Tag Archive | "John Gratto"

Jelly in a Jam at Pierson

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PB&JSandwich

By Claire Walla


Before showing a Power Point presentation on unhealthy eating habits and the rise of obesity in the United States last Wednesday, Sag Harbor Elementary School parent Susan Lamontagne dropped dozens of bite-sized chocolates onto the wooden table where board of education members sat facing an uncharacteristically large crowd. The candies fell to the table with loud thuds, causing board members to lean back in their chairs.

“This is just to show that I’m not totally against this stuff,” Lamontagne explained as a disclaimer before proceeding with the rest of her presentation, which outlined what she referred to as a health crisis in the United States.

Lamontagne attended the April 18 board meeting, along with a handful of other Sag Harbor mothers, including youth sports coordinator Allison Scanlon, Barbara Kinnier of the Wellness Foundation in East Hampton, and Barbara Clark, a member of the school district’s Wellness Committee. The mothers came en masse to speak out against a proposed revision to the school’s relatively new Wellness Policy, which was unanimously adopted by the board in November.

“If you reverse the current policy, you’d be moving backwards on an issue that every other school is moving forward on,” Clark said.

“I feel very strongly that we should keep [the Wellness Policy] as is, even strengthen it,” Scanlon added. “Any measures to allow food and beverages back into the cafeteria that contain high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners would be detrimental to students and staff.”

The board was set to discuss changes to two specific paragraphs of the newly adopted policy, which were proposed by board member Sandi Kruel.

Rather than strictly limit the presence of “non-nutritive” sweeteners like sucralose, saccharine and aspartame — which the current policy now does — the revision suggests those items be sold “at a minimum.” Similarly, it suggests foods containing hydrogenated or trans-fats or high-fructose corn syrup — also barred by the current policy — “only be sold at the school if another product cannot be substituted.”

More specifically, the discussion seemed to hinge on jelly and diet Lipton Green Tea.

Kruel said she was first made aware of issues with the current Wellness Policy when a parent complained that her daughter, who is diabetic, doesn’t have any drink options in the cafeteria now that the Wellness Policy is in place. The student used to drink Diet Lipton Green Tea, which contains artificial sweeteners and is therefore prohibited by the school’s Wellness Policy.

According to Kruel, failing to provide more sugar-free drink options — beyond water — for children with diabetes is essentially a form of discrimination.

“We have vegan options and gluten-free options,” she said, comparing diabetes to certain other dietary restrictions. “I’m not asking for Diet Pepsi,” she continued. “But to tell someone to just drink water is kind of pompous, if you ask me.”

Furthermore, Kruel said she pushed for more leniency regarding high-fructose corn syrup because the school’s chef recently expressed concern over the fact that he’s technically unable to serve the school’s “no-cost” lunch option — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — now that high-fructose corn syrup has been prohibited. It was one of the main ingredients in the jelly he had been using.

[District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said in an interview this week that he spoke with the school’s chef and made sure that peanut butter sandwiches (without the jelly) and apples could be substituted for PB&J.]

“I don’t think we have the right to say absolutely no to everything,” she added. And for this reason, Kruel said the main issue is that students need to learn how to make educated choices. “I teach my children: everything in moderation, because you’re just not going to be able to walk into an IGA or King Kullen and not find high-fructose corn syrup.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller would agree on one point: that education is a key component to fostering the health and wellness of students within the Sag Harbor School District.

However, she and Kruel fall on two very different sides of the green-tea-and-jelly debate.

Miller, who was responsible in large part for crafting the new wellness policy, firmly believes that the strict elimination of ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners is non-negotiable.

“I am opposed to revising the policy because I don’t think we should lower the bar, I think those things can be dealt with,” she explained. “These are not challenges to me, and I think we can get around this without limiting choices.”

She said the problems posed by green tea and jelly can be mitigated with more creativity and careful planning when it comes to purchasing. Though it takes time to search for more healthy items, and they may not be as cheap as fructose-filled jam, she added that the school could certainly buy a jelly made without high-fructose corn syrup, as well sugar-free drinks that don’t contain artificial sweeteners.

According to the district’s Business Director Janet Verneuille, the school district is currently in the process of bidding out food items for next year.

“Our intent is to include a jelly product that meets the district’s required specifications as part of this bid for the 2012-13 school year,” Verneuille wrote in an email. “We are optimistic that a vendor will win the contract to provide the desired jelly product at the lowest price to the cafeteria.”

