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After More Than Six Months of Debate, Still No Decision on Taping Sag Harbor School Board Meetings

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By Tessa Raebeck

Each spring around the time of the Sag Harbor Board of Education (BOE) budget vote and elections, “transparency” becomes a buzzword for the district. Candidates and board members repeatedly stress the need for open communication with the public and express their commitment to ensuring the board is operating as openly as possible.

However, it appears a discussion on broadcasting school board meetings continues without gaining real traction—the concept was once again tabled after six months of debate.

BOE member David Diskin has repeatedly asked for the topic to be on the board’s agendas since he was sworn into office last July. It has been a topic of discussion at least seven times since August, but no concrete steps have been taken.

In January, a group formed to address the issue, which included BOE members Chris Tice, Mary Anne Miller and Mr. Diskin, as well as director of technology Scott Fisher, recommended the board have a “pilot program.” With no money allotted in the budget for the program this year, they recommended it be implemented during the 2014-2015 school year.

During Monday’s board meeting, it appeared at least the financing for the project had been worked out.

Community member John Battle, who has had two children in the district, recalled the group’s recommendation to “implement a six-month trial period of broadcasting.”

“The only thing standing in the way, it seemed, was the lack of funds to purchase the equipment needed to videotape and record the proceedings,” Mr. Battle said.

“On behalf of The Sag Harbor Education Best Practice Group,” he continued, “I urge the board to accept the recommendations… and I am happy to announce here in public, as I have already done to the board by e-mail, that our group is willing to provide the equipment for this trial project if the board votes to proceed with it.”

“We have reached out to our attorney to get input from him,” responded school board president Theresa Samot.

Ms. Samot said a scheduled meeting with school attorney Thomas Volz specifically about recording meetings was postponed due to inclement weather, but the board will meet with him regarding the matter in the beginning of March.

“Certainly,” she said,” it’s not our intent to hold this up, and we’re not saying we’re against this. We just need to get some more input from our attorney at this point.”

Ms. Samot added that the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) has no best practice policy on recording school board meetings that the board could use as a guideline.

The board, said Ms. Tice, needs to look at whether there would be additional personnel costs and if the potential for members of the public to request information through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) has “an indication of the amount of hours our personnel has to spend on it.”

“I was naïve on the committee,” Ms. Tice said of her prior recommendation to start a trial period, “to think that I was ready to make a recommendation, because we really hadn’t asked all the questions. I still believe that there’s a lot of merit in this, but a lot more questions have come up that I don’t really know the answer to.”

“What we’re finding is that there are certainly elements to at least be considered, even elements beyond cost,” agreed interim superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso.

“We have board policy that guides what you do. In terms of training, is there such a thing as training people to be able to hold a meeting that is taped?”

Dr. Bonuso said he felt questions such as where the camera would be placed, whether recording meetings would mean that everyone in the audience would also be taped, whether students in attendance would need to give permission to be on camera and whether or not tapes would be edited need to be addressed before the board can move forward.

“We want to know that when we do this we’re prepared,” he said, adding, “I know it can be frustrating waiting for this to unfold.”

“I just think more maximum transparency, more maximum access…it’s got to be a good thing,” Mr. Diskin said.

“I think the community wants it,” agreed Daniel Hartnett, a member of the board who has expressed his support of the project several times.

“The only responsible thing to do,” said Ms. Tice, “is to understand what the implications are before we vote on it.”

Unless there is a hot topic on the agenda, board meetings are typically attended by fewer than five people, aside from members of the press and the administrators and board members who are obligated to be there.

Recording meetings was discussed in-depth at the board’s October 15 session.

“We want to have a video where people can’t cut or paste,” Chris Tice, BOE vice president, said at that meeting. “We also have to be concerned about having students on video.”

Ms. Tice expressed her concern that recordings could be edited to quote people out of context and said some districts found that once meetings were available online, the public stopped showing up in person.

Scott Fisher, director of technology, told the board that once public meetings are recorded, “That’s a permanent record and can be searched through FOIL and requirements for retention of school district records.”

At the November 18 board meeting, Mr. Diskin again asked the board to discuss video recording its meetings. Board President Theresa Samot said it was a good idea to look into.

“Taping of board meeting” was on the agenda again at a December session, when Ms. Miller, Ms. Tice and Mr. Diskin agreed to meet with Mr. Fisher to take concrete steps to set up at least an audio recording. It was discussed again in January, when Mr. Diskin told the board the group had looked at a variety of possibilities and researched the different technical aspects required, the expense, time and labor involved, as well as the different ways tapes meetings could be distributed to the public.

“We basically came to the conclusion,” reported Mr. Fisher at the time, “that it might be best—if we decided to go down this road—to do a pilot program for a short period of time.”

Mr. Fisher said the best means of doing so seems to be putting the video on one of the local public access channels, either LTV in East Hampton or SEA-TV in Southampton.

Ms. Tice noted that out of 17 East End school districts Mr. Fisher had contacted about the project, only two publicly broadcast their school board meetings, East Hampton and Southampton. LTV broadcasts the meetings for East Hampton and SEA-TV does the same for Southampton.

“We haven’t made a commitment to doing anything at this point,” said Mr. Fisher in January. “But, if we are to move forward, I think we would all agree that would be the direction in which we want to proceed.”

