Tag Archive | "John Gratto"

A Conversation With: John Gratto

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Gratto

By Claire Walla

Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto who, before coming to Sag Harbor, worked in the Windham-Ashland-Jewett School District in upstate New York. The area, including the school, was decimated by floodwaters in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and earlier this month, he went back to visit. Now, he’s hoping the Sag Harbor community can help the school there rebuild.


Having lived in Windham and been a vital part of the local community, what was it like seeing all the pictures of the aftermath of the storm?


I felt so sad. I almost cry when I see those pictures. In Prattsville, the entire main street is gone. A lot of people don’t have their livelihood anymore.


Was there still a lot of floodwater within buildings when you were there, or had it mostly dissipated by then?


Mostly you could just see watermarks on buildings. When I went into the movie theatre it was so stunning to me. I’m six feet tall and the watermark on the white screen was higher than I was.


It looks like the majority of the damage happened right in the center of town.


Well, [in a mountainous region] people tend to live in the valley near the river. And when that river floods it affects all those homes and businesses. My [former] guidance secretary: her home got washed away.

What was Windham like before the flood?


Windham was a beautiful town, much like Sag Harbor. As you’re driving in, there’s a sign on the side of the road that says, “The Gem of the Catskills.” And it really was…

It’s no longer the gem of the Catskills.


Did you visit the home where you used to live?


I did. I actually lived at a bed and breakfast not far from a trailer park that had 23 trailers in it. Now, there are no more trailers. Those 23 people are all homeless.

I asked [the three families now living at the bed and breakfast] if they needed any help with anything and they said they didn’t.

But, of course, I was there two weeks after the flood.


I’m trying to put the situation into terms I can try to imagine, like what would it look like if there was comparable flooding here on Main Street in Sag Harbor?


It is so difficult to imagine. In Windham, the school must be about 400 feet away from the river. So, the water was 20 feet above flood levels. You look at a river and you think, how can that river ever be so big? Think how high the water would have to be to leave mud in the windowsills. It was at least six to eight feet high.


With floodwaters destroying so many small businesses, I imagine many residents are now unemployed.


I would bet that about one-third of the people right near Route 23 are unemployed. Everyone related to the ski mountain is likely unemployed, too. I rode my bicycle to the mountain and there’s a big sign that says, “closed.” Many, many people in the town work there. After the school, the mountain is the biggest employer.


Were you able to visit the school at all?


There were signs outside the school that said “do not enter/hazardous area,” so I tried to stay away. But [of what he was able to see], the superintendent’s office didn’t exist anymore. It was just metal studs in the wall. They’ve been working feverishly to open the school and they’re hoping to open next week. [An update on the school’s website indicates the school will officially be opening September 26.]


With buildings washed away and classrooms completely flooded, there’s a lot the town needs to do to get back to normal. Do you know how the town aims to tackle this recovery effort?


When I was there, the school had a restoration company doing some of the cleanup. I noticed these trailers called “quick-response team,” which deal with flood and mold issues. With wet studs and wet walls, mold can quickly develop.


Do you think many of the kids will have left the school district because of all the damage?


No. There are two big differences between that school district and ours. It’s much more geographically sparse, and there aren’t any good private school choices in the area. Plus, the school is the center of the community. I don’t think people would want to leave the district, there’s a lot of affinity for that school.


So, did this event cause the community to band together?


Yes! There’s a picture that was taken of a woman on Main Street [in front of the town’s historical society/library] holding a pot of coffee. She went out there the first day and made coffee for the people who were working. The next day, a man came out with a gas grill and it all just grew from there. Lots of food was donated.


What does the school need in terms of supplies?


I talked to the superintendent this morning [Friday, September 16] and he said they’re most in need of money. The piano, percussion instruments, marching band uniforms: they all got flooded. Also, ski equipment. Skiing’s big up there, it’s part of their physical education. So, more than anything else, they need money to buy all that stuff.

We have some surplus supplies that we can donate to them, like library books. But the superintendent asked me to hold off on donating things until late October because they don’t have anyplace to store it yet … their storage building and their bus garage got washed away.


When you talked to him, did he sound optimistic?


Yes, he’s a very positive, get-it-done type of guy. He used to be in the military. But, at the same time, he acknowledges that they need plenty of help.


