Education

Jillian Warywoda gets in a hug after reading ‘Farm Alarm!’ to Sally at the Sachem Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

By Sue Wahlert

From April 12 to 18, libraries across the nation will be celebrating National Library Week. According to the American Library Association, “It is a time to celebrate the contributions of our nation’s libraries and librarians and to promote library use and support.” The quality and variety of programming libraries offer communities has grown exponentially and fulfills the needs of all residents, regardless of age. It is one of our most valuable community resources in a time when our communities have become more and more fragmented.

One such program that deserves celebration has literally, “gone to the dogs.” For more than 15 years, various libraries across Suffolk County have been inviting certified therapy dogs into their children’s department to encourage reluctant readers to develop their love of reading. Each participating library has their own unique name for their program, such as “Puppy Pals” or “Book Time with a Dog,” but the purpose is always the same, “We want to build confidence in young readers.  The dog is not going to critique the child as they are reading,” said Brian Debus, Emma S. Clark Library’s Children’s Department Head. It is an opportunity to make reading a fun process and it certainly takes the stress out of reading aloud.

Over the past month, we have visited five Suffolk County libraries and spent time with the dog handlers and children who attend these programs. Each library has their own style, but the formula is the same: take one certified therapy dog, a handler who loves what they do and a kid, place them in a quiet room and watch something magical happen.

Brothers, from left, Liam and Daniel Regan, with Mac at the North Shore Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert
Brothers, from left, Liam and Daniel Regan, with Mac at the North Shore Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

This all-volunteer program would not be possible without the dedication of the dog owner/handlers, their dogs and the willingness of the libraries to engage in this type of program.  It is an opportunity to strengthen the love of reading while developing a connection between families and the library that can last a lifetime.

North Shore Public Library, Reading to Mac
On Saturday mornings in the children’s department of the North Shore Public Library you can find the lovable Mac, an 11-year-old black lab nestled against the book cases awaiting young readers to arrive. Jane Broege, Mac’s handler and owner, said that Mac has been listening to readers for three years now, after spending his life as a guide dog. “Dogs feel better if they are doing something,” said Broege. “Dogs were put on this earth to make us happy.” The “Reading to Mac” program does make kids and their families happy while encouraging the love of reading in children.

Recently, readers eight-year-old Daniel Regan and his five-year-old brother Liam came prepared with their books. It was Daniel’s second time with Mac and Liam’s first. Daniel settled in on the cushy beanbag chair and began his story while Mac snuggled up against him. After completing “Henry and Mudge and the Happy Cat,” he was able to spend time petting and talking to Mac and Broege. His response to the program, “I love it; it makes me calm!”

Broege echoes the mantra of all programs similar to this one, “The dog is not judgmental and it does not mind what the child reads.” As a reward, Broege gives each reader a blue rubber bracelet with a paw print on it to remind them of their time with Mac. The program runs on Saturday mornings, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. To schedule a 15-minute session with Mac, call North Shore Public Library at 631-929-4488, ext 223.

Sachem Public Library, Book Time with a Dog
Established in 2001, Book Time with a Dog at Sachem Library invites not just one, but four dogs into its Children’s Department program room. You might think that four dogs in one room would encourage mayhem, but it is the complete opposite, calm and quiet. Each of the dogs is certified through an organization called Therapy Dogs International. Their handlers couldn’t be prouder to share their peaceful and obedient dogs with the young readers who come to this once-a-week program.

Children’s Librarian Marybeth Kozikowski has made this program one of her passions. “It is an esteem-building program, not an academic experience,” Kozikowski reflected. Amy Johnston, Head of Children’s Services, said of Kozikowski, “She has helped to make this program a success. She has written and obtained grants to purchase blankets for the dogs to sit on and chairs for the handlers to use during the program.”
Suzanne DiRusso began this program with a dog named Dakota and it continues to be very popular, reaching out to the library’s younger patrons. The goal of Book Time with a Dog is to provide a place for reluctant readers to sit with a dog and read. Because the dog is non-judgmental, it provides a non-threatening environment for readers. “Anytime they [children] want to sit and read, it is a win-win situation,” said Johnston.

