The race for two seats on the Sag Harbor School Board has three contestants: the veteran, the local and the experienced newcomer. All candidates met inside the Pierson auditorium last Thursday, May 3 for the annual “Meet the Candidates” debate run by the Sag Harbor Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and moderated by Bryan Boyhan, publisher of The Sag Harbor Express.
The incumbents include former School Board President Walter Wilcoxen, who is running for this third term, and Gregg Schiavoni, who was born and raised in Sag Harbor and is vying for his second. Newcomer Tom Gleeson, who moved to the area seven years ago and currently works part-time in admissions at Vaughn College in Queens, is making his first run for a seat on the board.
Though Schiavoni was not present at the debate Thursday night, he was contacted by The Express via phone and asked the same set of questions posed to Wilcoxen and Gleeson during the debate. Like his opponents, he was given no more than two minutes for each answer.
How do you see the International Baccalaureate (IB) program changing the school?
Wilcoxen: It will allow a greater rigor to be introduced [to the district]. The stress that [IB] puts on the communication pieces—oral and verbal—is something I think we’re lacking in our curriculum currently.
Gleeson: Most people know that I was not in favor of the IB program. But, if elected, I would make sure we implement it in the best way possible. I agree with Walter that writing is very important in society. Yes, we need to improve writing here.
Schiavoni: I think it’s going to change two things: I think it’s going to change the education of the students for the better, and I also think it’s going to better teachers’ instruction. Teachers who go for IB training will be able to use that for professional development. From what I’ve heard, this training is the best training for teachers. Let’s say in a year or two IB doesn’t pan out, teachers will be so advanced it will even benefit [the school] should we go back to AP.
The proposed school budget for the 2012-2013 school year succeeded in coming under the state-mandated two-percent tax cap, but that may prove more difficult going forward. What decisions do you see the district having to make in the coming year to meet the cap again?
Wilcoxen: The problem in our future is labor costs. Seventy percent of our budget is labor-related. Next year we’re going to have a choice. I think it’s going to be up to the staff and the board renegotiating contracts. I see no other way around it, other than cutting staff.
Gleeson: You’re going to have to look at labor costs, and that includes the superintendent on down. Our superintendent’s salary is high. I thought that when we brought him in from upstate. I think that you have to look at every possible cut without affecting education. One of the things we’re going to have to look at is the cost of books and technology.
Wilcoxen: The superintendent’s salary… while it’s high, if you look at the hourly cost of what he’s produced, it’s not that high. In order to get good, quality work you need to pay people to come here. Dr. Gratto has more than made up for his salary by what he’s saved us.
Schiavoni: It’s the battle we always have. We have to look at program: what’s available, what do students want, what do they not want? We have to ask the students and the community. I think the other thing is we have to be prepared to look one, two, three years down the line.
There has been considerable conversation about the school’s wellness policy. Do you believe the existing policy is too strict? Should students be given the opportunity to purchase products that include such items as high-fructose corn syrup?
Wilcoxen: I think the Wellness Policy is very good the way it is. I would like to see the education piece added to it. We all grew up on high-fructose corn syrup… I would say that if children want to bring in things that aren’t on our Wellness Policy, they’re free to do that. But the higher goal has to be to educate our kids to be healthier than we are.
Gleeson: I have to look at [the Wellness Policy] more carefully. What’s happening now is there’s so much research going on about how food affects people. We have to create a mindset in the students [that allows them] to make the proper choices. The other question I have about this is, how is it affecting our funding down at the cafeteria? Is this drawing students away?
Schiavoni: I don’t believe it is too strict. I don’t see the value in teaching that high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you and then promoting it. The Wellness Policy has language that states the school should move toward developing a menu that doesn’t include those things.
Should the school district take a greater role in ensuring students eat healthier?
Wilcoxen: In the Curriculum Committee, we’ve discussed this. We’ve requested the administration look into programs where students might integrate growing and making food… we haven’t gotten very far.
But, the school’s responsibility to feed children I don’t think is paramount. We’re not an under-privileged community.
Gleeson: We continue to try to educate the students through all classes, not only health classes. One of the things I find funny is that we’re removing high-fructose corn syrup, but one of the biggest allergies out there is peanut butter. We’re removing one thing, and yet that’s still out there… I’m not sure how that fits into the guidelines.
Schiavoni: The school should take a greater role in giving the students healthy options. Students can bring in whatever they want from home; but, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to offer healthy choices that reflect the Wellness Policy.
Drugs on school campuses are a problem nationally, and there are those that believe Sag Harbor is no different. Do we have a problem with drugs on our campuses, and was the school overreacting when it approved bringing in drug-sniffing dogs?
Gleeson: I’m still looking into this issue. Schools differ. The problems at East Hampton and Ross may be different than ours. As far as the drug-sniffing dogs, it puts a bad taste in my mouth. Are we not doing a good job administrationally so that drugs are coming into our schools? We have to have more forums about it. We’ve seen some about the dogs, but I’d like to see more research.
Wilcoxen: The dogs are not the issue. The dogs are just one small piece of an attempt to address what we see as an increasing drug problem… we’re starting to see it in the middle school. The school board has actually asked the administration to incorporate greater resources in providing a coordinator for all programs that deal with substance abuse. It hasn’t been done; but, I can assure you that, if elected, if will be on the summer goals list.
