One teacher’s salary might not make much of a difference in your average school district’s budget, but for the tiny schools that dot the East End’s smallest communities, little changes could pose existential threats.
The 15-student New Suffolk School is facing just such a condition this fall, after teacher Martha Kennelly, who was let go in 2015, won an appeal to the state education commissioner in August.
The tiny district, whose budget for this year is $1.1 million, will now have to make up $300,000 in back wages, and pay Ms. Kennelly $116,000 per year plus benefits going forward.
It’s a situation School Board President Tony Dill called “dire” last month, and New Suffolk has since been filled with rumors that the school may be forced to close its doors or sell off its ball field in order to pay Ms. Kennelly.
Mr. Dill confirmed to a packed classroom of concerned residents at the board’s Oct. 10 meeting that the district is looking into keeping the district itself intact but sending all its students elsewhere, and has received a “preliminary appraisal” to sell the school’s 1.4-acre ball field, among the options possible to pay Ms. Kennelly.
The potential sale of the ball field would require a public referendum, and Mr. Dill told the crowd that there are already would-be buyers interested in the property.
Ms Kennelly, who received tenure while working for New Suffolk in 2001, had been on special assignment as the director of the Mid-Eastern Suffolk Teacher Center (MESTRACT) in Ridge for ten years from 2004 to 2014. She remained on the payroll as a teacher in New Suffolk during that time, accruing tenure, while her salary was reimbursed to the district by MESTRACT.
The school board created a new “hybrid tenure area” in 2014, and under the new tenure plan Ms. Kennelly, who had been the most senior of the school’s three teachers, would become the least senior teacher. Her position was abolished and she was laid off in 2015, after which she appealed the case to the state education commissioner and sued the district for age discrimination. Ms. Kennelly is 54 years old.
The education commissioner ruled in August of this year that the hybrid tenure area created by the district was not legal, and Ms. Kennelly must be put back on the payroll and paid her back wages.
The grid-like streets of downtown New Suffolk, home to around 350 people, have been ablaze in recent weeks with rumors about the future of the school, but community members fidgeted in the elementary school-sized chairs facing the three-member school board for the first 20 minutes of the Oct. 10 meeting, wondering to themselves when to bring up a problem that everyone was aware of but no one was talking about, and which didn’t appear to be on the school board’s meeting agenda.
Ms. Kennelly, whom many in the room didn’t know, sat in the front row in the middle of the audience.
Resident MaryGrace Steinfeld broke the silence by asking the board flat-out what they planned to do.
“We want answers on what’s happening,” she told the school board, adding that every month decisions aren’t made, the district is spending $12,000 to keep Ms. Kennelly on staff. “This district is teetering on collapse unless some decisions are made here.”
“The state was never going to let you do this,” she added of the district’s attempt to change the tenure structure. “The entire tenure system would go down.”
“You need to explain what’s going on,” said resident Arlene Castellano. “We only have snippets of information, not the full story.”
Mr Dill said the board only learned of the education commissioner’s decision two-and-a-half weeks before the school year began, and “had sufficient reserves to pay the way through this year.”
The board had a resolution on its agenda that night to form a long-range planning committee to examine all the options for the future.
“We don’t know which plan we will follow after next June,” said Mr. Dill, adding that the board doesn’t yet know the time frame in which they will need to pay Ms. Kennelly her back wages.
When asked what the district’s options might be, Mr. Dill said “It may be more economical to educate the kids elsewhere.”
Ms. Steinfeld asked if that meant getting rid of the school district.
“That’s not what I said,” said Mr. Dill. “We may have the school but educate the kids elsewhere. The building is here but the kids may not be here. There wouldn’t be anyone here. They would be laid off.”
Unlike at most other local school board’s meetings, the school’s attorney was not present at the Oct.10 meeting. Mr. Dill said the board did not want to pay for the expense of having the attorney present at their board meetings.
“Now’s not the time to be penny-wise and pound-foolish,” said resident Paul Cacioppo, who serves as president of the New Suffolk Civic Association.
The Civic Association has spent much of the past two years doing upkeep and holding community events on the school’s ball field, which is a central meetingplace in the midst of the New Suffolk grid.
When Ms. Steinfeld asked about the possibility of selling the ball field, Mr. Dill said “all options are on the table. That is a possibility, but not one we’re mulling on at the moment.”
But when pressed further, he said “we have a preliminary appraisal and there are potential buyers” of the ball field.
The long-range planning committee, comprised of community members Yvonne Duffy, Roberta Jacklevic and Lauren Grant, will be charged with bringing potential solutions to the board by the end of this calendar year.
“It will be up to them to set their own meetings and agendas,” said Mr. Dill. “They’re free to talk to everyone they want to.”
Mr. Dill told the crowd Ms. Kennelly is not currently teaching students, but is “developing curriculum” for the district, which didn’t sit well with his audience.
“If you have to pay a salary over $100,000 and benefits, that teacher should be teaching,” said Ms. Castellano. “Everyone in New Suffolk is paying for the school’s poor judgement 10 years ago. She should be in the building every day being well supervised.”
Residents demanded to know if Ms. Kennelly wanted to teach, and one openly asked if she wanted “to kill everybody.”
Mr. Dill then pointed out that the teacher was sitting in their midst, and they could ask her themselves.
“It has always been my goal to be with the children, teaching,” said Ms. Kennelly, who sat quietly through the rest of the meeting and left alone just as it was adjourned.
Toward the end of the meeting, Ms. Steinfeld asked the board how long they’ve been working on a solution to this problem. Mr. Dill said it had been about two months.
“That makes you look inept,” said Ms. Steinfeld. “That’s really an insult to the rest of the community. Stand up and walk out and resign if you’re going to say you’ve only been considering this for two months.”