Tag Archive | "sag harbor board of education"

Joe Markowski Named Buildings and Grounds Supervisor for Sag Harbor Schools

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Joseph Markowski was appointed in a temporary position as Buildings and Grounds Supervisor for Sag Harbor on Monday, March 23. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

Joseph Markowski was appointed in a temporary position as Buildings and Grounds Supervisor for Sag Harbor on Monday, March 23. Photo by Tessa Raebeck.

By Tessa Raebeck

Joseph Markowski, a longtime employee of Sag Harbor schools who has continued to serve the district on a volunteer basis since his retirement, was appointed buildings and grounds supervisor, a new position in the district, on Monday, March 23.

In the temporary role, he will take on the duties formerly held by Montgomery Granger, who was removed from his position as plant facilities administrator last month. Mr. Markowski came out of retirement in order to return to the district for the remainder of this school year, giving the board and administration time to find a permanent replacement for Mr. Granger.

After working in the district for five years, Mr. Granger was terminated on February 23. That termination was rescinded on Monday, and the board instead approved a resignation agreement with Mr. Granger.

A school custodial supervisor in the district from 1990 until his retirement in 2005, Mr. Markowski has spent the years since filling various roles in the district and community. He helps annually with the school budget vote and elections and has worked as a substitute school monitor.

At Monday’s board meeting, Superintendent Katy Graves called Mr. Markowski, “a veteran of the district who will be helping us through the transition period.”

In addition to remaining involved in the schools, Mr. Markowski is active in the wider Sag Harbor community. He is an assistant captain and warden in the Sag Harbor Fire Department, involved in fundraising efforts for St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church in the village, a member of the Sag Harbor Historical Society, a member of the Suffolk County Bicentennial committee, and is the co-chairman of Sag Harbor’s bicentennial commission.

Mr. Markowski also earned some fame last winter for the photo he snapped of snow melting in the shape of a whale on a Sag Harbor roof, which was first shown on the Sag Harbor Express’s Facebook page and later picked up by a Scottish newspaper, The Scotsman.

“He is a true historian and his interests really include anything related to Sag Harbor,” School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi said. “You can ask any question and he pretty much knows the answer.”

“Having someone on board who has the time and the experience and can give us that time to reflect and see how we’re going to reconfigure as a system I think is very important,” added Ms. Graves. “Because I think we often rush in and just fill a position to fill a position.”

The administration committed to using the interim period to finding “a more fiscal way to address our leadership needs—the smartest way to go.”

School board member Sandi Kruel told newer members of the board a story about Mr. Markowski, remembering a few evenings some years ago when he slept overnight at the school to monitor the boilers when they weren’t working properly.

Chuckling, Mr. Markowski thanked the board for his “nice vacation” of 10 years.

The next meeting of the Sag Harbor Board of Education is Tuesday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m., immediately following a budget workshop that starts at 6:45 p.m. Both meetings will be held in the library at Pierson Middle/High School, located at 200 Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor.

First Full Draft of Sag Harbor School District Proposed Budget Presented

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By Tessa Raebeck

In the first review of the entire proposed budget for the 2015-16 school year, Sag Harbor School District officials unveiled over $37.4 million in spending, the bulk of which will go to employee benefits and salaries.

While some numbers have yet to be disclosed, School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi made projections for several budget lines, including state aid and taxable assessed values for properties in the Towns of Southampton and East Hampton, based on last year’s figures.

Ms. Buscemi projected $1.7 million in state aid, although “this number is subject to change” as Governor Andrew Cuomo has still not released the final state aid numbers to districts, she said. That number represents an increase of 3.85 percent, or $63,027, from the 2014-15 budget.

The budget’s largest proposed increase is in instruction, in part due to a new in-house special education program “that’s going to allow a lot of our students coming in to stay in the district and receive services in the district,” Ms. Buscemi said. But those increases are expected to be offset savings in things like transportation and tuition fees. Total Instruction, which accounts for 57 percent of all expenses, is projected to increase by 3.14 percent, or $641,128 from this year’s budget, for a projected total of $21.06 million.

While instruction costs, which includes appropriations for all regular instruction at both the Sag Harbor Elementary School and Pierson Middle/High School, as well as expenditures for special education programs, extracurricular activities and athletics, is increasing, employee benefits are expected to decrease.

“We did receive an increase to our health insurance lines,” Ms. Buscemi said, “but [with the] decrease in our pension costs, we were able to show a decline for next year…that’s probably the first time in many, many years where you see a decline in employee benefits.”

Employee benefits, which represent almost a quarter of the entire budget, are expected to decline by 1.56 percent.

Salaries and benefits, largely contractual costs, together make up nearly 80 percent of the total budget.

