By Kathryn G. Menu
Five candidates are vying for three seats on the Sag Harbor School Board in Tuesday’s board’s election and budget vote.
Candidates were asked to weigh in on a number of issues during two public forums in the last week—first at a Sag Harbor PTA/PTSA Meet the Candidates evening last Thursday and again at the Noyac Civic Council on Tuesday.
Incumbent candidates Thomas “Tommy” John Schiavoni and Chris Tice are seeking re-election. Mr. Schiavoni was appointed to the board last summer to complete the term of Daniel Hartnett, who resigned after moving out of district. Board member David Diskin is not seeking re-election, opening up a third a seat.
The incumbents are joined on the ballot by Stephanie Bitis, James Ding and James Sanford.
Ms. Bitis, 52, has lived in the district for 20 years; seven as a full-time resident. She is a real estate agent at Sotheby’s International Realty in Bridgehampton. Formerly, she had a career with both WABC Radio and CBS Radio in New York. She has two children who attend Pierson Middle-High School.
Ms. Bitis cited her business experience, including the management of a $50 million budget during her time at CBS Radio, as a quality that would make her an asset on the board.
“I know if elected the community is going to want to see complete transparency, and I agree with that, and collaboration is what is important for the teachers, the students and the community,” she told the Noyac Civic Council.
Mr. Ding, 64, has been a resident of Southampton for 37 years and Noyac for 15 years. A native of Brooklyn, he was an applied math and science teacher in Connecticut. He currently works as a consultant.
Mr. Ding said he would like to see a greater emphasis on technology and also expressed reservations about annual budget increases.
“What we are missing is our tech wizards,” said Mr. Ding last Thursday. Mr. Ding said he would like to see students compete in national coding competitions, and have students become “tech tutors,” teaching seniors Smartphone technology for community service.
Mr. Sanford, 46, owns Sag Harbor Advisors, a financial advisory firm he founded locally after 20 years on Wall Street. He has been a homeowner in the district since 2005, and a full-time resident since 2010. Mr. Sanford said he moved to Sag Harbor, primarily to give his son—now a student at Sag Harbor Elementary School—a better quality of life. He said he considers the school board race the most critical vote people make in local elections. The budget, he added, will become more and more difficult to manage under the state mandated 2-percent property tax levy cap.
“I don’t believe within the tax cap we can’t enhance and preserve resources for our children and deliver a responsible budget to our voters,” said Mr. Sanford at the Noyac Civic Council.
Mr. Schiavoni, 51, is a lifelong resident of Sag Harbor. For 26 years, he has taught government, economics and social studies in the Center Moriches School District. He has two children.
“I know education,” said Mr. Schiavoni last Thursday. “I know education as a teacher, as a community member, as a property owner and as a board member, and I am here to lend my experience to the district and the board.”
Ms. Tice, 54, has been a part-time resident of Noyac since she was child. She bought her first home in the area 20 years ago, moving there full-time 11 years ago. The school board vice president, she is currently in her fifth year on the board. A former executive at American Express and Sony Online Entertainment, Ms. Tice is a real estate agent with the Corcoran Group.
She cited her business experience and communication skills as assets she brings to the board of education.
“I am very passionate about public education,” she said at the Noyac Civic Council. “I grew up with educators and I believe in the power of a transformative education.”
Ms. Tice noted that since the state tax levy cap was enacted the district has maintained budgets below that cap, while not sacrificing curriculum or teachers, but expanding programming.
Both forums asked candidates for their view on creating a later start time for students at Pierson Middle High School. Currently, students begin class at 7:20 a.m. Starting this fall, classes will begin at 7:35 a.m.
All the candidates were unanimous that it would be better for students if school started later in the morning. Transportation costs, as well as after-school programs and athletics—particularly on shared sports teams—have been cited by the board as some of the issues with moving the start time to 8 a.m. or later.
“We have put a lot of administrative time researching later start times in Sag Harbor,” said Mr. Schiavoni. “We came up with six different plans … a lot came with high price tags, $600,000. We are moving it 15 minutes ahead. I think it is a good start and we need to continue the conversation.”
“I am in favor of later start times— 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. at the earliest,” said Mr. Sanford. “The research is overwhelming.”
Mr. Sanford said the decision regarding later start times should be based solely on what is best for children.
“In my opinion, there is no one else in the equation,” he said.
Ms. Tice agreed that later start times are necessary.
“I think it should continue to be on our agenda, and we should find a way to do it that is cost efficient, but also good for the children,” added Ms. Tice.
“I can’t imagine how they function when they come to school in the morning,” said Ms. Bitis. While she agreed there are challenges and budget concerns to be weighed, she said regardless she would like to see the district move toward extending the start time.
Mr. Ding suggested that the free period at the end of the day, now used by students for extra help, could be used to push the school start time later.
