Tag Archive | "walter wilcoxen"

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Following the announcement of his resignation last week, the Sag Harbor Board of Education is seeking a person to fill the board seat formerly held by Walter Wilcoxen who decided not to finish his term. It is the board’s intent to review letters from interested applicants and possibly appoint someone to fill that seat at the August 13, 2012 board of education meeting, according to a release from School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto.

Board of education members serve on a voluntary basis to provide governance to the school district, the release said. The school board is a corporate body that oversees and manages a public school district’s affairs, personnel, and properties.

“As you consider whether or not you would like to apply for this important responsibility, please first read about the characteristics of effective (and ineffective) school boards and assess your willingness and desire to be part of a highly effective Board of Education,” read the release. Information is available at: http://www.nyssba.org/index.php?src=news&refno=1713&category=On%20Board%20Online%20April%2011%202011.

Sag Harbor Board of Education meetings are typically held from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on two Monday evenings a month.

“If you wish to serve on one of the Board’s several committees, that would involve some extra time,” the release said.

The term of the appointment will be until the next election of board candidates on May 21, 2013. By agreeing to be appointed to this open board seat, the successful candidate would be agreeing to fill the position until May 21, 2013.

“If you wanted to fill the remainder of the term, which ends on June 30, 2015, you would need to run for that position along with any other candidates who may be interested in it,” said the release.

Those wishing to apply for this board of education seat, are asked to email a letter expressing their interest in and qualifications for the position to Mary Adamczyk, the board of education clerk at madamczyk@sagharborschools.org by Monday, August 6.

Questions about the position can be directed to any current board of education member or Dr. Gratto.

Board Questions Operation of YARD Summer Beach Program

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By Claire Walla


The future of the Youth Advocacy and Resource Development (YARD) summer beach program is in flux. Again. And the Sag Harbor Board of Education remains at a standstill.

Last year around this time, school board members discussed the feasibility of continuing to run the summer beach program at Long Beach in Sag Harbor. The question was not the viability of the program — board members agreed it served an important function for the community, catering to 60 to 80 kids a night — but rather the manner in which it operated.

Issues first arose a few years ago when auditors discovered that while YARD had long operated autonomously from the district — running programs without formal approval from the school board — its finances had in fact been funneled through the district.

This was mitigated last year when the YARD board formed a non-profit entity, “Friends of YARD,” to collect all funds solicited for the program.

However, Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. Gratto pointed out that last year the school board decided not to be involved in the summer beach program after summer 2011, leaving the organization to find another entity to oversee its operations going forward.

YARD has been in discussions with Southampton Town, which is a big proponent of the summer beach program. However, according to Russel Kratoville, Southampton Town Management Services Administrator, while the town will continue to fund the program with its annual contribution of $15,000, it does not have the means run the program. (This would require hiring additional staff.)

Now, as discussed at a school board meeting last Monday, June 4, the board faces many of the same problems it faced last year.

The nut of the issue comes down to a simple philosophical question, Dr. Gratto said: should the district be responsible for administering a summer program?

If the district decided to formally take on the program, one necessary course of action would be to assign district supervision, which Mary Anne Miller, school board president, said is necessary for any district program. Not only might this involve extra costs, she went on, but it would add more to administrators’ summer schedules.

“I don’t think our administrators are looking for more work,” board member Walter Wilcoxen added. If the district was responsible for the program, he continued, “There are many costs in the YARD function we may end up paying for.”

Currently, the school contributes $10,000 annually to YARD.

The total cost of YARD services, including both the summer beach program and the afterschool program during the school year, is about $80,000, according to school board member and YARD Board of Directors member Sandi Kruel. And $23,000 of that goes to the summer beach program.

Kruel went on to explain that the vast majority of funding for the program comes not from the school district, but from different municipalities: New York State, Suffolk County, Southampton Town, Sag Harbor and even North Haven Village.

She said cost isn’t an issue.

“We haven’t been short on money in 13 years [since YARD was founded],” a noticeably frustrated Kruel stated. “I don’t foresee us coming up short this year.”

For the school to run a program that incorporates donations from several different municipalities, however, Dr. Gratto explained the district would need each entity to sign what’s called a Municipal Cooperative Agreement. He is currently figuring out how long that agreement — requiring signatures from the village, town, county and state — would take to get finalized.

Board members Miller and Wilcoxen additionally expressed concern that they still had not seen contracts from any entity other than Southampton Town, and would not be confident with YARD’s funding going forward until they could be certain these funding streams were officially designated for the year.

Kruel said she would like for the summer program to begin the week after graduation.

But whether it will have untangled all these details before then remains to be seen.

Landslide Victory For Sag Harbor Budget, Incumbents Reelected

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Above: School Board Candidate Tom Gleeson (top, far left) waits to hear the results of Tuesday’s election.

By Claire Walla

Coming as no surprise to the small crowd gathered in the Pierson Middle/High School gymnasium Tuesday, May 15, the Sag Harbor School District’s proposed $34,182,256 million budget passed by a landslide, with 892 votes for the budget versus only 420 against.

