Pictured Above: At the Oct. 11 community discussion at the New Suffolk School

The New Suffolk Common School District, which serves a community of about 400 people living within a half of a square mile just south of Cutchogue, has long been one of the smallest school districts on the North Fork, and families who are sending their kids there now are feeling the isolation that comes with such a school design.

As of this school year, there are just eight students in grades K-6 in the red three-room schoolhouse, where a real bell is still rung by hand at the start of each school day. Nineteen other students in the district, mostly junior and senior high school students, attend the Southold School District.

After hearing for months from parents of young students in the district that the education there just wasn’t working for them, the School Board invited the community to an Oct. 11 discussion on exploring becoming a “Non-Instructional School District,” keeping the district and the school board intact but sending students to other, larger districts.

“When I came here, I was like, wow. Weird. Wow. Different,” said one parent, who currently has a son in third grade in the school and whose daughter attended for two years before moving up to Southold.

“I thought, my kids are gonna come out of the school valedictorians and full of knowledge. My daughter went to Southold and was told her reading ability wasn’t where I was told it was, or her math scores,” she said. “Then I started to look at the scores and the benchmarks. I’m saying this with sadness. We want more. We have a nice school and nice people. We love this community…. But my son is very social. He’s a happy youngster but he needs more.”

“I deeply appreciate the teachers. They’re wonderful and caring,” said another parent who moved to New Suffolk just before the start of the school year. “I think if this school had double the population, it would be a fantasy school for kids.”

She said her daughter is the only girl in her grade, and “she likes the other students, but she can’t form any relationships with other girls. We try to subsidize that with dance classes, but those are pickup relationships that don’t go very far.”

Another mother said two of her children are currently attending school in New Suffolk.

“I do agree that this is a cute school. It’s unique, but it’s not anything more than that. It’s not good for our family,” she said, adding that she attended Riverhead schools and was used to having more enrichment activities and sports. “It’s not for us. My kid is in first grade and he’s at a dead stop right now. He knows the three kids in his grade and I see him developing anxiety and other things I never expected, because of the sheltered feeling in the school.”

A tapestry depicting the three-room schoolhouse hangs in one of the classrooms at the New Suffolk School

School districts across the North Fork are facing dwindling enrollment as parents of school-age children are priced out by skyrocketing housing costs, and even larger districts are struggling to fill classrooms that were full just a decade ago.

New Suffolk School Board President Lisa Zissel said the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District had reached out to New Suffolk this past year to see if they were interested in sending students there — New Suffolk has long contracted with Southold, which provided lower tuition rates, instead.

“We do, as a district, have leverage at the moment,” she said, adding that, with the public’s support, New Suffolk will likely open discussions with neighboring districts about sending students there.

“Our concern was the social development they were able to have,” she said of students currently in the district. “Larger schools have the scale to provide art, band, and all those clubs. We just can’t do that with the size of the school that we are.”

Like in other small school districts — Sagaponack and Wainscott on the South Fork have similar small schools — school taxes in New Suffolk are a good deal lower than in neighboring districts that have more students, something that long-time residents have long tried to preserve. But in recent years properties in this waterside hamlet have been quickly scooped up by second homeowners drawn here in part by the low taxes.

“This is an anomaly. it’s a very sheltered area, and we almost have a bit of a tax haven because of the school,” said Ms. Zissel. “This is a large concern for the community. The concept of a non-instructional district allows us to keep the district, for those purposes.”

A public referendum on the 2024-2025 School Budget ballot next May would be required if the district were to go forward with the plan.

“If we wanted a non-instructional district, we would need a community vote,” said School Board Trustee Brooke Dailey, who added that she’s discussed this type of arrangement with the retired superintendent of two upstate school districts, including one in Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks, who had successfully transitioned those small schools by “tuitioning their students out” to other districts. The superintendent said he would be willing to help walk New Suffolk through the process.

Ms. Dailey added that the community could vote again later to re-open the school if residents change their minds about sending students elsewhere.

Ms. Zissel said the board would like to explore what the district can legally do with the existing building, including ideas ranging from a pre-K to after-school enrichment programs to hosting community events.

She said she’d approached Just Kids, which operates Pre-K programs in neighboring districts, and “they said they would be very, very interested” in running a Pre-K program in New Suffolk.

“This could be a way to generate income and still have this building full of kids,” said Ms. Zissel.

“We don’t have all the answers…. There are not a lot of small schools like this left. It’s hard to scale, and hard to provide the kind of education that other local schools have,” said Ms. Zissel. “Are we interested in moving this forward?”

Several of the two dozen community members who packed into the classroom for the discussion said they were receptive to exploring the idea further, and many had questions about the school’s property.

“There would be no scenario where this would be sold to a developer?” asked resident Jennifer Jacobs.

The board members said that wouldn’t happen — and New York State Education law generally requires a public referendum before school buildings are sold.

Former School Board member Lauren Grant said she’d already heard a rumor at the library that “the building is for sale and you have a buyer.”

Michelle Roussan, an organizer of the New Suffolk United Pétanque Club, which meets on the school’s ball field in the center of the hamlet, asked if the ball field would remain school property. Board members said it would, and that the potential rental of the schoolhouse to a Pre-K program could fund maintenance of the ball field and the school building.

Clarissa Roussan, a teacher in the Cutchogue East Elementary School, who lives in New Suffolk, said that “people can’t afford to buy” houses on the North Fork, and “that speaks to why enrollment is down.”

“When I started working at Cutchogue East we had six full sections, and now we have three. We’re literally half the size we were in 2004,” she added. “There’s a lot of inner battle and inner turmoil. That issue is just a sad reality across the board.”

“God bless you parents for what you’re going through. I don’t envy you, even a little bit. It’s a tough world out there,” said former New Suffolk School Board Vice President Joseph Polashock, who went to the school himself in the 1950s. “This little community is kind of a tax haven, and a lot of people didn’t come here for the school. When I went to school here, there were 38 kids in this school. If you run down the track record of how those kids graduated out of high school and what they went on to, a lot of those kids have gone big places and done some big stuff.”

“I went here as well,” said Ms. Zissel. “I think the difference is what is expected of an elementary education. We can’t take that next step and scale, and all the other schools have taken that next step.”

“It’s a different world” agreed Mr. Polashock. “It’s not necessarily a better world. I don’t know how kids survive today.”

“We’re really information-gathering right now,” said School Board member Deborah Carroll, who thanked the community for showing up to have a civil discussion. “I think everyone is aware that in this schoolhouse we have eight students and two teachers. It’s a very unique experience here.”

Board members urged the community to continue to come to school board meetings and join the discussion in the months ahead. For more information, visit www.newsuffolkschool.com/boe.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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