The New Suffolk School’s Long Range Planning Committee recommended Tuesday night that, if the school population drops dramatically, as is believed to be a distinct possibility, for the 2018-19 school year, students should be tuitioned out to another district.
The school, which is educating 15 kids this year, is expecting enrollment to drop to 11 next year, and many remaining parents are considering pulling their kids out of the school due to an ongoing dispute over the duties of teacher Marsha Kennelly, said Long Range Planning Committee Chairwoman Lauren Grant at Tuesday’s meeting. The committee interviewed parents as part of its deliberation process.
Ms. Grant read a statement from the committee recommending that, in the fall of 2018, “Ms. Kennelly be given teaching duties in the classroom, and, if at all possible, the current teaching staff retained.”
“However,” read the statement, “should enrollment decline substantially, staffing needs for the school would have to be revisited and we would then recommend that the students be tuitioned out to another school district and the remaining teachers excised.”
The school was roiled just before the beginning of the 2017-18 school year when the New York State Education Commissioner ruled in favor of Ms. Kennelly, who had previously had seniority but was fired by the district after it reorganized its tenure structure back in 2015. Ms. Kennelly has also filed a separate age discrimination lawsuit against the district.
The school, whose budget this year is just $1.1 million, will need to pay Ms. Kennelly about $300,000 in back wages, along with $116,000 per year plus benefits going forward. The Education Commissioner’s decision required that Ms. Kennelly be reinstated, but 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.
Ms. Grant said members of the Long Range Planning Committee had called Ms. Kennelly and asked her to meet with them to discuss an alternative solution to the school’s predicament, but Ms. Kennelly would not meet with them without her attorney present and the committee had declined to participate under that condition.
The Long Range Planning Committee, in their statement, said that “in reviewing these recommendations, we feel compelled to reiterate the option of giving Ms. Kennelly teaching duties and retaining all teachers is a fair way to keep the current, dedicated teaching staff, even though it is a decision which may be financially challenging to some in the community. Should this not be acceptable to the community at large, the only remaining alternative is to pursue tuitioning the students to another district beginning with the Fall 2018 term.”
“As a group, we are aware of the New Suffolk School’s significance as a thread holding our community together. Therefore, in the eventuality that tuitioning out our students becomes necessary, we further advise that the New Suffolk School District be kept intact, and the school building itself be utilized for administrative purposes and as a facility for extracurricular and community activities,” they added. “Regarding back pay for Ms. Kennelly, we recommend that the New Suffolk Board of Trustees float a long-term bond to secure necessary funds to finance this back pay.”
The school board is expected to vote on the recommendations at a special public meeting Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 7 p.m.
If the board were to decide to tuition out students to other districts, they would be required to hold a public referendum on the decision prior to setting their 2018-19 budget, likely in March, said School Board President Tony Dill. If students were to remain in New Suffolk, he said, the district would likely have to raise taxes substantially.
Currently, high school students in New Suffolk attend Southold High School, but parents asked the New Suffolk School Board in December to look into the possibility of instead contracting with the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District.
Mr. Dill said he recently met with Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Anne Smith, who “gave a positive response” to their inquiry about sending New Suffolk students there.
Parents and community members who packed into one classroom in the schoolhouse for the meeting shared shock, confusion and anger with the board, but in more muted terms than in prior meetings — prior to the start of public comment Mr. Dill had set ground rules asking speakers to stand up and identify themselves and address the board directly, with no side conversations, and said if the rules were not followed, the audience would be given one warning and the meeting would be adjourned.
Parent Brooke Dailey said the ongoing controversy had been wreaking havoc on the lives of families with students in the district for far longer than the past few months. She asked if the board would be switching back and forth between sending students elsewhere and keeping them in New Suffolk based on enrollment changes.
Mr. Dill said that was unlikely, since the school would need to sign a contract with another district if students are sent elsewhere, and would need to have teachers on staff in New Suffolk if kids were to be educated within the district.
“Ms. Kennelly and I have had many issues, but this has been a little bit of a witch hunt,” said Arlene Castalano, who said the school board has a role to play in how this controversy came to a head.
Resident Barbara Solo, who attended the school as a child and is now semi-retired, said she believes Ms. Kennelly is bullying the school district and the taxpayers and families in New Suffolk.
“It’s morally and ethically wrong. It’s not fair and it’s not right,” she said.