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Four Candidates Announced in Race for Sag Harbor School Board

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By Tessa Raebeck

With three incumbents’ terms ending this summer, four candidates—two of them newcomers—have come forward to enter the race for the Sag Harbor School District Board of Education (BOE).

The three-year terms of BOE President Theresa Samot and longtime members Sandi Kruel and Mary Anne Miller are ending June 30. While Ms. Miller will not be seeking reelection, Ms. Samot and Ms. Kruel have again entered the contest.

Thomas Ré, who had an unsuccessful bid for the school board last year, and newcomer Diana Kolhoff are also in the running.

The three open spots are for three-year terms beginning July 1 and expiring June 30, 2017.

Diana Kolhoff.

Diana Kolhoff

Ms. Kolhoff, who moved to the district from Southampton about five years ago, has two daughters at Sag Harbor Elementary School, in the first and second grades. She has a background in education, having worked as a high school math teacher for 12 years and currently as a Mathematics Education Consultant, training grade school teachers in best instructional practices.

“Although I serve districts throughout Suffolk County, I am most rewarded when I serve my local school district,” Ms. Kolhoff said in an email Wednesday. “I am running for school board so that I can make a positive impact on the school charged with educating the children of this community I have grown to love.”

Ms. Kolhoff has coached the Pierson Girls Volleyball middle and high school teams and is on the district’s Nutrition/Wellness/Health and Safety Committee.

Seeking her fourth term on the board, Ms. Kruel has had three children in the district. The second will graduate Pierson High School this year and her youngest is in the sixth grade.

Sag Sandi Kruel

Sandi Kruel

“I definitely have thought about possibly not running, but I feel that we’ve made such amazing strides in the last couple years that it was really important to keep consistency,” Ms. Kruel said Wednsday. “Our tax increase has been under the [state-mandated 2-percent] cap, we’ve passed bonds, we’re the only district not to lay off employees, we’ve actually been able to increase programs—which is unheard of.”

“So at this point for me, it was like, we’ve got a superintendent to put in place and you know what, let’s finish what we started,” she said, adding if elected, she would “keep it going and going in the right direction.”

Thomas Ré, an attorney with a daughter in the 10th grade at Pierson, is seeking a school board position for the second spring in a row.

“I have a general sense of service for the community and with the school…and I want to help,” Mr. Ré said Wednesday.

Thomas Re

Thomas Re

Mr. Ré said there are three main categories of issues for the board: people, plant and program.

“We have to always remember that the whole purpose of everything is to give to the children the best possibilities and to create the best possible educational situation for them, so that they can grow and can have productive lives and can be important members of their community wherever they are,” he said.

Current BOE President Theresa Samot is seeking her fourth term on the board. She has served as president for three of her nine years on the board, and also as vice president. Ms. Samot has had two daughters graduate Pierson and her youngest is currently in eleventh grade at the school.

Theresa Samot

Theresa Samot

“I think it’s important that I continue to collaborate with the district and community on the goals that we’re currently working on,” Ms. Samot said Wednesday.

Ms. Samot pointed to the recent implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in the high school and the passage of the bond as recent achievements of the board.

The three key components, she said, are continuing to work on student achievement in a cost-effective manner, develop budgets that are under the tax cap but maintain programs and staff, and focus on building and improving our facilities.

“And certainly the umbrella that comes over all that is sound fiscal cooperation,” she said, adding that community involvement “in everything that we do” is another key element.

The budget vote and school board elections are Tuesday, May 20 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the gymnasium at Pierson Middle/High School, 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor.

After More Than Six Months of Debate, Still No Decision on Taping Sag Harbor School Board Meetings

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By Tessa Raebeck

Each spring around the time of the Sag Harbor Board of Education (BOE) budget vote and elections, “transparency” becomes a buzzword for the district. Candidates and board members repeatedly stress the need for open communication with the public and express their commitment to ensuring the board is operating as openly as possible.

However, it appears a discussion on broadcasting school board meetings continues without gaining real traction—the concept was once again tabled after six months of debate.

BOE member David Diskin has repeatedly asked for the topic to be on the board’s agendas since he was sworn into office last July. It has been a topic of discussion at least seven times since August, but no concrete steps have been taken.

In January, a group formed to address the issue, which included BOE members Chris Tice, Mary Anne Miller and Mr. Diskin, as well as director of technology Scott Fisher, recommended the board have a “pilot program.” With no money allotted in the budget for the program this year, they recommended it be implemented during the 2014-2015 school year.

During Monday’s board meeting, it appeared at least the financing for the project had been worked out.

