Tag Archive | "mary anne miller"

Sag Joins East End Schools In Effort to Consolidate Resources

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By Emily J. Weitz and Claire Walla

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

Sound like a pipe dream?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Say “No” To Drug-Sniffing Dogs

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By Claire Walla


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

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

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

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

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

Elementary school parent Lawrence LaRose agreed.

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

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

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

“That’s a prison term,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Claire Walla


Finally, the two boards came to the same table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there’s the time frame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Claire Walla


For some, the case is closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School board’s president Mary Anne Miller agreed.

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

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

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

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

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


In other news…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Makes Community-wide Coalition to Curb Substance Abuse

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By Claire Walla

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event to incite change. For the William Floyd School District in 2009, it took the loss of one of its star athletes — who died of a heroine overdose — for the school to finally crack-down on substance abuse.

Here in Sag Harbor, however, administrators and school board members are taking measures to make sure it never comes to that.

At the end of this month, a collection of administrators, teachers, guidance counselors and school board members will come together to begin planning a coalition made up of school personnel and community members aimed at preventing substance abuse in the district.

“The goal is to bring together the entire community, all the stakeholders,” said school board president Mary Anne Miller. The philosophy behind this approach is that alcohol and drug abuse are not problems that are in any way limited to the school’s purview, even if situations unfold on school grounds — this is a community issue.

Miller said the purpose of this month’s meeting is to decide who in the community the coalition should reach out to. Ideally, Miller added, the coalition will be comprised of a wide swathe of people, from law enforcement officials, to medical personnel, clergy members and even business owners.

“It’s a commitment [for everyone involved],” Miller admitted. “But these are the people who are going to go and create this culture change, and push it beyond the school doors.”

The seeds of this coalition were planted last spring when the school district banded together with the state-run Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to put together a comprehensive survey for all students, grades 7 through 12.

While not nearly as drastic a situation as they were up against at William Floyd, Miller said the results of that survey — which the district finally received in December — showed that alcohol and marijuana use are prevalent among teens in the district. But rather than stop at those results, Miller said one of the greatest benefits of the OASAS program is that it gives the school district access to drug-prevention professionals and counselors across Long Island and the state.

Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said school officials already held a meeting with Kym Laube of Human Growth and Understanding Seminars (HUGS) earlier this year to begin fleshing out plans for the coalition. Nichols said Laube has most recently worked with the Westhampton school community to organize a similar community endeavor.

The Westhampton school district has already taken efforts to better bolster the relationship between its students and the community at large. For example, Nichols explained, the district set-up an “alcohol-free zone” at last year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

But, as Miller explained, coalitions in different communities will all operate a little differently.

“Some towns have asked all restaurants and bars to post signs and make the commitment not to sell alcohol to minors,” she explained.

Once Sag Harbor’s stakeholders are involved, she added, “the coalition will sort of take on a life of its own.”

The bottom line, as Miller sees it, is that the best way to combat substance abuse is to take a look at the bigger picture.

“It’s not just about risky behavior, it’s about a risky environment,” she said. “You have to look at what you’re doing in the school [to foster] the home/school connection. Do students feel connected to the school? Do parents feel connected to the school?”

And the big question: “Are we providing enough low-risk environments to prevent high-risk behaviors?”

Potential Bond Between Theater and School

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By Claire Walla

As the community searches high and low for ways to keep Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor’s only live theatre venue, here in the village, some say there’s a viable option — and it’s right under our noses.

For many in the village, it’s no surprise that the Sag Harbor School District has had plans in the works since at least 2006 to redesign the Pierson Auditorium. (In fact, a new design for the auditorium had been part of the facilities bond proposal that was voted down in 2009.)

But, what many may not know is that, as recently as last year, the idea of making the proposed auditorium a joint venture between Pierson High School and the Bay Street Theatre was already in the works.

Bay Street Theatre’s Executive Director Tracy Mitchell brought the idea to the district’s Facilities Planning Committee last year, of which she was a member. Bay Street was already beginning to set its sights on a new location, so she casually suggested the school team-up with the independent theatre company.