Daniel Regan visits with Mac at the North Shore Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert
Daniel Regan visits with Mac at the North Shore Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

Sachem’s program is open to children in first to fifth grades with a reservation for a 20-minute session with a dog. Parents can watch through large glass windows as their children get comfortable with an assigned dog.

On this particular evening, 12 readers had reserved spots with the dogs. Handler and dog owner Beverly Killeen accompanied her ten-year-old dog Maureen, a golden retriever. Killeen has been participating in this reading program for six years and has had many other dogs involved in the program as well. “I love children. It is good to see them make progress from year to year,” said Killeen.

Sisters Morgan and Calleigh Quirk were so excited to read to Emma, a greyhound, and Sally, a golden retriever. Their mother Kelly said, “They sit and read to our dogs too!” According to another parent, Sandra Kyranakis, whose son Jake has been attending this program for two years, “It is a wonderful program that has given him confidence. He has struggled with reading. This program has helped him to enjoy it.”

After the story is complete, readers sit and talk with the handlers while petting the dog. Upon leaving, the readers are given a card with the dog’s picture and information on it — a fun way to remember the experience!

Reservations are required for “Book Time with a Dog,” which is held on Thursdays from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call Sachem Library at 631-588-5024 and ask for the Children’s Department.

Emma S. Clark Library, Reading with Angela or Alfie
On a recent Thursday afternoon, dog handler and owner, Fred Dietrich, brought Angela, a  seven-year-old purebred yellow Lab, to the Children’s Department of Emma S. Clark Library. Angela had a special job — to sit, relax and listen to a story. Dietrich said Angela completed an 8 week training program at Patchogue Rotary Animal Assisted Therapy and had been doing therapy work for over 2 years.

Emma S. Clark’s Library programs “Reading with Angela” and “Reading with Alfie,” began last spring after patrons inquired about a program of this type and the librarians researched journal articles about the benefits of therapy dogs with children.

Today’s half-hour reservation was held by six-year-old Thomas Tunstead, who came equipped with his own book, “The Bravest Dog Ever.” It was his first time reading to a dog. “I love reading to doggies!  If I ever tried to read to my dog, he would eat my book!” he said with a big smile.

Thomas Tunstead reads with Angela at the Emma S. Clark Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert
Thomas Tunstead reads with Angela at the Emma S. Clark Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

The dog, handler and reader were brought into the colorful program room in the Children’s Department. Angela and Thomas settled in on the floor next to Dietrich who held the leash at all times.  Thomas leaned into Angela’s furry body and got busy reading his story. This was the place to be, as Tunstead read about Balto, the famous dog, to Angela. There were no moans or moments of frustration when he came across a tough word because Thomas knew Angela wouldn’t judge him for not knowing.

After the reading session ended, there was time for Thomas to bond with Angela by giving her treats and building a house for her made of soft blocks. Thomas’s mother Melissa said, “Thomas loves dogs and I want him to read, so this is the perfect match.”

Emma S. Clark Library holds their programs on Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 4:45 to 5:15 p.m. Reservations are required by calling 631-941-4080.

Harborfields Public Library, Tail Waggin’ Tales
At Harborfields Public Library, children can have their parents reserve a spot to read to a dog in their Tail Waggin’ Tales program. Since 2004, the program has brought together the calm creatures and young patrons to read aloud. “An animal is not judgmental and the kids feel that,” said Patricia Moisan, director of Youth and Family Services at the library.

Cutch, a golden retriever, is the dog of the hour. Handler Sue Semple greets the readers and their families who come for a 15 minute sessions.  The program is open to children Kindergarten through third grade and is held on Fridays. Siblings are invited to sit-in on this program, which makes it a family friendly activity.
Moisan spoke of a family’s experience with Tail Waggin’ Tales, “A mother came in and talked about how shy her daughter was, but when the young girl came in to read with the dog, she was not shy at all!” The program is an opportunity for children to become more relaxed with reading. Moisan feels it is a “really safe place” for children to take chances with their reading.  Unlike parents or adults, Cutch does not make any comments about the child’s reading, he just relaxes and listens.

