Tag Archive | "sag harbor school board"

Test Scores in Sag Harbor School District Remain Stable

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According to Pierson Middle-High School principal Jeff Nichols, AP and Regents exam test scores “remain stable” in the Sag Harbor School District. That announcement was made during the Sag Harbor Board of Education’s September 10 meeting, just a week after students shuffled back into school for a new year.

On Monday, Nichols and Sag Harbor Elementary Principal Matthew Malone presented the latest results of the district’s AP and Regents exams, as well as New York State’s Elementary/Intermediate tests.

Nichols reported that 94 students took AP classes in 2012, which is nearly double the enrollment in AP courses in 2005. Seventy percent of students who took an AP exam passed, earning a score of at least 3 (roughly equivalent to 65 percent) out of 5.

“Our performance, in terms of students scoring 3 or higher, has remained stable,” said Nichols. “To me, [this] indicates the philosophy that we’ve supported over the years, which is all students can do the work if you provide them with the necessary resources to be successful.”

While Regents scores were somewhat mixed, there was an improvement in certain subjects. For example, 87 percent of students passed the Geometry exam in 2012, up from 79 in 2009. All students passed Earth Science in 2012, up from 93 percent in 2009.

However, there was a slight drop in other subjects. For instance, 91 percent of students passed the English exam in 2012, while 94 percent had passed in 2009. Seventy-nine percent passed Algebra in 2012, down a point from 2009.

Still, Nichols pointed out that the decline can be attributed to two factors — the increase in students taking the exam and the increase in ESL (English as a Second Language) students in the district.

Students in third through eighth grade also took exams in English/Language Arts (ELA) and Math. The tests were graded on a 1 to 4 scale, with 3 being a passing grade.

In 2012, students in third through fifth grade and in eighth grade fared better on the ELA exam than they had in 2010, said Malone. However, Malone said there was a decline in scores among sixth and seventh graders. For instance, 75 percent of sixth graders passed in 2012, compared to 80 percent in 2010.

With the exception of sixth graders, whose scores were down, the math scores for third through eighth grades were either higher or the same as they were in 2010. For example, 71 percent of eighth graders met or exceeded standards in 2012, compared to only 55 percent in 2010.

Principal Malone noted that the school is required to provide academic intervention services (AIS) for students who only score a 1 or 2 on these exams.

In other news, the district is developing a new concussion management plan in response to New York State’s new Concussion Management and Awareness Act, which took effect in July.

“We’re in the process of getting that done within the next couple weeks [to a] couple months,” said J. Wayne Shierrant, interim athletic director.

Shierrant submitted a sample policy to the school board with guidelines on how to identify and manage concussions. It includes the education of coaches, physical education teachers, nurses, athletes and parents, as well as proper sideline management and emergency follow-up and return-to-play protocol.

Each physical education teacher, nurse and athletic trainer must also complete an approved course on concussion management every other year, said Shierrant. He added that there is a 30-minute online test that will allow participants to print out a certificate of completion.

At Monday’s meeting, the board of education also reappointed Deborah Skinner as the beach manager of the YARD Summer Beach Program and the group leader of its after-school program.

The BOE said it had made the agreements with other municipalities that help fund the YARD program, and had received payments from three out of four of them.

While these agreements run through December 31, 2012, Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso said the district planned to “honor its commitment to the program” through the end of the school year.

He noted that the district has “contingency plans” to help fund the program through June, even if financial agreements with other municipalities are not renewed at the end of this calendar year.

“Should it come to the point where we don’t have some revenues coming in that we expected for any reason, we would unfortunately have to tap into our reserves,” he said.

However, Dr. Bonuso added, “Given our conversations that went into the development of those agreements, we feel that it’s not going to be an issue.”

Pursuing a Super

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By Amanda Wyatt

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

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

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

School Board President Theresa Samot echoed Gratto’s comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Coalition Aims to Tackle Teen Substance Abuse

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By Amanda Wyatt

The East End is “a drinking community with a sailing problem.”

This old joke, which was told by former Pierson principal Bob Schneider, got quite a few laughs at the school’s community coalition meeting on July 16. But behind the humor was a much more sober truth — the belief that alcohol use is widespread among residents of the East End, including its youth.

