It would be almost farcical if it was not so serious, but the latest news out of the saga that has become the reconstruction of the former Stella Maris Regional School building into the Sag Harbor Learning Center proves once more that it is incumbent on the Sag Harbor School Board of Education to take a role of greater oversight on a project that is not only millions of dollars over budget, but one where when issues arise, it is weeks, if not several months before board members — or taxpayers — are informed.
Last week, it was revealed publicly at a board of education meeting that trace amounts of arsenic, a potentially toxic chemical, were found in soil samples travel from dirt near a retaining wall at the rear of the property. While few details were offered to a crowded board room during Monday night’s meeting, documentation available to the board and the public via the night’s agenda revealed a memo dated June 6, 2019 noting the $24,327 cost necessary to remove approximately 300 tons of contaminated soil from the site and cart it away.
Four days after the meeting, Interim Superintendent of Schools Eleanor Tritt issued a letter to parents, staff and community members offer a few more details. Initial soil samples were taken in the late spring of 2019 as per New York State law for any soil removal and in two samples, one showed “a trace amount of arsenic. “Currently, the district has been made aware by experts in the industry that the small trace amount is not uncommon for soil of its kind in the local area,” writes Ms. Tritt.
While Ms. Tritt’s letter was reassuring, it also begs the question: why were more details not offered to the public during the board’s meeting including information already existing in documentation? And where is the demand for answers over how it is possible something like the discovery of arsenic, even in trace amounts, was discovered on a school property with both the public and board members kept in the dark for seven months?
The Sag Harbor Learning Center project is as much as $2.5 million over budget, with change work orders coming before the board at seemingly every turn. While former business administrator Jennifer Buscemi gave the public a financial update on the project in October, it is time for the board of education to consider a full audit of this project and certainly take a more proactive role in monitoring it to an eventual finish line.
In the past, we have often agreed that boards of education that micromanage each and every memo or discussion coming out of administrative offices is unnecessary and falls outside of the role of the board. That said, with this project in particular, it has been increasingly clear the public needs and deserves its elected trustees to become more involved.