Tag Archive | "education"

Bridgehampton School Teachers Update Board on Evolving Pedagogy

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By Tessa Raebeck 

Bridgehampton School teachers updated the Board of Education Wednesday, February 25, on their teaching methods and PBIS, the school’s Positive Behavior Intervention System.

Special education science and math teacher Jeff Neubauer showed videos and shared the science and thinking behind “these new ways of approaching education.” Bridgehampton teachers Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, who teaches environmental design and runs the up-and-coming robotics program, and Helen Wolfe, a math and science teacher, were also there in support of Mr. Neubauer.

In drafting this philosophy, the teachers took their academic experiences in a special education classroom and transferred those lessons to apply the methods to the larger student body.

The three core tenets of the philosophy, which was fostered by a handful of Bridgehampton teachers with help from Superintendent Dr. Lois Favre, is a diversity of instruction methods and teaching styles, a focus on rewards rather than punishment in terms of student behavior, and a focus on transition, or accurately preparing students for work in a modern world through programs like robotics and coding, Mr. Neubauer said.

Special education teachers, Mr. Neubauer told the board, are able to work together in the classroom and thus, “we get to see a myriad of teaching styles.”

“The real thing we came to,” he said of he and his colleagues, “was that diversifying instruction and motivation really became the pillars of what we wanted [education at Bridgehampton] to be.”

The Positive Behavior Intervention System, or PBIS, focuses on rewarding good behavior in students, rather than punishing bad behavior. Originating in the district about five years ago, the system was designed to provide good behavior with rewards in a consistent fashion across grade levels and classrooms.

Good behavior in the classroom, Mr. Neubauer said, allows for a safer environment, where students can feel comfortable learning, asking questions, and expressing their creativity. With the slogan that ease of use equals implementation, the teachers created a Bridgehampton PBIS website. The platform, which uses technology to streamline the process, has earned recognition at the local, state and regional levels.

All behavioral actions are logged onto the PBIS website by teachers, producing a vast display of data on behavior trends in Bridgehampton.

Teachers can use the extensive data to make informed decisions on how best to deal with behavioral issues. They can track, for instance, that most of the negative write-ups for a student occurred during first period, then see that they were predominately for tardiness. The data allows teachers to “isolate the problem and try to solve it,” Mr. Neubauer said.

“We want to make school a place where you don’t have behavior issues, so every kid can learn and be able to be creative and have this freedom,” he added.

In other school board news, the board decided to pursue a budget that will not pierce the state-mandated property tax cap, which it expects to adopt at its meeting on April 22.

The annual community forum on the budget will be held Wednesday, March 11, at 7 p.m. in the school gymnasium. The next meeting of the school board is March 25 at 7 p.m. in the cafeteria.

Sag Harbor School District Seeks Appraisal for Stella Maris Property

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The building that formerly housed the Stella Maris Regional School on Division Street in Sag Harbor. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.

The building that formerly housed the Stella Maris Regional School on Division Street in Sag Harbor. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.

By Tessa Raebeck

Four months after it was disclosed that the former Stella Maris Regional School on Division Street in Sag Harbor was on the market, the Sag Harbor School District has announced that it is seeking an appraisal of the site.

The board of education and district administrators have discussed the property at a number of executive sessions that are closed to the public since the property’s availability was announced, and are now taking the first step toward a public discussion of a possible purchase.

“At this point, we aren’t making any decisions of how we would utilize the property,” said Superintendent Katy Graves. “This is just a first, very initial step to take a look at the property and gather information about the property.”

The .74-acre property is listed for $3.5 million. It is zoned for offices or classrooms and owned by St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church, a parish of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The one-story building is 32,234 square feet. The site is less than a mile from both Pierson Middle/High School and the Sag Harbor Elementary School.

“The Board of Education is in the process of engaging the services of appraisal firms for the purpose of gathering data. Once the firms have been hired and all of the facts, figures and use viability of the building have been gathered, the board will share the information with the Sag Harbor community for their full participation. Any decision regarding the property will involve strategic engagement with all stakeholders in the community,” the district said in a press release Tuesday.

Ms. Graves said the ultimate decision of whether or not to purchase the property “would really have to go to a vote” for district residents.

Although the purchase is far from a sure thing, the superintendent floated some ideas of how the property could be used.

“We do send children out for services elsewhere—some of our student population goes elsewhere at a very high cost to be serviced in other areas, so we’re always interested in keeping our children as close as possible,” she said, adding, “Those are all things we want to kind of analyze and share, but we don’t want to get our hopes up—this would only be if it really worked best for the community and it worked best for the school district.”

