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Barbara Donlon

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Assistant Superintendent for Business Susan Casali explained the district’s budget proposal last week. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Comsewogue School District hopes to adopt a budget that increases staff while staying within the state-imposed limit on its tax increase.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Susan Casali explained during a school board workshop on March 26 that the budget proposal would also reduce the district’s dependency on its reserves and make security improvements.

The budget was originally proposed at that workshop to be $85.6 million, or a 2.7 percent increase over the current year’s budget, funded in part through an expected increase in state aid.

But after preliminary state aid numbers were released on Tuesday, showing Comsewogue receiving less than the $2 million bump it expected, the district is changing its budget proposal — Casali said in an email that the plan is to slash the budget by $400,000.

“Our overall goal is to stay under the property tax cap,” Casali said last week, referring to New York State’s cap on how much municipalities and school districts can increase their tax levy each year.

Comsewogue may raise its by 2.2 percent next year, and the budget proposal meets that cap.

Under the budget plan, the district would add a librarian, so that each school in the district would have one, and Comsewogue would replace its deans, who also have teaching responsibilities, with assistant principals to create more flexibility.

At John F. Kennedy Middle School, where there is already one assistant principal, the plan is to replace the part-time dean with a full-time assistant principal. At Comsewogue High School, the dean will become two assistant principals.

The district is also hoping to add assistant athletic coaches into the mix, for student safety and to help develop a stronger athletic program. In the past, those roles were cut for financial reasons.

Other improvements are proposed for the district’s facilities — according to Casali, Comsewogue’s wireless infrastructure hasn’t been updated in more than 10 years, and some classrooms need to be refurbished. Officials also hope to add cameras and other upgrades to the security system, based on recommendations from a security study that was completed last year.

While the budget has not been finalized, Superintendent Joe Rella said, “Whatever budget is put up [for a public vote] in May will be under the tax cap.”

Also on the ballot will be a proposition on transportation, to add bus service for 38 JFK Middle School students who currently walk to school. The students live within a half-mile of the building, which keeps them off the buses, but the heavy snow covering sidewalks this winter led the kids to walk in the street and spurred the transportation proposal.

The extra bus riders will not add cost to the taxpayer, as the district would reconfigure current bus routes to accommodate the kids.

The school board will adopt a budget at its meeting on April 13.

Joe Rella is planning to continue as Comsewogue’s superintendent for the immediate future, though he says he’s retiring in 2019. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Comsewogue officials have sealed their lips on a proposal not to give state exams to students next month.

Both Facebook and the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association website were buzzing this week, as school board members and residents discussed a proposed resolution saying the board would “seriously consider not administering the New York State standardized [English language arts] and math exams in grades 3-8, and the science exam in grades 4 and 8.” The board of education had encouraged parents to attend its workshop on Thursday night and speak about the state’s testing system.

But just hours before the meeting, the district went silent, and Superintendent Joe Rella and board members said legal counsel had advised them not to discuss the issue.

It is unclear whether the board will bring the resolution to a vote at its next business meeting, on Monday.

According to the resolution, the board takes issue with the state’s current education aid levels and teacher evaluation policies, and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education reforms, one of which would base half of a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores.

The resolution says that the Comsewogue school board would consider not administering the state tests unless Cuomo (D) and state legislators “establish a fair and equitable state aid funding formula … so [schools] can provide for the educational needs of every child” and stop weighing student test scores so heavily in teacher and administrator evaluations.

At the workshop Thursday, a community member said the announcement before the meeting that officials would no longer discuss the matter had surprised her.

“I really can’t tell you why right now,” Rella responded. “We’ve been advised not to comment about it.”

According to state education department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie, the federal government requires the standardized tests.

“If a member of a board of education or school superintendent takes official action by refusing to administer a required state assessment, the responsible party would be at risk of removal from office by the commissioner of education pursuant to Education Law,” Beattie said in an email.

According to Article 7 of the state Education Law, the commissioner may, following a hearing, remove a school officer, including a school board member or a district administrator, if it has been “proved to his satisfaction” that the person willfully disobeyed “any decision, order, rule or regulation of the regents or of the commissioner of education.” The commissioner may also withhold state aid from any district for such actions.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright is putting pressure on the knocking down of Pine Barrens forrest in favor of a solar farm. File photo

A new bill protecting children from toxic chemicals is making its way through the state Assembly as elected officials work to keep chemicals out of children’s products.