In an effort to curb alcohol and drug use among Pierson students, 16 members of the community gathered in the school library for a discussion and a special presentation by Kym Laube. Laube is the executive director of Human Understanding and Growth Seminars, Inc. (HUGS), a Westhampton based group which offers a drug and alcohol awareness program Pierson has been using for a number of years.

According to Laube, drinking is more prevalent in this area than in many other parts of the country.

“The East End always has a propensity for high volume drinking,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.

“Drinking seems to be a very prevalent, challenging issue here on the East End,” agreed Mary Anne Miller, a member of the Sag Harbor School Board. “Each community has its own challenge, sort of like the ‘flavor’ of that area.”

That ‘flavor’ is indisputably alcohol, especially among Pierson students, according to the unofficial results of a recent survey conducted at the school by the New York Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS). The school board has received the results of the survey, and although the board has yet to release those results, members did confirm drinking and drugging rates at Pierson were higher than they had hoped.

“Our kids drink and drug higher than the county, the state and the national [averages] on the East End,” said Laube. “If we don’t ask why Sag Harbor kids are drinking and drugging higher than they are up the island or at the state level, then we can’t change it, because we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.”

Miller stressed Sag Harbor residents should not be hitting the panic button quite yet. The challenge here, she said, is no greater than any other town.

“We’re not in some sort of emergency mode,” Miller said. “But we want to do better. We the community, we the parents, we the students want to do a better job of creating healthy behaviors and supporting healthy behaviors.”

Still, teen drinking remains an obstacle for the school.

According to Southampton Town’s 2008 Teen Assessment Project survey, 30 percent of students in the town report drinking regularly. Three percent said they drink every day, while seven percent drink several times a week and 20 percent reported drinking several times a month, according to the survey. Forty two percent of students reported they had their first drink at age 15 or younger.

In addition, 27 percent of students reported that they binge drank at least once in the past month. Binge drinking, Laube explained, is defined as consuming five to seven drinks within a two to three hour period.

Laube added that drinking among today’s youth is much “more aggressive” than when she was a teenager. Binge drinking is much more common, and kids often begin drinking at younger ages. She attributed the rise in teen drinking to a number of factors and explained that alcohol is easily accessible, not only at home, but at convenience stores and chain pharmacies.

Furthermore, the “party atmosphere” in the Hamptons may be another factor in teen drinking.

“‘Come party in the Hamptons’ is kind of our thing out here, and that in and of itself sends a message to young people,” Laube said. “When they’re working in an industry and there’s that much exposure, it’s just that much easier for them to engage [in drinking].”

Laube added that with limited activities for teenagers, as well as limited public transportation to events, kids sometimes feel that all there is to do is drink.

“We’ve heard kids on the East End talk about boredom being a contributing factor,” she added.

However, she noted perhaps the biggest factor in teen drinking is parental involvement—or lack thereof.

“Parents who are working two to three jobs to afford to live on the East End aren’t necessarily home during those key, important hours,” said Laube. “And then there are parents who are out enjoying their own ‘East End experience.’”

Both Laube and Miller criticized parents who allow alcohol to be served at their teen’s parties — an illegal practice.

“I think some people don’t understand that other parents would be really mad if they found out you were letting kids drink beer at their house,” said Miller who hoped the coalition would help “get our parents on board” with the substance prevention agenda.

“We want to get them to come and be part of a more proactive group to better educate ourselves as to what the kids are facing and what the kids are doing, and how we can support more positive, protective behaviors in the community,” said Miller.

The next coalition meeting is scheduled for Monday, August 21 at 5:30 p.m.

Miller encouraged representatives from all sectors of the community — law enforcement, youth organizations, teenagers — to attend.

Setting Goals

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By David McCabe

The Sag Harbor School Board charted its course of the next year at its annual goal setting meeting, held this Monday.

For the most part, the goals proposed focus on academic achievement and the district’s commitment to wellness, which was made during last year’s goal-setting session. The board also designated some goals as “just do it” items.

One of the more broad goals was the ongoing implementation of the wellness policy, which seeks to improve the physical and emotional wellbeing of staff members and students.

The board, in consultation with administrators, decided to undertake an evaluation of its Spanish and math programs, finding that the district’s previous efforts to improve performance in those areas had failed. This year, 25 students failed to pass the eighth grade Spanish course, forcing the district to consider hosting a summer school program for those students.

