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Test Refusal Movement Continues to Grow in Sag Harbor

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By Tessa Raebeck

Spring break is traditionally used for some much needed relaxation and time in the sun before the final sprint to the end of the school year, but a group of East End parents, teachers, and community members had a loftier goal for last week’s vacation: Taking back public education.

About 50 people filled a meeting room in Sag Harbor’s Old Whalers’ Church on Thursday, April 9, for an informational dialogue on test refusal hosted by the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH). The “refuse the test” movement has gained steam across New York State in recent weeks, in reaction to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to increase privatization of the state’s education system and put mounting emphasis on state tests by tying teachers’ jobs and basing schools’ effectiveness on students’ performances on standardized tests written by for-profit companies. The governor threatened to hold out on providing aid to schools if the State Legislature did not pass his reforms as part of the state budget earlier this month.

The picture painted at the forum is one that has been repeated across the country increasingly since the implementation of the past two major federal educational reforms, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top: public schools in which art and history classes and recess, gym and lunch periods have been eliminated and replaced with test prep.

The Sag Harbor School District has made many efforts to resist pulling the plug on the creativity administrators say is fundamental to a strong, engaging education, but the new state regulations will force school districts to fire teachers and administrators and relinquish local control of schools should students not perform up to par. Sag Harbor’s schools, which perform well on state tests, will be subject to the same guidelines as the state’s lowest performing schools.

As a means of resistance, unions and some administrators have urged parents to “refuse the test” by not having their child sit for them. From an academic standpoint, a test becomes invalid if 17 percent or more of the students across the state refuse to take it.

On Tuesday, April 14, the first day the state tests were administered, Superintendent Katy Graves said 25 percent of Sag Harbor students had not taken the ELA test that day. Many of the students who refused the tests are the same students who do the best on them, and Sag Harbor’s scores will likely suffer as a result.

Ms. Graves said Thursday that she does not support refusing the test because the district has invested so much in the scores and analyzing the data they provide, but that “watching this has been heartbreaking.”

“The majority of the districts in the state—especially upstate—are so aid dependent,” she said. Never before, she added, had a governor inserted language into the budget linking school aid to how schools operate.

She added that tenure, which the governor wants to make more difficult to obtain, had been brought in for a reason, so, for example, if a teacher decided to teach a topic like evolution, which was once highly controversial, he wouldn’t have to fear losing his job.

“There’s some reasons we deal with things very slowly in education, so we’ve never dealt with this embedding of this kind of language—I as governor am deciding how you locally evaluate your teachers…so you’re living in a new world,” she told the crowd of parents.

TASH President Jim Kinnier, a math teacher at Pierson, said he and Ms. Graves are on the same team, however, they “disagree upon what pitch to throw.”

The governor has issued a gag order on teachers forbidding them from encouraging their students and parents to refuse the test.

Mr. Kinnier, under that gag order, said he hosted Thursday’s forum to “bring forth some facts [and] allow folks to voice their opinions.”

“From my perspective, we’re out of strategies. There’s only one strategy left that I see,” he said. “In my view, to let your children take the test is to endorse the governor’s efforts to make public schools be like charter schools…I don’t want to have this opinion, but I only see two possibilities—either sit here and take it or do this.”

Mr. Kinnier said he is not opposed to tests, but said the current state tests are not age or ability appropriate and are far too long. Elementary school students take the tests over six days, for a total of anywhere from nine to 18 hours depending on whether they receive extra time. He said if the scores were a smaller part of teachers’ evaluations the teacher could reflect on the results, but it wouldn’t drive their instruction.

This is the third time in four years that the legislature has addressed the issue of teachers’ evaluations.

“This is called education reform—in my opinion, it’s anything but,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor said when voting against the governor’s budget. “What we’re doing tonight is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic; this isn’t reform at all. The fact of the matter is that the only solace I have tonight is that I know that we will be back here again at some point dealing with this issue.”

Administered by private for-profit companies and not written by educators, the tests are graded by hired temp workers who are paid per test. The only requirement to be hired as a grader, which includes critiquing a writing section, is a college degree.

In addition to lamenting the arbitrary nature of the tests, many teachers and parents in attendance expressed fear that the data-driven instruction will affect students’ ability to learn and be prepared for careers in a rapidly changing global marketplace.

Sag Harbor resident Laura Leever, who teaches on Shelter Island, said while she understands Ms. Graves’s concerns over faculty and students being affected by scores lowered from high test refusal, “We have to look at this in a bigger picture…this is about taking away public education, it’s about taking away local control.”

“I think we have a very punitive governor,” Ms. Graves replied. “I think he will punish every school that doesn’t comply and I think it’s going to make things worse.”

She said she fears that, rather than acknowledging how many families refused to take the test, the governor will instead say the scores mean “our schools are failing even more.”

“I’m an AP U.S. History teacher,” said Sean Brandt, president of the Southampton teachers union, “and America is founded by a bunch of rebels—and I think now is the time to stand up. My son’s in the third grade and he’s not taking the test. As far as what’s the outcome, we don’t know, but this is the loss of local control, this is the privatization of public education and this is as criminal as it gets—and this is our opportunity to take a stand.”