The shift in the school’s approach to health and nutrition would bring about a “culture change” that Miller said she always anticipated when she sat down to write the Wellness Policy — she never expected these changes to be easy.

However, she continued, the obesity epidemic in the United States is so pervasive that making these blanket changes, in her eyes, is non-negotiable.

“This is an issue all over the country, school districts are trying to raise the bar with regard to health and wellness,” she continued. “I don’t think we can not do it.”

As she stood before the members of the Sag Harbor School Board, Susan Lamontagne pointed to slides depicting information gathered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Obesity in the United States has doubled in the last 20 years, she said, and the instance of diabetes has tripled.

She picked up handfuls of candies and dropped them back onto the table, causing more “thuds,” as well as growing alarm among board members, for whom the candy was getting too close for comfort.

That was her point.

“We’re surrounded by this stuff!” Lamontagne exclaimed. “It makes all of us parents who are trying to do the good thing look like the bad guys.”

“I commend you for the changes we’re already making,” she continued, voicing support for the district’s current Wellness Plan. “It’s so vitally important that we have healthier foods in school, without high-fructose corn syrup.”

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.

Sag School Board Approves $34 Million Budget

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By Claire Walla

Pulling no surprises, the Sag Harbor Board of Education voted on Monday, March 26 to approve the district’s proposed $34 million budget for the 2012-2013 school year.

“I want to thank the district for all its hard work,” said board member Chris Tice. Because this is the first year the district has had to make allowances for the state-imposed two-percent tax-levy cap, Tice said the budget process “was particularly rigorous this year.”

Passed by Congress last spring, tax cap legislation has caused most school districts across the state to search for ways of trimming expenditures—Sag Harbor not excluded.

With the rising cost of health insurance and increases for teachers’ retirement plans to contend with, the Sag Harbor School District ended up with a proposed budget up 2.88 percent from this year’s operating budget, which represents only a 1.94 percent tax-levy increase.

According to the district’s budget presentations, Sag Harbor has managed to maintain a budget that keeps all programs in place thanks to significant savings in several key areas.

According to numbers compiled by Dr. Lisa Scheffer, the district’s director of pupil personnel services, the special education department has shed nearly $500,000 in expenses, which is reflected in next year’s budget. The decrease is due to program changes, including the elimination this year of three staff members.

The school has also seen nearly $400,000 in savings from the district business office, as well as $60,000 in savings in transportation. While the budget calls for $500,000 of the district’s fund balance to be put toward energy conservation measures, District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto pointed out that there will be a bond measure tied to the budget vote in May that—if passed—is estimated to generate significant savings for the district.

Proposition #2 would allow the school to purchase six busses at a cost of $575,000. The district estimates that by bringing transportation costs in-house, it will be able to save roughly $170,000 over the next seven years.

However, while the district was able to squeeze the budget beneath the tax cap this year, school board member Walter Wilcoxen expressed some trepidation about the future.

“You’ve taken so much slack out of the budget it’s laudable,” he began. “But, down the road, how are we going to get the big nut? The problem is, I don’t’ see any major change coming. And that creates some discomfort.”

What Wilcoxen was referring to, specifically, were labor negotiations.

According to Verneuille, teachers’ retirement benefits have not yet been quantified for the coming school year, but last year health expenses went up 13.5 percent. And with a two-percent tax levy cap in the mix, expenditures will inevitably outpace revenues. In other words, the school will eventually be forced to look at ways of cutting costs more dramatically.

“You’re absolutely right, the driver of our budget is labor costs,” Dr. Gratto responded. But, he said the situation might not be so grim. Later that evening, the school board voted to approve bus-driver salaries, which had been negotiated down from its 3.5-percent raise this year to a two-percent raise for next year, with no step increases.

“I think what you’re seeing is a trend,” Gratto added.

Though good news, board members seemed to sympathize with Wilcoxen’s less-than-enthusiastic response.

“This is sort of like the fly on the tail of an elephant,” he joked. “But, at least it’s a start.”

The budget vote will be Tuesday, May 15 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Pierson High School Gym. Should the budget not pass by simple majority, the district would go to its contingency budget, which would strip $551,510 from the proposed budget, which—according to the district—would eliminate the $500,000 set aside for building improvement projects off-the-bat.