According to Pierson art teacher Peter Solow, who had discussed the idea with Mitchell last year, “There are many of us who believe the school should be one of the centers of the community, a place where people congregate.”

The union of Pierson and Bay Street, he added, would be a step in the right direction.

“We should be actively participating and trying to help our neighbors as much as possible,” he said.

Though Solow admitted there was no real substantive discussion about the nuts and bolts of how a partnership would unfold, he declared, “It was clear to the members of the Facilities Committee that Bay Street was reaching out to do this. And it was articulated to the board of education that there was an immediacy to this.”

But, as Solow tells it, the discussion hit a standstill — before it even got off the ground.

“Since last spring, nothing has happened,” he lamented.

The proposed $12 million design for a new auditorium, drafted by district architect Larry Salvesen, would completely replace the existing theater space, giving the auditorium a more sophisticated look, complete with a lobby and a separate entrance. (The current auditorium — a refurbished high school gym — is only accessible from within the Pierson building.)

The issue was brought to the attention of the Sag Harbor School Board again at a regularly scheduled meeting last Monday, January 9 when board member Ed Drohan urged the board to attend tonight’s “community meeting” at the Bay Street Theatre. It begins at 7 p.m.

“Having been on this school board now for a while, I realize we often refer to ourselves as a community,” Drohan said of the school’s attempts to integrate with the village. “This might be the last opportunity we have to get out of this small community and address the community as a whole.”

School board president Mary Anne Miller, who had been part of the Facilities Planning Committee last year when Mitchell first raised the idea of collaboration, said she would attend, as well.

In fact, she said the model for a community co-op theater is out there.

“But somebody needs to step up and take this on. It seems like an amazing opportunity to do something great, I just don’t know who has the wherewithal, time, connections, or the money to do it.” She continued, “We need to be doing things like this, but boy is it a big job!”

Miller concluded by saying it’s not too late to make this happen. And even Mitchell said Bay Street is open to the option.

Though Bay Street’s lease will run out in May of 2013, she said the theater is hard-pressed to stay in Sag Harbor.

“I live in the town,” Mitchell said. “I’m very concerned with what would happen to this little [community] if Bay Street left.”

And while the school does not yet have the ball rolling on its proposed theatre construction project, Mitchell said it’s still possible for Bay Street to consider moving into a temporary space while a more permanent location at the school was being prepared. But, it’s just a possibility at this point. A joint project proposal has not yet been drafted or presented.

“It is interesting,” Mitchell continued. “I’m certainly not discounting anything at this point. We want to hear from everyone in the community.”

As far as Solow’s concerned, however, Monday’s school board meeting sealed the deal. To him, that Bay Street was not made a priority during discussions indicates the worst.

“If there was anyone who held out any hope that this could happen, last night’s meeting demonstrated that it’s never going to happen,” Solow said on Tuesday. “There was an opportunity, but I can’t conceive of how it can happen now.”

School Reconsiders Liability Insurance

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By Claire Walla


If your child injures his elbow after school on one of the campuses of the Sag Harbor School District and has to be hospitalized, you will have to pay the hospital bills on your own. That’s what the situation is now, anyway.

But, the topic of liability insurance is being revisited by the Sag Harbor School Board after parent Evelynne Ramunno criticized the board for doing away with its liability insurance plan at the tail end of the last academic year. At a school board meeting on Monday, Ramunno said her son had been injured during the after-school SHAEP program so badly he needed to go to the hospital to get pins put in his elbow. Only when she contacted the school to get coverage for the incident did she find out that the plan had been cancelled.

“I’m a mother of two and I need the SHAEP program,” she said. “But, if I was aware the school did not have insurance, I might not have sent my son to the SHAEP program.”

The board of education voted last year to cancel its liability insurance plan with Pupil Benefits because, as School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted, “it was an expense the board deemed unwarranted.”

The reasoning behind the decision, according to School Board President Mary Anne Miller, is that the insurance plan was flawed.

“We had dissatisfaction from parents who used it because it wasn’t paying back what was hoped for,” she said. “Also, we felt that families who were not insured would be better served going through [state] programs like Child Health Plus.”