Olivia Cortez reads ‘Click Clack Moo’ to Barbie the therapy dog at Huntington Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert
Olivia Cortez reads ‘Click Clack Moo’ to Barbie the therapy dog at Huntington Public Library. Photo by Sue Wahlert

The library will be hosting a weekend program in the near future, where the handler or librarian read a story while families interact with a dog. Please refer to their event schedule to find out the exact dates.
Tail Waggin’ Tales happens twice a month on Fridays, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., with four 15-minute reading sessions. If you are interested in reserving time with Cutch, contact Harborfields Library at 631-757-4200.

Huntington Public Library, Puppy Pals
Huntington Public Library holds their Puppy Pals program monthly, alternating between the Main Library on Main Street in Huntington and their branch in Huntington Station, on New York Avenue. The Library invites dogs who are part of Therapy Dogs International’s “Tail Waggin’ Tutors” program each month for a half-hour reading session. Laura Giuliani, head of Youth and Parent Services, said the library has been doing this for the past seven years. “It allows children who may not be confident in reading to sit with a dog and read. All the kids love it!” On the most recent Thursday visit, Ana O’Brien, the handler who organizes the dogs that visit the library, brought her ten-year-old Portuguese water dog, Nina, who was wearing pink bunny ears. “Reading is important. It can be intimidating, and so with our costumes and pets we can make it a little better,” said O’Brien.

Burt Rowley, who brings his six-year-old Vizsla, Maggie, feels it is very helpful for children who are afraid to read. He told the story of a child who has been coming  to the program since 2011, adding “he’s become a very good reader.” All of the handlers are passionate about their dogs and the children who come to read to their companions. Terry Gallogly brought her Labradoodles, Barbie and Ken. “I always believed in the connection between animals and humans,” said Gallogly.

On this particular day, first grader Olivia Cortez brought the book, “Click Clack Moo,” to read to the Barbie. Her mother, Jennifer Cortez, said that Olivia practiced with the book before she came. As Olivia worked her way through the book, she took some time out to smile and pet Barbie while receiving words of encouragement from Gallogly. “I just want to stay here forever!” Olivia exclaimed.

Words such as hers are a testament to how powerful a program such as Puppy Pals is to these youngsters and their families. It’s a feel-good experience that can only encourage continued reading. The Puppy Pals program is held monthly, alternating between library locations, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Call the library at 631-427-5165 for reservations.

First of many school improvement plans submitted for review

The Bicycle Path school will be getting a new security vestibule in the near future. File photo by Erika Karp

The Middle Country school district is ready to move forward with several capital improvement projects for some of its 15 schools but is facing obstacles as state approval for the projects could take 34 weeks.

At the April 1 school board meeting, board President Karen Lessler gave an update on the approximate $125 million bond voters approved last November. Currently, the district is looking at roof repair, resurfacing tracks, security upgrades and more.

“The obstacle that we are currently facing is that the type one projects, which are one-shot projects that are not so complex, are taking eight weeks to get through the [New York State Education Department],” Lessler said.

According to the facilities planning division of the state education department, final engineering review will take about 32 to 34 weeks. There are approximately 930 projects awaiting review. According to Saverio Belfiore, of Melville-based H2M architects + engineers, the district’s engineering firm, roof repairs and track resurfacing projects for the high schools have been submitted to the education department.

A representative from the department did not return a request for comment.

Some of the bonded money will be used to replace 4,000 windows district wide. Many windows have not been replaced in more than 20 years, officials previously stated. Window replacement qualifies as a type one project and will be replaced overnight and throughout the summer, according to Lessler.

Security is another high-priority item for the district. Currently, details are being finalized with building principals for security upgrades to each building. According to Belfiore, upgrades to the secured entry vestibule at the prekindergarten centers, Eugene Auer Elementary, North Coleman Road Elementary and Oxhead Road Elementary have been submitted.

Belfiore said many of the district’s projects are type one and should be approved in the shorter time frame, while the other projects should begin this summer.

Putting the obstacles aside, Lessler said everything is moving along.

The North Shore Public Library. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Budget season is in full swing and the local libraries aren’t excluded. Voters will take to the polls on Tuesday, April 14, to weigh in on proposed spending plans and elections of library trustees.

North Shore Public Library Director Laura Hawrey said in a phone interview that the proposed small increase of 0.9 percent from the current year would allow for additional programs at the library. Language programs, including Spanish, Italian and English, will have additional offerings.