Tuition revenues are expected to decrease by $147,000, because children who have been coming to the district from the Springs School District will now be going to East Hampton after a new agreement was made between those districts. Sag Harbor collected $550,000 in out-of-district tuition and transportation costs in 2014-15, and expects that revenue to decrease to $430,000 next year.

Ms. Buscemi again proposed that the district purchase a new bus. It would ease transportation scheduling and ultimately show cost savings, she said. Contracting out one bus run costs about $50,000 for the year, Ms. Buscemi said, “So it makes sense for us to go out and purchase a new bus” because the cost of $102,000 could be made up in just two years.

“We’re just under the cap right now at 2.65” percent, Ms. Buscemi said of the state-mandated tax cap on how much the property tax levy can increase year to year, “but in order to close our budget gap, we did need to use some of our reserve funds.”

As projected, the tax levy limit for Sag Harbor is above $34.1 million, or 2.68 percent. The percentage is not the same as the increase to an individual property owner’s tax rate. The tax levy is determined by the budget minus revenues and other funding sources, such as state aid. The tax rate, on the other hand, “is based not only on the levy, but also on the assessed value of your home,” Ms. Buscemi explained.

For the first time since the 2010-11 school year, the taxable assessed values for both the Town of Southampton and the Town of East Hampton increased from the prior year. Although the school district’s voters approved a budget last year that allowed for a tax levy increase of 1.48 percent, the tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value actually decreased by 0.56 to 0.63 percent, depending on home value and town, because of the growth in taxable assessed value.

“Just because the tax levy is increasing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your tax rate is going to increase,” added Ms. Buscemi. “If the current year’s assessed value goes up these increases are going to decline and vice versa.”

The 2015-16 projected tax levy is about $34.1 million, which represents a tax levy increase of 2.65 percent and a projected tax rate increase of 2.5 percent.

That projected tax rate increase of 2.5 percent would translate to an increase of $130.26 for a home in Southampton valued at $1 million and $130.40 for a home of the same value in East Hampton, based on the 2014-15 assessed values.

A second review of the entire budget will be held on Tuesday, April 14, at 6:45 p.m. in the library of Pierson Middle/High School, located at 201 Jermain Street in Sag Harbor. The school board plans to adopt the 2015-16 budget on April 22 and hold a public hearing on May 5. The annual budget vote and school board elections are on May 19.

Sag Harbor Board of Education Critical of Governor’s Proposed Reforms for Teachers

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By Tessa Raebeck

In response to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education initiatives, one of which would require that half of the measurement of whether a teacher is good at his or her job be based on students’ test scores alone, the Sag Harbor Board of Education expressed its concerns over the state’s reliance on state tests.

In January, Governor Cuomo gave New York’s legislators an ultimatum: pass his package of education reforms and see the state’s schools receive an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, in funding, or fail to pass his reforms, and see that increase drop to 1.7 percent.

At the center of his reforms is teacher evaluation.

“Everyone will tell you, nationwide, the key to education reform is a teacher evaluation system,” the governor said in his State of the State address in January.

As the school board’s legislative liaison, board member Tommy John Schiavoni visited Albany on March 15 and 16 for the New York State School Boards Association Capital Conference. The conference was organized to enable school board members to lobby state legislators and “effectively advocate for [their] school district and students in Albany and at home,” according to NYSSBA.

At the Thursday, March 12, board meeting Mr. Schiavoni said he would “of course focus on funding” at the conference, urging legislators to reduce mandates, especially those that are unfunded; fully fund public education; and repeal the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), a formula criticized by legislators and schools boards alike that was created to close a state budget gap five years ago, yet continues to take state aid away from some school districts.

“And if they do make us use outside observers,” Mr. Schiavoni said, referring to the specialists who would be sent into “failing” schools, “please give us money to do that.”

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., an Independent, and State Senator Kenneth LaValle, a Republican, introduced legislation to repeal the GEA in February.

School board member Diana Kolhoff, an education consultant and former math teacher, said she was particularly concerned with testing accounting for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

“As an educator, I know evaluative testing has value,” she admitted, adding that she believes “50 percent is going to drive instruction toward test prep—and I think it’s a bad idea.”

Weighing a teacher’s merits as an educator “so heavily on one event” is unfair, Ms. Kolhoff added.

“It is ridiculous,” agreed Chris Tice, the board’s vice president. “It just puts more pressure on that single test being the only measure of effectiveness…. It’s very unhealthy. This increased anxiety-ridden testing environment that the governor’s creating and ratcheting up—I don’t think it’s healthy for students.”

“We’re reading articles about less and less people wanting to become teachers in New York State,” she continued, attributing that to a political climate in Albany that seems to be “hostile” towards both teachers and children.