“We thought it made sense to look at this systemically,” district superintendent Dr. John Gratto said.

Additionally, a similar review will be conducted for the math program. Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols said that many teachers had already received additional professional instruction, but that a larger effort appeared to be needed.

The district’s drug and alcohol prevention policies were also placed under a microscope, as board members urged administrators to more closely evaluate the district’s current efforts and put forth a plan that will improve upon them. The board also questioned why the school had yet to hold a planned community coalition meeting on drug and alcohol prevention.

“We did a lot of talking about it, but not a lot happened,” said Miller.

The board said that they wanted to consider implementing a program called “Too Good for Drugs” that has been used elsewhere on Long Island.

Nichols also requested that the board consider ways in which they could help promote the district’s new International Baccalaureate Diploma program. The IB program also came up at the meeting as administrators told board members they would like to find ways to introduce many of the IB concepts at the elementary and middle school level.

Dr. Gratto also asked that the administrators conduct a more thorough analysis of the district’s extracurricular activities, in order to figure out which clubs were worth maintaining and which were not being utilized.

As part of an increasing interest in the District English as a Second Language student community, the board asked that school officials try and print the academic calendar in Spanish as well as English. This will allow Spanish-speaking parents to have more advanced notification of events designed to aid the ESL community, which has tended to under perform in key academic areas.

The annual ritual, which looks to help the board decide on its direction for the next year, came at a time when the school is seeing leadership changes at its highest levels. Last month, the Sag Harbor School District hired John O’Keefe to replace Janet Verneuille as its business manager. Just last week, Dr. Gratto resigned from his position as superintendent after four years.

Dr. Gratto, though, found himself setting goals for his replacement on Monday, and did not seem shy about it. At one point, he recommended to Lisa Scheffer, the district’s Director of Pupil Personnel Services and Special Education, that she lower her costs and perhaps bring the district’s special education numbers below the statewide average.

“Thank you John,” she responded, a little sarcastically.

“Parting words,” someone else called out.

Call to Nix the Dogs

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By David McCabe

If the crowd that showed up at the Sag Harbor School Board’s special session on Monday is to be believed, the board has thrown the students of Pierson High school to the dogs.

At a meeting otherwise expected to be short and devoted mostly to personnel matters, the public input portion of the session was dominated by critics of the board’s decision to allow drug-sniffing dogs into the halls of the Pierson High School and Middle School building.

The most vocal in his opposition was former Pierson principal Bob Schneider, who stood and read a letter he said he had prepared for publication in the Express, but had not sent. He said at the beginning of his remarks that he had hoped that the board’s approval of the dogs policy would not actually result in searches being conducted.

“I naively assumed that the dogs would not come,” he said, “but they did come.”

His primary objection, he said, was that he did not believe the board had considered drug prevention research that indicates that drug-sniffing dogs do not prevent students from using illegal drugs.

“What was missing from consideration by the district was the evidence of what works to prevent drug use in schools,” he said. There is “not a shred” of evidence to suggest that using dogs would help curb drug use at the school, he claimed.

He also said he had sent pertinent research to board members, and accused them of not paying attention to important studies in the field of drug prevention.

Walter Wilcoxen, a board member and former board president, shot back that he had read the research that Schneider had sent and said he believed that its findings were consistent with the board’s decision.

“One of the points in that monograph, and this is just a small point, is that one of the first things you can do is ensure that the rules are enforced,” he said, going on to say that the dogs were a form of enforcement.

While other board members defended their decision, some also admitted they had not been proactive enough on the issue of drug prevention.

“We need an approach that goes beyond these walls. It has taken too long for this approach to get steam,” board member Chris Tice said. However, she questioned why it had taken so long for the administration to organize a meeting of community members to discuss the topic of drug prevention.

Mary Anne Miller, the president of the board, said that coordinating the meeting, which would involve a facilitator from an outside group, had proved difficult but that she hoped it would occur soon. The meeting has already been cancelled once, because the facilitator was ill.

Schneider was not the only person present at the meeting who voiced an objection to the fact that the dogs, which are provided by Suffolk County free of charge to the district, were brought into Pierson on June 7.

