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Board Divided Over Supplemental Accident Insurance

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By Claire Walla

Ever since the need for student accident insurance was brought into question last year, it has been a hotly debated item among Sag Harbor School Board members.

Last year, the board voted to eliminate the service (which is not required by law). However, at the urging of some Pierson parents, the school has been asked to reinstate it.

Student accident insurance is a policy that provides limited coverage if a child is injured while at school or during a school activity.  This is different from liability insurance — which the school is required to carry — which would cover the cost of a lawsuit if it was ruled there was negligence on the part of the district.

“We are the owners of the biggest house in the community,” said school board member Sandi Kruel. “We open up our door every single day and we have high-risk activities. For us not to protect ourselves and the children is totally appalling to me.”

At a school board meeting on Monday, January 6, the district’s director of business operations, Janet Verneuille, presented six student accident insurance plans for the board to consider, only two of which she said were viable. A company called Chartis offers one option at $46,453 per year, while Pupil Benefits — the company the school district used up until last year — is $39,521.

According to Verneuille, the problem with Pupil Benefits had to do with “reasonable and customary” costs, which are the costs the insurance company itself determines for a medical procedure. If a family doesn’t have medical insurance, student accident insurance will gauge the amount of money it pays for services based on these “reasonable and customary” estimates.

Because medical expenses are relatively high on the East End, Verneuille said the correlation between the two left many families without much of a financial return.

“The cost benefit wasn’t there,” she said.

Board member Walter Wilcoxen noted that issues surrounding Pupil Benefits arose when a parent in the school district complained of receiving only $300 back on a $3,000 medical bill.

However, board member Chris Tice said that discrepancy was not always true.

“I’ve heard from parents who said they benefited [from student accident insurance],” she said. “Not everyone who filed claims was dissatisfied.”

Plus, she added that student accident insurance could be helpful for those families that don’t currently have health insurance.

“How is that the responsibility of the district as a whole?” Wilcoxen countered. “The primary question is whether or not it’s our obligation to do this. I think it’s the parents’ obligation to provide health care for their children.

Plus, he continued, “For what you’re getting back, it’s not worth it.”

Board member Gregg Schiavoni agreed.

“I think it’s a perk if we carry it,” he stated. “But, for what it’s costing the district to carry this insurance, the payout isn’t worth it. We’re barely under the tax cap. If we want this policy, we’ll have to make cuts to stay under the cap.”

Kruel noted that student accident insurance would come out at about $45 per student, which she said was “miniscule” in the grand scheme of things, considering the school’s budget is currently proposed to come out to $35 million.

She added, “If the bus proposition passes, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars to play with.”

(Part of the 2012-2013 budget presentation included a proposal for the district to purchase six new buses, which Verneuille estimated would save the district up to $1 million over the next 10 years.)

By the end of the meeting, the board was not ready to make any decisions as to whether or not to adopt a new student accident insurance plan until finding out what the “reasonable and customary” rates would be for both Chartis and Pupil Benefits. Verneuille said she would reach out to the insurance companies and try to provide updates at the board’s next business meeting.

In other news…

The Sag Harbor School Board approved plans to tear out the existing maple-wood floor in the Sag Harbor Elementary School gymnasium and replace it with a rubber material called “pulastic.”

According to Principal Matt Malone, a thin layer of concrete beneath the current wood floor cracked because of a steam leak from a pipe beneath the gymnasium. This ultimately caused a portion of the wooden surface to “bubble up,” he said.

“Some of that same problem, though to a lesser scale, has been detected in other segments of the floor,” he explained.

Malone and the district’s buildings and grounds director, Montgomery Granger, said the pipes have been repaired. But the floor — which is relatively new, having been paid for by a bond resolution in 2008 — definitely needs replacing.

District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the floor will be replaced at no cost to tax payers because it is considered a defect and is covered by the school’s insurance.

While several board members lamented the loss of the gym’s relatively new maple flooring, Malone said the Pulastic surface is more durable and easier to maintain than the maple wood.

“Every day we have about 500 people coming into the gym for morning program,” Malone added. “That wear and tear is something that’s been problematic for a long time.”

As for the timeline of the project, Dr. Gratto said construction can begin as soon as next week and run through winter vacation. The goal, he added, is for the school ”to open up on the 27th with a new gym floor.”