Enrollment in teacher education courses has declined drastically over the last five years. In New York State, there were nearly 80,000 students registered for teaching programs during the 2009-10 school year, yet only about 62,000 in 2011-12, representing a 22 percent decline in two years. The drop has continued over the past years in New York and other large states like California and Texas, but is not uniform in all states across the country, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

The next meeting of the Sag Harbor Board of Education is Monday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. in the library at Pierson Middle/High School.

Sag Harbor School District Seeks Appraisal for Stella Maris Property

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The building that formerly housed the Stella Maris Regional School on Division Street in Sag Harbor. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.

The building that formerly housed the Stella Maris Regional School on Division Street in Sag Harbor. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.

By Tessa Raebeck

Four months after it was disclosed that the former Stella Maris Regional School on Division Street in Sag Harbor was on the market, the Sag Harbor School District has announced that it is seeking an appraisal of the site.

The board of education and district administrators have discussed the property at a number of executive sessions that are closed to the public since the property’s availability was announced, and are now taking the first step toward a public discussion of a possible purchase.

“At this point, we aren’t making any decisions of how we would utilize the property,” said Superintendent Katy Graves. “This is just a first, very initial step to take a look at the property and gather information about the property.”

The .74-acre property is listed for $3.5 million. It is zoned for offices or classrooms and owned by St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church, a parish of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The one-story building is 32,234 square feet. The site is less than a mile from both Pierson Middle/High School and the Sag Harbor Elementary School.

“The Board of Education is in the process of engaging the services of appraisal firms for the purpose of gathering data. Once the firms have been hired and all of the facts, figures and use viability of the building have been gathered, the board will share the information with the Sag Harbor community for their full participation. Any decision regarding the property will involve strategic engagement with all stakeholders in the community,” the district said in a press release Tuesday.

Ms. Graves said the ultimate decision of whether or not to purchase the property “would really have to go to a vote” for district residents.

Although the purchase is far from a sure thing, the superintendent floated some ideas of how the property could be used.

“We do send children out for services elsewhere—some of our student population goes elsewhere at a very high cost to be serviced in other areas, so we’re always interested in keeping our children as close as possible,” she said, adding, “Those are all things we want to kind of analyze and share, but we don’t want to get our hopes up—this would only be if it really worked best for the community and it worked best for the school district.”

Specifically, some of Sag Harbor’s special needs students must travel to schools up-island to get the services they need, and students enrolled in career and technical education courses must go to BOCES facilities up-island. Ms. Graves said that in addition to the financial burden of transporting students to other schools and enrolling them elsewhere, not having those services in the district comes with the added cost of not having all of Sag Harbor’s schoolchildren close to home.

While technical education would likely remain at BOCES, special needs services could potentially be provided in-house if the district acquires more land. Other schools in the area are also sending special education students to far away schools, and Ms. Graves suggested that the acquisition of the Stella Maris property could be a way to explore sharing services with other districts—and thus saving costs.

“This is the initial, initial stage, but New York State is demanding of us now that we secure every opportunity for sharing services, that we find every opportunity under the tax cap to explore sharing personnel, explore every opportunity for cost saving,” said Ms. Graves. “In our community, we’re going to garner the services of appraisal firms to look at that property and get feedback that we can share with our community.”

“We aren’t making any moves as far as education without—we’re doing it hand in hand with the community and our stakeholders,” she added.

With an influx of students who pay tuition to attend Sag Harbor schools and a student population that has grown steadily over the past six years, the school district now has over 1,000 students, as well as over half a million dollars in revenue from tuition paying students.

In operation as a school for 134 years, Stella Maris was Long Island’s oldest Catholic school when it closed its doors in 2011 due to a $480,000 deficit. Parents at the school tried to fundraise to keep the school open, but were unsuccessful. Since the school closed, its building has been used occasionally for fundraisers and village police training, and has seen two unsuccessful attempts to open preschools on the property.

State Aid for Sag Harbor Uncertain as Governor Cuomo Holds Education Budget Hostage

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By Tessa Raebeck

With Governor Andrew Cuomo holding school aid in limbo in hopes of forcing the New York State Legislature to adopt his educational reforms, next year’s school budgets—and educational mandates—remain a mystery to school boards and administrative teams trying to prepare for the 2015-16 school year.

“What the governor is doing is he wants to push his reform package,” Tommy John Schiavoni, legislative liaison to the Sag Harbor Board of Education, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

In January’s State of the State address, Governor Cuomo agreed to grant an additional $1.1 billion, or 4.8 percent, in state funding to New York’s schools if and only if the legislature passes his reforms. If the legislature—which, divided between a Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate, is often at a standstill—fails to do so, the governor threatened to limit that increase to 1.7 percent. In the meantime, those crafting school budgets must play a guessing game without direct information on how much state aid they’ll receive.

