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Officials in tiny New Suffolk mull closing schoolhouse

State ruling in tenure case prompts small North Fork district to consider some tough choices.

The New Suffolk School in New Suffolk on

The New Suffolk School in New Suffolk on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

A century-old, three-room building where 15 youngsters learn their ABCs each day could cease functioning as New Suffolk’s only school, officials in the tiny district on the North Fork say, as a consequence of a state order that’s led to the reinstatement with back pay of a teacher whose job had been eliminated in 2015.

A plan under consideration by district officials would send the students, in pre-K through grade 6, to neighboring districts and cut the jobs of the teachers now working at the building, which dates to 1907. The district itself would continue to operate and own the red schoolhouse, which would be used for offices, community events and after-school activities.

New Suffolk, a hamlet that’s home to just over 300 families, has stubbornly resisted past calls to cease operations and merge with other districts. And school board president Tony Dill said that’s not on the table now, even if all of the community’s students attend school elsewhere. Students in grades 7-12 are educated in the Southold school district.

“Primarily, we have a history of having our own district,” Dill said, noting that other less dire options are also under review. “It is highly disturbing for us to entertain the thought of having to close the school, and we’re not at all interested in talking about consolidating with the surrounding district.”

At issue is an Aug. 8 edict from state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who found that the New Suffolk school board erred in determining tenure and seniority rankings, leading to the dismissal of teacher Martha Kennelly at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Dill said the financial impact of Elia’s decision would not be felt until next school year.

“It’s not a problem this year, but it does put strictures on possible modes of operation in future years,” Dill said. “There are various ways in which you can restructure the faculty and the program to accommodate this order from Albany, and there are other ways in which you could investigate educating the children elsewhere.”

The fiscal drama is the latest challenge to the district, which has four full-time faculty members and several part-time specialists, and a $1.1 million annual operating budget covering both operations at the community school and tuition for the older students.

In May, the district was the sole system on Long Island to pierce the state’s tax cap. The budget increased the tax levy by 6.5 percent, well above the 3.4 percent limit set by the state. Few voters seemed to mind: It was approved 52-15.

New Suffolk’s taxpayers “range over the entire gamut,” Dill said, with some of the district’s revenue coming from owners of summer homes who don’t live there year-round to resident middle-income families. The district also encompasses Robins Island, the 435-acre island in Peconic Bay that is owned by Wall Street financier Louis Moore Bacon. About 12 to 15 percent of the district’s budget is covered by donations.

A spokesman for the state Education Department declined to comment for this story.

Kennelly, a 54-year-old Mattituck resident, returned to the district in the fall and has worked mostly from home devising curriculum plans. A federal age discrimination lawsuit she filed in 2016 is still pending. Her current salary is $119,485, and she is seeking roughly $300,000 in back pay and benefits.

Elia’s decision was “incredibly validating,” she said in an interview.

Kennelly worked at the district school from 1998 until 2004, when she became director of the Mid-East Suffolk Teacher Center, an organization that provides professional development services for school districts. Her salary during that time was paid by the district and reimbursed by the group, which is funded through state grants.

In 2011, Kennelly sought a return to the classroom to work more directly with children. She left the Mid-East Suffolk Teacher Center in 2014 and came back to the district, where for a year she wrote curriculum from home, she said.

She was let go in 2015 based on her exclusion from a “hybrid” tenure track created by the board, a decision that Elia ruled was not permissible.Elia ordered the board to redetermine the seniority rankings and reinstate Kennelly and pay her back wages if she was not the least senior teacher.

Dill said that in the fall, in response to the state decision, the board formed a long-range planning advisory group consisting of four residents to review plans for the district’s future. The panel is expected to make recommendations at a school board meeting on Jan. 9.

Asked why, if the district itself would be sending all its students to other school systems, it didn’t simply cease operations, Dill replied: “We might at some day see if we couldn’t bring them back.”

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