Tensions in the East Hampton School District over the fate of the John M. Marshall Elementary School principal reached a fever pitch on Tuesday night, as more than 100 parents, teachers, and former administrators rallied in support of Gina Kraus at an East Hampton School Board meeting.
Since announcing to her staff that she would not be granted tenure and that her role as an administrator would end in June, her supporters have leapt to her defense. On Tuesday, they formed a united front — speaking unequivocally of a school leader who possessed dynamism, patience, and a lifelong dedication to her craft.
The East Hampton School Board, which normally meets in the district office and whose meetings are typically sparsely attended, looked out of place on Tuesday night as it held court inside the high school’s library. The meeting had been moved to a different venue to accommodate the large crowd of Ms. Kraus’s supporters.
After sailing through the board’s normal business and before opening up the meeting for public comments, the superintendent, Richard Burns, read from a binder that included prepared remarks. He called it a “golden opportunity to address so many people at the same time,” indicating that it was his way of addressing the concerns raised over the past few weeks.
“Our district is at a turning point. We can take the paths which are leading us to become an organization of higher quality, or we can remain focused merely on the limiting constraints of day-to-day reactions to events,” said Mr. Burns. “I genuinely believe that we are currently steering our district in a direction which keeps us on firm ground, as we move toward the next horizon.”
He further addressed the need to be “proactive regarding community concerns,” one of the several goals that board members tasked him with last fall.
“In recent days, the board and I have experienced a heightened appreciation of the need for even more frequent and thorough communication with stakeholders, whenever possible,” said Mr. Burns. “We need to let you know, earlier and more often, what we are doing, what steps we are taking, on behalf of our students, parents, and taxpayers. I am working on ways to communicate better.”
But despite the apparent need for increased communication, neither he nor George Aman, the board’s president, addressed the issue concerning most audience members — the denial of Ms. Kraus’ tenure and whether, given such a show of support, the decision might be reversed.
Mr. Aman further clarified that his hands were tied as it related to matters concerning the promotion, dismissal, or removal of any of the district’s personnel. “While we welcome your input, be aware of our limitations to publicly respond,” he said, noting that such matters are handled during closed-door executive sessions. “It’s not that we are ignoring or not listening. It’s that we’re publicly forbidden to deal with these issues.”
Finally, the floodgates opened, as more than 20 parents and former administrators stood to speak. Over the next hour, as tears were shed and tempers raged, Mr. Burns and Ms. Kraus each sat with their heads bowed.
“You don’t go out looking for a hamburger when you have a steak waiting at home,” said Wendy Geehreng Walters, the mother of two children at John Marshall. Ms. Geehreng Walters described Ms. Kraus as “a gem in our district,” and said she couldn’t understand why “she was being taken away from us.”
Jim Brooks, whose children graduated from East Hampton High School, labeled the denial of Ms. Kraus’s tenure as “a great injustice.”
“I was tired of the outsiders who preceded him [Mr. Burns] and I believed this would be a new era in East Hampton. To my great disappointment, this did not happen,” said Mr. Brooks, whose tone turned combative when referring to Mr. Burns. “I’ve lost respect for the superintendent and I believe he can’t be trusted.”
At that point, Mr. Aman interjected, saying that while he wanted an open dialogue, he didn’t want anyone denigrated or bullied in the process.
Mr. Brooks continued, speaking directly to Mr. Burns: “Rich, as you look back on this decision, I think you’re going to see it as the worst decision you made in your career by not granting her tenure.”
Kim Jones, whose twin boys attend John Marshall, also spoke of chronic turnover among staff members. “You need a strong foundation to build academic excellence, but the foundation is rocky,” said Ms. Jones. “And you talk about building strong teams, but you can’t build strong teams if the members of the team are constantly changing.”
Chris Tracey, the former principal of John Marshall, said the denial of Ms. Kraus’s tenure has weighed heavily on his heart. He called it a “lightning rod that will diminish the trust in the district’s leaders.”
Ken Lewis, a Shelter Island resident and former school board member, described Ms. Kraus as a “homegrown talent . . . something that every school district wants — someone who has worked her way up through the ranks.” He labeled it a “disservice to your community and your district to allow this to happen.”
But despite the endless back and forth, little was provided in the way of answers or next steps.
“I hope the message is loud and clear,” said Courtney Garneau, who has three children at John Marshall. “You need to come back to your community and communicate with us and be transparent in your actions.”
Mr. Aman concluded the meeting by saying that “we are limited in what we can say about our thinking.” He added, “We are appreciative you have all come out tonight. We’d like to see you come out at every board meeting.”
When pushed, Mr. Burns similarly declined to discuss the matter, but said that at the next school board meeting on April 2, there “should be some type of notice.” A later call to his office went unreturned.
After the meeting concluded, a long line of well-wishers stood to embrace Ms. Kraus as board members immediately exited the room.
“I’m simply grateful for all of the support,” Ms. Kraus said, pushing back tears. She declined to comment further.