Pierson/Bay Street Meeting Sparks More Conversation, Draws No Conclusions

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By Claire Walla


Finally, the two boards came to the same table.

On Tuesday, January 31, school officials and Bay Street Theatre board members held a meeting on the Pierson Middle/High School campus to discuss the potential for a collaboration between the two. The idea of the Bay Street Theatre collaborating with the Sag Harbor School District to create a new theater venue has been floated for a few years. And with Bay Street’s impending move from its current location on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, discussions have been spurred with greater urgency in the last few weeks.

The dialogue oscillated in scope for much of the two-hour meeting, wavering back and forth between small details (like whether it’s possible to obtain a liquor license on a school campus since Bay Street serves alcohol), and larger ideas, such as the school and theater working together to build an entirely new performing arts center in Sag Harbor.

But, while no board member on either side of the aisle completely put the kibosh on the potential for collaboration, there were aspects of this hypothetical partnership that raised red flags for both.

“I don’t want to throw any cold water on the issue, but I can’t possibly see how [an independent theater] can be in this school district, in this area,” school board member Walter Wilcoxen said.

Based on a memo the school district received from its attorney, Tom Volz, Wilcoxen pointed out some of the smaller issues, like limited parking and storage capacity.

But Tracy Mitchell, Bay Street Theatre’s executive director, expressed some concerns with the overall picture.

“One of the biggest issues for us, from a creative perspective, is we need to be able to have complete control over what we produce,” she said.

Though Mitchell and the theater’s creative director, Murphy Davis, assured the school that no expletives would be used on any signage related to the theater, some of the theater’s productions can be a bit, well, “racy.”

While Davis said there are elements to what Bay Street does now that could shift to conform to a different production model — for example, the theater could stop selling alcohol if it managed to secure other revenue sources — creative freedom is non-negotiable.

“We can do some pretty racy content,” he continued. “It’s imperative that we don’t feel hemmed in by that.”

Then there’s the time frame.

At best, school superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the process would take three years to complete. (Later, he explained that the time frame would more realistically take up to five years.) It would take six months for the school’s architect to draw-up a new design and then for the state education department to review the plans, another three months for the school to bid the project, then at least a year to construct the building.

“We’re talking two years after voter approval,” he continued. “And voters would have to approve such a project.”

The district’s current design for a 415-seat theater comes in at an estimated $12 million. Even if private funds were used for the project, Dr. Gratto said state aid would still kick-in for 10 percent of the cost, but that would trigger the need to put the project up to a vote.

Mitchell said the theater has a certain degree of flexibility for discussing future plans because it’s not scheduled to leave its current space until spring of 2013.

“The board would be able to back us renewing our current lease if we were working toward a pre-approved plan,” she said. “But, what we can’t do is say it’s going to take us another year to figure out whether we can get through these hurdles, and in the process lose all our other options.”

According to Mitchell, the theater is actively pursuing all possible options, including in Sag Harbor the Schiavoni property on Jermain Avenue, the National Grid lot on Long Island Avenue, the Sag Harbor Cinema, and in Southampton Village the soon-to-be vacant Parrish Art Museum space on Jobs Lane. At this point, Mitchell said the theater has put together several committees to further explore these options.

“It doesn’t sound like [the school] is going to be at the forefront,” Davis stated at the end of the meeting. Besides issues of parking, storage space and creative control, he said the time frame doesn’t seem viable.

“Just what I’m hearing tonight, it makes me uncomfortable that we’re going to have to wait,” he said.

And while nestling into the Pierson campus may seem like a dream sequence too riddled with legal complications to become a reality, school board members were energized by the idea of a potential collaboration off-campus.

Dr. Gratto directed interests to the piece of empty land directly across the street from Pierson, at the intersection of Division and Marsden streets, where the Trunzo family owns four parcels. According to community member John Landes, who’s already investigated the site, the cost would roughly total $4 million — just to purchase the land.

As for the overall idea of collaboration, Bay Street Board Member Robbie Stein said, “When you look at it, there are a lot of problems. But, on some level, starting this dialogue is bringing to the community the idea of: is there a place for arts in the community?”

The Bay Street Board will meet again next week to further discuss all its options.

Pierson May Bring On the Dogs

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By Claire Walla


Before the end of this school year, it’s quite possible the Sag Harbor School District will bring drug-sniffing dogs onto the Pierson campus.

