Few Fireworks, Despite Disagreements, at Sag Harbor BOE Debate

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The panel during a Meet the Candidates night in the Pierson High School auditorium on Monday, May 1. From left, they are Diana Kolhoff, Alex Kriegsman, Theresa Samot, Sandi Kruel and January Kerr. Michael Heller photo

By Christine Sampson

The pros and cons of institutional knowledge that comes with being a longtime board member versus the fresh perspective new candidates are able to provide was at the core of a “Meet the Candidates” debate this week between five candidates running for three seats on the Sag Harbor School Board of Education.

The debate was held Monday night in the Pierson Middle-High School auditorium, and was hosted by the Pierson PTSA and Sag Harbor Elementary School PTA.

Two newcomers, January Kerr and Alex Kriegsman, are running against three incumbents, Diana Kolhoff, Sandi Kruel and Theresa Samot, in the race for school board, which will be decided on May 16. Topics of discussion on Monday night ranged from later school start times to student wellness and issues such as parking restrictions around the schools, public comment during school board meetings — and much, much more.

The event was moderated by Kathryn G. Menu, the editor and co-publisher of The Sag Harbor Express, who opened the evening by asking each candidate why he or she is running for a seat on the board and what experience they bring to the table.

Mr. Kriegsman, a parent of three young children who is a former federal prosecutor and community advocate who got involved during the synthetic turf field debate, said he is running primarily to increase transparency, bring more professionalism to the school board and help the district reach its full potential. “With my background, I can change those things,” he said.

Ms. Kerr is also an attorney, who formerly practiced securities litigation, and is a parent of two young children and a writer. “My experience as a litigator has given me expanded communication skills. I’m well versed in the art of engaging in respectful discourse,” she said. “I believe I have the ability to move a ball forward when we are getting stagnant. I would like to use those skills to further the board of education.”

Ms. Samot, a health care professional and longtime Girl Scouts volunteer who is completing her twelfth year on the school board, said she wants to continue to use her background in “long-range planning, protocol development and implementation, data-driven decision making and benchmarking, and goal setting.”

“I do all of this with a focus on providing the best education to the most important resource we have in this community — our children,” she said.

Ms. Kolhoff, a parent of two and a former math teacher who is now a consultant on teaching strategies and best practices, said she is running to continue the work that she feels is taking the schools in a good direction. “What I bring to the table is I’m a team player and I like to find that middle ground where everyone can be happy … where we can all agree on points and move forward,” she said.

Ms. Kruel, a parent of three and former PTA and PTSA president who volunteers with Hamptons Collegiate Baseball and who is completing her fourth term on the board, said she hopes to continue using her extensive experience on the board to benefit the district. “I believe that children need an advocate, and I have spent the last four years doing advocacy for special education from Roslyn out to Mattituck,” she said. “I’m here because I love kids, period.”

Asked how they stand on later school start times, specifically with respect to the current school board goal of moving Pierson’s start time to 8 a.m., Mr. Kriegsman said he is in support of it as long as it is fully researched so that it is “done correctly and there are not negative implications.”

Ms. Kerr called it “a puzzle” and said she supports the research the district is already doing. She said she thinks creative ways to solve the puzzle can be devised.

The three sitting board members did not express specific personal opinions, with Ms. Samot and Ms. Kruel citing the current board goal and research that is under way.

Ms. Samot said as a health care professional “it’s a topic close to my heart … I look forward to making a data-driven decision that takes into account the well-being and the interests of all of the students of the district and, at the same time, is a cost-effective matter for all the taxpayers involved.”

Ms. Kruel said, “We will not stop with this project until we have unturned every rock. We will make sure every child is taken care of. We will make sure that they can play their sports. We know there are ways we can do this, we just haven’t researched them all.”

Ms. Kolhoff said she understands the needs of all sides involved in the later start time debate. “I believe there is a way that we can be creative and all put our heads together and come up with a way that satisfies those populations with needs to be met,” she said.

The candidates all agreed that students’ health should be a priority, especially given what has been described as regional substance abuse rates that are among the highest in the nation, although the candidates had slightly differing viewpoints on how wellness initiatives should be implemented.

Ms. Kolhoff cited a school policy that incorporates what are known as “the seven dimensions of wellness,” which are physical, social, emotional, intellectual, occupational, environmental and spiritual wellness. “I really like it,” she said. “It starts focusing on the whole child and it’s not about just students. It’s about all of us working together towards this cultural shift … I look forward to embracing the new policy and having everyone become familiar with it.”

