Tag Archive | "walter wilcoxen"

Pierson May Bring On the Dogs

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By Claire Walla


Before the end of this school year, it’s quite possible the Sag Harbor School District will bring drug-sniffing dogs onto the Pierson campus.

“For years I was hesitant to pursue this angle, but I’m more inclined to do this now,” said Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols, who took a hard-lined stance against bringing drug-sniffing dogs onto the campus as recently as last fall. “I don’t want to say there are more incidents than in the past, though there have already been a few incidents this year,” he explained.

According to Sag Harbor Village Police Officer Paul Fabiano, there has only been one reported incident of marijuana possession on the Pierson campus since September 2011. The event involved a 14-year-old student. However, Fabiano said not all campus incidents get reported.

Nichols continued, “I know the harm [in bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus] is in saying to the students that we don’t trust them; but, making sure drugs are not on this campus outweighs the trust factor.”

All board members, including those who were previously on the fence on the issue, seemed to support the notion of bringing drug-sniffing dogs on campus. And school superintendent, Dr. John Gratto, introduced a school policy on the topic.

According to a draft of the policy read at a school board meeting on Monday, “The Superintendent of Schools is authorized by the Board of Education to utilize dogs, which are trained to detect illegal drugs. The superintendent and high school principal are designated as the contact persons and they will determine if, and when, and how often a police agency’s ‘drug dogs’ will be called to school property.”

What’s more, the presence of drug-sniffing dogs would not be announced prior to their arrival. And the policy goes on to say that the dogs would be active on the campus while students were in classrooms, and the dogs would not be permitted to “sniff search” the students themselves.

While board member Water Wilcoxen pointed out that it’s within both Nichols’ and Dr. Gratto’s power to bring drug-sniffing dogs to the campus without a formal vote from the board and without an official policy, Nichols indicated that he wanted to make certain he had the full backing from the board and the superintendent before proceeding with any plans.

“This is a big step,” said Nichols. “I would not want to move forward with this unless I knew that the superintendent and the board were ok with it.”

Part of the supporting materials behind the motivation to crack down on substance abuse in the district includes results from the Sag Harbor School District Survey which was administered earlier this school year to students, parents and teachers.

According to those results, 71 percent of Pierson students agreed with the statement: “Students in my school use drugs and alcohol.” And 39 percent of those who responded said they had witnessed students consuming alcohol and/or using drugs on school grounds.

Overall, 57 percent of Pierson students either agreed or strongly agreed that drug and alcohol abuse is a problem for students in the Sag Harbor School District. But, that figure rose to 69 percent when it came to the teachers’ responses to that same question.

Dr. Gratto and various board members referred to the survey to further illustrate the problems with substance abuse that have found their way to Pierson, but Dr. Gratto was careful to note that the survey results are not perfect and do not necessarily reflect the community as a whole. (To their credit, he said, 87 percent of all students actually took the poll, but only 23 percent of teachers and TAs responded.)

Teacher Peter Solow cautioned the school against following through with actions based on results culled from these surveys, which he called “imperfect instruments.”

“I’m not denying there’s an issue here,” he declared. “But I don’t think any policy should be based on inaccurate or anecdotal information. I don’t know the extent of the problem, but I know it’s relatively serious. And I don’t know about the drug-sniffing dog thing, but that’s got to be a little piece of a bigger comprehensive plan.”

School Board President Mary Anne Miller told Solow that the school district already has a comprehensive plan to address issues of alcohol abuse and prevention.

“It’s working, but it’s not working to the degree any of us are comfortable with,” she explained. “There’s still a problem. How many more times do we have to catch kids before we solve it?

“We need to look into bringing in a parent seminar immediately,” Miller continued. “That has to be done almost twice a year. I know these things cost money, but we should try to come back with a game plan.”

According to Nichols, the school needs a multi-pronged approach that is not limited to drug-sniffing dogs. In addition to taking a serious approach to eliminating substance abuse on campus, Nichols echoed Miller’s sentiments and mentioned that preventative measures must move beyond the classroom, even beyond the walls of the school.

“We have kids for seven hours out of a 24-hour day,” he began, alluding to the fact that students often develop habits and behaviors at home, or else off school grounds. “There are instances that are indigenous to our community.”

“We’re a resort community and we have some specific challenges,” he added.

Namely, Nichols said, the presence and availability of both alcohol and drugs are prevalent.