Community member John Battle, who has had two children in the district, recalled the group’s recommendation to “implement a six-month trial period of broadcasting.”

“The only thing standing in the way, it seemed, was the lack of funds to purchase the equipment needed to videotape and record the proceedings,” Mr. Battle said.

“On behalf of The Sag Harbor Education Best Practice Group,” he continued, “I urge the board to accept the recommendations… and I am happy to announce here in public, as I have already done to the board by e-mail, that our group is willing to provide the equipment for this trial project if the board votes to proceed with it.”

“We have reached out to our attorney to get input from him,” responded school board president Theresa Samot.

Ms. Samot said a scheduled meeting with school attorney Thomas Volz specifically about recording meetings was postponed due to inclement weather, but the board will meet with him regarding the matter in the beginning of March.

“Certainly,” she said,” it’s not our intent to hold this up, and we’re not saying we’re against this. We just need to get some more input from our attorney at this point.”

Ms. Samot added that the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) has no best practice policy on recording school board meetings that the board could use as a guideline.

The board, said Ms. Tice, needs to look at whether there would be additional personnel costs and if the potential for members of the public to request information through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) has “an indication of the amount of hours our personnel has to spend on it.”

“I was naïve on the committee,” Ms. Tice said of her prior recommendation to start a trial period, “to think that I was ready to make a recommendation, because we really hadn’t asked all the questions. I still believe that there’s a lot of merit in this, but a lot more questions have come up that I don’t really know the answer to.”

“What we’re finding is that there are certainly elements to at least be considered, even elements beyond cost,” agreed interim superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso.

“We have board policy that guides what you do. In terms of training, is there such a thing as training people to be able to hold a meeting that is taped?”

Dr. Bonuso said he felt questions such as where the camera would be placed, whether recording meetings would mean that everyone in the audience would also be taped, whether students in attendance would need to give permission to be on camera and whether or not tapes would be edited need to be addressed before the board can move forward.

“We want to know that when we do this we’re prepared,” he said, adding, “I know it can be frustrating waiting for this to unfold.”

“I just think more maximum transparency, more maximum access…it’s got to be a good thing,” Mr. Diskin said.

“I think the community wants it,” agreed Daniel Hartnett, a member of the board who has expressed his support of the project several times.

“The only responsible thing to do,” said Ms. Tice, “is to understand what the implications are before we vote on it.”

Unless there is a hot topic on the agenda, board meetings are typically attended by fewer than five people, aside from members of the press and the administrators and board members who are obligated to be there.

Recording meetings was discussed in-depth at the board’s October 15 session.

“We want to have a video where people can’t cut or paste,” Chris Tice, BOE vice president, said at that meeting. “We also have to be concerned about having students on video.”

Ms. Tice expressed her concern that recordings could be edited to quote people out of context and said some districts found that once meetings were available online, the public stopped showing up in person.

Scott Fisher, director of technology, told the board that once public meetings are recorded, “That’s a permanent record and can be searched through FOIL and requirements for retention of school district records.”

At the November 18 board meeting, Mr. Diskin again asked the board to discuss video recording its meetings. Board President Theresa Samot said it was a good idea to look into.

“Taping of board meeting” was on the agenda again at a December session, when Ms. Miller, Ms. Tice and Mr. Diskin agreed to meet with Mr. Fisher to take concrete steps to set up at least an audio recording. It was discussed again in January, when Mr. Diskin told the board the group had looked at a variety of possibilities and researched the different technical aspects required, the expense, time and labor involved, as well as the different ways tapes meetings could be distributed to the public.

“We basically came to the conclusion,” reported Mr. Fisher at the time, “that it might be best—if we decided to go down this road—to do a pilot program for a short period of time.”

Mr. Fisher said the best means of doing so seems to be putting the video on one of the local public access channels, either LTV in East Hampton or SEA-TV in Southampton.

Ms. Tice noted that out of 17 East End school districts Mr. Fisher had contacted about the project, only two publicly broadcast their school board meetings, East Hampton and Southampton. LTV broadcasts the meetings for East Hampton and SEA-TV does the same for Southampton.

“We haven’t made a commitment to doing anything at this point,” said Mr. Fisher in January. “But, if we are to move forward, I think we would all agree that would be the direction in which we want to proceed.”

The total cost, Mr. Fisher said, would be somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000, which Mr. Battle agreed to fund Monday.

Sag Harbor School Board Hopes to Host Educational Summit on Administrative Sharing

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Diana Hinojosa proudly watches her husband Fausto receive tenure at the Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting Monday.

Diana Hinojosa proudly watches her husband Fausto receive tenure at the Sag Harbor Board of Education meeting Monday. (Tessa Raebeck photo).

