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Amagansett Teacher Layoffs Draw Howls of Protest

Thu, 03/28/2024 - 11:36

School to cut four special ed positions next year

Joe Karpinski, standing, called the Amagansett School District’s decision to lay off his son’s special education teacher and three others “reprehensible.”
Christine Sampson

Over the objections of dozens of parents and teachers, and without waiting for the New York State Legislature to sort out funding to school districts by way of an established state budget, Amagansett became the first school district in East Hampton Town this week to finalize its 2024-25 budget.

The budget includes layoffs of four teachers, all of them from the special-education department. For close to two hours on Tuesday, parents and teachers hammered the school board with assertions that the layoffs will unfairly and negatively impact the school’s most vulnerable children — those with autism, learning disabilities, and other special needs.

“My son, who we never thought would say words, is reading to us at night,” said Joe Karpinski, a father of two. To lose the boy’s teacher would be “reprehensible,” Mr. Karpinski said.

Ana Guerra said her son, who is autistic, is finally speaking, thanks to the education he is receiving in Amagansett. “I thank God for Amagansett School and the teachers, and the peers, and the wonderful, nonrestrictive environment. Because of this, my boy is talking.” She pleaded with the school board to “please take back the decision to cut our teachers. Listen to our community. Do it for the kids. Make things right.”

At present, the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school offers a co-teaching model, in which a general education teacher and a special education teacher pair up in each classroom. The layoffs mean Amagansett would shift to a “consultant-teacher” model, in which each special-ed  teacher serves children in multiple classes, rather than being assigned to just one classroom.

Rich Loeschner, Amagansett’s interim superintendent, pledged that the layoffs wouldn’t have an impact on the special education services. The school was overstaffed in that area, he told Tuesday’s audience. Even with four fewer teachers, he said, there will still be five in the area of special education, for a teacher-student ratio of about one to five.

“Instruction in the classroom will not be impacted,” Mr. Loeschner insisted. “People will ask, ‘What about schedules?’ Yes, there’s going to be some tweaking to schedules . . . however, everyone who needs direct instruction in terms of special education will receive that instruction. I assure you of that.”

“None of these decisions,” he added, “are made with just next year in mind. It’s also in perpetuity . . . I think they [the school board] have carefully weighed all the options.”

Amagansett is not the only school district in this position. The online Riverhead Local reported last week that the Riverhead School District is planning to lay off at least 56 faculty members. Newsday has reported that Amityville is planning to cut 25 teachers and Sachem, 60. News 12 has reported that the Sayville District is considering not replacing 18 teachers who are retiring.

On Tuesday night in Amagansett, some parents were audibly crying. Others, deflated, stood up and left the room. “This is pointless,” one mother murmured as she got up.

The school board voted 3-1, with its vice president, Dawn Rana Brophy, absent from the meeting, to put a $13.44 million budget on the May 21 ballot. Kevin Warren was the lone board member to vote no. The state deadline for school boards to adopt a budget is April 23, meaning there is still almost a month to go until it has to be set in stone.

The spending plan includes an over-the-tax-cap levy increase of 7.77 percent, meaning that even as layoffs are taking place, the district will need a supermajority of voter approval, at least 60 percent, for the budget to pass.

More than one parent asked the board to retool the budget for an even higher tax-levy increase that would allow the district to retain the four excessed special ed teachers. One parent raised the point that the state-aid situation is still not finalized, meaning the school could still receive the aid that Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed to cut — $75,000, in Amagansett’s case — or even more than that if the State Legislature has its way.

Mr. Loeschner said that would not have much of an impact on the bottom line when benefits are taken into consideration.

“Still, that’s one job,” the parent said.

Nichole Ferrera volunteered to read a letter signed by 59 Amagansett parents calling for consolidating the roles of superintendent and principal to save money. Each position carries a six-figure salary. (The principal, Maria Dorr, has been on paid administrative leave since December, and the district bought out the contract of its previous superintendent, Seth Turner, in October.)

“At this point,” Mr. Loeschner replied, “the board actually could not make the decision to combine the two until that situation with the principal is rectified. . . . Let’s say they all wanted to, but they couldn’t do that decision until this other decision is completed.”

The board then adjourned, for about 20 minutes, to executive session, to discuss “personnel issues,” said Kristen Peterson, its president. When they came back, she announced they had decided to stick to the original plan. She acknowledged that there are community members on fixed incomes and many with no children in the school, who also pay taxes.

“We want it to pass. The last time we pierced the cap, it only passed by 3 percent,” she said. “If this budget does not pass, you’re going to see programs cut — no after-school, no prekindergarten. In this environment, it’s not just the parents that vote. . . . We’re trying to meet in the middle. We were overstaffed in special education. We made the cuts there because we have enough amazing staff to cover it.”

Wayne Gauger, a board member, pointed out that only about 100 people altogether vote each year on the school budget. In response, a parent said there were a large number of people in the room who would vote to support it. “Mobilize the parents, get it passed, and live to fight another day with it,” he said.

“If we don’t do this this year, we will be financially unstable if anything came up,” Ms. Peterson said. “We are doing what we are doing because we as a board are positioning this school to be financially stable for the future without any real horrible impact on the services.”

The school board also voted that evening on a resolution it had previously tabled: To hire David Wicks, chief operating officer of the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services, to conduct a search for the next school superintendent.



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