Wilcoxen agreed, and added that education needs to involve parents, as well as students. “You tell your child not to drink alcohol and drive, but how many parents get in the car after drinking, and their kids see them? It’s the same thing with dope. How are we going to reach out and help this? All I know is we haven’t done a very good job.”

Board member Sandi Kruel said she was in favor of utilizing drug-sniffing dogs when she previously served on the board five years ago. But now, especially with backing from Nichols who had previously been a staunch opponent, she said it’s imperative.

With a 20-year-old and a 16-year-old son, Kruel went on to say that she’s often privy to information about parties where there is underage drinking.

“I myself have gone to the police station to get the cops to help close down parties,” she said. “We have a problem. And if it takes this to help stop it, I say get the dog treats ready.”

School Board Update: Budget Talks Begin

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By Claire Walla

Last week marked the beginning of budget season for the Sag Harbor School Board, and the start of budget workshop meetings led by the district’s director of business operations Janet Verneuille.

On Monday, January 10 Verneuille reviewed the district’s budget analysis for the current 2010-2011 school year in comparison to the last five years.

The current budget, which sits at $31,500,811, is an increase of about $4 million over the operating budget of 2006-2007.

Budget figures have not yet been release for the 2011-2012 school year, however, regardless of whether or not the school’s operating budget climbs, Verneuille said the school will need to raise taxes about seven percent in order to maintain operations at their current level.

Last year, Sag Harbor Village residents saw their largest tax levy increase in five years. The figure shot up from 2.07 percent in 06-07 to 12 percent last year.

As it stands, the district is working with an open fund balance of $308,015, a number that sits nearly $250,000 higher than the fund balance the district had to work with for the 2010-2011 school year.

Though the district’s fund balance saw a significant increase since the 09-10 school year, it represents a little less than one percent of the district’s total expenditures, which is two percentage points lower than the State Board of Education recommends.

The next budget workshop will take place at 6 p.m. on January 24 in the Pierson Middle/High School library, when the topics discussed will be buildings and grounds, and athletics.


In other news…


School superintendent Dr. John Gratto announced last Monday, January 11 a new policy that the Sag Harbor School District will adopt regarding teacher tenure.

“You have an excellent school system when you have excellent teachers,” he told the board adding the new policy outlines the district’s definition of “excellence” when deciding whether or not to grant teachers tenure.

“I put this to paper for two reasons,” Dr. Gratto continued.  “It is symbolic.  But, beyond symbolism, it makes it very clear what a teacher must do to be excellent,” which, he argued, makes it much easier for teachers to achieve that goal.

Both board members Dan Hartnett and Chris Tice applauded the new policy, calling it “very well written.”

Dr. Gratto also unveiled next year’s school calendar.  School board president Walter Wilcoxen wondered whether the school year could be extended past June 22 (the proposed end date) to accommodate two extra vacation days mid-year.  Wilcoxen noted that the board had to approve an additional extension this year for students who went on the annual trip to Hawaii.  Because it was an added extension, it had the negative effect of watering down classroom activity for those students not on the trip.

“It just seems the only way to teach more is to get a longer school year,” he said.

In the end, the board approved next year’s school calendar.


Grounds supervisor Montgomery Granger brought up a new Shared-Use Facilities Procedure, which will charge groups outside the Sag Harbor School District a fee for using school facilities.  Organizations with over 51 percent of participants in the Sag Harbor School District would not be charged.

“I would like to discuss the for-profit breakdown,” said Wilcoxen.  “My thought is that if it’s a for-profit group, it should be charged the same as an out-of-district group.”

Several board members agreed, though this issue will be further discussed at a later meeting.

Discussion Starts on Future of Education

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By Claire Walla
In the Sag Harbor Elementary School gym, many speakers ran past their three-minute limit and the event spilled into over-time. But since the goal of the Education Forum held last Wednesday, December 8 was to bring a diverse range of voices from the community together to discuss the future of education in Sag Harbor, it would seem the event was a success.

The forum attracted nearly 90 people for just over two hours of public comments ranging from specific topics like implementing a gifted and talented program at the elementary school; to broader ideas, such as making the district more competitive in a global context; and even serious concerns, like making more of an effort to reach out to Sag Harbor’s Latino community.

Forum organizer and former Pierson High School principal Bob Schneider said the forum went very well, for its first run.
“I appreciated that there wasn’t a lot of criticism of the school district,” he said.

