Tag Archive | "John Gratto"

Pursuing a Super

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By Amanda Wyatt

As the Sag Harbor School Board looks for a new member, there is also an ongoing search to replace Superintendent John Gratto, who recently announced his retirement.

Yesterday, August 1, the Board of Education was expected to conduct preliminary interviews with three potential candidates for the position of interim superintendent. Dr. Gratto said in an interview this week that even if the board settles on an applicant after these interviews, the board would not immediately make a formal announcement.

“Even if they all agree upon a candidate, then they would need to enter into some contract negotiations with them, and that may take a little bit longer,” he said. “But the board is shooting for making an appointment at the August 13 Board of Education meeting.”

School Board President Theresa Samot echoed Gratto’s comments.

“A decision will not be made on Wednesday evening,” she said. “Our hope is to make an announcement at the August 13 Board of Education meeting.”

“I think everybody is hoping that this decision can be made and secured before Dr. Gratto leaves,” said former President Mary Anne Miller. She mentioned that Gratto’s last day is August 17, which is just four days after the board meeting.

However, Gratto, Samot and Miller all kept mum about potential candidates. They refused to name the applicants, noting that information would be released in the weeks to come.

Miller did say that they had received resumes of the candidates, which were provided to the board by School Leadership, LLC.

A consulting firm that has overseen the search for the superintendent since 2008, School Leadership does “all of the footwork to gather appropriate, interested candidates,” Miller said. “They really do a lot of the prescreening for us.”

One rumored potential candidate was former Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Joan Frisicano, who resigned from the Oysterponds School District in Orient in early July. However, Dr. Gratto denied the rumor.

School Leadership has “found three candidates and Joan [Frisicano] isn’t one of them,” he said. “I don’t know if Joan was not interested or if they considered her and didn’t select her.”

Gratto, who was originally brought to Sag Harbor by the same firm, believed that it would find the right person for the job.

“School Leadership has done a good job of finding three very capable superintendents,” he said.

Search for School Board member

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Following the announcement of his resignation last week, the Sag Harbor Board of Education is seeking a person to fill the board seat formerly held by Walter Wilcoxen who decided not to finish his term. It is the board’s intent to review letters from interested applicants and possibly appoint someone to fill that seat at the August 13, 2012 board of education meeting, according to a release from School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto.

Board of education members serve on a voluntary basis to provide governance to the school district, the release said. The school board is a corporate body that oversees and manages a public school district’s affairs, personnel, and properties.

“As you consider whether or not you would like to apply for this important responsibility, please first read about the characteristics of effective (and ineffective) school boards and assess your willingness and desire to be part of a highly effective Board of Education,” read the release. Information is available at: http://www.nyssba.org/index.php?src=news&refno=1713&category=On%20Board%20Online%20April%2011%202011.

Sag Harbor Board of Education meetings are typically held from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on two Monday evenings a month.

“If you wish to serve on one of the Board’s several committees, that would involve some extra time,” the release said.

The term of the appointment will be until the next election of board candidates on May 21, 2013. By agreeing to be appointed to this open board seat, the successful candidate would be agreeing to fill the position until May 21, 2013.

“If you wanted to fill the remainder of the term, which ends on June 30, 2015, you would need to run for that position along with any other candidates who may be interested in it,” said the release.

Those wishing to apply for this board of education seat, are asked to email a letter expressing their interest in and qualifications for the position to Mary Adamczyk, the board of education clerk at madamczyk@sagharborschools.org by Monday, August 6.

Questions about the position can be directed to any current board of education member or Dr. Gratto.

Principal Proposes New Program To Help ESL Students

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By Claire Walla

English as a Second Language (ESL) learners at Pierson Middle/High School are typically not at the top of their class.

According to statistics presented at the most recent school board meeting, Monday, June 2, ESL students typically underperform on Regents Exams, often failing altogether.

Of nine ESL students who took the Regents Exam in Global History last June, only two received a score of 60 or above, the highest grade being 66. Of the nine students who took the Regents Exam in Algebra only three scored 60 or above. The numbers fluctuate over the years, but — on the whole — they remain low.

“This is our riskiest population,” said Dr. John Gratto, the Sag Harbor School District’s superintendent.

But according to Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, this is not really a surprise.

In some cases, he explained, ESL students come from countries where the education systems are on par with the United States. However, particularly in recent years, Nichols said many ESL students come to Pierson well behind their peers, academically.

