New Superintendent In Hot Seat At Bridgehampton Board Of Education Meeting

Denise Merchant (in white) and Larry Street (in yellow) from the local chapter of the NAACP. CAILN RILEY

Bridgehampton School Superintendent Dr. Mary Kelly was in the hot seat at the most recent Board of Education meeting on Wednesday night.

For nearly half an hour, she and the rest of the board listened as two members of the eastern chapter of the NAACP — President Larry Street and Education Committee Vice President Denise Merchant — expressed their frustration with the process that led to the hiring of Dr. Kelly in June, and repeated their belief, as they did at a board meeting earlier this summer, that she is the wrong person for the job.

Ms. Merchant and Mr. Street had originally called for the board to revoke Dr. Kelly’s contract at a board meeting on June 23, and demanded answers and more transparency from the board about the process that led to Dr. Kelly’s hiring. On Wednesday night, Ms. Merchant and Mr. Street said they remained unsatisfied with the answers they have been provided by the district. Their concerns, they said, stemmed from circumstances surrounding her former job as superintendent of the Amityville School District, chief among them that she failed to take decisive and immediate action after a faculty member was caught on video using racially charged language at a sporting event. That incident, which happened on a Saturday in the spring, resulted in the staff member being suspended the following Monday, Dr. Kelly said back in June. An investigation was also launched that day. Newsday reported that Dr. Kelly received a settlement worth $230,000 that called for her to resign after working for seven years, under a contract that was not set to expire until 2023.

Ms. Merchant stated that the NAACP had closely followed the situation and, based on conversations with Amityville community members, and through their own research, they found several racial inequities that existed in the district at the time, and added there was a nine-day delay in the reporting of the incident at the football game. Ms. Merchant said that the settlement indicated that Dr. Kelly was essentially fired, citing the Newsday article.

The aura of awkwardness and tension at the meeting was palpable. While Dr. Kelly was aware of backlash to her hiring, it was the first time she’d had a face-to-face encounter with the NAACP representatives in a public setting, and they did not pull any punches when it came to sharing their belief that the board had failed to do its due diligence in the process that led to Dr. Kelly’s hiring.

“As a board, you had a responsibility to ensure you hired a superintendent who should be an exemplar of integrity, and who can safeguard the ethics of our nation and community and bring that here,” Ms. Merchant said. “And then that person can be a role model. But I have doubts about that.

“I had grave concerns, and continue to,” she added. “Our concerns have not been answered.”

Mr. Street said he felt a sense of distrust with the board, and then got into a heated back-and-forth with School Board President Ron White about what appeared to be a communications breakdown between the two of them regarding the NAACP’s attendance at the board meeting and attempts by Mr. White to arrange a sit-down between the parties, including Dr. Kelly.

“I don’t know how fair it is to penalize one individual for someone else’s transgression,” Mr. White said, referring to the Amityville incident.

Mr. Street accused Mr. White of “playing games,” and added he felt like Mr. White was being “shady.”

Dr. Kelly was largely stone faced and silent throughout the exchange, occasionally adjusting her blazer but otherwise making no visible indication that the intense volleying between Ms. Merchant and Mr. Street and Mr. White was making her uncomfortable. At one point, Mr. White paused to apologize to Dr. Kelly “for having to endure this uncomfortable conversation,” which immediately raised Mr. Street’s ire.

“Why are you apologizing to her?” he asked.

Toward the end of the exchange, Mr. White defended the board’s choice to hire Dr. Kelly.

“The school has worked diligently to hire someone who we feel is the best candidate,” he said. “We’re very comfortable that we have checks and balances and people who will work to continue to grow the district. We understand the issues in the previous district, but we’re comfortable and we’re confident.”

To which, Mr. Street added, “Well, we’re not comfortable at all.”

Eventually, Dr. Kelly addressed the small group of people in attendance, saying she was committed to working with everyone, including the NAACP.

“I welcome the opportunity to get to know you, and for you to get to know me,” she said. “I’m very confident that the work we do together in Bridgehampton, with all the stakeholders, will be to the benefit of all children, and especially children of color.

“I appreciate your comments,” she added. “And I know I have to build some trust and relationships with you, and I’m very committed to doing that.”

Dr. Kelly and the board were not the only people in attendance experiencing some discomfort that night. After the tense exchange, Bridgehampton teacher Aleta Parker spoke passionately, sharing her reaction to what she had witnessed. She thanked the NAACP for being in attendance, but said the dissension on display was upsetting.

“I’m a taxpayer and community member, and I sat in the old classrooms,” she said. “This is more than Dr. Kelly to me. What’s being reported, it’s hurtful. I wish there was a different way we could have done this.”

She urged the NAACP members to give Dr. Kelly a chance, now that she has already been installed in the position, rather than continuing to advocate for her removal, saying that if she has any issues with Dr. Kelly, the NAACP representatives would be “the first people I’d call.”

“My concern right now is that the spotlight is on Bridgehampton, and I’m tired of that,” she said, pointing out that a reporter was there, taking notes. “I’m tired of that. That’s all we know. It’s always a fight to stay open or a fight to survive. I just hate that we’re here, in this place, in this forum, with these kinds of conversations.”

Board Asks Police Chief To Address Safety Concerns

Eventually, the meeting moved on to a different topic, with Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki, at the invitation of Dr. Kelly, standing in front of the board to hear their concerns about safety and traffic issues related to arrival and dismissal.

Board member Carla Lillie pointed out that the speed strips and speed limit light on Montauk Highway by the school entrance seemed to be in need of an upgrade, and asked the chief if there was any way he could add a traffic control officer to help make the area safer for students and more efficient during drop off and pick up.

The chief said that while he could not make any promises, he would look into the possibility of upgrading the lights and speed strips, and said that while it was probably not possible to have a TCO at the school for drop off in the morning, he might be able to add one for dismissal, which would help aid the crossing guard already there.

Re-Opening Plan Discussed

Toward the latter stages of the meeting, high school principal Mike Miller discussed the district’s re-opening plans as it pertains to COVID-19 regulations. The details of the plan are similar to that of other districts in the area, in line with a newly released mandate from New York State Governor Kathy Hochul that masks be worn by all staff and students in school. Like other districts, the rest of the reopening plan is informed by guidance from the CDC, the state, and the Suffolk County Department of Health.

While students will still be required to wear masks, there are some changes from last year. Masks will be optional when students are outdoors, visitors will be allowed on a limited basis with prior approval, and social distancing guidelines in many cases are reduced to 3 feet, as opposed to the 6-foot guidance that was in place until the tail end of last school year. The district also will not require Plexiglas barriers, and Mr. Miller said the art department was working on finding a way to upcycle those barriers in a unique way.

Students and staff will not be required to be vaccinated or test regularly, at least for now, and students will be allowed to eat, socially distanced, in the cafeteria as opposed to in their classrooms. Parents also will not be required to fill out health questionnaires at the start of each school day for their children. More information on the plan is available on the school district website.

It was also announced at the meeting that the school’s new fitness center will be open to the public.