Although, in the interest of time, not every person who wished to speak had the opportunity to do so, Schneider added that school board president and forum co-organizer Walter Wilcoxen has received emails and index cards with as yet unvoiced comments. “These will be addressed at the next forum,” he added.

It was parent Leah Oppenheimer who first raised the issue of reaching out to the Latino population who, she said, make up 18 percent of the G.D.P. on Long Island. She expressed concern that Sag Harbor’s Latino families are not given the opportunity to learn about their cultural traditions, and many children are not coming to kindergarten with enough preparation because they aren’t able to afford the pre-schools in the area.

As a social worker in East Hampton who works with many Latino families, school board member Dan Hartnett echoed this sentiment. He also commented on the importance of the International Baccalaureate program, which Pierson Middle/High School Principal Jeff Nichols is investigating for next school year.

The idea of evolving the Sag Harbor curriculum is one that was touted by many who spoke at the forum. While Pierson senior Max Moyer thanked every one of his teachers for doing a great job, he expressed frustration that, often, times the scope of his school work does not leave the four walls of the classroom.

“It does not get to a state, a global or a national level,” he said.
Community member Chuck Neuman, who said he went through a baccalaureate program as a child in Germany, emphasized the need for rigor at the school.

“It has to be tough and it has to be demanding,” he said. “I went through six years of boot camp.”

Several parents, including Alison Scanlon, spoke of the need for classes on all grade levels to put more time and effort into developing reading and writing skills. Scanlon spoke of a school in Rockton High School in Massachusetts, which at one time had a drop-out rate of one in three students.

“Decades ago it was a case study in failure,” she said.
But after organizing a school-wide campaign to incorporate reading and writing into every single class, including gym, Scanlon said the school went on to out-perform 90 percent of high schools in the state.
“And it doesn’t cost a thing,” she added.

The need for ecological programs, as well as health and wellness initiatives, was brought up by teacher Kryn Olson who said she wanted to focus on developing more energy efficient techniques within science courses. Similarly, Eco-Walk creator and parent Ed Bruehl and parent Barbara Kinnier of the Wellness Foundation of East Hampton were passionate about increasing health and wellness within the district.

While Bruehl mentioned his desire to form a committee of parents who might work together to tap into the fresh food sources available here on the East End, Kinnier spoke about further improving the district’s approach to nutrition. She lauded the school’s efforts to incorporate organic milk and healthy vending machine options.

But, she added, “It breaks my heart to hear that we have Pop Tarts in the vending machine because it keeps us out of the red.”
Technology was another hot-button issue, prompting many parents to address the lack of adequate options at the school.
“We’re a very low-tech/no-tech school,” said parent Gay Snow. “It’s time we start introducing laptops and computers.”

Snow added that she wants the board of education to approve a foundation so that parents can start soliciting corporations for grant money and donations. She added that the school should do “anything to help educate and simulate kids in the district,” including appealing to corporations, “because that’s what the times require.”

Speakers differed on the scope of the education problems afflicting the district, some blaming national issues and some blaming problems closer to home. But, most audience members seemed to agree with what teacher Peter Solow had to say at the end of the night.

“We’re not going to change the education system [in the country],” he said. “But one of the students that goes to this school may in fact change the world.”

While the event brought a good-sized crowd to the elementary school, both Schneider and Wilcoxen said they’d like to see more people at the next forum on January 12. Wilcoxen added that although there were 10 teachers at Wednesday’s event, he wished there had been more. Wilcoxen also said he was surprised that the science and math curriculum was not mentioned during the forum, but there’s always next time.
And Schneider noted that for the next forum he and Wilcoxen will specifically try to do more outreach to members of Sag Harbor’s Latino community.

For the next meeting on January 12, half the time will be devoted to comments that were not heard at last Wednesday’s meeting (all will be limited to three minutes), and the rest of the time will be devoted to small group discussions centered on eight umbrella topics: Enrichment, Careers/College Prep, Technology, Reading and Writing, Ecology (including health and wellness), Pre-K, Communication and Curriculum Enhancement. Each group will be moderated by a teacher, administrator, school board or community member.

Forum on Education Hopes to Get Direction From the Community

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By Claire Walla

“What do we want to be as a school?” asked former Pierson Principal Bob Schneider. It was a rhetorical question, but it’s one he’s hoping to answer. And soon.

In fact, he added, it’s an important question for everyone in the Sag Harbor community to ask, from teachers and students to parents and tax payers. And it’s at the crux of the forum he and Sag Harbor School Board President Walter Wilcoxen have organized at Pierson High School this Wednesday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m.