“For years I was hesitant to pursue this angle, but I’m more inclined to do this now,” said Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, who took a hard-lined stance against bringing drug-sniffing dogs onto the campus as recently as last fall. “I don’t want to say there are more incidents than in the past, though there have already been a few incidents this year,” he explained.

According to Sag Harbor Village Police Officer Paul Fabiano, there has only been one reported incident of marijuana possession on the Pierson campus since September 2011. The event involved a 14-year-old student. However, Fabiano said not all campus incidents get reported.

Nichols continued, “I know the harm [in bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus] is in saying to the students that we don’t trust them; but, making sure drugs are not on this campus outweighs the trust factor.”

All board members, including those who were previously on the fence on the issue, seemed to support the notion of bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus. And school superintendent, Dr. John Gratto, introduced a school policy on the topic.

According to a draft of the policy read at a school board meeting on Monday, “The Superintendent of Schools is authorized by the Board of Education to utilize dogs, which are trained to detect illegal drugs. The superintendent and high school principal are designated as the contact persons and they will determine if, and when, and how often a police agency’s ‘drug dogs’ will be called to school property.”

What’s more, the presence of drug-sniffing dogs would not be announced prior to their arrival. And the policy goes on to say that the dogs would be active on the campus while students were in classrooms, and the dogs would not be permitted to “sniff search” the students themselves.

While board member Water Wilcoxen pointed out that it’s within both Nichols’ and Dr. Gratto’s power to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the campus without a formal vote from the board and without an official policy, Nichols indicated that he wanted to make certain he had the full backing from the board and the superintendent before proceeding with any plans.

“This is a big step,” said Nichols. “I would not want to move forward with this unless I knew that the superintendent and the board were ok with it.”

Part of the supporting materials behind the motivation to crack down on substance abuse in the district includes results from the Sag Harbor School District Survey which was administered earlier this school year to students, parents and teachers.

According to those results, 71 percent of Pierson students agreed with the statement: “Students in my school use drugs and alcohol.” And 39 percent of those who responded said they had witnessed students consuming alcohol and/or using drugs on school grounds.

Overall, 57 percent of Pierson students either agreed or strongly agreed that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem for students in the Sag Harbor School District. But, that figure rose to 69 percent when it came to the teachers’ responses to that same question.

Dr. Gratto and various board members referred to the survey to further illustrate the problems with substance abuse that have found their way to Pierson, but Dr. Gratto was careful to note that the survey results are not perfect and do not necessarily reflect the community as a whole. (To their credit, he said, 87 percent of all students actually took the poll, but only 23 percent of teachers and TAs responded.)

Teacher Peter Solow cautioned the school against following through with actions based on results culled from these surveys, which he called “imperfect instruments.”

“I’m not denying there’s an issue here,” he declared. “But I don’t think any policy should be based on inaccurate or anecdotal information. I don’t know the extent of the problem, but I know it’s relatively serious. And I don’t know about the drug-sniffing dog thing, but that’s got to be a little piece of a bigger comprehensive plan.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller told Solow that the school district already has a comprehensive plan to address issues of alcohol abuse and prevention.

“It’s working, but it’s not working to the degree any of us are comfortable with,” she explained. “There’s still a problem. How many more times do we have to catch kids before we solve it?

“We need to look into bringing in a parent seminar immediately,” Miller continued. “That has to be done almost twice a year. I know these things cost money, but we should try to come back with a game plan.”

According to Nichols, the school needs a multi-pronged approach that is not limited to drug-sniffing dogs. In addition to taking a serious approach to eliminating substance abuse on campus, Nichols echoed Miller’s sentiments and mentioned that preventative measures must move beyond the classroom, even beyond the walls of the school.

“We have kids for seven hours out of a 24-hour day,” he began, alluding to the fact that students often develop habits and behaviors at home, or else off school grounds. “There are instances that are indigenous to our community.”

“We’re a resort community and we have some specific challenges,” he added.

Namely, Nichols said, the presence and availability of both alcohol and drugs are prevalent.

Wilcoxen agreed, and added that education needs to involve parents, as well as students. “You tell your child not to drink alcohol and drive, but how many parents get in the car after drinking, and their kids see them? It’s the same thing with dope. How are we going to reach out and help this? All I know is we haven’t done a very good job.”