“I am not for spending any money to do this,” he added at the Noyac Civic Council.
This year, the school board began videotaping its meetings, but altered its policy to cut out any public comments, citing liability concerns. The change was approved in a 4-3 vote with Ms. Tice voting against removing public comments from recordings. All the candidates, save Mr. Schiavoni, said they would vote to have the meetings recorded in their entirety.
“There is no economic excuse for not broadcasting the entire meeting,” said Mr. Sanford at the Noyac Civic Council. “I think the public owns the whole meeting.”
Ms. Bitis said if elected she would vote to have the full meeting—gavel to gavel—recorded when the vote on that policy is revisited in July. Mr. Ding agreed and noted it is important to have the meetings recorded for those who cannot attend in person.
Ms. Tice said would remain in favor of not editing the taped meetings. She also defended fellow board members for taking a different view.
“I can assure you the board did it not to avoid being transparent, but because it was concerned with following guidance” of the district’s attorney, she said.
“After speaking with counsel I came to a decision, a difficult decision, and what I took away from it is everything that is said at the meeting, because we broadcast it, because we pay someone to do this, it is ours,” said Mr. Schiavoni.
He said he would continue to vote against it because of that liability concern.
“But we are not limiting anyone from speaking to the board,” he said. “We do broadcast our meetings.” Mr. Schiavoni added he has invited other entities, including The Sag Harbor Express, to record the meetings in their entirety.
How to contend with the state tax levy cap with growing budgets that include contractual increases was another issue candidates addressed last Thursday and again on Tuesday when asked about a potential $1.7 million deficit in the next budget year.
Mr. Sanford noted that as the housing market has accelerated, so have the number of people leaving the East End. Maintaining a tight budget is critical, he said.
“The other thing I don’t’ want to do is fire teachers,” said Mr. Sanford. He said he would like to look at healthcare and dental insurance costs, as well as at creating stronger revenue sources to offset spending. When asked if he would favor a larger student to teacher ratio, he said no.
“It’s proven to really be the enemy in the student teacher process,” he said. “I think children get lost in larger classrooms.”
Ms. Tice said developing revenue sources was critical. She noted that students in neighboring school districts are being sent to the Sag Harbor School District on a tuition basis. Sharing services, including the potential for shared administrative costs, is another tool, said Ms. Tice. She also noted the district has not replaced some of its teachers following retirement and when it has, has often made those replacements at a lower salary.
“It’s a tough one,” said Ms. Bitis last Thursday. “You absolutely never want to let a teacher go, you don’t want to let a program go.”
“I would think we could look at consolidation of services before you let a teacher go or cut a program,” she said.
“I think we have to be creative and shared services would be the first way to go,” said Mr. Ding. “We might have to cut an administrator rather than a teacher.”
“You never want to cut programs,” said Mr. Schiavoni. “I want to increase them.”
In addition to shared services with school districts, he said the school could also look to share services with municipalities like Sag Harbor Village. Looking at revenue streams from tuition, which he said could increase as the district makes special education an in-house priority, is another option.
Stella Maris Purchase
The purchase of the Stella Maris Regional School property, which is listed for $3.5 million and which the district is looking into, was an issue that divided the candidates. Mr. Schiavoni supports the purchase, as does Ms. Bitis. Mr. Ding said he would need more information, specifically why the district would need the property. Mr. Sanford said he would like to see the projected student population over the next two decades, which he believes will be in decline.
“I think it’s an exciting opportunity to consider,” said Ms. Tice. “It’s a singular opportunity. It is not often another school building becomes available in district.”
In closing, Mr. Sanford said he was running to make sure student resources are protected.
“I have some concerns about where we are going, where [business administrator] Jennifer Buscemi says we may be going budget wise,” he said. “I really am here to make sure resources for students are protected.”
Ms. Tice said if elected she will continue to work hard for the children of Sag Harbor, but ensure it is done in a fiscally responsible way.
“I would ask you to reflect on what my record is,” said Ms. Tice, adding as the district faces tougher budget years she believes her experience will be an asset on the board.
“I can bring a background of 30 years of business and budgets and big experience to the board, but ultimately what we care about is that every decision we make we make for the kids, and we have to do that under the confine of with everything we do we only have this much to spend on it,” said Ms. Bitis.
“Sag Harbor School District has an excellent program and I want to continue that program,” said Mr. Ding. “I want to promote leadership in cyber technology. I think that is very important. We have to educate our children and steer them in the director of this tech revolution that is happening.”
“For me, it is about programs at the school,” said Mr. Schiavoni. “I am here to build and maintain successful academic programs in this district.”
The Sag Harbor School District budget vote and trustee election will take place on Tuesday, May 19, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, visit sagharborschools.org.