“What we have now are a lot of students with interrupted formal education,” he continued. “Not only is there a language deficit, there are preparation issues.”

For this reason — and in light of dwindling test scores — he has proposed hiring a new ESL teacher and adopting a new model of education geared toward helping the ESL population achieve success.

According to the district’s director of pupil personnel services, Dr. Lisa Scheffer, the ESL population district-wide has hovered between 50 and 60 in the last three years. About one third of the entire population is at Pierson, she added.

The plan is to create a class based on an education model called Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). The model focuses on eight inter-related components: lesson preparation, building background, comprehensible input, strategies, interaction, practice/application, lesson delivery and review/assessment.

Nichols said the idea at Pierson, starting in the fall, would be to hire one new bilingual teacher who either has ESL certification or is pursuing certification. While most candidates would likely have expertise in one content area, Nichols said that instructor would have to be able to teach the five content areas covered by Regents Exams: Living Environment, Algebra, Global History, U.S. History and English. There would also be an academic support period.

The newly hired teacher would work with Fausto Hinojosa, a teaching assistant who currently works with the ESL population at Pierson.

“It all situations, a key piece [to academic success] is to establish a strong connection between home and school,” Nichols said. “This is more difficult in core content classes, where teachers have [roughly] 100 students… it’s difficult to establish the kind of relationship required for these students to be successful.”

The SIOP model would allow instructors to work with ESL students more closely, giving them the ability to better follow through with homework and assignments, more clearly explain instruction, translate information (if need be), and establish stronger relationships between the school and the families of ESL students.

Nichols said he and Hinojosa have already identified 36 ESL students at the high school who could benefit from the SIOP model, however not all 36 need help in each of the five core content areas. The students would take part in a SIOP class on an at-need basis.

In total, Nichols added that he imagines each class would be anywhere from eight to 17 students. He added that ESL students at the high school range in age from 15 to 21, and it’s likely SIOP classes would see a range of ages for each subject.

“Is this a perfect solution?” Nichols asked rhetorically. “No. But, for what we’re faced with, is it a viable solution? Yes.”

“We have to do something,” School Board President Mary Anne Miller agreed. “We’ve tried a lot of different initiatives, but we’re not getting these students to where we want them to be.”

Nichols added that the new position would be paid for with reserves that have been set aside for special education.

“The goal is not just to get them to graduate,” Nichols continued. “But to get [ESL students] to be number two or three in their class. We have to continue to reach for that.”

Drug-Sniffing Dogs Brought to Pierson

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By Claire Walla

Last Thursday around 8:45 a.m., Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols got on the intercom and told students to remain in their classrooms.  Suffolk County Police were on the premises, he explained — drug-sniffing dogs in tow.

Two dogs from the county’s K-9 unit performed a quick sweep of middle and high school lockers on June 7 with negative results.  Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said no illegal substances or related contraband were found.

According to Sag Harbor Village Police, which sent patrol units to the school to supervise the search, the entire operation took 14 minutes.

In an interview this week, Dr. Gratto confirmed the county’s K-9 unit was not brought to the school as the result of a specific incident.

“We wanted to get [the drug-sniffing dogs] in before the end of the school year,” he said.

Dr. Gratto added that the district had arranged for the dogs to come in on two other occasions, but the date kept getting pushed back due to school conflicts, one of which was state testing.

“It went quite smoothly,” Dr. Gratto continued, adding that he has not received any complaints from parents.

The decision to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the campus was preceded in February with the adoption of a policy on the “Use of Drug-Sniffing Dogs.”  The policy details the process of bringing drug-sniffing dogs onto the Pierson campus, which allows the administration to bring the dogs in unannounced.

As for whether or not those in the district can expect to see similar instances in the future, Dr. Gratto could not say for sure.

“It’s a tool,” he began, “along with other preventative measures, that can be used occasionally to let kids know they can’t bring drugs to school.”

District to Lease Lots to Ferry Operator

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By David McCabe


Despite opposition from neighbors, the Sag Harbor Board of Education has unanimously decided to lease two of the parking lots at Pierson High School to Peconic Jitney, the new company seeking to operate a ferry service between Sag Harbor and Greenport this summer.

The company, which is largely financed by Hampton Jitney, will run a shuttle between Long Wharf and Pierson, allowing ferry passengers to park their cars in the school lots while they travel to the North Fork for the day.

The decision came during Monday’s school board meeting, which stretched on for three and a half hours — largely because of discussions unrelated to the parking lots.