Schiavoni: I don’t think we have a problem. I think we do have correct procedures in place should there be an event. As far as the dogs, if we don’t have a problem now and they’re just one more tool, then I’m all for it. The dogs are not targeting a student or a group of students; they’re not in there because we have a problem, they’re in there as one more [preventative] tool. I don’t think the school overreacted, I think it’s just one more step we’re taking to be proactive.
Board members have talked about the importance of involving more community members in discussions about the school and its campuses. How do you plan to improve communication between the school and the community?
Wilcoxen: Six years ago we seemed to have a lack of communication or understanding with the public. We spent two years opening up the process, [adding two public input portions during board meetings]—that seemed to help a lot—and we paid attention to answering questions right away.
I think the community can be part of the school to whatever degree they want. The school board is open to participation; it has to be respective, non-accusatory and follow the norms of decent communication. We’ve had ad hoc committees in the past, but people only seem to get involved if there’s a touchstone issue.
Gleeson: I think community outreach is vital. This is everyone in the community’s school. We have a tremendous resource in the community and sometimes we don’t use it as well [as we should]. That’s one of the nice things, as I said before, about my schedule. I have time to sit and talk to community members, to find out what their needs are.
Schiavoni: The school does a good job of communicating with the community through email blasts, posting notices online and The Express, through paper mailings… We form community groups when we have an event that may affect the community as a whole. The bigger problem is how do we get community members more involved? I can’t force someone to go to a board meeting.
Negotiating with the unions has been contentious in the past. What will you do differently this year to ensure a successful bargaining process?
Gleeson: I think the process needs to start early. Part of the problem is the state mandates…. We need to have those mandates relaxed. I look at it so differently because when I started teaching, we didn’t make a lot so our benefits package was so important. But, the pendulum has swung. We also want to make sure we get the best quality teachers. The issue is a thorny one.
Wilcoxen: Teachers are so important, but the control the school has over how things get taught… once a teacher has tenure, it’s almost impossible to remove that teacher.
Gleeson: We have to look at the contract, look at how many periods a day teachers are teaching. Maybe we can increase the workload. We have to look at health insurance costs and what their actual salary is when we take benefits; we have to look carefully at how they fit in with society. The issue of tenure has been kicked around for years. Can you get rid of a bad teacher? Yes, but it takes time and energy. We forget that teachers give recommendations for tenure. We have to make sure no one’s getting tenure that doesn’t deserve it.
Wilcoxen: I don’t know [how to ensure effective communication with the teachers’ union], but we’re going to have to start investigating it. To go that long without having a sane conversation is incredible. We have to be very honest and show people what [teachers’ benefits] are actually costing.
Schiavoni: I think the process has to begin earlier, and there has to be constant communication between the administrators, the board and the union. We’ll send our proposal, they’ll send theirs; we’ll look at it, but there’s no immediate talk. I think there has to be a set time frame; if we can keep moving forward, keep discussions going, it will move discussions much quicker.
The following are questions from the community, as posed to Walter Wilcoxen and Tom Gleeson during last Thursday’s debate.
Do you support the two-percent tax cap?
Wilcoxen: I support it. I don’t like the way it’s done, but I support it. There has to be some way to let people know that the increasing rate of taxes is important. I also see no other way to bring the unions to the table and be responsive.
Gleeson: I support the concept. I think in today’s society two percent may be more difficult as we move forward because of the lack of funding for certain mandates.
How can we improve middle school academics?
Gleeson: If there’s more articulation between elementary and middle school, I think that will help as we meet the common core mandate.
Wilcoxen: I agree, I think the common core is a good effort by the state to help us out. But, one of the things that’s going to help the middle school is IB. We’re first saying, what do we want our children to be like when they graduate? Now, what do we have to do for middle schoolers and high schoolers to get there?
What does the board do with a bad teacher?
Wilcoxen: One of the most important things with the school board is we don’t determine what a bad teacher is. There is a process that has been changed, it’s going to be easier to discipline a teacher, but we also have to understand that teachers have the same problems that the rest of us have. We need freedom and trust to help them. I would like to see the union step up.
Gleeson: It’s really an administrator’s job to monitor their teachers. What’s the tool that determines what we should be doing? Do we have a teacher-mentoring program? What is the administrator doing to improve the teaching in the school? What assistance are we giving? Some teachers should not be teaching because they don’t like kids. We need to monitor and mentor the other ones.
Do you think health benefits for staff should be reformed?
Gleeson: I need to look at [benefits] more carefully. I’m sure it needs to be improved, but I can’t answer specifically.
Wilcoxen: We have to change the medical insurance system. The union agreed that we were allowed to offer an alternative health plan, which had a lot of wellness parts to it… there was basically no interest because everyone has Empire, it’s what they know. [Benefits] are going to have to be repaired everywhere, or the United States is going to go broke.
Gleeson: This is a nation-wide issue. I had surgery and thank God I had Empire, otherwise it would have cost $300,000.
How can we continue to attract more students from other districts?
Wilcoxen: The immediate answer is IB. We will have quite a few people interested in that.
Gleeson: I think quality programs, whether it’s IB or AP, doesn’t matter. [My family] chose to come to Sag Harbor because of the quality of the art program. We also do great programs outside the classroom, like robotics, and if we continue to do things that are quality programs we’ll attract more people.