Specifically, some of Sag Harbor’s special needs students must travel to schools up-island to get the services they need, and students enrolled in career and technical education courses must go to BOCES facilities up-island. Ms. Graves said that in addition to the financial burden of transporting students to other schools and enrolling them elsewhere, not having those services in the district comes with the added cost of not having all of Sag Harbor’s schoolchildren close to home.

While technical education would likely remain at BOCES, special needs services could potentially be provided in-house if the district acquires more land. Other schools in the area are also sending special education students to far away schools, and Ms. Graves suggested that the acquisition of the Stella Maris property could be a way to explore sharing services with other districts—and thus saving costs.

“This is the initial, initial stage, but New York State is demanding of us now that we secure every opportunity for sharing services, that we find every opportunity under the tax cap to explore sharing personnel, explore every opportunity for cost saving,” said Ms. Graves. “In our community, we’re going to garner the services of appraisal firms to look at that property and get feedback that we can share with our community.”

“We aren’t making any moves as far as education without—we’re doing it hand in hand with the community and our stakeholders,” she added.

With an influx of students who pay tuition to attend Sag Harbor schools and a student population that has grown steadily over the past six years, the school district now has over 1,000 students, as well as over half a million dollars in revenue from tuition paying students.

In operation as a school for 134 years, Stella Maris was Long Island’s oldest Catholic school when it closed its doors in 2011 due to a $480,000 deficit. Parents at the school tried to fundraise to keep the school open, but were unsuccessful. Since the school closed, its building has been used occasionally for fundraisers and village police training, and has seen two unsuccessful attempts to open preschools on the property.

Sag Harbor School District Proposes Technology, Transportation, Benefits Budget

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By Tessa Raebeck

A month before the entire 2015-16 budget is to be reviewed, Sag Harbor School District administrators presented technology, debt service, employee benefits and transportation components to the board of education on Monday.

With “no additional items that we haven’t had in previous budgets,” according to Technology Director Scott Fisher, the technology budget is proposed at slightly over $1 million, up by nearly 12 percent from the 2014-15 budget, which was just above $932,000.

“As you all know,” Mr. Fisher told the board, “the role of technology has expanded here exponentially in the past years…essentially everybody in the district is somehow impacted by the technology support.”

The technology department is looking to bring in additional support staff and to continue its upgrading, replenishment and purchasing of computer and wireless systems and supplies. Proposed increases of $18,650 at the Sag Harbor Elementary School and $15,200 at Pierson Middle/High School will account for the purchase of additional laptops and Chromebooks, low-cost computers that are popular in classrooms.

The transportation budget, computed by School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi and Head Bus Driver Maude Stephens, who was not at Monday’s meeting, would increase by just about $51,000, or 6.83 percent, to about $802,000, due in large part to a proposed bus purchase.

“Right now, all of our buses are being utilized and we don’t even have a spare bus,” said Ms. Buscemi, adding that the state Education Department recommends school districts have at least one spare.

Buying a new large bus would cost the district $102,000 up front. Another option, Ms. Buscemi said, would be to finance the bus over a 10-year period, a decision that would require the district to budget $13,000 a year for the next decade. School buses have an expected life of about 15 years, she added.

Chris Tice, vice president of the school board, said it would be practical to finance the bus purchase due to low interest rates and because “we have such a phenomenal bond rating,” as Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the district’s bond rating from A1 to Aa3 last May.

The employee benefits component of the budget, an area that usually shows large, unavoidable increases, is actually expected to decrease for the 2015-16 school year, due to a reduction in the percentage school districts must contribute to retirement costs.

The Teacher’s Retirement System (TRS) is recommending an employer contribution rate of about 13 percent for the 2015-16 school year, while that rate was much higher, at over 17 percent, for this school year, 2014-15. The employees are not receiving less in benefits, due to the change, rather, school districts are being required to contribute a smaller amount needed for the system to be able to pay out the required amount in benefits.

“That reduction of $518,000 is going to eat up a lot of the increases in the other areas,” Ms. Buscemi said, adding, “This is probably the first time in a long time that you’re going to see a decrease in that employee benefit and I’m hoping that that continues.”

The total projected employee benefits budget for next year is around $9.3 million, a decrease of $128,125, or 1.35 percent, from this year’s budget.

The debt services budget is also proposed to decrease, going down by about $29,000, or 2.48 percent, to a projected total of over $1.5 million. That projection is in part based on historically low interest rates.

With many of the rates needed to compute the budget not yet available, Ms. Buscemi had to estimate on some of the budget items, usually anticipating an increase of 3 percent.

“There are definitely areas here—that I’ve gone through in the past budget workshops and today—that we could cut if we had to,” Ms. Buscemi said, using the proposed school bus purchase as an example.

