Authors Posts by Alex Petroski

Alex Petroski

Alex Petroski
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Superintendent James Grossane file photo

The Smithtown school board voted to close Branch Brook Elementary School at a board of education meeting Tuesday, effective June 30, 2017. Five board members, including President Christopher Alcure, were in favor of the closure. Gladys Waldron, the board’s longest tenured member, was responsible for the lone “no” vote.

“For four years we’ve made cuts to the program, and it is not a proposition that I would like to continue,” Alcure said following the meeting. “We have declining enrollment. We have space in other buildings. Due to the fact that Branch Brook is one of the smaller buildings, and in my mindset we needed to close a building, and if we kept that open and closed one of the other ones and we had a sudden, unexpected uptick in enrollment, Branch Brook could not accommodate being one of seven schools. If we have an uptick in enrollment in two or three years when Branch Brook is closed, we’ll be able to absorb about 1,200 kids, and that was my deciding factor.”

Closing at least one elementary school has been an intensely debated issue between the community, the school board and district administration since the middle of November when Superintendent James Grossane presented the findings of a housing committee that was assembled earlier in 2015. Grossane presented the board with five options as cost saving measures.

Closing Branch Brook was a part of four of the five options. Tuesday’s vote sealed the fate of Branch Brook, though Grossane will take his time in selected one of the four options from his November proposal, he said. More debate is still to come about what happens to students in the seven elementary schools that are not closing to make room for those leaving Branch Brook.

With emotions running high and a filled-to-capacity auditorium in the New York Avenue building that serves as district headquarters in Smithtown, the vote was received with anger and sadness from the community.

Katie Healy has been one of the most outspoken Branch Brook parents throughout the process.

“If I choose to stay, I will hold each and every one of you accountable and likely pushing one of you out,” Healy said to the five board members who voted yes. “I will be okay, and I will fight for those that will have a tough time but I will be there to show you that your losses are greater than your gains. If I choose to stay in this state I will hold you accountable…shame on you.”

School board meetings and public work sessions had taken on some added emotion leading up to Tuesday, though emotions boiled over following the vote. One parent was removed by security after the meeting was over after yelling at members of the board. One was warned twice by Grossane for using profanity during her allotted public comment time.

Peter Troiano was one of the parents responsible for the Save Branch Brook movement on Facebook and an Internet petition.

“I’ll keep this quick,” Troiano said Tuesday as he addressed the board. “You’re all incompetent. You shouldn’t have signed up for this job if you couldn’t do it right. You should all be ashamed of yourselves. I don’t know how you sleep at night. You disgust me. And rest assured, this isn’t over. We plan on taking further action so get ready.”

Troiano dropped the microphone to the ground and exited following his comments. He did not immediately respond to a request to elaborate about his future plans.

Waldron defended her position to oppose closing Branch Brook to applause from the hundreds in attendance. The idea of selling the administration building on New York Avenue has been a rallying cry for the Save Branch Brook community members, though little progress has been made.

“The only reason why I am not in favor of closing a school, whether it be Branch Brook or any other school, is that I think our energies and effort of administration and board should be placed right now on the selling of this building,” Waldron said.

The necessity to close a school, according to Grossane and his administration, can be attributed to declining enrollment and revenue. Andrew Tobin, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, has said in the past that a deficit is on the horizon for the district.

“I can’t tell you that 2017-18 will be the deficit year, but it’s becoming more and more likely as we look out ahead that 2017-18, maybe 2018-19, if we don’t get those type of increases, we know our expenses are going to go up, we’re going to certainly be facing it at some point,” Tobin said at a public work session on Jan. 19.

Grossane responded following the meeting to claims from some community members that the decision to close Branch Brook has been inevitable since his presentation in November.

“This decision wasn’t made months ago,” he said. “It was very careful. It was very measured. The committee did a lot of work. They brought the material. I reviewed it.”

Grossane said that a lot of time and work went into the decision, and that it bothered him that some in the community perceived it differently.

Grossane’s November report estimated that closing an elementary school would save the district about $725,000 annually. Tobin said that Tuesday’s decision should relieve some of the financial trouble that the district is anticipating in the future, though their work is not done.