Chase Mallia, a Pierson math teacher, said teachers who have a lot of students refuse the test would likely have worse results, because those students are often the same ones who would perform the best.

“There’s a possibility for me that I’ll be rated ineffective,” he said. “That’s a risk I’m willing to take, because I see the direction the state’s going, because I’m in it for the kids.”

Refuse the Test Movement Growing on the East End

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Parents bring their children to the Sag Harbor Elementary School at the start of the school day. Photo by Michael Heller.

Parents bring their children to the Sag Harbor Elementary School at the start of the school day. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

A grassroots movement of parents who say the government is taking the creativity out of learning—and doing so in impractical ways that help neither students nor schools—is growing statewide and across the East End, with many parents refusing to let their children sit for the tests the state uses to judge public education.

Advocates for local control of education were outraged when Governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through sweeping education reforms as part of the New York State budget last week (see related story), which include further linking teacher and school performance with student performance on tests written by a private company, Pearson, rather than educators.

The Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) sent parents a letter last week clarifying its position on test refusal.

According to the letter, TASH “strongly supports a parent’s right to advocate for his/her child and refuse the New York State ELA and Mathematics assessments in grades 3-8. As a collective body, TASH believes that the purpose of education is to educate a populace of critical thinkers and lifelong learners who are capable of shaping a just and equitable society in order to live good and purpose-filled lives. We believe that the education of children should be grounded in developmentally appropriate practice. TASH opposes the over-reliance on high-stakes testing that is currently being pushed by both the federal and New York State governments because this testing has not been used to further instruction, help children, or support their educational needs. These commercially prepared assessments are not transparent and teachers, parents, and students are not permitted to discuss the content or to know which questions students answered incorrectly.”

These tests are administered over the course of several weeks each spring in addition to other state-mandated tests throughout the year. Last year, the State Education Department administered the tests on the new federal Common Core curriculum before providing lesson plans or textbooks. This year, schools are more familiar with Common Core, but unions and school boards alike have expressed concern over the connection of a teacher’s or administrator’s employment with a test that doesn’t take into account outside factors such as poverty, non-English speaking students or parents, or what a teacher does in their classroom aside from drilling students for the test.

Parents can “refuse the test” by writing a letter to their child’s school requesting their child be excused from the tests. When other students are taking the test, those who have excused are provided with another space to be so as not to disturb the testing.

Shona Gawronski has had five children attend Sag Harbor’s schools, and this year she is  refusing the test for her youngest two, a son in fourth grade and a daughter in seventh grade, as a form of activism in support of strong public education.

“I’ve been a parent [in the Sag Harbor School District] for 18 years and I’ve seen such a…decline in not the quality of the teaching but the parameters in which the teachers can be creative in their teaching,” she said. “Everything is evolved around these state tests—math, science and reading—and not so much the arts and…the more creative aspects of education.”

Tim Frazier, principal at the Southampton Intermediate School, said that, as of the start of the April break last Friday, about 10 percent of his students had refused, and he expects that number to increase by test time next week.

Aside from the political message it sends Albany, the movement to refuse the tests could have big implications on the performance of teachers and schools. Often, the students refusing to take the test are those who will do the best.

“Those scores will be reflecting the performance of my school and the performance of my teachers, so it’s really not a good place to be as an administrator at a public school right now—especially if a high percentage of students refused to take the test,” he said.

“There are so many other factors that go into making a ‘highly effective’ or highly performing teacher than just how…students do on a test score,” he added. “The state minimizes it to look at just that number instead of looking at all the other factors.”

Many teachers don’t actually teach the subjects being tested and are evaluated based on students they have hardly any contact with. A special education, technology or health teacher will get a score linked to how their students do in English language arts and mathematics.

But with the bill already passed and the governor showing no signs of changing his mind, advocates for education say refusing the test as their best option.

“When Washington, D.C., linked 50 percent of teacher evaluations to standardized test scores, teacher turnover increased to 82 percent, schools in communities with high poverty rates showed large or moderate declines in student outcomes, and the combined poverty gap for D.C. expanded by 44 scale-score points, causing poor students to fall even further behind their affluent peers,” said Anthony Chase Mallia, a seventh grade mathematics teacher at Pierson Middle/High School in Sag Harbor. “It is time to begin to acknowledge that the accountability movement has failed.”

 

The Teachers Association of Sag Harbor is inviting those seeking more information on test refusal to attend a forum on Thursday, April 9, at 6:30 p.m. at the Old Whalers’ Church, located at 44 Union Street in Sag Harbor. For more information on test refusal and other commonly asked questions, visit the New York State Allies for Public Education website, nysape.org.

New York State Budget’s Education Reforms Draw Criticism

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Just before graduation, Jessica Warne takes one last walk down the hallway at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.

Just before graduation, Jessica Warne takes one last walk down the hallway at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

New York’s school districts have watched Albany intently since January, when Governor Andrew Cuomo promised a $1.1 billion increase in education aid on the condition that the Republican-controlled State Senate and Democratic-led State Assembly agree to his series of education reforms.

Those reforms, called a “disgrace” by the state’s teachers’ unions and denied by a growing movement of parents who are “opting out” of state tests, include linking teacher evaluations more closely with student test scores, making it harder for teachers to be hired and easier for them to be fired, and allowing state takeovers of schools whose students perform poorly on tests.