Sag Joins East End Schools In Effort to Consolidate Resources

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DSC00938

By Emily J. Weitz and Claire Walla

Imagine a community where various local school districts work together to offer all kids the best possible education, while keeping costs down and making administrations more efficient.

Sound like a pipe dream?

For six East End school districts, it might not be.

This year, the Sag Harbor Union Free School District will join East Hampton, Montauk, Southampton, Springs and Tuckahoe school districts — along with Eastern Suffolk BOCES — to apply for a grant from the state, which would help these districts explore the idea of consolidation. The school districts would potentially be able to cut costs by combining a variety of services, from superintendents and extra-curricular activities, to course offerings for students .

Michael Hartner, Superintendent of the Springs Union Free School District, will act as the lead applicant for all seven districts.

After discussing the idea at a school board meeting February 29, Sag Harbor School Board members voted this week in favor of a resolution to officially join the grant program, called the Local Government Efficiency Grant. The cost for each participating district is $2,777, and the state would kick-in an additional $175,000 for the regional study. The money would go toward hiring a consultant who would analyze ways the regional school systems could potentially combine services.

According to Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, the Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, Shelter Island and Wainscott school districts have opted not to join in on the grant program.

“It’s about thinking beyond the boundaries that we all work under,” said Sag Harbor School Board President Mary Anne Miller at February’s meeting. The “[The consultant] would be looking at various types of reorganization for the school districts, with the focus being to improve educational opportunities and reduce costs for the public.”

Miller added that the fee associated with participating in the grant program would be paid for with money left over in this year’s budget.

“We didn’t spend as much [money] on fuel oil this winter,” she said. “So there’s money in the undesignated fund balance to allot to this.”

The study itself is expected to take place over the course of nine 10 months, during which time the consultant would take a look at school programs as well as administrative functions.

“We’re all struggling to be all things to all students singly and separately, which creates a lot of challenges,” Miller continued, adding that some possible considerations might include centralizing the schools’ business departments.

“Maybe one office would take care of the payroll for all [seven] school districts,” she speculated. She also said foreign language offerings, which vary so much from school to school, could potentially be shared.

“In Sag Harbor, we only offer Spanish and French. East Hampton also has Latin and Chinese. How could we partner together to provide these opportunities for all students?”

Another topic brought up during February’s discussion was class size.

“Montauk has smaller numbers in [its] elementary school,” says Miller. “Maybe there could be some partnering that wasn’t just based on geographical lines. Choices are good. We shouldn’t always try to be so single and separate from one another.”

Miller acknowledged the importance of a hometown school and the sensitive nature of discussing any kind of consolidating or regionalizing schools. But, in the end, she added, “districts can blend a little more, and geographical lines don’t have to be so rigid. Everybody wants to keep the identity of their local hometown school, but there may be opportunities for something better.”

Board Divided Over Supplemental Accident Insurance

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By Claire Walla

Ever since the need for student accident insurance was brought into question last year, it has been a hotly debated item among Sag Harbor School Board members.

Last year, the board voted to eliminate the service (which is not required by law). However, at the urging of some Pierson parents, the school has been asked to reinstate it.

Student accident insurance is a policy that provides limited coverage if a child is injured while at school or during a school activity.  This is different from liability insurance — which the school is required to carry — which would cover the cost of a lawsuit if it was ruled there was negligence on the part of the district.

“We are the owners of the biggest house in the community,” said school board member Sandi Kruel. “We open up our door every single day and we have high-risk activities. For us not to protect ourselves and the children is totally appalling to me.”

At a school board meeting on Monday, January 6, the district’s director of business operations, Janet Verneuille, presented six student accident insurance plans for the board to consider, only two of which she said were viable. A company called Chartis offers one option at $46,453 per year, while Pupil Benefits — the company the school district used up until last year — is $39,521.

According to Verneuille, the problem with Pupil Benefits had to do with “reasonable and customary” costs, which are the costs the insurance company itself determines for a medical procedure. If a family doesn’t have medical insurance, student accident insurance will gauge the amount of money it pays for services based on these “reasonable and customary” estimates.

Because medical expenses are relatively high on the East End, Verneuille said the correlation between the two left many families without much of a financial return.

“The cost benefit wasn’t there,” she said.

Board member Walter Wilcoxen noted that issues surrounding Pupil Benefits arose when a parent in the school district complained of receiving only $300 back on a $3,000 medical bill.

