Tag Archive | "gregg schiavoni"

Landslide Victory For Sag Harbor Budget, Incumbents Reelected

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Above: School Board Candidate Tom Gleeson (top, far left) waits to hear the results of Tuesday’s election.

By Claire Walla

Coming as no surprise to the small crowd gathered in the Pierson Middle/High School gymnasium Tuesday, May 15, the Sag Harbor School District’s proposed $34,182,256 million budget passed by a landslide, with 892 votes for the budget versus only 420 against.

Similarly, Proposition #2, which will allow the district to spend up to $575,000 for the purchase of six new buses, passed with a similar margin: 851 to 432.

“I’m very pleased the budget passed,” District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto commented after the results were read. “And I’m pleased the bus proposition passed.”

This year’s election garnered 1,377 total votes, a drop of 264 from last year.

The 2012-2013 budget represents a spending increase of $956,172 over this year’s operating budget. But, more importantly, is represents a tax-levy increase of only 1.94 percent, which means it successfully falls below the two-percent tax cap imposed by New York State for the first time this year.

The real nail-biter this year was the race for school board, which had three candidates vying for two open seats. In the end, incumbents Gregg Schiavoni and Walter Wilcoxen each managed to secure another three-years on the board, putting Schiavoni in his second term and Wilcoxen in his third.

“The vote on the board is a testament to the trust the community has in the job this board has done,” Dr. Gratto noted.

When the votes had all been tallied, Schiavoni was the clear victor with 1,039 total votes. Wilcoxen came in second with 795 and Gleeson was a not-too-distant third with 576 votes.

Many in the gymnasium that night congratulated Gleeson on a hard-fought campaign.

“It’s tough to beat the incumbents,” Gleeson said after having walked over to congratulate Schiavoni on his win. (Wilcoxen had a work conflict and was unable to make it to the gymnasium before doors closed at 9 p.m.)

“It was a good learning experience,” he added. “I just hope the board continues to improve education. The kids are what’s most important.”

With his youngest daughter — who stood by his side as results were read — graduating from Pierson this year, Gleeson said his loss wouldn’t mean he would vanish from the district.

“I’ll try to stay involved as much as possible,” he declared.

In the wake of his win, Schiavoni — flanked by his two young sons — smiled as he talked about his plans for the upcoming year.

“What’s next will be keeping track of IB [the International Baccalaureate program], making sure it’s implemented correctly, and keeping track of the Pre-K program,” he said. “Going forward, we just have to keep the ball rolling.”

In an interview the day after the vote, Wilcoxen said he was excited to find he had been elected for a third term.

“We have a lot of challenges, like trying to understand how we can deal with each other more effectively [as a board],” he said.  “That seems to be number one on the list.”

But, he added that supporting IB and continuing to find ways to make the school’s finances more transparent will be key issues in the coming year.

After congratulating candidates, both board members Theresa Samot and Chris Tice said they were very pleased to hear the election results for the budget this year.

“The margin the vote passed by was really great,” Samot exclaimed, as Tice noted it was nearly 2:1. “The administration put a lot of hard work into the budget.”

Board member Sandi Kruel concurred with this sentiment, and applauded voters for passing Proposition #2.

And to her fellow board members about to begin their new three-year terms, she added, “Congratulations.”

Meet the Candidates Debate, Sag Harbor

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The race for two seats on the Sag Harbor School Board has three contestants: the veteran, the local and the experienced newcomer. All candidates met inside the Pierson auditorium last Thursday, May 3 for the annual “Meet the Candidates” debate run by the Sag Harbor Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and moderated by Bryan Boyhan, publisher of The Sag Harbor Express.

The incumbents include former School Board President Walter Wilcoxen, who is running for this third term, and Gregg Schiavoni, who was born and raised in Sag Harbor and is vying for his second. Newcomer Tom Gleeson, who moved to the area seven years ago and currently works part-time in admissions at Vaughn College in Queens, is making his first run for a seat on the board.

Though Schiavoni was not present at the debate Thursday night, he was contacted by The Express via phone and asked the same set of questions posed to Wilcoxen and Gleeson during the debate. Like his opponents, he was given no more than two minutes for each answer.

How do you see the International Baccalaureate (IB) program changing the school?


Wilcoxen: It will allow a greater rigor to be introduced [to the district]. The stress that [IB] puts on the communication pieces—oral and verbal—is something I think we’re lacking in our curriculum currently.


