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Sag Harbor School Board Hopes to Host Educational Summit on Administrative Sharing

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Diana Hinojosa proudly watches her husband Fausto receive tenure at the Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting Monday.

Diana Hinojosa proudly watches her husband Fausto receive tenure at the Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting Monday. (Tessa Raebeck photo).

By Tessa Raebeck

Facing substantial losses in state aid and severe limitations on its ability to raise local revenue, the Sag Harbor School District is hoping to host an educational summit this summer to discuss sharing administrative services with nearby districts.

At Monday’s board of education (BOE) meeting, Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim superintendent for the district, said he had recently discussed possible cooperation with Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, as well as leaders from other school districts.

Daniel Hartnett, a BOE member, first proposed examining the possibility of an administrative merger at the December 2 board meeting.

“We’re beyond — in terms of shared services — buying toilet paper as a collective,” Hartnett said Monday. “I think we’ve milked every penny we could out of that.”

Board member Mary Anne Miller said both East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez and Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming have approached her to express their interest in the consolidation of administrative functions.

The BOE hopes to accelerate the discussion before fiscal limitations mandate severe cuts to school programs, supplies and teaching positions as, like districts across the state, Sag Harbor is facing an uphill battle this budget season.

Under the “tax cap,” a regulation enacted by the New York State Legislature in 2011, school districts cannot increase property taxes by more than two percent or the rate of inflation (whichever is less) annually, limiting districts’ ability to raise local revenue.

A provision of the tax cap legislation permits a handful of school districts with enrollments of 1,000 students or less to share a superintendent. The Greenport and Southold school districts were the first in the state to announce plans to do so in November. Starting in July, current Southold Superintendent David Gamberg will work for both districts and report to both school boards, with the districts splitting the costs of his salary evenly.

Prior to the tax cap, in 2009 the state adopted the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Legislators developing the state budget realized the state’s anticipated revenue did not cover expenses, resulting in a “gap.” The GEA was created to fill that gap, essentially passing the burden onto the state’s school districts.

The state now uses a calculation based “primarily on district wealth,” according to School Business Administrator John O’Keefe, to determine a district’s GEA, an amount that is then deducted from their state aid.

Sag Harbor had some $243,000 in state aid taken away last year due to the GEA, O’Keefe said Monday.

According to the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), school districts have lost more than $8 billion in state aid since the start of the GEA four years ago.

Since state aid and local property taxes are the primary means for a district to raise revenue, the GEA and the tax cap have forced districts “to make difficult choices,” according to NYSSBA.

Such choices are prompting the school board to spearhead the conversation on superintendent sharing on the East End.

Dr. Bonuso said a steering committee would ideally be formed in the spring, consisting of several administrators, legislators and board members who would then organize an agenda or protocol for an educational summit or similar legislative meeting to take place over the summer.

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said he believes the tax cap is a result of the poor economic climate and may be removed as the economy recovers.

BOE Vice President Chris Tice, who presided over Monday’s meeting in President Theresa Samot’s absence, replied that the cap is politically tied to rent control laws in New York City and will not sunset for another seven years.

Tice expressed her support of putting a group together in the spring and hosting a summit this summer.

“The sooner we can think of these things and do it the better we’ll be,” agreed David Diskin, a member of the school board.

“People who are more in touch with what’s actually going on in their communities understand how important and valuable education is,” he said, adding the higher up in government, “the more it becomes an abstract concept.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, the BOE honored Fausto Hinojosa, a teaching assistant (TA) in the district, with tenure.

“Fausto,” said Nichols, “for me, in many ways represents that key piece, that key connection between the school and many students in the ESL [English as a Second Language] population. He has a passion for trying to make the transition for the students who come from other countries a smooth one.”

“The way you interact with staff and with every student is with such dignity and respect and joy,” added Tice. “And they have a visceral positive response to you.”

Joined by his wife Diana, also a Sag Harbor teacher’s assistant, Fausto received a standing ovation from the room of administrators and colleagues.

Holding back tears, he addressed the room.

“There’s one thing that none of you have said,” he said. “One of the most joyful things that I live with here at school is the people that I work with…this is our home and I’ve told Mr. Nichols this many times, we’re just thrilled to be here every morning.”

Anticipating Tight Finances, Sag Harbor School Board to Look at Superintendent Sharing

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By Tessa Raebeck

In efforts to reduce cuts to teacher positions, school programs and supplies brought on by tight budgets, the Sag Harbor Board of Education (BOE) is considering hosting a forum for East End school districts to discuss the possibility of sharing a superintendent and other services in the future.

In 2011, the New York State Legislature established a two percent real property tax cap, limiting the annual increase of property taxes levied by school districts (as well as local municipalities) to two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.

A provision of the legislation permits a handful of school districts with enrollments of 1,000 students or less to share a superintendent.

In November, the Greenport and Southold School Districts were the first in the state to announce plans to do so. Effective July 2014, the districts will equally split the salary of current Southold Superintendent David Gamberg, who will work for both districts and report to both school boards.

At Monday’s meeting, school board member Daniel Hartnett proposed examining the possibility of a similar merger in Sag Harbor.

“The sentiment I sense in the community,” said Hartnett, “is a great desire to value what is really treasured and honored here, which is our educational program, our sports program.”

“Looking three to five years out,” he continued, “and looking at numbers crunching and seeing a lot of that is in peril if the tax cap remains — and I think we need to assume the tax cap is going to remain — I think it is incumbent on us to examine all possibilities.”

Hartnett suggested spearheading a summit of neighboring school boards and administrators, as well as local elected officials.

BOE Member Susan Kinsella said that offering a part-time job wouldn’t provide the same opportunity for the superintendent to be an integral part of the community, which is a priority of the board in its current search for a permanent superintendent.

