Tag Archive | "Ed Drohan"

Potential Bond Between Theater and School

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By Claire Walla

As the community searches high and low for ways to keep Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor’s only live theatre venue, here in the village, some say there’s a viable option — and it’s right under our noses.

For many in the village, it’s no surprise that the Sag Harbor School District has had plans in the works since at least 2006 to redesign the Pierson Auditorium. (In fact, a new design for the auditorium had been part of the facilities bond proposal that was voted down in 2009.)

But, what many may not know is that, as recently as last year, the idea of making the proposed auditorium a joint venture between Pierson High School and the Bay Street Theatre was already in the works.

Bay Street Theatre’s Executive Director Tracy Mitchell brought the idea to the district’s Facilities Planning Committee last year, of which she was a member. Bay Street was already beginning to set its sights on a new location, so she casually suggested the school team-up with the independent theatre company.

According to Pierson art teacher Peter Solow, who had discussed the idea with Mitchell last year, “There are many of us who believe the school should be one of the centers of the community, a place where people congregate.”

The union of Pierson and Bay Street, he added, would be a step in the right direction.

“We should be actively participating and trying to help our neighbors as much as possible,” he said.

Though Solow admitted there was no real substantive discussion about the nuts and bolts of how a partnership would unfold, he declared, “It was clear to the members of the Facilities Committee that Bay Street was reaching out to do this. And it was articulated to the board of education that there was an immediacy to this.”

But, as Solow tells it, the discussion hit a standstill — before it even got off the ground.

“Since last spring, nothing has happened,” he lamented.

The proposed $12 million design for a new auditorium, drafted by district architect Larry Salvesen, would completely replace the existing theater space, giving the auditorium a more sophisticated look, complete with a lobby and a separate entrance. (The current auditorium — a refurbished high school gym — is only accessible from within the Pierson building.)

The issue was brought to the attention of the Sag Harbor School Board again at a regularly scheduled meeting last Monday, January 9 when board member Ed Drohan urged the board to attend tonight’s “community meeting” at the Bay Street Theatre. It begins at 7 p.m.

“Having been on this school board now for a while, I realize we often refer to ourselves as a community,” Drohan said of the school’s attempts to integrate with the village. “This might be the last opportunity we have to get out of this small community and address the community as a whole.”

School board president Mary Anne Miller, who had been part of the Facilities Planning Committee last year when Mitchell first raised the idea of collaboration, said she would attend, as well.

In fact, she said the model for a community co-op theater is out there.

“But somebody needs to step up and take this on. It seems like an amazing opportunity to do something great, I just don’t know who has the wherewithal, time, connections, or the money to do it.” She continued, “We need to be doing things like this, but boy is it a big job!”

Miller concluded by saying it’s not too late to make this happen. And even Mitchell said Bay Street is open to the option.

Though Bay Street’s lease will run out in May of 2013, she said the theater is hard-pressed to stay in Sag Harbor.

“I live in the town,” Mitchell said. “I’m very concerned with what would happen to this little [community] if Bay Street left.”

And while the school does not yet have the ball rolling on its proposed theatre construction project, Mitchell said it’s still possible for Bay Street to consider moving into a temporary space while a more permanent location at the school was being prepared. But, it’s just a possibility at this point. A joint project proposal has not yet been drafted or presented.

“It is interesting,” Mitchell continued. “I’m certainly not discounting anything at this point. We want to hear from everyone in the community.”

As far as Solow’s concerned, however, Monday’s school board meeting sealed the deal. To him, that Bay Street was not made a priority during discussions indicates the worst.

“If there was anyone who held out any hope that this could happen, last night’s meeting demonstrated that it’s never going to happen,” Solow said on Tuesday. “There was an opportunity, but I can’t conceive of how it can happen now.”