School board meetings since November have been well attended by parents wearing blue Save Branch Brook T-shirts. They submitted their own sixth option for the board’s consideration, which was assembled by parents in the statistical analysis field. Option 6 concluded that Branch Brook made the least sense for closure of the eight elementary schools, based on projected enrollment decrease over the next 10 years, building occupancy, square foot per student, students per usable classroom and utility cost.

Grossane defended his suggestion that Branch Brook made the most sense for closure at the Jan. 19 work session. Closing Branch Brook would do the least damage to the discrepancy of elementary students being on track to attend either High School East or High School West when they reach ninth grade, according to Grossane’s data. Additionally, because Branch Brook is the smallest of the eight schools in terms of capacity, its closure would leave the district least vulnerable to overcrowding if there were a future increase in enrollment.

Closing Branch Brook should increase average class size, though Grossane called instances where any classes would reach a district implemented maximum of 28 students “outliers,” on Jan. 19.

“Every school has a grade level that runs almost to maximum,” Grossane said. “If we close a building and we operate with seven, those outliers would smooth out. They’d shift. There would still be an outlier occasionally in every building. I’m not going to tell you there isn’t going to be a class in fifth grade that doesn’t have a 28 at some point within the next six years after we close a building, because there definitely will be. But it’s usually one grade per building. Most times, the class averages even out across the district.”

School board member Grace Plourde presented discussions on Feb. 9 from an earlier business affairs meeting regarding the budget for 2016-17. The deficit that Tobin suggested to be on the horizon was not expected to occur for the 2016-17 school year, mainly due to a low number of retirement payments. Tobin said Tuesday that the district is in “golden years for pension reprieve,” though he expects that to change in the near future.

“We may find that we’re not in the kind of trouble that we have been in in prior years,” Plourde said. “Our preliminary budget is looking pretty stable. We’re anticipating that at this point we’re not going to have to make the kinds of painful cuts that we’ve had to make in prior years, but again it’s not because we’re getting the kinds of revenue we need to get.”

Sam Miller is one new member of the town ethics board. Photo from Miller

The Huntington Town Board of Ethics & Financial Disclosure added its final two members last week, bringing the committee back to its full size after a few years of vacant seats.

Sam Miller and Sheryl Randazzo, who are both Huntington residents, joined the Ethics Board at a Feb. 10 town board meeting, and said they are eager to contribute.

“I view it as community service,” Randazzo said in a phone interview.“I’ve been involved professionally with matters of ethics my entire adult life. I’m looking forward to it.”

Randazzo is a practicing attorney with offices in Huntington and Manhattan. She is a former president of the Suffolk County Bar Association.

Miller, on the other hand, is the vice chair of the Huntington Arts Council. He also has about 30 years of experience in public service positions related to human rights, housing and community development, including a stint on the board of commissioners of the Huntington Housing Authority.

Sheryl Randazzo is one new member of the town ethics board. Photo from Lynn Spinnato
Sheryl Randazzo is one new member of the town ethics board. Photo from Lynn Spinnato

“It’s humbling,” Miller said in a phone interview, about serving on the Ethics Board. “I love the town and citizens dearly.”

At the beginning of 2015, the Ethics Board was operating with two vacancies, following the resignations of Roger Ramme and Stanley Heller. Ramme stepped down to take on the position of town assessor and Heller resigned after writing a letter to the board saying he spends most of his time in Florida. Edward William Billia filled one of the vacancies in 2015, but a third opened up when Dean Howard Glickstein resigned. The board hasn’t had five members since 2014.

Throughout the last year, the community has voiced concerns about aspects of the Ethics Board, including how often they meet and their level of transparency with the public. Changes were made as a result of those criticisms, increasing meetings to four times a year rather than once annually and comprehensively updating the code of conduct for town employees.

“I welcome these two distinguished Huntington residents to the Ethics Board and thank them for their willingness to serve,” Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) said in a press release. “I look forward to their efforts in implementing the provisions of the Town’s new ethics code.”

Randazzo believes her career path has given her a perfect foundation to serve on the Ethics Board.

“Before law school, issues pertaining to ethics have always been something that I’ve focused on,” she said. “I think the fit is that it has been at the forefront of my professional career.”

Randazzo also said she does not have any specific agenda in mind heading into her new position, and she will take the issues and challenges as they come.