“He has publicly said that if he doesn’t get it, they’re going to hold back money from education,” Mr. Schiavoni said of the governor.

The reform package proposed by the governor includes teacher evaluations with 50 percent based on standardized tests, a proposal rebuked by the state’s teachers unions.

“I think that is certainly something that will affect us [and the annual Professional Performance Review] we’ve developed in Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Schiavoni.

Governor Cuomo is also requesting a five-year tenure plan to “make it easier to discipline teachers,” Mr. Schiavoni said. If enacted, the governor’s plan would make it easier for teachers to be fired and harder for them to be granted tenure.

Other reforms the governor is compelling the legislature to adopt include: raising the number of charter schools in the state by 100 and requiring those schools to accept less advantaged and lower-scoring students; starting a pilot pre-K program for 3-year-olds; sending specialists into schools that have been designated as “failing” for three years; and creating an education tax credit for private, public and charter school donations.

The governor’s office will not release the final financial numbers until the budget has passed, which could be as late as April 1. School districts, in turn, must tell the state comptroller’s office whether they plan to pierce the state tax cap, enacted in 2011, by March 1, at which point they could be missing information vital to understanding next year’s finances.

In other school board news, Superintendent Katy Graves said the district has accepted the i-Tri program, a self-empowerment group in which middle school girls focus on building confidence, mental health and physical stamina over six months, culminating with the girls racing in a triathlon in July.

The program was expected to be voted on by the board on Tuesday, but did not end up requiring a vote because there are no longer any transportation costs associated with it.

Theresa Roden, director and founder of i-tri, “has such a wealth of volunteers that are willing to come from the community into the school building that it’s become a facilities use agreement,” Ms. Graves said.

There are no costs for the district, but the program will use Pierson’s facilities and the administrative team, who will help i-tri with the selection process, which favors girls who are not involved in interscholastic sports.

Pierson Middle School Vice Principal Brittany Miaritis said the school is dispensing a survey for i-tri this week to “figure out girl selection for the program.”

The board’s next meeting is Monday, February 23, in the Pierson library. A budget workshop will be held at 6 p.m. followed by the regular meeting at 7:30 p.m.

Sag Harbor School Board Taken Line by Line Through Proposed Athletics, Buildings and Grounds Budget

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By Tessa Raebeck

With items as precise as $9 for red floor tape, on Tuesday, February 3, Sag Harbor School District Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi unveiled the athletics and buildings and grounds portions of the first draft of the district’s budget for the 2015-16 school year.

“We’re just starting from zero and working our way up,” Ms. Buscemi told the board, adding, “this is still a first draft and these numbers are going to be refined going forward.”

Director of Facilities Montgomery Granger presented his proposed buildings and grounds budget, joking to the board, “This will be the most exciting budget presentation you’ve ever heard, it’s really scintillating.”

He asked the board to consider hiring another custodian for Pierson Middle/High School, at a starting salary of about $37,000. The “guidance” of how many custodians a school should have, he said, is one custodian per 20,000 square feet. At 140,000 square feet, Pierson has five janitors and a supervisor who also helps clean. Mr. Granger said the new hire could be a “floater” between schools, rather than hiring a substitute, which are often difficult to find.

“We have significant use of the building until late at night every single night plus the weekend use of the facility, so it is a huge challenge for the number of staff that we have,” Mr. Granger said of keeping Pierson clean.

The buildings and grounds budget includes a proposed $80,000 increase for “items that are much needed,” said Ms. Buscemi, including a Ventrac model tractor, a machine that can be used for both lawn mowing and snow plowing.

“These things tear through snow—it would have torn through that snow we recently had in an amazing fashion,” said Mr. Granger, who estimated it could last from three to 12 years depending on weather and use.

Mr. Granger also asked the board to purchase a new district vehicle, as its current vehicle, a 1995 Ford F250, is, understandably, on its last leg, despite valiant efforts by the schools’ mechanical team, he said, adding the proposed purchases will save money on repairs and labor costs moving forward.

The proposed total for the buildings and grounds 2015-16 budget is around $2.4 million, up by about $163,000, or 7.37 percent, from 2014-15.

With a projected total of about $781,000, the athletics budget, which covers Pierson Middle/High School’s 53 sports teams, is up by $6,465, or 0.83 percent. Seventy-eight percent of Pierson students participate in at least one sport, Athletic Director Donnelly McGovern said Tuesday.

“The athletic department has also inventoried everything we have…[Mr. McGovern] knows how many balls and how many basketballs,” said Superintendent Katy Graves, adding that the athletic director spoke with every coach individually to assess what each team has and needs.

The administration provided immense detail for a school district budget, including low-cost lines like $89 for yellow disc cones, $40 for a goalkeeping throat protector and $6 for a practice net setter.