The bill — commonly known as the Child Safe Products Act — would empower New York State to identify and phase out dangerous chemicals in products marketed to kids, lawmakers said. State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) helped craft the legislation and has been pushing it forward with hopes of keeping young people safe from what they cannot see.

If the legislation is passed, the state would compile a list of high-concern chemicals made up of those known to cause health problems such as cancer, learning and developmental disorders, asthma and more, officials said.

Then, a list of priority chemicals used in children’s products will be drafted for disclosure, lawmakers said.

“This bill addresses issues of poisonous products for children,” Englebright said. “It’s very important to protect the children. And that’s what I intend to do.”

The makers of children’s products would also be required to report their use of priority chemicals in their merchandise after a year, and phase out their use of such chemicals three years later.

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said legislation like this is important because there is always a need to prevent innocent children from being exposed to such harmful chemicals like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, formaldehyde and more.

“Kids are more vulnerable and more likely to put things in their mouth,” Spencer said. “Almost any toy could potentially have toxic chemicals.”

Spencer also said toxic chemicals are found in many children’s products such as clothes, dolls, toys and more. He said they can be in found things such as paint on a button or a bracelet a child wears.

According to Englebright, there are some 84,000 chemicals on the market today. The federal law that was supposed to protect against them — the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 —  “is a very weak law and has never been updated,” the lawmaker said.

The assemblyman also said he feels a bill like this is important for everyone in the state as it sets the standards manufacturers would be held to.

“We all benefit when children are protected from poorly regulated toxic chemicals that have the potential to harm development, cause illness and impair learning,” Englebright said. “I think it’s very important to get this bill to the governor’s desk.”

Spencer also said while he does support the bill, there should be guidelines and parameters set as there is the ability to detect parts per million, billion and even trillion. He said it is unnecessary to be overly restrictive as something at a certain parts per billion or trillion, may not be harmful.

Late last year, a press conference was held in Hauppauge to show parents the toxins present in certain items geared toward kids. While many of the toys at the conference had toxic chemicals in them, such a Hot Wheels cars or dresses bought in Long Island stores, there are toys on the market that are manufactured without them.

“A lot of times the effects of these toxic substances aren’t seen right away. But the impact lasts for a lifetime,” Spencer said at the December conference.

When asked why certain toys have chemicals and others don’t, Spencer said some manufacturers may be unaware of the chemicals present and others could possibly use the chemicals to maximize profit.

State Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci (R-Melville) is calling on Albany to increase the amount of financial aid it awards college students through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program.

The hike is needed, Lupinacci said, because there’s been no significant increase to the maximum TAP award in more than 10 years. Lupinacci is calling for a 25 percent increase in the maximum grant amount.

TAP funding is a grant that is intended to help cover tuition costs at New York State universities and colleges. The minimum TAP grant awarded per school year is $500 and the maximum is $5,165, according to the program’s website. Lupinacci wants to raise the maximum TAP award to $6,470 and increase the maximum household income for TAP eligibility from $80,000 to $100,000.

“As a college professor, I see every day how important TAP is for thousands of students,” he said in a recent statement. “An increase in funding would give students the relief they need to hit the ground running after graduation.”

TAP is awarded annually to New York State residents who study at full-time colleges within the state. Students who receive the grant must stay in good academic standing and meet the income requirement. According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) website, nearly 400,000 students across the state received a TAP grant in 2013.

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) has signed on as a co-sponsor to Lupinacci’s bill and said an increase in the funding and eligibility is definitely needed for students across the state.

“The price of public education has gone up tremendously in 10 years,” Raia said in a phone interview.

Raia said while $80,000 seems like a lot of money, given the cost of living it is not as much for a family of four living on Long Island when compared to the same family of four living upstate. He said the cost of living is higher here and the increase in a maximum award is greatly needed.

Lupinacci, who currently teaches at Farmingdale State College, said it is important to have this increase in an effort to ease the financial burden on students. He said it would help cover significant portions of tuitions at State University of New York and City University of New York schools, and whatever it could for private schools’ tuitions.

Currently, the bill that was introduced on March 5 is being referred to the Assembly’s Higher Education committee, where Lupinacci is a ranking member. If this bill is approved, Lupinacci hopes the increase kicks in beginning April 1, 2016.

The most recent TAP increase was for $165 back in 2014. Cuomo announced the increase, nearly 15 years after the last one. The bill also has a state Senate sponsor, State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who has not seen the bill, said he favors a TAP increase.