At a time when the state of education in New York and across the country is being questioned, and, as Wilcoxen mentioned, students are being challenged more and more to compete on an international scale, Schneider and Wilcoxen have organized this forum to address educational concerns and, together with all facets of the Sag Harbor community, work to fix them.

The idea is two-fold, combining public concerns with fact-finding missions aimed at educating everyone involved, and ultimately helping the school district to make well-informed decisions about the future of education here in Sag Harbor.

To spark conversation, Schneider and Wilcoxen imagine the first meeting as a time for community members to voice any and all concerns they have, so long as they involve what they think the future of education in Sag Harbor ought to look like. Each speaker will have about three minutes to speak.

Once all the issues are on the table, Schneider and Wilcoxen will collate the information and determine roughly six umbrella topics to discuss.
Schneider elaborated: “For example, I would say [before the group] that what we need is a problem-solving, creative curriculum as opposed to a curriculum that emphasizes knowledge of factoids. And if enough people expressed concern over this same issue, it would be a topic of investigation, or research.”

A research group, he added, might be composed of a teacher and a couple of community members who are interested in that particular topic and—more importantly—are committed to taking the time to investigate that issue.

“The group would take a look at how you measure achievement in that area; then, at some point, we’d make a recommendation to the board of education.”

Wilcoxen said he and Schneider have reached out to members of the school and the community at large, including Superintendent Dr. John Gratto.

Dr. Gratto said that 90 percent of the ideas that have gone into crafting this forum come from Schneider and Wilcoxen; but, he added, he shared some feedback of his own, namely “that we need to make sure that all interested parties are involved, particularly the teachers.” Schneider and Wilcoxen got the PTA and PTSA on board, and Dr. Gratto sent an announcement to the heads of around 25 organizations in the community, including local government officials and grass-roots organizations like Save Sag Harbor.

The biggest hope the superintendent has for the forum is that there’s a clear consensus from the public about what they would like to see the district accomplish.

“The district has limited funds and, likewise, people are about saturated with their willingness to pay taxes,” he said. But, if the district knows what they want and don’t want, he added, then it can make decisions to improve services without imposing unnecessary costs.

According to Wilcoxen, the school’s five-year plan calls for about a seven percent tax increase each year, which means that in order to operate the school as is without added costs, town taxes would have to double in the next 10 years. Though Dr. Gratto said he this figure isn’t set in stone and, in fact, he hopes it’s wrong, the fact remains that the district is currently strapped for cash.

“The budget constraints are so incredibly pervasive, we want to get to the level of actually budgeting things,” Wilcoxen said. “This [forum] is a way to check in, get a healthy debate going and get fact-based answers” before actually dealing with the budget.

The other component to the public discussion is public access to information. Wilcoxen has created a website, www.educationforumsagharbor.com, which welcomes visitors with the words, “You are invited to participate in public deliberation of the future of community based education in Sag Harbor.”

The website includes relevant articles and recent findings based on education issues on a local and on a national level, but it will also track the progress of the forums, charting discussion topics and reporting study group findings.

In addition, those community members who cannot make it to the actual discussion session will be able to view and / or listen to the session online. Wilcoxen said that Pierson students will record each session for the Web.

In addition to Schneider and Wilcoxen, Dr. Gratto, Principals Nichols and Malone, as well as the presidents of the Sag Harbor PTA and the PTSA will sit before the crowd of people, but not necessarily in seats of power; they will be there mostly so that participants will have someone to address when speaking.

Though only Schneider and Wilcoxen are confirmed moderators the first meeting, Wilcoxen confirms they will in no way create or sway discussions. “It’s not about us,” he said. “We’ve had our say.”

As Dr. Gratto mentioned, Schneider and Wilcoxen hope these discussions can generate some consensus within the community before these issues are tackled by the board, and ultimately by the district.
“[The point is] not to think of this as a school board function,” Wilcoxen added, “because the community is running the show and making the consensus-based decisions.”

In addition to the first meeting on December 8 in the Pierson library, another forum in scheduled for January 12. Wilcoxen said he and Schneider imagine around two additions forums to take place before the end of the year.

“We want to demonstrate that we’re serious about getting something done,” Schneider added.