The Pierson High School National Honor Society is working to organize a fundraiser for the Windham/Ashland/Jewett School District. For anyone wishing to send money to the school, you can send checks directly to: Windham-Ashland-Jewett Central School, Main Street, P.O. Box 429, Windham, N.Y. 12496.

Enrollment Is Up In Sag Harbor

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By Claire Walla


At its first meeting since the start of the new school year, Monday, September 12, the Sag Harbor School Board visited a topic that’s spurred debate across the nation: state testing.

“As a school, what’s important to us is, number one, looking at individual performance,” said Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone.

He explained that the elementary school uses these tests to see where kids’ individual strengths and weaknesses are. And for those kids who have scored either a one or a two — both being below the state standard — the school offers Academic Intervention Services (AIS), during which students receive an extra period of instruction in the subject they need help in.

“We look specifically at individual performance, but also — as administrators and teachers — we look for specific areas where we as a school can do better,” Malone added.

This year, Malone said “the bar has been raised” in mathematics owing to the fact that the state realized last year’s numbers had been inflated and took action to regulate scoring. Schools’ scores across the state consequently dropped by about 25 points.

Going into this year, 73 percent of third graders, 79 percent of fourth graders and 87 percent of fifth graders have passed state math exams. In English Language Arts (ELA), 68 percent of third graders, 84 percent of fourth graders and 68 percent of fifth graders scored a three or a four on their exam.

At the middle school, Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said the numbers don’t vary too much from where they sit at the elementary school level. In mathematics, 79 percent of sixth graders, 69 percent of seventh graders and 63 percent of eighth graders passed their exams. As for ELA, 80 percent of sixth graders, 68 percent of seventh graders and 66 percent of eighth graders scored a three or a four.

Picking up where Malone left off, Nichols said that middle school students scoring ones and twos on state tests will receive academic intervention services (AIS) as they do in the elementary school. He went on to say that AIS classes are also offered at Pierson, and they get more specific the older the student gets.

“The state says that you have to provide AIS for the minimum requirements for graduation,” he explained, which does not include higher-level math courses like Algebra II and Trigonometry, for instance. “But, we’ve decided to [offer those AIS courses] anyway here in Sag Harbor.”

In the end, Nichols said he doesn’t put too much weight on these test scores. He explained that the only statistical correlation between middle schoolers’ state test scores and high school Regents Exams is that students who score ones are more likely to also fail Regents Exams. The same has not proven true for students who score twos, he added.

According to Nichols, the greatest benefit of state tests is not about statewide rankings, it’s about assessing students within the school district from year to year.

For example, in terms of ESL scores, he continued, “I see a strong correlation between our ESL [English as a Second Language] population and some of our lower scores. I also see a strong correlation with Regents assessments as these students get older.”

Nichols explained that this population of the student body has been shown to struggle more, on average, on state tests.

“If you think about it, that population is faced with learning a subject and a language at the same time. That’s not easy.”

In other news…

School superintendent Dr. John Gratto informed the Sag Harbor School Board that enrollment numbers are up in all areas. Total enrollment at the elementary school has increased by 54 students (25 of them coming from pre-K), putting class sizes “just a touch over 19” at all grade levels, said elementary school principal Matt Malone. “It’s very manageable.”

Pierson Middle/High School has seen a less sizeable jump of 12 students.

Dr. Gratto also pointed out a significant increase over last year in the way of tuition-paying students. Since the end of last year, the school district has added nine more out-of-district students

Athletic director Montgomery “Monty” Granger gave the school board an update on athletic programs. While high school boys and girls cross-country, soccer and field hockey teams have “adequate participation,” there are a few teams — particularly at the middle school level — that may not have the numbers to compete this fall.

The girls JV tennis team at no time had more than six participants, Granger said, and the middle school girls cross country team only has four. Because cross-country requires a minimum of six players to complete, Granger said he’s giving the team a couple more days to come up with an adequate number.

Similarly, the girls middle school soccer team currently only has six participants, Granger said, “So, unfortunately, my recommendation is going to be that we not continue with that team.”

He went on to explain that, had it been prior to the start of the season, the girls would have been able to try out for the boys’ team. However, according to Section XI regulations, the girls are no longer eligible.