Similarly, Proposition #2, which will allow the district to spend up to $575,000 for the purchase of six new buses, passed with a similar margin: 851 to 432.

“I’m very pleased the budget passed,” District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto commented after the results were read. “And I’m pleased the bus proposition passed.”

This year’s election garnered 1,377 total votes, a drop of 264 from last year.

The 2012-2013 budget represents a spending increase of $956,172 over this year’s operating budget. But, more importantly, is represents a tax-levy increase of only 1.94 percent, which means it successfully falls below the two-percent tax cap imposed by New York State for the first time this year.

The real nail-biter this year was the race for school board, which had three candidates vying for two open seats. In the end, incumbents Gregg Schiavoni and Walter Wilcoxen each managed to secure another three-years on the board, putting Schiavoni in his second term and Wilcoxen in his third.

“The vote on the board is a testament to the trust the community has in the job this board has done,” Dr. Gratto noted.

When the votes had all been tallied, Schiavoni was the clear victor with 1,039 total votes. Wilcoxen came in second with 795 and Gleeson was a not-too-distant third with 576 votes.

Many in the gymnasium that night congratulated Gleeson on a hard-fought campaign.

“It’s tough to beat the incumbents,” Gleeson said after having walked over to congratulate Schiavoni on his win. (Wilcoxen had a work conflict and was unable to make it to the gymnasium before doors closed at 9 p.m.)

“It was a good learning experience,” he added. “I just hope the board continues to improve education. The kids are what’s most important.”

With his youngest daughter — who stood by his side as results were read — graduating from Pierson this year, Gleeson said his loss wouldn’t mean he would vanish from the district.

“I’ll try to stay involved as much as possible,” he declared.

In the wake of his win, Schiavoni — flanked by his two young sons — smiled as he talked about his plans for the upcoming year.

“What’s next will be keeping track of IB [the International Baccalaureate program], making sure it’s implemented correctly, and keeping track of the Pre-K program,” he said. “Going forward, we just have to keep the ball rolling.”

In an interview the day after the vote, Wilcoxen said he was excited to find he had been elected for a third term.

“We have a lot of challenges, like trying to understand how we can deal with each other more effectively [as a board],” he said.  “That seems to be number one on the list.”

But, he added that supporting IB and continuing to find ways to make the school’s finances more transparent will be key issues in the coming year.

After congratulating candidates, both board members Theresa Samot and Chris Tice said they were very pleased to hear the election results for the budget this year.

“The margin the vote passed by was really great,” Samot exclaimed, as Tice noted it was nearly 2:1. “The administration put a lot of hard work into the budget.”

Board member Sandi Kruel concurred with this sentiment, and applauded voters for passing Proposition #2.

And to her fellow board members about to begin their new three-year terms, she added, “Congratulations.”

Meet the Candidates Debate, Sag Harbor

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The race for two seats on the Sag Harbor School Board has three contestants: the veteran, the local and the experienced newcomer. All candidates met inside the Pierson auditorium last Thursday, May 3 for the annual “Meet the Candidates” debate run by the Sag Harbor Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and moderated by Bryan Boyhan, publisher of The Sag Harbor Express.

The incumbents include former School Board President Walter Wilcoxen, who is running for this third term, and Gregg Schiavoni, who was born and raised in Sag Harbor and is vying for his second. Newcomer Tom Gleeson, who moved to the area seven years ago and currently works part-time in admissions at Vaughn College in Queens, is making his first run for a seat on the board.

Though Schiavoni was not present at the debate Thursday night, he was contacted by The Express via phone and asked the same set of questions posed to Wilcoxen and Gleeson during the debate. Like his opponents, he was given no more than two minutes for each answer.

How do you see the International Baccalaureate (IB) program changing the school?


Wilcoxen: It will allow a greater rigor to be introduced [to the district]. The stress that [IB] puts on the communication pieces—oral and verbal—is something I think we’re lacking in our curriculum currently.


Gleeson: Most people know that I was not in favor of the IB program. But, if elected, I would make sure we implement it in the best way possible. I agree with Walter that writing is very important in society. Yes, we need to improve writing here.


Schiavoni: I think it’s going to change two things: I think it’s going to change the education of the students for the better, and I also think it’s going to better teachers’ instruction. Teachers who go for IB training will be able to use that for professional development. From what I’ve heard, this training is the best training for teachers. Let’s say in a year or two IB doesn’t pan out, teachers will be so advanced it will even benefit [the school] should we go back to AP.


The proposed school budget for the 2012-2013 school year succeeded in coming under the state-mandated two-percent tax cap, but that may prove more difficult going forward. What decisions do you see the district having to make in the coming year to meet the cap again?

Wilcoxen: The problem in our future is labor costs. Seventy percent of our budget is labor-related. Next year we’re going to have a choice. I think it’s going to be up to the staff and the board renegotiating contracts. I see no other way around it, other than cutting staff.