However, board member Chris Tice said that discrepancy was not always true.

“I’ve heard from parents who said they benefited [from student accident insurance],” she said. “Not everyone who filed claims was dissatisfied.”

Plus, she added that student accident insurance could be helpful for those families that don’t currently have health insurance.

“How is that the responsibility of the district as a whole?” Wilcoxen countered. “The primary question is whether or not it’s our obligation to do this. I think it’s the parents’ obligation to provide health care for their children.

Plus, he continued, “For what you’re getting back, it’s not worth it.”

Board member Gregg Schiavoni agreed.

“I think it’s a perk if we carry it,” he stated. “But, for what it’s costing the district to carry this insurance, the payout isn’t worth it. We’re barely under the tax cap. If we want this policy, we’ll have to make cuts to stay under the cap.”

Kruel noted that student accident insurance would come out at about $45 per student, which she said was “miniscule” in the grand scheme of things, considering the school’s budget is currently proposed to come out to $35 million.

She added, “If the bus proposition passes, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars to play with.”

(Part of the 2012-2013 budget presentation included a proposal for the district to purchase six new buses, which Verneuille estimated would save the district up to $1 million over the next 10 years.)

By the end of the meeting, the board was not ready to make any decisions as to whether or not to adopt a new student accident insurance plan until finding out what the “reasonable and customary” rates would be for both Chartis and Pupil Benefits. Verneuille said she would reach out to the insurance companies and try to provide updates at the board’s next business meeting.

In other news…

The Sag Harbor School Board approved plans to tear out the existing maple-wood floor in the Sag Harbor Elementary School gymnasium and replace it with a rubber material called “pulastic.”

According to Principal Matt Malone, a thin layer of concrete beneath the current wood floor cracked because of a steam leak from a pipe beneath the gymnasium. This ultimately caused a portion of the wooden surface to “bubble up,” he said.

“Some of that same problem, though to a lesser scale, has been detected in other segments of the floor,” he explained.

Malone and the district’s buildings and grounds director, Montgomery Granger, said the pipes have been repaired. But the floor — which is relatively new, having been paid for by a bond resolution in 2008 — definitely needs replacing.

District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the floor will be replaced at no cost to tax payers because it is considered a defect and is covered by the school’s insurance.

While several board members lamented the loss of the gym’s relatively new maple flooring, Malone said the Pulastic surface is more durable and easier to maintain than the maple wood.

“Every day we have about 500 people coming into the gym for morning program,” Malone added. “That wear and tear is something that’s been problematic for a long time.”

As for the timeline of the project, Dr. Gratto said construction can begin as soon as next week and run through winter vacation. The goal, he added, is for the school ”to open up on the 27th with a new gym floor.”

Some Say “No” To Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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By Claire Walla


For some parents and community members, measures the Sag Harbor School District is taking to combat the use of drugs and alcohol among students is aggressive — too aggressive.

“Do we want our middle and high school building to mimic a prison?” parent Marianna Levine asked school board members at a regularly scheduled meeting on Monday.

Levine said she shared her perspective with several other parents of children in the Sag Harbor School District who strongly oppose the use of drug-sniffing dogs on campus. She argues that bringing in a police K-9 unit would essentially create a dynamic similar to a “totalitarian state” where students are stripped of their rights.

Community member Leah Oppenheimer also expressed her concerns with bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus.

“I’m really worried about the link of trust between the children and [the administration],” she said. “Dogs don’t have a good reputation. They really signify something scary, even if the intent behind it is good.”

Elementary school parent Lawrence LaRose agreed.

“This is going to erode the bond that this school has with its students,” he said.

And by forcing all students to stay in classrooms during a sniff search based on evidence that some students have been found in possession of drugs, LaRose further contended, “You’re putting that suspicion on all students.”

Levine took particular issue with the notion that the school would go into what it called a “lock-down” scenario at the time of the so-called drug sniff.

“That’s a prison term,” she said.

During the course of the meeting, several board members expressed a keen interest in changing the terminology for the school’s lock-down procedure so that it would be referred to as a “safety check” instead, as Levine suggested.

However, Dr. John Gratto, the district’s superintendent, said the board disagreed with some of Levine’s comments.