The program cost the district about $22,000, and as board members explained, it often did not cover much. District Treasurer Janet Verneuille said she priced out similar programs at other schools, and found they ranged from $6,700 (for the Tuckahoe School District) to $37,00 (for Hampton Bays).

Last year, board members agreed the school was spending money for a program that was hardly effective. However, the board has agreed to look at other options for taking on an entirely new liability insurance program. Verneuille said she would have some options by the end of the month.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” said board member Sandi Kruel. “To not have it is irresponsible.”


In other news…


After fighting to give the Sag Harbor School District the chance to look at alternatives to its costly insurance program with the New York State Health Insurance Program, Tom Morrissey of Morrissey Advisory Services was noticeably disheartened by the final results.

In order to explore alternative health options that would match the benefits offered through the Empire Plan, but at a lower cost to the school, Morrissey first needed teachers to answer “a simple form online” with basic questions about their health. In the end, he said only 37 of 209 eligible teachers completed the form.

“I don’t think we got the responsiveness we needed,” Morrissey told the school board. “I thought 17 percent was pretty pathetic.”

By switching to a new plan, Morrissey said the school could save at least $300,000. And while exploring alternative health insurance options is now a moot point, he said he would continue to work with the school to try to replace Empire entirely.

“Our efforts don’t stop here,” he said. “We volunteer to do this because we have students in the school and we want to help. You have skyrocketing health care costs,” he added. “We’ve been dealing with double digit rate increases for some time now. I know for certain that the 209 people eligible here could have significantly lower premium numbers [with another plan].”


On Monday, the Sag Harbor School Board also heard from members of the school’s new Booster Club, who detailed the list of events coming up for the not-for-profit fundraising organization.

According to the group’s president, Robert Evjen, the club will hold its Winter Spirit Night on January 27 during the boys’ basketball game in the Pierson Gym. The festivities would include performances by the Pierson choir and elementary school singers, a demonstration from the robotics team, a half-court shooting contest and banners made by Pierson art students.

Also, on February 11 (the night of HarborFrost), the Booster Club will hold a fundraising event at B. Smith’s. The $25 event ($30 at the door) will include a quiz bowl, dinner and raffle.

Pierson May Bring On the Dogs

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By Claire Walla


Before the end of this school year, it’s quite possible the Sag Harbor School District will bring drug-sniffing dogs onto the Pierson campus.

“For years I was hesitant to pursue this angle, but I’m more inclined to do this now,” said Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, who took a hard-lined stance against bringing drug-sniffing dogs onto the campus as recently as last fall. “I don’t want to say there are more incidents than in the past, though there have already been a few incidents this year,” he explained.

According to Sag Harbor Village Police Officer Paul Fabiano, there has only been one reported incident of marijuana possession on the Pierson campus since September 2011. The event involved a 14-year-old student. However, Fabiano said not all campus incidents get reported.

Nichols continued, “I know the harm [in bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus] is in saying to the students that we don’t trust them; but, making sure drugs are not on this campus outweighs the trust factor.”

All board members, including those who were previously on the fence on the issue, seemed to support the notion of bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus. And school superintendent, Dr. John Gratto, introduced a school policy on the topic.

According to a draft of the policy read at a school board meeting on Monday, “The Superintendent of Schools is authorized by the Board of Education to utilize dogs, which are trained to detect illegal drugs. The superintendent and high school principal are designated as the contact persons and they will determine if, and when, and how often a police agency’s ‘drug dogs’ will be called to school property.”

What’s more, the presence of drug-sniffing dogs would not be announced prior to their arrival. And the policy goes on to say that the dogs would be active on the campus while students were in classrooms, and the dogs would not be permitted to “sniff search” the students themselves.

While board member Water Wilcoxen pointed out that it’s within both Nichols’ and Dr. Gratto’s power to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the campus without a formal vote from the board and without an official policy, Nichols indicated that he wanted to make certain he had the full backing from the board and the superintendent before proceeding with any plans.

