Sag Harbor Meets Its 2018-2019 School Board Candidates

The panel of candidates during the Sag Harbor School Board Meet the Candidates Night event in the Pierson High School auditorium on Tuesday night, 5/7/19. Michael Heller photo

Six people vying for three seats on the Sag Harbor School Board of Education convened Tuesday for a “Meet the Candidates” forum, hosted by the Pierson PTSA and moderated by The Sag Harbor Express, to talk about educational opportunity, fiscal responsibility, students’ substance abuse, later school start times, the search for a new superintendent and more.

The six candidates, in order of their appearance on this year’s ballot, are Yorgos Tsibiridis, Caleb Kercheval, Chris Tice, Brian DeSesa, Thomas McErlean and Julian Barrowcliffe.

“There is no replacement for hearing candidates speak firsthand or looking at budget data yourself,” PTSA president Nancy Hallock said after the forum. “Three of these candidates will have key roles in shaping our district and choosing the future leadership, so informed voters are essential. What came across from each of the candidates was a passion to serve their community and help build upon the district success already in place.”

Candidates opened with two-minute personal statements.

“Education has always played a big part in my life and helped shape who I am today,” said Mr. Tsibiridis, who moved to Sag Harbor three years ago and joined the school board policy committee almost immediately. He has two children in the schools and an MBA degree in finance from Columbia Business School. He is a real estate broker for Douglas Elliman.

Mr. Kercheval, a 20-year resident of Sag Harbor who has two children at Sag Harbor Elementary, has a background in information technology and is a real estate broker for Sotheby’s. He has served on the district’s transportation committee. “I’m very concerned with engaging the community more,” he said. “I find that people don’t get engaged until it’s a little bit too late.”

Ms. Tice is in her ninth year serving on the school board. She is a former PTA co-president and served on a committee that hired an assistant principal. She is an associate real estate broker for Corcoran and a parent of two Pierson graduates and one Pierson student. “I am absolutely passionate about public education. I’m a product of a great public school system, but I’m so, so proud of the system we have here,” she said.

Mr. DeSesa arrived in Sag Harbor 10 years ago and has a daughter in prekindergarten. A partner with the Adam Miller Group, he is an attorney specializing in land development. He was appointed in January to a vacant school board seat and is running to retain that seat. “We have great teachers, great faculty and great programming, but I think more can be done,” he said.

Mr. McErlean, who goes by the nickname “Tom Mac,” is a third-generation Sag Harbor resident with five children and three grandchildren. His youngest son and two grandchildren attend Sag Harbor schools. He is a member of the athletic committee. For the last 36 years, he has owned a landscaping and property management company that counts a large medical center among its clients. “It’s time to really unite this community,” Mr. McErlean said.

Mr. Barrowcliffe is a veteran of the international trading and finance industries who has also served for the last seven years on the board of a nonprofit private school in Manhattan. He has three children, including one son with autism who will be at Sag Harbor Elementary next year. “My life was transformed by extremely good education. I really care about this a lot,” he said.

The candidates were asked how the school district should manage spending in the face of declining enrollment, increased home assessments and the loss of much of residents’ state and local property tax deductions. They were also asked their ideas for possible shared services and whether they support the idea of school mergers.

“It’s critical that we try to have our plans clearly defined ahead of time and that everyone knows about them,” Mr. Kercheval said. “…The problem for me comes when you come to the game late, whether you were participating or not, you get people angry. I don’t think the transparency is as good as it could be.”

On the topic of shared services, he said he would like to reach out to the community. “We live in a vibrant community with accomplished writers and musicians,” he said. “I’d like to see us tap them and bring them in.” He suggested bringing in Habitat for Humanity to help not just teach students about building but also create housing for teachers.

Mr. Kercheval said he would prefer shared services to consolidation, saying, “The obstacles of having to merge districts seem insurmountable.”

Ms. Tice said a focus on zero-based budgeting is key. “You don’t just roll over what you put in the budget last year,” she said. “Setting priorities is key, and you plan and anticipate and adjust so you don’t get caught and get surprised. We have to understand we have people on fixed incomes.”

She pointed out that shared services go beyond transportation and collective purchasing, suggesting that certain types of staff members and programs and perhaps even groundskeeping services could be shared among districts.

“We’re open to anything,” she said. “When you understand each other’s needs, then you can find opportunities to have the shared services.”

Ms. Tice said that is more realistic than consolidation of districts. “From a taxpayer perspective, one district saves money and one district is full of citizens where it’s going to cost them more,” she said. “Unless there is a framework in which both sides can benefit financially, the more realistic opportunities are in shared services.”

Mr. DeSesa said preserving programs “is of vital importance” and that receiving year-to-year and month-to-month spending data is important. “Long-term planning is very important,” he said.

He pointed to technology programs as an area where shared services could be boosted. He suggested mapping out what each local district’s strengths are “in an effort that positions Sag Harbor to be a place where we can offer those programs and other schools can send their children here.”

Mr. DeSesa said he thinks the idea of school district mergers is “a great idea in theory,” but said it’s unlikely to actually happen.

Mr. McErlean said his approach would be “budget cuts without compromising one thing from these kids.”

“I’ve been on the listening tour, the I-don’t-have-an-opinion tour,” he said. “We have to work really hard together as a community, one community, one big team. We can’t do it by ourselves.”

He suggested emphasizing the trades within the local community, such as mechanics and building, potentially even starting classes that rival Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) programs.

Mr. McErlean also said he would “fight to my dying breath” any school merger that involves closing a Sag Harbor school. “I would never see that happen. This is my community,” he said. “…I don’t know the answers but I’m committed to finding it.”