“We certainly don’t think you’re correct in saying it would engender a police state,” he stated. “We have, as a basic philosophy, a desire to build relationships with students. Some of you have characterized this as an either/or issue; I don’t think it is. We’ll still continue to build relationships with students, [drug-sniffing dogs] are just another deterrent to keep kids free of drugs and alcohol.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller added, “Where this conversation came from and why we got here today was never about putative measures.”

She said that based on survey results conducted by an organization called OASIS, the board has determined that the use of drugs and alcohol among students needs to decrease.

“This is not a knee-jerk reaction,” she continued. “This is something that’s always on the table here.”

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols added to that by explaining he is currently working to finalize a community coalition to prevent substance abuse. It’s made up of people from 12 different constituents from the community, including parents, teachers, police officers, doctors and even students.

“The goal of the coalition would be to look at what we’re doing comprehensively to lessen the likelihood that students would engage in drugs and drinking,” Nichols said. “Hopefully, we can address this in a way that involves different parts of the community to get different perspectives on the issue.”

Levine said she was pleased to hear that the school would be working to counsel students who may be found in possession of drugs as a consequence of drug-sniffing dogs on campus, and encouraged by the start of the coalition Nichols is putting together.

“I do appreciate that they’ve started the conversation on this,” she said. “And I have some hope that maybe the community coalition will come up with some better counseling solutions.”

However, she said she is still adamantly opposed to having drug-sniffing police units on campus.

“I just believe that the energy they’ve put into the dogs can be better spent looking into counseling programs,” she said.

“I think alcohol is the big problem at the school,” she continued. “And I don’t think the dogs are going to help with that.”

Sag Schools’ Budget Projected Below Two-Percent Cap

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By Claire Walla


Instead of eyeing efforts to pierce the state’s new tax-cap policy, the Sag Harbor School District is hoping to avoid it altogether.

At a budget hearing last Monday, February 6, the district’s superintendent, Dr. John Gratto, revealed a proposed budget for the 2012-2013 school year that came out at $34,182,256, an increase of just barely $1 million over this year’s operating budget.

While it represents a total spending increase of 2.88 percent, Janet Verneuille, the school district’s director of business operations, estimated that this budget figure only accounts for a 1.94 percent tax-levy increase. By comparison, this year’s operating budget represents a tax-levy increase of 5.48 percent.

“I can’t say for sure that we’re within the tax cap, but I’m about 90 percent sure,” Dr. Gratto told the board.

While Verneuille said she is still waiting for the final details on the tax levy legislation from Albany and cannot officially calculate what effect it will have on the district budget until then, her current estimates have the school’s proposed budget coming in under the cap by just about $30,000.

Should this scenario remain true after the school crunches its final budget numbers, the school district’s budget will only need to be approved by a majority of voters in order to be adopted.

(If the school should present a budget that surpasses the state’s tax-levy cap, the district would need a supermajority of all votes — at least 60 percent — to be able to pierce the cap.)

Dr. Gratto made sure to point out that the school’s efforts to keep the budget under the projected tax-levy cap do not involve any cuts to teaching staff, sports teams, elective classes or after-school clubs. They do, however, provide plans for taking $500,000 out of the school’s current fund balance to use for capital projects.

“Using your fund balance is like using your savings,” Dr. Gratto explained. “But we think that we can replicate this [revenue] next year.”

According to Verneuille, the district will end the current school year with a savings of roughly $800,000. About $60,000 is attributed to transportation savings, $467,000 comes from savings in the special education sector, and the business office secured another $267,000 in savings through several measures, including putting internal controls on staff overtime and refinancing the 2002 bond issue.

Verneuille said the school finally reached a fund balance at the end of last year that represented 3.96 percent of the school’s overall expenses (the state recommends 4 percent).

But, Verneuille added that the district could see more savings over the coming years if voters elect to purchase six more buses for the school district.

“I’m optimistic that, if the bus proposition passes, it will have to help us,” Verneuille stated.

By eliminating contractual expenses for transportation, she estimated the district could save $45,000 next year alone, and roughly $600,000 in the next seven years.

“This year is easy, in some ways, because we can look at every category and say where we can make changes,” Verneuille continued.

She added that every budget code, in her opinion, has been scrutinized by every administrator.

“But, at some point you’re going to be getting the best price for every purchase. At some point there’s going to be no more savings unless you move [to cut] different categories.”

