With one month left to make a decision on the possible shuttering of the New Suffolk School, this tight-knit North Fork community still seems stunned at how quickly things have changed for their tiny district.
The school, which this year has 15 enrolled students, was roiled just before the beginning of this fall’s classes when the New York State Education Commissioner ruled in favor of a teacher who had previously had seniority but was fired by the district after it reorganized its tenure structure back in 2015.
Now the school, whose budget this year is just $1.1 million, will need to pay teacher Martha Kennelly about $300,000 in back wages, along with $116,000 per year plus benefits going forward — while the Education Commissioner’s decision required that she be reinstated, she has not been placed back in the classroom and is instead writing curriculum at home.
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.
In October, School Board President Tony Dill said the district had several options to pay Ms. Kennelly, including keeping the district itself intact but sending all the students elsewhere, and potentially selling school’s 1.4-acre ball field. They have formed a Long-Range Planning Committee, comprised of members of the community, to come up with potential solutions.
Several dozen residents of New Suffolk packed into one of the classrooms in the tiny schoolhouse for its Dec. 12 school board meeting to hear options for the future, but many still seemed shocked about the circumstances now facing the school. The board is expecting to make a decision in January of 2018.
Mr. Dill said the district is considering letting go of teachers other than Ms. Kennelly. If the district attempted to run classes with just three teaching staff, the tax levy for next year would increase by 13 percent. If they dropped the staff to two teachers, the tax levy would increase by 7.25 percent.
But if all the students were to be sent to another district, the school would have a 9.8 percent surplus next year, allowing the district to either keep taxes on par with this year or reduce taxes. Mr. Dill said the district has based those numbers on informal discussions with the Southold School District.
The district also receives about a quarter of its budget from donations, and Mr. Dill said donors would no longer be interested in giving if the school choses any of these options. Parents of some students have also told the committee that they may not enroll their kids in the school at all under different options.
Ms. Kennelly sat throughout the meeting in the front row of the audience with her attorney, Frank Blangiardo, who repeatedly jumped up to tell the board they could easily solve the problem by filing a claim with their own attorney’s insurance company, Lamb & Barnosky, LLP, for “errors and omissions” in the the district’s construction of the hybrid tenure system that led to this fiscal fiasco.
“You don’t have to litigate it,” he said. “It’s a 49 cent stamp and an open and shut case.”
The board’s attorney, Bob Cohen, said the education commissioner took two years to make a decision on the tenure case, and had given him no opinion either way beforehand on whether the tenure arrangement would be upheld by the state.
“There are many litigated seniority disputes,” he said. “It’s not cut and dry. Insurance does not cover back pay.”
Mr. Blangiardo is representing Ms. Kennelly in a federal civil suit for age discrimination she has filed separately from the appeal to the education commissioner. That case has not yet been decided, but Mr. Blangiardo said the district’s insurance would pay if his client wins that case.
“You’re not required to pay the legal fees, as you told the newspaper,” Mr. Blangiardo told Mr. Dill. While The Suffolk Times, in a recent headline, said the district was required to pay ‘legal fees,’ it did not attribute that statement to a board member. The board was required to pay Ms. Kennelly’s back salary for the two years she was without work, not legal fees.
Parent Clarissa Roussan, a teacher at Cutchogue East Elementary School, asked Mr. Dill if his statement to The Suffolk Times that the students would go to Southold was true, and why he hadn’t considered sending the students to the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District. New Suffolk currently sends high school students to Southold under an existing contract.
Ms. Roussan said she believes there are benefits to students of going to a school that is closer to their community, instead of being taken to Southold, where they will likely have the longest bus rides of any students, where parents will have a more difficult time visiting the school for events, and where they will be in classes with students with whom they won’t interact in other community groups such as scouting.
“The option being considered is to send the students to Southold, but that decision has not been made,” said Mr. Dill, who added that the district has not reached out to Mattituck-Cutchogue during this process to see whether that district can accommodate the kids.
“We have talked from time to time with Mattituck-Cutchogue, but they have not been terribly responsive, especially on the financial side,” he said, after which he made clear that they hadn’t talked with Mattituck since the board began considering closing the New Suffolk School.
After much concern was raised by audience members over the lack of discussions with Mattituck-Cutchogue, board member Joe Polashock pledged that “we will definitely contact Mattituck. No question.”
While there has been some speculation in the community that the New Suffolk Civic Association is considering purchasing the ball field, Mr. Polashock, who also serves as the vice president of the Civic Association, said he had mentioned, perhaps prematurely, at a recent board meeting that the Civic Association could become involved, but the Civic Association has not yet had any discussions about what their role could be.
Mr. Cohen said New York State education law allows districts to continue to exist even when all students are sent elsewhere, but such a possibility must be brought before the voters in the district in a public referendum. He pointed out that two small schools in upstate New York currently take advantage of that section of education law.
But many community members present scoffed at his suggestion, wondering aloud if it was as ill-conceived as the tenure arrangement.
Resident Joan Doherty said she doesn’t understand why the district is paying Ms. Kennelly, who wants to teach, to sit home and write curriculum.
Parent Melody Jeffrey said her kids had been in the school when Ms. Kennelly was teaching and she “was an amazing teacher.”
“To not utilize her just doesn’t make any sense to me,” she said.
“I’m one parent whose children had a different experience under Ms. Kennelly,” said Mr. Dill, who then kept quiet as community members around him openly wondered if the whole district was suffering because he had a personal issue with Ms. Kennelly.
“You do everything to make her not teach. What is wrong?” asked resident Ellen Goldstein.
“We’re trying to run the best school we can,” said Mr. Dill.
The board’s next meeting will be on Jan. 9 at 7 p.m., at which time the Long Range Planning Committee is expected to present its recommendations for the future of the school.