Gleeson: Most people know that I was not in favor of the IB program. But, if elected, I would make sure we implement it in the best way possible. I agree with Walter that writing is very important in society. Yes, we need to improve writing here.


Schiavoni: I think it’s going to change two things: I think it’s going to change the education of the students for the better, and I also think it’s going to better teachers’ instruction. Teachers who go for IB training will be able to use that for professional development. From what I’ve heard, this training is the best training for teachers. Let’s say in a year or two IB doesn’t pan out, teachers will be so advanced it will even benefit [the school] should we go back to AP.


The proposed school budget for the 2012-2013 school year succeeded in coming under the state-mandated two-percent tax cap, but that may prove more difficult going forward. What decisions do you see the district having to make in the coming year to meet the cap again?

Wilcoxen: The problem in our future is labor costs. Seventy percent of our budget is labor-related. Next year we’re going to have a choice. I think it’s going to be up to the staff and the board renegotiating contracts. I see no other way around it, other than cutting staff.


Gleeson: You’re going to have to look at labor costs, and that includes the superintendent on down. Our superintendent’s salary is high. I thought that when we brought him in from upstate. I think that you have to look at every possible cut without affecting education. One of the things we’re going to have to look at is the cost of books and technology.


Wilcoxen: The superintendent’s salary… while it’s high, if you look at the hourly cost of what he’s produced, it’s not that high. In order to get good, quality work you need to pay people to come here. Dr. Gratto has more than made up for his salary by what he’s saved us.


Schiavoni: It’s the battle we always have. We have to look at program: what’s available, what do students want, what do they not want? We have to ask the students and the community. I think the other thing is we have to be prepared to look one, two, three years down the line.



There has been considerable conversation about the school’s wellness policy. Do you believe the existing policy is too strict? Should students be given the opportunity to purchase products that include such items as high-fructose corn syrup?


Wilcoxen: I think the Wellness Policy is very good the way it is. I would like to see the education piece added to it. We all grew up on high-fructose corn syrup… I would say that if children want to bring in things that aren’t on our Wellness Policy, they’re free to do that. But the higher goal has to be to educate our kids to be healthier than we are.


Gleeson: I have to look at [the Wellness Policy] more carefully. What’s happening now is there’s so much research going on about how food affects people. We have to create a mindset in the students [that allows them] to make the proper choices. The other question I have about this is, how is it affecting our funding down at the cafeteria? Is this drawing students away?


Schiavoni: I don’t believe it is too strict. I don’t see the value in teaching that high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you and then promoting it. The Wellness Policy has language that states the school should move toward developing a menu that doesn’t include those things.


Should the school district take a greater role in ensuring students eat healthier?


Wilcoxen:  In the Curriculum Committee, we’ve discussed this.  We’ve requested the administration look into programs where students might integrate growing and making food… we haven’t gotten very far.

But, the school’s responsibility to feed children I don’t think is paramount.  We’re not an under-privileged community.


Gleeson:  We continue to try to educate the students through all classes, not only health classes. One of the things I find funny is that we’re removing high-fructose corn syrup, but one of the biggest allergies out there is peanut butter.  We’re removing one thing, and yet that’s still out there… I’m not sure how that fits into the guidelines.


Schiavoni: The school should take a greater role in giving the students healthy options.  Students can bring in whatever they want from home; but, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to offer healthy choices that reflect the Wellness Policy.


Drugs on school campuses are a problem nationally, and there are those that believe Sag Harbor is no different. Do we have a problem with drugs on our campuses, and was the school overreacting when it approved bringing in drug-sniffing dogs?

Gleeson: I’m still looking into this issue. Schools differ. The problems at East Hampton and Ross may be different than ours. As far as the drug-sniffing dogs, it puts a bad taste in my mouth. Are we not doing a good job administrationally so that drugs are coming into our schools? We have to have more forums about it. We’ve seen some about the dogs, but I’d like to see more research.


Wilcoxen: The dogs are not the issue. The dogs are just one small piece of an attempt to address what we see as an increasing drug problem… we’re starting to see it in the middle school. The school board has actually asked the administration to incorporate greater resources in providing a coordinator for all programs that deal with substance abuse. It hasn’t been done; but, I can assure you that, if elected, if will be on the summer goals list.


