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Schools: Gearing Up For Day One

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By Claire Walla


Taking Advantage of Tax Cap Exemptions

Starting a process board members hope to continue through the next budget season, the district heard a presentation from District Business Manager Janet Verneuille on the two-percent tax levy cap.

Verneuille noted three crucial exemptions to the cap. First: pension cost increases above a certain threshold, which in this case is two percent. In other words, Verneuille explained that this year the district’s increase in pension contribution costs is 2.49 percent, so .49 percent will be exempted from the cap.

Secondly, the tax cap will exempt the local share of capital expenditures. “That’s good news,” Verveuille exclaimed, “that’s huge.” Without this exemption, she continued, the district would have less incentive to pass capital improvement projects.

The third exemption refers to certain legal expenses. However, Verneuille explained, “this does not apply” to this district.

The board briefly discussed the notion of looking at its current budget with a little more scrutiny to get a better sense of where some cost-saving measures might lie. Referencing the school’s clubs and sports programs, board member Walter Wilcoxen wondered how much the district could save if certain programs were cut.

“What about trying to pare-down now” to avoid making more drastic cut-backs going into next year, he wondered.

Board Member Chris Tice said she agreed, in theory, with being proactive in taking steps to cut costs, but she cautioned the board against looking at certain aspects of the budget with a narrow lens.

“The beauty of the budget process is that we get to see what our program looks like, A through Z,” she said. “We’re looking at it from an informed, balanced perspective.”

With both perspectives, the board had little argument, and yet drew no conclusions. The discussion will be ongoing.


Summer School a Success

Before giving his “back to school” report at last Monday’s board of education meeting, August 14, Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone spoke for a few minutes about the success of this year’s summer school program.

“We invited the same number of students as last year,” he said. “But our participation rate was higher than in years past. Bussing [which was provided for all students] made it more possible for parents to get their kids to and from school.” Most importantly, he added, it made it so that students were in their classrooms on-time, which had been a problem in years past.

School Board Member Sandi Kruel complimented Malone on a job well done, explaining that field trips — like those to the South Fork Natural History Museum, Morton Wildlife Center and even a math-related journey to Conca D’Oro, measuring ingredients for pizza dough — reportedly made the experience worthwhile for one family she spoke with.

“However you did it this year, it was the first time I heard of a student actually enjoying summer school,” she noted.


Enrollment Increases

Though enrollment is slightly up at the elementary school with the closing of Stella Maris last year, Malone said, as of now, enrollment “is still fairly steady” in comparison to last year. In fact, the slight increase is even less than administrators had initially imagined because much of the Catholic school’s student population was from out of district.

“Many of those families that live in Sag Harbor and chose Stella Maris for the Catholic education chose to go to Our Lady of the Hamptons [in Southampton],” he explained.

However, while the main student body will remain steady, the district’s Pre-K program — which was offered last year for a fee, but is free for all families in the district this year — has an expected enrollment of 42. “It’s a big up-tic from last year,” Malone continued, when the program had 12 students. The Pre-K program is scheduled to have two morning sessions and one in the afternoon.


Playground to be Ready for Start of School

Though it may look like a giant sandbox now, Principal Matt Malone confirmed Monday night that the district just signed a contract with Lobo Construction Company to begin work on the school’s new playground. The work actually began last Tuesday, August 15 and is scheduled to be completed next Thursday, August 25.

“We’re right on track,” he continued, noting that the work will all be complete before the start of the school year.


New Courses for the New Year

At the upper school, Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols announced four new classes that will be offered this year. In addition to a 3D sculpture course and advanced marine biology (which will be taught by Dr. Robert Shoemacher, himself a former marine bio major), the school will add a year-long personal finance class. This is a subject several board members and participants at last year’s educational forums highlighted for its importance. Lastly, the school will offer a course in social studies called Philosophy of Understanding. Nichols said it is partially modeled after courses in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which emphasize critical thinking and a depth of knowledge over wide-ranging survey courses.

Nichols also pointed out that the school will see a savings of about $75,000 this year. Instead of hiring a new faculty member in the wake of art teacher Tim Kraszewski’s retirement, “his classes have been farmed out to other departments,” as Nichols put it.

“The big challenge this year will be to finish portions two and three of the IB application,” Nichols continued. Should all go according to the current timeline, Nichols expects the school to be approved in the spring, which would allow Pierson to begin offering its first IB Diploma courses in the fall of 2012.