By Tessa Raebeck

Facing substantial losses in state aid and severe limitations on its ability to raise local revenue, the Sag Harbor School District is hoping to host an educational summit this summer to discuss sharing administrative services with nearby districts.

At Monday’s board of education (BOE) meeting, Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim superintendent for the district, said he had recently discussed possible cooperation with Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. and County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, as well as leaders from other school districts.

Daniel Hartnett, a BOE member, first proposed examining the possibility of an administrative merger at the December 2 board meeting.

“We’re beyond — in terms of shared services — buying toilet paper as a collective,” Hartnett said Monday. “I think we’ve milked every penny we could out of that.”

Board member Mary Anne Miller said both East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez and Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming have approached her to express their interest in the consolidation of administrative functions.

The BOE hopes to accelerate the discussion before fiscal limitations mandate severe cuts to school programs, supplies and teaching positions as, like districts across the state, Sag Harbor is facing an uphill battle this budget season.

Under the “tax cap,” a regulation enacted by the New York State Legislature in 2011, school districts cannot increase property taxes by more than two percent or the rate of inflation (whichever is less) annually, limiting districts’ ability to raise local revenue.

A provision of the tax cap legislation permits a handful of school districts with enrollments of 1,000 students or less to share a superintendent. The Greenport and Southold school districts were the first in the state to announce plans to do so in November. Starting in July, current Southold Superintendent David Gamberg will work for both districts and report to both school boards, with the districts splitting the costs of his salary evenly.

Prior to the tax cap, in 2009 the state adopted the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA). Legislators developing the state budget realized the state’s anticipated revenue did not cover expenses, resulting in a “gap.” The GEA was created to fill that gap, essentially passing the burden onto the state’s school districts.

The state now uses a calculation based “primarily on district wealth,” according to School Business Administrator John O’Keefe, to determine a district’s GEA, an amount that is then deducted from their state aid.

Sag Harbor had some $243,000 in state aid taken away last year due to the GEA, O’Keefe said Monday.

According to the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), school districts have lost more than $8 billion in state aid since the start of the GEA four years ago.

Since state aid and local property taxes are the primary means for a district to raise revenue, the GEA and the tax cap have forced districts “to make difficult choices,” according to NYSSBA.

Such choices are prompting the school board to spearhead the conversation on superintendent sharing on the East End.

Dr. Bonuso said a steering committee would ideally be formed in the spring, consisting of several administrators, legislators and board members who would then organize an agenda or protocol for an educational summit or similar legislative meeting to take place over the summer.

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said he believes the tax cap is a result of the poor economic climate and may be removed as the economy recovers.

BOE Vice President Chris Tice, who presided over Monday’s meeting in President Theresa Samot’s absence, replied that the cap is politically tied to rent control laws in New York City and will not sunset for another seven years.

Tice expressed her support of putting a group together in the spring and hosting a summit this summer.

“The sooner we can think of these things and do it the better we’ll be,” agreed David Diskin, a member of the school board.

“People who are more in touch with what’s actually going on in their communities understand how important and valuable education is,” he said, adding the higher up in government, “the more it becomes an abstract concept.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, the BOE honored Fausto Hinojosa, a teaching assistant (TA) in the district, with tenure.

“Fausto,” said Nichols, “for me, in many ways represents that key piece, that key connection between the school and many students in the ESL [English as a Second Language] population. He has a passion for trying to make the transition for the students who come from other countries a smooth one.”

“The way you interact with staff and with every student is with such dignity and respect and joy,” added Tice. “And they have a visceral positive response to you.”

Joined by his wife Diana, also a Sag Harbor teacher’s assistant, Fausto received a standing ovation from the room of administrators and colleagues.

Holding back tears, he addressed the room.

“There’s one thing that none of you have said,” he said. “One of the most joyful things that I live with here at school is the people that I work with…this is our home and I’ve told Mr. Nichols this many times, we’re just thrilled to be here every morning.”

Pursuing a Super

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By Amanda Wyatt

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

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

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

School Board President Theresa Samot echoed Gratto’s comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principal Proposes New Program To Help ESL Students

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By Claire Walla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Board Questions Operation of YARD Summer Beach Program

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By Claire Walla


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She said cost isn’t an issue.

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

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

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

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

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

Sag Business Director to Resign at End of the Year

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Janet Verneuille

By Claire Walla


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room For Wellness In The Pierson Cafeteria

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Chef DSCF7524 adjusted

By Claire Walla


When the Sag Harbor School Board passed a new Wellness Policy in November, School Board President Mary Anne Miller said the move was not merely meant to remove unhealthy items from the cafeteria.

