By Tessa Raebeck
Two incumbents and two challengers vying for three spots on the Sag Harbor School Board debated last Wednesday, May 7, at the annual Meet the Candidates forum at the Sag Harbor Elementary School.
The candidates, Diana Kolhoff, Sandi Kruel, Thomas Ré and Theresa Samot, were allowed one-minute answers and optional 30-second responses during the forum, which was moderated by Sag Harbor Express consultant and publisher emeritus Bryan Boyhan and hosted by the PTA and PTSA.
Newcomer Diana Kolhoff, 41, was a high school math teacher for 12 years. She now owns Black Swan Antiques and works as an educational consultant, providing professional development for math teachers, especially in the Common Core standards.
“I’ve served districts all over Suffolk County, but I’m most rewarded when I serve the district that’s educating my children,” Ms. Kolhoff said.
Incumbent Sandi Kruel, 51, graduated from Pierson High School and will see her second of three sons do the same this spring. She served on the board from 1999 to 2005, then took six years off but “still maintained probably 80-percent attendance at board meetings,” she said, until her return in 2011.
Another challenger, Thomas Ré, 62, an attorney, has a daughter at Pierson. He has served on several school committees, including the long-range financial planning committee, and is active in the Sag Harbor Coalition.
“I bring new ideas and perhaps new ways that could be very useful to the school,” he said, adding he has commitment to the school and its children “before all else.”
Current school board President Theresa Samot is completing her ninth year on the board. A graduate of Pierson, Ms. Samot has had three daughters go through the district, with her youngest currently in 11th grade. She works in healthcare administration as a nurse.
Mr. Boyhan asked the candidates for their thoughts about how Common Core was implemented in New York and whether they believe the new curriculum should be changed in any way.
“The Common Core has, initially, not been orchestrated nor implemented very well,” Mr. Ré replied. “The thought was there, the protocol was there, but the preparation and the training—both of the teachers and also the materials that were necessary—I think had not been done well.”
“I actually have a bit of expertise on this,” Ms. Kolhoff said. “There’s a lot of issues that surround Common Core that get mixed in with Common Core that actually have nothing to do with Common Core. The standards themselves are excellent, the way the modules were introduced definitely has some hiccups.”
“The idea and the concepts behind the Common Core were certainly good ones in the goal of advancing and standardizing education across the state,” Ms. Samot agreed, although she said there were many unfunded mandates that proved challenging. “I am very confident in the way our administrative staff and teaching staff were able to pull together.”
“It’s not the first time that the state has mandated us and said, ‘Here’s this, do this and by the way, you have no money to do this,’” said Ms. Kruel, adding the district has been “very proactive” in meeting the challenges of implementation. “I feel like a rigorous program is great and I want our children to be challenged, but if they’re going to challenge our children, they have to help us with budgeting for it and smoothing out a textbook.”
Mr. Boyhan asked the candidates whether they believe the state should continue with the mandated cap on property taxes once it expires in 2016.
“It would be nice to have a little more flexibility, but we have to see where the economy goes. I can understand where the spirit of the tax cap came in,” Ms. Kolhoff replied. “Ultimately, funding of the schools is up to the community, what burden they’re willing to bear, so that issue needs to go out to the voters.”
“I do not think the state should continue with the tax cap in 2016,” Ms. Samot said. With many unfunded mandates, Ms. Samot said it will be “more and more difficult” for Sag Harbor to stay under the cap while maintaining its programs and staff. She stressed the need for continued long range planning with community input.
“The tax cap takes away the local control,” she added. “The local community should be in control of their school district and that includes the spending and the programs that they want in place.”
The tax cap “was quite frightening for all of us and we have managed to stay under it,” said Ms. Kruel. “It is going to start to decimate programs and the teachers, that’s not what the Sag Harbor community is about. I do think that it’s going to be problematic for us.”
“We’ve actually gained a lot of trust throughout the community that we’ve been able to do this, but I think it has not been easy,” she said, adding later, “With or without a tax cap, it’s important to me to be respectful for all of our taxpayers.”
“The concept of a tax cap or limitation on financial matters is a good idea,” said Mr. Ré. “It should be examined in terms of the percentage, I understand how it was originally derived, but I think that that can be refined.”
Mr. Ré added he would like to see “a much longer range plan” of three to five years and the district should look into other options, such as grants and new programs, to secure funding.
Referencing the budget tightening under the tax cap, Mr. Boyhan said many districts are looking toward shared services as a way of saving money and asked the candidates for new ideas of how Sag Harbor could share services.
Ms. Samot said the board is planning on hosting a program with its administrators and neighboring districts to look at ways they could share services. She said some of those savings could come from personnel areas, sharing sports or sharing “some of our more advanced programs.”
“There’s going to come a time when we’re going to have to sit down with the smaller districts and consolidation is going to be inevitable,” Ms. Kruel said.
Rather than viewing consolidation as failure, she said, other districts need to be on board and “understand that uniting with us makes the district stronger and better.”
Mr. Ré agreed consolidation is going to have to happen at some point. Excellence, he said, would draw the parents and encourage them to rationally pressure their district “to find a way to work together in a consolidation.”
“If we’re going to look at consolidation,” Ms. Kolhoff said, “we really need to explore what our options are, how much money it would save us, what are the benefits, what are the detriments.”
“Consolidation needs to be on the table, but I’m not willing to commit one way or another without more information,” she added, adding it is “absolutely worth exploring.”
All four candidates agreed the research supports later school start times and such a change would be beneficial to Sag Harbor’s children, although they also recognized with sports schedules and other logistical constraints, the district would need to be creative if it were to change its times.
The candidates also unanimously favored pursuing more green initiatives within the schools.
The Sag Harbor school board budget vote and elections will be held Tuesday, May 20, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the Pierson gymnasium.