“My suggestion is that we offer a middle school girls intramural team,” Granger continued. “We can provide separate space for this potential intramural program.”

Proposal to Add Counselor

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By Claire Walla


With the two-percent tax levy cap looming on the horizon, school districts across he state will be struggling to find ways of cutting costs, without sacrificing services. At a Sag Harbor School Board meeting last Monday, August 14, Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols offered a plan he said would not only be cost-effective, it would increase the services the district provides.

Last year, the high school spent about $74,000 for transitional services for about 14 special needs students. But, according to District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto, he and Nichols have begun talking about using that money instead to fund a new position at the school.

“From my perspective, spending $74,000 for transitional services for 14 or 15 students a year is pretty expensive,” Nichols commented at the meeting. Transitional services are mandated by the state for some special needs students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Once a student with such an IEP turns 15, the school is required to bring someone in to help that student get through the course work he or she needs to graduate, in addition to helping that student explore various options available to him or her post-graduation.

“Our thought is that we could not only do that, but we could bring [in a counselor with] other skills that would help the growing needs that we have,” Nichols explained.

The way he and Dr. Gratto have discussed it, that $74,000 can be channeled into a full-time position, bringing in a counselor who will be on the campus five days a week, instead of a part-time person who might only be at the school for two. The idea is in its preliminary stage, but Nichols said at this point he sees this as a $50-55,000 salary, which, plus benefits, would roughly equate to $74,000.

The person in this new position would serve two main needs of the school: helping with transitional services, and doing more outreach to parents and students who are part of the school’s English as a Second Language (ESL) community. This aspect is not required by the state. But Nichols said it’s crucial for the district — which currently has about 60 ESL students, 25 of them in the high school — to address the growing needs of the ESL community.

“Obviously the person we hire would have to be bilingual,” Nichols said. He also urged the school to hold-off on hiring someone until the right candidate — with a background in counseling and/or social work, plus Spanish language skills — is found.

The third aspect of this new position, Nichols continued, would involve hands-on experience for Pierson students who could serve as mentors for ESL or special needs students. To this, he added, “I think it would be preferable to hire this person in the spring, which would allow him or her to cultivate relationships with the people who would want to serve as mentors [beginning next fall, 2012].”

Schools: Gearing Up For Day One

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By Claire Walla


Taking Advantage of Tax Cap Exemptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Summer School a Success