Democrats in the Assembly, members of the governor’s own party, voiced their strong opposition to the reforms as they voted on the budget on Tuesday, March 31, but conceded that passing the budget and avoiding a government shutdown was of greater priority than preventing the education overhaul. An aide  to Senator Kenneth P. LaValle confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the budget’s final language was still being worked on before the formal adoption. By Wednesday, some concessions had been made, but not enough to quiet the worries of educators across the state and the growing opposition of parents and their children.

Although legislators, educators and teachers unions opposed the bulk of the reforms, the primary standout is teachers’ evaluations, which will be taken further out of the hands of the schools themselves. The governor wanted half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance on state tests, which educators and parents alike have decried, saying the system would put even more emphasis on “teaching to the test” and less on creative, engaging learning.

Administrators and school board members in Sag Harbor, East Hampton, Southampton and Bridgehampton have publicly spoken out against the governor’s reforms.

“It is ridiculous,” said Chris Tice, vice president of the Sag Harbor School Board, at a meeting last month. “It just puts more pressure on that single test being the only measure of effectiveness…it’s very unhealthy—this increased anxiety-ridden testing environment that the governor’s creating and ratcheting up.”

The new budget removes teachers evaluation planning from the legislative process and places the power of determining the weight of the various components, primarily test scores and observations, into the hands of the State Education Department, which will have to come up with a plan by June. The department gained notoriety last year for its haphazard rollout of the Common Core standards  when it administered tests to students before providing teachers and parents with basic materials like lesson plans and textbooks.

Under the new evaluation system approved Tuesday, teachers will continue to be judged on the current scale as “ineffective,” “developing,” “effective,” or “highly effective.” Those who teach math and English to third through eighth graders will be judged on their students’ performance on state tests in those subjects and high school teachers will be judged on the Regents exams. Educators whose courses don’t end in state exams, such as art or kindergarten teachers, will be evaluated based on “student learning objectives” determined by the state.

Observations conducted by a principal or administrator within the school and an “independent” observer from a different school will also play a role in a teacher’s grade. Lesson plans, student portfolios, and student and parent feedback surveys may no longer be considered in determining whether or not a teacher is doing their job.

In addition to requiring that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on tests, the governor wanted 35 percent to come from an observer from outside the district, with the remaining 15 percent determined by the teacher’s school itself, numbers that education proponents are urging the state to abandon.

“The idea of a teacher evaluation system being related to 85 percent coming from outside local control is absolutely horrific,” said Jim Kinnier, a math teacher at Pierson Middle/High School and president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, who fears the Education Department is under the governor’s control and will end up implementing his desired weighting regardless of the input of legislators and educational experts.

“A lot of what this is, is the governor is unhappy with the teachers union on the state level because the teachers union didn’t endorse him…. a lot of this on his part is an eye for an eye kind of thing.”

Other components of the budget will make it harder to become a teacher in the state, which has been struggling to recruit new educators in recent years, and for teachers to keep their jobs. Every five years, teachers and administrators with lifetime certification will be required to register with the state again and complete 100 hours of continuing education or professional development under “rigorous standards” to be released by the Education Department. There is no funding mentioned to help school districts comply with the mandate. The state’s graduate schools of education will be required to “adopt rigorous selection criteria,” including a cumulative 3.0-grade-point average during an applicant’s undergraduate career. Teachers will not be able to qualify for tenure until they have taught for four years, as opposed to the current three.

“We’re reading articles about less and less people wanting to become teachers in New York State because we have a governor that’s creating a platform that seems to be…hostile to teachers and children, both,” said Ms. Tice.

In addition to the teachers union and state legislators, a grassroots movement of opposition has formed in the state and is swiftly growing on the East End. New York State United Teachers Union President Karen Magee encouraged parents to “opt-out,” or remove their children from standardized testing, saying it is the only effective method of resisting the governor’s changes, and a group of local parents is taking up the charge, opting their children out of the state exams, which begin on April 14.

“The goal for us parents and teachers is to get as many families to refuse the test as possible, because that’s where it gets noticed,” said a Pierson Middle School parent who wished to remain anonymous until the group comes out publicly. “I don’t really have a political bone in my body, but at this point it’s really hard to ignore…. the testing is ineffective and it’s not pro-student, it’s not pro-teacher, it’s not pro-school.”

Mr. Kinnier said he is generally in support of standardized testing because it helps teachers to serve their students and “the school can look at their program and make adjustments based on results. It allows you to compare where our students are compared to other students across Long Island and across New York and I think those are good things.”

On the state exams for third through eighth graders, however, teachers do not receive students’ results. They are given a numerical grade of one through four for each student, but no additional information on what a student struggled with or what areas were challenging, so they cannot diagnostically look at the right and wrong answers and adjust their program accordingly.

“The state exams on the seventh and eighth grade level are more challenging than the Common Core Algebra Regents Exam,” said Mr. Kinnier. “And the reason why the state makes the Common Core Algebra Regents Exam so easy is because it’s one of the requirements to graduate from high school, so they have these other tests which their only purpose is to judge teachers.”