“All of the language programs are very popular,” she said.

In addition, the library will continue to build its multicultural program, which exposes people to music and arts from different cultures.

Following another trend many libraries are experiencing, North Shore will continue to supply readers’ demand for e-books.

“We are increasing the e-books and decreasing the amount of [printed] books,” she said.

But old-fashioned book lovers shouldn’t be worried. Hawrey said books could be easily accessed through interlibrary loan. The loan system has contributed to a decrease in a need to have as many books in-house.
Under the spending plan, an average resident in the Rocky Point and Shoreham-Wading River school districts will pay an additional $3 annually.

Incumbent library Board of Trustees President Bill Schiavo is running unopposed for his third five-year term. In a phone interview, the retired high school English teacher and Stony Brook University professor said he has always been a book and library lover.

Schiavo said he and his fellow board members have worked to make sure taxpayers are getting some bang for their buck.

“Any increase we have, however minimal, is designed to go [toward] new programs,” he said.

Schiavo said he first ran with the goal of creating an annex library in the Rocky Point area, as the community needs more meeting spaces for residents. While this hasn’t come to fruition just yet due to financial constraints, Schiavo said the whole board is well aware of the need and will continue to look for space.

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An anti-Common Core rally in Smithtown. File photo

Opting students out of state standardized tests has become a hot topic, and it’s a decision that should rest in the hands of parents, not school leaders.

Recently, Comsewogue School District officials had threatened to consider not administering the tests altogether if Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state education department did not acquiesce on a list of demands, one of which was to stop weighing student test scores so heavily in teacher and administrator evaluations. But the district clammed up on the measure after its attorney intervened. In addition, the NYSUT union, which represents teachers across the state, has called for a mass opt-out.

State law comes down hard on actions like this: Any school-board members or other officials like superintendents who willfully violate state education regulations — such as by refusing to administer a required assessment — risk being removed from office by the education commissioner, and state aid could be withheld from the district.

At the heart of the matter is a battle over local control of our school districts. While local officials should be consulted when it comes to shaping state education regulations and standards, there must be some degree of state standardization in education to ensure that our programs sufficiently educate kids. It’s wrong for administrators and school officials to politicize a high-emotion situation — the opt-out movement — in a way that could be detrimental to students.

In a school-sponsored, massive opt-out, the ones who face the greatest risk are the students — officials may put their jobs at stake, but the kids’ entire futures could hang in the balance if the state pulls education aid from a district that heavily relies upon it, or if otherwise competent school board members and administrators are kicked out of office.

Let us also pause to think about how adult behavior affects our kids. This paper has previously editorialized about how the commotion over the Common Core and state testing has negatively affected children — students see and hear their parents’ and teachers’ reactions, and many mimic that fear and anxiety when they otherwise would not have had such emotional reactions to tests and classes. At some point, we have to ask ourselves if this is the kind of behavior we want to teach our kids.

Calling for change is one thing, but screaming for it is another. Let’s not play politics. Above all, let’s keep cool.

Committee established to look into 2016-’17 implementation

Harborfields Superintendent Diana Todaro. File photo by Rohma Abbas

The Harborfields school board has green-lighted the creation of a committee that will explore the possibility of implementing full-day kindergarten in the district — a program residents say is key to early childhood education.

An online petition spearheaded by parent Jennifer Rogdakis sometime last month calls on the district to create a full-day kindergarten program, as parents feel the current half-day program is not enough for students. Roughly 400 parents have signed onto the petition.

Rogdakis, a parent of a 4-year-old and 6-month-old, said full-day kindergarten is crucial for successfully implementing the Common Core Learning Standards. She also said she feels the standards are designed with full-day kindergarten in mind.

“Half-day is not enough anymore,” Rogdakis said. “I don’t want my son to feel he has to catch up in two years.”

Harborfields school district residents aren’t alone in their desire to see full-day kindergarten at their district. Local districts have made strides towards full-day kindergarten. The Northport-East Northport school board just approved a proposed budget that would include full-day kindergarten and the Huntington school district brought the program back last year. The change.org petition claims Harborfields is in the minority of districts statewide without full-day kindergarten.

