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Facing large legal fees, three options for New Suffolk School

The New Suffolk School District, which has just 15 students, could end up shutting its doors in the near future.

Faced with large legal fees related to multiple lawsuits by teacher Martha Kennelly, the district is looking to determine the best way to pay off its debts while still supporting its students. 

Other options the district is considering include selling the ball field, which was restored in 2015, and reorganizing the faculty and classroom programs, school board president Tony Dill said.

“The school is looking at a number of options, both in respect to future operations and to various means of funding our requirement to pay Ms. Kennelly her two years’ worth of back pay,” Mr. Dill said.

Ms. Kennelly spent 10 years, from 2004 to 2014, on special assignment with the Mid East Suffolk Teacher Resource and Computer Training Center. MESTRACT reimbursed New Suffolk for Ms. Kennelly’s salary and benefits while she worked there.

She opted to return to the district for the 2014-15 school year. In April 2014, the district had created a new hybrid tenure area that did not include without Ms. Kennelly and she was hired instead to develop curriculum from home that year. In an effort to cut costs, she was excessed in June 2015.

In August 2017, New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia ruled that the New Suffolk district had to reinstate Ms. Kennelly, saying the creation of the new hybrid tenure area was “not permissible.”

The district is currently paying Ms. Kennelly salary totaling about $120,000, according to Ms. Kennelly. Her attorney, Frank Blangiardo, said the district is also required to pay her additional salary and benefits from the past two years, totaling to more than $300,000. But that amount is not being paid because the district cannot afford it.

Mr. Blangiardo is representing Ms. Kennelly — who has been working offsite on curriculum since September — in a separate federal age discrimination case against the district. Should she win that, the school district could potentially owe her even more. She is seeking reinstatement to the classroom, attorneys’ fees and compensation for mental anguish, Mr. Blangiardo said.

“Ideally, I’m hoping I can be reinstated in the classroom and working with students,” Ms. Kennelly said in an interview. “That has been my goal from the beginning. I have always had a very special place in my heart for New Suffolk and I want to work with the students again.”

Depending on which route the district takes, that may not be possible for Ms. Kennelly — or the school’s other four staff members.

Mr. Dill said three community members were appointed to a long-range planning advisory group that will review the district’s available option, considering all facets of each one and their potential ramifications. He said the group has been working since October and is expected to present a recommendation to the school board at its December or January meeting.

“I’m very concerned for the community and concerned for the students,” Ms. Kennelly said. “These conversations about selling the ball field and other ways they’re trying to generate the funds to comply with the back pay still owed to me seems so premature in that they haven’t sought to resolve issues around any claims for insurance.”

Mr. Dill said insurance claims were not an option in this case.

He said there is already interest in purchasing the 1.4-acre ball field. However, the school cannot sell the field without a public vote, he said. Proceeds from a sale of the ball field would go toward Ms. Kennelly’s back pay.

The district may also restructure the teaching staff, which currently consists of teachers Sara Campbell and Nicole Pollina and two teaching assistants. In order to pay Ms. Kennelly, Mr. Dill said, the number of people on staff would have to be reduced.

“Going forward, we do not have the financial resources to continue the faculty we presently employ,” he said. “We were told by the commissioner who we have to employ. That is going to force us to make major retrenchments if the school stays open.”

If the school were to close, Mr. Dill said, all district students would be shifted to Southold schools.

Currently, students in pre-K through grade six attend school in New Suffolk and those in grades seven through 12 attend Southold. He added that in the event of a closure,the New Suffolk school building would remain standing but all staff would be laid off.

Should the board choose to close the school, he said, that decision would be only partly related to Ms. Kennelly’s lawsuits. Some district parents, he noted, are already considering removing their children from the school.

“That has to do with how we see the school able to operate in the future,” Mr. Dill said. “We have two basic criteria: having the maximum educational opportunity for the students and, related to that, [doing] it in the most cost-efficient manner. We recognize all the options that we have going forward will diminish the quality of the school. There are no good options. This is just the case of trying to find the one that does the least harm to the student and the taxpayer.”

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CORRECTION: The annual salary and benefits listed for Ms. Kennelly was listed incorrectly. The number is about $120,000, not $180,000.

Photo caption: New Suffolk School is faced with large legal fees . (Credit: File photo)