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Story - Education

Feb 3, 2010 12:30 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Tuckahoe residents move to dissolve school board, then expand it

Feb 3, 2010 12:30 PM

A group of Tuckahoe residents is taking steps to force a public referendum that could dissolve the school district’s sitting School Board as early as next month and convene a new, larger board, potentially ousting two board members who have been the targets of vociferous criticism from parents and teachers since the resignation of a popular superintendent last summer.

Nearly three dozen residents signed a petition submitted to the district last week that calls on the Tuckahoe School Board to hold a referendum early next month on a proposal to restructure the common school as a union free school district, which would include expanding the School Board from three to as many as nine members, based on the will of district voters.

State education law only requires that 15 residents sign a petition demanding that a common school district, which Tuckahoe currently is, consider changing to a union free district. The School Board does not have to act on the petition’s demands if a majority of its members do not support the idea, but the residents can then appeal to the state Department of Education, which can authorize a single resident to call a referendum and schedule a date for a vote.

The term “union free district” has nothing to do with teachers unions—the switch to a union free district is typically made when two or more smaller districts consolidate their resources to form a new high school, although that is not required. There is also a process by which residents can force the switch in order to expand the size of a School Board, which is capped at three members for common school districts but can be three, five, seven or nine members in union free districts. There are 31 union free districts in New York State that do not operate high schools of their own, including Quogue and the Springs, Montauk and Amagansett schools in East Hampton Town.

Just 10 of the more than 2,000 school districts statewide are still common school districts—including Wainscott and Sagaponack’s one-room schools. Tuckahoe has the largest student population of any common school district by nearly double, with 344 students in its building, according to information on the state Department of Education’s website. Only two others have more than 23 students.

A district has not switched from a common school district to a union free district since 1978, so expert opinions on how the process would actually evolve are still few and far between.

Supporters of the effort in Tuckahoe say they think there will be better community representation if the School Board is larger. But the board’s current president, Sharon Grindle, said that she has been told the effort is simply a ploy to eject her and fellow board member Susan Riccardi in hopes of replacing them with new members who would vote to bring back former Superintendent Linda Rozzi.

“People have reported to me that this is, if you want, a coup d’état, to overturn an administrative decision,” Ms. Grindle said. “I understand some of the community is not happy with the change. So they want to throw me out, they want to throw Sue out.”

Kevin Luss, the district parent who began the petition drive and who submitted the petition to the district, says there is no intention by the supporters to try to bring Ms. Rozzi back to the district. He said he doubts Ms. Rozzi would take the job if it were offered and added that he assumed that the three sitting board members would be at the top of the list of candidates for three of the new board seats.

“That rumor is unequivocally not true,” Mr. Luss, who writes a personal finance column for The Press, said on Tuesday. “I only picked this up because people seemed like they all wanted it and were sitting around waiting to see it happen. I found out it was very easy to execute. And I believe with the unrest in the past year, having a larger board will help things.” He said he has no plans to run for the board himself but that he would if there were not five volunteers to run for the new board.

After nearly two decades with the same three board members, the district has had difficulty finding candidates to run for the board in recent years. With an expanded board, the search would be doubly difficult, but Mr. Luss said he thinks a larger board would actually attract more candidates because of shorter terms and less of a spotlight on each board member than in the current situation.

The talk of the district change being a ploy to bring back the popular superintendent may be a strategic move on the part of opponents, Mr. Luss surmised. State law, both he and Ms. Grindle noted, appears to allow a district board or the state commissioner to dismiss a unifying petition if the dissolution of the School Board appears expressly intended to affect a reversal of a board decision.

The idea of reorganizing Tuckahoe as a union free school district has come up in the past but never made it to referendum. Longtime district board member Robert Grisnik said at a meeting in January, after two parents suggested the idea, that he supports the move and thinks it might make the district eligible for additional transportation funding.

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