According to Miller, his past professional experiences should provide him with a helpful viewpoint, despite being brand new to the job.

“I’m going in, as Clyde Frazier always says, a neophyte,” Miller said laughing, giving a nod to the colorful New York Knicks television announcer.

But Miller finds his new role to be an important one.

“I think that one of the things that we’re always looking for in a civil society is civility,” he said. “Our abilities to settle differences and to bring commonalities to people would help to resolve a lot of issues.”

Miller and Randazzo join Louis C. England, Ralph W. Crafa and Edward William Billia on the board.

Miller’s term runs until Dec. 31, 2017, and Randazzo’s ends a full year later. There is no salary for the position.

Kirsten Maxwell recently won a singer-songwriter competition in Florida. Photo by Ken Farrell

Huntington High School graduate Kirsten Maxwell, 23, was like all other high school students at the end of her senior year. When she graduated in 2010, the singer-songwriter didn’t know what she’d pursue at SUNY Potsdam in the fall.

“Both of my parents majored in music, but it didn’t occur to me that that was a path,” Maxwell said in a phone interview.

Her high school music teacher, Jason Giachetti, encouraged Maxwell to capitalize on her musical talent for a career.

She said Giachetti helped her put together a repertoire of songs and gave her music theory lessons every day at 7 a.m.

The hard work put into her foundation has paid off. After graduating from SUNY Geneseo in 2014 with a creative writing degree, she was a winner at the annual South Florida Folk Festival Singer-Songwriter competition in Fort Lauderdale in January.

That win may not come as a surprise to those familiar with her abilities. Giachetti, who is in his 16th year at Huntington High School, said he heard Maxwell sing for the first time during a vocal contest. Maxwell was in the chorus, but he said he didn’t know how talented she was until then, and told her she had to pursue a career in music.

“I’m just unbelievably proud of her,” Giachetti said in a phone interview. “For an educator of any sort, seeing one of their students really follow their dreams, it’s a dream come true.”

Maxwell’s path to a music career began long before high school, however. Her mother was an opera singer and her father was a conductor, and Maxwell said she grew up singing. When she was 12, she learned how to play the guitar and started writing some of her own songs.

“I’ve been writing ever since,” Maxwell said. She released her first album, entitled “Crimson,” independently in 2015. The album was part of a “healing process” following a particular relationship, she said, and its tone has a distinctive contemporary folk sound.

She is touted on her website as the “love child” of “Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot … raised with the help of godmothers Judy Collins and Maria Muldaur.” In her quest to make a living out of music, Maxwell said she’ll define her success by being not only financially stable, but also by being mentioned in the same breath as some of the iconic 1960s folksinging women.

“Things have changed, but I’d love to have the kind of career and image and respect that they’ve gained over the years,” she said.

Those who have heard her don’t hesitate to heap praise on the up-and-coming artist and her talent.

Jon Stein, who hosts a folk music-focused podcast called “The Hootenanny Cafe,” is a fan of Maxwell, according to her website.

“I never thought I’d ever hear a voice as angelic and mesmerizing as I did when I first listened to Joan Baez some 50 years ago, but then I heard the voice, songs and melodies of Kirsten Maxwell,” Stein said.

Maxwell credits her upbringing in Huntington as building a foundation for her music career, and now she will get to perform for the community that raised her. She is slated to perform a live show at the Huntington Public Library on March 25.

“It’s definitely significant in the fact that I have sort of a hometown pride and connection, growing up [and] being in the area,” she said.

By Alex Petroski

“The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley,” directed by Kristen Digilio, began a nine-show run in early February at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale, starring Luke Rosario as Stanley.

Above, Luke Rosario stars in ‘The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley.’ Photo by Kristen Digilio
Above, Luke Rosario stars in ‘The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley.’ Photo by Kristen Digilio

For those who are unfamiliar with the series, Flat Stanley celebrated his 50th anniversary in 2014. The hero of children’s books was created in 1964 by author Jeff Brown and is now the subject of an exchange program that allows children to mail paper cutouts of Flat Stanley to other participants around the world. The cast and crew of the live action show for kids bring the two-dimensional fan favorite to colorful, musical and three-dimensional light.