“This is a big step,” said Nichols. “I would not want to move forward with this unless I knew that the superintendent and the board were ok with it.”

Part of the supporting materials behind the motivation to crack down on substance abuse in the district includes results from the Sag Harbor School District Survey which was administered earlier this school year to students, parents and teachers.

According to those results, 71 percent of Pierson students agreed with the statement: “Students in my school use drugs and alcohol.” And 39 percent of those who responded said they had witnessed students consuming alcohol and/or using drugs on school grounds.

Overall, 57 percent of Pierson students either agreed or strongly agreed that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem for students in the Sag Harbor School District. But, that figure rose to 69 percent when it came to the teachers’ responses to that same question.

Dr. Gratto and various board members referred to the survey to further illustrate the problems with substance abuse that have found their way to Pierson, but Dr. Gratto was careful to note that the survey results are not perfect and do not necessarily reflect the community as a whole. (To their credit, he said, 87 percent of all students actually took the poll, but only 23 percent of teachers and TAs responded.)

Teacher Peter Solow cautioned the school against following through with actions based on results culled from these surveys, which he called “imperfect instruments.”

“I’m not denying there’s an issue here,” he declared. “But I don’t think any policy should be based on inaccurate or anecdotal information. I don’t know the extent of the problem, but I know it’s relatively serious. And I don’t know about the drug-sniffing dog thing, but that’s got to be a little piece of a bigger comprehensive plan.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller told Solow that the school district already has a comprehensive plan to address issues of alcohol abuse and prevention.

“It’s working, but it’s not working to the degree any of us are comfortable with,” she explained. “There’s still a problem. How many more times do we have to catch kids before we solve it?

“We need to look into bringing in a parent seminar immediately,” Miller continued. “That has to be done almost twice a year. I know these things cost money, but we should try to come back with a game plan.”

According to Nichols, the school needs a multi-pronged approach that is not limited to drug-sniffing dogs. In addition to taking a serious approach to eliminating substance abuse on campus, Nichols echoed Miller’s sentiments and mentioned that preventative measures must move beyond the classroom, even beyond the walls of the school.

“We have kids for seven hours out of a 24-hour day,” he began, alluding to the fact that students often develop habits and behaviors at home, or else off school grounds. “There are instances that are indigenous to our community.”

“We’re a resort community and we have some specific challenges,” he added.

Namely, Nichols said, the presence and availability of both alcohol and drugs are prevalent.

Wilcoxen agreed, and added that education needs to involve parents, as well as students. “You tell your child not to drink alcohol and drive, but how many parents get in the car after drinking, and their kids see them? It’s the same thing with dope. How are we going to reach out and help this? All I know is we haven’t done a very good job.”

Board member Sandi Kruel said she was in favor of utilizing drug-sniffing dogs when she previously served on the board five years ago. But now, especially with backing from Nichols who had previously been a staunch opponent, she said it’s imperative.

With a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old son, Kruel went on to say that she’s often privy to information about parties where there is underage drinking.

“I myself have gone to the police station to get the cops to help close down parties,” she said. “We have a problem. And if it takes this to help stop it, I say get the dog treats ready.”

Board Accepts Second Reading of New Wellness Policy

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By Claire Walla

School Board Member Mary Anne Miller has made it a mission to restore health and wellness to the Sag Harbor School District. And on Monday, November 28, school board members approved a second draft of the school’s updated Wellness Policy, over which Miller, a member of the school district’s Wellness Committee, had great influence.

The issue of health and wellness has been a growing one across the nation, as the rate of childhood obesity in America continues to climb, and it’s been a focus for this school district of late. Just this summer, the administrators made Health and Wellness one of its four over-arching goals for the school year, emphasizing, as Miller put it, that “We need to live and breathe wellness.”

The Wellness Policy thus extends the goal of promoting healthy habits outside the cafeteria and standard physical fitness classes.

“It’s not just about isolating nutrition education to health classes [which students are only required to take in seventh and tenth grades], but to bring nutrition education to the whole education program,” Miller explained.