Due to the salary differential between last year’s full-time athletic director Todd Gulluscio and Mr. McGovern, who serves part-time, instructional salaries in athletics have gone down by 6.59 percent.

The school board has often discussed hiring an athletic trainer over the past several years. Mr. McGovern said he has had trouble finding applicants for the position who are certified school athletic trainers, but that a local trainer has proposed acting as a consultant athletic trainer for the district at a cost of $10,800.

Should a player get hurt, Mr. McGovern said, their coach would call the consultant trainer, who would give an assessment of the injury, “work with the parents” and either advise the player on what steps to follow in order to heal or help set up an appointment with an orthopedist, removing the need for the family to see a general practitioner on their own.

“I think it’s a good model that really could give us that piece that we’re missing,” he said, “because I’d love to have an athletic trainer.”

As with any school budget, the athletics component has several federally and state-mandated requirements, the importance of which the board found difficult to grasp.

In a new rule proposed by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which in turn guides the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, field hockey uniforms can no longer have a side panel that is a different color than the jersey’s other panels. Pierson’s current jerseys are red with white panels, so the district must buy new uniforms in one solid color, at an estimated cost of $400.

The cost of athletic supplies is expected to increase by 24.26 percent, due to the need for additional uniforms and supplies, but the district expects to see some savings thanks to a recent decision to join a statewide purchasing cooperative.

Prior to revealing the complete first draft on March 23, the district will host budget workshops on technology, special education, debt service, employee benefits and transportation on February 23, and on the elementary, middle and high schools, and BOCES administration and services sections on March 9.

A second review of the entire budget will be held April 13, followed by the scheduled budget adoption April 22 and another review April 27. The budget hearing is May 5 and the district wide vote is May 19, as are school board elections.

Sag Harbor School Board Has No Plans to Revisit Videotaping Policy

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By Tessa Raebeck

The Sag Harbor Board of Education’s narrow 4-3 decision last month to no longer include the public comment portions from the videos of its meetings broadcast on its website, LTV and SEA-TV, has raised criticism from a small but vocal segment of the school community.

The school board will continue to offer the two public input sessions at its meetings, and the rest of the public meetings will be recorded, with the tape starting after public input one, during which the public can address the board on issues related to the agenda, and stopping just prior to public input two, which is held at the end of the meeting and allows members of the public to bring up topics that are not on the agenda.

School board President Theresa Samot, who did not vote in support of the measure, said Wednesday, “The board has had no further discussion on the videotaping policy.  At this point, videotaping is not an agenda item on our upcoming agenda.”

During a six-month trial period from July to December 2014, and much discussion prior to that, board members cited the legal advice of school attorney Thomas Volz, who members of the board said, initially recommended against taping altogether due to liability issues that could arise.

When reached by phone on Tuesday, January 20, Mr. Volz said he is not authorized by the district to speak on the topic.

While discussing the policy in December, school board member Sandi Kruel cited instances that occurred during the trial period in which she felt libelous or slanderous statements were made.

“They were derogatory comments about employees of the district or disparaging comments about the work that they did,” Ms. Kruel said Tuesday, referring to six specific interactions that were also observed by The Sag Harbor Express over the course of the trial period.

Although one example given by Ms. Kruel was of a parent applauding a particular administrator’s work, the others referred to specific criticisms of various aspects of the district, such as a particular academic department or community outreach tool.

One instance occurred during public input two on September 29, 2014, when a community member referred to a particular administrative position and questioned a raise given to that administrator, who was in attendance, asking the board and Superintendent Katy Graves several questions, including, “Why is this person so valuable? That’s what I want to get at.”

When asked about the criteria used to determine why the raise was needed, as well as, “How many years’ experience does this person have?” Ms. Graves replied, “When we start talking about an exact person and their exact raises and why we did those, then we’re talking about personnel issues.”

Administrators’ salary increases are public information, and in this case, the raise was included in an agenda issued by the board. However, the discussion of the employment history of a particular person, as well as matters leading to their appointment, employment or promotion, are to be conducted during executive sessions, rather than public meetings, under the New York State Open Meetings Law.

According to the district, the recording of that September 29 meeting is not available online for viewing “due to a technical issue.”

If that interaction had been recorded and broadcast, Ms. Kruel said, the board “would have had to pay the attorney $3,000 to tell me that I can’t broadcast it and then I would have gotten slapped with a Freedom of Information or freedom of speech lawsuit.”

Ms. Kruel added she would be fine with having public input one recorded, as it addresses agenda items, but that public input two often becomes a “forum for someone’s opinion to slander either the board or an employee of the district.”