School Hopes to End 2010 with $625,000 Surplus

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Despite closing the 2008-2009 fiscal year with a $362,000 shortfall, officials with the Sag Harbor School District seem certain the district will be able to close out the 2009-2010 books with $625,000 in unreserved fundbalance, or surplus monies. During an interview on Tuesday afternoon with the press, superintendent Dr. John Gratto said $505,000 carried over from the last school year will likely remained untouched this year and will remain in the surplus fund for the district. As the board attempts to operate with leaner reserves, Dr.Gratto said the district expects to save $100,000 through a budget freeze, $160,000 from transportation costs, and $300,000 from a decreased need in services provided byBOCES . According to the district’s business manager Len Bernard, $625,000 will account for around 2.2 percent of this years budget. Although the state allows for schools to carry up to four percent of the budget in unreserved fundbalance into the next fiscal year, Bernard said keeping two to three percent in undesignated surplus is appropriate for a district the size of Sag Harbor.
Dr. John Gratto stated that the unanticipated expenses in the 2008-2009 budget, including $200,000 for tuition at the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, $360,000 for potential retroactive pay, and around $200,000 in other overspent line items, would have been further exacerbated had it not been for savings accrued over the year.The savings included eliminating positions in the school lunch program and the business office, switching telephone companies, and renegotiating special education contracts.
Although the district received positive feedback in several areas from their independent auditor Coughlin, Foundotos, Cullen and Danowski, LLP, the audit for 2008-2009 pointed out several areas of improvement. The auditors noted that some transfers “took place after the appropriation had beenover-expended ” and recommended that the district make budget transfers before over spending occurs. In addition, school board president WalterWilcoxen noted on Tuesday that the board will approve almost all transfers. Previously, the board only examined transfers over $10,000.

School Finds $360,000 Hole; Also Bernard Moves on to East Hampton Town

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web Len Bernard 1

With the Sag Harbor School District already grappling with a challenging budget year, independent auditor Jill Sanders visited the school board on Monday evening to reveal a $360,000 shortfall in the 2008-2009 budget. In addition the board members recently learned they must also find a replacement for Len Bernard, the district’s business manager. In an interview on Wednesday, Bernard revealed he will resign his position with the school district in order to take a financial job in East Hampton Town government.

During his tenure in the Sag Harbor School District, Bernard said he enacted several accounting controls based on recommendations made by the district’s audit firm Coughlin, Foundotos, Cullen & Danowski, LLP. Sanders, an independent auditor with the company, mentioned these improvements at a board of education meeting on Monday. Sanders was at the meeting to present the results of the 2008-2009 audit.

“I am pleased to render an unqualified opinion, which is the highest level of assurance,” announced Sanders at the meeting.

She added though, the board closed out the 2008-2009 fiscal year with a $362,000 shortfall due to unforeseen expenses. The district covered these expenses with undesignated surplus funds. By the end of the last school year, the district’s undesignated fund balence was precariously low at $65,818.

School superintendent Dr. John Gratto and Bernard attributed this shortfall to unexpected costs. The district had budgeted to send six students to the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, a charter school offering special education classes, but ultimately 10 children from Sag Harbor attended the school. Bernard said this increased out-of-district tuition expenses by around $200,000. In addition, the district overspent their budget for legal fees by $50,000 because of the ongoing teacher negotiations. Close to $30,000 had to be paid in unbudgeted overtime for the janatorial staff. Bernard added the district’s health insurance rates also increased at the beginning of January 2009, which exacerbated the over spending.

On a separate note, the auditors suggested the board increase the money set aside for potential staff raises (or accrued liabilities) to $388,785 for payments on renegotiated contracts. The board had originally funded salaries in 2008-2009 to reflect a one percent raise for the teachers, which was the offer on the table at the time. Subsequently, the board has offered the teachers a 2.5 percent annual salary increase, though the Teacher’s Association of Sag Harbor is seeking a 3.9 percent increase. Based on the recent recommendations by an independent fact finder, the auditors suggested the board prepare for a three percent salary increase, taking into account the fact pay raises would be retroactive to 2008.

Dr. Gratto said the $360,000 which would cover those potential three pecent raises will be derived from $505,000 in unreserved surplus that was moved from last fiscal year into this year’s budget.

Though the money is being set aside, Dr. Gratto cautioned this doesn’t obligate the board to amend their contract offer to TASH.

“Say you have $10,000 to buy a car, but you might find an $8,000 car that serves you better. You surely aren’t obligated to spend [the rest of the money],” said Dr. Gratto, by way of example. He added that money in this account not spent would be redirected to the surplus and could offset the school tax increase.