At this point, Dr. Gratto said the school district is very lucky that it hasn’t had to make any cuts to personnel.

He referenced slides showing how the school’s expenditures balance out. According to the proposed budget outline, 78 percent of the school’s funds will go toward educational programs, versus 9 percent for administrative needs and 13 percent for capital projects. And of those program expenses, 63 percent of the budget is dedicated to regular K-12 instruction and special education.

“Direct instruction and support instruction are the two [line items] that matter most,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that we’ve been able to leave those untouched.”

Pierson/Bay Street Meeting Sparks More Conversation, Draws No Conclusions

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By Claire Walla


Finally, the two boards came to the same table.

On Tuesday, January 31, school officials and Bay Street Theatre board members held a meeting on the Pierson Middle/High School campus to discuss the potential for a collaboration between the two. The idea of the Bay Street Theatre collaborating with the Sag Harbor School District to create a new theater venue has been floated for a few years. And with Bay Street’s impending move from its current location on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, discussions have been spurred with greater urgency in the last few weeks.

The dialogue oscillated in scope for much of the two-hour meeting, wavering back and forth between small details (like whether it’s possible to obtain a liquor license on a school campus since Bay Street serves alcohol), and larger ideas, such as the school and theater working together to build an entirely new performing arts center in Sag Harbor.

But, while no board member on either side of the aisle completely put the kibosh on the potential for collaboration, there were aspects of this hypothetical partnership that raised red flags for both.

“I don’t want to throw any cold water on the issue, but I can’t possibly see how [an independent theater] can be in this school district, in this area,” school board member Walter Wilcoxen said.

Based on a memo the school district received from its attorney, Tom Volz, Wilcoxen pointed out some of the smaller issues, like limited parking and storage capacity.

But Tracy Mitchell, Bay Street Theatre’s executive director, expressed some concerns with the overall picture.

“One of the biggest issues for us, from a creative perspective, is we need to be able to have complete control over what we produce,” she said.

Though Mitchell and the theater’s creative director, Murphy Davis, assured the school that no expletives would be used on any signage related to the theater, some of the theater’s productions can be a bit, well, “racy.”

While Davis said there are elements to what Bay Street does now that could shift to conform to a different production model — for example, the theater could stop selling alcohol if it managed to secure other revenue sources — creative freedom is non-negotiable.

“We can do some pretty racy content,” he continued. “It’s imperative that we don’t feel hemmed in by that.”

Then there’s the time frame.

At best, school superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the process would take three years to complete. (Later, he explained that the time frame would more realistically take up to five years.) It would take six months for the school’s architect to draw-up a new design and then for the state education department to review the plans, another three months for the school to bid the project, then at least a year to construct the building.

“We’re talking two years after voter approval,” he continued. “And voters would have to approve such a project.”

The district’s current design for a 415-seat theater comes in at an estimated $12 million. Even if private funds were used for the project, Dr. Gratto said state aid would still kick-in for 10 percent of the cost, but that would trigger the need to put the project up to a vote.

Mitchell said the theater has a certain degree of flexibility for discussing future plans because it’s not scheduled to leave its current space until spring of 2013.

“The board would be able to back us renewing our current lease if we were working toward a pre-approved plan,” she said. “But, what we can’t do is say it’s going to take us another year to figure out whether we can get through these hurdles, and in the process lose all our other options.”

According to Mitchell, the theater is actively pursuing all possible options, including in Sag Harbor the Schiavoni property on Jermain Avenue, the National Grid lot on Long Island Avenue, the Sag Harbor Cinema, and in Southampton Village the soon-to-be vacant Parrish Art Museum space on Jobs Lane. At this point, Mitchell said the theater has put together several committees to further explore these options.

“It doesn’t sound like [the school] is going to be at the forefront,” Davis stated at the end of the meeting. Besides issues of parking, storage space and creative control, he said the time frame doesn’t seem viable.

“Just what I’m hearing tonight, it makes me uncomfortable that we’re going to have to wait,” he said.

And while nestling into the Pierson campus may seem like a dream sequence too riddled with legal complications to become a reality, school board members were energized by the idea of a potential collaboration off-campus.

Dr. Gratto directed interests to the piece of empty land directly across the street from Pierson, at the intersection of Division and Marsden streets, where the Trunzo family owns four parcels. According to community member John Landes, who’s already investigated the site, the cost would roughly total $4 million — just to purchase the land.