“I think we worry about all kinds of things for no particularly good reason,” Robert Freeman, the executive director at New York’s Department of State Committee on Open Government, said on Tuesday. While the board is not legally required to record or broadcast its meetings, he said, “I would question the wisdom of limiting what is broadcast for a simple reason—any member of the public under the open meeting law has the right to audio record, video record, or broadcast an open meeting so long as the use of the equipment is not disruptive or obtrusive.”

“So, even though the board of education might not broadcast or even record the public commentaries, anybody else can, and anybody else who does so can post it on his or her own website. [The Sag Harbor Board of Education] can do what they’re doing, but again, I question the wisdom of the limitation.”

As required by a 2011 amendment to the Open Meetings Law, the school board has on several occasions welcomed others to record and broadcast the public meetings on their own, with the expressed intention of absolving the district from its liability concerns.

Mr. Freeman said concerns of libel lawsuits if the board were to broadcast a slanderous statement made by a member of the public are “wrong, because it’s a public forum. There are cases out of Long Island which indicate that what is said and heard during open meetings is public. Why would they be concerned?”

“The reality, at least in my opinion, is that the board gives itself a degree of protection if it records and plays the whole thing,” Mr. Freeman continued. “If they don’t, somebody can record a portion that [the board does] not and say that this is completely accurate, even though that may not be so.”

The fears of libel lawsuits are largely unfounded according to Mr. Freeman, but a non-legal concern remains: if the board records all public comments, it will inevitably televise statements that are, more often than not, negative reactions to both the board itself and to its employees.

“We’re the only school district in all of Suffolk County who have come in under the tax cap every single year. We have never decreased program, we have never laid off employees, we’ve actually increased program—and [people are] sitting here worrying about if we’re going to let you rip apart a school employee or another board member on video camera,” said Ms. Kruel.

LTV Director Asks Sag Harbor School Board to Reconsider Broadcast Limitations

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A still shot of the video broadcast of the Sag Harbor Board of Education's December 9 meeting.

A still shot of the video broadcast of the Sag Harbor Board of Education’s December 9 meeting.

By Tessa Raebeck

In the wake of the Sag Harbor Board of Education’s decision last month to stop broadcasting the public comment portions of its meetings, LTV Executive Director Seth Redlus on Monday urged the board to reconsider its ruling, saying its liability concerns were unfounded.

“The action of editing out the public comment portion of your meeting clouds the very transparency this board sought to provide by offering the coverage,” Mr. Redlus told the board.

In light of several resignations in the spring of 2013, the school board faced criticism over a perceived lack of transparency and spent much of the last school year discussing a proposed policy to videotape and broadcast its public meetings. A six-month trial period was enacted over the summer and expired on December 31. During evaluation of that trial, board member David Diskin, who led the initial push for videotaping, suggested continuing to videotape the meetings, but omitting the two public input sessions from the tape, citing liability concerns voiced by the district’s attorney, Thomas Volz.

In December, Mr. Diskin and fellow board members Susan Kinsella, Sandi Kruel and Tommy John Schiavoni voted for a policy that does not broadcast public input, with Board President Theresa Samot, Vice President Chris Tice and Diana Kolhoff in the minority. That policy went into effect January 1 and was in use at the board’s meeting on Monday, January 12, during which Technology Director Scott Fisher stopped the recording prior to public comment.

The board members who voted not to broadcast public comments did so, they said because they were concerned about the district’s liability if it granted an unchecked public forum. Prior to that vote, Ms. Kruel said she counted six instances in which libelous statements were made by the public during the videotaping trial, and said it was too risky for the school district to broadcast an open forum. Mr. Schiavoni added it could affect programming because of the liability issues, should lawsuit costs mount. But Ms. Tice, Ms. Samot and Ms. Kolhoff said that was a risk they were willing to take.

The videos are taped by the school district and available on its website, but also distributed to the local government access stations LTV in East Hampton and SEA-TV in Southampton to be shown on television.

In reaction to the new policy, Mr. Redlus told the board Monday that LTV would still broadcast the meetings for the school board, but would inform its viewers at the beginning and end of the broadcasts that the meetings are independently produced and edited by the district rather than LTV. He believes the liability concerns expressed by some members of the board are misinformed, he said.

“LTV has videotaped government meetings for 30 years, and in that time, we have amassed a great deal of working knowledge about how best to capture these public events and present them to the community that we serve. One rule which has stood the test of time has become our prime directive: under no circumstances does LTV edit government meetings,” he said in a statement to the board made during public input.

“They are presented to the public in the very same way that they occurred in real life. That one simple rule has allowed the community to trust what they see when they tune in to our channel. While other media may be constrained by the time or space available to them, government access television shows every moment of what occurred—allowing viewers to make up their own minds with no editorial content,” he continued.

Editing meetings, Mr. Redlus added, is in the best interest of neither the board nor the public, as the board’s interpretation of issues raised in public comments is also not broadcast, comments made often reflect the opinion of a larger group, who may instead come to the board individually should they not see their questions answered en masse, and “there is no more liability to a board when public comment is broadcast than if that public comment is made only to an open meeting.”

