After months of deliberating, the New Suffolk Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to stop educating pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students in the New Suffolk schoolhouse and instead pay to send all it students to other local school districts come September 2018.
However, New Suffolk residents will get a say on whether to ratify the school board’s decision. The board will float the proposition to close in a special vote scheduled for Tuesday, March 27.
“I have, with great reluctance and profound sadness, come to believe the best course for our students and our taxpayers would be to move forward with full implementation of [tuitioning out the students,]” board president Tony Dill said.
The decision comes after the State Education Department ordered the school district to reinstate, with $300,000 in backpay, former teacher Martha Kennelly, whose job had been cut in 2015. Her salary is $119,485 annually.
Taxes will decrease by nine percent should this decision pass muster with the voters in March, the board said. The cost in tuition to send students to other schools is approximately $30,000 per pupil.
“I know this is a very difficult decision, but we have to do what’s best for the children and their education and what we can provide for them here,” board member Jeanette Cooper said. “It’s a sad time for our community and staff and the children, but we have to move forward and do what’s best for the children.”
With the district facing financial woes, the school board discussed three options.
The first was to keep all three teachers the district employs, including Martha Kennelly, who has been working offsite developing curriculum this school year, and get rid of the district’s two teaching assistants.
Mr. Dill said enrollment in the school was expected to decrease in the 2018-19 school year if the board went forward with the first option.
“Several meetings with the parents of our present students have indicated that under this plan the degree of change in the educational program would be sufficient to motivate them to withdraw their children from the school,” Mr. Dill said. “Between graduation and voluntary withdrawals, it now seems certain the current year enrollment of 15 would drop to between seven and nine students next year.”
With this, the cost per pupil would be approximately $48,000 per year and taxes would increase 15 percent.
The second decision was to keep the two teachers with the most seniority and excess the remaining teacher, as well as the district’s teaching assistants.
Enrollment would be expected to decrease even further, to approximately five or six students, and the cost to educate each student would be approximately $46,000. Additionally, taxes would be expected to increase nine percent.
The final decision, which the board ultimately chose, was to send the elementary students — from pre-kindergarteners to sixth graders — to either Mattituck or Southold schools. Currently, New Suffolk School District pays tuition for students in 7th to 12th grades to attend Southold High School.
In this case all teachers and teaching assistants would be excessed. The school building will remain open for administrative and community purposes and non-teaching staff would be kept on part-time, Mr. Dill said.
Ms. Kennelly, who was reinstated to work in the district this August following a decision from the New York State Commissioner of Education, did not immediately wish to comment on the board’s decision.
The board’s decision came three weeks after the Long Range Planning Committee — a group of four residents tasked with coming up with a recommendation for the district regarding the future of the school — recommended the school remain open and reinstate Ms. Kennelly in the classroom if it was financially possible. If not, they suggested the district tuition all students to nearby schools.
“I’m saddened to see it come to this but I truly understand the feelings of the parents,” Lauren Grant, chairperson of the committee, said. “The bottom line has to be what’s best for the children.”
Residents had mixed reactions following the meeting, in which no public comment was taken.
“I don’t want to see the school close,” New Suffolk resident Barbara Solo said. “I had gone to school here, my dad went to school here. The kids have freedom. I believe [Ms. Kennelly] is just being greedy … the school is wonderful without her here.”
However, parents of elementary students felt the school board made the best decision for their children.
“It’s mixed emotions, but I think it’s a good decision for the children,” Libby Fannon said. “That has been the concern for the most part.”
Ms. Fannon and fellow parent Brooke Dailey said they weren’t surprised by the board’s decision on Wednesday.
“I came to school here,” Ms. Dailey said. “It’s hard, but I do agree with the board that we need to put the children in front of the nostalgia.”
Photo caption: School board members said they reluctantly came to the decision to shutter classrooms at the end of the school year. (Credit: Nicole Smith)