The state allows school districts to retain a maximum of four percent of their total annual budget for a fund balance, or rainy day fund. Bernard noted the current school board has sought to pare down the district’s fund balance so that it falls within state guidelines. In previous years, the surplus was larger to provide a substantial financial cushion for the district. For example, the 2005-2006 budget year ended with a fund balance of $3.8 million (or roughly 16 percent) out of a $24 million budget. In 2008-2009, the end of the year overall fund balance was close to $860,000 (or three percent) for a $28.5 million budget. Bernard added an audit report from 2007 said before June of 2006 the district’s fund balances “exceeded the statutory limit.”

“When you have a budget that has a general fund balance that is theoretically in the legal limit and come the end of the year the fund balance exceeds this limit, you clearly over budgeted,” noted board member Ed Haye. “The district did this for a number of years. With zero-based budgeting, the board made a conscious effort to budget more accurately. When you have mistakes in the budget they become more apparent with a lean budget.”

Haye added the board will accept a corrective action plan, based on the results of the 2008-2009 audit, at the board of education business meeting on Monday, December 21.

Bernard said he will help the district through the transition period in finding a replacement.

“I will help with the transfer [of duties] through the [2010-2011] budget process,” he said.

“At this point, the plan is to transition someone [into the position] in January,” said Bernard in an interview. “I feel my heart is in East Hampton and I want to get the town back on its feet, but I am not going to leave the district high and dry.”

Bernard has a history of working for the Town of East Hampton. From 2000 through 2004 he served as the budget officer for then supervisor Jay Schneiderman. Bernard later lost his own bid for the supervisor’s seat to Bill McGintee. Bernard added that the current contentious teacher contract negotiations in Sag Harbor weren’t the impetus for his decision and that in fact, he wished to work for East Hampton Town once again.

Sag Harbor School Board Defends its Negotiating Position; Ready to Meet

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The Sag Harbor School Board of Education released a letter to Sag Harbor residents on Thursday, October 15, saying the board plans to “schedule negotiation sessions in the near future.” School board president Walter Wilcoxen reiterated the board’s intent to return to the negotiating table at a Board of Education meeting on Monday evening. On Wednesday, Wilcoxen reported that the school’s attorney Tom Volz had proposed three separate dates to meet and start negotiations with the Teacher Association of Sag Harbor (TASH). Wilcoxen said the board would meet with TASH within two weeks at the earliest or by early November at the latest. But TASH president Eileen Kochanasz later confirmed that the organization could meet with the board on either October 30 or November 3.

Although the meeting was well attended by members of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, Wilcoxen contended he wouldn’t answer questions as the board hopes to refrain from negotiating in public.

Wilcoxen did note that “the board has spent more than several meetings going over our negotiating concepts and positions.” He added that superintendent Dr. John Gratto planned to speak with the board’s attorney Tom Volz and would instruct him to reach out to the TASH representative to plan a future meeting. 

“Communication between the parties must continue in order to identify options that could address each side’s concerns,” stated the board in the letter. “We look forward to working with the teachers to resolve all outstanding differences and settle the contract in a mutually beneficial manner.”

In the letter, the board recapitulated the history of the negotiations — since they first began in February of 2008 — and referenced the fact finder’s report from August 2009. However, the board also highlighted data revealing the fiscal condition of the community. According to the board’s letter, the Sag Harbor School District has the lowest combined wealth ratio compared to the Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Southampton school districts.

“Combined Wealth Ratio is defined by the State Education Department as ‘based on a combined wealth, which weights income and property equally … each wealth ratio was computed by dividing the district’s wealth by the state average wealth as defined by law …’ The purpose is to measure the relative wealth between districts based on a State standard. A district of average wealth would have a Combined Wealth Ratio of 1.0,” explained the board. According to the data presented by the board, Sag Harbor has a CWR of around 4.85, Southampton has a CWR of 8.47, East Hampton has a CWR of 7.45 and Bridgehampton has a CWR of 20.87. (These figures are based on data from 2007.) At the board meeting, TASH member Jim Kinnier contended these figures were taken out of context, saying the Sag Harbor School district remains the 14th richest school district in the state.

The board also presented the property tax levy as a percentage of the general fund expenditure, which in other words “measures the degree to which a district depends on the residents to pay property taxes and to support the cost of education.” The board showed figures from 2008 where 87.8% of the district’s expenses are derived from property taxes and not other sources like state or federal aid. This figure is compared to 79.7% in Southampton, 73.8% in East Hampton and 65% in Bridgehampton. The board added that the reliance on residential households is further exacerbated by less commercial development in Sag Harbor compared to East Hampton and Southampton.