As for the overall idea of collaboration, Bay Street Board Member Robbie Stein said, “When you look at it, there are a lot of problems. But, on some level, starting this dialogue is bringing to the community the idea of: is there a place for arts in the community?”

The Bay Street Board will meet again next week to further discuss all its options.

Pierson, Bay Street Plan Meeting for 31st (Plus Cafeteria Update)

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By Claire Walla


For some, the case is closed.

For others, it’s hard to know where to begin.

But for administrators in the Sag Harbor School District, the discussion surrounding the future of the Bay Street Theatre carries on.

Recently, the theater announced it will not stay at its current location on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor when its three year lease expires next year. Instead, Bay Street wants to find a more permanent home. Southampton Village has offered Bay Street the current Parrish Art Museum space  on Jobs Lane — which will be vacated later this year when the museum moves to a new home of its own. But theater board members have expressed a strong desire to stay in Sag Harbor and two weeks ago, hosted a public meeting to explore the possibility.

One option raised that night was the creation of a new theater at Pierson High School that could accommodate both Bay Street and school productions.

Addressing the Sag Harbor Board of Education at a regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, district superintendent Dr. John Gratto announced the district would be meeting with Bay Street Theatre board members on Tuesday, January 31 at 6 p.m. Dr. Gratto said he had met with the theater’s executive director, Tracy Mitchell, and proposed next week’s meeting “for the purpose of discussing how we might collaborate with each other.”

School board member Chris Tice supported the idea, but urged Dr. Gratto to create an agenda that could be circulated to the public before discussions get underway.

“Let’s get it out there early,” she said.

School board’s president Mary Anne Miller agreed.

“This is the right thing to do,” she said, adding “It will probably be a lively discussion.”

The meeting will be open to the public and largely revolve around a plan already in place for the construction of a new Pierson Middle/High School auditorium. The blueprint for a 300-seat auditorium was created in 2009, but was never put to a community vote as part of a bond measure.

However, this fall the school’s Facilities Planning Committee recommended the school board continue to pursue the reconstruction project through private funds instead of taxpayer money. (The committee also recommended the district pursue the most expensive of three proposed reconstruction plans, at an estimated cost of $12 million.)

Dr. Gratto said rebuilding the school’s auditorium is a crucial aspect of any potential collaboration.

“There are hundreds of details that still need to be fleshed out,” Dr. Gratto added. “But my general rule is: if there’s a will, there’s a way.”


In other news…


School district business director Janet Verneuille reported that the Pierson cafeteria has improved its sales — and its menu — since its new manager Greg Pisciotta came on board at the beginning of last year.

“Last year at this time we had a loss of about $20,000,” Verneuille said.

Referring to a chart that showed cafeteria revenues and expenditures for the first half of both 2010 and 2011, she explained the cafeteria earned about $13,973 more this year than it had by this time last year.

“We think we’ll come in in the black this year,” Verneuille continued. “Break even, or maybe run a $5,000 to $6,000 profit.”

Verneuille added that Pierson had the exact same number of students in December 2011 as it did in December 2010, so “obviously, we’re selling more.”

According to Pisciotta, this was the goal when he came on board last year: to break-even and to make the program healthier.

He said he increased program participation by increasing the presence of popular menu items and adding items students specifically requested (like flavored tea). He also cut costs by getting rid of ingredients that weren’t frequently used — food items he referred to as “orphans” — and cracking down on portion control.

“Everyone knows and loves Sue Higgins,” Pisciotta said of the woman who considerately serves Pierson students each afternoon. “But, I always kid her that she feeds the kids like they’re her kids and they’re going off to war.”

He said he’s tried to regulate more portion control to ensure the cafeteria maintains healthy profit margins.

In the way of providing healthier options, Pisciotta said he’s made a number of changes based largely on the advice of the school board. For instance, he replaced “compressed” chicken patties and nuggets to the “full muscle” variety, which he said is not made with rib meat or rib juice.

He’s also been purchasing vegetables and fruits that are flash frozen, rather than canned in containers of fructose. And healthy snack options, like Greek yogurt, hummus and sunflower seeds are seeing some sales.

He added that salad bar sales have improved, thanks to one crucial readjustment:

“As soon as I changed over to iceberg lettuce [from mixed greens] the sales doubled,” he said. “For some reason, kids like it better.”