“I think it’s a great investment in young people, who are the future of our state,” he said in a phone interview.

Poquott Civic Association President Carol Pesek says her group is still pursuing $23,000 they allege former President Eddie Schmidt mishandled when he was at the helm. File photo by Barbara Donlon

Missing money has the Poquott Civic Association approaching a boiling point.

An ongoing mystery regarding the $23,000 civic members alleged former President Eddie Schmidt mishandled two years ago reached a new milestone Thursday when the 21-year-old fired off a mass email to the civic. In the email, Schmidt outlined his tenure as president, explaining his silence since the accusations arose late last year and how they have affected him.

“The silence was a courtesy as I thought the present Board was genuinely working towards a mutual agreement between us to benefit the community. Unfortunately, the board was not genuine in its dealings, and has acted contrary to resolution,” Schmidt said in the letter. “I am writing this letter now to explain the situation, as I have genuine concerns regarding the presentation of the information by the Board, and by the climate of rumor that has spread throughout our village.”

Schmidt went on to detail the events he helped push as president despite a hefty workload while attending college at 19 years old. He said accusations, which he referred to as rumors, deeply hurt him.

“I did my best to work towards common ground while rumors became widespread, and incorrect information and damaging assumptions were presented.”

Schmidt, who resigned as president of the Poquott Civic Association in September, was accused of stealing more than $23,000 from the organization during his time at the helm. Civic leaders allege that while president, the 21-year-old used money raised at civic events to purchase things unrelated to civic expenses, like gasoline, Vineyard Vines clothing and dining at gourmet restaurants.

Members of the civic spoke up on the matter at Thursday’s monthly meeting for the first time in months as legal matters were ongoing. Civic President Carol Pesek brought new details on a potential settlement between her group and Schmidt as the parties try to reconcile the thousands of dollars that allegedly went missing.

“The letter opened the door for the civic board to bring more information to the community,” Pesek said in an interview the day after the meeting.

The board read a response back to the letter and then finally spoke about what members have been enduring the last few months. Peter Lavrenchik, a legal advisor who spoke on Schmidt’s behalf, said the former president and the board were exploring a potential settlement.

Pesek said the settlement offer was for $15,000 — $5,000 less than the money originally demanded late last year — and also included a controversial confidentiality clause that would forbid the board from speaking of the matter. There was also a nondisclosure clause that would forbid it from letting the community know where the money came from, and an agreement that Schmidt would not be prosecuted, the civic board said.

“It was an offer, but we couldn’t get past the confidentiality agreement,” Treasurer Felicia Chillak said.

Calling on legal advice, members of the board said they would not sign onto any settlement agreements for the time being. The response elicited a rousing response from members of the Poquott community.

“We never presented [the offer to the public] because in the beginning, we couldn’t get the confidentiality clause off the table,” Pesek said. “If we could have gotten rid of the confidentiality clause, we would have brought it to the table.”

Pesek said the board repeatedly told Lavrenchik that it would not sign a confidentiality clause, and he said there would be no offer without it.

Calls to Schmidt and Lavrenchik were not returned. Both parties were invited to the civic’s meeting, Pesek said, but did not attend.

Any future offers or potential settlements would be brought before the civic, Pesek said.

As community members went back and fourth discussing the $15,000 settlement Thursday night, Schmidt’s mom, Beth Schmidt, spoke emotionally in defense of her son, whom she said was waiting outside in her car. The legal trouble has weighed heavily on her son, who has been losing weight as a result of the emotional stress, the mother said.

“My kid did not steal $20,000 or $23,000,” his mother shouted at the meeting last week. “You practically destroyed him. I’m watching my kid suffer. He is a nice kid and feels terrible.”

Also in attendance at the meeting was Schmidt’s girlfriend, Kaitlin Sisti, who came to Schmidt’s defense and said there was no way he could have stolen the money, as it was all used for community events.

As the meeting drew closer to its conclusion, some members of the civic argued that regardless of which party was at fault, it was in the community’s best interests to move beyond this legal trouble.

“It’s tearing the village to pieces,” resident Harry Berry said after last week’s contentious meeting. “In 34 years, I have never seen anything split the village like this.”

Dina Stramara addresses the board. Photo by Barbara Donlon

With less than one month until the New York State testing begins in grades three to eight, parents in Kings Park are vocalizing their right to opt out and say they want the board of education to do the same.