The total cost, Mr. Fisher said, would be somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000, which Mr. Battle agreed to fund Monday.

Sag Harbor School District Presents Budget Draft on PPS, Transportation and Technology

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By Tessa Raebeck

In the third budget presentation before the Sag Harbor Board of Education this school year, district administrators outlined their respective draft budgets for Pupil Personnel Services, technology and transportation.

In addition to the 2-percent tax levy cap, the district must contend with state-mandated instructional training, data reporting and technology equipment to meet new educational standards.

PPS Director Barbara Bekermus presented her department budget to the board on Monday. Ms. Bekermus has included an increase of 20 percent, or $5,000, under “instructional salary tutor” because she feels the demand for at home tutoring is growing.

Overall, the PPS department asked the board to increase its funding by 3.83 percent or $184,337 for a total of  $4.81 million.

Director of Technology Scott Fisher presented his portion of the budget, saying that many of his requests stemmed from direct conversations he had with the teachers and administrators at both Sag Harbor Elementary School and Pierson Middle and High School “to try and better understand what the instructional needs of the students are.”

“By and large,” Mr. Fisher told the small crowd, “what I heard from the teachers was everything’s running really well, but we need to have more computers.”

Technology equipment expenses are projected to increase by 15.63 percent, representing an increase of $125,904 from last year’s budget for a proposed total of $931,640.

The transportation budget, prepared by Head Bus Driver Maude Stevens and presented to the board by School Business Administrator John O’Keefe, asks for a 0.98 percent increase, or $7,300. If accepted, the department’s total budget would be $750,992.

During the 2014-2015 school year, with payments spread between July 2014 and June 2015, the district will pay $1.44 million in debt service for bonds issued in 2006, 2009 and 2011.

School Budget Up For Technology

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By Claire Walla


The Sag Harbor School District can potentially save over $1 million on transportation expenses over the next 10 years, according to District Treasurer Janet Verneuille.

All it will take is six new buses.

At a budget hearing held on Monday, Verneuille unveiled a new plan for the district’s transportation department that would effectively make the Sag Harbor School District independent from Montauk Bus Service. (For the most part. The district would still contract out services for some sports games and miscellaneous activities.)

While the school currently contracts out for three of its five current bus routes, purchasing its own buses would allow the district to put all local routes — including trips to Child Development Center of the Hamptons and Our Lady of the Hamptons — under the district’s purview.

To become self-sufficient, the district would need to purchase four 66-passenger buses and two 30-passenger busses at a cost of $541,502. Though Verneuille pointed out that that’s only an estimated cost, she emphasized that the savings after 10 years would amount to over $1 million.

“So, it’s well worth it,” she exclaimed.

However, at this point it’s not clear whether or not the board will ultimately decide to pursue this plan — it would have to pay for the buses with a bond, which would have to be approved by voters. Plus, board member Walter Wilcoxen brought up the inherent risk of setting up an independent program to be operated by one very capable person.

“The problem is when Maude [Stevens, the district’s transportation coordinator] is gone, then what kind of a position would we be in?” Wilcoxen asked, rhetorically. “Let’s not be so fooled about the money that we don’t’ see there’s risk involved.”

Verneuille went on to present the proposed transportation budget for 2012-2013, excluding the costs associated with this bus-buying measure. For next year, the district will see a budget totaling $1,085,160, a proposed decrease of $118,855, or 9.8 percent.

For the technology department, however, the financial picture is a little different. When all’s said and done, the proposed technology budget is 20 percent higher than it is in this year’s operating budget, coming in at $805,521. But, according to Technology Director Scott Fisher, the jump is largely tied to the effort to improve the school’s computer equipment.

“What we want to do is get on a ladder for technology,” explained Verneuille. This means updating all computers and computer equipment according to a four-year cycle. “A lot of companies do three years, but you get a little more bang for your buck this way.”

According to the 2012-2013 proposed budget, this four-year plan would begin next academic year by replacing one-fourth of the computers used by both teachers and students within the district. It would also replace all of the student computers in one of the Pierson Middle/High School computer labs.

At the elementary school, $55,000 would be spent on new laptops, and $3,600 would go toward purchasing new iPads, which, overall, brings the elementary school equipment budget up 18.77 percent over this year’s budget.

At Pierson, that figure jumps to an increase in the equipment budget of 53.16 percent. This includes $13,200 for new laptops for teachers, $33,000 for a new set of laptops for the humanities department, and another $33,000 for new desktop computers for the Pierson computer lab.

While Fisher’s proposed technology budget represents an increase of about $134,693 and increases costs for an equipment overhaul next year, the Pupil Personnel Services department has a proposed budget that more than makes up for that added expense. Coming in at $4,328,364, the overall budget for this department represents a savings of $492,303.

“I really don’t have any significant changes in my budget,” said Dr. Lisa Scheffer, Director of Pupil Personnel Services. She projected that next year there will be fewer students in the district enrolled in the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, a charter school in Wainscott that caters to special needs students. This alone will generate a savings of $150,000. And, she continued, there are currently no students enrolled in any BOCES program, which is a savings of $182,252.

Even though there aren’t any students participating in these programs, Scheffer kept that line item at a comfortable $240,000.

“I still feel we have enough cushion in the BOCES line,” she said. When asked if she felt her department was in good shape despite the budget decrease, Dr. Scheffer replied: “Definitely.”