what the world is coming too, I was just teleconferencing with somebody from Hong Kong and they were having breakfast,” said White, “it is just that easy, and school needs to do that.”

After the debate, the Bridgehampton board of education presented its proposed budget for the 2012-2013 school year. The big number presented to the taxpayers has been increased to $10,696,364, a 1.13 percent increase from last year.

The proposed budget would increase the tax levy to about $1.62 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The Budget vote and board elections will both be held at the Bridgehampton High School on Tuesday, May 15 from 2 to 8 p.m.

Sag School Board Approves $34 Million Budget

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By Claire Walla

Pulling no surprises, the Sag Harbor Board of Education voted on Monday, March 26 to approve the district’s proposed $34 million budget for the 2012-2013 school year.

“I want to thank the district for all its hard work,” said board member Chris Tice. Because this is the first year the district has had to make allowances for the state-imposed two-percent tax-levy cap, Tice said the budget process “was particularly rigorous this year.”

Passed by Congress last spring, tax cap legislation has caused most school districts across the state to search for ways of trimming expenditures—Sag Harbor not excluded.

With the rising cost of health insurance and increases for teachers’ retirement plans to contend with, the Sag Harbor School District ended up with a proposed budget up 2.88 percent from this year’s operating budget, which represents only a 1.94 percent tax-levy increase.

According to the district’s budget presentations, Sag Harbor has managed to maintain a budget that keeps all programs in place thanks to significant savings in several key areas.

According to numbers compiled by Dr. Lisa Scheffer, the district’s director of pupil personnel services, the special education department has shed nearly $500,000 in expenses, which is reflected in next year’s budget. The decrease is due to program changes, including the elimination this year of three staff members.

The school has also seen nearly $400,000 in savings from the district business office, as well as $60,000 in savings in transportation. While the budget calls for $500,000 of the district’s fund balance to be put toward energy conservation measures, District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto pointed out that there will be a bond measure tied to the budget vote in May that—if passed—is estimated to generate significant savings for the district.

Proposition #2 would allow the school to purchase six busses at a cost of $575,000. The district estimates that by bringing transportation costs in-house, it will be able to save roughly $170,000 over the next seven years.

However, while the district was able to squeeze the budget beneath the tax cap this year, school board member Walter Wilcoxen expressed some trepidation about the future.

“You’ve taken so much slack out of the budget it’s laudable,” he began. “But, down the road, how are we going to get the big nut? The problem is, I don’t’ see any major change coming. And that creates some discomfort.”

What Wilcoxen was referring to, specifically, were labor negotiations.

According to Verneuille, teachers’ retirement benefits have not yet been quantified for the coming school year, but last year health expenses went up 13.5 percent. And with a two-percent tax levy cap in the mix, expenditures will inevitably outpace revenues. In other words, the school will eventually be forced to look at ways of cutting costs more dramatically.

“You’re absolutely right, the driver of our budget is labor costs,” Dr. Gratto responded. But, he said the situation might not be so grim. Later that evening, the school board voted to approve bus-driver salaries, which had been negotiated down from its 3.5-percent raise this year to a two-percent raise for next year, with no step increases.

“I think what you’re seeing is a trend,” Gratto added.

Though good news, board members seemed to sympathize with Wilcoxen’s less-than-enthusiastic response.

“This is sort of like the fly on the tail of an elephant,” he joked. “But, at least it’s a start.”

The budget vote will be Tuesday, May 15 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Pierson High School Gym. Should the budget not pass by simple majority, the district would go to its contingency budget, which would strip $551,510 from the proposed budget, which—according to the district—would eliminate the $500,000 set aside for building improvement projects off-the-bat.

First Budget Meeting on the Business Office

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By Claire Walla


With the state’s two-percent tax levy cap looming over the upcoming budget season, the Sag Harbor School District has decided to get a head start on financial discussions, kicking off its budget discussions nearly eight weeks ahead of last year’s schedule.

On Monday, November 28, just before the district’s regularly scheduled business meeting, school board members were privy to the first of six budget workshops, this one focusing on the district’s business office.

According to District Business Manager Janet Verneuille, the department’s projected budget for the 2012-2013 school year will increase by 4.8 percent over this year’s operating budget, or about $59,000.

The majority of the overall budget increase for this department is tied to business administration salaries, a line item expected to see an increase of about $38,400 for next year. Verneuille noted that the increase largely accounts for two part-time employees—as well as contractual increases that include financial projections for some staff members potentially joining a collective bargaining unit, and a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and a senior account clerk—and a three-percent raise that Verneuille has factored in for every non-union employee.

“I think it’s fair,” Verneuille said. A three-percent raise, she explained, splits the difference between two extremes: adhering to the district’s financial strains and recognizing the fact that unionized secretarial support staff is set to see five- to seven-percent raises scheduled for next year.