A group of about 40 area residents, calling themselves Neighbors of Pierson, had voiced opposition to the initial plan — which would have used the school’s Montauk Avenue lot, on the grounds that it would increase traffic and noise in the primarily residential area.

In an attempt to resolve these issues, prior to the meeting Sag Harbor School District  Superintendent Dr. John Gratto met with Steven Reiner, who represents Neighbors of Pierson, and Geoffrey Lynch, the President of Hampton Jitney. As a result of that meeting, Dr. Gratto adjusted elements of the proposal in an attempt to satisfy residents complaints. Most significantly, Peconic Jitney will lease the Jermain Street lot instead of the Montauk Avenue space, while the school’s Division Street lot will act as overflow parking for passengers.

Since the Jermain Street lot is already in a high traffic area, Dr. Gratto said, the influx of vehicles is less likely to disturb neighbors. But despite the alterations to the proposed contracts, members of the public and board members grilled Lynch and Dr. Gratto for about 45 minutes.

“This is the opportunity for the board and the public to discuss this for the first time,” board member Chris Tice said.

Much of the concern for those present stemmed from the proposal’s stipulation that the final shuttle would arrive in the lot at midnight on the weekends. Tice, as well as Reiner, raised the possibility this might be too late for neighbors.

Lynch noted the schedule is only tentative and could be changed if there is no demand for an 11 p.m. ferry from Greenport.

He also said the driver of the shuttle, an 11-passenger van, will be responsible for removing garbage from the lot after he or she drops off the final group of passengers.

Dr. Gratto and others on the board argued that the additional traffic brought to the neighborhood as a result of the deal is outweighed by the $20,000 in revenue the lease will generate for the district.

“The school district does have an interest in revenue producing ideas that allow us to maintain programs and services for students,” Dr. Gratto said.

Reiner countered that though the school’s neighbors were not pleased about the proposal, they understood the need for additional revenue in fiscally lean times.

“There are good reasons for the school district to want to make a couple of bucks out of this,” he said.

The contract between Peconic Jitney and the district will only be enforced if the ferry service receives approval from a variety of other authorities, including, said Lynch, the state, the county, the Coast Guard, the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) and the Village of Sag Harbor Board of Trustees. Lynch added that of those groups, the village trustees would be the most likely to shut the project down if there are major concerns at the end of the ferry’s trial run period this summer.

“If there are too many negatives that are outweighing any positive benefit that this ferry may bring, then they will kill it,” he said.

If they don’t, the ferry’s financers are hoping that the service will begin no later than the last week of June — allowing the route to be operational during the busy July 4 holiday weekend and remaining up and running through Labor Day.

Board Questions Operation of YARD Summer Beach Program

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By Claire Walla


The future of the Youth Advocacy and Resource Development (YARD) summer beach program is in flux. Again. And the Sag Harbor Board of Education remains at a standstill.

Last year around this time, school board members discussed the feasibility of continuing to run the summer beach program at Long Beach in Sag Harbor. The question was not the viability of the program — board members agreed it served an important function for the community, catering to 60 to 80 kids a night — but rather the manner in which it operated.

Issues first arose a few years ago when auditors discovered that while YARD had long operated autonomously from the district — running programs without formal approval from the school board — its finances had in fact been funneled through the district.

This was mitigated last year when the YARD board formed a non-profit entity, “Friends of YARD,” to collect all funds solicited for the program.

However, Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. Gratto pointed out that last year the school board decided not to be involved in the summer beach program after summer 2011, leaving the organization to find another entity to oversee its operations going forward.

YARD has been in discussions with Southampton Town, which is a big proponent of the summer beach program. However, according to Russel Kratoville, Southampton Town Management Services Administrator, while the town will continue to fund the program with its annual contribution of $15,000, it does not have the means run the program. (This would require hiring additional staff.)

Now, as discussed at a school board meeting last Monday, June 4, the board faces many of the same problems it faced last year.

The nut of the issue comes down to a simple philosophical question, Dr. Gratto said: should the district be responsible for administering a summer program?

If the district decided to formally take on the program, one necessary course of action would be to assign district supervision, which Mary Anne Miller, school board president, said is necessary for any district program. Not only might this involve extra costs, she went on, but it would add more to administrators’ summer schedules.

“I don’t think our administrators are looking for more work,” board member Walter Wilcoxen added. If the district was responsible for the program, he continued, “There are many costs in the YARD function we may end up paying for.”

Currently, the school contributes $10,000 annually to YARD.

