By Tessa Raebeck
Seven months after the Sag Harbor School District Communications Committee presented its recommendations to the school board for better communications, Superintendent Katy Graves on Monday, November 17, offered her view of how to best move forward.
In early April, the committee presented a report to the board, in response to feedback from a survey of various stakeholders that found the district needed to improve its communication with all parties, which is now a board goal for the 2014-15 school year. The district had worked with Syntax Communications, a Long Island marketing firm that specializes in public relations for public school districts, in the past, but has not had a contract with any communications company since July 1.
The main recommendations made by the committee were: to improve and expand the district website; to develop a communication manual for employees and establish expectations for constituents; and to hire a communications specialist to “facilitate better communication to all district stakeholders;” as well as to continually assess the success of those recommendations and adjust for ongoing improvements. The committee included five options for hiring a communications specialist, which range in projected costs from $23,690 for a part-time assistant to $74,688 for a full-time communications specialist.
Since July 1, the administration has been gathering information and deciding whether to hire a staff member, as recommended by the committee, contract out services with an outside company, or use a company through BOCES, Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi said on Wednesday.
At Monday’s board meeting, Ms. Graves said the district would use Syntax through BOCES for the rest of the school year, which she and Ms. Buscemi agreed is the most cost-effective option.
“I’m doing it as fiscally and in as sustainable a model as possible, so my recommendation is to go with the BOCES service, which is service through Syntax,” said the superintendent.
The BOCES contract with Syntax Communications, would, at a prorated amount, cost $26,085 for the rest of the school year, which ends on June 30, 2015.
Ms. Graves said if the district continues with that model in the future, Syntax would hire a specialist locally who would work more directly with several East End school districts, but “this late in the year, that isn’t something we’re going to get.” For this year, Syntax will aid the district on putting out a board of education newsletter, the annual budget newsletter and improving the website.
“Syntax was really gracious enough to give us a prorated rate when they will be providing almost the same exact services they were going to provide” had the contract started in July, said Ms. Buscemi.
The agreement, Ms. Graves said, would also “free up [Director of Technology Scott Fisher] to be doing more with and for students when it comes to technology.”
While the district will work with BOCES for the rest of this school year, the board plans to evaluate communications again during budget deliberations in the spring, and implement a long-range plan. In the meantime, administrators remain cognizant of the ongoing need to improve outreach to school stakeholders.
“We’ve been getting better and better about email blasts, about what goes on the website and, even at board meetings, I think we’ve done a much better job at not only getting information out to parents, but also letting them know the positive things that are happening with their children and for their children in the district,” said Ms. Graves.
Those “positive things” were on full display at Monday’s meeting.
Alexandria Battaglia, CPA, an audit partner at R.S. Abrams & Co., shared the results of the district’s annual audit.
“We issued an unmodified opinion, which is the best opinion you can have; that means it’s a clean opinion, we call it in the audit world. We did note that the reserves did increase this year. We’re very happy to see that the district has come a long way in building that fund balance,” Ms. Battaglia said.
“This is my fifth year on the board and this was by far the strongest, most positive results of the audit, so I just want to thank all the employees,” said Chris Tice, vice president of the school board. “That doesn’t happen overnight—it’s happened, I’d say, five, six, seven years—there’s been an enormous amount of effort and energy…. We’re in the strongest financial position we’ve been in in a long time.”
More good news came from Pierson Middle School Vice Principal Brittany Miaritis, who said the eighth grade’s book drive to help students at the Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in Louisiana has inspired other local schools to join the cause. The middle school was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and, 10 years later, has a brand new building but hardly any books, materials or supplies to fill it. Since hearing about Sag Harbor’s initiative, students in Hampton Bays have donated some 100 books to the southern school.
“Just from one little implementation here, now it’s all over the East End,” said Ms. Miaritis. “It’s pretty rad and cool that our students are involved in it.”
In other school board news, the board decided to explore the notions of allowing in-season varsity athletes to opt out of gym class to allow for more time for academics, and of eliminating class rank and instead marking students by 25-point percentiles, which many Long Island schools have opted to do in order to encourage colleges to look at students in more depth.