After completing a board evaluation of school superintendent Dr. John Gratto’s performance over the past year, the Sag Harbor School board approved a $25,000 salary increase for Dr. Gratto at the last Board of Education meeting on Monday, June 22.
As of July 1, Dr. Gratto’s salary will be raised from $185,000 to $210,000, excluding expenses and benefits, accounting for a nearly 13.5 percent increase. The board argues the raise was well deserved as Dr. Gratto saved the district nearly $1 million through cost cutting measures during the last budget cycle and his salary is less than the East End average for superintendents, but some members of the community contend Dr. Gratto’s raise is significant given the current economic climate and say the board should have been more forthcoming in sharing these figures with the public.
During an interview, board of education president Walter Wilcoxen elucidated some of the main reasons why the board gave Dr. Gratto a raise, many of which stemmed from a June evaluation of Dr. Gratto’s execution of his superintendent duties. In the beginning of June, each board member was given a form to judge Dr. Gratto on his relationship with the board, educational direction and leadership, personnel, financial management, facilities management, community relations, personal qualities and growth, and management functions.
Although, Wilcoxen said he couldn’t release specific details on Dr. Gratto’s evaluation, he noted that Dr. Gratto did extremely well in each category in the eyes of the board members, and that was one of the reasons why they felt he was deserving of a raise. Board member Mary Anne Miller added that the board was in full consensus to give Dr. Gratto a raise.
“Everyone said he did a fantastic job,” reported Wilcoxen. “[In every category] he was above average.”
One of the other main impetuses for the salary increase, said Wilcoxen, was to bring Dr. Gratto up to parity with superintendents in Suffolk County and on the East End. According to Wilcoxen the average salary for the county is around $219,000, while the Eastern Suffolk average is around $206,000 excluding other benefits and expenses, separate from medical insurance or district paid cell phones. If these other expenses and benefits were added to the Eastern Suffolk figure, Wilcoxen said the average superintendent salary would be closer to $220,000.
“We, [the board], knew that we started [Dr. Gratto] at below market salary … if you look at what people get paid out here and we wanted to correct that,” said Wilcoxen.
Several neighboring districts like East Hampton and Southampton, however, have significantly larger student bodies, but Wilcoxen argues that the superintendents at these schools have the help of an assistant superintendent.
The board, said Wilcoxen, looked at Dr. Gratto’s qualifications and his level of education, when considering his raise. Wilcoxen said Dr. Gratto brought a “higher level of accountability and efficiency to all aspects of the districts,” which factored into the board’s decision. One major way Dr. Gratto increased efficiency in the district, added Wilcoxen, was through implementing several cost cutting measures.
“He saved us significant amounts of money in a difficult budget cycle … The savings have more than paid for his salary,” noted Wilcoxen.
Walter Tice, a former member and president of the Sag Harbor board of education, said he worried about linking the idea of saving money in the district with raising the superintendent’s salary. Tice added that this could possibly lead to budget cutting measures coming at the cost of program and educational quality.
“His salary ought not to be proportional to how much he cuts the budget,” lamented Tice.
Tice’s daughter and former Parent Teacher Association President Chris Tice, who spoke in her capacity as a Sag Harbor parent, echoed her father’s remarks.
“The motivation should be to help the school district continue to improve and spend the taxpayer’s money wisely,” she said.
However, Dr. Gratto believes he was able to strike that balance and said his proposed cost cutting measures haven’t undercut school programming.
Regardless of the savings Dr. Gratto created in the district, Chris Tice was also perplexed by the size of Dr. Gratto’s raise given the state of the economy.
“As a parent and taxpayer, overall I am happy with Dr. Gratto. I think he was a good addition to the school … but I do think his increase should reflect the economic times and an increase of over 13 percent doesn’t seem rational. I am confused by it because Dr. Gratto and the board have been asking district employees to be conservative with their increases,” remarked Tice.
According to Eileen Kochanasz, president of the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor, when the school board began negotiating teacher’s contracts last year, the board often claimed the economic pressures on the district and the national economic climate didn’t make it sustainable for them to give the full percentage of a raise that the teachers were asking for.
“I don’t begrudge Dr. Gratto his appropriate salary … but TASH is troubled. We are not so troubled about that being the going rate for his salary, but for the board to cry economy and then offer a 13.5 percent raise,” stated Kochanasz. “The teachers are asking for the average [salary].”
Wilcoxen said Dr. Gratto’s raise and the teachers’ contracts are two separate issues, as the board must negotiate with a union to agree on a raise for teachers. He added that whereas Dr. Gratto was judged on his specific performance, teacher raises are agreed upon with the union for all teachers and not based on specific teacher’s performance. Of the current economy climate, Wilcoxen also divided the issues.
“We live in a system were there are many different levels of socio-economic conditions … I have to think about his position and what other people get in that position,” said Wilcoxen, adding that offering a competitive salary will help retain Dr. Gratto within the school district. “We do have to think about what we have to pay to get someone of quality.”
Members of the public, however, not only felt that Dr. Gratto’s raise was high given the economy, but felt the board could have been more forthcoming in releasing his salary increase figures and facilitating a dialogue about it at the June 22 meeting.
At the meeting, the resolution to amend Dr. Gratto’s contract, and thus give him a raise, was passed, but the exact salary increase wasn’t printed on the agenda and at the close of the meeting Walter Tice inquired about the legality of this. Dr. Gratto said he spoke with the school district attorney Tom Volz the day after the meeting, who said that the school wasn’t required by law to put these numbers on the agenda.
“In my experience, amendments to contracts, [for salary and/or other contract changes], are typically not published. I thought that is pretty standard,” recalled Dr. Gratto.
Even though the board was complying with the law, some audience members wished the figures were printed on the agenda to help begin a dialogue.
“Even after I raised the question [about publishing the salary increase on the agenda]. The board didn’t issue a public announcement saying, ‘We have given a raise and here are the reasons why.’ It seems to go against their promises of openness,” said Walter Tice.
“I was baffled that they choose not to share and disclose [the information]. It seemed to fly in the face of the board’s ongoing mission of transparency,” added Chris Tice.
Wilcoxen, however, contends that both the amendment to Dr. Gratto’s contract and his original contract are available to the public at the school clerk’s office. He said that he believed the next board meeting, to be held on Monday, July 13, offered a better opportunity to speak with the public about the issue, as the full board will be in attendance whereas on June 22 one board member was absent and Wilcoxen had to leave the meeting early.
Wilcoxen added that the salary increase would be discussed at next Monday’s board of education meeting.