At Tuesday night’s East Hampton School Board meeting an existential question sparked a lively and sometimes prickly debate: If the right teacher comes along at the wrong time, do you hire or not?
The question came as a result of the interim superintendent’s recommendations to hire an experienced, bilingual kindergarten teacher, as a one-year leave replacement, at a salary of $87,795, compared to the budgeted amount for the position, which was in the mid-$60,000 range.
Gina Kraus, who will take over as elementary school principal in January on the departure of Christopher Tracey, made an impassioned plea before the board.
“We looked at many candidates,” she said, “and along came a teacher who is bringing us something that we need. We have 89 kindergartners this year, and over 40 of them are coming to us with almost no English. We needed someone like this. She’s the one.”
Alison Anderson and George Aman, two board members, were set against it.
“I resent the implication that because we find a problem with this appointment, that we don’t want the best for our children,” Dr. Aman said. “That is unfair.”
“I’m sure she is experienced and a terrific teacher,” said Ms. Anderson. “But at this time I feel it’s financially irresponsible to be spending that much. I don’t think this has been thought through. We haven’t even had one conversation about the 2-percent tax cap.” Ms. Anderson was referring to the recent Albany decision to impose a 2-percent cap on the real property tax levy for school districtsand local governments, which will affect the budget for the 2012-13 school year.
“We still have lawsuit attorney fees, teacher contracts — it’s unreasonable,” she said.
Jacqueline Lowey, another board member, had a different take. “The responsibility for hiring teachers to make this a successful district should be left to the school principals and the superintendent,” she said, calling recent English as a second language elementary school test scores “abysmal.”
“If we’re going to hold them accountable, which I think we should, then we need to give them the tools to manage,” Ms. Lowey said.
She pointed out that the teacher would have taken the job for less, but the salary for a teacher with her particular qualifications (Step 11/D on the salary scale) was specified in the district’s contract with its teachers union and the board’s hands were tied by this. “We hope that teachers will work with us cooperatively in the future to bring down some of these costs,” Ms. Lowey said. “This provision just cost the district $20,000 that we didn’t need to spend.”
Arthur Goldman, a teacher at the high school, spoke on this during a public commentary period. “Of course she would accept less,” he said. “Most teachers would, they would take $10,000 a year and offer to wash all your cars for the opportunity to teach. That’s why we have collective bargaining.”
“We should not have even interviewed this candidate,” said Dr. Aman. “We cannot afford to do this. It’s irresponsible.”
Richard Burns, the interim superintendent and former director of pupil personnel, interjected. “We have to provide teachers who possess the skills to reach diverse learners. I just came on board, but I will not compromise on hiring great teachers for our students.”
“I hope the taxpayers agree with you on that,” said Ms. Anderson.
“If I was set down in a classroom in China, and given a test in Chinese at the end of the year, I would be classified as limited,” Mr. Burns said. His concern, he continued, was that young children who were overcoming the obstacle of learning English as a second language might somehow get reclassified to special education as a result of poor test scores. Mr. Burns, who has been with the district since 1990, is also a former chairman of the special education department.
“We were fortuitously blessed with this wonderful candidate moving to our district,” Mr. Burns said. “If this person becomes the leader we expect her to be, it will be worth it.”
Ms. Anderson stuck to her guns. “I think it’s very disrespectful of the taxpayers to disregard the budget only three to four months after adopting it. I’m not saying she’s not worth it, I’m saying that we can’t afford it.”
She also made the point that “the board will be the first to be blamed if later on there are cuts because of the 2-percent tax cap. I want to give every child the best education, but are we capable of it? It will come back to haunt us next year when we have to cut programs or lay off teachers.”
“I think there are plenty of great first and second-year teachers,” Ms. Lowey said. “But in this case, the committee unanimously said, ‘This teacher, for this position, is what we need.’ We have to let them do their jobs.”
Patricia Hope used an analogy to present the matter. “Think of this school district as a car,” she said. “We’ve spent so much money on chrome, now let’s spend a little on the tires. Because that’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Rich Wilson, a member of the district’s citizens advisory committee, asked if this could become a permanent position. The answer was yes.
“I don’t get the bickering,” he said. “This is a $20,000 difference. Education is the most important thing. It’s why we’re all here.”
The teacher, Luz Rojas Kardaras, was appointed by a 5-to-2 vote, with Ms. Anderson and Dr. Aman opposed.
Also on Tuesday, the subject of paid chaperones and timers for school games versus the possibility of using volunteers was again brought to the table.
Joe Vas, the district’s athletic director, pointed out, as he has before, that “crowd control and student safety is the first priority. I have no problem with using volunteers in addition to, but not instead of.”
Some of the games have had as many as 300 or 400 people at them, he said, and he himself has had to go into the stands on occasion to calm down a riled-up parent.
He handed out a sheet to the board with the duties assigned a chaperone.
Ms. Lowey said she would still like to see if a pilot program to train volunteers could be put in place.
Ms. Anderson pointed out that when she went to games, she wanted to watch her kids play, not keep an eye on the crowd.
“I think we should go with the recommendations of the staff and let them do their jobs,” Ms. Anderson said.
Claude Beudert, an educator and coach, brought up an Aug. 31 editorial in The Independent criticizing the board and the athletic director. “I apologize you had to get caught in the middle of this,” he said. “We know you’re passionate, and you agree to disagree.” He paused. “Or you just disagree,” he added, which brought laughter to an otherwise tense evening.
Mr. Goldman touched on the same editorial, saying, “I would stand, but I’m so angry my legs are shaking.”
“What you do not challenge becomes true,” he said. “The editorial claims that Joe Vas is forming his own Gestapo. When you compare a coach who values student and spectator safety to the extermination of the Jews — the language is just so egregious, it cannot go unmentioned,” he said.