After an unnecessarily messy period in which the East Hampton School District denied tenure to a well-regarded elementary school principal, stumbled into a likely lawsuit by bus personnel, and repeatedly defied state law on sharing documents under discussion at open meetings, it is little surprise that as many as five newcomers will seek places on the school board next month. Such moments come and go with school boards, and East Hampton is joined by Wainscott in illegally withholding documents and by Montauk in generating parents’ ire, in the latter case over class sizes.
By their very nature, school bureaucracies are unwieldy and their operations are difficult for board members to fathom, let alone manage. In Sag Harbor, the school board has been torn apart by disagreement and resignations. Nevertheless, East Hampton’s board strikes us as particularly malleable and not prone to learn from its mistakes, especially on personnel and business matters. For example, some have said that a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with a former construction manager could have been averted had the board followed the state Open Meetings Law when it decided some years ago to fire him. The demotion of Gina Kraus from John Marshall Elementary School principal to teacher blindsided her and parents — and touched off a furor that might have been avoided had basic procedures been followed.
It may appear a trifling observation, but it is our opinion that in allowing the district’s superintendent and business manager to sit during board meetings at the dais with the elected members is both a practical and symbolic mistake. Boards are supposed to act as the community’s representatives, seeking information from administrators and balancing their proposals with taxpayers’ and students’ needs. Giving administrators equal standing creates subtle pressure on board members to side with them in disputes and to vote the way the administrators would like. We would like to hear prospective board members’ views on this issue.
The watchdog role of a school board should not be abandoned. Having the superintendent and business manager sit to the side would make it clear that they are there to assist the board, or perhaps better yet, asking them to sit in the audience, shoulder to shoulder with other staff members, parents, and the press, may help remind everyone who is supposed to be in charge.