Search Begins For New Sag Harbor School Superintendent

The main entrance to Pierson Middle-High School.

Parents in the Sag Harbor School District voiced their concerns regarding diversity, special education and transparency at Monday evening’s forum on the search for a new superintendent, where community members were encouraged to make it clear how they felt the new administrator should handle business.

In April, the current superintendent, Katy Graves, 58, announced that she would retire in January 2020 after five years in the district.

School Leadership LLC, the firm the Board of Education hired to lead the search, held the forum in the Pierson Middle-High School auditorium, led by School Leadership LLC President Dr. Charles W. Fowler, and members Dr. Frank Chiachiere and Dr. Joyce Bissom, who’ve aided in dozens of superintendent searches.

The forum was supplemented by individual stakeholder meetings on both Tuesday and Wednesday.

“What do people in Sag Harbor value about their community and their schools that they’d want the new superintendent to continue and improve?” Dr. Fowler asked at the beginning of the session. “What are the leadership challenges the new superintendent will face?”
When they are finished with the first phase — gathering input from the public — School Leadership LLC will provide the Sag Harbor School Board with a comprehensive report they’ve collected through the various sessions, and also through an online survey available to residents on the school’s website.

The second phase of the search process is recruitment, vetting of candidates and selection, according to the firm. School Leadership LLC will advertise the position widely, members said, and communicate with about 1,400 people throughout the country, but mostly in New York, about what the board is looking for in the next school superintendent.

From there, the School Board will have access to applicants who’ve expressed interest in the position and begin to set interviews.

Ms. Graves current salary is $233,175, and Dr. Fowler said the district is offering a competitive salary in order to find the perfect candidate.

Stephanie Bitis, a former School Board member from 2015 to 2018, who has one child in the district, and another who graduated last year, addressed the panel, calling the Sag Harbor Learning Center bond project, which is several months behind schedule, a “train wreck,” adding that the district needs “somebody that is going to walk in and analyze immediately the burning issues.”

“We spend a ridiculous amount of time here worrying about capital projects and not enough time worrying about the kids and their education,” Ms. Bitis stressed, adding that School Leadership LLC could possibly look into hiring a current administrator in the building who is qualified to lead as superintendent.

Ms. Bitis, along with other parents in the audience, touched upon a perceived lack of communication between the district and the school community, and they said transparency should be a major factor in the search for a new superintendent.

“Every person in this auditorium wants the same thing in a different way. They want what’s right and good for their child. They want them to graduate here with the skills they need socially and academically,” Ms. Bitis added.

Leah Oppenheimer, a former president of the Sag Harbor School District’s Parent Teacher Student Association and the parent of four children who have graduated from the district, currently serves as the outreach educator at the Children’s Museum of the East End. Through her work, she said, she provides enrichment to Hispanic children.

Programs there are designed, in part, to make up for “a deep lack of equity, even in my own favorite school district, Sag Harbor,” Ms. Oppenheimer said, adding that the lack of diversity in the curriculum is troubling.

A social worker who’s had training in school leadership, she said the lack of partnership with families in the community is problematic, adding that there is “extensive research” on how school and community partnerships and increased focus on diversity impact all students’ test scores across the board.

“Well-integrated Hispanic and black kids in a community increases the entire pride and self-esteem of everyone in the school district,” she stressed, as other parents and community members in the audience agreed and shared similar sentiments throughout the hour-and-a-half-long forum.

She applauded the school for its International Baccalaureate program. However, Ms. Oppenheimer said, the year her daughter graduated from the IB program, only one person of color graduated too, although the district had a 22 percent Hispanic population that year.

“Our new superintendent has a lot of challenges ahead of her, or him,” Ms. Oppenheimer finished, stressing that a deep education of the global society as well as a local district is important.

Julian Barrowcliffe, a father of three children in the district, one with autism, stressed that there is a lack of special education options locally. He noted that if you look at a map of Long Island, there are 27 special autism schools — but none east of Medford.
Special education was an important topic among many members of the audience and as was increasing resources for those students.

The firm had spent the entire day on Monday, September 16, and Tuesday, September 17, meeting with staff, students, parents and community members, developing and articulating the background skills and knowledge desired for the next superintendent.