Schiavoni: I don’t think we have a problem. I think we do have correct procedures in place should there be an event. As far as the dogs, if we don’t have a problem now and they’re just one more tool, then I’m all for it. The dogs are not targeting a student or a group of students; they’re not in there because we have a problem, they’re in there as one more [preventative] tool. I don’t think the school overreacted, I think it’s just one more step we’re taking to be proactive.


Board members have talked about the importance of involving more community members in discussions about the school and its campuses.  How do you plan to improve communication between the school and the community?


Wilcoxen: Six years ago we seemed to have a lack of communication or understanding with the public.  We spent two years opening up the process, [adding two public input portions during board meetings]—that seemed to help a lot—and we paid attention to answering questions right away.


I think the community can be part of the school to whatever degree they want.  The school board is open to participation; it has to be respective, non-accusatory and follow the norms of decent communication.  We’ve had ad hoc committees in the past, but people only seem to get involved if there’s a touchstone issue.


Gleeson: I think community outreach is vital.  This is everyone in the community’s school.  We have a tremendous resource in the community and sometimes we don’t use it as well [as we should].  That’s one of the nice things, as I said before, about my schedule.  I have time to sit and talk to community members, to find out what their needs are.


Schiavoni: The school does a good job of communicating with the community through email blasts, posting notices online and The Express, through paper mailings… We form community groups when we have an event that may affect the community as a whole.  The bigger problem is how do we get community members more involved?  I can’t force someone to go to a board meeting.


Negotiating with the unions has been contentious in the past. What will you do differently this year to ensure a successful bargaining process?


Gleeson: I think the process needs to start early. Part of the problem is the state mandates…. We need to have those mandates relaxed. I look at it so differently because when I started teaching, we didn’t make a lot so our benefits package was so important. But, the pendulum has swung. We also want to make sure we get the best quality teachers. The issue is a thorny one.


Wilcoxen: Teachers are so important, but the control the school has over how things get taught… once a teacher has tenure, it’s almost impossible to remove that teacher.


Gleeson: We have to look at the contract, look at how many periods a day teachers are teaching. Maybe we can increase the workload. We have to look at health insurance costs and what their actual salary is when we take benefits; we have to look carefully at how they fit in with society. The issue of tenure has been kicked around for years. Can you get rid of a bad teacher? Yes, but it takes time and energy. We forget that teachers give recommendations for tenure. We have to make sure no one’s getting tenure that doesn’t deserve it.


Wilcoxen: I don’t know [how to ensure effective communication with the teachers’ union], but we’re going to have to start investigating it. To go that long without having a sane conversation is incredible. We have to be very honest and show people what [teachers’ benefits] are actually costing.


Schiavoni: I think the process has to begin earlier, and there has to be constant communication between the administrators, the board and the union. We’ll send our proposal, they’ll send theirs; we’ll look at it, but there’s no immediate talk. I think there has to be a set time frame; if we can keep moving forward, keep discussions going, it will move discussions much quicker.


The following are questions from the community, as posed to Walter Wilcoxen and Tom Gleeson during last Thursday’s debate.

Do you support the two-percent tax cap?


Wilcoxen:  I support it.  I don’t like the way it’s done, but I support it.  There has to be some way to let people know that the increasing rate of taxes is important.  I also see no other way to bring the unions to the table and be responsive.


Gleeson:  I support the concept.  I think in today’s society two percent may be more difficult as we move forward because of the lack of funding for certain mandates.


How can we improve middle school academics?


Gleeson:  If there’s more articulation between elementary and middle school, I think that will help as we meet the common core mandate.


Wilcoxen: I agree, I think the common core is a good effort by the state to help us out.  But, one of the things that’s going to help the middle school is IB.  We’re first saying, what do we want our children to be like when they graduate?  Now, what do we have to do for middle schoolers and high schoolers to get there?


What does the board do with a bad teacher?


Wilcoxen: One of the most important things with the school board is we don’t determine what a bad teacher is.  There is a process that has been changed, it’s going to be easier to discipline a teacher, but we also have to understand that teachers have the same problems that the rest of us have. We need freedom and trust to help them. I would like to see the union step up.


Gleeson: It’s really an administrator’s job to monitor their teachers.  What’s the tool that determines what we should be doing?  Do we have a teacher-mentoring program?  What is the administrator doing to improve the teaching in the school?  What assistance are we giving?  Some teachers should not be teaching because they don’t like kids.  We need to monitor and mentor the other ones.


Do you think health benefits for staff should be reformed?

