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New Suffolk board votes to end instruction at historic grade school

Tony Dill, center, president of the New Suffolk

Tony Dill, center, president of the New Suffolk School, and other board members voted to close the school for formal instruction on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. Credit: Randee Daddona

The New Suffolk school board voted Wednesday night to end formal instruction at its 111-year-old schoolhouse as the tiny district struggles to pay for a reinstated teacher’s back wages and benefits.

Sometimes called “the little red schoolhouse,” the school has 15 students in prekindergarten through sixth grade. The district on Long Island’s North Fork would become a “non-instructional district” for the first time in its history and send students in grades pre-K through sixth to either the Southold or Mattituck-Cutchogue school systems.

The school board voted 3-0 on the plan, which would close the school as of September. The community must approve the board’s decision during a March 27 vote, school board president Tony Dill said.

Dill, his voice cracking, said that while closing the school for formal instruction brought him “great reluctance and profound sadness,” the financials of keeping it open didn’t make sense.

“For well over a century, this school has been a vital and central part of this village,” he said, while adding “our focus must remain on what’s best for the current and future students and not give priority to our nostalgic recollections.”

The district, which has a $1.1 million operating budget for the current school year, also pays tuition for 12 students in grades seven through 12 who attend courses in the neighboring Southold system.

Finances of the district were plunged into turmoil in August when state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia found fault in the way officials had computed tenure rankings.

Elia’s ruling led to the reinstatement of longtime teacher Martha Kennelly, whose job was terminated at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Kennelly is owed $300,000 in back wages and benefits, she has said, and has worked from home to devise curriculum plans at a salary of $119,485 annually.

District officials had reviewed plans to keep the school open by reducing teaching staff, but it would have left only between five and eight students enrolled, Dill said at the roughly 30-minute meeting. Both plans would have generated significant operating deficits. Under one plan, taxes would have increased 15 percent. Another plan would have hiked taxes by 9 percent.

The school’s historic background has been the driving force behind some New Suffolk residents’ opposition to closing it.

Barbara Victoria Solo, 65, herself a district graduate whose dad and son attended the schoolhouse, said closing it would be “a big loss . . . all the kids that came out of here did very well.”

She said the school provided a more personal and individualized educational model for students.

“It’s like going to private school,” she said.

The New Suffolk district, as an entity, would continue to house some district offices as well as extracurricular, enrichment and adult education courses, Dill has said.

According to its website, the district has a principal; three full-time teachers, including Kennelly; part-time teachers for classes in technology, physical education, music, art and drama; and a school secretary. For instruction, the grade levels are split into three groups — pre-K through second grade, grades three and four, and grades five and six.

Nicole Hubbard, 31, whose 5-year-old attends the school’s kindergarten, said she supported the board’s decision, although putting her son in a new school will be an adjustment.

“Right now, at this point, his education here is going to be a gamble” with the alternative options for fewer teachers and significant changes to the program.

“He loves it. He is improving every day,” she said of her son’s experience there. “This is going to be a little upsetting. I think a little bit of a culture shock for him.”

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