Gleeson: You’re going to have to look at labor costs, and that includes the superintendent on down. Our superintendent’s salary is high. I thought that when we brought him in from upstate. I think that you have to look at every possible cut without affecting education. One of the things we’re going to have to look at is the cost of books and technology.


Wilcoxen: The superintendent’s salary… while it’s high, if you look at the hourly cost of what he’s produced, it’s not that high. In order to get good, quality work you need to pay people to come here. Dr. Gratto has more than made up for his salary by what he’s saved us.


Schiavoni: It’s the battle we always have. We have to look at program: what’s available, what do students want, what do they not want? We have to ask the students and the community. I think the other thing is we have to be prepared to look one, two, three years down the line.



There has been considerable conversation about the school’s wellness policy. Do you believe the existing policy is too strict? Should students be given the opportunity to purchase products that include such items as high-fructose corn syrup?


Wilcoxen: I think the Wellness Policy is very good the way it is. I would like to see the education piece added to it. We all grew up on high-fructose corn syrup… I would say that if children want to bring in things that aren’t on our Wellness Policy, they’re free to do that. But the higher goal has to be to educate our kids to be healthier than we are.


Gleeson: I have to look at [the Wellness Policy] more carefully. What’s happening now is there’s so much research going on about how food affects people. We have to create a mindset in the students [that allows them] to make the proper choices. The other question I have about this is, how is it affecting our funding down at the cafeteria? Is this drawing students away?


Schiavoni: I don’t believe it is too strict. I don’t see the value in teaching that high-fructose corn syrup is bad for you and then promoting it. The Wellness Policy has language that states the school should move toward developing a menu that doesn’t include those things.


Should the school district take a greater role in ensuring students eat healthier?


Wilcoxen:  In the Curriculum Committee, we’ve discussed this.  We’ve requested the administration look into programs where students might integrate growing and making food… we haven’t gotten very far.

But, the school’s responsibility to feed children I don’t think is paramount.  We’re not an under-privileged community.


Gleeson:  We continue to try to educate the students through all classes, not only health classes. One of the things I find funny is that we’re removing high-fructose corn syrup, but one of the biggest allergies out there is peanut butter.  We’re removing one thing, and yet that’s still out there… I’m not sure how that fits into the guidelines.


Schiavoni: The school should take a greater role in giving the students healthy options.  Students can bring in whatever they want from home; but, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to offer healthy choices that reflect the Wellness Policy.


Drugs on school campuses are a problem nationally, and there are those that believe Sag Harbor is no different. Do we have a problem with drugs on our campuses, and was the school overreacting when it approved bringing in drug-sniffing dogs?

Gleeson: I’m still looking into this issue. Schools differ. The problems at East Hampton and Ross may be different than ours. As far as the drug-sniffing dogs, it puts a bad taste in my mouth. Are we not doing a good job administrationally so that drugs are coming into our schools? We have to have more forums about it. We’ve seen some about the dogs, but I’d like to see more research.


Wilcoxen: The dogs are not the issue. The dogs are just one small piece of an attempt to address what we see as an increasing drug problem… we’re starting to see it in the middle school. The school board has actually asked the administration to incorporate greater resources in providing a coordinator for all programs that deal with substance abuse. It hasn’t been done; but, I can assure you that, if elected, if will be on the summer goals list.


Schiavoni: I don’t think we have a problem. I think we do have correct procedures in place should there be an event. As far as the dogs, if we don’t have a problem now and they’re just one more tool, then I’m all for it. The dogs are not targeting a student or a group of students; they’re not in there because we have a problem, they’re in there as one more [preventative] tool. I don’t think the school overreacted, I think it’s just one more step we’re taking to be proactive.


Board members have talked about the importance of involving more community members in discussions about the school and its campuses.  How do you plan to improve communication between the school and the community?


Wilcoxen: Six years ago we seemed to have a lack of communication or understanding with the public.  We spent two years opening up the process, [adding two public input portions during board meetings]—that seemed to help a lot—and we paid attention to answering questions right away.


I think the community can be part of the school to whatever degree they want.  The school board is open to participation; it has to be respective, non-accusatory and follow the norms of decent communication.  We’ve had ad hoc committees in the past, but people only seem to get involved if there’s a touchstone issue.


Gleeson: I think community outreach is vital.  This is everyone in the community’s school.  We have a tremendous resource in the community and sometimes we don’t use it as well [as we should].  That’s one of the nice things, as I said before, about my schedule.  I have time to sit and talk to community members, to find out what their needs are.


Schiavoni: The school does a good job of communicating with the community through email blasts, posting notices online and The Express, through paper mailings… We form community groups when we have an event that may affect the community as a whole.  The bigger problem is how do we get community members more involved?  I can’t force someone to go to a board meeting.


Negotiating with the unions has been contentious in the past. What will you do differently this year to ensure a successful bargaining process?


Gleeson: I think the process needs to start early. Part of the problem is the state mandates…. We need to have those mandates relaxed. I look at it so differently because when I started teaching, we didn’t make a lot so our benefits package was so important. But, the pendulum has swung. We also want to make sure we get the best quality teachers. The issue is a thorny one.