Ms. Kruel called the issue “a moving target” and also cited the seven dimensions of wellness. “I believe it should start in kindergarten and move through twelfth grade. … I don’t know if we have even begun to touch the surface,” she said. “We really need to start working at home with the parents because they are the key to helping us succeed with their children.”

Ms. Kerr said she believes supporting the children’s mental health is a key step in preventing substance abuse, especially for younger students. “There is a correlation between depression, anxiety and substance abuse. I think that’s something we can focus on in the school district,” she said. “The seven dimensions of wellness are a very good start to this, but I would like continued focus on mental health issues.”

Mr. Kriegsman said he thinks it “starts at the top,” saying the district needs more consistency in leadership with regard to superintendents and other administrators. “It’s hard to have any policy, including a health and wellness policy, implemented successfully without people who remain in place,” he said. He added he would like to see a robust social media policy created and address substance abuse “more directly and openly.”

Ms. Samot said she supports the district’s plans to implement the seven dimensions of wellness policy across the grades, and said it would involve “reaching into the community” by partnering with parents, key stakeholders, community groups and others to make it work. “To use the adage ‘it takes a village,’ that’s what it’s going to take to improve some of the issues,” she said.

When the issue of parking around the schools came up, everyone agreed there is a problem.

“I have noticed morning program attendance go down a little bit,” Ms. Kerr said. “I think we can work with the village a little bit better on parking permits to make them seasonal and limit the time to 30 minutes as opposed to saying no parking anymore.”

Mr. Kriegsman said he doesn’t think there is an easy answer. “I think the school and the village need to understand they have the same problem,” he said.

Ms. Kruel and Ms. Samot cited a past referendum, turned down by voters, which would have allowed the district to purchase two nearby pieces of property to turn into parking lots.

“I think the solution has to be a collaborative one between the school and the village… I see a real urgency for this discussion,” Ms. Samot said.

Ms. Kruel said it would be hard for her to comment because she wanted to hear more directly from village officials. “At this point it’s really urgent and imperative to us to meet with them and have conversation,” she said.

Ms. Kolhoff said she also thinks the solution should be collaborative, and suggested exploring bringing back shuttles to and from local train stations for staff to more easily commute to school instead of relying solely on cars.

When asked about changing the structure of the public comment portions of board meetings, Ms. Kruel and Ms. Samot said they would prefer to follow the practices recommended by the New York State School Boards Association, which is to allow for open comment on any topic at the end of the meeting rather than the beginning of the meeting. Ms. Kerr and Mr. Kriegsman said they would be open to the idea of moving the unrestricted public comment period to the beginning of board meetings, while Ms. Kolhoff said she would consider exploring a compromise somewhere in between the two sides.

In a discussion of becoming “greener,” Ms. Kolhoff — a frequent Earth Day presenter at Sag Harbor Elementary — said she supports environmental awareness as a goal and said she is running a paper-free campaign in which she has opted not to use lawn signs, mailings and other physical materials.

Ms. Kruel said environmental protection “should be a serious goal” of the school board next year, and while the district has brought in water bottle refill stations and biodegradable lunch trays, “it’s not enough.” “I think as a society we have to come together, as a community we have to come together,” she said.

Ms. Kerr suggested a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching kids about the environment, incorporating science, math and social studies. “I think we can focus on field trips, getting the kids outside more, and doing more technical research with the environment,” she said.

Mr. Kriegsman offered a similar suggestion, saying interactive learning with community groups would be a good idea. “The more our kids interact with the community and realize how fragile it is, we can educate our kids about what happens,” he said.

Ms. Samot said she envisions implementing a long-range plan, similar to how the district acted on its wellness policy, to handle environmental education. “This is something that we need to do as a community,” she said.

VOTER REGISTRATION DAY

Those in Sag Harbor who need to register for the school vote may come to the district office on Tuesday, May 9, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to register in person. Those in Bridgehampton who need to register should go to the Bridgehampton School district office on May 9 between 4 and 8 p.m. Voters must be at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen and a resident of their respective school district for at least 30 days prior to the budget vote. Additionally, voters must not be registered to vote elsewhere. To register in person, bring photo identification, such as a driver’s license, passport or college I.D. card, plus proof of residency. Post office box addresses will not be accepted. Acceptable proof of residency includes a tax bill, utility bill or lease showing the voter’s current address. For additional information, call (631) 725-5300, extension 412 in Sag Harbor or (631) 537-0271 in Bridgehampton.

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