Board member Sandi Kruel said she was in favor of utilizing drug-sniffing dogs when she previously served on the board five years ago. But now, especially with backing from Nichols who had previously been a staunch opponent, she said it’s imperative.

With a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old son, Kruel went on to say that she’s often privy to information about parties where there is underage drinking.

“I myself have gone to the police station to get the cops to help close down parties,” she said. “We have a problem. And if it takes this to help stop it, I say get the dog treats ready.”

BOE Discusses Stadium Lighting

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Light 4

By Claire Walla


The ongoing discussion revolving around proposed plans to implement a turf field and overhead lights on the Pierson Middle/High School campus — which now has a field composed of natural grass and no lights — was met with some concern at a regularly scheduled school board meeting last Monday, November 28. But not because board members voiced any dissent.

“I’m in favor of the turf field 100 percent,” said board member Sandi Kruel. “But we need to go and find out how our neighbors feel.”

By revisiting the issue with school board members, she continued, “It seems to me you’re putting the cart before the horse.”

Kruel indicated that the major issue at this point preventing the board from making any decisions about whether or not to go to bond for these maintenance projects concerns the school’s neighbors.

“I thought this [issue] was done until you had the discussion with the neighbors,” Kruel said, addressing Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto.

Dr. Gratto explained that he would be meeting with Sag Harbor resident Steven Reiner — who essentially represents a handful of the district’s neighbors — on December 13 to discuss various issues of concern to those living in close proximity to the school district.

According to Reiner, the biggest issue is not the turf field — which is estimated to cost $1.6 million — but the installation of stadium-style lighting, at a cost of $675,000. He said that while neighbors worry about the disruption to the flow of traffic in the neighborhood during what is estimated to be a 10-week construction process, in the long-term they worry about the potential for light pollution.

Dr. Gratto, however, insisted that the lights would have a minimal effect on the district’s neighbors.

“The lighting that we’ve researched is pretty contained,” he said. “It doesn’t have a lot of spillage outside the field.”

He went on to explain additional benefits to having a field with stadium lighting. For one, he said, more parents and family members who work during the day would be able to attend student games if they were held later in the day. The school would also be able to extend practice hours and increase the number of sports teams that currently use on-campus facilities. Furthermore, he added, the school would be able to generate added income from non-curricular and extra-curricular use.

Parent Laura Matthers told the board that she has first-hand experience with lights, as she lives across the street from Mashashimuet Park, which often uses lights at night.

“I can tell you anything you want to know about lights,” she said, and suggested school board members and interested parties go down to the park at night to see first-hand what affect the lights actually have on the outlying areas.

Similarly, Sag Harbor resident Marian Cassata recommended the school utilize its buses to organize a field trip to a neighboring school district “to see how much spillage there is onto the side streets,” she explained. “Seeing is believing.”

Board member Christ Tice wondered if it would be possible to bring portable lights in for a varsity game so that parents, administrators and neighbors could all experience the impact of stadium-style lighting first-hand.

Dr. Gratto seemed to think that was a good idea and suggested potentially bringing lights in for a girls’ softball game in the spring.

IB Program Approved for 2012-2013 School Year

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IB-hexagon

By Claire Walla


In a unanimous vote held on Wednesday, November 2, the Sag Harbor Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution that would allow the school district to implement the International Baccalaureate (IB) program for the 2012-2013 school year. Board member Theresa Samot was absent.

Though Pierson High School is still waiting to hear from the IB board as to whether or not it will officially be accepted by the IB board — Pierson only recently submitted the final segment of its IB application — for many, the board’s decision is a significant one.

“This has been five years in the making,” said board member Chris Tice, who pointed to the fact that Pierson administrators, led by Principal Jeff Nichols, have spent years learning about the program.

“There has been extensive research done on it,” she continued, and for those still unsure about what IB is or how it will affect their child, she added, “I urge you to ask questions and to learn about it.”

Before submitting her “yes” vote, board member Sandi Kruel made sure to address the issue of this year’s tenth grade students, which she said has been a source of contention among those for and against the program. She asked one more time for Nichols to clarify what options would be available for those tenth grade students who qualify for honors classes but are not yet ready to delve into IB.

“I just need to go on record as saying that this is a big concern for those parents,” she said.