Wilcoxen: Teachers are so important, but the control the school has over how things get taught… once a teacher has tenure, it’s almost impossible to remove that teacher.


Gleeson: We have to look at the contract, look at how many periods a day teachers are teaching. Maybe we can increase the workload. We have to look at health insurance costs and what their actual salary is when we take benefits; we have to look carefully at how they fit in with society. The issue of tenure has been kicked around for years. Can you get rid of a bad teacher? Yes, but it takes time and energy. We forget that teachers give recommendations for tenure. We have to make sure no one’s getting tenure that doesn’t deserve it.


Wilcoxen: I don’t know [how to ensure effective communication with the teachers’ union], but we’re going to have to start investigating it. To go that long without having a sane conversation is incredible. We have to be very honest and show people what [teachers’ benefits] are actually costing.


Schiavoni: I think the process has to begin earlier, and there has to be constant communication between the administrators, the board and the union. We’ll send our proposal, they’ll send theirs; we’ll look at it, but there’s no immediate talk. I think there has to be a set time frame; if we can keep moving forward, keep discussions going, it will move discussions much quicker.


The following are questions from the community, as posed to Walter Wilcoxen and Tom Gleeson during last Thursday’s debate.

Do you support the two-percent tax cap?


Wilcoxen:  I support it.  I don’t like the way it’s done, but I support it.  There has to be some way to let people know that the increasing rate of taxes is important.  I also see no other way to bring the unions to the table and be responsive.


Gleeson:  I support the concept.  I think in today’s society two percent may be more difficult as we move forward because of the lack of funding for certain mandates.


How can we improve middle school academics?


Gleeson:  If there’s more articulation between elementary and middle school, I think that will help as we meet the common core mandate.


Wilcoxen: I agree, I think the common core is a good effort by the state to help us out.  But, one of the things that’s going to help the middle school is IB.  We’re first saying, what do we want our children to be like when they graduate?  Now, what do we have to do for middle schoolers and high schoolers to get there?


What does the board do with a bad teacher?


Wilcoxen: One of the most important things with the school board is we don’t determine what a bad teacher is.  There is a process that has been changed, it’s going to be easier to discipline a teacher, but we also have to understand that teachers have the same problems that the rest of us have. We need freedom and trust to help them. I would like to see the union step up.


Gleeson: It’s really an administrator’s job to monitor their teachers.  What’s the tool that determines what we should be doing?  Do we have a teacher-mentoring program?  What is the administrator doing to improve the teaching in the school?  What assistance are we giving?  Some teachers should not be teaching because they don’t like kids.  We need to monitor and mentor the other ones.


Do you think health benefits for staff should be reformed?

Gleeson:  I need to look at [benefits] more carefully.  I’m sure it needs to be improved, but I can’t answer specifically.


Wilcoxen:  We have to change the medical insurance system.  The union agreed that we were allowed to offer an alternative health plan, which had a lot of wellness parts to it… there was basically no interest because everyone has Empire, it’s what they know.  [Benefits] are going to have to be repaired everywhere, or the United States is going to go broke.


Gleeson: This is a nation-wide issue.  I had surgery and thank God I had Empire, otherwise it would have cost $300,000.


How can we continue to attract more students from other districts?

Wilcoxen: The immediate answer is IB.  We will have quite a few people interested in that.


Gleeson: I think quality programs, whether it’s IB or AP, doesn’t matter.  [My family] chose to come to Sag Harbor because of the quality of the art program.  We also do great programs outside the classroom, like robotics, and if we continue to do things that are quality programs we’ll attract more people.


Three Run For Two Open Seats on the Sag Harbor School Board

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By Claire Walla

There are two open seats on the Sag Harbor School Board this year, and current board members Walter Wilcoxen and Gregg Schiavoni are vying to keep them. However, a third contender has stepped in, making this election much more of a race.

Sag Harbor resident Tom Gleeson has been part of the Sag Harbor School District for the past five years. And this year, with his youngest daughter about to graduate from Pierson High School, he’s decided to make a run for the school board.

“Some people had asked me about running,” he said. “I come at things from a different perspective than some of the people on the school board now.”

Gleeson has a long history with the public school system, having been involved with every grade from kindergarten to 12th during his 33-year career, teaching history and philosophy, as well as physical education.

“For me, the most important part of education was always the kids,” he said.

While he’s not inclined to focus on any one issue just yet, saying that if he joins the board his first priority will be to learn the process, one issue Gleeson’s paid attention to in the past year is curriculum development.

It’s no secret that Gleeson was staunchly opposed to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program this year and last, when the board was still discussing the idea of bringing it into the district. Instead, he believed the district should have focused on developing a school-wide curriculum for all grade levels.

This is where he, Wilcoxen and Schiavoni differ.

“I basically want to continue supporting IB, make sure it gets instituted and gets a lot of support,” said Wilcoxen, former school board president who is running for his third term on the board.