Teachers across the state write the Regents exams, which are included on students’ high school transcripts, but Pearson, a for-profit testing company with strong lobbies in Albany, writes, administers, and grades the exams for younger students.

“That’s another thing that virtually all teachers are opposed to—these state exams ought to be written by teachers and not a for-profit test writing company,” said Mr. Kinnier.

The teachers union is “taking a close look” at how the state is spending money for testing purposes and links between leaders in Albany and profiteers at Pearson, he added.

Sag Harbor Teachers Accept Minimal Salary Increases in New Contract

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Art teacher Laurie DeVito in her classroom at Sag Harbor Elementary School. Photo by Michael Heller.

Art teacher Laurie DeVito in her classroom at Sag Harbor Elementary School. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

In a surprise announcement last week, released with little fanfare, the Sag Harbor Board of Education and the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) said they had agreed on new contract.

Besides minimal fanfare, the three-year agreement also carries minimal increases. It was approved at a board meeting on Monday, July 7, and is effective from July 1 through June 30, 2017. It gives teachers salary increase of 0.7 percent for the 2013-14 school year and increases of 0.75 percent for both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

The last contract negotiations between the district and the teachers union, which concluded in December 2010, took over two years and were marked by acrimony.

The union, led by then-president Eileen Kochanasz, had initially asked for salary increases of 3.9 percent, which were comparative to those in neighboring districts. After much back and forth, they agreed on increases of 2.5, 2.65, 2.7 and 2.6 percent for the respective school years from  July 1, 2008, through July 1, 2013.

During those negotiations, teachers eventually started wearing black t-shirts to school to protest their lack of a contract.

This time around, the bargaining was “much, much easier,” Jim Kinnier, the union’s current president who was involved in both processes, said Thursday, July 10.

“I think, in general,” Mr. Kinnier said, “both the board of [education] and the teachers wanted to have a more cooperative negotiation session and we kept negotiations out of the public. That was a priority for both sides.”

The process was eased by an early, private start in the fall that gave the groups plenty of time to go back and forth, in addition to “a much more cooperative environment than was around the last time,” said Mr. Kinnier, who is a math teacher at Pierson Middle-High School.

According to his understanding, this is only the second time in 40 years that a teachers contract in Sag Harbor has been settled on time.

“This is the third contract I have done,” board member Sandi Kruel said Thursday, “and this was one of the best experiences I have had. I feel that it was a wonderful team effort between the board and the teachers.”

Having asked for a 3.9-percent increase in 2008, when the economy first crashed, accepting an increase of less than 1 percent six years into the recovery is a seemingly surprising move on the part of teachers, but Mr. Kinnier attributed their willingness to compromise to the tight financial burdens felt in schools since the 2-percent tax cap was enacted by New York State in 2011.

“There’s only so much room that the district has and that’s the major reason why the increases are a lot less than they were,” Mr. Kinnier said, adding that teachers in many districts on Long Island have had to take salary freezes and give up step increases.

For the three-year term of this contract, the teachers’ contributions to active employee medical health insurance will remain at 17.5 percent. When the contract expires on June 30, 2017, however, that contribution will go up to 20 percent.

“Actually, the healthcare costs have leveled off a little bit, but the district wanted us to contribute more,” Mr. Kinnier said. “Our argument was that we contribute more than any district on the South Fork and we have done so for a long period of time,” he said, adding that Sag Harbor was among the first in which teachers contributed to healthcare costs at all.

“So, the compromise was that there will be an increase, but not until these three years are up,” he said.

“We have what I think is a fair deal, and they think it’s a fair deal” he added. “And as a result, we get to concentrate on what it is we do best and that’s public education.”

Sag Harbor School Board Approves Teachers Contract

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Sag Harbor Elementary School art teacher Lauri DeVito in her classroom. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

At its annual organizational meeting Monday night, the Sag Harbor Board of Education approved a new teachers contract with the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH).

The contract was settled before the current one expires for the first time in recent memory.

“It was a sign of all of us working together collaboratively and we’re proud to have all of you in the district teaching our children,” Theresa Samot, president of the school board, said Monday.

The last contract negotiations took over two years and became quite heated, with teachers protesting the lack of a settlement by wearing black t-shirts to school for months. After the contracts expired in August 2008, a new agreement was not approved by both the union and the school district until December 2010.

The details of the new contract are forthcoming.

Board and TASH Set Negotiation Date

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By Marissa Maier

Despite wrapping up the meeting in just an hour, the Sag Harbor School Board and the community discussed a wide variety of issues at the board of education meeting on Monday, February 8. The topics of the evening included an update on the teacher contract negotiations, the prevalence of alcohol use among underage athletes, an update on the school’s investigation of the International Baccalaureate program, and parent groups partnering up to get out the vote this spring.

After the school board offered to meet on February 7 and the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) proposed 16 alternate dates, both parties have now agreed to meet on Saturday, February 27, confirmed school superintendent Dr. John Gratto. The full school board will be present at this bargaining session, except board president Walter Wilcoxen who will be away.

At Monday’s meeting, leading TASH member Jim Kinnier said he was “happy to hear” that the board was available to meet in the near future.

