Sag Harbor schools plan for tough times

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The Sag Harbor School Board is discussing some unorthodox new ideas to cut costs and add revenue without affecting student education, but some parents and teachers suggest it tread more carefully.

Since the school year began, Superintendent John Gratto has regularly shared his cost savings plans at board meetings, and he continued that trend on Monday. “Could we be more entrepreneurial?” Dr. Gratto asked, introducing his newest idea.

The superintendent said the district’s reputation for academic excellence could attract parents to enroll children at Sag Harbor on a tuition basis. He noted that the additional students would not cost the district more money and they would simply be placed in existing classes. The schools could handle as many as 35 more students per grade, Dr. Gratto said.

“It’s kind of a different idea, but this is a very different year,” Dr. Gratto said. “We’re facing a crisis we haven’t seen since the depression.”

The board agreed that Dr. Gratto’s idea could be good, but a host of issues will have to be reviewed before the district could move forward. Board member Dan Hartnett questioned whether or not special education students, who cost more to educate, would have to be accepted and suggested that Sag Harbor’s small class sizes be maintained. “Explore it, but explore it gently,” Mr. Hartnett said.

Dr. Gratto said the schools could not discriminate against special needs students, but the extra spending to meet those needs would be added into tuition bills instead of tax bills.

Parent Teacher Association co-president Chris Tice and Pierson foreign language teacher Toby Marienfeld spoke out against possibly expanding class sizes. Ms. Tice said that in a school with such small classes, often comprised of fewer than 20 students, adding even three to five students and “potentially increasing class size by 25 percent,” would “make a dramatic difference in the quality education” in Sag Harbor.

“You’re talking about adding another teacher,” Ms. Marienfeld said, explaining that the added students, especially in the foreign language department, would make extra staff necessary. “Unless, of course, you’re talking about taking away other parts of the program,” she said.

Dr. Gratto said the concerns are valid, but maintained that 35 students could be added to each grade level from outside the district, though he acknowledged that the projected number of tuition-based students is “a pure guess.”

The board is also supporting a purchasing consortium with other South Fork schools, and on Monday Dr. Gratto said Sag Harbor will work with Hampton Bays on an efficiency study for the purchasing group.

“We have a difficult choice ahead of us,” the superintendent said, noting that it’s not acceptable to raise taxes and ignore the need for cutbacks, but it’s also unacceptable to “dismantle a high quality educational system” in Sag Harbor. He said he intends to create focus groups with key members and organizations in the community to come up with new and innovative ideas to save money and vital programs. The first meetings are planned for 6:30 p.m. on December 4 and 10 in order to get ideas before this year’s budget process gets rolling.

The first portion of the budget will be presented to the board and the public on December 22.

The board on Monday read new policies for school trips for the second time this month. The class field trip policy, which was adopted with little controversy, includes slight adjustments to the chaperone rules, but the board tabled an updated policy on extracurricular trips. That new policy covering discretionary trips to far off locales including Italy and Hawaii limits participating teachers to losing two days of class time as opposed to the four days they were allowed to miss in past years. Students are not required to participate in extracurricular trips, and some community and board members question whether teachers should miss even one day of class with those students who stay behind.

Peter Solow, an art teacher at Pierson, who has planned and series of trips to Italy with art students, said the new policy was a “reasonable compromise” and he urged the board to accept it. Mr. Solow called the trips a “very meaningful educational experience” that costs the district next to nothing. He said the students are working on a short film that explains the benefits of educational travel and he will screen it at a future board meeting.

Noyac resident Elena Loretto argued that despite the district’s efforts to leave students under the supervision of well prepared substitute teachers, they should not lose a single day of instruction time with qualified teachers during school trips. The trips typically begin and end on school days before and after scheduled vacations and she said instruction time is a “valuable commodity.”

Ms. Loretto noted that substitutes will miss the “nuances” that indicate whether or not a student may be struggling, while a classroom teacher would not.

Board member Sue Kinsella also argued against teachers missing days, but most teachers and people in the community appear to believe the benefits of travel far outweigh the loss of a couple days of instruction. Ms. Kinsella questioned whether teacher contracts would even allow such absences next to vacations.

Board president Walter Wilcoxen noted that those teachers are working during that vacation time without pay and the packed house erupted into applause.

Dr. Gratto pointed out that teachers take sick and personal days without having a negative impact on instruction and absences for trips would allow more planning. Still, he said the board would table the issue for further review, which would focus on limiting lost instruction and ways to make trips available and affordable for all students.

Elementary School Principal Joan Frisicano who had announced on November 12 that she would retire mid-year, but changed her mind the following week, was also present at Monday’s meeting., but the odd series of events surrounding her decision was not mentioned and she stayed uncharacteristically quiet during the discussions about trips and class size.

In a phone call a short time after announcing that she would stay, Ms. Frisicano denied there was any bad blood with the School Board or the new superintendent or that she opted to continue working because of sweetened terms in her contract.

”Nobody was pushing me” to leave, she said, noting that she was simply seeking “a new challenge.” Last Wednesday, after a weekend of thinking it over, Ms. Frisicano said simply, “I changed my mind.”

In the spring, the principal was passed over for the job as school superintendent, but it appeared the district might reorganize and promote her to assistant superintendent and eliminate some assistant principal jobs to pay for her new role.

An anonymous letter was sent to The Press this week, suggesting that plan would eventually come to fruition. The district and the board have denied the allegations, but there does appear to be efforts to at least evaluate the value of the current administrative structure. On Monday, board member Mary Anne Miller said parents and teachers should take Ms. Frisicano’s flip-flopping at face value, though she acknowledged that “The board has asked Dr. Gratto to do an analysis of all our administrative positions.”

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