Though the school board formally approved the district’s IB application this winter, Wilcoxen said implementing the program in the fall will require a lot of effort school-wide.

“I feel like the job’s not done,” he added.

The other issue Wilcoxen said he’d like to focus on is negotiating new teacher contracts.

“We need to come up with a new dynamic with the community,” he said. “I’d like everybody to be educated [on teachers’ salaries and benefits] so that we can discuss this from a place of knowledge, not this argumentative dynamic.”

Schiavoni, who was elected in the heat of teacher negotiations, agreed that the teachers’ contract discussions were crippling for the board.

“That took up an enormous amount of time,” he said. “It was a big stumbling block in terms of what we’ve been able to offer students.”

Schiavoni continued to say that his main impetus for running for his second term stems from the fact that the board has gained a lot of momentum since teachers’ contracts were finally settled.

Both he and Wilcoxen pointed to the board’s resolution to allow Pierson to move ahead with the IB program, as well as the implementation of a Pre-K program as very positive steps for the district.

“I feel like I owe it to the district to stay on,” said Schiavoni who currently has two kids in the district, both of them at Sag Harbor Elementary School.

Wilcoxen sent two children through the district, the younger of the two is just now finishing up college.

Gleeson retired from the public school system before moving to Sag Harbor and now works in the college admissions office at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in East Elmhurst, N.Y. He also consults with students here in Sag Harbor on the college admissions process.

“I think Gregg [Schiavoni] and Walter [Wilcoxen] have done a very nice job,” Gleeson said of his opponents. “But, sometimes there’s a need for a new voice.”

School Board Says “Yea” To Student Accident Insurance, Mascot

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Whales

By Claire Walla

For the past year, Sag Harbor School District has not carried a supplemental form of insurance known as student accident insurance. For some members of the Sag Harbor School Board, the program was not worth its cost to the district — some parents didn’t see high returns on their claims.

“It was more of a cost benefit issue,” recalled District Business Manager Janet Verneuille.

However, after hearing complaints from parents and concerns voiced by members of the school board, this week the board voted 4-3 to reinstate a new student accident insurance plan. School Board President Mary Anne Miller and board members Walter Wilcoxen and Gregg Schiavoni voted against reinstating the insurance plan.

After previously considering a few different options, the board ultimately decided to go with a company called Chartis, which carries an annual fee of approximately $45,765—or, $45 per student. There is also vanishing deductible of $250 with a two-year limit of benefit payments. The plan will go into effect as of July 1, 2012.

District Business Director Janet Verneuille reached out to neighboring school districts on the East End at the request of the board to find out whether or not they had student accident insurance. Seven responding districts — from Hampton Bays to Montauk — carried the insurance, Verneuille reported back. However, she said the prices were significantly lower elsewhere.

“I found the cost difficult to swallow,” admitted board member Chris Tice. However, she added, “I still go back to the point that, when you have students on your premises… there’s a lot that our health insurance doesn’t cover. It is very normal and expected that the school would have this insurance.”

“You open the door and there can be an accident,” said board member Sandi Kruel, a staunch supporter of student accident insurance.

Unlike liability insurance, which the school is required by law to carry, student accident insurance would kick-in for student injuries not thought to be connected to negligence on the part of the district.

Board member Gregg Schiavoni expressed some concern about voting for student accident insurance after the board had already voted to approve the proposed 2012-13 budget, as it would drive the cost of the budget up by nearly $46,000, treading dangerously close to the two-percent tax cap limit. Schiavoni wondered if the board should also consider cutting roughly $46,000 worth of expenses from the proposed budget.

However, Superintendent Dr. John Gratto added, “I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to take out anything in the budget.”

He went on to say that the budget had been very tightly whittled down to its current state and student accident insurance didn’t take top priority.

Instead, he said, “I would wait until the school year is underway and find something that we haven’t spent money on.”

Dr. Gratto pointed out that the school had made very conservative estimates in the budget regarding the number of transfer students expected to enter the district next year. Though revenues from the transfer student population could top $700,000, the budget only anticipates $400,000 in revenues, making anything over that amount surplus.


In other news…


The district voted to approve its traditional mascot: the whale.

But not just any old whale.

During a school board presentation last Monday, March 26, Dr. Gratto showed a collage of images showcasing nine different whale designs found throughout the village. Many Sag Harbor institutions — from Bagel Buoy and the Wharf Shop to the United Methodist Church and the signpost for Sag Harbor Hills — feature their own versions of the world’s largest mammal.

One rather jovial whale is portrayed standing upright and sticking its tongue out, seemingly in the midst of dancing a jig — this is not the sea creature that will come to represent Pierson.

The board made very clear that the Pierson Whalers will be represented by some version of the whale currently gracing the wall of the Pierson Gym.

“It’s the spirit of this whale,” clarified board member Chris Tice.

She further noted that the final whale image — which will ultimately be used as the official emblem of the school for promotional materials, like t-shirts, letterhead and the school website — can be tweaked a bit so that its outline will be displayed to its full potential in all formats.