District Offers Free Pre-K

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By Claire Walla

Last year, when the Sag Harbor School District instituted its first Pre-K program, it was celebrated by members of the school board for offering a service that has been much needed in the Sag Harbor community. Families were charged a monthly fee of $275 for the services, which were contracted out through SCOPE Education Services.

But, as far as Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone and Assistant Principal Donna Denon are concerned, the goal was always to make the program free-of-charge.

And this year it is.

“Over the years, based on the research that we’ve done, we’ve been aware that cost has been prohibitive to parents,” Malone explained.

Last year’s Pre-K class had 13 students, many of whom entered the program when new families moved into the district mid-year.  Denon referred to this as the “winter surge,” which she said tends to happen pretty regularly year to year.

But at the start of this school year — when it was announced the district would be offering Pre-K for all Sag Harbor four-year-olds for free — the program saw a massive surge.

This year’s Pre-K class has 39 students.  And, according to Denon, there’s still room to grow.  The district budgeted at the end of last year for a program that could hold up to 60 students — which equates to the average size of the school’s kindergarten classes.  Denon said she’s hoping the program will grow in the coming months, particularly for the afternoon session.

As it stands, the program has enough participants for two morning classes (from 8:45 to 11:15 a.m.) and one in the afternoon (from 12:30 to 3 p.m.).  Because of this, the school employs one full-time teacher, Mindy Reyer, who teaches both a.m. and p.m. classes; and one part-time teacher, Kate Montaldo, who taught at Stella Maris until it closed last year and who only teaches in the morning.  With an extra session, both teachers would be full-time, which Denon said SCOPE would be “open to.”  (Technically, SCOPE employs both teachers and the two assistant teachers.)

According to Denon, the main reason some parents have opted out of the Sag Harbor Pre-K program is because the time is too restrictive.  The program is currently set-up for half-day options only, which means parents are only able to take advantage of the program for two and a half hours each day.

“We are fully aware that some families are not able to participate in our program because it’s not full-day,” Malone explained.  “But the decision we made this year was to provide a half-day program for some families, and we hoped that they would come, and we’re hoping [the program] will evolve.  We will continue to consider a full-day option.”

Denon agreed, saying a full-day program would be ideal, but the district has to start somewhere.  “It’s kind of like taking baby steps to get to the next place,” she stated.

Malone reiterated that a universal Pre-K program has been a long time coming for this school district.

“It’s gotta be pushing 20 years,” he indicated.  “[Former elementary school principal] Ms. [Joan] Frisicano and a group of teachers and parents started the conversations, and really wanted to get a Pre-K program going in the district.”

But the idea never took flight “for a variety of reasons,” Malone continued.  “Cost is always a factor.”

The district is paying $180,000 to run the program, a cost that was approved by taxpayers last May along with this year’s operating budget.  Though it only affords the district to run a half-day program, Malone said the benefits are invaluable; it not only allows students to foster a love of learning before entering kindergarten, it allows them to grow familiar with their surroundings and the patterns that regulate school life.

“It allows the kids to have that consistency [of schedule], and an exposure to how we do things here in the district,” Malone stated.

Last year, the Pre-K program was held within two classrooms at the elementary school that had been refurbished with pint-sized utilities and a private play area for the four-year-olds; this year the program is being held in two newly refurbished classrooms within the middle school wing of the Pierson campus.  While Denon said the ideal is for the Pre-K program to be housed at the elementary school, issues of space forced the program to cross Jermain.  However, she added it’s thriving in its new location.

Just as Pre-K students did last year, “the students will use what’s available to them at the middle school,” Denon explained.  “They will listen to band practices, use the courtyard, and use the middle school gym when it’s free.  We’re also hoping some of the ‘big kids’ will come in and read to them [during free periods or after school].”

School Board Member Ed Drohan, who has been pushing for a Pre-K program in the district, has seen what he said are the benefits of the program first-hand.  Drohan is in the classroom nearly everyday to pick-up his four-year-old grandson.