The preliminary numbers, Ms. Buscemi told the board, suggest the school district is in a very good position for the budget season and will “be able to maintain everything this year.”

The state aid numbers, which show New York’s school districts how much money they can expect from the state, have still not been released by Governor Andrew Cuomo and are expected to remain in political limbo for some time. The governor has said he will not release his education budget until the divided State Legislature approves all of his proposed educational reforms, many of which are controversial.

State Aid for Sag Harbor Uncertain as Governor Cuomo Holds Education Budget Hostage

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By Tessa Raebeck

With Governor Andrew Cuomo holding school aid in limbo in hopes of forcing the New York State Legislature to adopt his educational reforms, next year’s school budgets—and educational mandates—remain a mystery to school boards and administrative teams trying to prepare for the 2015-16 school year.

“What the governor is doing is he wants to push his reform package,” Tommy John Schiavoni, legislative liaison to the Sag Harbor Board of Education, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

In January’s State of the State address, Governor Cuomo agreed to grant an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, in state funding to New York’s schools if and only if the legislature passes his reforms. If the legislature—which, divided between a Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate, is often at a standstill—fails to do so, the governor threatened to limit that increase to 1.7 percent. In the meantime, those crafting school budgets must play a guessing game without direct information on how much state aid they’ll receive.

“He has publicly said that if he doesn’t get it, they’re going to hold back money from education,” Mr. Schiavoni said of the governor.

The reform package proposed by the governor includes teacher evaluations with 50 percent based on standardized tests, a proposal rebuked by the state’s teachers unions.

“I think that is certainly something that will affect us [and the annual Professional Performance Review] we’ve developed in Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Schiavoni.

Governor Cuomo is also requesting a five-year tenure plan to “make it easier to discipline teachers,” Mr. Schiavoni said. If enacted, the governor’s plan would make it easier for teachers to be fired and harder for them to be granted tenure.

Other reforms the governor is compelling the legislature to adopt include: raising the number of charter schools in the state by 100 and requiring those schools to accept less advantaged and lower-scoring students; starting a pilot pre-K program for 3-year-olds; sending specialists into schools that have been designated as “failing” for three years; and creating an education tax credit for private, public and charter school donations.

The governor’s office will not release the final financial numbers until the budget has passed, which could be as late as April 1. School districts, in turn, must tell the state comptroller’s office whether they plan to pierce the state tax cap, enacted in 2011, by March 1, at which point they could be missing information vital to understanding next year’s finances.

In other school board news, Superintendent Katy Graves said the district has accepted the i-Tri program, a self-empowerment group in which middle school girls focus on building confidence, mental health and physical stamina over six months, culminating with the girls racing in a triathlon in July.

The program was expected to be voted on by the board on Tuesday, but did not end up requiring a vote because there are no longer any transportation costs associated with it.

Theresa Roden, director and founder of i-tri, “has such a wealth of volunteers that are willing to come from the community into the school building that it’s become a facilities use agreement,” Ms. Graves said.

There are no costs for the district, but the program will use Pierson’s facilities and the administrative team, who will help i-tri with the selection process, which favors girls who are not involved in interscholastic sports.

Pierson Middle School Vice Principal Brittany Miaritis said the school is dispensing a survey for i-tri this week to “figure out girl selection for the program.”

The board’s next meeting is Monday, February 23, in the Pierson library. A budget workshop will be held at 6 p.m. followed by the regular meeting at 7:30 p.m.

Sag Harbor School Board Taken Line by Line Through Proposed Athletics, Buildings and Grounds Budget

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By Tessa Raebeck

With items as precise as $9 for red floor tape, on Tuesday, February 3, Sag Harbor School District Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi unveiled the athletics and buildings and grounds portions of the first draft of the district’s budget for the 2015-16 school year.

“We’re just starting from zero and working our way up,” Ms. Buscemi told the board, adding, “this is still a first draft and these numbers are going to be refined going forward.”

Director of Facilities Montgomery Granger presented his proposed buildings and grounds budget, joking to the board, “This will be the most exciting budget presentation you’ve ever heard, it’s really scintillating.”

He asked the board to consider hiring another custodian for Pierson Middle/High School, at a starting salary of about $37,000. The “guidance” of how many custodians a school should have, he said, is one custodian per 20,000 square feet. At 140,000 square feet, Pierson has five janitors and a supervisor who also helps clean. Mr. Granger said the new hire could be a “floater” between schools, rather than hiring a substitute, which are often difficult to find.

“We have significant use of the building until late at night every single night plus the weekend use of the facility, so it is a huge challenge for the number of staff that we have,” Mr. Granger said of keeping Pierson clean.

