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Gratto Gets a Raise

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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.

Teachers Say They’re Seeking Middle Ground

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Nearly 70 teachers, parents, administrators and community members packed a math classroom at Pierson High School last Thursday night to listen to teachers tell their side of what has been happening with teacher contract negotiations. The Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) gave a presentation to supply some history and contradict the presentation given by the district’s attorney last month.

TASH and the district have been in contract negotiations for several months. Last June, when the current teacher’s contract expired, the two sides declared impasse — which called for a mediator to come in. In August that mediator met with the district, TASH and their attorneys to try to reach consensus on salary, healthcare in retirement and course approval among other issues. The mediation failed. At their last meeting, the two sides agreed to go to fact finding, where a representative from the Public Employee Relations Board (P.E.R.B.) will hear both sides and make a recommendation based on the findings. As of yesterday (Wednesday) school superintendent Dr. John Gratto said he has not yet heard from P.E.R.B. on the scheduling of the fact finder.

Eileen Kochanasz, guidance counselor and president of TASH began on Thursday by explaining that in her 34 years of teaching in the district, she has never been in this position before.

“The superintendent and the board of education believed that a press release issued by the teachers, which is a very common action during difficult negotiations, warranted an immediate exposure of the specific details of the proposals to the public,” she said.

Math teacher Jim Kinnier took the stand to discuss the issues that deal with salary. Kinnier said the district’s presentation talked about increases in salary that are given when a teacher pursues post graduate courses.

“What the district’s presentation didn’t state was that the teachers pay approximately the same amount or more to take those courses,” noted Kinnier who also compared the district’s salaries to those in surrounding districts.

He indicated that in Amagansett, teachers will receive a 3.5 percent increase for 2008-09 and a 3.75 percent increase for 2009-10. East Hampton and Southampton will be getting a 3.5 percent increase for 2008-09 and 2009-10 as well.

Kinnier explained that in February of last year, TASH offered a 4.5 percent increase, which he said was done so the teachers could negotiate down to a figure somewhere in the middle.

Kinnier then explained that on November 6, TASH offered a 3.9 percent increase and in December the district came back with a 2.5 percent increase.

During the presentation, Kinnier also compared teacher’s salaries with surrounding districts. He said, Sag Harbor offers $46,000 for a teacher at the first “step” if they are hired with a bachelor’s degree. According to his data, Sag Harbor pays those teachers lower than Mattituck and East Hampton and higher than Southampton. For teachers with a master’s degree with an additional 30 credits at “step” 15, Sag Harbor pays a bit less than $90,000, falling behind Southampton’s $95,000 and East Hampton, which is just above $95,000. According to Kinnier, Sag Harbor’s salary for that level is higher than Mattituck and Southold.

Social Studies teacher Jim Sloane spoke about health insurance. The district said during their presentation that they want to require all teachers after 2010 to contribute 15 percent to their health insurance in retirement.

Sloane said that teachers in Sag Harbor have paid more toward their health insurance for a longer period of time than the vast majority of Eastern and Suffolk BOCES school districts. The teachers want to maintain the current model, which is that only teachers hired after July 1, 2000 will pay 15 percent toward their health insurance in retirement.

“Currently more than 50 percent of the teachers in the district will contribute to their health insurance in retirement,” Sloane said.

At Monday’s board of education meeting, president Walter Wilcoxen read aloud a statement from the board in response to the TASH presentation.

“We will share TASH’s presentation with our attorney and ask him to compare our presentation and TASH’s presentation for the purpose of clarifying any misunderstandings we may have presented and to highlight any information TASH presented that we believe to be inaccurate,” Wilcoxen said.

He also said that the board takes “a long term view of the financial viability of the district…and the board of education is trying to alter the dynamic burden on taxpayers due to ever increasing health insurance and retirement contributions.”

“We will all have to work together in the future to address the challenges created by the economic tsunami that has befallen us,” Wilcoxen said on Monday.

Wilcoxen acknowledged the teachers and credited them as being a major contributor to the quality of education in Sag Harbor, but added that the students, taxpayers and the board are all “crucial to the current and future success of the district.”

At Monday’s meeting, former Sag Harbor school board president Walter Tice asked school board members if they had given TASH a reason why the board had decided to go public with information related to negotiations.

“We had negotiated to a stalemate,” Wilcoxen responded. “I think the public has a right to know, this was not an attempt to negotiate in public. For me it was a fair position.”