Sag School Board Approves $34 Million Budget

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By Claire Walla

Pulling no surprises, the Sag Harbor Board of Education voted on Monday, March 26 to approve the district’s proposed $34 million budget for the 2012-2013 school year.

“I want to thank the district for all its hard work,” said board member Chris Tice. Because this is the first year the district has had to make allowances for the state-imposed two-percent tax-levy cap, Tice said the budget process “was particularly rigorous this year.”

Passed by Congress last spring, tax cap legislation has caused most school districts across the state to search for ways of trimming expenditures—Sag Harbor not excluded.

With the rising cost of health insurance and increases for teachers’ retirement plans to contend with, the Sag Harbor School District ended up with a proposed budget up 2.88 percent from this year’s operating budget, which represents only a 1.94 percent tax-levy increase.

According to the district’s budget presentations, Sag Harbor has managed to maintain a budget that keeps all programs in place thanks to significant savings in several key areas.

According to numbers compiled by Dr. Lisa Scheffer, the district’s director of pupil personnel services, the special education department has shed nearly $500,000 in expenses, which is reflected in next year’s budget. The decrease is due to program changes, including the elimination this year of three staff members.

The school has also seen nearly $400,000 in savings from the district business office, as well as $60,000 in savings in transportation. While the budget calls for $500,000 of the district’s fund balance to be put toward energy conservation measures, District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto pointed out that there will be a bond measure tied to the budget vote in May that—if passed—is estimated to generate significant savings for the district.

Proposition #2 would allow the school to purchase six busses at a cost of $575,000. The district estimates that by bringing transportation costs in-house, it will be able to save roughly $170,000 over the next seven years.

However, while the district was able to squeeze the budget beneath the tax cap this year, school board member Walter Wilcoxen expressed some trepidation about the future.

“You’ve taken so much slack out of the budget it’s laudable,” he began. “But, down the road, how are we going to get the big nut? The problem is, I don’t’ see any major change coming. And that creates some discomfort.”

What Wilcoxen was referring to, specifically, were labor negotiations.

According to Verneuille, teachers’ retirement benefits have not yet been quantified for the coming school year, but last year health expenses went up 13.5 percent. And with a two-percent tax levy cap in the mix, expenditures will inevitably outpace revenues. In other words, the school will eventually be forced to look at ways of cutting costs more dramatically.

“You’re absolutely right, the driver of our budget is labor costs,” Dr. Gratto responded. But, he said the situation might not be so grim. Later that evening, the school board voted to approve bus-driver salaries, which had been negotiated down from its 3.5-percent raise this year to a two-percent raise for next year, with no step increases.

“I think what you’re seeing is a trend,” Gratto added.

Though good news, board members seemed to sympathize with Wilcoxen’s less-than-enthusiastic response.

“This is sort of like the fly on the tail of an elephant,” he joked. “But, at least it’s a start.”

The budget vote will be Tuesday, May 15 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Pierson High School Gym. Should the budget not pass by simple majority, the district would go to its contingency budget, which would strip $551,510 from the proposed budget, which—according to the district—would eliminate the $500,000 set aside for building improvement projects off-the-bat.

Board Divided Over Supplemental Accident Insurance

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By Claire Walla

Ever since the need for student accident insurance was brought into question last year, it has been a hotly debated item among Sag Harbor School Board members.

Last year, the board voted to eliminate the service (which is not required by law). However, at the urging of some Pierson parents, the school has been asked to reinstate it.

Student accident insurance is a policy that provides limited coverage if a child is injured while at school or during a school activity.  This is different from liability insurance — which the school is required to carry — which would cover the cost of a lawsuit if it was ruled there was negligence on the part of the district.

“We are the owners of the biggest house in the community,” said school board member Sandi Kruel. “We open up our door every single day and we have high-risk activities. For us not to protect ourselves and the children is totally appalling to me.”

At a school board meeting on Monday, January 6, the district’s director of business operations, Janet Verneuille, presented six student accident insurance plans for the board to consider, only two of which she said were viable. A company called Chartis offers one option at $46,453 per year, while Pupil Benefits — the company the school district used up until last year — is $39,521.

According to Verneuille, the problem with Pupil Benefits had to do with “reasonable and customary” costs, which are the costs the insurance company itself determines for a medical procedure. If a family doesn’t have medical insurance, student accident insurance will gauge the amount of money it pays for services based on these “reasonable and customary” estimates.

Because medical expenses are relatively high on the East End, Verneuille said the correlation between the two left many families without much of a financial return.

“The cost benefit wasn’t there,” she said.

Board member Walter Wilcoxen noted that issues surrounding Pupil Benefits arose when a parent in the school district complained of receiving only $300 back on a $3,000 medical bill.

However, board member Chris Tice said that discrepancy was not always true.

“I’ve heard from parents who said they benefited [from student accident insurance],” she said. “Not everyone who filed claims was dissatisfied.”

Plus, she added that student accident insurance could be helpful for those families that don’t currently have health insurance.

