By Carrie Ann Salvi
In the wake of criticism regarding the cancellation of a traditional homecoming bonfire at Long Beach, the executive board of the Sag Harbor Parent Teacher Student Association resigned on Wednesday morning.
President Aura Winarick, vice president Mary Anne Miller, secretary Elena Krotman, treasurer Benito Vila, and former PTSA president Stacey Britt announced their decision in an open letter.
“We came together in hopes of bringing a new energy and a new vitality to Pierson PTSA activities,” reads the resignation statement. “Our processes and communication to date have been met with such resistance in the press and has been so scrutinized by certain groups that we realize we cannot effectively achieve the good we want to bring into the school community. We are choosing instead to spend time with our families and loved ones and to serve our community in other ways. We have submitted our plans for Homecoming and preliminary schedule of events for the year to the Pierson administration. We have also contacted the regional administrators of the New York State PTSA with regards to our resignation. We remain committed, both individually and collectively, to seeing Pierson students excel and bringing a new level of community involvement into Pierson Middle/High School.”
“I am so sad to lose such a talented and child-centered PTSA executive board,” district Superintendent Katy Graves said. “Those that volunteer, especially those that volunteer to enhance the lives of children, are the unsung heroes of our small communities. Replacing this group will be a challenge for our school community.”
As to the future of Pierson’s homecoming weekend, scheduled for October 9 and 10, the group wrote, “We have submitted our plans for homecoming and preliminary schedule of events for the year to the Pierson administration.”
The resignation was emailed to the press two days after a meeting in Pierson principal Jeff Nichol’s office Monday following the announcement of the PTSA’s decision to nix the beach bonfire and bring Friday events into the school gym and Mashashimuet Park.
At an August 17 school board meeting, Mr. Nichols—who had been working with the PTSA on homecoming plans—reported the bonfire would not be a part of the schedule. The PTSA issued a press release on Friday that noted concerns about “drunkeness, profanity and bullying” at the annual homecoming bonfire.
“A bonfire is not necessarily cancelled—it’s just that PTSA and school administrators are currently not interested in putting that part of homecoming together,” wrote Ms. Winarick on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Ms. Winarick added she had learned from the regional and state PTSAs that bonfires are on their “red light list” because of the “risk and danger” they pose.
Monday’s meeting was attended by Mr. Nichols, Sag Harbor School Board member Stephanie Bitis, the liasion to the PTSA, Athletic Director Eric Bramoff, Ms. Graves and the PTSA executive board. Prior to that meeting, the PTSA on Friday released a statement about homecoming as well as a preliminary schedule.
“By its charter, via the National PTSA, our local PTSA does not require approvals to host or sponsor events from the local board of education,” the statement read. “That said, the Pierson PTSA works closely with the Pierson administration on all events to be sure that they are appropriate, well received and an enhancement to the students’ educational experiences.”
The change in the homecoming format was in part due to the concerns about drunkenness, profanity and bullying, but Ms. Winarick on Monday said the group was still working on the plans and an announcement should not have been made at last week’s board meeting.
“I misspoke for you guys saying this was decided. The blame falls with me,” said Mr. Nichols.
Mr. Nichols and some members of the school board also indicated the Sag Harbor Booster Foundation was a part of homecoming weekend decisions.
According to Robert Evjen, the foundation’s president, the organization was not involved in the decision to drop the bonfire from homecoming weekend.
“The Booster Foundation Board, as a whole, wanted to enhance the general activities of homecoming, and offered its assistance only,” said Mr. Evjen.
Festivities have always included the construction of floats, a Friday night bonfire, and a Saturday morning parade down Main Street followed by skit performances and games at Mashashimuet Park. Mr. Nichols called a change in Friday’s venue a “tweak” that could work out for the best for kids as well as volunteers and administrators. It would allow the involvement of younger students as well, keeping with the goal of encouraging school spirit.
Concerns arose a few years ago, Mr. Nichols explained, around student behavior that stemmed from class-against-class “warfare,” which included invasions and attacks of float construction sites. Insulting chants were part of the tradition too, Mr. Nichols said, but that has changed to a song and dance competition, which he said was an example of how small changes can be in the best interests of the kids and their safety.
Ms. Miller said at Monday’s meeting that for three of the last six years, the event was held in the gym due to poor weather conditions, resulting in last-minute changes with a minimal amount of volunteers. Having the activities on school grounds, as well as in Mashashimuet Park, would build better rapport with the community, she said, adding that historically, the concept of homecoming involves alumni coming home to celebrate their school ties.
Ms. Bitis weighed in to the PTSA board at Monday’s meeting, “From what I understand the bonfire is an important part,” she said, and asked the board to revisit it.
Ms. Graves said she believed whenever a change is made in a school district, the community needs to be apprised of those changes. “Change is hard for a community,” she said, “Let them know now, and not a week before” the event.
“The communication was there the entire time, and Jeff was put on the spot on Monday night, and that’s all it was,” said Ms. Winarick.
“Moving forward,” Mr. Nichols said, he and Mr. Bramoff would communicate with class advisors.
A homecoming committee will be formed with parents, students and teachers, and there are already several students who signed up to be part of the planning, according to Ms. Miller and Ms. Winarick, who said that a form has already been sent out with the message that the PTSA is actively seeking members.
Mr. Bramoff, who was a Pierson student the first year of the homecoming bonfire, offered a positive perspective on events leading up to Monday’s meeting, stating, “Now it is going to get worked out in a timely manner. It won’t be last minute.”