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Sachem superintendent acknowledges letter complaints

Alison Sinacore, of Farmingville, spoke to the school

Alison Sinacore, of Farmingville, spoke to the school board and Superintendent James Nolan about what exactly the "we" in "we are Sachem" means, and implored the board to move forward with honesty and integrity. (March 5 2013) Credit: Johnny Milano

Sachem's school chief acknowledged in an interview Wednesday night that he recently received parent complaints that students were required to write letters to Albany seeking state financial assistance for the district.

Superintendent James Nolan said he had contacted school principals to remind them that any such correspondence campaign must be voluntary. State legal rulings bar schools from coercing students into taking partisan stands on school finances and other issues.

"We reached out to schools again to say this [letter campaign] should certainly be a lesson in civics and a teachable moment, but that by no means should any child feel forced to participate," Nolan said.

In a brief interview before Wednesday night's school board meeting, Nolan said he could not tell if any teachers or school administrators had stepped over the line by making the letter exercise mandatory. He added, however, that he had assured parents who objected "that there was no ill intent."

In public discussion at the beginning of the meeting, attended by about 200 parents and teachers, some urged the district not to cut sports teams and other student services.

The district, which is Long Island's second-largest, has reported that its cash reserves have fallen to "dangerously" low levels. Moreover, a proposed state budget pending in Albany would cut $2 million in Sachem's aid -- a reduction that many of the Island's legislators have pledged to fight.

Last week, Sachem administrators and teachers conducted a districtwide exercise that generated about 6,000 letters, written mostly by students in kindergarten through 12th grade. A group from the district traveled to Albany by bus on Thursday and delivered the letters to the state Capitol.

Back in the district, some parents and teenage students objected in messages to school officials and to Newsday about the way the letter-writing had been handled.

Four students from Sachem High School East said in interviews that they had been required by teachers to write the letters and to emphasize the activities that could be lost because of aid cuts, such as student clubs and sports.

After Newsday published an article this week about the situation, parents and others continued to send in emails to the newspaper, contradicting the district's position.

One father of a kindergartner and second-grader, said in an interview he had asked that his children's letters be removed from the bundles.

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