The total cost of YARD services, including both the summer beach program and the afterschool program during the school year, is about $80,000, according to school board member and YARD Board of Directors member Sandi Kruel. And $23,000 of that goes to the summer beach program.

Kruel went on to explain that the vast majority of funding for the program comes not from the school district, but from different municipalities: New York State, Suffolk County, Southampton Town, Sag Harbor and even North Haven Village.

She said cost isn’t an issue.

“We haven’t been short on money in 13 years [since YARD was founded],” a noticeably frustrated Kruel stated. “I don’t foresee us coming up short this year.”

For the school to run a program that incorporates donations from several different municipalities, however, Dr. Gratto explained the district would need each entity to sign what’s called a Municipal Cooperative Agreement. He is currently figuring out how long that agreement — requiring signatures from the village, town, county and state — would take to get finalized.

Board members Miller and Wilcoxen additionally expressed concern that they still had not seen contracts from any entity other than Southampton Town, and would not be confident with YARD’s funding going forward until they could be certain these funding streams were officially designated for the year.

Kruel said she would like for the summer program to begin the week after graduation.

But whether it will have untangled all these details before then remains to be seen.

Sag Business Director to Resign at End of the Year

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Janet Verneuille

By Claire Walla


This year’s Sag Harbor School District budget process represented a series of financial feats: The district is expected to save $1 million in the next 10 years by purchasing six new school buses next year. This year, the business office refinanced loans and streamlined procedures to generate a recorded savings of $267,013. Perhaps most importantly, the school district managed to create a budget that came in under the two-percent tax cap — without eliminating programs or personnel.

Much of this is thanks to the district’s Business Director, Janet Verneuille, to whom the district will bid a fond farewell at the end of this academic year.

The initial announcement of Verneuille’s departure was made public at the tail end of a Key Communicators meeting last Thursday, and a resolution was added to last Monday’s monthly business meeting, where the school board was poised to formally accept her resignation.

“I implore the board to entice Janet [Verneuille] however you can to make her stay,” said Noyac resident Elena Loreto, speaking during a public comment portion of the meeting. “Both [District Superintendent] Dr. Gratto and Janet happen to care about their jobs… because of their teamwork, no programs were cut this year.”

She continued, “Do not accept her resignation tonight.”

The board did, in fact, table the resolution to its next meeting, June 4; but only for formality’s sake. For legal reasons, Verneuille said she is barred from discussing the details of her next step.

Still, School Board President Mary Anne Miller expressed she was sad to see Verneuille go.

“I will be accepting that resignation with deep regret,” she said. “Thank you for coming and helping us through three years of a very big job. I really appreciate all your hard work and the improvements we’ve seen; all of us have reaped the rewards.”

Verneuille came to the Sag Harbor School District in February of 2010, after having served as comptroller for the town of East Hampton and in leadership roles in the banking sector.

She joined the district at a time when there was just $65,000 left in its undesignated fund balance. Because the fund balance cannot go into the negative, Verneuille said she knew she faced a tough road ahead.

“Arriving in February 2010, my greatest challenge was initiating the change to the way people thought and behaved concerning the spending and finances of their district,” Verneuille wrote in an email. “Integrity is important to me as a leader, and my nature is to take on challenging situations and tackle them.”

Over the years, under Verneuille’s leadership, the district went from adopting a 12 percent budget increase two years ago, to 5.48 percent the year after that, to this year’s total, which overall came down to a 2.88 percent increase.

In answering whether or not she felt she had accomplished everything she set out to when she joined the district, Verneuille was diplomatic.

“Does one ever accomplish everything [one] sets out to do?” she continued. “I know the business side of the district runs more smoothly than before my arrival.” And most importantly, she added, “The district is on solid financial footing.”

Dr. Gratto heard the news of Verneuille’s departure last Monday, May 14, and has already advertised for the position across the state of New York. Interviews will be held for the position on June 6, and Dr. Gratto expects to have a recommendation for the position for board approval at its meeting June 16.

Echoing many sentiments already expressed, Dr. Gratto said, “We are on much more solid financial footing because of Janet’s work.”

Verneuille said her new position outside the municipal sector “is exciting, and offers an enticing opportunity.”

“Yet it was a difficult decision to make,” she added. “Knowing that the district is sound financially and positioned well for the future financial challenges helps.”

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.”

Board Votes to Keep Wellness Policy As Is

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PB&JSandwich

By Claire Walla


Keeping high-fructose corn syrup at bay, the Sag Harbor School Board says the Wellness Policy stays as is.