The buildings and grounds budget includes a proposed $80,000 increase for “items that are much needed,” said Ms. Buscemi, including a Ventrac model tractor, a machine that can be used for both lawn mowing and snow plowing.

“These things tear through snow—it would have torn through that snow we recently had in an amazing fashion,” said Mr. Granger, who estimated it could last from three to 12 years depending on weather and use.

Mr. Granger also asked the board to purchase a new district vehicle, as its current vehicle, a 1995 Ford F250, is, understandably, on its last leg, despite valiant efforts by the schools’ mechanical team, he said, adding the proposed purchases will save money on repairs and labor costs moving forward.

The proposed total for the buildings and grounds 2015-16 budget is around $2.4 million, up by about $163,000, or 7.37 percent, from 2014-15.

With a projected total of about $781,000, the athletics budget, which covers Pierson Middle/High School’s 53 sports teams, is up by $6,465, or 0.83 percent. Seventy-eight percent of Pierson students participate in at least one sport, Athletic Director Donnelly McGovern said Tuesday.

“The athletic department has also inventoried everything we have…[Mr. McGovern] knows how many balls and how many basketballs,” said Superintendent Katy Graves, adding that the athletic director spoke with every coach individually to assess what each team has and needs.

The administration provided immense detail for a school district budget, including low-cost lines like $89 for yellow disc cones, $40 for a goalkeeping throat protector and $6 for a practice net setter.

Due to the salary differential between last year’s full-time athletic director Todd Gulluscio and Mr. McGovern, who serves part-time, instructional salaries in athletics have gone down by 6.59 percent.

The school board has often discussed hiring an athletic trainer over the past several years. Mr. McGovern said he has had trouble finding applicants for the position who are certified school athletic trainers, but that a local trainer has proposed acting as a consultant athletic trainer for the district at a cost of $10,800.

Should a player get hurt, Mr. McGovern said, their coach would call the consultant trainer, who would give an assessment of the injury, “work with the parents” and either advise the player on what steps to follow in order to heal or help set up an appointment with an orthopedist, removing the need for the family to see a general practitioner on their own.

“I think it’s a good model that really could give us that piece that we’re missing,” he said, “because I’d love to have an athletic trainer.”

As with any school budget, the athletics component has several federally and state-mandated requirements, the importance of which the board found difficult to grasp.

In a new rule proposed by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which in turn guides the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, field hockey uniforms can no longer have a side panel that is a different color than the jersey’s other panels. Pierson’s current jerseys are red with white panels, so the district must buy new uniforms in one solid color, at an estimated cost of $400.

The cost of athletic supplies is expected to increase by 24.26 percent, due to the need for additional uniforms and supplies, but the district expects to see some savings thanks to a recent decision to join a statewide purchasing cooperative.

Prior to revealing the complete first draft on March 23, the district will host budget workshops on technology, special education, debt service, employee benefits and transportation on February 23, and on the elementary, middle and high schools, and BOCES administration and services sections on March 9.

A second review of the entire budget will be held April 13, followed by the scheduled budget adoption April 22 and another review April 27. The budget hearing is May 5 and the district wide vote is May 19, as are school board elections.

Bridgehampton School District Unveils First Draft of Proposed $12.6 Million Budget

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Bridgehampton School Business Administrator Robert Hauser presents the first draft of the 2015-16 budget to the Bridgehampton Board of Education, including (l. to r.) District Clerk Tammy Cavanaugh and Ronnie White, president of the school board, on Thursday, January 29. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Bridgehampton School Business Administrator Robert Hauser presents the first draft of the 2015-16 budget to the Bridgehampton Board of Education, including (l. to r.) District Clerk Tammy Cavanaugh and Ronnie White, president of the school board, on Thursday, January 29. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

By Tessa Raebeck

The Bridgehampton School District appears to be in “much better financial shape this year than last year, according to business administrator Robert Hauser, as the school board on Thursday, January 29, took its first look at a preliminary $12.6 million budget for the 2015-16 school year.

The first draft represents an increase of nearly $330,000, or 2.67 percent, over last year’s budget.

“Fortunately, this year, things look a lot better than they did last year,” Mr. Hauser told the board.

Last spring, the school board had difficulty getting the current year’s $12.3 million budget passed. That spending plan pierced the state-mandated tax cap with an 8.8-percent increase over the previous year. It failed to receive the required 60-percent supermajority in the first vote in May, then barely passed when 62 percent of voters supported it in a second and final ballot in June.

The state-mandated limit, which determines how much a district can increase its property tax levy from one year to the next, is known as the 2-percent tax cap, but the percentage actually varies based on the Consumer Price Index. This year, at 1.62 percent, the cap will again be lower than its name.

