The COVID-19 crisis has caused the disruption or elimination of countless events, rituals and other markers of normal life for high school students across the country. The cancellation of prom last year was just another bummer for teens in what was a calendar full of disappointments and missed opportunities in 2020, and it’s part of the reason why making it as special and memorable — and of course safe — as it can possibly be this year is such a priority for students, faculty and parents in the Sag Harbor School District.
But at least one parent expressed frustration last week that a proposal she brought to school officials — one she believed would benefit both the prom-going students and the larger community over the summer — was rejected, with what she felt was a lack of transparency on the part of the district.
Near the end of a Board of Education meeting on April 12, Superintendent Jeff Nichols announced that the school would host the prom this year, but on school grounds, out behind the high school. He said the prom committee, which includes senior class advisors Terri Federico and Andrew Winkler, as well as students and several parent representatives, was working on figuring out other details such as catering — ideas such as food trucks are being considered — entertainment and theme.
Tracy Mitchell, the mother of a Pierson senior, and who is also executive director of Bay Street Theater, reached out to Mr. Nichols and offered the district use of Bay Street’s outdoor tent, free of charge, for the prom and other important school events in June such as graduation and the sports awards dinner, on the condition that it would be left up for the remainder of the summer, and Bay Street could host productions there.
The tent can accommodate 200 people — the exact current limit for outdoor events under COVID guidelines. It comes with professional lighting and a sound system, as well as 200 chairs, and Ms. Mitchell said Bay Street would provide the manpower needed to set it up. She said the theater was even willing to pay the district to keep the tent up for July and August, and added that the tent has all the proper insurance protocols in place as well.
Ms. Mitchell said she offered the use of the tent because she believed it would be mutually beneficial for both the district and the theater, which has been trying to find a location in the village to run productions this summer, after Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire denied a request to host productions on both Bay Street Theater property or at Steinbeck Park. Bay Street has been closed for 13 months because of COVID, and the theater building is both too small and too old to feasibly host indoor productions.
“We don’t want students to have to worry about the cost,” she said, referring to the prom. “Let’s give them something fabulous. The seniors have lost a lot this past year and a half, and we have enough parents that I know who would be willing to make sure the kids get what they want.”
Ms. Mitchell expressed frustration that the decision around the offer of the tent was discussed in executive session instead of at the public portion of the Board of Education meeting. She said Mr. Nichols told her it needed to be discussed in executive session because contractual issues were involved, and he also told her that this was not the first time an outside group had requested — and been denied — the use of school grounds.
Ms. Mitchell said she was unsatisfied with the reasons she was provided by Mr. Nichols, which included the worry it could set precedent for allowing other groups to use school grounds, concerns regarding the community impact of theater productions on school grounds, and possible conflict with school-related activities or maintenance that might take place over the summer.
Ms. Mitchell felt the tent could have provided a significant cost savings for the students attending prom, while at the same time providing them with a quality experience.
“The issue I have is that there was an offer on the table that is generous by any measure, and we were trying to do something good for the students,” she said. “As a parent, I wanted to give that to them, in a year where these kids have had nothing.”
Ms. Mitchell said she was not the only parent disappointed that the district declined the offer, but Mr. Nichols said he had not heard personally from any other parents expressing those views. Late last week, he said that while he was not at liberty to discuss the details of the board’s decision because it was made in executive session, he still believed the prom would be both an enjoyable and affordable experience for the students, pointing out that the senior class has some money set aside from various fundraising efforts, and they can continue to do more fundraising to make the prom both a quality and affordable experience.
“If the students and the class want a tent, we will go out and get a tent,” he said. “It’s not cost prohibitive.”
Pierson Middle High School Principal Brittany Carriero said the committee was working hard on putting together a prom experience that will be enjoyable for everyone. She said they were still in the “initial planning” stages last week, trying to settle on a date.
“The senior class has been meeting in order for their ideas and vision to be met,” she said. “There is a parent subcommittee that will help our senior class advisors in having their vision come to life. We are very thankful for the support of our community and the parents. Our seniors have had an unprecedented senior year, and we are grateful to provide this socially distanced prom. The students’ main focus is that they have some form of celebration all together one last time.”