“I urge all parties involved to focus on everyone’s shared interest. We want a vibrant community. I think focusing on the goal of having a strong school and being flexible is really important,” noted parent and wife of a Sag Harbor educator Helen Atkinson-Barnes. “I would like to see this settled. I want to move on and I think everyone else does too.”

Parent Chris Tice asked both parties to publicly commit to “stay all night” on February 27 until a deal is struck. Tice asked the board and TASH to discuss this suggestion and return with an answer by the next board meeting on February 22. Wilcoxen suggested she pose this question again at the upcoming board meeting.

Alcohol and Athletes

Montgomery Granger, school director of physical education, health and athletics, recently attended a New York State Public High School Athletic Association conference in which the American Athletics Institute presented the findings of a study regarding student athlete’s use of alcohol. Overall, the study revealed that nearly 60 percent of student athletes consume alcohol, with Nassau and Suffolk County showing the highest levels of underage drinking, noted Granger. He added that the school community is still in the process of digesting this information, which has been distributed to the administration and the nutrition and wellness committee. Granger said the school could feasibly conduct an in-house anonymous survey to learn the levels of underage drinking among athletes in the district. At the BOE meeting on Monday, Granger noted the county passed a law in 2007 prohibiting the serving alcohol to people ages 21 and under. The school currently requires athletes to sign a contract which includes a provision which discourages drinking alcohol.

“The goal isn’t to stigmatize. It is to identify the problem and help them,” remarked Granger.

Update on International Baccalaureate

Foreign language teacher Toby Marienfeld noted she and five other teachers recently visited the Northport School District to observe the International Baccalaureate program in action. She said the visiting team spoke with administrators, instructors, guidance counselors and students. On the way home, the Sag Harbor group talked amongst themselves. Marienfeld reported the group’s feelings on the IB program were mixed. She, however, was disheartened that they only met with Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols to discuss their visit and not with the school board and superintendent.

In his budget presentation, Nichols outlaid $15,000 for basic IB training and $10,000 in application fees. Marienfeld argued that if the board is moving forward with the IB program she would hope the input of the educators would be included.

Wilcoxen explained the school is in the midst of investigating the IB program and enrolling educators in level one workshops is the final stage of this process. After the training is complete, Wilcoxen said the board would gather all parties, including the teachers who visited the Northport school, to vet out the pros and cons of implementing this type of curriculum in Pierson. Board member Dan Hartnett added the board hoped to investigate the IB program over a couple of years, which also spreads out the expense. Hartnett works for the East Hampton School District, which has been exploring IB for the past few years, he noted.

Get Out the Vote

Parent Laura Avedon announced that her parents group hopes to work with the PTA, PTSA and SEPTA to encourage voter registration for the school board election and budget vote this spring. Wilcoxen noted these groups aren’t allowed to support a specific candidate but could help in any efforts to “get out the vote.” Avedon pointed out her group compiled data from the last two school votes and discovered roughly 25 percent of the votes were cast by parents in the community.

Teacher Negotiation Update

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By Marissa Maier
 
 According to Sag Harbor School superintendent Dr. John Gratto, the school board attempted to set-up a negotiation session on Sunday, February 7 with the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH). School board president Walter Wilcoxen and Dr. Gratto met with TASH leaders Jim Kinnier and Eileen Kochanasz, last Wednesday to propose a day of negotiations this weekend, said Dr. Gratto. He added that the full school board planned to attend the bargaining session. In the past only Dr. Gratto and the school’s attorney Tom Volz have been present during these meetings to negotiate a new contract for the teachers, though the board has been present at informational sessions with TASH.
Kochanasz confirmed on Wednesday that TASH declined the offer to meet on February 7, but has offered 16 alternative dates between February 23 and March 24.
“We weren’t able to match everybody’s calendar and we were given short notice on this,” explained Kochanasz. Of the full board attending a negotiation session, Kochanasz added, “That is a different approach then we have experienced in the past two years.”
Wilcoxen noted that NYSUT, TASH’s union representation, has asked in the past for the full board to be present at negotiation sessions.
“TASH has often mentioned that they think the whole board should be involved. The board wanted to commit a lot of hours on a Sunday so there would be no time constraints. They have a sense of urgency about finalizing this contract,” remarked Dr.Gratto in an interview on Tuesday.
Although Dr. Gratto declined to discuss the details of the board’s current offer, he explained the board has “flexibility within parameters.” To use an analogy, the board’s offer is like a puzzle, and though their end goal is to complete this puzzle, they are able to adjust how the pieces of their offer fit together. For example, Dr.Gratto explained that if TASH made cost-saving concessions in one area the board would have the ability to beef up their offer in another area.  
“The major issues are salaries and health insurance. We have options that we think could satisfy the needs of both parties. There has to be a reason for both parties to say yes,” said Dr. Gratto. Kochanasz later said that since the board proposed meeting on February 7 neither party has discussed any contract ideas.

Time for a Compromise

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We were struck this week by the sharp differences in two long ongoing contract negotiations.

The three local hospitals which have joined together under the banner of the East End Health Alliance have been in and out of talks with the area’s largest insurer, Empire BlueCross BlueShield, since last summer. The benefits and the ability to receive reimbursement for hospital stays for thousands of local residents hang in the balance.