In the Flat Stanley books, Stanley Lambchop becomes flat when a large bulletin board falls on him in his sleep. In the musical, Stanley and his younger brother Arthur Lambchop, played by Matthew Surico, dream of doing something amazing that the world has never seen before as they sit in bed prior to falling asleep. During the first act the two sing “I Wish I Were,” a song about aspiring to be great like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Dreaming big and reaching for the stars is the constant theme of the musical, though others are introduced along the way as well.

The show features 13 musical numbers, performed by the cast of just five. Katie Ferretti, Ronald R. Green III and Jessica Ader-Ferretti fill out the small cast. Only Rosario is restricted to just one role. Costume changes along with strategic wigs and stick-on facial hair allows the other four cast members to introduce additional characters. The group displays an undeniable chemistry with dance steps and song lyrics meant to dole out life lessons to the young theatergoers. 

Ferretti plays Mrs. Lambchop, Arthur and Stanley’s bright red-haired mother. Green, who plays Mr. Lambchop, joins her to perform “The Funny Sunny Side,” a song about embracing the things that make someone unique, a message directed at Stanley when he is faced with the reality of going to school as flat as a piece of paper.

To make Rosario appear flat, he wears an orange-topped, purple-bottomed prop over the front of his clothes that resembles a yoga mat. Green was also the costume designer. He did as fine a job as Mr. Lambchop as he did designing Flat Stanley’s appearance and delivering his diagnosis as Dr. Dan, the mustache-clad pediatrician who sadly has no answers for the Lambchops about unflattening their son.

Eventually Stanley embraces being flat, and at the end of Act One he is convinced by mail carrier Mrs. Cartero, played by Ader-Ferretti, that he could travel the world by mail for just the price of postage. When Act Two begins, Stanley has arrived in Hollywood where he is met by a talent agent who sees potential in the flat kid.

Also played by Surico, the talent agent convinces Stanley to do some more traveling and gain life experiences before he pursues a career in show business. Surico, Ferretti and Ader-Ferretti team up for an impressive number called “Talent,” where they show off vocal range and choreographed tap dance steps to convince Stanley that Hollywood is for him.

Encouraged by his friend Samantha, who lives in California, Stanley travels to the Louvre in Paris, France, where he helps thwart an art thief. After that, Stanley travels, again by mail, to Honolulu, Hawaii, for his movie debut as a surfboard. Despite his success, Stanley realizes that he is homesick, and traveling the world and doing amazing things isn’t quite as special without family and friends around to share it.

Rosario’s performance carries the show. His singing ability and enthusiasm draws eyes like a magnet, though he is definitely not alone. Green and Ferretti serve as perfect compliments to Surico during the musical numbers. Surico is at his best delivering one-liners as Stanley’s talent agent. Ader-Ferretti is the “glue” to the production and shows versatility in filling a handful of different roles.

The show is a feel-good hour with a brief intermission between the two acts. Music, dancing and smiles make the delivery of important messages for kids of all ages very easy to absorb. The young minds in attendance are instructed to step out of their comfort zone to achieve fulfillment and reach potential, while remembering what success is all about: enjoying it with loved ones and taking pride in being unique. 

The Noel S. Ruiz Theatre at the CM Performing Arts Center, 931 Montauk Highway, Oakdale, will present “The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley” through March 5. Tickets are $12. To order, call 631-218-2810 or visit www.cmpac.com.

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The Smithtown Central School District is gearing up for another budget season, but officials say this year might not be as financially difficult as administrators had anticipated. File photo

Budget season has arrived in Smithtown, and district administrators said they anticipated a bigger budget to be matched by more state funding.

The Smithtown Central School District held a business affairs committee meeting recently with district administrators and board of education representatives to mull over potential budgetary options facing them. Board member Grace Plourde presented the discussions from that meeting to the public Feb. 9 along with a first draft of the pending $233,476,414 school district budget.

The projected budget for the 2016-17 school year is about $4 million higher than the budget for the current school year, she said. That increase, however, would be covered in large part by a projected 0.8 percent increase in the tax levy and an increase in state aid from a partial restoration of money lost to the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a policy enacted for the 2010-11 fiscal year which cut into state aid for New York State school districts in an effort to close a large budget deficit.

An increase in funding from the state would mean a smaller increase in taxes for Smithtown residents.