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

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

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

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


Enrollment Increases

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

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

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


Playground to be Ready for Start of School

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

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


New Courses for the New Year

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

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

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

Bell Will Get A New Purpose

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By Claire Walla

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

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

Sag Harbor School Board Adds Wellness as a Goal

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By Claire Walla

When they gathered last Tuesday, July 12 to discuss goals for the coming school year, the Sag Harbor school district’s Board of Education and its top administrators revisited the three overarching goals they had set the previous year: to improve academic achievement, communicate effectively with the school community, continue to maintain fiscal responsibility.
And they added a fourth.
“We should be graduating children that are looking at the world in a healthy way; my generation seems to have gotten something wrong,” said school board member Walter Wilcoxen referring to society’s unsustainable, unhealthy, or wasteful habits.
He alluded to various topics the board discussed that evening — from banning Snapple in the cafeteria or removing costly and environmentally wasteful bottled water from vending machines, to emphasizing more health-conscious class lessons — when he said that wellness is a way to do that.
“That’s the big goal,” he continued. “If we do that, we will create better educated children.”
The group was unanimous in deciding to add the fourth goal for the upcoming school year: to develop a K-12 wellness curriculum.
Newly elected School Board President Mary Anne Miller said that, as the board’s liaison to the Wellness Committee this past year, she spent a lot of time discussing the topic and trying to impose gradual, incremental changes in the district — beginning with the cafeteria. While it has made improvements over the last year, there are still changes that need to be made, she said.
“I’m not comfortable with teaching kids that these things are bad for them and then [at the same time] selling them to them … that’s insane,” she said. Miller added that the district should eliminate unhealthy options, like Snapple, to make space for more health-conscious choices.
Board members agreed that the focus on wellness will see fundamental change in certain aspects of the district.
Board member Chris Tice spoke to the ills of using candy in the classroom as a reward for good work.
“I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any sugar,” she explained. “But sometimes this happens on a weekly basis.”
And Miller also mentioned the overuse of paper at both campuses, a practice she said she’d like to see the school cut-back on.
In terms of communication, board member Ed Drohan emphasized the need for more outreach and communication with the community at large, a point board member Theresa Samot agreed with.
“I think that’s very important, and it’s something we’ve talked about for years,” she said. “There are wonderful things happening here and the community doesn’t know about it.”
The board discussed the notion of issuing press releases to the community at large and uniting the school community with a software program that would send out regular e-mail blasts and perhaps even text messages to parents and others in the district.
Pierson High School Principal Jeff Nichols explained plans to spearhead the International Baccalaureate (IB) program this year, applying for IB recognition at an accelerated rate in order to be ready to implement the program in the fall of 2012.
“It’s a pretty big goal,” he admitted. “My assessment of the school is that we’ve plateaued to some extent. But, the bigger picture is that we’ll be graduating students who think in a bigger way. If we want them to be broader thinkers, this is probably the easiest way to do it.”
Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone also said he would make it a point to explore the IB primary years program, but he doesn’t aim to take any significant actions this year.
District-wide, both campuses will also push an emphasis on math in the coming year (much like writing was emphasized this past year), and superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted that the district will work on establishing a grading policy to unify grading standards among all teachers, both academic and physical education.
Finally, to remain financially responsible, the board talked about improving outreach to other districts — primarily the Springs School, which no longer automatically filters into East Hampton — in order to profit from students paying out-of-district tuition. (Dr. Gratto mentioned he had already ordered promotional brochures for the school.)
And then came the topic of the two-percent tax cap.
Without getting into any specifics, all in attendance agreed that this legislation will need to be assessed in a timely, ongoing and very public manner. Those in the room concluded that the issue will be brought up at least once a month, at every other business meeting leading up to the budget season.
“As someone whose kids go to school in Southampton, I would want to know what two percent is going to mean in a concrete way for my kids,” Nichols said. “The more people know, the more likely they’ll be to support a budget that’s responsible, but above two percent.”

School Hopes to End 2010 with $625,000 Surplus

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Despite closing the 2008-2009 fiscal year with a $362,000 shortfall, officials with the Sag Harbor School District seem certain the district will be able to close out the 2009-2010 books with $625,000 in unreserved fundbalance, or surplus monies. During an interview on Tuesday afternoon with the press, superintendent Dr. John Gratto said $505,000 carried over from the last school year will likely remained untouched this year and will remain in the surplus fund for the district. As the board attempts to operate with leaner reserves, Dr.Gratto said the district expects to save $100,000 through a budget freeze, $160,000 from transportation costs, and $300,000 from a decreased need in services provided byBOCES . According to the district’s business manager Len Bernard, $625,000 will account for around 2.2 percent of this years budget. Although the state allows for schools to carry up to four percent of the budget in unreserved fundbalance into the next fiscal year, Bernard said keeping two to three percent in undesignated surplus is appropriate for a district the size of Sag Harbor.
Dr. John Gratto stated that the unanticipated expenses in the 2008-2009 budget, including $200,000 for tuition at the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, $360,000 for potential retroactive pay, and around $200,000 in other overspent line items, would have been further exacerbated had it not been for savings accrued over the year.The savings included eliminating positions in the school lunch program and the business office, switching telephone companies, and renegotiating special education contracts.
Although the district received positive feedback in several areas from their independent auditor Coughlin, Foundotos, Cullen and Danowski, LLP, the audit for 2008-2009 pointed out several areas of improvement. The auditors noted that some transfers “took place after the appropriation had beenover-expended ” and recommended that the district make budget transfers before over spending occurs. In addition, school board president WalterWilcoxen noted on Tuesday that the board will approve almost all transfers. Previously, the board only examined transfers over $10,000.

School Finds $360,000 Hole; Also Bernard Moves on to East Hampton Town

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With the Sag Harbor School District already grappling with a challenging budget year, independent auditor Jill Sanders visited the school board on Monday evening to reveal a $360,000 shortfall in the 2008-2009 budget. In addition the board members recently learned they must also find a replacement for Len Bernard, the district’s business manager. In an interview on Wednesday, Bernard revealed he will resign his position with the school district in order to take a financial job in East Hampton Town government.