“So, we’re only allowed to collect, in a sense, 1.62 percent more from the residents here,” explained Mr. Hauser. “However, the spending is going up 2.67 percent. So…the spending’s going up more than the actual amount we’re allowed to collect.”

The first draft of Bridgehampton’s current budget, presented last winter, breached the cap by over $1 million; the 2014-15 draft is over the cap by about $106,000, Mr. Hauser said.

Many of the included expenses are mandated by the state, such as Common Core-related professional development for teachers, fingerprinting for all new staff, and nearly $7,000 for “records management,” as school district payroll reports must be maintained for 50 years.

New items in the 2015-16 budget include adding iPads, Google Chromebooks and other technology updates as part of the district’s 5-year plan, a base increase in social security tax for employees, which the school district must match, and increased building maintenance.

During last year’s cutting of the current budget, the school board chose to reduce the number of days the Homework Club was offered after school to cut costs. Mr. Hauser said the school intends to restore those hours for the next school year.

An increase of $24,734, slated for adding a high school girls volleyball team and purchasing new volleyball equipment, is included in the proposed athletics budget, which is about $150,000 in total.

Health benefits for retirees and full-time employees are expected to increase by almost $100,000 to over $1.5 million, Mr. Hauser said. Most of that expense is for vision, dental and health benefits for full-time employees, as Medicare primarily covers retirees. Under the new Affordable Care Act, the district must provide health benefits to any employees who work more than 30 hours a week.

Some components of the budget, such as salaries determined by unsettled teachers and administrative contracts, insurance costs, and revenue from state aid, are not yet finalized. In a move that is unprecedented in the last 40 years, Governor Andrew Cuomo will not be releasing the amount of aid he is proposing for New York’s schools to the school districts ahead of time.

On January 21, in his State of the State address, Governor Cuomo said he would grant an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, to New York’s schools only if the Legislature passes several of his proposed educational reforms. If the Legislature, divided between a Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate, does not comply, the governor threatened to limit that increase to 1.7 percent.

“In the meantime, we’re all in limbo here, because we don’t know how much aid he’s proposing to give us as a base,” Mr. Hauser said Thursday.

One of Governor Cuomo’s conditions is another overhaul of the recently revamped teacher evaluation systems, so that student test scores account for more of a teacher’s rating. Others include making it harder for teachers to get tenure and easier for them to be fired, establishing more charter schools, which would be required to take less advantaged students, and sending specialists in to transform failing schools.

The final numbers for the state’s $23.1 billion education budget will be revealed in the legislative budget on April 1. School districts, however, are required to tell the state comptroller’s office whether or not they will try to pierce the tax cap a month beforehand, by March 1.

Mr. Hauser said Bridgehampton, which generally gets about 5 percent of its revenue from state aid, relies less on the governor’s budget than other districts, and the budget wouldn’t be drastically affected should the legislature fail to comply with the governor’s demands.

Niche Ranking Names Pierson 49th Best Public High School in New York State

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Pierson seniors celebrate their graduation following the Pierson High School commencement ceremony on June 28, 2014. Photo by Michael Heller.

Pierson seniors celebrate their graduation following the Pierson High School commencement ceremony on June 28, 2014. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

Sag Harbor’s Pierson Middle/High School was ranked the 49th best public high school in New York State in the Niche list, a national rating determined not just by statistics, but also alumni, parent and student survey responses. Pierson’s grade, of which academics account for 50 percent, was an “A+” overall.

“A high ranking indicates that the school is an exceptional academic institution with a diverse set of high-achieving students who rate their experience very highly,” Niche said of its annual list, which looked at statistics and survey results at 14,431 high schools nationwide. Magnet, charter and online schools are not eligible for ranking.

In 35th place in New York, Westhampton Beach Senior High School was the top high school on the East End, followed by Pierson at 49, East Hampton at 58, Southampton at 65, Shelter Island at 213 and Greenport at 236.

On Monday, Sag Harbor Superintendent Katy Graves attributed Pierson’s strong showing to its “strength of schedule,” strong course offerings like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes. The school started offering IB in September 2012 and Pierson’s first diploma candidates in the program graduated last year.

“This reinforces again that our overall rankings keep coming out clearly—our students are doing such an outstanding job,” said Ms. Graves, comparing the Niche grade to Pierson’s strong test scores.

Government and other public data, Niche’s data and over 4 million surveys, which asked parents, alumni and students to rate their schools, determined the rankings.