“We may find that we’re not in the kind of trouble that we have been in in prior years,” Plourde said. “Our preliminary budget is looking pretty stable. We’re anticipating that at this point we’re not going to have to make the kinds of painful cuts that we’ve had to make in prior years, but again it’s not because we’re getting the kinds of revenue we need to get.”

A rise in salaries for district employees accounts for the majority of the $4 million increase from the 2015-16 budget, according to Andrew Tobin, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

The district is currently in the midst of a heated debate over potential cost-saving measures while grappling with declining enrollment and a potential deficit in the near future, Tobin added.

Plourde said that stability in the projected 2016-17 budget could be attributed to a low number of required retirement payouts, which is not to be expected every year.

“We’re continuing to hope to hang on to the kind of quality programing that we’re used to around here, but we need to be smart,” Plourde said. “We need to always be looking ahead.”

Superintendent James Grossane has recommended closing at least one of the district’s eight elementary schools, an option that would save the district about $725,000 annually, he said. Parents in the district, however, have said they would prefer that the district sold or repurposed their administration headquarters located on New York Avenue, Smithtown instead. The building hasn’t been used for instruction in several years.

The next budget workshop will be held on Tuesday, March 1, at 7 p.m. at the New York Avenue headquarters. A decision on the fate of the district’s elementary schools is expected in the coming weeks.

2016 Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame inductees Tom Combs, Chuck Downey and Rich Cimini pose for a photo at the induction announcement press conference. Photo by Alex Petroski

The Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame announced on Wednesday that they will be inducting eight new members in 2016. The class includes Setauket resident Rich Cimini, the New York Jets beat reporter for ESPN; Commack resident Chuck Downey, the first Stony Brook University athlete to sign a professional sports contract; and Setauket resident Tom Combs, the athletic director at Patchogue-Medford High School and a standout football star for Smithtown, among others.

Television and radio host David Weiss introduced the inductees at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Hauppauge during the press conference.

“It’s an honor to be associated with such great inductees, great athletes and coaches,” Cimini said during the press conference after he was introduced. “I’m just a guy who got cut from his varsity baseball team by Bill Batewell. At least he’s a Hall of Famer, so I can say that I got cut by a Hall of Fame coach.”

Cimini graduated from Sachem High School in 1981. He has covered the Jets for Newsday, the Daily News and now ESPN during his long career as a reporter.

“It has been such a great ride that I have a fear that I’m going to wake up one day and realize it’s just been a dream, and that I actually have to go out and get a real job,” Cimini said.

Downey, who is currently a Battalion Chief for the FDNY, credited his parents for instilling values of hard work that led him to be successful in life. His father Raymond, who was also an FDNY firefighter, was killed in the line of duty on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Suffolk is very special, and to be here today with these other inductees — thank you very much,” Downey said during the press conference. He was a three-sport athlete at Deer Park High School, before playing football at Stony Brook University, and ultimately signing an NFL contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1988.

Combs has played, coached and been an athletic director in Suffolk County dating back to the 1970s. He is also a member of the Hall’s board of trustees.

“This is quite a talented class,” Combs said. “I’ve been involved with the Hall of Fame for the last five years and I can honestly say this is a very intimidating group with some amazing accomplishments.”

The other inductees include Jillian Byers, a thre-sport standout from Northport who went on to become a four-time All-American in lacrosse; Frank Romeo, who was a longtime boys’ basketball coach at Comsewogue High School who was inducted into the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame last year; and Laura Gentile, Maria Michta-Coffey and Isaac Ramaswamy, all of whom went to Sachem.

Richie LoNigro, owner of Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, will also receive a Special Recognition Award for his dedication to the athletes of Suffolk County. He is one of only six people in the country to receive the Rawlings Sporting Goods Silver Glove Award, which has been given to some of the most respected people in the sporting good industry

The ceremony for the 2016 inductees will take place on May 6, also at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Hauppauge. Tickets are $95. For more information visit http://www.suffolksportshof.com.

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Huntington’s 4x400 relay state championship team of Kyree Johnson, Lawrence Leake, Infinite Tucker and Exzayvian Crowell continue to reach new heights. Photo by Darin Reed

Huntington boys’ track and field head coach Ron Wilson had an idea that he could have a strong team for the 2015-16 winter season, but the success they’ve enjoyed was beyond even his expectations.