Broadcasting the entire meeting, he concluded, may actually lower liability as there is a definitive recording of who said what.

Mr. Schiavoni asked Mr. Redlus whether LTV would consider taping the meetings itself, an option that had been floated by the board during earlier discussions.

“With the policy in place we won’t tape meetings,” Mr. Redlus replied, adding that when the board had originally considered documenting meetings, LTV had offered to cover a percentage of the cost based on how many East Hampton Cablevision subscribers live in the district (versus Southampton subscribers who are covered by SEA-TV), “but the school district never provided those numbers.”

In other school news, Theresa Roden and three girls from the i-tri program visited the board to ask it to consider Sag Harbor’s participation in the program, which is already active in the Springs, Montauk, and Southampton school districts. With the slogan, “transformation through triathlon,” the program aims to empower young girls through nutrition classes, self-esteem workshops, and physical and mental training to compete in a triathlon, held in July.

The program is free of charge for every participant, and asks the school district to provide a space to hold in-school sessions and possibly nighttime nutrition sessions, support from relevant personnel such as guidance counselors, and possibly transportation, if events cannot be housed in Sag Harbor.

Ms. Roden said in addition to anecdotal evidence that girls do better behaviorally and academically after the program, Jennifer Gatz, a local PhD candidate, conducted a thesis that found participants in the i-tri program, which combines fitness training, mentoring and self-esteem education, show an increased aptitude for science.

“There’s nothing I’ve experienced better than running through a finish line and having everyone you know and love cheer you on,” said Anna Rafferty, an eighth grade participant from Springs School.

The board appeared to be very supportive of bringing the program to Sag Harbor, and will vote on it at its next business meeting on January 26 when it meets at 6 p.m. for a budget workshop in the Pierson Library before convening a business meeting at 7:30.

Sag Harbor School District Presents First Draft of $1.5 Million Support Services Budget

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A student navigates the halls of Pierson High School. Photo by Michael Heller.

A student navigates the halls of Pierson High School. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

To start the Sag Harbor School District’s five-month budget season, Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi presented the first draft of a nearly $1.5 million support services budget, which covers the board of education, central administration, legal services, public information services, and insurance components of the district’s overall budget.

This school year’s $36.8 million budget, which easily passed last May by a 72-percent margin, had an increase of $1.36 million, or 3.83 percent, in spending from the previous school year. The district’s tax levy increase of 1.48 percent came in below the state’s 1.51 percent property tax levy cap for the district, which was determined by calculations specific to last year.

“We are looking at every single line individually,” Ms. Buscemi told the board at the workshop on Monday, January 12. “We’re trying to stay very, very conservative,” she said, adding that once health insurance and pension increases are applied, diligence will be demanded in other areas. Those costs take up a significant portion of the budget each year; salaries and benefits generally account for more than 80 percent of the overall budget. The last 20 percent of the budget must account for programs, technology, facilities and maintenance.

The support services budget was not yet complete, with several lines requiring further edits or information. Much of the data needed to finalize this year’s budget, such as insurance rates, BOCES rates, and clerical salaries, is not yet available. Superintendent Katy Graves’s salary has also not yet been determined, and is listed at $215,000, her current salary.

Some potential savings also remain undetermined. Several of the capital projects afforded by the bond referendum voters passed in 2013, such as floor replacements, the new turf field, and other safety measures, could save the district money by lowering the cost of student accident insurance, which is budgeted for $50,000.

“In some instances,” added Ms. Graves, “you actually save because insurance companies feel [more secure].”

This year the district joined a new purchasing cooperative, Educational Data Basic and T&M Services, to issue bids for the district.

“This $5,000 will save us a lot of time and money with bidding,” said Ms. Buscemi, adding that it will save the district money in advertising and time in manpower by doing bids through the cooperative, rather than through the business office.

“We’re going to get a better quality product at a lower cost,” Ms. Graves added.

Rather than putting out bids as a single entity, being part of the cooperative enables the district to go through an agency and have many units purchase at the same time, and save money by banding together with other districts on the East End.

The public information line, which has been up for much debate as the district grapples with how best to increase communications—particularly online—with parents and the wider public in a digital age, is projected to decrease by 4.64 percent, going from $75,500 budgeted for this year to $72,000 for 2014-15. While postage fees will remain steady, the district will be allocating $40,000 it had been paying a private firm to BOCES for public information services.

The district will host workshops on the remaining portions of the budget before the first draft is unveiled on March 23. Athletics, capital project work, and buildings and grounds will be covered at the January 26 workshop. Technology, special education, debt service, employee benefits and transportation will be on February 23, and on March 9 the elementary, middle and high schools, and BOCES administration and services sections will be presented. All workshops are at 6 p.m. in the Pierson library.