During a later interview, Wilcoxen said the board released these figures because TASH has argued that if Southampton and East Hampton school districts were able to give their teachers raises over 3.5 percent then Sag Harbor should be able to make the same commitment. 

“[The board's] view is that we are not the same. One of the main things we wanted to say to the community is that we have less wealth to tax,” explained Wilcoxen.

The board also mentioned that they expect post-retirement health benefit costs will increase from $352,000, which the district spent last year, to $740,000 by 2014.

In some of the closing remarks of the letter, the board said: “The Board desires to reach an agreement that, in its entirety: (1) will result in the community supporting the district and teachers (2) will be fair to teachers, (3) will further the academic achievement of students, (4) will recognize the current economic realities and (5) will be supported by the best available data.”

Asked why the board published the letter now, board member Mary Anne Miller said she thought the figures were “an important piece of information for the community as a whole.” She added that the board is continuing to work on the data. Of the acrimonious personal note the discussions between TASH and the board have taken recently, Miller added “I am not judging [the teacher's] character. I am committed to education too … [But] without the finances we can’t do anything.”

A copy of the letter can be found on the home page of the district’s website at http://www.sagharborschools.org/


Big Money Slated for Bigger Plans at Sag Harbor Schools

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By Andrew Rudansky

The Sag Harbor School Board appears poised to let the public vote on a $6 million dollar plan that they say would solve many of the district’s most pernicious problems including bringing the two buildings up to state code and other safety issues.

A Long Range Planning Committee report by Larry Salvesen and Fred Seeba, of BSS Architects and Engineers compiled the combined cost of many construction and maintenance projects that have been discussed in previous years. Some of these projects are required to bring the building up to state and federal code, while others are simply beautification projects.

The first number that Salvesen and Seeba presented to the board was $5,781,670, a figure they say could be brought to a referendum vote as early as December. This number was broken up into three sections; the bulk of the money — $4,311,229 — would go to the “projects list” – filled with the construction projects to improve and bring the building up to code, such as ventilation improvements in the elementary school, roof replacement on the high school gym, and replacement of all door knobs with levers — a provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Another  $434,441 would go directly to what Salvesen and Seeba call the maintenance list, projects in both the elementary and middle/high schools which require urgent attention or create a hazardous situation. The final $1,035,000 would be relegated to the creation of additional parking. The report points out that currently the Sag Harbor School District is 39 spaces short of what is required by state code.

“You can see there is a shortage of parking,” said Salvesen.

The report recommends expansion of the elementary school Hampton Street “U-lot” by 25 stalls, and expansion of the Atlantic Street lot at the elementary school by 26 stalls. The report also recommends expansion of the middle/high school Jermain Avenue lot  — which Salvesen says is currently “a bit of a free for all” — by 17 spaces.

The creation of these parking spaces would bring the total on school grounds to 231, well over the state’s required number.

“I am very optimistic about this [proposed referendum] because this project will address many long standing problems in the school for about $50 a year for the average homeowner,” said Dr. Gratto citing the committee report saying a home valued at $1,000,000 in Southampton would see an impact of about $50 a year ($48 for a similar home on the East Hampton side of the district).

The long range planning committee also came up with a $12,131,263 proposed auditorium plan to create a modern 415-seat auditorium for the Pierson middle/high school in the school’s current courtyard. The new auditorium would meet code requirements and include cat walks, a 27-foot deep stage, downstairs storage space and a lobby. The current facility is not handicap accessible nor does it have proper egress routes.

“Passing the $6 million dollar plan is feasible now, the auditorium plan is not feasible,” said Wilcoxen who believes it is, nonetheless, good to have plans on hand that could be used in the future.

In addition to these two proposals, an Energy Performance Contract was submitted to the board by Seeba containing recommendations for energy conservation measures totaling $1,866,005 such as installation of energy-saving windows, use of energy efficient light bulbs and the addition of solar panels. If included in the proposed December 1 referendum vote, Seeba and Salvesen estimate that EPC construction could be completed as early as October 2010.

In total the Long Range Planning Committee Report includes $19,778,938 in proposed spending.

“Having this number is quite helpful, because we need to budget these things over time,” said Wilcoxen.