“We knew that we had quite a few kids returning this season, which would put us at the forefront in Suffolk County,” Wilson said. “We didn’t know that we would be one of the top teams in the state of New York.”

That’s exactly what the Blue Devils were this winter: one of the most electrifying track and field squads in the state. The team is led by their “Fantastic Four,” the nickname given to Huntington’s state champion 4×400-meter relay team from last winter. All four members returned this year. Infinite Tucker, Kyree Johnson, Lawrence Leake and Exzayvian Crowell captured numerous state, county, league and Long Island accolades as a team and individually last year, and this year hasn’t been much different.

The team took the gold in the 4×400 relay at the Suffolk County Championships on Jan. 31 at the Suffolk County Community College campus in Brentwood. They also qualified for Nationals, which will take place on March 11 in New York City. Huntington’s 4×200 relay team also qualified, as did Tucker and Johnson in numerous individual events.

Wilson said it hit him how special this team was at a meet on Jan. 16 at the Molloy Stanner Games at the New Balance Track and Field Center at the Armory in Manhattan.

“We were grooving,” Wilson said with a hearty laugh. On that Saturday in Manhattan, Tucker ran the best time in the country for the winter season in the 600 dash, and Johnson set the mark nationally for the 300 dash, while Leake posted the fourth-best time of the year in the 300. The times were announced to a standing ovation, according to Wilson.

Wilson said one of the biggest surprises of the season was Leake’s performance.

“My time in the 300, I was very proud of,” Leake said.

Johnson indicated that he could tell fairly early on how special the Blue Devils might be.

“Around the first couple of meets, everybody started to show how good they are and the ability they had,” Johnson said.

Johnson credited advice from his older brother Tyreke, who also ran track at Huntington, as being helpful in keeping his competitive edge, despite enormous success.

“The number one thing is to remain humble and don’t look at anybody like they’re not as good as you,” Johnson said. “I have to work my hardest.”

Wilson has been a part of some special teams at Huntington in his nine years leading the high school squad. He coached in the district on the junior high level from 1998 to 2007, when he became an assistant for the high school team under Dennis Walker. Wilson was also a member of the team in 1993 and 1994, when he attended Huntington.

“I didn’t run; I was a thrower,” Wilson said. “I was too big to run.”

The head coach didn’t hesitate for a second when trying to compare this Blue Devils’ team to the numerous versions that he’d had a hand in previously.

“This is by far the best team that I’ve coached,” he said.

Assistant coach Eli Acosta, who said this is his 49th year in the Long Island track and field world, reiterated Wilson’s assessment of the team.

“I can say that this is the best track and field that I’ve ever coached in terms of talent,” Acosta said. “We have very talented athletes, that goes without saying. They also work quite hard.”

Wilson said his team is focused and driven, without being too uptight.

“It’s a well-rounded team,” he said. “They’re nice boys. They can be silly at times, but once they get on the track, it’s always business.”

Tucker and Johnson are undoubtedly the team’s most talented members, though the role of leadership is a shared duty among the entire roster, according to Wilson.

“It’s kind of fun,” Tucker said of his relationship with Johnson. “It’s like running with your brother.”

Acosta admitted that he and Wilson pit Johnson and Tucker against each other in certain events and in practice as a tactic to motivate the star athletes.

“They pick each other up,” Wilson said. “It’s more of the team that leads us, that drives our success, especially amongst our relay team.”

Despite their success, Wilson said he hasn’t seen any lull in the team’s drive or motivation.

“When these kids are able to stay humble and stay low, they’re always able to seek improvement,” Wilson said. “If the competition is not there, you have to compete against yourself.”

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Cause Four Paws co-director Jason Fluger with his dog Brooklyn. Photo by Alex Petroski

The Smithtown Animal Shelter and Adoption Center is joining with Commack Middle School and Dr. Michael Good, the founder of an initiative called Homeless Pet Clubs, in an effort to find homes for animals. Good flew in from Atlanta, Ga., to speak to a group of about 30 Commack middle schoolers on Thursday afternoon in the school’s auditorium.

