With Settlement Pending, New Suffolk School May Remain Open Next Year

New Suffolk School Board members Jeanette Cooper, Joe Polashock and Tony Dill at Tuesday's school board meeting.
New Suffolk School Board members Jeanette Cooper, Joe Polashock and Tony Dill at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

The New Suffolk School Board postponed a planned March 27 vote to send its students to other districts Wednesday night, announcing that it has reached a verbal agreement with teacher Martha Kennelly that may allow the school to remain open next year.

School Board President Tony Dill said the confidential agreement, reached with the assistance of BOCES mediator Terri McSweeney, is likely to be ready to be signed either later this week or early next week.

Describing the agreement as “amicable” and “unlikely to disappear or be rendered obsolete,” Mr. Dill said the “signing of this settlement will allow the school to remain in use for the foreseeable future,” and that it will not cause the district to pierce the tax cap when it releases its proposed 2018-19 budget.

Ms. Kennelly, who had been let go by the district in 2015, won an appeal to the state education commissioner just before the start of this school year, arguing she had been wrongly dismissed due to the manner in which the district reconstructed its tenure tracks. The state had ordered the district to pay her back salary and reinstate her on the payroll.

Ms. Kennelly, who is currently receiving her salary and writing curriculum at home, lost a separate federal age discrimination lawsuit against the district last month.

In the meantime, facing the potential for skyrocketing taxes if it kept its staffing in place with Ms. Kennelly, or the loss of many students whose parents considered sending their kids to other schools, the school board voted in January to put up the March 27 public referendum to send all of its students to either the Southold or Mattituck-Cutchogue school district.

The school board voted at its monthly meeting Wednesday night, March 14, to postpone the March 27 referendum to April 17. Mr. Dill said the board is not cancelling the referendum outright because Ms. Kennelly is allowed three weeks to sign the agreement, and another seven days during which the approval of the agreement can be rescinded.

Mr. Dill said he expects the board to be able to cancel the vote, “but it is prudent to wait for up to 28 days before doing that.”

While Mr. Dill said the terms and details “are to remain confidential and neither the board nor Ms. Kennelly can respond” to questions, he said community members will be able to infer some of the details of the settlement from budget documents that the board expects to present to the public at its next meeting April 10.

“If you peruse that document, you can figure it out,” he said.

Urging the packed classroom of community members to focus on what’s best for the future of the school and its students, Mr. Dill said “we expect, with modifications, we will have a full program in place next year,” at which time the district expects to enroll 14 students in grades K-6. The district is currently educating 15 students. High school students would continue to attend Southold High School under an existing agreement with that district.

Mr. Dill said the district has been advised by its attorney that it will not need to float a bond, which requires a public vote, in order to pay Ms. Kennelly’s back salary, but can instead borrow the money through other methods that don’t require a public vote.

When asked if Monday’s news that Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead and the Our Lady of Mercy elementary school in Cutchogue are closing would have any impact on the district, Mr. Dill said there are currently three New Suffolk high school students attending McGann-Mercy, who have the option to come back to the public school system and attend Southold High School with other New Suffolk high school students this fall, at a tuition rate of $20,750 per student. No students from New Suffolk currently attend the Cutchogue Catholic school.

Mr. Dill thanked Ms. Kennelly, saying her “cooperation and commitment to this school was instrumental in achieving this result”; Ms. McSweeney, the BOCES mediator; the school’s volunteer long-range planning committee, which provided guidance on the future of the school over the past several months; and teachers in the district, who “throughout the turmoil of the past few months maintained their singular professional focus in the education of our children,” all the while knowing that they may not have jobs at the end of this year.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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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