“It is incumbent upon the district and board to give our children the same opportunity for quality education as children in 97 percent of New York State school districts,” the petition reads.

Following the launch of the petition, the school board announced at its March 7 meeting the new committee that would explore full-day kindergarten in the 2016-17 school year.

According to a letter from Superintendent Diana Todarao, the district is currently accepting applications from residents who are interested serving on committee. The application can be found on the district’s website. Rogdakis said she has handed in her application and wants to be on this committee. She praised the district and said it could suffer without full-day kindergarten.

Centerport resident Marge Acosta said she feels students are done a disservice with a half-day kindergarten program. She criticized the two-and-a-half hour school day and said it isn’t enough time for students to learn. Acosta said it’s as difficult for teachers as it is for students, because teachers are forced to squeeze in what they can during the roughly two-hour day.

“This is the time when their brains are developing and their skills are developing,” Acosta said. “This is the time to put money into their education.”

The school board said it and the district greatly value the community’s input on the matter and are appreciative of their feedback.

“In an effort to fully investigate the need for full-day kindergarten, we thought it was necessary to involve our community in the process from the very beginning,” according to the statement. “This committee, which will be comprised of a variety of community residents, will present their findings to the board in the early fall.”

Robert Banzer will be the new Northport schools superintendent. File photo

It’s official — Robert Banzer is Northport-East Northport school district’s next superintendent.

The school board approved Banzer’s appointment and contract at a meeting on April 1. The superintendent, who is currently the human resources director at the Wayne Central School District located outside Rochester, will take Northport-East Northport’s reins on July 1. His three-year contract ends on June 30, 2018.

Banzer’s annual base salary is $220,000, according to his contract. The board would meet each May to discuss an appropriate increase to Banzer’s salary. Should he remain in office as of June 30, 2019, his base wages would increase by $6,000. He will also be getting three days of paid transition leave “to facilitate his relocation to Long Island,” effective July 1, 2015. Banzer will be required to contribute 25 percent of current health insurance premiums on whatever plan he chooses, according to the contract.

A Northport-East Northport native, Banzer graduated from Northport High School in 1984. He was tapped from a pool of 28 candidates who applied for the position formerly held by Marylou McDermott, who resigned in January to take care of her ailing mother. Since then, Thomas Caramore has been the district’s interim superintendent. Banzer was selected by a group of school administrators who served as consultants to the board and aided them in the search for a new superintendent.

In an interview last month, Antoinette Blanck, the president of the United Teachers of Northport union, said she and the union were pleased with Banzer’s pending appointment.

“I feel confident that we will be able to have a good working relationship, and that we can collaborate to bring about more positivity and improvements to our district and make Northport what it really can be,” she said. “And I think he’ll be able to do that.”

The newly-appointed superintendent holds a master’s degree from SUNY Albany, with a concentration in social studies teaching, and a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton College, with a concentration in economics. His administrative career includes six years as assistant superintendent for instruction, almost three years as a middle school principal and three years as an assistant principal, all within the Brockport Central School District.

Banzer was a classroom teacher in three school districts since the beginning of his career in education in 1990, and has also served as a football and baseball coach.

Buttons support public education at the Middle Country school board meeting. Photo by Barbara Donlon

A day after the state released next year’s education aid estimates, the Middle Country school district made its first presentation on the 2015-16 budget, which maintains programs and stays within the tax levy increase cap.

The almost $236 million budget, a 1.63 percent increase from this year, will continue to promote the district’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics — known as STEM — program, adds teachers to comply with a new state mandate and allocates for an extra section of pre-kindergarten. Under the plan, average homeowners with an assessed value of $2,200 will pay an extra $93.19 in taxes next year, according to school board President Karen Lessler’s April 1 presentation.

Like many other districts across the state, Middle Country is adding staff in order to comply with a state-mandated English as a second language initiative, which aims to help students whose first language is not English.

“The superintendent is working with implementing the regulations into the Middle Country school district and we’re currently looking at two to three teachers being staffed to meet this unfunded mandate,” Lessler said.