Good, a veterinarian, formed the Homeless Pets Foundation — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization — in 1998, according to its website. In 2010, Good started Homeless Pet Clubs as an adjunct to his foundation. The clubs are meant to encourage and organize students and community members to spread the word about specific animals that are in local shelters, in the hopes of finding suitable homes for adoption.

In an interview after the presentation, Good told the story of how he was inspired to start Homeless Pet Clubs a few years ago. He was attending an event for kindergarten age students designed to answer questions about a veterinarian’s job and what it entails. After about two hours of young children telling stories about their pets, rather than asking questions about becoming a vet, Good was hit with a stroke of inspiration, he said.

“What if we could get millions of kids all over this country telling stories about animals that don’t have homes?” Good asked. “That was the foundation of my Homeless Pet school clubs, and it has worked fabulously.”

The idea for Good’s clubs is fairly simple; Introduce homeless pets to middle school, or if Good has his way even younger-aged kids, allow them to spend time with the animals and take photos, and then empower the kids to spread the word about the animals. Kids are then made aware of when an animal is adopted, and given positive reinforcement for their role in saving a life. Commack’s version of the club will be the first on Long Island, although Good is always interested in expansion.

Renee Landsman and Jason Fluger teach at Commack Middle School, but they also run Cause Four Paws, an after-school club that meets monthly to educate students about animals and how to train them safely.

“Children love animals, and I think they should be encouraged to love animals,” Landsman said. Many Cause Four Paws students were in attendance for Good’s presentation, though they were not the only ones. Landsman and Fluger hope to make Good’s vision a schoolwide cause.

Smithtown animal shelter Director Susan Hansen also attended the event. She met Good at an event two years ago, she said. One of her first actions after beginning as the shelter’s director in August was to register on Good’s website to be a shelter rescue partner.

“At the shelter we’re approached on a regular basis by various Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, youth groups and individual kids that come to the shelter and say ‘I want to volunteer,’” Hansen said in an interview. “Unfortunately a lot of them are under 16 and at the shelter you need to be older to interact with the animals. I recognized that when you exclude that young population, you’re really discounting a tremendous resource, because as Dr. Good advocates, they can promote these animals virtually.”

Hansen believes in Good’s assertion that young students and social media can be valuable assets in finding homes for animals.

“Maybe you can’t give them a home, but maybe you know someone who can,” Hansen said about the importance of including youth in the effort to find homes for animals. “Spread the word and make a difference.”

For more information visit www.homelesspetclubs.org or call the Smithtown animal shelter at 631-360-7575.

Heather Johnson has been at the helm of The Northport Historical Society for the past five years. Photo by Alex Petroski

The Northport Historical Society is searching for a new director, as Heather Johnson, who has held the position for five years, is moving on to a new job with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

“Her enthusiasm for her job radiates from her and has enabled the Northport community to become much more supportive,” society board of trustees President Steven King said about Johnson in an interview Tuesday. “All of our events that involve social interaction have improved because she enjoys doing things for people, helping people, takes pride in Northport community and that’s been very helpful over the past five years to make the historical society a more successful institution in the village.”

Johnson, whose last day is Feb. 11, arrived in January 2011 with nearly two decades of experience in various departments at Hofstra University. She spent time in their public relations department and in the office of international admissions, taught art history and even spent time working in their on-campus museum.

Johnson also had a unique upbringing, spending years living in New York City, Jacksonville, Florida, and England while her mother pursued an opera career. She returned to Long Island in 1989 and currently lives in Smithtown.

Above, the Northport Historical Society. Photo from Heather Johnson
Above, the Northport Historical Society. Photo from Heather Johnson

Her journey prior to landing in Northport, coupled with some of her own personal interests, made the position at the historical society a fit too perfect to pass up.

“I’m a history buff,” Johnson said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ve always loved history, since I was a little kid.” She laughed and added, “There are not many little girls who are interested in history.”

Johnson saw a 20 percent increase in membership in her first year alone, bringing the society’s total membership to more than 400. She maintained that number during the rest of her five-year tenure. The group also has a new website.

The outgoing director was adamant that she accomplished nothing on her own.

“I’m not going to take credit for anything that’s happened around here,” Johnson said. “It really is a team. What we have is people who are really dedicated and who really love Northport, and are very interested in the historical society, or history in general.”