This budget increase also accounts for the fact that the business department is moving more services in-house.

“For years [schools’] financial statements were done by auditors,” Verneuille explained, adding that this practice changed in 2004 when the Roslyn school district on Long Island was found to have misused about $11 million worth of taxpayer dollars. “After Roslyn, one of the things that changed is that outside auditors can’t do district financials.”

The business department has thus spent money on higher salaried staff members, and now employs two in-house CPAs (including Verneuille).

“There are some hefty increases in expenses for the business office,” Verneuille explained.

However, Verneuille stressed that this section of the budget — which also includes the board of education, central administration, legal services, public information services and insurance — currently only accounts for about 3.5 percent of the district’s overall budget.

In addition to salary increases, the preliminary budget also accounts for increases to public information (up from $32,000 to $55,000) and increases to legal fees (up from $130,000 to $149,500). Verneuille said the budget is higher for these line items in anticipation of upcoming events, namely the school’s proposed bond measure and teachers’ contract negotiations with the teaching assistants, custodians and secretarial unions.

BOE Swears In Kruel, Elects Miller President

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By Claire Walla

On Monday, July 11, the Sag Harbor School district welcomed two new administrative faces at its annual organizational meeting. Sandi Kruel was formally sworn into her new position as a school board member (replacing the outgoing Dan Hartnett), and Scott Fisher was welcomed to the meeting on his first day on the job as the district’s new technology coordinator.
Then, prompting a slight shift in the seating arrangement, board member Walter Wilcoxen was relieved of his duties as school board president, replaced by board member Mary Anne Miller who was voted in unanimously. She happily took center stage behind the wooden gavel, as a regular board meeting ensued.
Teachers’ Early Retirement Incentives
The Sag Harbor School Board faced the first major decision involving the impending state-imposed two-percent tax cap.
Director of Business Operations Janet Verneuille presented the board with two options the state offered for paying back the early retirement money the district owes based on the number of teachers who took early retirement incentive packages.
The board had the choice to pay five installments of $132,240 at eight percent interest over five years, or spend $572,022 in a one-time payment this year.
“[The latter] approach weakens cash flow going into a tax cap, but is saves costs in the long run,” Verneuille said.
Ultimately, after discussing the issue again Tuesday night, the board voted unanimously to pay the Teachers Retirement System bill of $572,022 in its entirety by the end of this month.
“The board’s rationale was they thought it wise to avoid paying over $90,000 in interest over the next five years,” Dr. Gratto explained in an email.

Cafeteria
“Last year at this time we were debating whether or not to keep the cafeteria open,” said Dr. John Gratto, school superintendent. “But I’m pleased to announce that this year we’re operating at a $1,000 deficit.”
The news comes in the wake of major changes that were made to the cafeteria last year when the program was overspent by about $25,000. The school added a point-of-sale system, which allows the district to keep better track of the food items that are actually selling, and allows parents to pay into their children’s accounts online.
Last year, the program owed the general fund $187,405, said Director of Business Operations Janet Verneuille. “This year, we were able to get that down to $144.037.”
Verneuille also added that the school was able to make about a $3,700 profit off its vending machines this yeah, which prompted a discussion as to the foods being offered.
“We have to recognize that, unfortunately, some of the best sellers are some of the things that people have problems with selling in a cafeteria,” Verneuille explained. “It’s what you’d expect: Snapple and Pop-Tarts.”

Summer School
The board heard from Elementary School Principal Matt Malone who gave an update on the primary summer school program, which is in its second week. He noted that it currently has 63 students enrolled, all of whom are involved based on teachers recommendations or administrative review.
“Everyone’s really been collaborating well and it’s off to a great start,” he said. “The addition of the transportation this summer has really been a big help. [The district has funded a bus service to take kids to and from the program.] It’s helping students arrive on time, which leads to a much more efficient session.”
Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols explained that the upper school program is currently serving 49 students. This year, the summer school program is being hosted by Hampton Bays High School instead of Riverhead, where it was in previous years.
“It felt very structured,” said Middle School Assistant Principal Barbara Bekermus who, along with High School Assistant Principal Gary Kalish, visited the program last week. She added that middle school enrollment this year is higher than it has been since Bekermus has been at the school.

