Pictured Above (l-r): New Suffolk Superintendent Joe Vasile-Cozzo, Board President Lisa Zissel, Board members Brooke Dailey and Deborah Carrol and District Clerk Jana Prindle at the board’s Jan. 9 meeting.

The tiny community of New Suffolk, on the North Fork, will have the chance to vote this March on a proposal to send all of its students to other neighboring districts.

The public referendum, open to voters who live in and are registered to vote in New Suffolk, will be held Tuesday, March 5 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the school at the corner of New Suffolk Road and King Street.

This tiny district, which currently educates students from pre-K to sixth grade and sends older students to the Southold Junior/Senior High School, has been facing low enrollment for years.

This school year, seven students are being educated in the historic red three-room schoolhouse, while 15 older students are going to Southold. Four New Suffolk residents attend the Peconic Community School, which moved to Cutchogue in January of 2024.

Parents of younger New Suffolk students have been vocal at school board meetings this past fall about the limitations of such a small school, with multi-grade classrooms that often have one or no students at any particular grade level. The School Board voted unanimously at its Jan. 9 meeting to put a referendum to send the students to neighboring districts before the voters.

“The parents are asking us to make this happen ASAP,” New Suffolk School Board President Lisa Zissel told community members who turned out to the board’s Jan. 9 meeting to hear an update on the process of becoming what’s known as a non-instructional school district.

She added that the district has had difficulty keeping specialized part-time staff for arts and music education, and is unable to offer clubs or sports that are offered at larger schools.

“I don’t see how we could provide that programming within these walls,” she said.

Under the framework of a non-instructional school district, the unpaid elected school board would still oversee the district, and administrative staff would still be working to ensure the students’ education contracts are in order, and would manage the upkeep of the school’s property (the district owns a ball field in the center of New Suffolk in addition to the 1907 schoolhouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places), and the district’s budget.

In December, the board hired the Albany-based law firm of Girvin & Ferlazzo P.C. as the district’s special and general counsel. The firm has been involved with the conversion of two small upstate districts — the Raquette Lake Union Free School District and the Piseco Common School District — to non-instructional schools.

“The core of this is, our kids need more,” said Superintendent Joe Vasile-Cozzo. “Most of our district is already tuitioned out. You’re not changing much. You’re giving the kids more.”

If voters agree to pass the referendum, students would be tuitioned out beginning with the 2024-2025 school year. Board members said the referendum was scheduled for March 5 in order to ensure the district had time to prepare a budget that reflects the will of the voters in time for the regular school budget vote on May 21, 2024. If the referendum passes, the public will vote in May on a budget that send students to other districts. If it fails, they will vote on a budget to educate the students as the district has done in the past.

Residents must be registered to vote in New Suffolk 30 days prior in order to cast a vote at the referendum, said District Clerk Jana Prindle.

Ms. Zissel said the board believes the total cost of sending students to other districts will have minimal effect on the total school budget, which would differ by “one to two percent,” in line with a normal year-over-year increases. Last year’s budget, approved in a 51-4 vote, was just shy of $1.2 million.

Ms. Zissel added New Suffolk is currently in discussions with both the Mattituck-Cutchogue and Southold school districts and is hoping to give parents a choice of sending their children to either district.

“Our strong preference would be parent choice,” she said. “A lot of parents like the proximity of something right up the road (like Cutchogue East School).”

She said New Suffolk would be in a much better negotiating position with neighboring districts if voters approve the referendum. Both Mattituck-Cutchogue and Southold have seen a decline in enrollment as full-time residents have left the North Fork, where the cost of housing has skyrocketed in recent years.

New Suffolk has two teachers, who would lose their jobs if the referendum passes.

“We’ve been very open with them,” said Ms. Zissel. “They understand.”

“The teaching staff has been excellent. This is no reflection on them,” said Mr. Vasile-Cozzo.

The district has had informal talks with Just Kids, which runs Universal Pre-K programs throughout Long Island, about leasing the school building to run Pre-K programs there. Board members said those discussions could continue once they have the results of the referendum. They said their preliminary budget projections don’t include rental income.

What is absolutely not happening, they said, is any sale of school property or merger with another district.

“Nothing changes with the land,” said Ms. Zissel. “We wouldn’t be touching the ball field.”

She added that any future use of the school’s property would be decided with input from the community.

New York State education law requires a public referendum on the sale of school district land. Much of the proceeds of such a sale in a Common School District (Section 36) would also have to be used to reduce the tax burden of residents. Consolidation with another district could also not occur without a public referendum.

The closest example of a school consolidation on the North Fork began in 1997, when voters approved the consolidation of the Laurel School, which was then bursting at the seams with more than 100 students, with the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, prompting a 1998 expansion of the Cutchogue East Elementary School. The Laurel School building now houses a Pre-K program run by Just Kids.

But New Suffolk is not looking at this point to go down either of those roads, said board members, and is focused instead on making sure its students have access to the programs that they don’t have the space or staff to offer to seven kids.

“I went to this school. (Board Member) Brook Dailey went to this school,” said Ms. Zissel. “When you hear that school bell in the morning, it’s meaningful to people. We’re trying to make it better for the kids. That’s the bottom line.”

The district plans to post more information on the New Suffolk Common School website, where it will also post a public survey. It also plans to send informational flyers to New Suffolk residents before the March 5 vote. They are also planning a public Zoom meeting with the superintendent of one of the upstate non-instructional school districts.

The text of the referendum is as follows:

“Shall the Board of Education of the New Suffolk Common School District be authorized to contract for the education of all District students with another school district commencing with the 2024-2025 school year, instead of maintaining a home school.”

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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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