It presented a sea change for the district.

High-fructose corn syrup? Gone.

Trans-fats? Eliminated.

Whole milk? No more.

“It’s had to find products with some of the ingredients they don’t want us to have,” said Pierson Middle/High School Cafeteria Manager Greg Pisciotta.

Particularly high-fructose corn syrup.

“If you’ve ever been to a supermarket, then you know it’s everywhere! It took us two weeks to find whole wheat bread without high-fructose corn syrup,” he added.

Already, Pisciotta has rid cafeteria fridges and cupboards of foods containing high fructose corn syrup and non-nutritive sweeteners, as well as hydrogenated and trans fats. At this point, of the roughly 500 food items stored at the school, Pisciotta said there are probably just a handful, now, that contain those ingredients.

“They [the school board] would like us to make more from scratch, but it’s hard with this kitchen,” explained Pisciotta.

The facility only has one oven and a two-tier convection oven for keeping food warm. Pisciotta does not have access to a stovetop, which he said limits his abilities. Though he’s adapted to making certain foods in the oven — boiling pasta, cooking ground meat — the need to reach a viable compromise adds another layer to his job.

Especially since the board is pushing for more meals made from scratch.

“Back before we had to take all of those ingredients out [like high-fructose corn syrup], I had a very, very popular menu,” Pisciotta said.

One top seller was the chicken burrito, which Pisciotta bought pre-made in plastic packaging. He has since had to remove it from the cafeteria because he found it contained high levels of sodium; it’s been replaced by a chicken quesadilla he prepares himself.

Pisciotta has also removed pre-made burgers from the menu and replaced them with homemade pizza, either put together on a sourdough roll or premade pizza dough. Here, he’s even ventured into a menu item he called “salad pizza.”

“It’s just pizza crust with a salad on top,” he said. “A lot of kids get it.”

The cafeteria still carries certain pre-made items, like the cooked chicken used in the quesadilla, but Pisciotta said roughly 75 percent of his monthly menu is now assembled by hand, rather than merely removed from a package, heated and served. (He estimated only half the menu items were prepared by hand before the Wellness Policy was put in place.)

Thus far, the newly revamped menu seems to be doing well.

According to numbers crunched by District Business Manager Janet Verneuille, the district had earned more money in the cafeteria by February of this year than it had by the same time last year.

However, the data also showed more students are buying menu items a la carte — a revenue stream that increased by $26,281 over the same period of time from 2011 to 2012 — rather than purchasing the full meal, which has seen a dip of $10,134 in that same period of time.

“You can make something from scratch and make it as healthy as you want,” Pisciotta added. “But if it’s not going to sell, it’s not going to work.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller, who was a driving force behind the updated Wellness Policy, realizes the cafeteria can only do so much at this point.

“We need finances to upgrade the facility,” Miller said.

She said she’s been encouraged by the number of parents who have already expressed an interest in donating their time and other resources to helping improve the cafeteria facilities.

However, Miller added, the facility itself is a major hurdle to significant change.

A bond proposal voted down in 2009 but reintroduced by the board this fall (at a price tag of $166,920) maps out several changes for the cafeteria, which Miller said are important for transforming the space for the better.

The current version of the plan, as suggested by the Long Range Planning Committee, would expand the kitchen into the testing room next door, creating more storage space for food.

Though it’s not incorporated into the $166,920 plan, the idea has also been floated to install an exhaust system, which would allow the district to install a stovetop. That would give Pisciotta the ability to cook a much wider variety of foods.

“We want to look at this not just as a cafeteria, but as another gathering space for the district,” Miller explained.

As she sees it, these cafeteria upgrades could even make the space more conducive for community gatherings and demonstrations, and give the district itself a better facility for teaching health and nutrition programs.

Because the district only has about 4 percent of its student body taking advantage of the free-and-reduced lunch program, Miller said a full service cafeteria is not a necessity.

“The cafeteria is a convenience facility,” she added. “That said, if we could improve the facility and more fully integrate curriculum, giving kids more hands-on life experience with food and nutrition, then I think it’s a good endeavor.”

As for Pisciotta, he said he would continue to produce the best quality food with the space, equipment and budget he’s allowed.

“I can only do so much, I’m pretty clear about that,” he added. “There’s only so much cooking-from-scratch I can do with an oven and a steamer.”

In the end, he continued, “With all the limitations we have, I think we’re doing alright.”

Board Votes to Keep Wellness Policy As Is

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PB&JSandwich

By Claire Walla


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

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

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

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

Not a single board member favored this plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pierson Cafeteria Manager Greg Pisciotta took note of the drinks.

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


In other news…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”