One audience member, Leah Oppenheimer, said she had been a working social worker servicing those hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She said that when dealing with those who were drug users, measures that degraded the trust between the patients and social workers were always detrimental to the former group. She also said that students with substance dependence are likely to find a way to obtain and use illegal drugs unless they receive counseling in school.

“They’ll go elsewhere, which is where you have no influence,” she said.

A student, Nick Dwoskin, also voiced his opposition to the policy, saying it fostered distrust between school administrators and students.

“As a deterrence it made sense,” he said “I don’t think it stops them from doing it anywhere else.”

Many present at the meeting called on the board to vote to suspend the policy until it can be reconsidered, but some board members seemed hesitant to take such a step, especially considering that the dogs will not be brought back into the school until school resumes in September.

Board members agreed to address the topic at their annual goal-setting meeting, which is being held this coming Monday, July 2, as part of a larger discussion of the district’s year-old wellness policy.

Landslide Victory For Sag Harbor Budget, Incumbents Reelected

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Above: School Board Candidate Tom Gleeson (top, far left) waits to hear the results of Tuesday’s election.

By Claire Walla

Coming as no surprise to the small crowd gathered in the Pierson Middle/High School gymnasium Tuesday, May 15, the Sag Harbor School District’s proposed $34,182,256 million budget passed by a landslide, with 892 votes for the budget versus only 420 against.

Similarly, Proposition #2, which will allow the district to spend up to $575,000 for the purchase of six new buses, passed with a similar margin: 851 to 432.

“I’m very pleased the budget passed,” District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto commented after the results were read. “And I’m pleased the bus proposition passed.”

This year’s election garnered 1,377 total votes, a drop of 264 from last year.

The 2012-2013 budget represents a spending increase of $956,172 over this year’s operating budget. But, more importantly, is represents a tax-levy increase of only 1.94 percent, which means it successfully falls below the two-percent tax cap imposed by New York State for the first time this year.

The real nail-biter this year was the race for school board, which had three candidates vying for two open seats. In the end, incumbents Gregg Schiavoni and Walter Wilcoxen each managed to secure another three-years on the board, putting Schiavoni in his second term and Wilcoxen in his third.

“The vote on the board is a testament to the trust the community has in the job this board has done,” Dr. Gratto noted.

When the votes had all been tallied, Schiavoni was the clear victor with 1,039 total votes. Wilcoxen came in second with 795 and Gleeson was a not-too-distant third with 576 votes.

Many in the gymnasium that night congratulated Gleeson on a hard-fought campaign.

“It’s tough to beat the incumbents,” Gleeson said after having walked over to congratulate Schiavoni on his win. (Wilcoxen had a work conflict and was unable to make it to the gymnasium before doors closed at 9 p.m.)

“It was a good learning experience,” he added. “I just hope the board continues to improve education. The kids are what’s most important.”

With his youngest daughter — who stood by his side as results were read — graduating from Pierson this year, Gleeson said his loss wouldn’t mean he would vanish from the district.

“I’ll try to stay involved as much as possible,” he declared.

In the wake of his win, Schiavoni — flanked by his two young sons — smiled as he talked about his plans for the upcoming year.

“What’s next will be keeping track of IB [the International Baccalaureate program], making sure it’s implemented correctly, and keeping track of the Pre-K program,” he said. “Going forward, we just have to keep the ball rolling.”

In an interview the day after the vote, Wilcoxen said he was excited to find he had been elected for a third term.

“We have a lot of challenges, like trying to understand how we can deal with each other more effectively [as a board],” he said.  “That seems to be number one on the list.”

But, he added that supporting IB and continuing to find ways to make the school’s finances more transparent will be key issues in the coming year.

After congratulating candidates, both board members Theresa Samot and Chris Tice said they were very pleased to hear the election results for the budget this year.

“The margin the vote passed by was really great,” Samot exclaimed, as Tice noted it was nearly 2:1. “The administration put a lot of hard work into the budget.”

Board member Sandi Kruel concurred with this sentiment, and applauded voters for passing Proposition #2.

And to her fellow board members about to begin their new three-year terms, she added, “Congratulations.”

Meet the Candidates Debate, Sag Harbor

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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.


Board Aims to Solidify School Mascot

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Yearbook Photo, whale

By Claire Walla


Your perception of the Pierson Middle/High School mascot is probably correlated to the amount of time you’ve spent with the school.