“How is that the responsibility of the district as a whole?” Wilcoxen countered. “The primary question is whether or not it’s our obligation to do this. I think it’s the parents’ obligation to provide health care for their children.

Plus, he continued, “For what you’re getting back, it’s not worth it.”

Board member Gregg Schiavoni agreed.

“I think it’s a perk if we carry it,” he stated. “But, for what it’s costing the district to carry this insurance, the payout isn’t worth it. We’re barely under the tax cap. If we want this policy, we’ll have to make cuts to stay under the cap.”

Kruel noted that student accident insurance would come out at about $45 per student, which she said was “miniscule” in the grand scheme of things, considering the school’s budget is currently proposed to come out to $35 million.

She added, “If the bus proposition passes, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars to play with.”

(Part of the 2012-2013 budget presentation included a proposal for the district to purchase six new buses, which Verneuille estimated would save the district up to $1 million over the next 10 years.)

By the end of the meeting, the board was not ready to make any decisions as to whether or not to adopt a new student accident insurance plan until finding out what the “reasonable and customary” rates would be for both Chartis and Pupil Benefits. Verneuille said she would reach out to the insurance companies and try to provide updates at the board’s next business meeting.

In other news…

The Sag Harbor School Board approved plans to tear out the existing maple-wood floor in the Sag Harbor Elementary School gymnasium and replace it with a rubber material called “pulastic.”

According to Principal Matt Malone, a thin layer of concrete beneath the current wood floor cracked because of a steam leak from a pipe beneath the gymnasium. This ultimately caused a portion of the wooden surface to “bubble up,” he said.

“Some of that same problem, though to a lesser scale, has been detected in other segments of the floor,” he explained.

Malone and the district’s buildings and grounds director, Montgomery Granger, said the pipes have been repaired. But the floor — which is relatively new, having been paid for by a bond resolution in 2008 — definitely needs replacing.

District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the floor will be replaced at no cost to tax payers because it is considered a defect and is covered by the school’s insurance.

While several board members lamented the loss of the gym’s relatively new maple flooring, Malone said the Pulastic surface is more durable and easier to maintain than the maple wood.

“Every day we have about 500 people coming into the gym for morning program,” Malone added. “That wear and tear is something that’s been problematic for a long time.”

As for the timeline of the project, Dr. Gratto said construction can begin as soon as next week and run through winter vacation. The goal, he added, is for the school ”to open up on the 27th with a new gym floor.”

Pierson/Bay Street Meeting Sparks More Conversation, Draws No Conclusions

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By Claire Walla


Finally, the two boards came to the same table.

On Tuesday, January 31, school officials and Bay Street Theatre board members held a meeting on the Pierson Middle/High School campus to discuss the potential for a collaboration between the two. The idea of the Bay Street Theatre collaborating with the Sag Harbor School District to create a new theater venue has been floated for a few years. And with Bay Street’s impending move from its current location on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, discussions have been spurred with greater urgency in the last few weeks.

The dialogue oscillated in scope for much of the two-hour meeting, wavering back and forth between small details (like whether it’s possible to obtain a liquor license on a school campus since Bay Street serves alcohol), and larger ideas, such as the school and theater working together to build an entirely new performing arts center in Sag Harbor.

But, while no board member on either side of the aisle completely put the kibosh on the potential for collaboration, there were aspects of this hypothetical partnership that raised red flags for both.

“I don’t want to throw any cold water on the issue, but I can’t possibly see how [an independent theater] can be in this school district, in this area,” school board member Walter Wilcoxen said.

Based on a memo the school district received from its attorney, Tom Volz, Wilcoxen pointed out some of the smaller issues, like limited parking and storage capacity.

But Tracy Mitchell, Bay Street Theatre’s executive director, expressed some concerns with the overall picture.

“One of the biggest issues for us, from a creative perspective, is we need to be able to have complete control over what we produce,” she said.

Though Mitchell and the theater’s creative director, Murphy Davis, assured the school that no expletives would be used on any signage related to the theater, some of the theater’s productions can be a bit, well, “racy.”

While Davis said there are elements to what Bay Street does now that could shift to conform to a different production model — for example, the theater could stop selling alcohol if it managed to secure other revenue sources — creative freedom is non-negotiable.

“We can do some pretty racy content,” he continued. “It’s imperative that we don’t feel hemmed in by that.”

Then there’s the time frame.

At best, school superintendent Dr. John Gratto said the process would take three years to complete. (Later, he explained that the time frame would more realistically take up to five years.) It would take six months for the school’s architect to draw-up a new design and then for the state education department to review the plans, another three months for the school to bid the project, then at least a year to construct the building.

“We’re talking two years after voter approval,” he continued. “And voters would have to approve such a project.”

The district’s current design for a 415-seat theater comes in at an estimated $12 million. Even if private funds were used for the project, Dr. Gratto said state aid would still kick-in for 10 percent of the cost, but that would trigger the need to put the project up to a vote.

Mitchell said the theater has a certain degree of flexibility for discussing future plans because it’s not scheduled to leave its current space until spring of 2013.