During his tenure in the Sag Harbor School District, Bernard said he enacted several accounting controls based on recommendations made by the district’s audit firm Coughlin, Foundotos, Cullen & Danowski, LLP. Sanders, an independent auditor with the company, mentioned these improvements at a board of education meeting on Monday. Sanders was at the meeting to present the results of the 2008-2009 audit.

“I am pleased to render an unqualified opinion, which is the highest level of assurance,” announced Sanders at the meeting.

She added though, the board closed out the 2008-2009 fiscal year with a $362,000 shortfall due to unforeseen expenses. The district covered these expenses with undesignated surplus funds. By the end of the last school year, the district’s undesignated fund balence was precariously low at $65,818.

School superintendent Dr. John Gratto and Bernard attributed this shortfall to unexpected costs. The district had budgeted to send six students to the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, a charter school offering special education classes, but ultimately 10 children from Sag Harbor attended the school. Bernard said this increased out-of-district tuition expenses by around $200,000. In addition, the district overspent their budget for legal fees by $50,000 because of the ongoing teacher negotiations. Close to $30,000 had to be paid in unbudgeted overtime for the janatorial staff. Bernard added the district’s health insurance rates also increased at the beginning of January 2009, which exacerbated the over spending.

On a separate note, the auditors suggested the board increase the money set aside for potential staff raises (or accrued liabilities) to $388,785 for payments on renegotiated contracts. The board had originally funded salaries in 2008-2009 to reflect a one percent raise for the teachers, which was the offer on the table at the time. Subsequently, the board has offered the teachers a 2.5 percent annual salary increase, though the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor is seeking a 3.9 percent increase. Based on the recent recommendations by an independent fact finder, the auditors suggested the board prepare for a three percent salary increase, taking into account the fact pay raises would be retroactive to 2008.

Dr. Gratto said the $360,000 which would cover those potential three pecent raises will be derived from $505,000 in unreserved surplus that was moved from last fiscal year into this year’s budget.

Though the money is being set aside, Dr. Gratto cautioned this doesn’t obligate the board to amend their contract offer to TASH.

“Say you have $10,000 to buy a car, but you might find an $8,000 car that serves you better. You surely aren’t obligated to spend [the rest of the money],” said Dr. Gratto, by way of example. He added that money in this account not spent would be redirected to the surplus and could offset the school tax increase.

The state allows school districts to retain a maximum of four percent of their total annual budget for a fund balance, or rainy day fund. Bernard noted the current school board has sought to pare down the district’s fund balance so that it falls within state guidelines. In previous years, the surplus was larger to provide a substantial financial cushion for the district. For example, the 2005-2006 budget year ended with a fund balance of $3.8 million (or roughly 16 percent) out of a $24 million budget. In 2008-2009, the end of the year overall fund balance was close to $860,000 (or three percent) for a $28.5 million budget. Bernard added an audit report from 2007 said before June of 2006 the district’s fund balances “exceeded the statutory limit.”

“When you have a budget that has a general fund balance that is theoretically in the legal limit and come the end of the year the fund balance exceeds this limit, you clearly over budgeted,” noted board member Ed Haye. “The district did this for a number of years. With zero-based budgeting, the board made a conscious effort to budget more accurately. When you have mistakes in the budget they become more apparent with a lean budget.”

Haye added the board will accept a corrective action plan, based on the results of the 2008-2009 audit, at the board of education business meeting on Monday, December 21.

Bernard said he will help the district through the transition period in finding a replacement.

“I will help with the transfer [of duties] through the [2010-2011] budget process,” he said.

“At this point, the plan is to transition someone [into the position] in January,” said Bernard in an interview. “I feel my heart is in East Hampton and I want to get the town back on its feet, but I am not going to leave the district high and dry.”

Bernard has a history of working for the Town of East Hampton. From 2000 through 2004 he served as the budget officer for then supervisor Jay Schneiderman. Bernard later lost his own bid for the supervisor’s seat to Bill McGintee. Bernard added that the current contentious teacher contract negotiations in Sag Harbor weren’t the impetus for his decision and that in fact, he wished to work for East Hampton Town once again.