“They feel like the academics, the administration, the policies and our educational outcomes are really outstanding,” Ms. Graves said of the survey respondents, adding that Pierson was given a top score of A+ for the quality of Sag Harbor teachers. “That resonates. I think that really sends a great message out to keep doing what we’re doing and to continue doing our personal best to give that Sag Harbor experience to all of our students,” she said.

Half of a school’s score is based on academics, 10 percent each on health and safety, student culture and diversity, survey responses and the teachers’ grades, 5 percent on resources and facilities, and 2.5 percent each for sports and extracurricular activities.

Pierson was given a top score of A+ for teachers and resources and facilities and A’s in academics and health and safety. Extracurriculars and activities received a B+, sports and fitness a B-.

Pierson’s lowest score was in student culture and diversity, which received a C+. Eighty-two percent of Pierson students are white, 14 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are black, according to Niche.

Much of the data came from statistics reported by the schools to the U.S. Department of Education from 2011 to 2012. Some schools that scored well did not qualify for an official ranking due to insufficient data.

Many of the schools on the list are science and technical institutes. High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey, came in first in the country, followed by Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and two New York schools, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and Staten Island Technical High School.

Sag Harbor School Board Has No Plans to Revisit Videotaping Policy

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By Tessa Raebeck

The Sag Harbor Board of Education’s narrow 4-3 decision last month to no longer include the public comment portions from the videos of its meetings broadcast on its website, LTV and SEA-TV, has raised criticism from a small but vocal segment of the school community.

The school board will continue to offer the two public input sessions at its meetings, and the rest of the public meetings will be recorded, with the tape starting after public input one, during which the public can address the board on issues related to the agenda, and stopping just prior to public input two, which is held at the end of the meeting and allows members of the public to bring up topics that are not on the agenda.

School board President Theresa Samot, who did not vote in support of the measure, said Wednesday, “The board has had no further discussion on the videotaping policy.  At this point, videotaping is not an agenda item on our upcoming agenda.”

During a six-month trial period from July to December 2014, and much discussion prior to that, board members cited the legal advice of school attorney Thomas Volz, who members of the board said, initially recommended against taping altogether due to liability issues that could arise.

When reached by phone on Tuesday, January 20, Mr. Volz said he is not authorized by the district to speak on the topic.

While discussing the policy in December, school board member Sandi Kruel cited instances that occurred during the trial period in which she felt libelous or slanderous statements were made.

“They were derogatory comments about employees of the district or disparaging comments about the work that they did,” Ms. Kruel said Tuesday, referring to six specific interactions that were also observed by The Sag Harbor Express over the course of the trial period.

Although one example given by Ms. Kruel was of a parent applauding a particular administrator’s work, the others referred to specific criticisms of various aspects of the district, such as a particular academic department or community outreach tool.

One instance occurred during public input two on September 29, 2014, when a community member referred to a particular administrative position and questioned a raise given to that administrator, who was in attendance, asking the board and Superintendent Katy Graves several questions, including, “Why is this person so valuable? That’s what I want to get at.”

When asked about the criteria used to determine why the raise was needed, as well as, “How many years’ experience does this person have?” Ms. Graves replied, “When we start talking about an exact person and their exact raises and why we did those, then we’re talking about personnel issues.”

Administrators’ salary increases are public information, and in this case, the raise was included in an agenda issued by the board. However, the discussion of the employment history of a particular person, as well as matters leading to their appointment, employment or promotion, are to be conducted during executive sessions, rather than public meetings, under the New York State Open Meetings Law.

According to the district, the recording of that September 29 meeting is not available online for viewing “due to a technical issue.”

If that interaction had been recorded and broadcast, Ms. Kruel said, the board “would have had to pay the attorney $3,000 to tell me that I can’t broadcast it and then I would have gotten slapped with a Freedom of Information or freedom of speech lawsuit.”

Ms. Kruel added she would be fine with having public input one recorded, as it addresses agenda items, but that public input two often becomes a “forum for someone’s opinion to slander either the board or an employee of the district.”

“I think we worry about all kinds of things for no particularly good reason,” Robert Freeman, the executive director at New York’s Department of State Committee on Open Government, said on Tuesday. While the board is not legally required to record or broadcast its meetings, he said, “I would question the wisdom of limiting what is broadcast for a simple reason—any member of the public under the open meeting law has the right to audio record, video record, or broadcast an open meeting so long as the use of the equipment is not disruptive or obtrusive.”

“So, even though the board of education might not broadcast or even record the public commentaries, anybody else can, and anybody else who does so can post it on his or her own website. [The Sag Harbor Board of Education] can do what they’re doing, but again, I question the wisdom of the limitation.”

As required by a 2011 amendment to the Open Meetings Law, the school board has on several occasions welcomed others to record and broadcast the public meetings on their own, with the expressed intention of absolving the district from its liability concerns.

