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Conflict Follows Celebration at Amagansett School

Thu, 09/21/2023 - 11:10

Blue Ribbon Award comes amid continued turmoil

The Amagansett School is officially a National Blue Ribbon School award recipient.
Christine Sampson

On Tuesday afternoon, the United States Department of Education announced that the Amagansett School has been named a National Blue Ribbon School, a prestigious and difficult-to-obtain honor that is based largely on students’ academic performance. Amagansett was one of just three schools on Long Island — the others are in Jericho and New Hyde Park — and one of just 22 in New York State and 353 nationwide to earn this award.

The announcement was met with applause from at least 25 teachers and parents who crowded into the school library on Tuesday for a school board meeting. It did little, however, to ease the tension in the room, as it quickly became apparent that they had come prepared with pointed questions about how school operations have been running lately.

The National Blue Ribbon award “is a magnificent honor for Amagansett School,” said Seth Turner, the district superintendent. “I am proud the U.S. Department of Education has acknowledged the tremendous work done by our students, teachers, administrators, staff, and board members. This award is something the entire Amagansett School community will celebrate.”

Students in Amagansett placed in the top 15 percent in New York State in reading, English language arts, and mathematics, landing Amagansett on the short list of Exemplary High-Performing Schools. Maria Dorr, the principal, led the Blue Ribbon application process last year to demonstrate the school’s commitment to curriculum and teaching methods amid an always-evolving educational climate. District representatives will travel in November to Washington, D.C., to receive the signature blue flag to hang up at the school.

“Through unwavering dedication to academic excellence, innovation, and the nurturing of young minds, Amagansett School has truly earned its place among the elite,” Ms. Dorr said in a statement. The award “is a testament to the motivated students, dedicated teachers, and supportive community that make our school a beacon of inspiration and achievement.”

The crowd in the room, however, didn’t leave it at that.

During the first week of school, an unusual September heat wave raised the temperatures in some classrooms to 80 degrees F. or higher. The district rented temporary, portable air-conditioners to ease the situation, but as the school board was poised to vote on allocating $10,938 for the emergency expense, both teachers and parents urged the board to table the resolution.

“They didn’t work. That’s a lot of money,” said Ashley Blackburn, a prekindergarten teacher who said her classroom thermometer showed the room was 81 degrees.

“Our children were coming home after school red and flushed and hot,” said one parent. “Parents might have decided to keep their kids at home. None of that was communicated to us.”

Kristen Peterson, the school board president, said the district did the best it could to respond to the heat wave, and reminded the audience that a new air-conditioning system is on the way, thanks to a voter-approved measure on the school budget ballot last May. The rented air-conditioners “didn’t work out well,” she agreed. “It’s a lesson learned. We tried to solve the problem, it just wasn’t a great solution.”

Another conflict arose over the creation of a mentoring handbook for new teachers, which Ms. Dorr explained would cover “orientation, training, guidance on best practices, resources and where to find them — to support them to become excellent and a great asset to our community.”

A board resolution to adopt the new handbook “effective immediately” came as a shock to the teachers in attendance. “This is the first time I’m hearing about this,” said Mike Rodgers, who is co-president of the Amagansett Teachers Association along with Ms. Blackburn.

“I’m not saying we don’t need one,” he continued. “How are we not part of this, as a union, on how we are mentoring our own union members?”

The board ultimately tabled the mentoring handbook resolution, too, with Ms. Dorr pledging to share the draft of the handbook with the teachers. But it led to a heated back-and-forth between the teachers and school board over what was described as a “labor-management meeting.” Ms. Blackburn asserted that it had been scheduled, then canceled, then rescheduled, and postponed.

“Trust me, I believe it is in everyone’s best interest for that meeting to happen, and the board is fully supportive of it,” Ms. Peterson said.

“We are begging you to ask us what’s going on at the Amagansett School. Why are all these people here?” Ms. Blackburn asked. “In 21 years, I have never seen people like this show up month after month.”

Attendance at school board meetings has indeed been unusually robust ever since the spring, when a troubling incident unfolded on the school’s front lawn following a parental custody dispute. The incident shook parents and teachers, who continue to worry about safety today, particularly over the way student dropoff and pickup happens.

A meeting on safety among the school board, the administration, and officers from the East Hampton Town Police Department is scheduled to occur on Wednesday. It will not be open to the public, presenting the question of how the parents’ and teachers’ concerns will be taken into consideration.

“Let the voices be heard in the form of letters,” said Kevin Warren, a school board member who often chimed in to defuse the tense debates on Tuesday. “It’s fruitful information that lets everyone make a decision.”

Tom Mager, the district treasurer, told the board and the audience that the district is studying how best to bring lunch service into the school. “We’re looking for someone to come here into the building and see our unique situation,” he said. “I’ve been in contact with our architects. Department of Health regulations come into play. . . . We have to meet certain health standards. We are getting the appropriate parties involved.”

Addie Slater-Davison, the school board’s newest member, asked whether the district could call its counterparts in East Hampton for advice or to provide lunches directly to Amagansett, but Mr. Mager said it was not that simple.

Just last week, the Springs School — which, like Amagansett, does not have a cafeteria — signed an agreement with East Hampton to provide lunch for students at a cost of $4.44 per meal. Springs School bus drivers have been picking up the meals, primarily sandwiches, in the mornings.

“A feasibility study has to be done,” Ms. Peterson said. “If one of those lunches comes in and a kid gets sick, then it’s on us, not East Hampton.”

The matter of school busing also came up, with one family, living a few houses beyond the one-mile cutoff, requesting access to the bus. Sophia Terrassi, the board’s attorney, explained it would take either a district-wide, voter-approved proposition to alter the transportation threshold or the creation of a “child-safety zone,” with costs of busing taken into consideration.

After the approximately hourlong public meeting, the board adjourned into executive session. It did not say why the closed-door meeting was necessary.




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