Sag Harbor School Board Defends its Negotiating Position; Ready to Meet

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The Sag Harbor School Board of Education released a letter to Sag Harbor residents on Thursday, October 15, saying the board plans to “schedule negotiation sessions in the near future.” School board president Walter Wilcoxen reiterated the board’s intent to return to the negotiating table at a Board of Education meeting on Monday evening. On Wednesday, Wilcoxen reported that the school’s attorney Tom Volz had proposed three separate dates to meet and start negotiations with the Teacher Association of Sag Harbor (TASH). Wilcoxen said the board would meet with TASH within two weeks at the earliest or by early November at the latest. But TASH president Eileen Kochanasz later confirmed that the organization could meet with the board on either October 30 or November 3.

Although the meeting was well attended by members of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, Wilcoxen contended he wouldn’t answer questions as the board hopes to refrain from negotiating in public.

Wilcoxen did note that “the board has spent more than several meetings going over our negotiating concepts and positions.” He added that superintendent Dr. John Gratto planned to speak with the board’s attorney Tom Volz and would instruct him to reach out to the TASH representative to plan a future meeting. 

“Communication between the parties must continue in order to identify options that could address each side’s concerns,” stated the board in the letter. “We look forward to working with the teachers to resolve all outstanding differences and settle the contract in a mutually beneficial manner.”

In the letter, the board recapitulated the history of the negotiations — since they first began in February of 2008 — and referenced the fact finder’s report from August 2009. However, the board also highlighted data revealing the fiscal condition of the community. According to the board’s letter, the Sag Harbor School District has the lowest combined wealth ratio compared to the Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Southampton school districts.

“Combined Wealth Ratio is defined by the State Education Department as ‘based on a combined wealth, which weights income and property equally … each wealth ratio was computed by dividing the district’s wealth by the state average wealth as defined by law …’ The purpose is to measure the relative wealth between districts based on a State standard. A district of average wealth would have a Combined Wealth Ratio of 1.0,” explained the board. According to the data presented by the board, Sag Harbor has a CWR of around 4.85, Southampton has a CWR of 8.47, East Hampton has a CWR of 7.45 and Bridgehampton has a CWR of 20.87. (These figures are based on data from 2007.) At the board meeting, TASH member Jim Kinnier contended these figures were taken out of context, saying the Sag Harbor School district remains the 14th richest school district in the state.

The board also presented the property tax levy as a percentage of the general fund expenditure, which in other words “measures the degree to which a district depends on the residents to pay property taxes and to support the cost of education.” The board showed figures from 2008 where 87.8% of the district’s expenses are derived from property taxes and not other sources like state or federal aid. This figure is compared to 79.7% in Southampton, 73.8% in East Hampton and 65% in Bridgehampton. The board added that the reliance on residential households is further exacerbated by less commercial development in Sag Harbor compared to East Hampton and Southampton.

During a later interview, Wilcoxen said the board released these figures because TASH has argued that if Southampton and East Hampton school districts were able to give their teachers raises over 3.5 percent then Sag Harbor should be able to make the same commitment. 

“[The board's] view is that we are not the same. One of the main things we wanted to say to the community is that we have less wealth to tax,” explained Wilcoxen.

The board also mentioned that they expect post-retirement health benefit costs will increase from $352,000, which the district spent last year, to $740,000 by 2014.

In some of the closing remarks of the letter, the board said: “The Board desires to reach an agreement that, in its entirety: (1) will result in the community supporting the district and teachers (2) will be fair to teachers, (3) will further the academic achievement of students, (4) will recognize the current economic realities and (5) will be supported by the best available data.”

Asked why the board published the letter now, board member Mary Anne Miller said she thought the figures were “an important piece of information for the community as a whole.” She added that the board is continuing to work on the data. Of the acrimonious personal note the discussions between TASH and the board have taken recently, Miller added “I am not judging [the teacher's] character. I am committed to education too … [But] without the finances we can’t do anything.”

A copy of the letter can be found on the home page of the district’s website at http://www.sagharborschools.org/


Big Money Slated for Bigger Plans at Sag Harbor Schools

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By Andrew Rudansky

The Sag Harbor School Board appears poised to let the public vote on a $6 million dollar plan that they say would solve many of the district’s most pernicious problems including bringing the two buildings up to state code and other safety issues.