“I think they’re off to a really great start,” he said.  “Character development is one of the things that’s great about this school district.  And the fact that they seem to be starting that with the kids at a younger age — to get along with each other, to understand one another — that’s great.”

Four Sag Harbor Contenders Share Views at Debate Night

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Groups of students, members of the Noyac Civic Council, scores of school parents and dozens other local constituents came to the Pierson Middle and High school library on Friday, May 8, to meet their school board candidates. Budget Advisory Committee members Ed Drohan and Elena Loreto, along with local parent Gregg Schiavoni and current school board president Walter Wilcoxen, sat in their seats facing the crowd, ready to share their viewpoints and visions for the district. From programming to their vote on the budget, the candidates weighed in on nearly every issue facing the school in the coming year.

Programming was a key concern for the candidates. They differ, however, on the future direction of Pierson’s curriculum. Schiavoni is a supporter of the Advanced Placement program and said more students should attend these classes. Drohan, however, believes the school must emphasize bilingual education and computer science by adding new courses. Loreto added that offering classes like computer repair, web design, artificial intelligence and renewable energy studies would better prepare Pierson graduates for future job markets. Wilcoxen focused on programming for the younger set and said “establishing a pre-kindergarten improves the quality of education.” He added that it was vital to operate an after-school service to correspond with the pre-k program.

The idea of starting a pre-kindergarten program is far from new and in light of this time line, the candidates were asked if it could become a reality by creating a combined pre-k program with the Bridgehampton school district. Although Drohan conceded the pre-k program was a good idea, he would like to see the issue studied to determine how many students would participate in the program and if Bridgehampton has the necessary space.

“Bridgehampton has the space,” reported Loreto, who added that around 65 Sag Harbor district children are currently eligible for pre-k. Loreto thinks the district should focus on using a SCOPE program. SCOPE is an educational not-for-profit agency that districts use to run pre-k classes. The district provides the space and certain materials but SCOPE supplies the personnel. Although the district could tap into federal Universal Pre-K funding, Loreto said using a lottery system — a requirement of the UPK program — wouldn’t be fair to students.

Wilcoxen added that the board discussed pre-k during their summer goals meeting. He said several options with Bridgehampton could be explored, but noted classroom space might also be freed up in the Sag Harbor schools.

“I think I heard that for every dollar spent on pre-k it will save $8 in the future. We need to look beyond the first year costs,” Schiavoni remarked. “We should look at housing the pre-k in the high school.”

The candidates were then asked if they believed the budget was sustainable or if modifications to programming and staffing were needed. Loreto came prepared for the question with a poster board displaying various graphs on the district’s finances. She reported to the audience that a majority of the district’s spending is reserved for salaries and benefits.

“We just don’t have the money to continue spending like this,” said Loreto, who noted that the budget could increase by over $1 million this year. Loreto added that the district’s spending might increase significantly in the future due to GASB 45, or the government accounting standards board which projects the district’s future annual spending for retiree benefits.

Wilcoxen took a different view and said he believed the budget was sustainable for this year, but conceded that the district might have to find ways to “economize beyond [their] ability in the future.” Wilcoxen underscored his comments by noting that nearly every public service is facing the same fiscal worries, especially the social security system.

Schiavoni worried the district might lose top teachers unless the board put something “on the table” to further contract negotiations.

Drohan, however, noted the average pay for teachers is $87,000 in addition to annual raises. He said spending on pensions and medical benefits was “getting out of control.”

“We need to arrive at a fair figure,” Wilcoxen said of the board’s future negotiations with teachers. He added that teachers who have made it to the highest step are no longer eligible for pay raises and as time progresses their salaries could become inconsistent with the cost of living.

“I don’t think fair is equal,” rebutted Drohan, who said that he believed teachers should be compensated based on performance. “I think there should be incentive compensation.”

Loreto asked why the district couldn’t stick with the current contract for the year, noting that neighboring school districts asked teachers to give back a portion of their salaries to avert staff reduction.

