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South Country district moves past grade-fix scandal

Bellport superintendent Joe Cipp Jr. at the Bellport

Bellport superintendent Joe Cipp Jr. at the Bellport board of education meeting held at Bellport Middle School. (Feb. 15, 2011) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

It's been nearly six months since Superintendent Joseph Cipp Jr. resigned from South Country Central School District in the wake of what a special investigator called a grade fixing scandal.

And while friction lingers between his supporters and detractors, South Country is moving forward.

It has a new teachers' contract, a new high school principal and a regime change on its school board so dramatic it could shift the district's focus. A majority of the trustees on the old board supported Cipp Jr., but that changed when trustee Chris Picini was elected in May on a slate that pledged reform.

Staffers say morale is up.

Teachers, who were working without a contract since 2008, signed a deal earlier this year that will bring them small but steady raises through 2015.

And a longtime music teacher, Tim Hogan, has been promoted to principal of Bellport High School after a short stint as assistant principal there. Wayne White, head of the teachers union, said members are "excited to see one of their own" move up in the ranks.

Hogan replaces Bernie Soete, who will serve as assistant principal at Bellport Middle School.

Despite the changes, South Country's school board is struggling. Trustees have yet to put aside old allegiances.

Interim superintendent Howard Koenig told the board at a recent meeting that it should consider a retreat to work past its differences.

"Is this some type of camp where we have to go and hold hands?" asked board president Julio Morales.

Koenig chuckled, saying, "It's not a lecture."

Instead, he said, members of the New York State School Boards Association would visit with the trustees to share ideas about how they could improve.

The interim superintendent said in a later phone interview that the community wants the board to function better.

"We cannot allow 4,700 children in this community to become collateral damage to things that have nothing to do with them," he said.

Picini said "until everyone is willing to play nice together, this is going to be a little tough."

Despite their differences, the group will forge ahead, Picini said, laying out a plan to find a permanent leader, one who will help bolster the district's academics and highlight the success of its many programs.

Koenig, hired in the spring, is to stay with the district through the coming school year.

He said he hopes to both help the district in its search for a permanent leader and strengthen its alternative school, South Haven. Students should be able to leave the school faster if that's what's best, he said, and those who remain should have a clearer path to college or a job.

"There's no reason that shouldn't happen," he said.

Some have said the district focused too much on sports in the past.

Cipp was the winningest high school football coach in Suffolk County before becoming a part of the district's administration.

He was accused late last year of pressuring subordinates to change a star athlete's grades so the student could gain entrance to Syracuse University and play on its football team.

Both the superintendent and the student, Ryan Sloan, repeatedly denied the allegations.

An independent investigation found that Sloan's grades were changed and that Cipp "must have been involved or must have known what was going on."

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