Friction in Amagansett as Boards Begin New Year

Just two minutes to ask questions, to be answered only by the superintendent, who was not there
The Amagansett School Durell Godfrey

Students may be on summer break, but local school boards are busy. Last week, they began their 2017-18 administrative year with annual reorganizational meetings, during which newly elected members were administered the Oath of Faithful Performance, board positions were designated, and new hires were officially recognized.

Amagansett held its meeting on July 5 amid a combative atmosphere that seems to have become the norm at that school. Eleanor Tritt, the district superintendent, was absent following the death of her husband, and Cheryl Bloecker, the district clerk, officiated. Board business included swearing in Kristen V. Peterson as the new board president and Patrick Bistrian III as vice president. Claudia Quintana, who ran for the board in May as a last-minute write-in candidate and received the second highest number of votes, was also sworn in for a three-year term.

The meeting began with Ms. Bloecker announcing that no questions would be answered since Ms. Tritt was not present, and that a two-minute limit would be imposed on public commentary from now on — a possible reaction to the often lengthy sparring matches that have occurred this year between Mary Eames of Amagansett and the superintendent. While a time cap is standard procedure at school board meetings, in East Hampton and Springs it is three minutes.

Ms. Eames, who seems to be sticking to her promise to “be present at every board meeting and keep asking tough questions,” appeared undeterred by the no-question rule or the new time limit. “Mrs. Tritt isn’t on the school board. Why won’t board members answer any questions?” she asked.

“We’re not going to waste time chatting about it; that’s how it’s going to go. Thank you very much,” was Ms. Bloecker’s terse reply.

Mr. Bistrian attempted to restore calm. “Are there any comments you would like to make?” he asked. “Just, no answers.”

Ms. Eames had a litany of questions ranging from why certain contracts had been amended last month rather than at the reorganizational meeting, to how many prekindergartners are expected in September. She also questioned why the school board has taken to having an attorney present at board meetings.

“How much and why are we spending money on a lawyer here when the school board could be answering our questions for free?” she asked, and added, “When will I get these answers?”

“When Ellie Tritt returns,” replied Ms. Bloecker. “She is the spokesperson for the board.”

“It’s a board meeting, not a superintendent meeting,” Ms. Eames shot back.

“As a board we’ve decided that’s the route we’re going to go,” said Mr. Bistrian.

Margaret Whelan, who as of September will have four children at the school, also addressed the board that evening, commenting that in her opinion its role is to act independently from the school administration, and to engage with the public, as well as to provide perspective and share the reasoning behind certain decisions. In an email to The Star, Ms. Whelan expressed dismay over the board’s decision not to answer questions at the meeting and instead refer them to the superintendent.

“The board seems to have deferred judgment to Eleanor Tritt, and as such they are not fulfilling their obligation to the town and taxpayers; no other school board operates this way,” she wrote, adding, “I was truly shocked and dismayed that the board clerk barked at a taxpayer to ‘stop wasting people’s time by asking questions,’ and that her rudeness and hostility were met by indifference from the entire board.”

In Springs, school board members convened last Thursday for their annual reorganization, which was the first official meeting for the district’s newly hired superintendent, Debra Winter. It was also a first for a newcomer to the board, Patrick Brabant, who was elected in May along with Tim Frazier, the board’s vice president. Together with Barbara Dayton, the president, they took the oath of office. For Ms. Dayton, it signaled the start of the third and final year of her term.

Another newcomer is Michael Hennery, recently hired as school business administrator to replace Carl Fraser, who had presided in an interim capacity since 2015.

Ms. Winter, the new superintendent, presented a noticeably different version of school chief from that of her predecessor, John J. Finello, who rarely engaged during board meetings. Mr. Finello was often the target of community ire regarding his $975 per-diem stipend, paid to keep him on the job while the school searched for a replacement.

Ms. Winter appears to have conducted extensive research throughout the school, speaking with several students and alumni and asking for advice. She visited East Hampton High School, she said, and met with several of the 61 Springs alumni who graduated this year. “They were very surprised that I had come to see them,” she said, smiling. “I asked them about their future plans and their advice for me. It was very interesting. They told me to respect the students and the teachers. Show them that you care.”

The new superintendent also brainstormed with 88 recent eighth-grade graduates who will be freshmen at the high school in September. “For the gifted programs — the children who are accelerated in math and science — they have to give up art. There’s simply no room in their schedule for art, and that’s a shame,” she reported. The rising freshmen also impressed upon her their desire to see a mentoring program at the Springs School, where older kids can offer support to younger ones.

Underscoring her announced intention to be a more visible force around the school, Ms. Winter told the audience that “Springs School is officially on Twitter. Anyone is welcome to tweet or follow me at @DwinterSprings.” Most recently, she tweeted: “Springs Septic update: Drilling to get soil sample, water found at 10’9”.”

Ms. Dayton then gave a rundown on the school’s septic issues. Preliminary surveys are underway around the grounds, she said, adding that board members had met earlier that day with Peter Scully, a veteran state environmental official once crowned “sewer czar” by Newsday, along with East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell, Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, Kim Shaw, director of the Natural Resources Department, East Hampton Town Trustees, and Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming.

“We got a good dialogue started on how to move forward on our specific needs, given our proximity to Accabonac Harbor,” said Ms. Dayton. “It is exciting to see the people who are willing to get behind our school and work with us.”

The board also agreed to look into hiring an experienced grant writer who could help the school figure out which grants might be available to help offset the substantial costs of a new septic system.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” Ms. Dayton concluded. “We are waiting for information to be accumulated. Once we see what the assessment tells us, we will work on a short-term plan and a long-term plan. It’s important for us not to have a cobbled-together system but a cutting-edge, nitrogen-reducing, state-of-the-art system.”

Starting now, the board will alternate its meetings with work sessions, with two board meetings per month at the school. There will be a work session on Tuesday at 7 p.m.; the next regular meeting will be on Aug. 7 at 7 p.m.

With no new members on the East Hampton School Board, it was business as usual on Tuesday evening and no major reshuffling. J.P. Foster was re-elected as board president and Christina DeSanti as vice president.

Richard Burns, the district superintendent, announced that 67 pre-kindergartners have signed up to join the free Eleanor Whitmore full-day program this September. Five open spots are still available to children who live in East Hampton and will turn 4 before Dec. 1.

Mr. Burns also confirmed that a new French teacher had been hired at the high school to replace Amy Cole, who held that position for the last 12 years. There had been rumors of French being removed as a foreign language option, but they are now proven false: Simone Martell will take over in September.

As reported by The Star in March, the board confirmed that Sandpebble Builders continues to seek further compensation despite receiving about $750,750 last year from the district. The dispute goes back to 2002, when Sandpebble, a Southampton firm, contracted to make major renovations to the district’s three schools. The district subsequently signed a contract with a different construction company, and a series of lawsuits and countersuits followed. To date, the district has paid the amount it was ordered to come up with, about $1.6 million with interest. In addition, it has spent about $3 million on attorneys’ fees.

On Tuesday, Jacqueline Lowey, a board member, said that “people should understand that Sandpebble wants more money not from the board of education, but from the taxpayers.”

The next board meeting will be on Aug. 1 at 6:30 p.m