Middle Country Board of Education President Karen Lessler presents the district’s proposed 2015-16 school year. Photo by Barbara Donlon
Middle Country Board of Education President Karen Lessler presents the district’s proposed 2015-16 school year. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Lessler was pleased to share the good news that 60 percent of the Gap Elimination Adjustment will be returned to the district. The deduction began in the 2009-10 fiscal year as an effort to close the state’s deficit. The district will lose roughly $3.3 million in aid next year, which is less than the $9 million it lost this year.

“I want to be clear that this is not extra money that we’re getting,” Lessler said. “This is money that we’re entitled to have. It has been earmarked in our budget and there has been a reduction in this funding and finally this year we’re seeing some restoration of these funds.”

The board president also commented on why the district didn’t have budget meetings until April 1. She blamed Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and his lack of cooperation with releasing the state aid runs, which weren’t made public until March 31. Earlier this year, Cuomo said education aid would increase by 1.7 percent — $377 million — statewide if the state Legislature didn’t adopt his education reforms. A compromise, which included changes to the teacher evaluation and tenure systems, was reached and aid increased by about $1.4 billion.

Despite the lack of estimates in the beginning, the district put together a budget it feels will suit everyone in the community. The tax levy increase cap is about 1.75 percent, but has the potential to increase or decrease as the district crunches a few more numbers.

In regards to new programs, officials said they hope to add a science research program at the high school, which they feel will interest students. Lessler also commented on the success of the pre-kindergarten program and the need for another section.

If the budget is voted down, sports, clubs, full-day kindergarten and the pre-kindergarten program are among the offers that could be negatively impacted.

The board is expected to adopt the budget at the next board meeting on April 22. A budget hearing will be held on May 6 and the budget vote will take place on May 19.

This version corrects the budget total in Middle Country’s proposal.

Claims district violated his First Amendment rights

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano, second from left, was punished for ad-libbing a line during the school’s variety show last month. Photo by Barbara Donlon

A Miller Place High School student is suing the district for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights after he was punished for making an ad-libbed remark about the superintendent’s salary during a variety show.

At the Thursday, March 26 variety show, Kyle Vetrano, senior class president, appeared in a skit poking fun at the high school’s new bathroom policy, which allows one student at a time to use the bathroom in an effort to combat drug use and sales. According to the senior, he improvised the line that later got him into trouble.

“Is this what our superintendent gets paid all that money for? To write bathroom policy,” Vetrano said in the skit.

Following the remark, Vetrano said school administrators told him that he was not allowed to participate in the Friday night performance and was banned from school grounds during the show, as the line was not included in the pre-approved script.

“Kyle exercised his political speech rights, which are not to be violated by any government agency what so ever, including his own school,” Vetrano’s attorney John Ray, of Miller Place, said at a press conference held outside the high school on Thursday.

Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon
Miller Place High School senior Kyle Vetrano’s supporters rally on his behalf. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Vetrano’s mom, Christine, said the district is bullying her son, which is why they decided to take a stand and file the lawsuit.

The high school senior said he told a harmless joke with no malicious intent and was singled out by the district because it was the superintendent he made the remark about. He claims other students also veered off script, but were not reprimanded or punished.

Vetrano said he apologized to Superintendent Marianne Higuera numerous times, but was allegedly told that if he continued to bring up the situation, his senior prom, awards night and graduation privileges could be revoked.

“I think as an American in this country we have a right to freedom of speech and I’m just embarrassed that the district I have been a part of my entire life completely violated my first amendment rights,” Vetrano said.

When reached for comment, the district’s public relations firm, Zimmerman/Edelson, Inc. referred to a letter from Higuera posted on the district’s website.

According to the March 31 letter, students were made aware of the consequences for breaking the rules, which have been consistent year-after-year. Higuera said she was not present at the performance, but was advised of the ad-libbed line.

“This current ad-libbing situation is simply an issue of rules and consequences and not about me as the superintendent,” Higuera stated in the letter.

According to Higuera’s letter, the district will continue to discuss the “one-person at a time” bathroom policy.

About 50 people rallied at the press conference. They marched and held signs in support of the senior.

“What do we want? Free speech!” the crowd shouted as they marched up to the district office.

The family is suing for monetary damages, but has yet to decide on an amount, according to Ray.

“I was the only one who ad-libbed about the superintendent, but my comments were not with any mal-intent,” Vetrano said. “They didn’t call her out by name and they were part of a skit that was completely satirical and comedic in nature.”