Then there is the struggle between the Sag Harbor School District and the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor. This has been going on for two years and the peace of a community rubbed raw is at stake — not to mention salary and benefits packages for teachers and future bills for tax payers.

While the debate between hospitals and insurer goes on behind closed doors, the discussion between the teachers and the district has been, in many ways, very public. We haven’t been privy to what actually is discussed, but speculation and posturing from both sides occurs regularly in school board meetings and on the letters to the editor pages.

There is another difference here, and that is there appears to be an end in sight for the former. An Empire spokesperson this week ebulliantly suggested their might be an agreement within the next few weeks.

While we are encouraged by the announcement this week that the teachers and the school board are hoping to meet in the next few weeks, there is little evidence that either side is prepared to budge from their dug in positions (although we do note the board sending all of its members to a sit down — something the teachers have been requesting all along).

But what has struck us is a comment made by Paul Connor, president of Eastern Long Island Hospital and spokesperson for the Alliance. For the first time in more than five months both sides in the negotiations seem to making real progress.  When asked what the turning point was, after months of a stalemate, Connor said simply both sides began to find plaves where they could compromise.

In Sag Harbor, someone is going to have to take the first step. Both sides have claimed they are willing to compromise in certain areas and are not wedded to any position. But, acknowledging we simply don’t know what is said behind closed doors, it does not appear there is any real effort to compromise from either side. We suspect, if there was, we would have moved forward by now. 

Point of View: What is the Teacher Contract Dispute Really About?

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By Susan Lamontagne

First there was a mediator, then a Fact Finder, and then a lawsuit. It seems as though nothing has been able to resolve the contract dispute between Sag Harbor’s teachers’ union and board of education. So what’s going on? As the parent of a first grader who has been thrilled with our teachers and who has a lot at stake in the future of our schools, I decided to find out.

I brought together a small group of parents – independent from either side of the dispute – to learn more and find a resolution. We reviewed all the public documentation from both sides. We met with both sides. We asked questions and offered ideas: What if a group of parents recommend a compromise agreement? What if we mediate the dispute? What if we monitor the negotiations? Each time, the answer was no.

So, why can’t the two sides come to an agreement? Here is what we learned from this process and a Freedom of Information request that I filed with the school:

1) Salary Increase: TASH is asking for a 3.9 percent increase each year over four years; the board is offering 2.5 percent. Why can’t the two sides meet in the middle? These increases are in addition to a “step” increase that is already a part of the teachers’ salary schedule that provides annual raises based upon years of experience and amount of education. For example, a first-year teacher with a master’s degree earns $55,071; a teacher with 10 year’s experience, an MA and 30 continuing education credits earns $76,600. Each year they receive step increases ranging from 2% to 3.39%. Add the step increase to the additional raise that each side is asking/offering and you get a board offer averaging just over 5% each year (or a 20.72% increase over a four-year contract) compared to nearly a 6.6% annual increase requested by the teacher’s union (or a 25.6% increase over four years).

In Sag Harbor, however, first-year teachers are few and far between. Most of our 124 teachers have more than 10 years of experience and over a quarter have more than 20 years of experience, so the average teacher salary in Sag Harbor is $86,051.26/year; 32 teachers make more than $100,000/year and eight make more than $120,000/year. It’s a good thing, of course, when teachers have years of experience. From a budget perspective, it adds up. In 2009, our teacher payroll was $10,584,304.80.

The teacher’s union says that teachers should make a salary that rewards their professionalism, education and experience – and they’re right about that. In Sag Harbor, teacher base salaries range from $45,937 for a first-year teacher to $122,468 for a teacher with an MA and 75 continuing education credits or a PhD. Teachers can earn additional pay for coaching sports ($3,000 – $5,500 depending on the sport), providing programs such as the terrific Partners in Print, or overseeing clubs. Teachers also have summers off, when many of them work second jobs, and four weeks of vacation during the school year. But the stalemate is not over whether teachers deserve a good salary – they do. It’s when a district’s budget becomes top heavy with a disproportionate number of senior teachers and the growing cost of health and retirement benefits that the question becomes, how do we sustain these costs in the long-term and also afford art supplies, Spanish, sports, music, building maintenance and a much-needed pre-K program?

2) Comparable Salaries: TASH has expressed frustration that teachers in Sag Harbor make less than teachers in East Hampton. (Set aside for a moment that each district negotiates their contracts at different times so that at any one time your district will be slightly ahead or behind.) I compared the most recent salary schedules for the two districts and Sag Harbor teachers make about $2,000 to $10,000 less a year – depending on seniority – than those in East Hampton. There are other differences. East Hampton teachers have a 14-minute longer work day, larger class sizes, and more ESL (English as a Second Language) students. The biggest difference, however, is our tax base. Sag Harbor’s budget is not underwritten by ocean-front mansions and large retail businesses. Despite these salary differences, Sag Harbor has been able to attract and retain great teachers and the board obviously considers this when negotiating its pay scale.

3) Health Benefits: Health care costs have reached such crisis proportions in the U.S. that it has dominated much of the national political debate. The automobile industry blames health care costs for much of its troubles. The very wealthy and union members are the only two segments of our population left that enjoy excellent health care benefits, which some call “Cadillac plans.” Everyone should have such coverage! Unfortunately, the costs can be crippling.