A second review of the entire budget will be held April 13, and the budget adoption is scheduled for April 22, followed by another review on April 27. The budget hearing will be May 5 and the districtwide vote is on May 19, as are school board elections.

Sag Harbor School Board Votes to Stop Broadcasting Public Input

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On Monday, the Sag Harbor Board of Education voted not to film and air the public input portions of its meetings, which were included in the December 9 video broadcast, still shot shown above.

On Monday, the Sag Harbor Board of Education voted against airing the public input portions of its meetings, which were included in the December 9 video broadcast, above.

By Tessa Raebeck

In an effort to avoid rebroadcasting public statements that could lead to liability issues for the school district down the road, the Sag Harbor Board of Education in a 4-3 vote on Monday agreed to continue videotaping its meetings, but to omit the public input sessions from the broadcast.

The board last spring implemented a six-six-month trial period during which it taped its meetings from start to finish, then broadcast them on the LTV and SEA-TV channels in East Hampton and Southampton, respectively, as well as online on the television stations’ websites and the district website.

The board adopted the pilot program to make its meetings more accessible following a call from some members of the public for increased transparency.

The trial period expires on December 31. When it was first enacted in April, the board agreed to review the policy at or before its December 15 meeting. To enact a policy, the board must hold a first reading, at which suggestions for amending the policy may be made. It then holds a second reading with those changes at a separate meeting. Following the second reading, the board votes on whether to approve the policy as is or continue revising it.

The videotaping policy was reviewed in a meeting on December 9, during which several changes were made, including altering the language to say the board would videotape and broadcast all “regularly scheduled” meetings and workshops on the board’s calendar, rather than all its “public meetings.”

This change was intended to avoid having Technology Director Scott Fisher, who spends over two hours setting up and distributing each broadcast in addition to the time spent attending the meetings, come in for a special meeting, which are generally brief and called for urgent matters, such as approving the hiring of a substitute teacher. Special meetings, often tucked in the middle of executive sessions that are not open to the public, are not scheduled ahead of time.

The other suggestion made last week—and approved on Monday—drew criticism from several parents in attendance and on social media. Board member David Diskin, citing liability concerns of rebroadcasting public statements over which the board has no control, proposed starting recording after the first public input session at the start of the meeting and ending taping after the second public input period at the end of the meeting.

To speak during the first public input period, speakers  must sign up ahead of time to address a specific issue on the agenda. Speakers are allowed to address any issue during the second public input session at the end of the meeting.

By not broadcasting public input, critics say the board is censoring the right of the public to bring up issues that are important to the school community, but may not be included by the board on an agenda. Proponents on the board said school attorney Thomas Volz had advised them against taping meetings altogether due to liability issues that could easily arise, and that while they would continue to televise the board meeting itself, broadcasting an open forum accessible to anyone in the public is too risky for the school district.

On Monday, those who voted to not include public input were David Diskin, Susan Kinsella, Sandi Kruel and Tommy John Schiavoni. Board President Theresa Samot, Vice President Chris Tice and Diana Kolhoff voted to continue taping the public.

“In the end, it may affect programming because of the liability issues,” said Mr. Schiavoni of his reasoning, adding that if the board were to continue broadcasting public input, it should consider having an attorney present during it. He echoed others’ sentiment that the board is too at-risk if statements made at the podium are rebroadcast, but welcomed any other party to tape the public portions of the meetings.

“I feel like the risk that we take by broadcasting statements that are made by the public is small with regard to the reward of having the public hear what is being brought to us,” countered Ms. Kolhoff. “I feel like people that can’t be here are just as interested in what we discuss as what people bring to the table in public input one and two.”

“I feel like we have to start with a bit of trust and if that trust is violated, maybe we revisit it. I just feel like the public input piece is important enough that I’m willing to risk the small chance that we open ourselves to liability,” she added.

“That is a risk,” Ms. Tice said, “but I do feel like we have had very productive public inputs. Public input two [is] where questions are asked that don’t show up on a formal agenda, but are questions that a lot of people in the community have.”

Ms. Kinsella, who has never been a fan of videotaping, reminded the board that having public input sessions at all is not mandatory, but an option chosen by the board.

“We have done this trial basis, we have had the policy violated, so how many times are we going to put ourselves at risk?” asked Ms. Kruel, who added that since the trial period started in July, she has counted six instances in which libelous statements were made during public input.

The public input sessions from Monday’s meetings were taped and broadcasted, as the terms of the six-month trial period are still in effect through the end of this month.

The next school board meeting will be a budget workshop and educational meeting starting at 6 p.m. on Monday, January 12, in the Pierson library.