Heading into the second half of the year, Pisciotta said he plans to add new menu items like roasted chicken, beef stew and chicken pot pie.

Pisciotta did add, however, that sales of certain snack items — like Pop-Tarts and breakfast bars — have dropped since the school started carrying “healthier” options. (Pop-Tarts are now whole grain.)

“I would say if we put [breakfast bars] in tomorrow we’d see about a $250 increase for the week,” he speculated.

But, even so, Pisciotta said the cafeteria is in healthy financial standing.

“Even with the increase of the cost of food and supplying paper cups [instead of the less-expensive Styrofoam], I still think we’ll break even.”

Board Looks at Logistics of Bringing in Drug-Sniffing

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Heller_SCPD at Sag School Board Mtg 1-23-12_0241

By Claire Walla


Inspector Stuart Cameron held all the attention in the room. Standing straight and tall in a navy blue uniform adorned with a bright badge, which stood out against the rows of young adult novels that are usually the focal point in the Pierson Middle/High School library, Cameron faced the Sag Harbor Board of Education and proceeded to talk about drug-sniffing dogs.

As commander of the Suffolk County Police Department’s special control bureau, Cameron said he recently initiated the effort to bring drug-sniffing dogs into schools across Suffolk County. The Suffolk County K-9 unit has to date visited seven different school districts, two of them this year, he said, although “neither resulted in an arrest.”

Cameron was asked to give a presentation on the Suffolk County K-9 unit at Monday’s school board meeting, January 23, in anticipation of the Sag Harbor School District taking proactive measures to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the middle/high school campus sometime this year.

Cameron explained that the police dogs are trained to detect several illegal substances, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and crack.

“Because of the insurgence of heroin [in Suffolk County], we thought it would be appropriate to use them in schools,” he said of the dogs.

School board members note that heroine is not part of the problem they’ve noticed at Pierson, but marijuana is.

Cameron continued by explaining how the drug-sniffing procedure would work.

“We came up with a program that’s very conservative,” he began.

Working in conjunction with Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano, who will be the local law enforcement liaison, Suffolk County police would conduct a “non-targeted sniff,” as opposed to a full-blown search. In the instance of such a “sniff,” Cameron said, District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto and Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols would be asked to identify a general area where there are student lockers, which the K-9 unit would explore.

Cameron asked that the administrators also identify the beginning of a class period when the dogs could be brought on campus. In this way, all students would be asked to remain in their classrooms during the course of the “sniff.” The procedure, as it’s currently laid out, would prevent dogs from actively sniffing-out any drugs potentially located in classrooms — either in students’ backpacks or carried on their person.

“At this time, [the program] is solely geared toward lockers and school facilities,” Cameron said. “Our goal is to provide a service, not to interfere with school operations.”

Also, before Suffolk County Police would bring dogs onto the Pierson campus, Cameron said he would require the district to send a letter to all parents that explains the drug-sniffing procedure, as well as the district’s policy on the matter. Included in this letter would be legal explanations of what a “sniff” fully entails, as well as a clear explanation of the district’s regulation over student lockers.

According to Cameron, “the scope of the letter [sent to parents] should include the fact that the school owns all locks and lockers, and that lockers can be subject to search without advanced knowledge.”

It should also be made clear, he said, that students are not permitted to share their lockers with other students, because ultimately “they are solely responsible for whatever’s inside.”

When asked whether he felt teachers would have enough knowledge of police procedures before a potential “sniff” were to take place, Nichols explained that all teachers have already been trained in how to conduct their classrooms during lock-down — and this scenario would not be much different.

According to Dr. Gratto, at the start of the class period during which the dogs will be brought on campus, Nichols would get on the P.A. system and require that everyone stay in classrooms until further notice.

“The announcement that would be made is that we’re going into lock-down,” Nichols added.

In the end, Dr. Gratto noted, this would be a precautionary measure meant to deter students from bringing illegal substances on campus. But, should any student be found to be in possession of any drugs, he said the school would first report the incident to police. (Chief Fabiano would be on-hand to make any potential arrests.)

“But, our interest is in having a save environment,” Dr. Gratto continued. “That student would be strongly encouraged to attend counseling. That would be a major component of what we do.”

Sag Harbor School Board members unanimously approved the first reading of the school’s new policy on drug-sniffing dogs. The second and final reading will be on February 9.