Bell Will Get A New Purpose

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By Claire Walla

High schoolers are often told that what they are learning will have greater application in the world at-large. But for a group of Pierson High School students this year, their hard work will pay off in a very tangible way.
With help from teacher Peter Solow and funding from The Reutershan Educational Trust, students have helped design an architectural plan for and will hopefully help to construct a new monument on their campus, which would prominently display the historic bell that’s been sitting relatively unseen in the Pierson building for years. (Originally part of the Presbyterian Church, the bell was moved to Pierson when it was built in 1907.)
During a presentation for the Sag Harbor Board of Education on Monday, August 1, Solow explained that the goal of this project is “to take students through the concepts of design.” While he said students have ventured into similar design projects in the past, this plan is different in the sense that “this time, we are actually intending to construct what we design.”
The group drafted a plan that depicts a hexagonal pillar, atop of which the bell would sit in an arched frame. The pillar itself has six solid faces on which plaques could theoretically be placed. The structure, which would be placed at the corner of Division Street and Jermain Avenue, would be made of concrete and would call for a ring of benches to be built around the pillar. The original concept imagined a raised structure with ramps and handrails so as to be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant, but this aspect of the plan has since been redrafted.
On the advice of architect Larry Salvesen, who donated his time to help the students with their project, the design will now lay level with the ground. This essentially eliminates the need for ramps and handrails, which will limit construction costs, and Salvesen pointed out that it restricts the amount of surface area vulnerable to graffiti.
Plus, as district Superintendent Dr. John Gratto added, without handrails “it’s no longer a skateboard attraction.”
Solow said one of the first big practical decisions the design team faced was where to put the structure. At one point the group considered putting the structure at the entrance to Pierson High School, but it was eventually determined that the monument should be placed at the corner of Jermain and Division near the “Welcome” sign at the north-west corner of school property. Unlike the concrete covered walkways by the front of the school, that area “provides a park-like setting,” Solow said.
It also creates “additional usage for part of the Pierson grounds that haven’t been used at all. The idea was also for [the monument] to be in a place that could also be used by the broader Sag Harbor community; that location is pretty prominent because of all the people driving by,” he added. “It would be seen by literally thousands of people every day.”
Board member Chris Tice looked favorably on the current location, saying “it’d actually be a great place to watch your kids go sledding” in the winter.
The impediments to the project now involve several fixed structures that are currently at the corner site. While there was talk of relocating the sign at the front of the school to give the monument prominent positioning, Solow pointed out that there is a tree just behind the sign that needs to be removed anyway. After speaking with local arborists, Solow said two of the trees at the foot of the school’s property “are in bad shape,” even “hazardous.”
In order to avoid dangerous conditions before the start of the school year, board members agreed to remove the tree, in addition to another adjacent to the front parking lot, which was also deemed hazardous by local experts.
While the final steps in the monument construction process have yet to be laid out, the structure is now set to rest set back from the corner of the property where a large oak now sits; it would still be visible beneath the canopy of a Linden trees that dot the land.
The board plans to hold at least one public forum on the bell monument and will invite community members to take part in the conversation before plans are solidified.
“The community is very strong about Pierson Hill,” said School Board President Mary Anne Miller. “We need to come to some kind of consensus before we sign-off on this.”
Because of the Reutershan grant — which has amounted to $60,000 — Solow pointed out that this project will be funded independently, without tax-payer dollars.
“We have no estimates yet on what the overall thing is going to cost,” Solow said. “But this is going to be paid for by the trust and other private sources, if necessary.”

In other news…
Dr. Gratto announced the board’s goals for the year, which address academic excellence, effective communication and fiscal responsibility, in addition to a fourth goal added this year: implementing a comprehensive wellness program. District administrators outlined 35 specific objectives under the umbrella of these four goals, including unifying the district’s athletic programs under “a systematic plan,” an add-on objective suggested by board member Chris Tice that evening.
Director of Business Operations Janet Verneuille announced that the district will change its bus routes this year, condensing six routes into five. The changes will save the district about $50,000. Verneuille said the plan was mainly implemented in an attempt for busses to avoid driving down narrow roads.

Janet Verneuille Named New Pierson Business Manager

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web-verneuille

It’s official; the Sag Harbor School District has a new business manager to replace Len Bernard and the board’s pick is anything but expected. On Thursday, January 14, the Sag Harbor School Board appointed JanetVerneuille , a well known parent in the district and member of the school’s budget advisory committee, as the Director of Business Operations. For the past year Verneuille worked as the comptroller of the East Hampton Town. During the town’s organizational meeting on January 4, ushering in Supervisor Bill Wilkinson’s administration, Bernard was named the town’s budget officer. During a work session on the following day, the town board voted to reduce Verneuille’s annual salary from $130,000 to $90,000. As the business manager for Pierson, Verneuille will earn $120,000 and will begin working on February 1. She will serve a three-year probationary term in the district. Verneuille handed in her resignation papers to East Hampton Town on Friday, January 15.

Above: A Photo of Verneuille earlier in the year.