After months of uncertainty about the future of the New Suffolk School, school board members voted unanimously Wednesday evening to set a public referendum on sending students in the tiny elementary school to another district.
The public referendum, which would be on whether the district should enter a contract “not to exceed five years” with either the Mattituck-Cutchogue or Southold School District “or both,” is slated to be held on Tuesday, March 27. If approved, students would be sent to another district this fall.
The tiny elementary school, which this year is educating 15 students, was rocked this past fall when teacher Martha Kennelly won an appeal to the state education commissioner that she was wrongly dismissed due to the manner in which the district reconstructed its tenure tracks. The state ordered the district to pay her back salary and reinstate her on the payroll. Ms. Kennelly is currently receiving her salary and writing curriculum at home.
Choked with emotion, School Board President Tony Dill read aloud three potential models the school has been considering, including two that involved reducing teaching staff. Under both the reduced teaching staff models, many parents said they would likely take their kids out of school in New Suffolk.
The New Suffolk School’s Long Range Planning Committee recommended Jan. 9 that, if the school population drops dramatically for the 2018-19 school year, students should be tuitioned out to another district.
“For well over a century, this school has been a vital, central part of this village,” said Mr. Dill, adding that many people in the community and working for the school are graduates.
“For them, the idea of the school ceasing operation is anathema,” he said. “I share that emotion. But we are focused on what’s best for the students, for our young people.”
Mr. Dill added that the idea of the school closing its doors, “while accurate in terms of the education, it portrays a very inaccurate picture.”
“If this model were to be adopted, the building would be open to a variety of additional community-based social and educational activities,” he said.
The three models considered included maintaining a staff of three teachers, while laying off the two teaching assistants currently working at that school, or reducing staffing to only the two most senior teachers and eliminating pre-Kindergarten, or sending the kids to other districts.
Under the first model, Mr. Dill said the school would have a $124,000 operating deficit in 2018-19, which would necessitate a 15 percent tax levy increase, well above the New York State 2 percent tax levy cap.
Mr. Dill said, after consultation with parents, only seven to nine students would remain in the school because parents would likely chose to send them to other districts. Under this scenario, the district cost per pupil per year would be $49,000 per year.
“We view such a decline as substantial,” said Mr. Dill of the decreased enrollment, adding that the inefficiencies in the student-teacher ratio under that scenario “would be extreme.”
Even more parents would likely take their kids out of the district under the second scenario, he said, with only five or six students expected to be enrolled.
Mr. Dill said the change in teaching model would also mean that teachers would no longer specialize in subject areas, and the quality of education students are currently receiving, which has led to higher test scores, would revert to a teaching model the district hasn’t used in more than a decade.
“This teaching model has become obsolete,” he said.
Under the second scenario, the district would face a $76,000 operating deficit, requiring the district to raise the tax levy by 9 percent. Under this scenario, if enrollment were to drop as projected, it would cost $46,000 per pupil to educate students in New Suffolk.
Mr. Dill said that, under the scenario in which students are sent to other districts, 11 students are projected to enroll next year. He said tuition figures presented by both Mattituck-Cutchogue and Southold were nearly identical on a per pupil basis, and if students were tuitioned out, the district would have a surplus of $80,000 next year, and the tax levy would decrease by 9 percent.
Mr. Dill said a fourth option, to work on a new, undisclosed teaching arrangement with Ms. Kennelly, was not able to come to fruition because “we were unable to agree with her or her representative on a format for future discussion.”
Ms. Kennelly, who sat in the front row throughout the meeting, spoke briefly with television and print reporters after the meeting, saying the district has made great progress and has very successful students.
School board members, who glumly cast their votes in favor of the referendum, did not take public comment at the meeting, but said there would be a chance for public comment at their next meeting, on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.