Wilcoxen said the district wasn’t contemplating cutting staff at this point. But Schiavoni reiterated his concerns over losing teachers if the district doesn’t offer competitive salaries.

In an effort to save costs and attract new revenue, the district has explored sharing services with Bridgehampton and tuitioning in out-of-district students. The candidates were asked if these were sound measures. Schiavoni said Sag Harbor school should look at what they and the neighboring school districts have to offer. He added that if the voters pass the proposition to purchase a bus and a van, the school could share transportation services with Bridgehampton.

Drohan said he was “leery” of shared services, believing it “diluted the efforts of the school district.” He added that out-of-district students should only be absorbed by the school so long as it doesn’t increase costs.

Wilcoxen noted that Sag Harbor had already looked into sharing business services and a technology coordinator with Bridgehampton and said that once both parties “got over the hump of sharing … there are really no limits to the possibilities.” He added that it will be easy to attract tuition based students because of the school’s excellent programming, saying the school is a model for districts on both the south and north forks.

Loreto, however, believed the districts could share administrative services, psychological services and pool custodial staff and said accepting out-of-district students is a “no-brainer.”

In one of the final questions broached, the candidates were asked to weigh in on the budget. Up first, Loreto said she would vote “no” on the budget, but supported propositions two and three. Likewise, Drohan said the budget wouldn’t get his vote, but that he agreed with the propositions.

“I have never seen a year where we so successfully culled out the budget,” said Wilcoxen, who favors this year’s budget. Schiavoni also threw his support to the budget.

The school elections and budget vote will be held on May 19 in the Pierson Gymnasium.

Separation of Art and State

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Many believe religion and politics shouldn’t mix, but in Sag Harbor some believe art and politics should also be separated. After last year’s school vote, a group of residents complained that housing the student art show and the voting area side by side in the gym influenced voters to approve the budget.

Sag Harbor citizen Robert Nicholson sent a letter to the New York State Commission of Investigation on November 11, 2008, detailing this concern.

“I had to make my way through the entire length of the gym, which was displaying student works of art and other displays which clearly intended to convince voters that the school budget is good,” wrote Nicholson of his voting experience. “Teachers … point out some of the works, some voters don’t agree and resent being subjected to this kind of subtle electioneering.”

Amongst the school board candidates, the issue of whether or not student art qualifies as electioneering is still up for debate. School board candidate Ed Drohan brought up the issue on behalf of angered voters at a recent school board meeting. Although Drohan declined to give his personal opinion, he said some voters felt the art “put the best foot forward for the school” and was “unfair.”

Rival candidate Gregg Schiavoni, however, believes the exhibit didn’t influence the budget vote.

“For as long as I can remember, [the art show] was there … I don’t think having it in with the voting polls favored voting for or against the budget as some would say,” said Schiavoni. “I personally have not heard anyone come up to me and complain.”

Current school board president Walter Wilcoxen said over the past year the board received less than 10 objections to hosting the voting area and art show side by side, but added that this year the school will separate the two using room dividers.

“We wanted to level the playing field … and avoid an argument … [Using room dividers] is a way to get away from the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ issue,” opined Wilcoxen. “Voting should take precedence.”

School board candidate Elena Loreto said separating the two areas was a “great idea,” and felt having the voting booths in the front of the gym provided easier access for handicapped voters — although the voting area was in the front of the gym last year. She said that the art show might have influenced votes in the past.

“Some allege that the art show is an attempt to influence votes [in an area] where there shouldn’t be any outside influences over the vote,” said Sag Harbor School District Superintendent John Gratto. “Everyone will still have the opportunity to see the artwork and those who don’t won’t have to see it.”

Gratto added that he felt most voters enter the voting area with an understanding of which way they will vote. In an effort to be more compliant with voter concerns, he noted that poll watchers will have designated tables to the side of the voting area. Previously, poll watchers from various school groups set-up camp in the hallway leading into the gym.

