- Decked out in school colors of red and black, a crowd of more than 150 concerned parents and teachers gathered in the Pierson High School library Tuesday evening to deliver, speaker by speaker, a clear message to the Sag Harbor School Board and its new superintendent Dr. John Gratto: Teachers, parents, and community members should have been included in the process of choosing the superintendent.
Former Sag Harbor School Board member Eric Cohen told the present
board they should not forget who they represent. "You are us. That's all
you are," he said.
Gratto, joined by the Sag Harbor School Board, answered questions about his employment history, his vision for the school, and the terms of his hiring for more than two solid hours. Many of the speakers brought the board to task for failing to include teachers and community groups in the hiring process, which was spearheaded by the search firm of School Leadership LLC. "Not one of you would be sitting here if we hadn't gone out and taken the time to vote you in," Anne Destafanis asserted, sizing up the board members.
"You are us. That's all you are," Eric Cohen, a former school board member, commented, adding that local control of schools is an essential part of the education system. "We're not a mob, we're the community you represent. If you ever forget that you should just leave the board because you don't belong here."
Tuesday's assembly was a follow-up to a meeting on June 5 when a vocal crowd protested Gratto's appointment which was announced earlier this month. Speaker Bobbie Cohen characterized the board's decision to leave the room and go into executive session at that meeting as a "huge mistake." By failing to follow a more transparent process, and excluding the community, "You created a situation that did not need to exist," she pointed out.
Gratto received a grudging welcome from the crowd. "You're here and we're stuck with you," Doug Alnwick, a technology and shop teacher told the new superintendent, "You're going to have to prove yourself." Gratto replaces current Superintendent Kathryn Holden, who resigned in January after disagreements with the board, more than a year before her contract was due to expire.
Former Board President Walter Tice expressed reservations about the short tenure of a
number of Gratto's previous jobs.
Gratto offered a brief picture of his previous employment history at the start of the meeting, saying he "would like to address all the concerns you have." He said he was fired from Ausable Valley Central School in 1998 after 10 years as the superintendent because of disagreements with a school board he characterized as "malicious." That board, five of the seven of whom did not have children in the district, "thought through their wallet" and sought to cut a number of school programs, Gratto explained.
Gratto said Ballston Spa Central School, where his contract was not renewed after a three-year stint from 2002 to 2005, "really wasn't a very enjoyable job" because in the large school of 4,500 students "somebody was always doing something wrong," he explained, forcing him to deal with "controversial issues" with little support from within the district.
He described his decision to resign in December of 2007 from his current position as an assistant superintendent at Windham Ashland Jewett Central School as a "calculated risk," one he took because he wanted to work at the superintendent level again and was confident he would be able to find another job. He said he had a "friendly relationship" with the Windham Board of Education and is leaving on good terms.
Sag Harbor Police Chief Tom Fabiano questioned the
board as to why Gratto "stood out above all."
"I've always put children at the forefront of my decision making and treated adults fairly," Gratto said of his 24 years of administrative experience. "You are right that I have to prove myself," he added, noting that has been true "of any position I've held."
To a suggestion by one speaker that he should agree to leave his contract so the board could start the selection process over in a more inclusive manner, Gratto said simply, "No." He said he would be willing to speak to any groups that wanted to invite him, adding he is "planning on listening a lot" before deciding on a course of action for the school.
Walter Tice, the former president of the Sag Harbor Board of Education, expressed reservations regarding Gratto's short tenure at his three most recent positions - four years at Brittonkill in Troy from 1998 to 2002, three years at Ballston Spa, and two years at Windham, respectively. Gratto said he left Brittonkill because he was seeking to work in a larger district, Ballston Spa, and chose to accept an assistant superintendent's position at Windham because "my stock went down," after his contract was not renewed at Ballston Spa.
In response to a question posing how closely the board vetted Gratto's employment history, School Board President Theresa Samot said the members of the board chose not to visit Gratto's previous districts because "the board decided it would not behoove us to spend taxpayers money to make the visits," relying instead on calls and unlisted references as a way to check Gratto's background.
Board member Walter Wilcoxen took issue to suggestions that the board acted in a deceitful manner in the way it conducted the search process. "Most of you know us personally and we've never been called 'deceiving people,'" he said, adding the board's purpose was "to serve the community best."
The Sag Harbor School Board was repeatedly criticized for failing to include teachers, parents, and other community groups in the process to select a new superintendent.
However, "We probably could have done batter in what you call transparency," Wilcoxen admitted. "We made mistakes," Trustee Daniel Hartnett added at another point.
Pressed by Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano as to why Gratto "stood out above all" other candidates, Board member Edward Haye explained the school board chose Gratto on the basis of his "broad breadth of experience."
Many in the crowd were dressed in red and black, the school colors.
Statements about the importance of creating an inclusive hiring
process drew sustained applause.
Gratto "had some very practical ideas as to how we might do better," Hartnett added, noting there was a "strong consensus" by the often divided board to choose Gratto to take over stewardship of the district from Holden. Samot said his strength in strategic planning would help fulfill the district's "need for plans where we are going to implement in the future."
Eileen Kochanasz, president of the Teachers Association of Sag Harbor, asked what made the board "exclude teachers and significant members of the community beyond surveys and focus groups" from the process of choosing a superintendent. The board did not want to face "undue influence from outside groups," Wilcoxen said. Haye added the teachers were not invited to participate in the selection process because they are currently negotiating a new contract and having employees of a district "pick their boss doesn't ring as sound practice," a statement that drew considerable ire from the teacher-heavy crowd.
"We teachers give a tremendous amount of time and are really insulted that we are [characterized as] a bunch of money-grubbing people who would have brought negotiations to the selection process," math teacher Jim Kinnier charged. Art teacher Peter Solow said teachers put in "ten, 11, 12 hours in the building, unpaid" in order to work with students. "We are more than just employees," he told the board. His remark drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
School Board President Samot concluded the meeting with an apology of sorts. "We do want input, and if we fell short, as it sounds like we did in this process, that's not our intent," she said.
A crowd of more than 150 concerned parents and teachers gathered in the Pierson High School library to deliver their message to the school board.