It promotes the use of physical activity in the classroom, and clearly states that recess and physical activity are not to be used to discipline students. According to the policy, “Students may not sit out of physical education class as a response to inappropriate behavior, unless that behavior affects safety,” and “recess shall not be used for punishment or reward.”

The program also promotes physical education programs that students “can pursue throughout their lives,” like yoga, fitness walking and step aerobics.

The new Wellness Policy not only targets students, it lays the groundwork for healthy habits district-wide. As the policy explains, one of its purposes is, “To incorporate into the curriculum, whenever possible, nutrition education and physical education to instill in our students lifelong habits of healthy eating and daily physical activity.”

The impetus to change the district’s policy came just over two years ago when the school board began to take a good hard look at the floundering Pierson cafeteria.

“At the beginning of my term [on the school board], the cafeteria was struggling so much and was going to be shut down,” Miller began. At first, she continued, “I looked at it from a business stand point. But then I became keenly interested in school service programs.”

Miller said she noticed that the Sag Harbor School District was in “a unique position” because it doesn’t contract out food services with a larger corporation. “We have the freedom to be a really good program and to provide higher quality food.”

“There’s much more to wellness than the cafeteria,” Miller said. “We’re trying to broaden the horizons of the policy to make it more meaningful to everyone.”

Miller worked closely with other members of the Wellness Committee — including fellow board member Teresa Samot and Athletic Director Montgomery “Monty” Granger — to craft a clearer document that, as Miller put it, “is easier to digest.” (According to Miller, the former policy was vague and included 19 recommendations toward the end that she said should have been incorporated into the policy itself.) She also worked to make sure the Wellness Policy was updated to conform to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, as well as the school’s own values regarding health and wellness.

For example, she explained, the wellness policy is now stricter when it comes to ingredients. At least half of the cafeteria’s starches must be “whole grain rich,” and the school will be required to provide vegetarian and gluten-free options on a daily menu or as a la carte options. Both two-percent and whole milk will not be provided by the school, and nor will foods or beverages containing non-nutritive sweeteners, hydrogenated or trans-fats, and high-fructose corn syrup.

“It was, I have to say, a ton of work,” said Miller, who added she took part in numerous webinars about health and wellness in the process of crafting this policy. “But I put a ton of time into it because I feel so strongly about it.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to healthy eating habits, Miller said it often feels as though administrators are swimming against the tide.

“We have laws that make it more difficult to buy lettuce from farmers in Bridgehampton than from farmers in Ohio,” she vented.

She went on to explain that public schools often cave in to less nutritious menu items because they are typically more cost-effective. This is especially the case with schools that have a high percentage of students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunches. Schools are required to offer “complete” meals at a low cost to qualifying students, for which schools receive government reimbursements.

Miller pointed out that the cost of public school food has been a national issue recently. Congress was faced with a bill in November that would have prevented tomato paste from being classified as a vegetable (thus preventing pizza from also meeting the school-lunch vegetable quota — as it does now). But, a noticeably steamed Miller continued, the bill was rejected.

In Sag Harbor, however, only about seven percent of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. This ends up being to the advantage of the district, she continued, because it means the majority of students can afford to buy higher-quality food items. So, even though the district might not be making a profit from the full meals it provides, the cafeteria can bring in other food items and sell them individually at a higher price.

“It’s a slightly different business model, and no one’s held that entrepreneurial hat before,” she explained. In this way, the cafeteria can hope to make money, while at the same time providing full meal options and nutritious food.

“We cannot teach our kids that it’s lethal to eat high-fructose corn syrup and then serve it in our cafeteria,” she went on. “What we’re saying is, the cafeteria is part of their education.”

School Approves Plans For $4.9 Million Bond Measure

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By Claire Walla


The Sag Harbor School Board is moving forward with plans to bring a $4.9 million bond measure to the public. The four base components of the seven-part capital project were unanimously approved by school board members — with the exception of Walter Wilcoxen, who was absent — at a regular school board meeting held Monday, November 14. They include: 122 health and safety provisions (many of them mandated by the state), expanding the Pierson kitchen, restructuring two parking lots and constructing a storage room in the elementary school gym.