Hartnett said it is far too late to impact the current search; he simply wants to start a dialogue.

“This is a long-term project,” he said, “but it comes from a place where we all value what happens in the classroom with our kids and the values we have of our curriculum, of our approach, of our style of teaching, of our class size — but all of that is in jeopardy in the fairly near future.”

“Three years down the road, I’d hate to see us under duress,” agreed BOE member David Diskin. “I’d much rather see that [conversation] now at a point where we can vet out these things.”

In other school news, school board members Diskin, Mary Anne Miller and BOE vice president Chris Tice agreed to meet with director of technology Scott Fisher to take concrete steps to set up a podcast (audio recording) of board meetings to be broadcasted on the district website.

Also at Monday’s meeting, district architect Larry Salvesen presented a projected schedule for the implementation of the capital projects approved by the bond vote November 13.

The timeline includes a startup phase, the preparation of construction documents to submit to state agencies, the subsequent review of those documents, the bidding and awarding of contracts and the actual construction.

The final closeout is projected for October 2016 according to the timeline, which Salvesen said represents a conservative estimate. Construction projects are scheduled so as not to interfere with school instruction.

Looking for feedback from the community, the district is hosting a public meeting to discuss the next steps for bond implementation and the reforming of the Educational Facilities Planning Committee Thursday, December 5 at 6 p.m. in the Pierson Middle/High School Library.

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.

Push for Tuition Students

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President of School Board Walter Wilcoxen and Superintendent Dr. John Gratto



At their last meeting, the Sag Harbor Board of Education was treated to a demonstration by Pierson High School Jeff Nichols, who showed the students’ achievement levels compared to others on a global scale. At this week’s board of education meeting, superintendent Dr. John Gratto talked about those achievements and proposed that the school look at ways to raise revenue, including a plan to invite more students to the district on a tuition-based status.

“There are good test scores and they are attractive to any parent that may want to send their kids to this school,” Gratto said on Monday. “Could we be a bit entrepreneurial? And are we willing to accept students on a tuition basis?”
Gratto explained that by looking at the master schedule, he predicted the school could accept more students at no additional cost.
“How many kids could we take, without negatively affecting class size?” asked school board member Ed Haye.
Gratto responded there could be up to 35 more students per grade level, on the current schedule. Haye suggested that the district should start off slow, and added that 35 seemed like a lot of additional students in one grade.
School board president, Walter Wilcoxen suggested that for some of the Advanced Placement (AP) courses, adding more students might make those classes more economical to run.
Gratto added that the school might have to make some major decisions next year as to whether the school will offer the AP courses with limited enrollment.
“If we decided as a district to keep the classes vibrant, keep a rich curriculum … it would be a good thing to look into as long as we are able to say when we have too many students,” board member Mary Ann Miller, said. “We have tuition paying students now and this is the school they chose; I think that speaks to the program.”
“I second the notion of exploring it gently,” board member Daniel Hartnett said, “I think our school may be appealing because of our small class size.”
“We are talking about negatively increasing 25 to 35 percent and that it won’t have a negative impact on the kids,” Parent Teacher Association President Chris Tice said at the meeting. She said the idea of raising revenue was approached nonchalantly by the board and noted that even if the district added three, four or five students to the class it would have a negative impact on the students. She said she would be cautious about adding to class size.
Gratto said on Tuesday that he intended to bring in more tuition-based students, but still stick to the school’s goal of small class sizes. For example, he said that if 30 new students came in to the school on a tuition-paying basis, and that tuition was $20,000 for each child, that would be $600,000 revenue for the district. He added, if the district had to add a teacher to keep class sizes small – that may cost the district $50,000, but the district could still potentially make $550,000 in profit.

Teacher Contracts
President of the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor, Eileen Kochanasz, spoke at Monday’s meeting about the prolonged teacher contract negotiations, which are closing in on the one-year mark.
“We are asking the board for a change in the process,” Kochanasz said, “There is an inordinate amount of time that goes by to consider the proposals.” She explained that in between the contract negotiation meetings, too much time lapses before they are able to come to the table again. She asked on Monday that the board consider authorizing the superintendent and the school’s attorney to negotiate at the table – eliminating the study and review process after each session.
Kochanasz said that as TASH president she is able to actively negotiate on the teachers’ behalf.
Wilcoxen responded that the board hasn’t discussed that but said that he supposed board members and Gratto could do so after the meeting.
“Let John [Gratto] know prior to the 10th [of December], that would clearly move this process,” said Kochanasz to Wilcoxen, “rather than stopping and waiting, stopping and waiting.”
“I’m torn,” Wilcoxen said. “On one hand I want to be honest and open, but I’m limited to what I can say, I’m only one voice of our seven.”
“We always had the authority to negotiate within parameters,” Gratto said on Tuesday. He said along with the board and the school’s attorney, he will meet with TASH members to talk about teacher negotiations on December 10.

Extra-Curricular Trips
At the start of Monday’s school board meeting, high school art teacher, Peter Solow, asked the board if he could show them a short film about past school trips to Italy.
“We hope to show you the effects and lasting effects of this very meaningful experience,” said Solow who would like to plan a trip to Italy in 2010.
At last month’s board of education meeting, a change in policy for field trips was discussed. In the past, several trips have extended beyond scheduled school vacation time and the board had its first reading of a new policy at that meeting, which outlined parameters for class-based and extra-curricular trips.
Resident Elena Loreto expressed her concerns that students would be losing valuable instructional time and also expressed concern for those students that would be left behind. Loreto asked the board to reconsider the policy.
Wilcoxen said that he did not believe the policy was ready to go yet, and it was tabled, for now.