To help control these costs, the board has asked that all teachers pay 15% toward their health care premium in retirement (currently, only teachers hired after 2000 are subject to this). This amounts to about $91/month for an individual and about $200/month for family coverage (based on the 2010 plan cost of $7,348/year for an individual and $15,972/year for a family). TASH rejected this proposal and the Fact Finder recommended instead that teachers hired after 2009 pay a higher contribution – 25% – to make up the difference. This perplexed me. What about finding a compromise where younger teachers don’t have to shoulder the entire burden? What about offering two health care plans – a lower cost one where teachers would pay nothing and the current “Cadillac plan,” which includes vision, dental and very low co-pays, where retired teachers would contribute a small amount to the monthly premium? Currently, Sag Harbor pays the full health insurance costs of 44 retirees; given the seniority of many of our teachers, this number will increase substantially over the next ten years.

4) Sick Day Buy Back: Upon retirement, East Hampton teachers are able to get up to one year of additional pay if they have the requisite number of unused sick days. Sag Harbor teachers want a similar benefit. East Hampton teachers won this perk in exchange for a 50% contribution to their health benefits in retirement and 65% for their spouse. So, what happens when you have several retiring teachers at the top of the pay scale who earn the buy back in the same year? This becomes an extremely costly proposal to implement. Perhaps the question we need to ask is: ‘What is the purpose of sick days?’

5) Work Rules: There are also differences between the two sides regarding the terms in which teachers work. For example, teachers are paid a stipend in addition to their salaries to monitor lunch times and the board wants to change that. Teachers are requesting a stipend for staffing overnight field trips and they want to select their continuing education classes. These issues seem easy enough, but each has budget ramifications. I always thought that supervising school lunches and field trips were part of a teacher’s job. Teachers should be able to pick their own continuing education classes, but each class they take enables them to move up the salary schedule and the class they pick might not serve the school’s needs. Would a compromise be for teachers to select whatever classes they want, but for the superintendent to have the final say as to whether the class qualifies for a pay increase?

There are countless more issues involved. On each issue, one side says the other won’t budge and the other side says that’s not true and no one other than the two sides can know for sure since members of the public are not permitted to witness the negotiations. Again, I asked and the answer was no.

This is what we do know. We are facing the most serious fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. National unemployment is over 10% and economists agree that number is grossly understated. Last year, President Obama froze the federal employee cost-of-living adjustment, which is somewhat equivalent to the step increase that teachers automatically receive each year (and since the terms of the expired contract remain in place until a new one is agreed up, teachers continue to receive their step increase, except for the teachers at the very top of the salary schedule). Because of budget crises, teachers in California, Iowa, North Carolina and Washington, DC are being let go. Mass teacher layoffs are pending in Florida, Michigan, and New York City, among others.

I want Sag Harbor to maintain the high levels of staffing we all currently enjoy. In the elementary school, for example, classes tend to be smaller, with a teacher and teaching assistant in each classroom. We also have more guidance counselors per student than similar districts. In recent years, we have begun to hear about more and more students being accepted to outstanding colleges. Sag Harbor schools are special, with extraordinary parent and community involvement, and I believe most of us would like to keep it that way. Yet, during Sag Harbor’s last board of education election, candidates faced a firestorm from members of our community who wanted to reduce their tax burden by decimating the schools, which account for about 70% of our property taxes. Fortunately, those of us who believe that we must invest in our children, teachers and schools won the last round. Will we again? How does the board “sell” significant cost increases at a time when many residents have lost their jobs or their incomes have been reduced?

As this dispute continues, the friendly camaraderie that once prevailed in Sag Harbor schools has dissipated. When teachers wear gray t-shirts heralding “Year 2 No Contract” at Halloween events and holiday shows, it feels like someone is raining on our children’s parade. When board members do not respond to legitimate questions or complaints during meetings, it leaves people feeling angry and frustrated. When parents cannot find the time to vote to support our schools, what message does that send to our children, our teachers, and our community?

So, how will we end this dispute? The board and the teachers union need to set aside personal grudges and start to respect each other’s perspective. They need to explain to us what the roadblocks are and be open to new ways of resolving problems. Parents and community members need to learn the facts and get involved. We can deliver a top-notch education at a price our community can afford and sustain. To achieve that, we must all work together. Anything less is to fail our children.


Susan Lamontagne is the mother of a SHES student, a future SHES student, and president of the Public Interest Media Group, Inc.

Changing of the Garb

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web Teachers Shirts

“This is no longer about gray shirts … wearing them or not wearing them,” pronounced Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) President Eileen Kochanasz at the Sag Harbor School District’s board of education meeting on Monday, January 11. As her words reverberated throughout the Pierson High School library, the district’s teachers uniformly stood up and pulled off their gray shirts imprinted with the words “Year Two, No Contract” to reveal black ones with a new slogan, “Sag Harbor, District in Crisis.”