In total, these measures represent nearly a $1.8 million cost reduction from an almost identical bond measure that was put up for public vote in 2009. That bond was defeated.

In an attempt to keep the cost of the project as low as possible, the district’s Long Range Planning Committee decided to take plans to restore the Pierson auditorium completely off the table. It is now recommended that the project, at an estimated cost of $12 million, be funded privately.

However, plans to replace the Pierson field with a synthetic turf ($1.6 million) and install stadium-style lighting ($675,000) are still on the table, though they would most likely be brought to the public in an additional bond referendum, separate from the $4.9 million bond outlined above. Board members are still discussing the plans for the field and lighting installation as they are currently laid out.

Board members have also floated the idea of putting the turf field and the stadium lighting up to a community vote as separate projects because the lighting issue seems to be more controversial.

“For me and for some of the neighbors, the lights represent a game-changer,” said community member Steven Reiner who lives directly adjacent to the Pierson field.

He said he had relatively no problem with the synthetic turf, but the lights he said would create increased usage of the field, bringing more people to the area; potentially cause light pollution; and might even lower real estate values for homes in the immediate area.

“What I’m struck by is the specificity and the detail that accompanied the cafeteria and other issues,” Reiner said of the elements entailed in the base bond measure. “When you vote for large-scale change, that’s going to affect traffic and egress and lights [among other issues]. But we don’t have any proposal of what this [change] is going to look like.”

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While the district does have a graphic of the turf field, the projected impact of the proposed stadium lighting still needs to be determined.

On another note, parent Laura Matthers commented that the turf field, which includes a two-lane track around its circumference, “might actually be a draw for people in the community,” which would be a good thing.

As proposed, Athletic Director Montgomery “Monty” Granger added that the field could be used by the school’s middle school baseball team (the size is not within regulation for varsity or JV baseball), by varsity soccer teams and all field hockey teams. All other outdoor sports would continue to use the fields at Mashashimuet Park. This would not only allow teams to have practice later at night, but it would allow games to be scheduled later in the day.

According to Dr. Gratto, this would be a great advantage “because parents [who work during the day would finally get to see their kids play.”

The projects already recommended for the $4.9 million bond proposal were very quickly approved by the board. As for the health and safety improvements—including architectural, plumbing, electrical, HVAC and site-plan upgrades — it took board members mere seconds to determine there was no penny-pinching possible in this realm. The $3.85 million plan marks a $1 million reduction from the bond proposed back in 2009, $500,000 of which was already built into this year’s 2012-13 budget.

“If it’s really about health and safety, there’s got to be a point when it’s got to be done,” Board Member Gregg Schiavoni said. “I think not doing it is going to cost us more down the line.”

Similarly, plans to extend storage space in the elementary school ($210,319) and re-do the parking lots on Jermain Avenue at the high school and on Hampton Street at the elementary school were very quickly approved. Though the parking lot project generated some dissent back in 2009, board members recommended the improvements with emphatic support. While the lots would increase in size — jumping from 26 to 51 spaces at the elementary school, and 38 to 46 at the high school — Dr. Gratto said the main impetus for the remodeling has to do with health and safety.

The parking lot at the entrance to the elementary school would push forward, further toward Hampton Street, which would add parking spaces and widen driving lanes for emergency vehicles. The parking lot on Jermain Avenue, next to the high school gym, would extend north into Pierson hill and would include a curb along Jermain to prevent cars from backing up into the street.

“The Jermain Avenue parking lot is a disaster waiting to happen,” said board member Chris Tice. “It’s not safe at all.”

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While the kitchen had previously been an issue of contention, as board members debated whether or not expanding the room would actually improve the quality of the food, it was generally decided last Monday that room for more storage space would indeed improve food options.

Though there wouldn’t be a difference in the type of cooking equipment used, School Board President Mary Anne Miller stressed that additional storage space would allow the school to add more refrigeration, which would “definitely improve purchasing and food selection.”

While the board has decided to go forward with the $4.9 million dollar bond measure, it is yet to be determined when the vote will take place.