A Long Range Planning Committee report by Larry Salvesen and Fred Seeba, of BSS Architects and Engineers compiled the combined cost of many construction and maintenance projects that have been discussed in previous years. Some of these projects are required to bring the building up to state and federal code, while others are simply beautification projects.

The first number that Salvesen and Seeba presented to the board was $5,781,670, a figure they say could be brought to a referendum vote as early as December. This number was broken up into three sections; the bulk of the money — $4,311,229 — would go to the “projects list” – filled with the construction projects to improve and bring the building up to code, such as ventilation improvements in the elementary school, roof replacement on the high school gym, and replacement of all door knobs with levers — a provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Another  $434,441 would go directly to what Salvesen and Seeba call the maintenance list, projects in both the elementary and middle/high schools which require urgent attention or create a hazardous situation. The final $1,035,000 would be relegated to the creation of additional parking. The report points out that currently the Sag Harbor School District is 39 spaces short of what is required by state code.

“You can see there is a shortage of parking,” said Salvesen.

The report recommends expansion of the elementary school Hampton Street “U-lot” by 25 stalls, and expansion of the Atlantic Street lot at the elementary school by 26 stalls. The report also recommends expansion of the middle/high school Jermain Avenue lot  — which Salvesen says is currently “a bit of a free for all” — by 17 spaces.

The creation of these parking spaces would bring the total on school grounds to 231, well over the state’s required number.

“I am very optimistic about this [proposed referendum] because this project will address many long standing problems in the school for about $50 a year for the average homeowner,” said Dr. Gratto citing the committee report saying a home valued at $1,000,000 in Southampton would see an impact of about $50 a year ($48 for a similar home on the East Hampton side of the district).

The long range planning committee also came up with a $12,131,263 proposed auditorium plan to create a modern 415-seat auditorium for the Pierson middle/high school in the school’s current courtyard. The new auditorium would meet code requirements and include cat walks, a 27-foot deep stage, downstairs storage space and a lobby. The current facility is not handicap accessible nor does it have proper egress routes.

“Passing the $6 million dollar plan is feasible now, the auditorium plan is not feasible,” said Wilcoxen who believes it is, nonetheless, good to have plans on hand that could be used in the future.

In addition to these two proposals, an Energy Performance Contract was submitted to the board by Seeba containing recommendations for energy conservation measures totaling $1,866,005 such as installation of energy-saving windows, use of energy efficient light bulbs and the addition of solar panels. If included in the proposed December 1 referendum vote, Seeba and Salvesen estimate that EPC construction could be completed as early as October 2010.

In total the Long Range Planning Committee Report includes $19,778,938 in proposed spending.

“Having this number is quite helpful, because we need to budget these things over time,” said Wilcoxen.

Some people in attendance voiced concern over the recent salary increase of Dr. Gratto. His 13.5 percent raise increases his salary by $25,000, to $210,000. Wilcoxen repeated what he has said earlier about the increase, noting that Dr. Gratto performed admirably in his evaluation and that “we started him at below market salary…even with the raise we are getting a little bit of a discount here.” The evaluation has not been made public, but Wilcoxen maintained that Dr. Gratto, “met or exceeded our expectations.”

Still, several community members took the opportunity to express their anger over the raise during what some called “this tough economic time.”

“Why did the board go about the salary increase of superintendent Gratto in a way that kept it secret from the public?” asked former board of education president Walter Tice. He went on to say that he learned about the raise not from the board but from an article in The Sag Harbor Express.

“You owe the community an apology on how it was handled,” Tice added.

“It was a consensus decision,” responded Wilcoxen. I am not going to apologize for it. It wasn’t a secret.”

The board also introduced Montgomery Granger, the new director of physical education, health and athletics/ supervisor of building and grounds. Granger replaces Bill Madsen, who recently resigned, and will serve a three-year probationary term beginning in August at an annual salary of $125,000. Granger was the athletic director at Comsewogue School District from 2000 to 2004.

“I’m thrilled to be part of the team,” said Granger.

The board also addressed several administrative chores and returning board member Walter Wilcoxen, newly elected board member Gregg Schiavoni, school superintendent Dr. John Gratto and district clerk Mary Adamczyk were each administered an oath of office in turn. Wilcoxen and board member Theresa Samot were unanimously reelected board president and vice president respectively