“The board would be able to back us renewing our current lease if we were working toward a pre-approved plan,” she said. “But, what we can’t do is say it’s going to take us another year to figure out whether we can get through these hurdles, and in the process lose all our other options.”

According to Mitchell, the theater is actively pursuing all possible options, including in Sag Harbor the Schiavoni property on Jermain Avenue, the National Grid lot on Long Island Avenue, the Sag Harbor Cinema, and in Southampton Village the soon-to-be vacant Parrish Art Museum space on Jobs Lane. At this point, Mitchell said the theater has put together several committees to further explore these options.

“It doesn’t sound like [the school] is going to be at the forefront,” Davis stated at the end of the meeting. Besides issues of parking, storage space and creative control, he said the time frame doesn’t seem viable.

“Just what I’m hearing tonight, it makes me uncomfortable that we’re going to have to wait,” he said.

And while nestling into the Pierson campus may seem like a dream sequence too riddled with legal complications to become a reality, school board members were energized by the idea of a potential collaboration off-campus.

Dr. Gratto directed interests to the piece of empty land directly across the street from Pierson, at the intersection of Division and Marsden streets, where the Trunzo family owns four parcels. According to community member John Landes, who’s already investigated the site, the cost would roughly total $4 million — just to purchase the land.

As for the overall idea of collaboration, Bay Street Board Member Robbie Stein said, “When you look at it, there are a lot of problems. But, on some level, starting this dialogue is bringing to the community the idea of: is there a place for arts in the community?”

The Bay Street Board will meet again next week to further discuss all its options.

School Reconsiders Liability Insurance

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By Claire Walla


If your child injures his elbow after school on one of the campuses of the Sag Harbor School District and has to be hospitalized, you will have to pay the hospital bills on your own. That’s what the situation is now, anyway.

But, the topic of liability insurance is being revisited by the Sag Harbor School Board after parent Evelynne Ramunno criticized the board for doing away with its liability insurance plan at the tail end of the last academic year. At a school board meeting on Monday, Ramunno said her son had been injured during the after-school SHAEP program so badly he needed to go to the hospital to get pins put in his elbow. Only when she contacted the school to get coverage for the incident did she find out that the plan had been cancelled.

“I’m a mother of two and I need the SHAEP program,” she said. “But, if I was aware the school did not have insurance, I might not have sent my son to the SHAEP program.”

The board of education voted last year to cancel its liability insurance plan with Pupil Benefits because, as School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto noted, “it was an expense the board deemed unwarranted.”

The reasoning behind the decision, according to School Board President Mary Anne Miller, is that the insurance plan was flawed.

“We had dissatisfaction from parents who used it because it wasn’t paying back what was hoped for,” she said. “Also, we felt that families who were not insured would be better served going through [state] programs like Child Health Plus.”

The program cost the district about $22,000, and as board members explained, it often did not cover much. District Treasurer Janet Verneuille said she priced out similar programs at other schools, and found they ranged from $6,700 (for the Tuckahoe School District) to $37,00 (for Hampton Bays).

Last year, board members agreed the school was spending money for a program that was hardly effective. However, the board has agreed to look at other options for taking on an entirely new liability insurance program. Verneuille said she would have some options by the end of the month.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” said board member Sandi Kruel. “To not have it is irresponsible.”


In other news…


After fighting to give the Sag Harbor School District the chance to look at alternatives to its costly insurance program with the New York State Health Insurance Program, Tom Morrissey of Morrissey Advisory Services was noticeably disheartened by the final results.

In order to explore alternative health options that would match the benefits offered through the Empire Plan, but at a lower cost to the school, Morrissey first needed teachers to answer “a simple form online” with basic questions about their health. In the end, he said only 37 of 209 eligible teachers completed the form.

“I don’t think we got the responsiveness we needed,” Morrissey told the school board. “I thought 17 percent was pretty pathetic.”

By switching to a new plan, Morrissey said the school could save at least $300,000. And while exploring alternative health insurance options is now a moot point, he said he would continue to work with the school to try to replace Empire entirely.

“Our efforts don’t stop here,” he said. “We volunteer to do this because we have students in the school and we want to help. You have skyrocketing health care costs,” he added. “We’ve been dealing with double digit rate increases for some time now. I know for certain that the 209 people eligible here could have significantly lower premium numbers [with another plan].”


On Monday, the Sag Harbor School Board also heard from members of the school’s new Booster Club, who detailed the list of events coming up for the not-for-profit fundraising organization.

According to the group’s president, Robert Evjen, the club will hold its Winter Spirit Night on January 27 during the boys’ basketball game in the Pierson Gym. The festivities would include performances by the Pierson choir and elementary school singers, a demonstration from the robotics team, a half-court shooting contest and banners made by Pierson art students.

Also, on February 11 (the night of HarborFrost), the Booster Club will hold a fundraising event at B. Smith’s. The $25 event ($30 at the door) will include a quiz bowl, dinner and raffle.