New Suffolk School may remain open next year, pending settlement

03/16/2018 1:05 PM |

The New Suffolk Common School may be able to educate students in the red schoolhouse next year after all.

A vote scheduled for March 27, when district voters were to decide whether to send students in grades pre-k through 12 to local districts, has been postponed to April 17 due to a verbal understanding the Board of Education reached with teacher Martha Kennelly, according to school board president Tony Dill.

“The agreement would — if it is fully executed and ratified — it would resolve the dispute and permit the school to remain open,” Mr. Dill said.

The agreement, which has yet to be signed, was reached with the assistance of BOCES mediator Terri McSweeney, Mr. Dill said. The mediation meeting resulted from a petition by the public asking the board to explore that as a possible solution.

Ms. Kennelly and her attorney, Frank Blangiardo, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Should the agreement be signed and approved by the school board, the April vote would be canceled, Mr. Dill said. The agreement would not force the district to pierce the tax cap for its 2018-19 budget, he added, and the school would remain open.

The potential agreement comes less than two months after the board voted to establish the public vote to send the district’s students elsewhere. The decision came after the State Education Department ordered the school district to reinstate Kennelly to the classroom, with $300,000 in backpay. Her job had been cut in 2015. Her salary is $119,485 annually. She currently works offsite developing curriculum.

Ms. Kennelly lost a federal age discrimination suit against the district and last month a separate appeal before the Education Department to have her reinstated to the classroom also was unsuccessful.

Faced with the backpay payments, the board decided in January that it had three options going forward: keeping all three teachers, including Ms. Kennelly, as district employees and excessing both teaching assistants; keeping two teachers, including Ms. Kennelly, and excessing one teacher and both teaching assistants; or tuitioning students in all grades to different local schools and shuttering the building.

This school year, elementary students are being taught in New Suffolk, and students in grades 7-12 from the district are tuitioned — or sent — to Southold. Mr. Dill said at the Jan. 31 special meeting that if the district chose either of the first two options there would be a noticeable drop in enrollment, making it difficult for the school to continue educating students in-house.

The proposed agreement “takes elements of one of those plans and expands on it,” Mr. Dill said, adding that it will require some changes to the way the school is set up. He said he legally couldn’t comment further on the plan.

“It will allow the school to remain open,” he said of the agreement. “Based on our conversations with parents, it would essentially preserve the enrollment near the current levels.”

The district enrolls 15 students at the elementary level.

Should the proposed agreement not go through as planned, the April 17 vote would go on and the board would be prepared to make a recommendation on a district for students to attend next year, Mr. Dill said.

In January, the board also announced it was considering asking the public to vote on a bond to cover Ms. Kennelly’s backpay. However, the district’s lawyers have recently advised the board that the bond will no longer be needed, Mr. Dill said.

The next school board meeting is set for Tuesday, April 10.

Photo credit: Nicole Smith

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