A Call for Smaller Classes

    Three parents of Montauk prekindergartners presented the Montauk School Board Tuesday with a petition asking the board to consider piercing the state-imposed 2-percent cap on tax levy increases so that the school can add a third kindergarten class next year and reduce class sizes in all grades.
    The petition, which was signed by 185 people, they said, asked that classes have no more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade and 20 students in other grades.
    Tom Flight, accompanied by Amy Duryea-Kelly and Paul Tough, an author of “The School of Hard Knocks: How Children Succeed,” delivered the signatures to the board. Diane Hausman, the school board president, said that although the board would accept it, there would be no comment as the meeting was a budget workshop and not a regular board meeting, where community input is on the agenda.
    In a follow-up phone call, however, Ms. Hausman said the board took some offense to the petition, which stated: “Without direct action, the financial planning going into the 2013-14 Montauk School threatens the education of the town’s children at all grade levels.”
    “I take great exception to the word ‘threaten,’ ” Ms. Hausman said yesterday. “This board would never threaten the education of students in the Montauk School.”
    The school board has frequently mentioned that it must take into consideration the senior citizen population by keeping the financial figures within their range. At Tuesday’s meeting, Ms. Duryea-Kelly said 50 percent of the signatures she had collected in front of the Montauk Post Office one day last week were from senior citizens.
    “I was surprised. I thought I’d receive a lot more resistance, but I didn’t,” she told the board, adding afterward that the signers also included young parents.
    The board began discussing increasing class sizes in January. Parents came out in force to urge them not to, saying that larger classes have been proven to reduce the quality of a child’s education. Originally, the board was going vote to change the class size policy from 18 per class with a maximum of 24 to a maximum of 28 students.
    But when they actually voted and approved the resolution, it gave them the flexibility to change class size depending on each individual class and omitted actual numbers. At the time, one board member said that including the numbers seemed to be pitting parents against school officials.
    Prekindergarten classes, which are exempt from the changes, can have no more than 21 students. This year’s pre-K enrollment was so large that students were divided into four classes, with two morning and two afternoon sessions.
    Jack Perna, the school superintendent, and several teachers have gone on record saying they, too, prefer smaller class sizes. “I don’t know what you’re all hearing out there, but I have never veered from a smaller class size,” he said on Tuesday. He explained, however, that adding another class would cost the district at least $150,000.
    Ms. Duryea-Kelly said yesterday that the parents feel as if they’re not being heard and are powerless in the situation. “We feel as if they’re saying, ‘Yes, we hear you, but there’s nothing we can do for you,’ ” she said on the phone.
    The petition also states that the group realizes that piercing the tax cap would mean a “small” increase in taxes. “But this is a critical investment in the future of Montauk,” it reads.
    Mr. Flight offered a tax rate schedule that he said was based on prior tax estimates. With it were applications for the School Tax Relief (STAR) program, which reduces taxes for owner-occupied, primary residences for senior citizens and people whose combined income does not exceed $500,000.
    If the school were to try to pierce the 2-percent cap, the budget would have to be approved by at least 60 percent of voters. If it didn’t pass, it could be put up for a second vote, but if it were voted down again, the school would lose the ability to increase the budget at all for next year. Parents have said they believe they could get enough people to the polls to pass the budget the first time around.
    Moving on, the board combed through the budget for the third time since it was released earlier this month. There have been several changes over the course of the weekly meetings and workshops. One item that was questioned by the board was a $28,000 increase for security measures at the school.
    Mr. Perna pointed to the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut and said he wanted more cameras installed, and possibly a vestibule so that visitors could not enter the school building until they were identified. The price quote was for $30,000, up from $1,700 in last year’s budget. He said that SCAN security had submitted the estimate, but he has since received two other bids that will also be considered.
    A teacher at Tuesday’s meeting asked the board to consider increasing the spending on the curriculum. Sue Nicoletti, who teaches fifth graders, said that teachers are using some textbooks from 12 years ago, mostly in social studies and science. Moreover, teachers need ongoing training. “I just want to make sure you’re aware of it,” she told the board.
    The 2013-14 budget as it now stands carries a $184,000 increase over this year’s budget, bringing it to $18.7 million. The board has until April 23 to adopt its proposed budget. The public budget vote and school board elections will be on May 15.
    At a school board meeting on March 12, Therese Watson announced that she will step down from the seat she has held for 29 years. As of yesterday, no one had filed the petition to run for the vacant seat. Petitions require 25 signatures and must be submitted to the district clerk by April 22. If no one comes forward to run, school officials will have to appoint someone to the board, Mr. Perna said.