Mr. Freeman said concerns of libel lawsuits if the board were to broadcast a slanderous statement made by a member of the public are “wrong, because it’s a public forum. There are cases out of Long Island which indicate that what is said and heard during open meetings is public. Why would they be concerned?”

“The reality, at least in my opinion, is that the board gives itself a degree of protection if it records and plays the whole thing,” Mr. Freeman continued. “If they don’t, somebody can record a portion that [the board does] not and say that this is completely accurate, even though that may not be so.”

The fears of libel lawsuits are largely unfounded according to Mr. Freeman, but a non-legal concern remains: if the board records all public comments, it will inevitably televise statements that are, more often than not, negative reactions to both the board itself and to its employees.

“We’re the only school district in all of Suffolk County who have come in under the tax cap every single year. We have never decreased program, we have never laid off employees, we’ve actually increased program—and [people are] sitting here worrying about if we’re going to let you rip apart a school employee or another board member on video camera,” said Ms. Kruel.

LTV Director Asks Sag Harbor School Board to Reconsider Broadcast Limitations

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A still shot of the video broadcast of the Sag Harbor Board of Education's December 9 meeting.

A still shot of the video broadcast of the Sag Harbor Board of Education’s December 9 meeting.

By Tessa Raebeck

In the wake of the Sag Harbor Board of Education’s decision last month to stop broadcasting the public comment portions of its meetings, LTV Executive Director Seth Redlus on Monday urged the board to reconsider its ruling, saying its liability concerns were unfounded.

“The action of editing out the public comment portion of your meeting clouds the very transparency this board sought to provide by offering the coverage,” Mr. Redlus told the board.

In light of several resignations in the spring of 2013, the school board faced criticism over a perceived lack of transparency and spent much of the last school year discussing a proposed policy to videotape and broadcast its public meetings. A six-month trial period was enacted over the summer and expired on December 31. During evaluation of that trial, board member David Diskin, who led the initial push for videotaping, suggested continuing to videotape the meetings, but omitting the two public input sessions from the tape, citing liability concerns voiced by the district’s attorney, Thomas Volz.

In December, Mr. Diskin and fellow board members Susan Kinsella, Sandi Kruel and Tommy John Schiavoni voted for a policy that does not broadcast public input, with Board President Theresa Samot, Vice President Chris Tice and Diana Kolhoff in the minority. That policy went into effect January 1 and was in use at the board’s meeting on Monday, January 12, during which Technology Director Scott Fisher stopped the recording prior to public comment.

The board members who voted not to broadcast public comments did so, they said because they were concerned about the district’s liability if it granted an unchecked public forum. Prior to that vote, Ms. Kruel said she counted six instances in which libelous statements were made by the public during the videotaping trial, and said it was too risky for the school district to broadcast an open forum. Mr. Schiavoni added it could affect programming because of the liability issues, should lawsuit costs mount. But Ms. Tice, Ms. Samot and Ms. Kolhoff said that was a risk they were willing to take.

The videos are taped by the school district and available on its website, but also distributed to the local government access stations LTV in East Hampton and SEA-TV in Southampton to be shown on television.

In reaction to the new policy, Mr. Redlus told the board Monday that LTV would still broadcast the meetings for the school board, but would inform its viewers at the beginning and end of the broadcasts that the meetings are independently produced and edited by the district rather than LTV. He believes the liability concerns expressed by some members of the board are misinformed, he said.

“LTV has videotaped government meetings for 30 years, and in that time, we have amassed a great deal of working knowledge about how best to capture these public events and present them to the community that we serve. One rule which has stood the test of time has become our prime directive: under no circumstances does LTV edit government meetings,” he said in a statement to the board made during public input.

“They are presented to the public in the very same way that they occurred in real life. That one simple rule has allowed the community to trust what they see when they tune in to our channel. While other media may be constrained by the time or space available to them, government access television shows every moment of what occurred—allowing viewers to make up their own minds with no editorial content,” he continued.

Editing meetings, Mr. Redlus added, is in the best interest of neither the board nor the public, as the board’s interpretation of issues raised in public comments is also not broadcast, comments made often reflect the opinion of a larger group, who may instead come to the board individually should they not see their questions answered en masse, and “there is no more liability to a board when public comment is broadcast than if that public comment is made only to an open meeting.”

Broadcasting the entire meeting, he concluded, may actually lower liability as there is a definitive recording of who said what.

Mr. Schiavoni asked Mr. Redlus whether LTV would consider taping the meetings itself, an option that had been floated by the board during earlier discussions.