At a meeting earlier in the month, several parents asked the board to craft a resolution on standardized testing. Then they started a petition through their group, Kings Park Advocates for Education, to establish a unified voice.

The petition highlighted three items the parents would like the board to support. It said they want support for their right to opt their child out of the high stakes testing, support for alternate activities for their child during the test, and easier options when it comes to opting out.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board opened up as a whole for the first time, as President Tom LoCascio read a statement on the board’s behalf.

“We believe the decision of whether to participate in or to refuse to take a state assessment is a personal decision and ultimately a parent’s choice and in either case a decision that should be afforded mutual respect,” LoCascio said.

The statement went on to say the board believes in public education, that every student in the district deserves an opportunity to succeed and that they believe teachers should be evaluated using multiple forms of assessment.

It also said that as a board, they recognize Gov. Andrew Cuomo and certain interests have politicized many educational issues and that they are concerned how this will impact the district.

“We will continue to work to advance our adopted board goals, prevent the erosion of local control and fight to ensure that educators and those elected by our community have the final decision in how our schools are run,” LoCascio said.

Parents said the statement still did not impress them.

“This community is asking the board of education to step up, pick a strong stand,” parent Shala Pascucci said during the meeting’s public comment forum. “That was a step in the right direction, but if you read the resolution from other neighboring districts, you will know that resolution is not as strong as it could be.”

Pascucci went on to say the board statement is not specific enough, but did acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction. Board member Pam DeFord also acknowledged the statement and said she agreed with parents.

“You’re right, it’s a small step, and we will continue to work on it,” DeFord said.

Parents also said they were upset about the process that will take place in the classroom the morning of the assessment. Parent Dina Stramara quoted from the test refusal question-and-answer section on the board’s website, visibly upset by what her child will go through.

According to the document, children will be seated in assigned seats and a proctor will pass out the documents. They will know ahead of time which students are refusing the assessment, but children must verbally confirm it.

“In the most non-judgmental, non-confrontational, and delicate manner possible, the proctor will verbally confirm with each individual child that he/she is refusing the assessment, those exam materials will be collected, and the child will be permitted to read quietly,” the document said.

Stramara said there is nothing non-judgmental and delicate about putting a child in an awkward position. She said they are not adults and parents should make the decision for them. She also asked why the district would still put the test in front of them if they know they are refusing ahead of time.

“Asking [a young child] to verbalize this is absolutely ludicrous,” Stramara said to the board. “I implore you to please reconsider this procedure. It is not our children’s fault that the state and the district are failing them by making them pawns in this ridiculousness.”

Schools Superintendent Timothy Eagen said this was not a district procedure but one from the New York State Education Department.

“According to the state education department, an activity that is acceptable for students who finish the test early or refuse to take the test is simply to read something,” Eagen said in an interview after the meeting.

DA says suspect faces life in prison if convicted of shooting Mark Collins

District Attorney Tom Spota says Sheldon Leftenant faces life in prison if convicted of shooting police officer Mark Collins. Photo by Barbara Donlon

A shot in the neck was close to fatal for a Suffolk County cop injured in the line of duty, according to a details of the struggle with his alleged shooter law enforcement officials recapped last week.

District Attorney Tom Spota released new details surrounding the March 11 shooting of Suffolk County Police Officer Mark Collins in a news conference on Friday afternoon. The DA said after investigators spoke with Collins, they found out the play-by-play of what happened that night in Huntington Station.

The suspect, Sheldon Leftenant, 22, of Huntington Station was indicted by a grand jury in Riverhead on Friday shortly before the news conference. Leftenant pleaded not guilty to attempted aggravated murder of a police officer, resisting arrest and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon.

The suspect could be facing up to life in prison if convicted of the charges, Spota said.
Collins, who worked for the 2nd Precinct’s gang unit, pulled over the vehicle where Leftenant, who is allegedly a member of the “Tip Top Boyz” gang, was a passenger. After being asked to get out of the vehicle, the suspect fled out of the right rear passenger door and Collins chased after him.

“Collins gave chase, he had his police-issued taser in hand,” Spota said. “He never drew his weapon.”

The officer continued to chase Leftenant when he cornered the suspect, after Leftenant was not being able to open a gate at 11 Mercer Court. A confrontation took place and the officer tasered Leftenant. The officer was unaware the suspect had a gun, Spota.