Wilcoxen further argued that there is nothing in law that states that the board of education could not go public. He added that the district’s presentation, “didn’t belittle anyone.”

“Almost every time this [going public] has been done, it has led to bad relations between the parties,” countered Tice. “Now it’s all out there.”

“What I’m suggesting,” added Tice, “is that you take into consideration…getting back into traditional negotiations for the public and for the community of Sag Harbor.”



Teachers Protest in Sag Harbor

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Sag Harbor School District attorney Tom Volz speaks at a special BOE meeting on Dec. 19


Last week, teachers in the Sag Harbor UFSD met outside both the elementary and high schools before school brandishing signs to protest the school board’s move to make public information pertaining to teacher contracts.
“Don’t Dismantle a Decade’s Progress in One Year,” “Keep the Excellence Going” and “Invest in Your Child’s Future,” read some of the signs held by teachers as they greeted parents and honking horns before school Friday morning.
The Teachers Association of Sag Harbor (TASH) and the board of education have been negotiating teachers’ contracts for nearly 10 months. At the end of June, the two sides went to impasse — a stage that requires a mediator. After one meeting, it was decided by both sides that the mediator was not going to help them reach an agreement. The teachers and the district met again in hopes of bargaining at the table earlier this month, but the two sides could not agree.
They did, however, jointly decide to go to fact-finding, a stage of negotiation that involves bringing in an individual from the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to look at both sides and make a non-binding decision. By January, a fact-finder should be in place and school superintendent Dr. John Gratto said that this is not the first time he has been involved in the process.
“I’ve been through fact finding before and it is a fair process,” he said on Monday, “The fact-finder renders his answer to questions on both sides then both parties need to re-assess based on the recommendations.”
But last Thursday, the teachers were noticeably absent from a special board meeting called by the school board to share with members of the community negotiation information on teachers’ contracts. At that meeting, the district’s attorney, Tom Volz, gave a presentation outlining what the district is asking for and what the teachers want and where the relative discrepancies lay.
TASH president Eileen Kochanasz said sharing information about negotiations with members of the public is “unfavorable.” In recent months, Kochanasz, a Pierson High School guidance counselor, had criticized the board for stating at board meetings that they would not negotiate with the teachers in public, yet, she added, by calling the special meeting “You [the board] just did.”
On Thursday, Volz outlined for the public the salaries of teachers within the district, and how much of an increase they would get this year if given the raises the teachers are requesting.
According to Volz, TASH is proposing a 3.9 percent increase for teachers. That means a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in their second year of teaching would earn $50,115 for the 2008-2009 school year, an increase of $4,178 over last year. For teachers with a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree plus 45 credits, the salary would be $54,575 with the raise as proposed by TASH, giving these teachers a $4,551 or 9.1 percent raise (which includes a built in step increase) over last year.
According to Volz, at the highest step level, a teacher with 27 years in the school district, a master’s degree and an additional 30 credits, earns $113,579 (without the raise proposed by TASH) — the second highest salary for teachers at that level in the area.
Kochanasz said that not long ago, however, the teachers in Sag Harbor received salaries noticeably lower than those of teachers in nearby districts.
“In 2004, we were finally able to reduce the gap for teachers,” Kochanasz said, “Now we could lose what we gained.”
Kochanasz expressed her frustrations with the district, and said superintendent Dr. John Gratto and school board members have been unable to negotiate in a “give and take” fashion. She added that the district has been meeting TASH with proposals already prepared and have not been willing to budge beyond what was on the table.
Some of the other major sticking points in the teachers’ contracts include health insurance in retirement, academic support responsibilities, and coursework approval for teachers looking to enhance their teaching skills. Teachers are also asking to keep advanced payment for vacations, something the district wants to change. The district also would like to change the requirements for personal leave, so that teachers are not permitted to take off a day prior to or directly following a school holiday.
Volz also outlined in his presentation that the district would like teachers to electronically post their homework assignments, grading policies, field trips and major test dates on the school’s website.
The 30 or so attendees of Thursday’s meeting also learned that, according to Volz, teachers are asking to receive 50 percent of their unused sick leave and personal leave in cash upon retirement.
“We have a fabulous school and fabulous test scores to prove it. I don’t know why they [the district] want to create this atmosphere,” said Kochanasz who felt that Thursday’s presentation by the board was in “blatant disregard” and “disrespect” to those who work within the school. She also said the custodians and secretarial contracts have yet to be agreed upon.
Walter Tice has sat on both sides of this argument, first as a teacher in Yonkers for more than 30 years and then as member of Sag Harbor’s school board for seven years. For four of those years, Tice served as school board president and he was involved in the last contract negotiation with TASH.
“It’s unfortunate that they chose to negotiate in public,” said Tice. “The general wisdom is that once you start to bargain in public, your ability is restricted.”
Tice also said that the information presented on Thursday was a “PR story from the board.”
He added that there are some very complicated issues that would be difficult for the community to grasp from just one presentation.
“It simplifies issues from both sides,” he said. “They both have long contract issues and this tends to politicize these issues.”
“And it’s not good for the morale,” Tice added. “These people are actually teaching in your classroom, you don’t want them mad at you. You can solve your differences rationally, not by hanging them out to the public.”
“I think we accurately portrayed the issues of all sides,” said Gratto of last Thursday’s meeting, “I think all that [meeting] has done is informed people.”
“Reasonable people can reach reasonable results,” he added.