Northport Interim Superintendent Thomas Caramore discusses a controversial budget matter on Wednesday night. Photo by Rohma Abbas

There will be no funding for the Northport-East Northport school district’s visual arts chairperson in next year’s proposed $159.6 million spending plan, despite pleas from students and parents to protect a position they claim is key to student arts success.

The majority of school board members backed Interim Superintendent Thomas Caramore’s recommendation to nix funding for the position, currently held by Julia Lang-Shapiro, and to have both the music and visual art departments managed by music chairperson Izzet Mergen — a structure that exists at other school districts, Caramore has said. The board voted to finalize the budget at a special meeting on Wednesday night, where members of the public once again tried to persuade board members to keep Lang-Shapiro’s position intact, or to at least hold off on making a decision until new Superintendent Robert Banzer joined the district next year.

But some members said they were not interested in “kicking the can” down the road, and a majority of the board felt that the arts department would weather the change unscathed.

“What I hear again and again and again is a fear,” Trustee Lori McCue said. “A fear that by making this change the program won’t be the same for the students.”

Eleni Russell and 4-year-old daughter Sophia thank the school board for including full-day kindergarten in next year's budget. Photo by Rohma Abbas
Eleni Russell and 4-year-old daughter Sophia thank the school board for including full-day kindergarten in next year’s budget. Photo by Rohma Abbas

McCue said that she isn’t in favor of adding the position back into the budget “because I think we can do better than that.” Instead, the district needs to work to make the transition smooth and to ensure arts students continue to get great opportunities.

“I think as a board and a community, we can do this, and I’m willing to try it,” McCue said.

For Trustee David Badanes, the decision to back Caramore came down to logic. He reasoned that other chairpersons at the district manage departments of 30 to 40 teachers, while the visual arts chairperson oversees a department of 14 teachers. Combining arts and music teachers would bring the merged department up to 41 teachers, a more reasonable number to warrant a chairperson, he said.

“Also, it is the teachers and their excellence that gives children opportunities, and I do not believe that our art department, nor our music department, will suffer in any other way,” Badanes said. “So it’s not about the money for me, it’s about clear logic.”

President Julia Binger noted that as the board’s trustees, they are entrusted with taxpayer money and from a financial standpoint, “It’s the right decision.”

Those on the other side of the issue don’t quite see it that way. Trustee Stephen Waldenburg Jr., the lone board member to oppose the consolidation, said he was concerned about the impact on students.

“Several weeks ago I said I thought this idea troubled me and I’m still very concerned,” he said. “And I will be honest with you, I didn’t want this. I think that I’ve heard what people said. They’re very concerned about the program. And that’s what we’re here for. It’s to protect the program for the kids.”

Waldenburg added that if the position is to be removed, the district “must allow for the protection of the program in some form,” such as appointing a special assistant to Mergen, or designating a teacher in charge of arts opportunities.

“We owe it to this community,” he said “We owe it to our children. And we owe it to the history of Northport.”

At the same meeting, the board finalized the district’s 2016-17 budget, which represents a roughly 0.3 percent increase over this year’s spending plan, Assistant Superintendent for Business Kathleen Molander said. The district proposes increasing its tax levy by about 1.3 percent, which is below its state-mandated 1.81 percent cap on its tax levy increase.

Northport school board Trustee Stephen Waldenburg Jr. opposes a consolidation of the district's music and visual arts departments. Photo by Rohma Abbas
Northport school board Trustee Stephen Waldenburg Jr. opposes a consolidation of the district’s music and visual arts departments. Photo by Rohma Abbas

The district will receive more state aid than it had anticipated — to the tune of about $800,000 in additional funds, Caramore said. The district will use that money, in part, to spare its reserves — officials had planned to use $506,000 from reserves to reduce the tax levy, but will now substitute that sum with state aid.

The school board also approved a second proposition for May’s ballot, on whether to spend nearly $1.2 million out of the district’s capital reserves on three projects: paving the Northport High School parking lot; replacing lighting in the East Northport Middle School auditorium; and replacing two boilers at Norwood Avenue Elementary School.