“The whale has always been the mascot,” said school board member Teresa Samot, who grew up in Sag Harbor.

She added, however, that the school has seen a lot of variations over the years, and many uniforms don’t have a mascot at all. Recently, this prompted athletic director Monty Granger to question what the school’s rallying symbol was at all.

The Pierson mascot has been discussed before, but now the school district has expressed interest in deciding, once and for all, what exactly this symbol will be.

According to Samot, not only is the mascot a whale, it’s a very specific whale.

“Many alumni have made it clear that it’s not a whale standing on its tail, or a whale dancing,” she began. “It’s that whale!” she said, making reference to the whale depicted on the wall of the Pierson Middle/High School gym.

Board members Chris Tice and Mary Anne Miller expressed an interest in deciding on the mascot quickly in order to solidify the Pierson “brand.”

“We’re losing fundraising opportunities,” Miller said.

By licensing a specific mascot, the school could use that image on stationary, pens and other Pierson products, including t-shirts and sweatshirts.

“What I’m concerned about, is the whale you use,” said Pierson High School student Amanda Gleeson. “It should be something that we can actually be proud of visually.”

She added that she felt the board should choose mascot options, and then leave the final decision-making process to a student vote.

“We’re really looking for something really simple that we can just put on a t-shirt,” Monty Granger said. And then, invoking the words of Herman Melville, he added: “We may never find the white whale, but we may find one that we think reflects the history and tradition [of Sag Harbor] through time, but is also palatable to students.”

The board is expected to revisit the issue at its next meeting, March 26.


In other news…


What do draw bridges, pine needles and chickens named “Retro” have in common?

All were featured at last Monday’s Sag Harbor School District meeting when students from Kryn Olson’s Elementary School fifth grade science class presented three different science fair projects to the board of education.

According to science fair participant Phoebe Miller, science projects “first start out with an inspiration.”

Standing next to her science fair partner Gabriela Knab and a wooden model of a bridge, she continued: “Ours was the Mystic Drawbridge.”

The girls hypothesized that a drawbridge would not be able to lift without a counter weight. And after experimenting with different weights on the wooden model they constructed, their hypothesis was proven correct.

Student Daniel Capurso focused his project on pine needles, paper scraps and cardboard in order to “make heat from garbage.” Using a plastic cylinder and CDs to shmush the paper refuse into compact circles, he said, “My hypothesis was correct, the paper discs [conducted] more heat” than regular trash.

Finally, standing before one of their scientific subjects, Retro the chicken, Reilly Rose Schombs and Caroline Jungck said that their hypothesis revolved around the correlation between diet and egg quality. After feeding their poultry a new combination of cantaloupe, tomatoes, apples and pears and testing their results, they did indeed prove that the color of the chickens’ egg yolks grew darker as a result of a diet rich with fruit.

Sag Harbor Elementary School Principal Matt Malone related the importance of science at the elementary school level to the growing interest in the Intel science projects at the high school level.

“By focusing on science in the elementary school,” he said, “we can focus on some of the things that are to come.”


Budget Update


The proposed 2012-2013 school district budget — currently set at $34,182,256, representing a 2.88 percent spending increase over this year’s operating budget — plans to appropriate $500,000 from the fund balance to be used for energy efficiency upgrades. However, school board member Ed Drohan cautioned the district against dipping into these funds.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, are we going to pay the price next year?” he asked. “Are we mortgaging the future?”

While the district is going to see some savings from cost-cutting measures taken in the business and special education departments, Drohan pointed out that these will probably be one-time savings.

Instead of dipping into the fund balance to pay for building upgrades, he said the district should think instead of cutting costs elsewhere.

“I think it’s time we approach the [teachers’] union and come to some sort of compromise,” Drohan said.

He noted that the Bridgehampton School District recently managed to negotiate a district-wide freeze on all teachers’ salaries for the 2012-2013 school year. Although District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto didn’t seem very optimistic that situation could be mirrored here in Sag Harbor.

“I have talked to the teachers about concessions and we didn’t reach an agreement,” he responded.

The school board was expected to make its final decision to approve the proposed budget this week. But, according to Dr. Gratto, the state is still “tweaking” some of the finer points of its two-percent tax cap legislation.