The Sag Harbor Board of Education faced outrage from some parents at its last meeting in April regarding proposed changes to the district’s newly adopted Wellness Policy. The proposal, which would have amended the policy to allow the district to serve high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners on a limited basis, was bashed by some for making allowances that seemed to backtrack from what they saw as the school’s upward trajectory regarding health and nutrition.

At a board meeting last Monday, May 7 the board was again set to vote on re-tailored amendments to the current policy, this time drafted by District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, in response to last meeting’s lengthy discussion over, primarily, Diet Iced Tea and jelly.

The proposed changes would have required students with dietary restrictions — gluten allergies or diabetes, for example — to retrieve special food items from the nurse’s office.

Not a single board member favored this plan.

“The Wellness Policy is going to stay in place, until we get obstacles like peanut butter and jelly, or a beverage for a child,” said school board member Sandi Kruel.

The initial effort to amend the Wellness Policy came from Kruel, who identified two issues that arose in the wake of its adoption. For one, she said a student with diabetes no longer felt she had beverage options in the school cafeteria once diet drinks (specifically Diet Iced Tea) were removed. And secondly, she said the school would no longer be able to serve its no-cost lunch item to students without a meal (PB&J) because the jelly contained high-fructose corn syrup.

The dilemma with jelly came directly from the school’s cafeteria manager, Greg Pisciotta, who said he’s run into some difficulties in trying to get the cafeteria to be 100 percent compliant with the new policy.

Pisciotta said the facility is currently about 95 percent free of all products banned by the district’s Wellness Policy. (In addition to high-fructose corn syrup, the list of items banned includes non-hydrogenated oils and whole milk.)

“I got rid of [those items] as soon as you guys passed the policy,” he told board members, adding, “As soon as I read it, I went into a frenzy!”

He noted that at any given time the cafeteria kitchen has roughly 500 products, give or take.

“You might be able to find one or two [with high-fructose corn syrup], every once in a while something pops up,” he said, “but then I get rid of it.”

The crowd in the library that night applauded Pisciotta’s efforts to get his kitchen to comply with the district’s new policy. However, the chef added that his job is not easy, given the constraints of his working environment.

“The problem is I only have two kitchen workers and we only have an oven and a steamer,” he explained. “There’s only so much I can do. I figured out how to make pasta in the oven, but it took me three times.”

Moving forward, the board recognized these constraints but decided it should not affect the language in the Wellness Policy. The board will instead get regular reports from Pisciotta on the status of cafeteria operations and address issues as they arise.

Speaking from behind the podium — a new addition to school board meetings —on Monday, parent Susan Lamontagne, who spoke against amending the policy at the last meeting, reiterated her point: Whether it’s high-fructose corn syrup or Sugar in the Raw, the U.S. is inundated with sugar and the district should work toward severely limiting it. She and other parents in the audience again urged the board to keep the Wellness Policy intact.

However, Lamontagne added, “Sandi [Kruel] raised a very legitimate point about choice.”

Reaching into the cotton bag she had put on the podium before her, Lamontagne pulled out various flavored drinks — including Honest Tea, Honest Ade and a flavored water called Hint. All the products contain the natural sweetener made from the stevia leaf. While Lamontagne cautioned that research does change all the time, she admitted Stevia has not yet been linked to any medical conditions the way other artificial sweeteners have.

Pierson Cafeteria Manager Greg Pisciotta took note of the drinks.

“They are going to add beverages to the cafeteria that contain Truvia,” added Kruel, referring to a brand name for stevia. “That’s great!”


In other news…


The Sag Harbor School District is well on its way to analyzing and implementing changes in its grading policies.

Pierson High School Assistant Principal Gary Kalish and Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone both told the board they spent this academic year gathering and distributing information on grading practices, as per one of the district’s goals set last summer.

Keeping in mind there are a number of ways students are assessed — from standardized tests to class participation—the goal, Kalish said, is to achieve more consistent grading throughout the district.

For example, some teachers may pay more attention to participation than others.

“It’s hard to deny the relevance of non-achievement factors [like attendance and class participation],” he explained. “What we’re discussing now is what role do they have in grading and reporting.”

Malone added that while report cards and grades “look very different” at the elementary school level, the lower school is also working with faculty members to identify best practices. In the coming year, Malone said the school will also keep an eye on what’s happening at the high school level “so there will be some correlation between the two buildings.”

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.