Town of Brookhaven

Children can discover the wonder of plants the Brookhaven Ecology Center next month. Photo from Town of Brookhaven

Spring Pee Wee Gardening

The Town of Brookhaven Highway Department offers Spring Pee Wee Gardening classes for ages 3 to 5 at the Wildlife Education & Ecology Center, 249 Buckley Road, Holtsville on Thursdays, April 12, 19 and 26, May 3, 10 and 17 or Fridays, April 13, 20 and 27, May 4, 11 and 18 at either 10 to 11 a.m. or 1 to 2 p.m. The children will learn about the environment, animals and plants through crafts and stories. $50 for six-week session. For more information, please call 631-758-9664, ext. 10.

Adult Horticulture Classes

The Town of Brookhaven’s Department of Highways will present Adult Horticulture Classes at the Holtsville Ecology Site, 249 Buckley Road, Holtsville on Wednesdays, April 11, 18 and 25 and May 2, 9 and 16. Participants will learn about starting plants through propagation, growing vegetables from seeds, spring gardening techniques and unique gardening crafts. Fee is $50 for six-week session. Deadline to register is March 29. For more info, call 631-758-9664, ext. 10.

A home on Stony Brook Road was condemned after the Town of Brookhaven found the homeowner had the garage and basement illegally converted into apartments that housed Stony Brook University students. Photo from Town of Brookhaven

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) had a warning for unscrupulous landlords who illegally turn residential homes into rooming houses.

“Don’t do it,” Romaine said. “We’re coming for you.”

One landlord found that Sept. 8 statement to be true March 9 when the Town of Brookhaven Law Department condemned a house at 1423 Stony Brook Road in Stony Brook, where eight people were sharing the home, according to a press release from the Town of Brookhaven. Seven of the residents were found to be students of Stony Brook University. The landlord of the ranch-style house that had been unlawfully converted to include living space in the garage and basement was not named by the town.

“This was one of the worst cases of illegal student housing that we have seen in the Stony Brook area,” Romaine said in a statement. “Off-campus housing that is not in compliance with town building and fire codes threatens the health and safety of the students who reside there and the neighbors who live nearby.”

Romaine attributed the discovery of the violations to the town’s law department and the vigilance of neighbors who contacted the town. He urged students and their families to ensure their housing compiles with town code.

At the Stony Brook Road home, the town found bedroom doors equipped with key locks, and some rooms containing refrigerators and microwaves. In addition to the illegal basement and garage apartments, with two bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom in each, the basement had a coin-operated washer and dryer.

The law department issued the property owner several housing code violations, including no smoke detectors, no carbon monoxide detectors, no rental permit and illegal use as a rooming house. The owner’s school tax assessment relief property tax exemption was revoked, and both the Suffolk County District Attorney and New York State Attorney General’s offices have been notified for prosecution.

Bruce Sander, president of Stony Brook Concerned Homeowners, said the organization reported the house to the town, calling the members the “eyes and ears of this community.”

“We are glad that this landlord will get the fines, etc. that he or she deserves, and I hope they shut this house down permanently and sell it to a family,” Sander said. “This type of landlord does not belong in any community when they openly violate the laws and put the students at risk as well as destroy property values of the surrounding neighborhoods.”

SBU offered dorm rooms on campus to the displaced students. In the last five years, the university has been working collaboratively with the Town of Brookhaven, the Suffolk County Police Department and local community groups to address safety concerns for students living in off-campus housing, according to a statement from SBU spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow.

Before the house was condemned March 9, the town notified university administration, and a coordinated effort was conducted by the school’s government and community relations, campus residences, dean of students’ office and commuter student services and off-campus living to find rooms for the students, according to Sheprow.

At the Sept. 8 press conference, Judith Greiman, chief deputy to the president of SBU and senior vice president for government and community relations, said the school takes great steps to ensure students’ safety. Among measures the university has undertaken since March 2013 are prohibiting advertisements of off-campus rentals on SBU’s website, unless the landlord can provide a Brookhaven Town rental permit, and prohibiting posting on campus bulletin boards. The university also holds tenants’ rights workshops to help students understand what to look for when renting.

In 2013, Romaine launched a mobile phone app, available on Apple iPhones and Android mobile devices, to help fight illegal off-campus housing in the town. To download the free mobile app, visit www.brookhavenny.gov from a mobile device.