The proposed budget currently includes a 1.94 percent tax levy increase, just shy of the two-percent limit. Any modifications to the legislation have the potential to change this calculation, perhaps bringing that total even closer to the two-percent limit.

“We wanted to hold off for that reason,” Dr. Gratto added.

But, because the budget must officially be adopted before the end of the month, he said the board will have no other choice but to vote on the budget at its next meeting, March 26.


The debate over student accident insurance continues

School board members said at a meeting this week that they were reluctant to make a decision as to whether or not the school should carry a supplemental insurance policy until they find out more information, including exactly how many neighboring districts hold such a policy.

Currently, the district does not have student accident insurance; it was canceled last spring when board members agreed that, overall, the insurance plan was not giving parents an adequate financial return on their medical bills.

As a supplement to the school’s liability insurance, this type of coverage relates to injuries that are not determined to be related to negligence on the part of the school. (For example, if a child should get injured in a sports game.)

The board is divided on the need for such a program. While some board members feel the school has an obligation to cover all student injuries, others feel the current options before them are not sufficient.

“I’m actually in favor of a parent-pay plan,” said board president Mary Anne Miller, who pointed out that the school offers insurance to parents at a much lower rate: from around $20 to $245 for the year with no deductible, versus a $250 deductible for student accident insurance.

“It’s less money out of the parents’ pockets.”

Board Divided Over Supplemental Accident Insurance

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By Claire Walla

Ever since the need for student accident insurance was brought into question last year, it has been a hotly debated item among Sag Harbor School Board members.

Last year, the board voted to eliminate the service (which is not required by law). However, at the urging of some Pierson parents, the school has been asked to reinstate it.

Student accident insurance is a policy that provides limited coverage if a child is injured while at school or during a school activity.  This is different from liability insurance — which the school is required to carry — which would cover the cost of a lawsuit if it was ruled there was negligence on the part of the district.

“We are the owners of the biggest house in the community,” said school board member Sandi Kruel. “We open up our door every single day and we have high-risk activities. For us not to protect ourselves and the children is totally appalling to me.”

At a school board meeting on Monday, January 6, the district’s director of business operations, Janet Verneuille, presented six student accident insurance plans for the board to consider, only two of which she said were viable. A company called Chartis offers one option at $46,453 per year, while Pupil Benefits — the company the school district used up until last year — is $39,521.

According to Verneuille, the problem with Pupil Benefits had to do with “reasonable and customary” costs, which are the costs the insurance company itself determines for a medical procedure. If a family doesn’t have medical insurance, student accident insurance will gauge the amount of money it pays for services based on these “reasonable and customary” estimates.

Because medical expenses are relatively high on the East End, Verneuille said the correlation between the two left many families without much of a financial return.

“The cost benefit wasn’t there,” she said.

Board member Walter Wilcoxen noted that issues surrounding Pupil Benefits arose when a parent in the school district complained of receiving only $300 back on a $3,000 medical bill.

However, board member Chris Tice said that discrepancy was not always true.

“I’ve heard from parents who said they benefited [from student accident insurance],” she said. “Not everyone who filed claims was dissatisfied.”

Plus, she added that student accident insurance could be helpful for those families that don’t currently have health insurance.

“How is that the responsibility of the district as a whole?” Wilcoxen countered. “The primary question is whether or not it’s our obligation to do this. I think it’s the parents’ obligation to provide health care for their children.

Plus, he continued, “For what you’re getting back, it’s not worth it.”

Board member Gregg Schiavoni agreed.

“I think it’s a perk if we carry it,” he stated. “But, for what it’s costing the district to carry this insurance, the payout isn’t worth it. We’re barely under the tax cap. If we want this policy, we’ll have to make cuts to stay under the cap.”

Kruel noted that student accident insurance would come out at about $45 per student, which she said was “miniscule” in the grand scheme of things, considering the school’s budget is currently proposed to come out to $35 million.

She added, “If the bus proposition passes, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars to play with.”

(Part of the 2012-2013 budget presentation included a proposal for the district to purchase six new buses, which Verneuille estimated would save the district up to $1 million over the next 10 years.)