During her time, Johnson was responsible for scheduling programs and exhibits for the museum, recruiting members and creating events. Some of her favorites that she mentioned were a Civil War cooking class and an educational and social tour of Northport Harbor.

“My mantra has been to educate and to entertain,” Johnson said. “When you can put those two things together, it’s a beautiful thing.”

King was not as dismissive of Johnson’s impact and accomplishments as she was.

“I don’t think that there’s any way to replace personality traits that Heather has,” King said. “We hope to settle on a final candidate who has some of what Heather has brought to us, but perhaps a different set of capabilities that will enhance our mission in the future.”

“There are not many little girls who are interested in history.”
— Heather Johnson

Johnson shared an emailed letter from a community member that she received when news of her imminent departure got out. The sender preferred to remain anonymous.

“We have learnt a lot about the village, its history and its people — and always in a welcoming and congenial setting,” the email reads.

Johnson plans to maintain a relationship with the historical society as a member of the fundraising committee and their gallery committee. She also insists that she’s not leaving the community that has become such a large part of her life, mainly due to the close bond she feels.

“This village, and Northport in general, they just really know how to come together for each other,” she said. “I plan to eat, play and shop in Northport for the rest of my life. It’s just a really, really incredible place.”

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NYPD detective and NY Finest Speakers’ Thomas Grimes, with Miller Place school board President Johanna Testa and Superintendent Marianne Higuera, spoke to parents about the dangers of social media Tuesday. Photo by Alex Petroski

Retired NYPD detective Thomas Grimes made a two-hour presentation to Miller Place school district administrators and parents at the high school on Tuesday night about the dangers of Internet use for children. Grimes’ presentation focused on the aspect of being vulnerable to predators online, but also the peer-to-peer cyber bullying that has resulted in far too many tragic situations.

“Parents, we need to shut up and stop trying to blame somebody else for what our kids are doing to one and other,” Grimes said about the harm that is done on social media between people who aren’t even strangers.

Through his program, NY Finest Speakers, he stressed the fact that cultivating a safe community is a responsibility that we all share.

“What we need to do is take responsibility and delegate that responsibility to our children as well,” he said. “It’s our responsibility as a community, as a family and as a school district.”

Grimes told stories that were horrifying for the roughly 50 parents in attendance about what can happen if a child is interacting with a stranger on a social media site or application. Grimes did a presentation for North Country Road Middle School students on Tuesday, and for Miller Place High School students on Wednesday.

“I told your kids today, if you’re in a conversation with somebody that gives you the creeps, trust your instincts,” Grimes said. “We have to empower our children to trust their instincts. We’re all born with instincts, we just need to learn to trust them.”

Grimes called this generation of middle school and high school students the first “naturalized generation” when it comes to growing up with Internet and social media use. District Superintendent Marianne Higuera expressed a similar sentiment after the presentation.

“As adults, we live in a world of Facebook, and students are so beyond Facebook,” Higuera said. “Fifteen years ago it was ‘Don’t put your child’s name on their jersey.’ Every time your child signs on to social media sites you’re putting their jersey name on these sites, so even if their screenshots show ‘Panthers,’ or ‘Miller Place’ or ‘Long Island,’ they’re susceptible to somebody who wants to do harm to them and can find them. I think that sometimes as adults we don’t understand the technology that our children use so we tend not to face those facts until there’s a problem.”

Grimes made some suggestions to the parents in attendance about ways to ensure that their children are using the Internet safely.

“If you never went in the ocean after you saw ‘Jaws’ for the first time, I give you permission to go home and throw out your computer,” Grimes joked, but he stressed to parents that the technology is not the problem, but rather the kids behavior in using the technology that needs to be monitored or modified.

Grimes suggested that parents sit down with their kids and look at all of the social media platforms and apps for which they have a profile. Any “friend” or “follower” that the child cannot identify should be deleted. He also suggested that parents encourage their kids to make their social media profiles something that they can be proud of and use as an asset, rather than something that is hidden from adults.

Additionally, Grimes suggested that if parents are concerned that their kids might have applications or programs on their mobile devices that the parents aren’t aware of, they should bring the device to the service provider and ask them to reveal everything that is on the phone.

For more information or to book a presentation, Grimes and his company, NY Finest Speakers, can be contacted at nyfinestspeakers.com.