“With the policy in place we won’t tape meetings,” Mr. Redlus replied, adding that when the board had originally considered documenting meetings, LTV had offered to cover a percentage of the cost based on how many East Hampton Cablevision subscribers live in the district (versus Southampton subscribers who are covered by SEA-TV), “but the school district never provided those numbers.”

In other school news, Theresa Roden and three girls from the i-tri program visited the board to ask it to consider Sag Harbor’s participation in the program, which is already active in the Springs, Montauk, and Southampton school districts. With the slogan, “transformation through triathlon,” the program aims to empower young girls through nutrition classes, self-esteem workshops, and physical and mental training to compete in a triathlon, held in July.

The program is free of charge for every participant, and asks the school district to provide a space to hold in-school sessions and possibly nighttime nutrition sessions, support from relevant personnel such as guidance counselors, and possibly transportation, if events cannot be housed in Sag Harbor.

Ms. Roden said in addition to anecdotal evidence that girls do better behaviorally and academically after the program, Jennifer Gatz, a local PhD candidate, conducted a thesis that found participants in the i-tri program, which combines fitness training, mentoring and self-esteem education, show an increased aptitude for science.

“There’s nothing I’ve experienced better than running through a finish line and having everyone you know and love cheer you on,” said Anna Rafferty, an eighth grade participant from Springs School.

The board appeared to be very supportive of bringing the program to Sag Harbor, and will vote on it at its next business meeting on January 26 when it meets at 6 p.m. for a budget workshop in the Pierson Library before convening a business meeting at 7:30.

Sag Harbor School District Presents First Draft of $1.5 Million Support Services Budget

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A student navigates the halls of Pierson High School. Photo by Michael Heller.

A student navigates the halls of Pierson High School. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

To start the Sag Harbor School District’s five-month budget season, Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi presented the first draft of a nearly $1.5 million support services budget, which covers the board of education, central administration, legal services, public information services, and insurance components of the district’s overall budget.

This school year’s $36.8 million budget, which easily passed last May by a 72-percent margin, had an increase of $1.36 million, or 3.83 percent, in spending from the previous school year. The district’s tax levy increase of 1.48 percent came in below the state’s 1.51 percent property tax levy cap for the district, which was determined by calculations specific to last year.

“We are looking at every single line individually,” Ms. Buscemi told the board at the workshop on Monday, January 12. “We’re trying to stay very, very conservative,” she said, adding that once health insurance and pension increases are applied, diligence will be demanded in other areas. Those costs take up a significant portion of the budget each year; salaries and benefits generally account for more than 80 percent of the overall budget. The last 20 percent of the budget must account for programs, technology, facilities and maintenance.

The support services budget was not yet complete, with several lines requiring further edits or information. Much of the data needed to finalize this year’s budget, such as insurance rates, BOCES rates, and clerical salaries, is not yet available. Superintendent Katy Graves’s salary has also not yet been determined, and is listed at $215,000, her current salary.

Some potential savings also remain undetermined. Several of the capital projects afforded by the bond referendum voters passed in 2013, such as floor replacements, the new turf field, and other safety measures, could save the district money by lowering the cost of student accident insurance, which is budgeted for $50,000.

“In some instances,” added Ms. Graves, “you actually save because insurance companies feel [more secure].”

This year the district joined a new purchasing cooperative, Educational Data Basic and T&M Services, to issue bids for the district.

“This $5,000 will save us a lot of time and money with bidding,” said Ms. Buscemi, adding that it will save the district money in advertising and time in manpower by doing bids through the cooperative, rather than through the business office.

“We’re going to get a better quality product at a lower cost,” Ms. Graves added.

Rather than putting out bids as a single entity, being part of the cooperative enables the district to go through an agency and have many units purchase at the same time, and save money by banding together with other districts on the East End.

The public information line, which has been up for much debate as the district grapples with how best to increase communications—particularly online—with parents and the wider public in a digital age, is projected to decrease by 4.64 percent, going from $75,500 budgeted for this year to $72,000 for 2014-15. While postage fees will remain steady, the district will be allocating $40,000 it had been paying a private firm to BOCES for public information services.

The district will host workshops on the remaining portions of the budget before the first draft is unveiled on March 23. Athletics, capital project work, and buildings and grounds will be covered at the January 26 workshop. Technology, special education, debt service, employee benefits and transportation will be on February 23, and on March 9 the elementary, middle and high schools, and BOCES administration and services sections will be presented. All workshops are at 6 p.m. in the Pierson library.

A second review of the entire budget will be held April 13, and the budget adoption is scheduled for April 22, followed by another review on April 27. The budget hearing will be May 5 and the districtwide vote is on May 19, as are school board elections.