Nichols reiterated that Advanced Placement (AP) classes would be eliminated to three offerings by 2015, but emphasized that they would be phased out gradually, meaning next year’s tenth graders would still be able to take a course load with up to seven AP classes by the time they graduate.

School Superintendent John Gratto said, in reference to Kruel’s comments, that he felt “a lot of apprehension in the air” at a recent parent meeting about IB.

“I do commend Jeff [Nichols] for the work that he’s done [in researching IB], and I would say that indeed the students will be prepared [for IB],” Gratto said. “But, I do agree with Sandi [Kruel]’s comments, too. We need to make sure we educate people well enough to take away that apprehension.”

Parent Tom Gleeson, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the IB program, said in an interview that he is still worried the school is investing in a program that is costly, but doesn’t necessarily improve the schools’ curriculums district-wide. (The program would cost about $10,200 annually — the cost of an IB coordinator, which could be up to $60,000, will be absorbed by Principal Nichols and Assistant Principal Gary Kalish for the first few years while the IB program is still relatively small.)

“I’m of the mindset that when you have something that’s going well,” he said in reference to the school’s current AP program, “then you should try to make it better, rather than bring in another program and derail it. We’re just not philosophically on the same page.”

In the midst of last Wednesday’s meetings, Tice said she knew there were still parents who were skeptical of the program.

In an effort to reach out to them, she said, “I would ask you to keep an open mind. This is a program that can only succeed if the participants are willing participants. The intent is good, and I ask that you evaluate it for what it is, not for what you might have heard.”

In other news…

Board members revisited a proposed bond measure that would cost a grand total of $7,220,345 for repairs to both buildings, an updated kitchen, a storage closet in the elementary school gym, updates to two school parking lots, as well as two separate propositions that would give Pierson a synthetic athletic field and provide stadium lighting. The turf is expected to cost up to $1.6 million, while the lighting will total about $675,000.

While the bond will be put to the community for a vote, the board has still to decide what elements of the proposed bond measure to include. School board members will revisit the issue at an upcoming meeting.

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.

Students Can Get 49 College Credits at Pierson

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Pierson High School has always offered advanced placement (AP) courses for students interested in them but now, many of those courses will be accepted by the State University of New York (SUNY) standards.
At Monday night’s Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting, superintendent Dr. John Gratto announced that he has been able to get college level credit for those students who enroll in AP classes.
“Conceivably now a student can get 49 credit hours of college courses finished while still in high school,” said Gratto, who has been involved with this type of program five times in his career.
He announced that the students will pay $50 per course credit.
The typical cost for a three credit course at Suffolk County Community College is $423 plus fees. With the implementation of this plan, it will cost Pierson kids $150. Gratto outlined in his presentation that for a student attending a four-year SUNY college, the average cost for 30 credits would be $9,320. Now, for Pierson students to get 30 college credits, it would cost them $4,500 if they enroll while still at the high school.
“Some students may be dissuaded to take the course because of the cost,” board member Ed Haye said at the meeting. Gratto countered that the courses will still be offered for students who are not getting the college credit.
“Those who need the credit, won’t get it,” board of education president Walter Wilcoxen said adding that perhaps the PTA or PTSA would be able to help students raise money and pay for it.
“We appreciate that vote of confidence,” Chris Tice, president of the PTA, said “but we can’t write that check.” She added that it would be against the PTA and PTSA policies.
Gratto said that his daughter was involved in a program like this at her high school, and she was able to enter college as a sophomore.
“This saved us a year of room and board,” he said.
The college level courses include chemistry, English, Spanish, physics, history and math.
Tuition Rates Set
Also on Monday, the board of education looked at setting tuition rates, and allowing the district to try to recruit students from surrounding schools.
The tuition rates for a non-resident student are now set at $20,381 for a 6 to 12 grade student and $16,050 for a student in Kindergarten through fifth grade.
Currently the Sag Harbor Elementary school has five non-resident students whose families are paying more than the newly adopted rates. The resolution suggested that the rates are based on 80 percent of the maximum amount a school is allowed to charge.
Board member Daniel Hartnett asked if the school had supplies needed for the additional kids, like textbooks. Gratto said that there will be a task force that will look at this and other related issues.
PTA president Chris Tice recommended that the board consider adding wording to the requirements such as limits on the amount of students per grade level allowed to enroll.
Walter Tice, a former Sag Harbor school board president, said that the board should be careful, because if there were additional local students that would “miscalculate the number of out of district kids.” This, he said, would require additional teachers to keep class sizes small and would not be an additional revenue making tool as the board and superintendent intended it to be.
Business manager Len Bernard said he received a request for a non-resident student as recently as Monday.