Some people in attendance voiced concern over the recent salary increase of Dr. Gratto. His 13.5 percent raise increases his salary by $25,000, to $210,000. Wilcoxen repeated what he has said earlier about the increase, noting that Dr. Gratto performed admirably in his evaluation and that “we started him at below market salary…even with the raise we are getting a little bit of a discount here.” The evaluation has not been made public, but Wilcoxen maintained that Dr. Gratto, “met or exceeded our expectations.”

Still, several community members took the opportunity to express their anger over the raise during what some called “this tough economic time.”

“Why did the board go about the salary increase of superintendent Gratto in a way that kept it secret from the public?” asked former board of education president Walter Tice. He went on to say that he learned about the raise not from the board but from an article in The Sag Harbor Express.

“You owe the community an apology on how it was handled,” Tice added.

“It was a consensus decision,” responded Wilcoxen. I am not going to apologize for it. It wasn’t a secret.”

The board also introduced Montgomery Granger, the new director of physical education, health and athletics/ supervisor of building and grounds. Granger replaces Bill Madsen, who recently resigned, and will serve a three-year probationary term beginning in August at an annual salary of $125,000. Granger was the athletic director at Comsewogue School District from 2000 to 2004.

“I’m thrilled to be part of the team,” said Granger.

The board also addressed several administrative chores and returning board member Walter Wilcoxen, newly elected board member Gregg Schiavoni, school superintendent Dr. John Gratto and district clerk Mary Adamczyk were each administered an oath of office in turn. Wilcoxen and board member Theresa Samot were unanimously reelected board president and vice president respectively

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.

Marienfeld Resigns

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After a tumultuous last couple of months, current Pierson Middle School physical education teacher and former Pierson High School varsity basketball coach, Fred Marienfeld, announced his resignation on Friday, June 12. In a brief special meeting held on Friday, the school board accepted Marienfeld’s resignation. There was no comment from the audience, made up of a few teachers and members of the public. School board president Walter Wilcoxen said the board didn’t have an official comment, but added that “It was Fred’s choice and it was personal.”

In a terse letter drafted to the school, Marienfeld informed the board that he was resigning from his post for personal reasons.

Marienfeld had been a teacher with the Sag Harbor School District since December 2004. He also served as the Pierson varsity basketball coach since 2005 and led the team to three consecutive playoff berths. In 2006, Marienfeld was named the League VIII coach-of-the-year. However, Marienfeld was released from his coaching position by the school in late January, 2009, after a series of much-publicized conflicts between himself and two players and their parents.

In a Sag Harbor Express article by Benito Vila dated February 4, Marienfeld referenced the “shortcomings of those players, in their preparation and emotional make-up.”

At the time, Pierson’s athletic director, Bill Madsen, who also recently resigned from his position, said, “‘Our expectation is that our coaches will treat our student athletes with dignity and respect and Coach didn’t meet that expectation.’”

Madsen’s resignation is unrelated to Marienfeld’s.

Initially, Marienfeld was suspended from his coaching duties for criticizing and cursing at his players during halftime at a January 6 game between Pierson and Mercy. The incident was followed by two players, Nick DePetris and Jake Federico, leaving the team after “a grueling practice” on January 7. These episodes prompted East Hampton Star sports reporter Jack Graves to report on the conflict between Marienfeld and the players. In the article, from January 27, one parent accused Marienfeld of “demoralizing” the members of his team. While Marienfeld contended that one of the players, DePetris, had a history of quitting the varsity team. After receiving a disciplinary suspension from his coaching duties, he was subsequently let go from this position and Christian Johns was named interim coach for the basketball team. But Marienfeld was able to retain his post as the middle school physical education teacher.

It is unclear whether these previous events affected Marienfeld’s decision to resign from this job, as Marienfeld did not return phone calls seeking comment.

According to school superintendent Dr. John Gratto, the school has already begun to look for someone to take over Marienfeld’s position.

“We are currently looking for a replacement and that was a good reason to accept his resignation quickly,” explained Wilcoxen.

Dr. Gratto said the position is currently posted on an online application system for educators on a website in partnership with the Putnam and Northern Westchester BOCES. He added that the school will advertise the job in next week’s issue of the Southampton Press and the Sag Harbor Express. Dr. Gratto will also send out the position information to colleges in New York State which allow students to major in Physical Education.

Although, several members of the community have complained about Marienfeld’s coaching, others say they will be sad to see him leave as a district teacher.

“There is a lot of speculation about what happened [to make Marienfeld resign], but the fact is that the district is losing a good teacher and a good coach,” said Vila.