The budget already includes $1.95 million in capital projects — replacing three boilers, exterior bleachers and the press box at the high school.

One of the most significant aspects of next year’s budget is the inclusion of full-day kindergarten, a program many parents had sought for years. Two East Northport residents, Eleni Russell and her 4-year-old daughter Sophia Russell, got up to thank the board for adding the program.

“This is one of the faces of hopefully full-day kindergarten next year,” Russell said, with her daughter clinging to her side. Sophia also took the microphone and uttered a small “thank you,” to which the room burst into applause.

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Jeff Carlson outlines budget figures. Photo by Andrea Moore Paldy

By Andrea Moore Paldy

The good news continues for the Three Village School District and its projected budget for the upcoming school year.

After whittling away programs because of financial constraints, the school district, for the first time in three years, is on the verge of bringing some back. District Superintendent for Business Services Jeff Carlson outlined this in his report.

Not only will Three Village be able to stay within the 2.93 percent cap on the tax levy increase without cuts, its administration is proposing staffing changes to restore health education in grades four through six, American Sign Language at Ward Melville High School and the Three Village Academy and full-time social workers at all elementary schools.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s official state aid projections, released Tuesday, slated a roughly 4.3 percent increase, which was roughly the same amount Carlson was budgeting for, he said, totalling more than  $1 million as the district anticipated.

Districts have yet to learn whether their aid will include a reduction in the Gap Elimination Act (GEA), a measure that deducts money from aid packages to fund the state’s budget. Carlson said that while Long Island districts pay 21 percent of the GEA, they receive just 12 percent of state aid. Three Village’s share of the GEA is $5.2 million for the current school year.

Three Village will also see some of its expenses drop next year. One example is a $3.6 million decrease in contributions to retirement systems. Since the district is a member of a self-insured consortium of school districts, it has been able to make changes that will reduce health insurance rates by 5 percent, saving more than $1 million, Carlson said.

The district can also count on tuition revenue from non-residents attending the district’s special education programs and Three Village Academy, which brought $1.2 million to the district this year.

With the finances improving, the administration plans to balance classes in all grades and to depend less on the district’s applied fund balance, decreasing the amount used to balance the budget from about $6.5 million to between $2 million and $2.5 million, Carlson said.

Declining enrollment at the elementary level is making it possible to both balance class sizes and restructure some positions. Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich said the administration would take three full-time equivalent (FTE) classroom teachers and the two remaining teachers from the Pi enrichment program — which is ending this year — to create math and science enrichment specialists for each elementary school.

“We’ve all come to the conclusion that really enrichment should be a building-wide enrichment,” Pedisich said. “We also feel, with regard to math, that greater intervention needs to be addressed at the elementary level.”

Lower enrollment also means that the district does not have to replace retirements in special education and can increase staffing in health by .9 FTE, instead.  Health, which is now only given to sixth-graders, can again be offered to students in the fourth through sixth grades. Plans also are being made to boost the social worker position by .5 FTE.

Pedisich called having full-time social workers in every elementary school “the clinical piece” that makes possible “the identification and the preventive work” necessary to complement the security and safety upgrades the district has made.

To balance classes, decrease study halls and increase electives at the junior highs and high school, there will be small increases to staffing, Pedisich said. Retirements will pay for the additions.

Departments to benefit include technology, English, foreign language, guidance, health, math, science and social studies.

The ASL class, which had many advocates during the two years it was slated for cuts, will again be offered by the foreign language department.

Due to a new state mandate, the district must also add 1.2 FTEs for English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers.

Additional clerical positions will be added and divided among junior high libraries, the Ward Melville High School office, human resources and business. Carlson said that maintenance and operations would gain three FTEs to lower overtime costs and outside contractors. There will also be additional security during the day and for evening activities, he said.

The district will restructure its current administration to create new roles without the need for additional staff, Pedisich said. Some of the positions expected to be restored include the coordinating chair for music, an assistant director for health and physical education, an assistant director for pupil personnel services, coordinating chair for junior high foreign language and district-wide ESL and an assistant director for instructional technology.

Pedisich said that the latter position is particularly important, because the schools will eventually transition to the computer-based Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing.
The board will adopt the budget on April 15. The budget vote is May 19 at the district’s elementary schools.

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