Athletics offers a three-year plan

The new athletic director and supervisor of buildings and grounds, Bill Madsen is not even through with his first year on the job, but is already implementing some changes for the athletic department. Anyone who has attended an athletic event in the gymnasium at the high school may have noticed photos of athletes that now line the lobby area. Madsen announced at Monday’s board meeting that he also has created a three-year plan, which is intended to enhance the athletic department by adding a booster club in hopes of creating more pride in Pierson’s athletics throughout the community.
Every year, the department hopes to add one new athletic unit. Next year, he would like to add a junior varsity girl’s soccer team. In the future he wants to see golf and tennis added to the program.

School Seeks Help in Finding Economies

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In an attempt to combine ideas from community members and faculty, the Sag Harbor School District held a forum last Thursday to ask for input on what could be changed in the school to make it better and offer ideas to cut costs. In a letter Superintendent Dr. John Gratto sent to possible participants, he stated that the community is facing the most serious financial crisis since the great depression and asked if they would like to be a part of a focus group.
Two significant questions Gratto asked participants to consider while thinking about the 2009-2010 school budget included how might the community maintain or improve high-quality educational programs and services while maintaining efficient and cost-effective possibilities.
“We followed this idea and it really worked quite well,” Gratto said on Monday, “In my group we came up with 160 ideas in one hour.”
According to Gratto, the 50 or so participants came up with 400 ideas that night, on ways to improve the school district and reduce costs. Gratto, who organized the forum, asked that many different representatives from various groups participate. Those who joined in the brainstorming session included teachers, students, faculty, Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) members, members of the Noyac Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) and members of the not-for-profit organization, Save Sag Harbor.
The attendees were split into five groups and were given a few questions to use as a guide for ideas. Some suggestions included how the school might reduce energy consumption and overtime costs. Other questions were asked about lowering transportation costs and ways the district might increase revenue to minimize taxes.
Some of the ideas generated from the forum included allowing teacher assistants to substitute and investigating pre-kindergarten programs. Other ideas included plans for increasing revenue by charging other schools to use the athletic fields and other facilities.
Another idea brought up during the forum was offering incentives for teachers to retire.
The plan was to have two forums, but the five groups covered everything at last Thursday’s meeting and Gratto announced at the Board of Education meeting on Monday that a second meeting was not needed.
“Now we are in the process of compiling the ideas into categories,” Gratto said and added that the all the ideas will be put on the school’s website.

Contract Negotiations Move Slowly

Another idea generated from the forum was to hold union negotiations in public.
At Monday’s Board of Education meeting, Walter Tice, a former Board of Education President, talked about the lack of urgency among the board with the current teacher’s contracts which have been expired since June of this year.
“The longer you go past the expiration date of the contract, the longer it takes to get to an agreement,” he said. “Now,” he continued, “the negotiations are going slower than they were when they [Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, TASH] first talked to you.”
President of the board of education, Walter Wilcoxen said that the board has a proposal, which they are hoping to present to TASH representatives at their next negotiation meeting, which would take place on Wednesday, yesterday, December 10.
“We hope to make a suggestion and we feel it is a good one,” Wilcoxen said at the meeting on Monday. Further he explained that he guarantees that the board and their representatives have paid full attention to all of issues involved and they are trying to do what is right for the citizens.
At the board of education meeting, Eileen Kochanasz, president of TASH, said that she was concerned that the board was coming to the negotiation meeting with only one proposal.
“The dragging out of this process is taking its toll, you said a proposal,” Kochanasz said to Wilcoxen, “I’m not sure you have authorized your representatives to negotiate…we have offered to spend the night to get to the bottom of this…we are hoping your representative has the ability to go back and forth with us.”
Walter countered Kochanasz and said, “I hope that TASH will agree with our proposal on Wednesday, I don’t know what more to say than that.”
When PTA president Chris Tice asked if that meant the board is not planning on negotiating any further than their one proposal on Wednesday, Wilcoxen abruptly responded, “we are not going to discuss the way we negotiate in public.”