Parents Object to Larger Classes

Peter Joyce of the Montauk Fire Department asked the Montauk School Board on Tuesday about what it would take to make the school building a hurricane shelter. Janis Hewitt

    A large group of parents of preschoolers urged the Montauk School Board on Tuesday to pierce the state-imposed 2-percent cap on tax levy increases rather than increase the class-size policy. One of the parents at that evening’s school board meeting said an effort would be made to mobilize voters to come out and approve the budget with 60 percent of the vote, which is needed to pierce the cap.
    At a meeting two weeks ago that most of the same parents attended, Jack Perna, the district superintendent, explained that the budget would have to be approved by that percentage in order to exceed the cap, or another vote would be mandatory. If that failed to garner a positive 60 percent, then the school would lose its option to increase the budget at all for the following year.
    In last year’s budget vote, 282 people went to the polls, with 214 in favor of the budget and 68 against it.
    At the board’s meeting on Jan. 8, members had discussed changing the maximum class size — 18 to 24 students — to 28 per class. On Tuesday they discussed leaving out an exact number regarding class size.
    Enrollment in the preschool class was so large last year that the board divided the classes into four, with a split session — two in the morning from 8:30 to 11, and two in the afternoon from noon to 2:30 — but the board kept the option to change it back should enrollment drop.
    Parents also rallied against that decision, saying a split session was too hard on working parents and wouldn’t provide the best education. The preschool classes are exempt from the class-size policy and cannot exceed 21 students per class.
    The final resolution, which was passed unanimously, reads in part, “The board reserves the right to consider class size per grade level based on the unique nature of individual students in classes.”
    Eliminating a set number, board members said, would avoid pitting parents against school officials. “I like no number. If you have no numbers it settles everything,” said Lisa Ward, a school board member.
    Kelly White, also of the school board, said that not including a number allows school officials to look at individual classes and see the differences in student achievement. Board members also said that a variety of activities in the curriculum already reduce class size on a daily basis.
    “There is never 100 percent in a class,” said Diane Hausman, the school board president. “Students are pulled out and a good portion of the time there are only six to seven in a group. This gives us some flexibility that we may need, not that we will need.”
    Therese Watson, another school board member, said a class-size policy is not a state mandate but that she personally favors smaller class sizes.
    “We would never jeopardize the education of our children,” Ms. Hausman said, adding that when programs have been cut because of budget constraints they were never of the educational sort. She said the board has an entire community to worry about and that senior citizens on fixed incomes cannot always afford school tax increases.
    Ms. Hausman also mentioned that the school district is now paying $27,000 in tuition per student at East Hampton High School. Teachers’ health insurance rates and retirement funds have increased, she said.
    A petition signed by 242 residents asking that class size remain as is had been handed to Mr. Perna earlier in the week. It asked that the board reconsider the policy amendment and keep the current class-size limits in place. One mother said that if 242 people signed the petition, those same people would get out and vote. “Why don’t we try to pierce it? We can mobilize,” Sharon Prince said as her hands swept across the room.
    “We can beat it,” added Marilyn Grande, who had turned in the petition.

Storm Shelter Talk

    Earlier in the meeting, Peter Joyce of the Montauk Fire Department asked the school board to make a list of what types of equipment the school would need in case another storm like Hurricane Sandy hit the hamlet.
    Mr. Joyce said the school is one of several designated shelters and in all probability would be used as one in the future. He said the Montauk Playhouse Community Center was another shelter but was inadequate as it does not have a generator. He said the department was seeking money for a generator and other equipment while the storm was still fresh in the minds of government officials.
    Mr. Perna said the school was able to get funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to purchase its generator.
    The other shelters in the hamlet are Montauk Downs State Park and the Montauk Firehouse, which in case of evacuation would be open only for fire department volunteers and their families.
    “A fireman is only good to protect the community if he knows his family is taken care of,” Mr. Joyce explained.
    He said the fire department is putting together a list containing all information about the Montauk shelters and what each could provide. He said the department had already identified about 500 houses in the harbor and Ditch Plain areas of Montauk that would be flooded in the case of a tidal surge.
    He asked for people to sign up to be Red Cross volunteers and said East Hampton Town Police Chief Edward V. Ecker Jr. was handling the training for what would be a one-day course. Volunteers would not need any other qualifications, such as knowledge of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, because members of the Ladies Auxiliary already have that training and would be on hand. A Red Cross volunteer would manage the shelters and be present for guidance.
    “If the school becomes a shelter, we need people in the building that know the building,” Mr. Joyce said in asking for volunteers from among school staff.
    The fire department is planning for Montauk as if East Hampton doesn’t exist, he said. While Sandy was raging, he said, there was only one shelter open and that was East Hampton High School.
    “We’ll be a free island out here if we get hit with a hurricane. It’s a reality we have to face,” Mr. Joyce said. “We are acting as a community and doing whatever it takes to protect our people.”