The school budget vote will be held at the Pierson gym on May 19.

Budget Big Issue for School Board Candidates

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In the months leading up to summer, the weather will get warmer, plants will bloom and potential candidates for the Sag Harbor School board will hit the streets seeking signatures for their petitions. It is only April and already current school board president Walter Wilcoxen, school Budget Advisory Committee members Ed Drohan and Elena Loreto, and local parent Greg Schiavoni announced their intention to run for the two seats, which will be open in June. Although they differ on several points, the budget and maintaining academic rigor is a chief concern for each candidate.

Wilcoxen, who has been on the board for three years, said the school has come a long way in increasing transparency and accountability. With an open system already in place, Wilcoxen said he would now focus on finding ways to expand upon existing school programming without incurring additional costs.

“We can constantly make the program better … perhaps we can start teaching about green technologies,” said Wilcoxen. “We are a small school so it is hard to have big programs because it is expensive … I want to be able to deliver the system in the most economical and efficient way.”

For Wilcoxen, education is always his top priority, but he conceded that funding the school will always be an issue. He said the board worked very hard this year to winnow down the budget, but making drastic percentage cuts simple isn’t possible for the school.

Paring down the budget is a top priority for Noyac resident Ed Drohan. Drohan is currently a member of the Noyac Civic Council and the school’s budget advisory committee. Although Drohan lauds the elementary school and the special education program, he feels the school’s budget could use some restructuring. Some of Drohan’s ideas for the school include the slow introduction of employee attrition, enlarging classes slightly and phasing back certain elective programs. Drohan admits, however, that many of his ideas are preliminary and would take thorough planning and research. He would also like to see the computer science department expanded because he believes the ability to manipulate technology is an invaluable skill in today’s job market.

Drohan said one of the reasons he is running is to give a voice to local taxpayers who either are retired or have a second home in the community.

“I wanted to run as a community and taxpayer candidate … I take a different position than many of my counterparts in the board of education activities,” said Drohan.

Prospective candidate Elena Loreto believes she will represent a broader base of constituents, including the local taxpayer.

“I am a parent. I am retired. I was a teacher. I have been a local taxpayer for 32 years. I represent many factions of the district,” said Loreto. Like Drohan, Loreto is a member of the Noyac Civic Council and the Budget Advisory Committee. For Loreto, creating a good school board and an efficient school district is all about balance.

“The main priority for the current board members is to find the right balance between improving educational programs for the students, providing a fair wage for the faculty and also being mindful of what the average taxpayer can afford,” said Loreto.

As a former school teacher for 33 years in New York City and its suburbs, and a part-time substitute teacher at Sag Harbor and the Ross School, Loreto believes she has a unique insight to the school and how it operates. Among her chief priorities, Loreto would like the school to update the curriculum and offer programs that will teach job skills. Loreto recommends the school develop a mechanical drawing and architectural design class.

“We have to look at the curriculum in a more innovative way, so that kids will get the best possible program and the taxpayer will get the best buy for their buck,” opined Loreto.

Candidate Greg Schiavoni, whose children currently attend the elementary school, hopes to encourage student involvement with the school board. He hopes through student involvement the board will be able to sound off on what is working within the school and what can be improved upon.

Schiavoni feels it is imperative to maintain the Advanced Placement courses, but agrees there are perhaps additional ways the school could save money.

“We don’t necessarily need to look at cutting programs or taking away from higher educational program offerings, but there are probably things we could do to save money, and I hope to be one of the ones to help figure it out,” said Schiavoni.

Although Schiavoni is an active parent in the school district, he feels an obligation to represent the village taxpayer as well.

“I compare it to my own house. I have two children to raise and I have to be financially responsible about what we can or can’t afford for them. When [the school board] makes decisions everybody should know where the money is going and what it should be spent on,” added Schiavoni.

Candidates have until April 20 to drop off their signed petitions.