Sag Harbor School Board Adds Wellness as a Goal

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By Claire Walla

When they gathered last Tuesday, July 12 to discuss goals for the coming school year, the Sag Harbor school district’s Board of Education and its top administrators revisited the three overarching goals they had set the previous year: to improve academic achievement, communicate effectively with the school community, continue to maintain fiscal responsibility.
And they added a fourth.
“We should be graduating children that are looking at the world in a healthy way; my generation seems to have gotten something wrong,” said school board member Walter Wilcoxen referring to society’s unsustainable, unhealthy, or wasteful habits.
He alluded to various topics the board discussed that evening — from banning Snapple in the cafeteria or removing costly and environmentally wasteful bottled water from vending machines, to emphasizing more health-conscious class lessons — when he said that wellness is a way to do that.
“That’s the big goal,” he continued. “If we do that, we will create better educated children.”
The group was unanimous in deciding to add the fourth goal for the upcoming school year: to develop a K-12 wellness curriculum.
Newly elected School Board President Mary Anne Miller said that, as the board’s liaison to the Wellness Committee this past year, she spent a lot of time discussing the topic and trying to impose gradual, incremental changes in the district — beginning with the cafeteria. While it has made improvements over the last year, there are still changes that need to be made, she said.
“I’m not comfortable with teaching kids that these things are bad for them and then [at the same time] selling them to them … that’s insane,” she said. Miller added that the district should eliminate unhealthy options, like Snapple, to make space for more health-conscious choices.
Board members agreed that the focus on wellness will see fundamental change in certain aspects of the district.
Board member Chris Tice spoke to the ills of using candy in the classroom as a reward for good work.
“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any sugar,” she explained. “But sometimes this happens on a weekly basis.”
And Miller also mentioned the overuse of paper at both campuses, a practice she said she’d like to see the school cut-back on.
In terms of communication, board member Ed Drohan emphasized the need for more outreach and communication with the community at large, a point board member Theresa Samot agreed with.
“I think that’s very important, and it’s something we’ve talked about for years,” she said. “There are wonderful things happening here and the community doesn’t know about it.”
The board discussed the notion of issuing press releases to the community at large and uniting the school community with a software program that would send out regular e-mail blasts and perhaps even text messages to parents and others in the district.
Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols explained plans to spearhead the International Baccalaureate (IB) program this year, applying for IB recognition at an accelerated rate in order to be ready to implement the program in the fall of 2012.
“It’s a pretty big goal,” he admitted. “My assessment of the school is that we’ve plateaued to some extent. But, the bigger picture is that we’ll be graduating students who think in a bigger way. If we want them to be broader thinkers, this is probably the easiest way to do it.”
Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone also said he would make it a point to explore the IB primary years program, but he doesn’t aim to take any significant actions this year.
District-wide, both campuses will also push an emphasis on math in the coming year (much like writing was emphasized this past year), and superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted that the district will work on establishing a grading policy to unify grading standards among all teachers, both academic and physical education.
Finally, to remain financially responsible, the board talked about improving outreach to other districts — primarily the Springs School, which no longer automatically filters into East Hampton — in order to profit from students paying out-of-district tuition. (Dr. Gratto mentioned he had already ordered promotional brochures for the school.)
And then came the topic of the two-percent tax cap.
Without getting into any specifics, all in attendance agreed that this legislation will need to be assessed in a timely, ongoing and very public manner. Those in the room concluded that the issue will be brought up at least once a month, at every other business meeting leading up to the budget season.
“As someone whose kids go to school in Southampton, I would want to know what two percent is going to mean in a concrete way for my kids,” Nichols said. “The more people know, the more likely they’ll be to support a budget that’s responsible, but above two percent.”