“Collins successfully deployed his taser twice in Leftenant’s back and while it brought the defendant to the ground, unfortunately it did not completely immobilize him,” Spota said.

The officer dropped down to handcuff Leftenant when a struggle ensued. At that point, Collins was on top of Leftenant and reported seeing two blue flashes and hearing four gunshots in quick succession. The officer was shot in the neck and hip. The neck shot, had it been any closer, could have hit the carotid artery and killed him, officials said.

“Police Officer Collins knew right away he had been shot because he couldn’t feel anything on his right side and he couldn’t move at all his right arm or his right leg,” Spota said.

Collins began to try and drag himself over to a stoop on the property, as he was trying to protect himself the best he could.

“He tried to draw his weapon, but he had lost the complete use of his right arm, right leg, that’s why he is actually crawling to get over here,” the DA said, pointing to a spot on a photo of the crime scene where the officer went to protect himself.

Spota said Collins knew the gun was .38 caliber revolver and that there were at least two shots left. He covered himself with his police-issued bullet proof vest and faced it towards the suspect, as he felt Leftenant would walk over and shoot him again.

After allegedly shooting the officer, Leftenant fled and dropped the weapon in the backyard of 13 Mercer Court. He then ran about a quarter-mile away from the scene and hid. According to Spota, canine units quickly arrived and found the gun and Leftenant.

Two bullets were found inside the Mercer Court home where the struggle took place. While people were home as the two struggled outside, no one was injured by the shots.

After court, Leftenant’s lawyer Ian Fitzgerald said the defendant was sorry to be in this situation, but wouldn’t comment any further.

“I don’t think he showed any mercy at all, after all he fires two shots one in his neck virtually point blank range, that doesn’t tell me there is any mercy at all,” Spota said.

During Leftenant’s arraignment, a handful of the suspect’s family members were in the audience. While they wouldn’t comment, they left the courtroom chanting, “Free Shel.”

Civic group does not vote ‘fore’ or against proposal

The Heatherwood Golf Club. File photo by Andrea Moore Paldy

Dozens of community members turned out to a special meeting of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association last Wednesday night, Aug. 27, to oppose a proposed retirement housing project at the Heatherwood golf course.

The owners of Heatherwood Golf Club, located at Arrowhead Lane and Nesconset Highway in Terryville, are looking to build 200 rental units at the site — made up of townhouses, ranches and apartments — for residents 55 and older.

Doug Partrick, an owner of the course and multifamily housing developer Heatherwood Communities, was not at the meeting, but according to a presentation he gave on the project at a May civic meeting, the housing would be built on 25 of the golf course’s 70 acres, leaving 45 acres as open space.

The homes would be surrounded by a nine-hole golf course, down from the 18 holes currently on the site.

Residents at Wednesday’s meeting said they are concerned about the project’s impacts on traffic and quality of life. They were also wary of overdevelopment.

“It takes me 20 minutes to get home and I travel 1.8 miles,” Patricia Higgins, who lives close to the golf course, said in an interview afterward. “I could walk faster.”

Civic President Ed Garboski told the crowd that the golf course would shut down at the end of the season, regardless of whether the housing project is approved.

Partrick had said in May that if the development did not move forward, he would think about whether he is “better off consistently losing money on the golf course or … just shutting the golf course down, leaving it dormant” and paying taxes on the land.

“If he wants to walk, let him walk,” Lou Antoniello, who is the civic treasurer but was speaking just as a Terryville resident, said in an interview. “Have a nice day and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Residents hope they can stop the project from moving forward.

“I am so glad I came to know what’s going on and it’s disappointing,” Port Jefferson Station resident Nancy Farrell said in an interview.

Garboski said during the meeting that results of a traffic study performed on the area found that the proposed Heatherwood project would not have a big impact on traffic.

But residents argued that 200 rented units would bring at least 200 new cars, and said they don’t understand how that wouldn’t affect traffic.

Joe Cannone, a Port Jefferson Station resident, said after the meeting that he isn’t against development at the golf course, but “the golf course should either stay a golf course or develop for what it’s zoned for.”

The course is zoned A Residence 5, which allows one housing unit for every 5 acres.

The civic is expected to vote on whether it supports the project at its next meeting on Sept. 23.

Whatever the group decides, it will have the backing of a neighbor — Shawn Nuzzo, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, attended last Wednesday’s meeting because part of the golf course lies in the Three Village school district, and he assured the crowd that his civic will take the same stand as whatever the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association decides.