During a later interview, Kochanasz said the protest garb is meant to call attention to statements and actions allegedly made by the board, in regards to the tumultuous teacher contract negotiations, and to respond to public displeasure with the visibility of the gray shirts. The new black apparel will be worn by the teachers only on Monday and the educators will dress in regular attire for the rest of the school week. Kochanasz added that TASH members will continue to picket in front of school grounds on Fridays.

“[We were told by the public] if the shirts were not there, there would be more support. If we removed the shirts completely people would forget … The sole purpose [of the black shirts] is to keep the community aware that this issue is seriously unsettled for us,” said Kochanasz later in the week.

The new TASH garments are being met with disapproval by some parents in the community. Since TASH members arrived in the gray shirts on the first day of school in September, parent Laura Avedon said many parents repeatedly requested TASH wear regular clothes inside the classroom. She believes the new message might also be frightening for students especially those in the elementary school.

“The t-shirts are a menacing artifact of a dispute that belongs in the realm of adults only,” noted Avedon in an email. “When I got home from the Board of Education meeting . . . I had to explain to my elementary school daughter that tomorrow she was going to see new t-shirts on all her teachers, saying that the school district was in crisis. She was very concerned, since she knows the word crisis means a dire or life-threatening emergency. I explained to her that the district was not in crisis, and that no harm would come to her by going to school.”

Of the plan to only wear the shirts on Monday, Avedon said, “It should be no days a week. The children shouldn’t be involved … I think it harms them emotionally.”

A fellow parent, Glenn Lawton, added, “These semantics further fuel the polarity and only help to erode our collective ‘spirit.’”

Parent Bill Collage remarked, “I am very pro teacher. I think the gray t-shirts were very effective messaging and the penetration of the message is roughly 100 percent among the parents. The black t-shirts will be met with less regard, I’m willing to bet. I think the next great message in this process will be when they take the t-shirts off.”

Chris Tice added “I am supportive of a process where teachers have the right to publicly voice their position. I would prefer it not be done on shirts worn in front of our young children.”

Kochanasz said TASH members haven’t noticed the shirts negatively impacting the students adding that they are very sensitive and tuned into the children.

School superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted the teachers are allowed to dress in any manner they see fit as the teachers’ contract and the district policy doesn’t speak to attire.

For TASH, said Kochanasz, the black shirts merely hint at larger issues that have arisen since their contract expired in June 2008. Though the teachers’ contract expired, the provisions of the former contract will continue until a new one is settled. In a speech delivered at the board meeting on Monday, Kochanasz asserted the board discredited a Fact Finder’s report and his qualifications, saying he wasn’t given enough time to complete his work and his professional background focused on national sports leagues instead of school districts. In an interview, school board president Walter Wilcoxen noted the board felt the report was incomplete because the Fact Finder didn’t address all of the major issues and he was given just three days to submit his recommendations.

After learning that four teachers have submitted their resumes to neighboring school districts, Dr. Gratto said if he was in their position he would also apply elsewhere to make more money, claimed Kochanasz. In an interview, Dr. Gratto said he didn’t make that statement. Kochanasz noted, in her speech, that Dr. Gratto was awarded a 13.5 percent raise last June which she said is a “greater percentage raise in one year than the combined percentages of [the board's] offer to teachers over five years.”

But Kochanasz’s statement, contended Wilcoxen, doesn’t include a 2.7 percentage step increase, or additional money given for each year a teacher is employed in the district.

“In my opinion you have deliberately misled this community with your repeated assurances that your negotiators are prepared to stay all night to reach an agreement,’” added Kochanasz of negotiations so far. “Yet during our most recent sessions, we weren’t given one counter-proposal to any comprehensive proposal we made at the same session. It was always, ‘we have to adjourn to assess … or cost out.’”

“We have to cost out but they don’t,” argued Wilcoxen. “We came up with our best offer. We would love to come up with a contract that is good for them and an efficiency, i.e. cost savings to us.”

“This is not about people disagreeing. It’s about what happens when they do. They are marginalized, trivialized, dismissed in public, in the press and at cocktail parties,” continued Kochanasz, interjecting a claim that a school board member was heard referring to a parent who spoke at a previous board meeting as a “buffoon” at The American Hotel.

Of this incident, Wilcoxen said he didn’t know about the comment made but said, “We are a small community and haven’t board members been called worse in public?”

Dr. Gratto and school board member Mary Ann Miller believed the new shirts would have little effect on the progression of the negotiations.

“Picketing or attacking people or wearing t-shirts isn’t going to change the fact that both parties will have to reach an agreement they think is fair,” noted Dr. Gratto. He said the board made the last proposal at the last negotiation session on December 3.

Miller added, “I don’t think the protesting methods are doing a lot to sell their positions. I think the financial state of the economy in this country is what people are focusing on.”

At Monday’s meeting, community member and parent Brigid Collins said she believed as a superintendent of the district Dr. Gratto should represent the board and the teachers, and try to mediate a compromise. She said, “The board brought this person in to bring us to a place I am not sure we want to be. I am really hopeful this can stop.”

On another note, TASH’s charge with the Public Employee Relations Board accusing the board of pre-conditioned bargaining is still under review. However, another TASH charge asserting the board is bargaining in bad faith was found to be lacking evidence, noted PERB representative Monty Klein in a letter from December 30. TASH has the opportunity to file an amendment of the charges by January 15.