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Forum on Education Hopes to Get Direction From the Community

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By Claire Walla

“What do we want to be as a school?” asked former Pierson Principal Bob Schneider. It was a rhetorical question, but it’s one he’s hoping to answer. And soon.

In fact, he added, it’s an important question for everyone in the Sag Harbor community to ask, from teachers and students to parents and tax payers. And it’s at the crux of the forum he and Sag Harbor School Board President Walter Wilcoxen have organized at Pierson High School this Wednesday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m.

At a time when the state of education in New York and across the country is being questioned, and, as Wilcoxen mentioned, students are being challenged more and more to compete on an international scale, Schneider and Wilcoxen have organized this forum to address educational concerns and, together with all facets of the Sag Harbor community, work to fix them.

The idea is two-fold, combining public concerns with fact-finding missions aimed at educating everyone involved, and ultimately helping the school district to make well-informed decisions about the future of education here in Sag Harbor.

To spark conversation, Schneider and Wilcoxen imagine the first meeting as a time for community members to voice any and all concerns they have, so long as they involve what they think the future of education in Sag Harbor ought to look like. Each speaker will have about three minutes to speak.

Once all the issues are on the table, Schneider and Wilcoxen will collate the information and determine roughly six umbrella topics to discuss.
Schneider elaborated: “For example, I would say [before the group] that what we need is a problem-solving, creative curriculum as opposed to a curriculum that emphasizes knowledge of factoids. And if enough people expressed concern over this same issue, it would be a topic of investigation, or research.”

A research group, he added, might be composed of a teacher and a couple of community members who are interested in that particular topic and—more importantly—are committed to taking the time to investigate that issue.

“The group would take a look at how you measure achievement in that area; then, at some point, we’d make a recommendation to the board of education.”

Wilcoxen said he and Schneider have reached out to members of the school and the community at large, including Superintendent Dr. John Gratto.

Dr. Gratto said that 90 percent of the ideas that have gone into crafting this forum come from Schneider and Wilcoxen; but, he added, he shared some feedback of his own, namely “that we need to make sure that all interested parties are involved, particularly the teachers.” Schneider and Wilcoxen got the PTA and PTSA on board, and Dr. Gratto sent an announcement to the heads of around 25 organizations in the community, including local government officials and grass-roots organizations like Save Sag Harbor.

The biggest hope the superintendent has for the forum is that there’s a clear consensus from the public about what they would like to see the district accomplish.

“The district has limited funds and, likewise, people are about saturated with their willingness to pay taxes,” he said. But, if the district knows what they want and don’t want, he added, then it can make decisions to improve services without imposing unnecessary costs.

According to Wilcoxen, the school’s five-year plan calls for about a seven percent tax increase each year, which means that in order to operate the school as is without added costs, town taxes would have to double in the next 10 years. Though Dr. Gratto said he this figure isn’t set in stone and, in fact, he hopes it’s wrong, the fact remains that the district is currently strapped for cash.

“The budget constraints are so incredibly pervasive, we want to get to the level of actually budgeting things,” Wilcoxen said. “This [forum] is a way to check in, get a healthy debate going and get fact-based answers” before actually dealing with the budget.

The other component to the public discussion is public access to information. Wilcoxen has created a website, www.educationforumsagharbor.com, which welcomes visitors with the words, “You are invited to participate in public deliberation of the future of community based education in Sag Harbor.”

The website includes relevant articles and recent findings based on education issues on a local and on a national level, but it will also track the progress of the forums, charting discussion topics and reporting study group findings.

In addition, those community members who cannot make it to the actual discussion session will be able to view and / or listen to the session online. Wilcoxen said that Pierson students will record each session for the Web.

In addition to Schneider and Wilcoxen, Dr. Gratto, Principals Nichols and Malone, as well as the presidents of the Sag Harbor PTA and the PTSA will sit before the crowd of people, but not necessarily in seats of power; they will be there mostly so that participants will have someone to address when speaking.

Though only Schneider and Wilcoxen are confirmed moderators the first meeting, Wilcoxen confirms they will in no way create or sway discussions. “It’s not about us,” he said. “We’ve had our say.”

As Dr. Gratto mentioned, Schneider and Wilcoxen hope these discussions can generate some consensus within the community before these issues are tackled by the board, and ultimately by the district.
“[The point is] not to think of this as a school board function,” Wilcoxen added, “because the community is running the show and making the consensus-based decisions.”

In addition to the first meeting on December 8 in the Pierson library, another forum in scheduled for January 12. Wilcoxen said he and Schneider imagine around two additions forums to take place before the end of the year.

“We want to demonstrate that we’re serious about getting something done,” Schneider added.