School Seeks Help in Finding Economies

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In an attempt to combine ideas from community members and faculty, the Sag Harbor School District held a forum last Thursday to ask for input on what could be changed in the school to make it better and offer ideas to cut costs. In a letter Superintendent Dr. John Gratto sent to possible participants, he stated that the community is facing the most serious financial crisis since the great depression and asked if they would like to be a part of a focus group.
Two significant questions Gratto asked participants to consider while thinking about the 2009-2010 school budget included how might the community maintain or improve high-quality educational programs and services while maintaining efficient and cost-effective possibilities.
“We followed this idea and it really worked quite well,” Gratto said on Monday, “In my group we came up with 160 ideas in one hour.”
According to Gratto, the 50 or so participants came up with 400 ideas that night, on ways to improve the school district and reduce costs. Gratto, who organized the forum, asked that many different representatives from various groups participate. Those who joined in the brainstorming session included teachers, students, faculty, Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) members, members of the Noyac Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) and members of the not-for-profit organization, Save Sag Harbor.
The attendees were split into five groups and were given a few questions to use as a guide for ideas. Some suggestions included how the school might reduce energy consumption and overtime costs. Other questions were asked about lowering transportation costs and ways the district might increase revenue to minimize taxes.
Some of the ideas generated from the forum included allowing teacher assistants to substitute and investigating pre-kindergarten programs. Other ideas included plans for increasing revenue by charging other schools to use the athletic fields and other facilities.
Another idea brought up during the forum was offering incentives for teachers to retire.
The plan was to have two forums, but the five groups covered everything at last Thursday’s meeting and Gratto announced at the Board of Education meeting on Monday that a second meeting was not needed.
“Now we are in the process of compiling the ideas into categories,” Gratto said and added that the all the ideas will be put on the school’s website.

Contract Negotiations Move Slowly

Another idea generated from the forum was to hold union negotiations in public.
At Monday’s Board of Education meeting, Walter Tice, a former Board of Education President, talked about the lack of urgency among the board with the current teacher’s contracts which have been expired since June of this year.
“The longer you go past the expiration date of the contract, the longer it takes to get to an agreement,” he said. “Now,” he continued, “the negotiations are going slower than they were when they [Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, TASH] first talked to you.”
President of the board of education, Walter Wilcoxen said that the board has a proposal, which they are hoping to present to TASH representatives at their next negotiation meeting, which would take place on Wednesday, yesterday, December 10.
“We hope to make a suggestion and we feel it is a good one,” Wilcoxen said at the meeting on Monday. Further he explained that he guarantees that the board and their representatives have paid full attention to all of issues involved and they are trying to do what is right for the citizens.
At the board of education meeting, Eileen Kochanasz, president of TASH, said that she was concerned that the board was coming to the negotiation meeting with only one proposal.
“The dragging out of this process is taking its toll, you said a proposal,” Kochanasz said to Wilcoxen, “I’m not sure you have authorized your representatives to negotiate…we have offered to spend the night to get to the bottom of this…we are hoping your representative has the ability to go back and forth with us.”
Walter countered Kochanasz and said, “I hope that TASH will agree with our proposal on Wednesday, I don’t know what more to say than that.”
When PTA president Chris Tice asked if that meant the board is not planning on negotiating any further than their one proposal on Wednesday, Wilcoxen abruptly responded, “we are not going to discuss the way we negotiate in public.”