Gratto Gets a Raise

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After completing a board evaluation of school superintendent Dr. John Gratto’s performance over the past year, the Sag Harbor School board approved a $25,000 salary increase for Dr. Gratto at the last Board of Education meeting on Monday, June 22.
As of July 1, Dr. Gratto’s salary will be raised from $185,000 to $210,000, excluding expenses and benefits, accounting for a nearly 13.5 percent increase. The board argues the raise was well deserved as Dr. Gratto saved the district nearly $1 million through cost cutting measures during the last budget cycle and his salary is less than the East End average for superintendents, but some members of the community contend Dr. Gratto’s raise is significant given the current economic climate and say the board should have been more forthcoming in sharing these figures with the public.
During an interview, board of education president Walter Wilcoxen elucidated some of the main reasons why the board gave Dr. Gratto a raise, many of which stemmed from a June evaluation of Dr. Gratto’s execution of his superintendent duties. In the beginning of June, each board member was given a form to judge Dr. Gratto on his relationship with the board, educational direction and leadership, personnel, financial management, facilities management, community relations, personal qualities and growth, and management functions.
Although, Wilcoxen said he couldn’t release specific details on Dr. Gratto’s evaluation, he noted that Dr. Gratto did extremely well in each category in the eyes of the board members, and that was one of the reasons why they felt he was deserving of a raise. Board member Mary Anne Miller added that the board was in full consensus to give Dr. Gratto a raise.
“Everyone said he did a fantastic job,” reported Wilcoxen. “[In every category] he was above average.”
One of the other main impetuses for the salary increase, said Wilcoxen, was to bring Dr. Gratto up to parity with superintendents in Suffolk County and on the East End. According to Wilcoxen the average salary for the county is around $219,000, while the Eastern Suffolk average is around $206,000 excluding other benefits and expenses, separate from medical insurance or district paid cell phones. If these other expenses and benefits were added to the Eastern Suffolk figure, Wilcoxen said the average superintendent salary would be closer to $220,000.
“We, [the board], knew that we started [Dr. Gratto] at below market salary … if you look at what people get paid out here and we wanted to correct that,” said Wilcoxen.
Several neighboring districts like East Hampton and Southampton, however, have significantly larger student bodies, but Wilcoxen argues that the superintendents at these schools have the help of an assistant superintendent.
The board, said Wilcoxen, looked at Dr. Gratto’s qualifications and his level of education, when considering his raise. Wilcoxen said Dr. Gratto brought a “higher level of accountability and efficiency to all aspects of the districts,” which factored into the board’s decision. One major way Dr. Gratto increased efficiency in the district, added Wilcoxen, was through implementing several cost cutting measures.
“He saved us significant amounts of money in a difficult budget cycle … The savings have more than paid for his salary,” noted Wilcoxen.
Walter Tice, a former member and president of the Sag Harbor board of education, said he worried about linking the idea of saving money in the district with raising the superintendent’s salary. Tice added that this could possibly lead to budget cutting measures coming at the cost of program and educational quality.
“His salary ought not to be proportional to how much he cuts the budget,” lamented Tice.
Tice’s daughter and former Parent Teacher Association President Chris Tice, who spoke in her capacity as a Sag Harbor parent, echoed her father’s remarks.
“The motivation should be to help the school district continue to improve and spend the taxpayer’s money wisely,” she said.
However, Dr. Gratto believes he was able to strike that balance and said his proposed cost cutting measures haven’t undercut school programming.
Regardless of the savings Dr. Gratto created in the district, Chris Tice was also perplexed by the size of Dr. Gratto’s raise given the state of the economy.
“As a parent and taxpayer, overall I am happy with Dr. Gratto. I think he was a good addition to the school … but I do think his increase should reflect the economic times and an increase of over 13 percent doesn’t seem rational. I am confused by it because Dr. Gratto and the board have been asking district employees to be conservative with their increases,” remarked Tice.
According to Eileen Kochanasz, president of the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor, when the school board began negotiating teacher’s contracts last year, the board often claimed the economic pressures on the district and the national economic climate didn’t make it sustainable for them to give the full percentage of a raise that the teachers were asking for.
“I don’t begrudge Dr. Gratto his appropriate salary … but TASH is troubled. We are not so troubled about that being the going rate for his salary, but for the board to cry economy and then offer a 13.5 percent raise,” stated Kochanasz. “The teachers are asking for the average [salary].”
Wilcoxen said Dr. Gratto’s raise and the teachers’ contracts are two separate issues, as the board must negotiate with a union to agree on a raise for teachers. He added that whereas Dr. Gratto was judged on his specific performance, teacher raises are agreed upon with the union for all teachers and not based on specific teacher’s performance. Of the current economy climate, Wilcoxen also divided the issues.
“We live in a system were there are many different levels of socio-economic conditions … I have to think about his position and what other people get in that position,” said Wilcoxen, adding that offering a competitive salary will help retain Dr. Gratto within the school district. “We do have to think about what we have to pay to get someone of quality.”
Members of the public, however, not only felt that Dr. Gratto’s raise was high given the economy, but felt the board could have been more forthcoming in releasing his salary increase figures and facilitating a dialogue about it at the June 22 meeting.
At the meeting, the resolution to amend Dr. Gratto’s contract, and thus give him a raise, was passed, but the exact salary increase wasn’t printed on the agenda and at the close of the meeting Walter Tice inquired about the legality of this. Dr. Gratto said he spoke with the school district attorney Tom Volz the day after the meeting, who said that the school wasn’t required by law to put these numbers on the agenda.
“In my experience, amendments to contracts, [for salary and/or other contract changes], are typically not published. I thought that is pretty standard,” recalled Dr. Gratto.
Even though the board was complying with the law, some audience members wished the figures were printed on the agenda to help begin a dialogue.
“Even after I raised the question [about publishing the salary increase on the agenda]. The board didn’t issue a public announcement saying, ‘We have given a raise and here are the reasons why.’ It seems to go against their promises of openness,” said Walter Tice.
“I was baffled that they choose not to share and disclose [the information]. It seemed to fly in the face of the board’s ongoing mission of transparency,” added Chris Tice.
Wilcoxen, however, contends that both the amendment to Dr. Gratto’s contract and his original contract are available to the public at the school clerk’s office. He said that he believed the next board meeting, to be held on Monday, July 13, offered a better opportunity to speak with the public about the issue, as the full board will be in attendance whereas on June 22 one board member was absent and Wilcoxen had to leave the meeting early.
Wilcoxen added that the salary increase would be discussed at next Monday’s board of education meeting.