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Sag Harbor Parents Seek ‘Diversity’

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 19:00

Parents and community members called upon the Sag Harbor School Board on July 1 to weigh “diversity and inclusion” among the criteria when seeking out the district’s next superintendent.

Representatives of the school board’s own diversity and inclusion committee presented that suggestion as one of its three formal recommendations for the 2019-2020 school year. Two parents also urged the board to make its search as inclusive as possible, not just for the superintendent’s post but also for at least three teaching positions and other jobs that are open.

Katy Graves, the current superintendent, has announced plans to retire in January after almost six years on the job.

Michael Daly, a real estate agent who lives on North Haven, was one of the speakers. His children did not graduate from Pierson High School, he said, but from Bellport High School, which he described as a more diverse community. And he said his children were grateful for it.

“They said, ‘You know, Dad, we’re really glad we had the chance to go to school in a place that had a lot of diversity. We feel like it set us up and prepared us more for what the real world was when we got out of school,’ ” Mr. Daly told the Sag school board. “They learned how to deal with people of culture and people of color who are in a position of responsibility among their teachers and coaches.”

In Sag Harbor, he continued, “I think there’s an opportunity, now that you’re going to be picking a new superintendent, to really look seriously at walking the talk on diversity and inclusion in seeking potential candidates who may represent a diverse background.”

He cited a March 2019 report by the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University showing that on Long Island, minorities make up about 45 percent of the student body in public schools, but only about 8 percent of teachers in those schools. The report was based on data from the 2016-2017 school year, the most recent for which information was available.

Emily Weitz McLean, a parent of two Sag Harbor Elementary School children, said the district should seek out diverse candidates not just for its next superintendent but also for teaching staff. Children from minority backgrounds are more successful when they “see people who look like them” in positions of leadership, Ms. McLean said.

“This isn’t just something we should do out of the goodness of our hearts for people who fall under the umbrella of diversity,” she said. “I think it’s a really important lesson . . . in learning how to be successful in this world, which is becoming more diverse every day.”

Joan Dudley, a chairwoman of the diversity and inclusion committee, told board members during an official presentation that these are important considerations for students who hope to attend college.

“You can no longer graduate students out of Sag Harbor without having some sort of interaction with diversity and inclusion,” Ms. Dudley said. “Every college is requiring students to take courses in diversity and inclusion.”

She urged the board to consider diversity in “programming, curriculum, recruiting and hiring practices, policies, and training.”

Ms. Dudley called for School Leadership, the firm the district has hired to lead the search for its next superintendent, to include specific questions about diversity and inclusion when it screens candidates.

“We have to do everything we can,” she said.

Jordana Sobey, who was unanimously elected school board president during the board’s July 1 meeting, told the committee members that there is an item on the board’s upcoming “goals meeting” agenda about diversity and inclusion. Later in the meeting, she said there would be public input during the superintendent search, which would be a good opportunity to tie in the concerns expressed.

“Everybody is welcome to weigh in, and is encouraged,” Ms. Sobey said.

She said the superintendent search would pick up pace in September, when the district and the search firm plan to tap parents, community members, teachers and staff, “older students,” and other stakeholders for help. A formal search schedule will be announced at a later date.

Also on July 1, Alex Kriegsman was elected vice president of the school board by a vote of 6-0. One member, Chris Tice, abstained.

The diversity and inclusion committee also suggested that the school district make it a formal goal to have its suggestions “the filters through which all decisions are made for the upcoming school year.” The committee also wants the district to acquire the “Dovetail Learning Toolbox,” in cooperation with the elementary school PTA, to help children create a “collaborative, non-violent, and caring community.”

In other business, the school board approved spending up to $12,500 on the design, engineering, and installation of outdoor fitness equipment and a memorial rock donated by Drew Harvey, Nico McMahon, and others in honor of their friend Michael Semkus, a Sag Harbor native, teacher, and coach who died of an overdose in 2016.

Members agreed that the costs may exceed that amount, but said they hoped to seek additional donations from the community and from Mr. Harvey’s nonprofit organization, the Dawg Patch Bandits, to support the project. Mr. Harvey has said in the past that he has access to architects who could provide schematics at no cost, but Ms. Graves said that was tricky, because school districts must rely on architects who are familiar with school construction regulations.

Brian DeSesa, a board member who is an attorney specializing in land use, planning, and zoning, then suggested having the district’s architects simply review any plans that Mr. Harvey’s architects draw up. Ms. Graves said she would look into that option.

Ms. Tice suggested spending up to $25,000 on the project, rather than $12,500. “We have very limited equipment in our backyard for our middle and high school students,” she said. “It’s an opportunity that seems to solve a problem that we have, and then there’s the emotional and spiritual part of this, which is beautiful.”

Ms. Sobey, however, recognized challenges in financing the project. “Given our budget season this spring, I want to be sensitive to this fact that there were members of the public who spoke about being smart about our budget and being cost-sensitive,” she said.

If all else fails, Ms. Graves said, she and other administrators “can roll up our sleeves” to find room in the budget somehow.

“We have a limited budget that’s been approved by taxpayers,” she said, “but this touches people’s heartstrings.”