Gleeson:  I need to look at [benefits] more carefully.  I’m sure it needs to be improved, but I can’t answer specifically.


Wilcoxen:  We have to change the medical insurance system.  The union agreed that we were allowed to offer an alternative health plan, which had a lot of wellness parts to it… there was basically no interest because everyone has Empire, it’s what they know.  [Benefits] are going to have to be repaired everywhere, or the United States is going to go broke.


Gleeson: This is a nation-wide issue.  I had surgery and thank God I had Empire, otherwise it would have cost $300,000.


How can we continue to attract more students from other districts?

Wilcoxen: The immediate answer is IB.  We will have quite a few people interested in that.


Gleeson: I think quality programs, whether it’s IB or AP, doesn’t matter.  [My family] chose to come to Sag Harbor because of the quality of the art program.  We also do great programs outside the classroom, like robotics, and if we continue to do things that are quality programs we’ll attract more people.


School Board Says “Yea” To Student Accident Insurance, Mascot

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Whales

By Claire Walla

For the past year, Sag Harbor School District has not carried a supplemental form of insurance known as student accident insurance. For some members of the Sag Harbor School Board, the program was not worth its cost to the district — some parents didn’t see high returns on their claims.

“It was more of a cost benefit issue,” recalled District Business Manager Janet Verneuille.

However, after hearing complaints from parents and concerns voiced by members of the school board, this week the board voted 4-3 to reinstate a new student accident insurance plan. School Board President Mary Anne Miller and board members Walter Wilcoxen and Gregg Schiavoni voted against reinstating the insurance plan.

After previously considering a few different options, the board ultimately decided to go with a company called Chartis, which carries an annual fee of approximately $45,765—or, $45 per student. There is also vanishing deductible of $250 with a two-year limit of benefit payments. The plan will go into effect as of July 1, 2012.

District Business Director Janet Verneuille reached out to neighboring school districts on the East End at the request of the board to find out whether or not they had student accident insurance. Seven responding districts — from Hampton Bays to Montauk — carried the insurance, Verneuille reported back. However, she said the prices were significantly lower elsewhere.

“I found the cost difficult to swallow,” admitted board member Chris Tice. However, she added, “I still go back to the point that, when you have students on your premises… there’s a lot that our health insurance doesn’t cover. It is very normal and expected that the school would have this insurance.”

“You open the door and there can be an accident,” said board member Sandi Kruel, a staunch supporter of student accident insurance.

Unlike liability insurance, which the school is required by law to carry, student accident insurance would kick-in for student injuries not thought to be connected to negligence on the part of the district.

Board member Gregg Schiavoni expressed some concern about voting for student accident insurance after the board had already voted to approve the proposed 2012-13 budget, as it would drive the cost of the budget up by nearly $46,000, treading dangerously close to the two-percent tax cap limit. Schiavoni wondered if the board should also consider cutting roughly $46,000 worth of expenses from the proposed budget.

However, Superintendent Dr. John Gratto added, “I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to take out anything in the budget.”

He went on to say that the budget had been very tightly whittled down to its current state and student accident insurance didn’t take top priority.

Instead, he said, “I would wait until the school year is underway and find something that we haven’t spent money on.”

Dr. Gratto pointed out that the school had made very conservative estimates in the budget regarding the number of transfer students expected to enter the district next year. Though revenues from the transfer student population could top $700,000, the budget only anticipates $400,000 in revenues, making anything over that amount surplus.


In other news…


The district voted to approve its traditional mascot: the whale.

But not just any old whale.

During a school board presentation last Monday, March 26, Dr. Gratto showed a collage of images showcasing nine different whale designs found throughout the village. Many Sag Harbor institutions — from Bagel Buoy and the Wharf Shop to the United Methodist Church and the signpost for Sag Harbor Hills — feature their own versions of the world’s largest mammal.

One rather jovial whale is portrayed standing upright and sticking its tongue out, seemingly in the midst of dancing a jig — this is not the sea creature that will come to represent Pierson.

The board made very clear that the Pierson Whalers will be represented by some version of the whale currently gracing the wall of the Pierson Gym.

“It’s the spirit of this whale,” clarified board member Chris Tice.

She further noted that the final whale image — which will ultimately be used as the official emblem of the school for promotional materials, like t-shirts, letterhead and the school website — can be tweaked a bit so that its outline will be displayed to its full potential in all formats.

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.