By the end of the meeting, the board was not ready to make any decisions as to whether or not to adopt a new student accident insurance plan until finding out what the “reasonable and customary” rates would be for both Chartis and Pupil Benefits. Verneuille said she would reach out to the insurance companies and try to provide updates at the board’s next business meeting.

In other news…

The Sag Harbor School Board approved plans to tear out the existing maple-wood floor in the Sag Harbor Elementary School gymnasium and replace it with a rubber material called “pulastic.”

According to Principal Matt Malone, a thin layer of concrete beneath the current wood floor cracked because of a steam leak from a pipe beneath the gymnasium. This ultimately caused a portion of the wooden surface to “bubble up,” he said.

“Some of that same problem, though to a lesser scale, has been detected in other segments of the floor,” he explained.

Malone and the district’s buildings and grounds director, Montgomery Granger, said the pipes have been repaired. But the floor — which is relatively new, having been paid for by a bond resolution in 2008 — definitely needs replacing.

District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the floor will be replaced at no cost to tax payers because it is considered a defect and is covered by the school’s insurance.

While several board members lamented the loss of the gym’s relatively new maple flooring, Malone said the Pulastic surface is more durable and easier to maintain than the maple wood.

“Every day we have about 500 people coming into the gym for morning program,” Malone added. “That wear and tear is something that’s been problematic for a long time.”

As for the timeline of the project, Dr. Gratto said construction can begin as soon as next week and run through winter vacation. The goal, he added, is for the school ”to open up on the 27th with a new gym floor.”

School Board Update: Budget Talks Begin

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By Claire Walla

Last week marked the beginning of budget season for the Sag Harbor School Board, and the start of budget workshop meetings led by the district’s director of business operations Janet Verneuille.

On Monday, January 10 Verneuille reviewed the district’s budget analysis for the current 2010-2011 school year in comparison to the last five years.

The current budget, which sits at $31,500,811, is an increase of about $4 million over the operating budget of 2006-2007.

Budget figures have not yet been release for the 2011-2012 school year, however, regardless of whether or not the school’s operating budget climbs, Verneuille said the school will need to raise taxes about seven percent in order to maintain operations at their current level.

Last year, Sag Harbor Village residents saw their largest tax levy increase in five years. The figure shot up from 2.07 percent in 06-07 to 12 percent last year.

As it stands, the district is working with an open fund balance of $308,015, a number that sits nearly $250,000 higher than the fund balance the district had to work with for the 2010-2011 school year.

Though the district’s fund balance saw a significant increase since the 09-10 school year, it represents a little less than one percent of the district’s total expenditures, which is two percentage points lower than the State Board of Education recommends.

The next budget workshop will take place at 6 p.m. on January 24 in the Pierson Middle/High School library, when the topics discussed will be buildings and grounds, and athletics.


In other news…


School superintendent Dr. John Gratto announced last Monday, January 11 a new policy that the Sag Harbor School District will adopt regarding teacher tenure.

“You have an excellent school system when you have excellent teachers,” he told the board adding the new policy outlines the district’s definition of “excellence” when deciding whether or not to grant teachers tenure.

“I put this to paper for two reasons,” Dr. Gratto continued.  “It is symbolic.  But, beyond symbolism, it makes it very clear what a teacher must do to be excellent,” which, he argued, makes it much easier for teachers to achieve that goal.

Both board members Dan Hartnett and Chris Tice applauded the new policy, calling it “very well written.”

Dr. Gratto also unveiled next year’s school calendar.  School board president Walter Wilcoxen wondered whether the school year could be extended past June 22 (the proposed end date) to accommodate two extra vacation days mid-year.  Wilcoxen noted that the board had to approve an additional extension this year for students who went on the annual trip to Hawaii.  Because it was an added extension, it had the negative effect of watering down classroom activity for those students not on the trip.

“It just seems the only way to teach more is to get a longer school year,” he said.

In the end, the board approved next year’s school calendar.


Grounds supervisor Montgomery Granger brought up a new Shared-Use Facilities Procedure, which will charge groups outside the Sag Harbor School District a fee for using school facilities.  Organizations with over 51 percent of participants in the Sag Harbor School District would not be charged.

“I would like to discuss the for-profit breakdown,” said Wilcoxen.  “My thought is that if it’s a for-profit group, it should be charged the same as an out-of-district group.”

Several board members agreed, though this issue will be further discussed at a later meeting.