Gurney's Inn
February 14, 2007

Sag Harbor Schools: Wasting Taxpayer $$$?

By Lisa Finn

A Spanish teacher, hired to replace an educator leaving the Sag Harbor School District, is paid almost $98,000 — almost twice the salary of her predecessor.

A renowned science teacher, hired by the Sag Harbor district, has his salary bumped up to an unprecedented step 18 and gets paid nearly twice what he was earning in East Hampton as a step five (fifth year) teacher.

A pupil personnel director, hired at more than $120,000 a year, has her predecessor working with her during her transition period into the position — and he is earning $675 a day while doing so.

Such are the scenarios that have a school district buzzing — and residents asking questions. Why would school districts hire new employees to replace long-time teachers at skyrocketing salaries? Is it a quest for excellence, or an exorbitant waste of taxpayer dollars, as some critics charge?

Former longtime Sag Harbor School Board member Tom Horn questioned the district's new hiring policies. According to Horn, when he was on the board, there was a policy in place that limited incoming teachers at a maximum of step 5, regardless of how many years of service that teacher had at another district. And even then, said Horn, an individual could only be hired at the higher step five if the position was hard to fill.

The step five rule helped protect employees who "gave good and loyal service for four years," so that someone couldn't step in at a much higher salary. Former Sag Harbor School Superintendent and current Wainscott School Superintendent Dominic Annacone agreed that when he left the district in 1991, the district policy was that new teachers would not receive credit for more than a maximum of five years' transference from their old district.

Horn questions today's hiring practices. "The superintendent should not be having an employment center for friends or doing favors for friends of friends," he said. "They may call it networking but it's certainly something that's not in the interest of the school district."

Kathryn Holden, Superintendent of the Sag Harbor School District, said no such step five hiring policy has been in place since she began her stint at the institution in 1999. "The agreement with the teachers' association is that the superintendent of schools has the latitude to hire a person at any salary."

Prior to her arrival, said Holden, the policy was that the superintendent has the authority to negotiate a salary with a candidate; that salary proposal was then sent to the board and the board ultimately voted on the salary. She said the district strives to higher the best applicants.

Sag Harbor business administrator Len Bernard said he has completed an independent breakdown of salaries. "The analysis showed that when you add the salaries together of those who left and who replaced them, we're actually saving money," he said. According to Bernard's replacement analysis, the district experienced a savings of $18,438 in the past year

For example, he said, longtime physical education teacher Debbie Jayne, who was paid over $102,000 annually, was replaced by Shannon Judge who, at just over $50,000, is paid half the salary.

A new psychologist on staff, Bernard said, is making below $50,000. Holden added that the district is planning to hire a new inclusion teacher for the ninth grade special education program at $52,000.

Still, there are some who question the replacement of departing Spanish teacher Shirley Speruta, who earned $47,657, with Mary Marienfeld, formerly of the Southampton School District, who was hired at $97,780.

Marienfeld, said Holden, "was one of the top performing teachers in the Southampton School District, with a proven track record." Of all those interviewed, she was "hands down" the best and most qualified candidate, said the superintendent, with dual certification. But Marienfeld's husband was also brought over for a salary of more than $85,000 as a gym teacher and to coach the boys' varsity basketball team.

New Spanish teacher Rafaela Messinger, hired at $96,666, was the best applicant for the job, said Holden. There is a screening process that involves an interviewing committee. "When we go through that process, we always hire the best candidate," she said. "Sometimes it's the brand new person, right out of college, that brings experience, creativity, energy and intelligence. And sometimes it's the most experienced candidate. It's a quality driven process."

Dr. Robert Schumacher, hired at a step 18, has a Ph.D., said Bernard. Schumacher, wooed away from East Hampton, has mentored an Intel-award semifinalist and is considered a catch.

Robert Remkus, who was a member of the Sag Harbor School Board for 17 years, said paying more for a science or math teacher is justified. But in most cases, especially where gym teachers are concerned, Remkus said, "I don't think paying more is going to guarantee better quality."

As for Sag Harbor, he said, "I've heard rumors. I think they're going crazy in Sag Harbor. I would hope it's not a reward for friends, or favoritism, or someone who's related to someone."

Remkus also said new hires, such as gym teachers, are often best straight out of college, when they are filled with exuberance and not burned out.

Walter Tice, president of the Sag Harbor school board, disagreed. "That's the wrong premise, to compare a person straight out of school without any classroom experience with a teacher who has years of experience." A physical education teacher straight out of school knows "much less" than someone who's been teaching for 10 years. "Wouldn't you want for the children of your district to get as good a teacher as you possibly can? Everyone recognizes that the quality of education given in an educational district depends on the quality of the teaching. To think the best thing to do is to hire the people less able to teach as a way to improve your district seems to me, to be self-defeating. Whoever is asking this kind of question is not interested in the quality of the schools but simply in the tax rate of the district."

Yet, critics contend that by any criteria the school's middle and high schools have been academically mediocre at best. In fact, Horn and Remkus led an effort to offer some veteran teachers early retirements when they were on the school board because they believed new blood would improve the school academically.

Remkus mentioned retired Sag Harbor School Principal Robert Schneider, who is currently employed at the school at a rate of $675 a day. "Why should we be paying [that much] for a retired principal when there are other people who want to go into the position?" he asked.

Holden said there was a vacancy for an assistant principal in the middle school. The district has been advertising for applicants for the position and is in the process of interviewing. She said that Schneider has been hired on a daily basis. He does not get paid on days when he is not present or school is not in session. However, the fact is, Schneider has been on the payroll, for one temporary chore or another for years, despite the fact he is collecting a full retirement check. His wife, Marion Cassata, is also on the payroll as a per diem at a similar rate.

Another source of contention for some is a new pupil personnel director, hired at $120,000. Aiding in the "transition period" is Alan Traeger, who formerly held the position; Traeger comes in two days a week at a rate of $675 per day, said Holden. He is here, said the superintendent, as part of the transition plan and is "not mentoring." Instead, he is helping to finish cases he's started and continue meetings. "It's a very complex department," she said. Holden said the plan is to meet in early March to see where things are with the special education department and "see where we can begin to pull back."

Bernard said one thing to remember in regard to the PPS position is that children involved have individual educational programs that are reviewed on a regular basis. "Having a historical understanding of the student, what progress they've made, requires some transition." To have a person come in one day and the other out the door the next, he said is "poor administration and poor education" and puts children at risk. "It's vital that you have that transition."

Some, however, who have asked not to be named, say that a person earning over $100,000 a year should not need assistance from anyone being paid another $675 a day.

Naysayers who imply that the new PPS position requires "mentoring" are wrong, Bernard said. "Mentoring would be the word you would use if you are trying to stir up controversy." Anyone who believes the PPS hire is receiving on the job training is incorrect, he said, giving information that is "biased and slanted and has some kind of objective and motive." Bernard was recently hired as business manager at a salary of $95,000. A former East Hampton Town Board member, he has never worked in a school district before but earned a similar salary as budget officer for East Hampton and later the Town of Brookhaven.

The bottom line is some residents are unhappy. "I think the Sag Harbor board has gone to the extreme," said Remkus.

Horn agreed: "When you look at the Sag Harbor School District and see who gets the jobs, there seems to be no rhyme or reason."

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