Mr. Barrowcliffe commended the district for building its reserves — “we’re going to need some of it at some point” — and said “the elephant in the room is housing affordability” that is affecting all of the local districts. He said he would like to think about merging some services, such as special needs programs, for “smaller and more detailed consolidations.”

“I’m glad Tom brought up BOCES,” Mr. Barrowcliffe said. “The trade stuff matters a lot. I’d like very much to look into that. Local companies are the other way to do it, alternatively. With other schools and companies, let’s be outward-looking.”

On the topic of school mergers, he said “there’s not a lot of point in spending huge amounts of effort climbing that particular slope.” He reiterated his idea of consolidating certain functions of school districts such as special education.

Mr. Tsibiridis said it’s important to be fiscally responsible, yet continually invest in educational programs. “We can’t have all the burden on the taxpayers, but at the same time we have to offer stellar programs,” he said. “We come here for a reason. It is the best school out east.”

He suggested emphasizing Pierson’s International Baccalaureate program as a means of attracting students to Sag Harbor, and ramping up arts programs for the same purpose.

Mr. Tsibiridis said he would prefer looking into more shared services over the idea of school mergers. “I could see the savings from doing something like this, but at the same time every school has its own identity and culture, and by merging schools you’d be losing that,” he said.

With Sag Harbor Superintendent Katy Graves having announced her resignation and a formal search for her successor due to get under way May 16, the candidates were asked what qualities they feel the next school chief should have.

Mr. Kercheval said he would have liked to have had more information about the choices in administrative search firms, and wants to ensure the candidates are vetted with the community. “I want them to share the same passion that we all have for our school,” he said. “Will they be experienced in our level of school, where we are, what the expectations are and how well we work together?”

“I think it’s important to have a superintendent who spent many years teaching and hopefully going through the ranks because we are in the business of teaching children,” said Ms. Tice, who, as a sitting board member, has participated in a previous superintendent search. “You want someone who is a great communicator who connects with the community and is fiscally responsible.”

Mr. DeSesa said he would like to see “a leader who started from the ground up,” and said his personal preference would be “to look from within first” and then move outside the district. He also said public input will be really important.

Mr. McErlean agreed with Ms. Tice and Mr. DeSesa’s points about seeking a qualified person who has moved up the ranks, and said he’d also love to see a candidate from within. He cautioned against relying too much on the search firm because “from what I do understand, the list of candidates gets recycled a lot.”

Mr. Barrowcliffe added “executive skill” to the list of qualifications, comparing a superintendent to a mayor of a big city like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It’s just unbelievable how very simple things, when you get into the nitty-gritty, turn out to be very complicated,” Mr. Barrowcliffe said. “You need executive skill, lots of nitpicking, lots of follow-up.”

Mr. Tsibiridis said he would look for someone who could bring continuity “but at the same time someone who will be visionary.” He said he would look for someone fiscally responsible with a good educational background, and someone who is “aware that Sag Harbor has its own culture as a school, and he or she has to be able to fit into that culture.”

The candidates all agreed the opioid epidemic needs addressing in Sag Harbor to stem the general problem of youth addiction.

“These kinds of things I think should be put very bluntly and quite early to kids,” Mr. Barrowcliffe said.

Mr. Tsibiridis said he would emphasize athletics, arts and other activities for kids to keep them busy so they don’t try drugs. “We have to pay more attention,” he said.

Mr. Kercheval said he would encourage strict policies against substance use in school. “I think it comes down to educating the families, constant campaigns about the harm, constant awareness,” he said.

Ms. Tice said she would continue partnerships and education to tackle the problems. “Research shows it actually takes an entire community behind this issue,” she said.

Mr. DeSesa said the problem starts when mental and physical wellness break down and added that schools should screen for overall health. “I think we have to listen better and start earlier,” he said.

Mr. McErlean described himself as “a witness” on the subject of opioids.

“Drugs hit my family hard. It happens to the most innocent of people,” he said, getting emotional. “Boy oh boy, it’s all about the education and it starts with the freakin’ bullying on social media, peer pressure, having a few beers at a party turns into having a few joints, the vaping that goes on in this school is blatant. We need to have experts come in here. These kids need the knowledge. I preach to the kids — the decisions you make now are going to define your legacy.”

In 2017, when the start time was pushed 15 minutes later at Pierson, the school board did so with plans to revisit the issue in the future. Research from multiple professional organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, has concluded starting school later in the morning — specifically, around 8:30 a.m. — is healthier for adolescents. The candidates were asked their philosophical stance on later school start times.

Mr. McErlean said he wanted to see more research on the matter, but said he has observed the 7:50 a.m. start time causing students, teachers and bus drivers stress. “I would ask the community to really reconsider going back to earlier start times,” he said. “We all have to sacrifice a little bit. There’s a budgetary concern, a human concern.”

Mr. Barrowcliffe said he has observed the impact early mornings have had on his 13-year-old son, saying “once you get to a certain age, later starts work a lot better for you.” The problem, he said, “is not the fact that we start late — it’s the fact that we start late and our neighbors don’t.”

Mr. Tsibiridis said he feels the later start time has had overall positive effects on the students, and that he thinks it was a good move.

Mr. Kercheval said he has read the studies and “it doesn’t seem worth it.” “If you were talking about a much bigger shift, then I’d be concerned about it,” he said.

Ms. Tice, who was the only board member voting against the later start time in 2017, said she acknowledges the scientific research makes a lot of sense and that the theory is important. “It was a good idea, but not necessarily implemented in the right way,” she said. “I thought it needed to be vetted more thoroughly. … There are some pain points we haven’t worked out.”

Mr. DeSesa said he needed more information about the topic in general and declined to offer a position because “there is not any proposal to change the start time” currently on the table.

The school board elections and budget vote are Tuesday, May 21, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the Pierson gym. Two terms are for three years and one term is for one year.