Residents can also call 631-451-TOWN (8696) between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to report housing violations. For more information or to access the town’s code book, go to www.brookhavenny.gov.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Dan Panico, Supervisor Ed Romaine, and Councilman Mike Loguercio at the town's youth bureau's Prom Boutique. Photo from Brookhaven Youth Bureau

The Brookhaven Youth Bureau wants to provide young ladies with an opportunity to attend their prom in style, regardless of financial constraints. The Prom Boutique, located on the second floor in Brookhaven Town Hall, is decorated as a dress shop fitting room filled with prom gowns ranging in styles and fashions.

Young ladies are outfitted with a gown and other accessories that are theirs to keep. There is no charge for this service and all clients are kept strictly confidential. The program will run from March 19 to June 15, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Evening hours will also be offered April 12, May 3 and June 14 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

For further information regarding the Town of Brookhaven Youth Bureau’s Prom Gown Program or to schedule an appointment, please call 631-451-8026 or visit brookhavenny.gov.

Town to set up program that would provide energy audits, fund some upgrades for homeowners

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine. File photo by Alex Petroski

And Brookhaven Town said: “Let there be light.”

The town unanimously approved a resolution at its Feb. 8 board meeting authorizing the repurposing of unused funds received as part of a 2009 grant to the town-wide street lighting fixture replacement capital project.

The town began the process of replacing old, high-wattage street lights with LED, energy-efficient ones in 2013. In 2015, Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced a five-year, capital plan, called the Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Initiative, which was established with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2020. An estimated $1.45 million of that plan was slated for street lighting fixes. The Feb. 8 authorization to repurpose the funds added $943,000 to aid in the upgrades. The new LED street lights — white light that increases visibility for drivers and in turn increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists on the roadways — increase energy efficiency and reduce costs for taxpayers by decreasing electricity used. Romaine said during a Feb. 5 board work session about 6,000 of the town’s 40,000 street lights have been upgraded, and are estimated to have a 15-year lifespan.

The unused money was left over from the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, allocated to the town in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund the town’s green homes and go solar initiatives. Brookhaven received more than $4 million to fund the two — green homes seeks to help residents make their homes more efficient at little or no cost, and go solar pays town residents’ upfront costs for solar panel installation.

As a result of the funds being repurposed, Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) questioned whether or not this would be the end of the green homes and go solar programs. The money that will be saved will allow for funds to become available to create a replacement program that will aid in energy efficiency, according to Cartright.

“One of my concerns when I saw this was on the agenda, was that I was hoping this repurposing would not mark the end of these types of programs,” Cartright said during the meeting. “But I’m happy to announce after speaking to the supervisor and our Housing and Human Services Department, and of course our commissioner of finance, it looks like we may be able to create basically a town-sponsored grant, where there will be revolving loans, which would also help individual homeowners have more energy efficient homes, as well as including a component of upgrading sanitary systems. We’re looking into all of the details here and plan to form a committee.”

Romaine announced the plan is to establish a program that would allow for these initiatives to potentially continue, through energy efficiency audits made available for town homeowners, even providing funding to do upgrades. Romaine said the details are still being worked out and will be officially announced sometime in March. Romaine thanked Cartright for raising the concerns about the two long-running Brookhaven programs.

“It will apply town-wide,” the supervisor said about the soon-to-come program. “It will be to encourage homeowners in Brookhaven to do energy audits, and to provide the funding in either a low-interest or no interest loan to make those improvements and make Brookhaven the most energy-efficient town that we possibly can be.”

Holtsville Hal did not see his shadow this year, forecasts winter to come to an end soon

Brookhaven's famous groundhog, Holtsville Hal, predicted an early spring on Groundhogs Day. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh.

The snowflakes stopped falling moments before Brookhaven’s famous groundhog offered this year’s prediction — it was a good omen of what is to come.

More than 100 residents cheered as the famed Brookhaven Town groundhog Holtsville Hal did not see his shadow, an indicator that spring would come early this year.

“I’m happy,” said Dan Losquadro (R), Brookhaven superintendent of highways. “We love winter
here on Long Island. We love the kids to be able to play in the snow, but we don’t want winter
to last any longer than it has to.”

Hal made his 22nd annual Groundhog Day prediction at Holtsville Wildlife and Ecology Center Animal Preserve at 7:25 a.m., as per tradition, according to the master of ceremonies Wayne Carrington.

Tradition says that if Hal — or, as he’s known in the Town of Brookhaven as a throwback to
the classic Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” the Great Prognosticator of Prognosticators
— sees his shadow when he wakes from hibernation, the community is in for six more weeks of winter.

“So he exited the ground, not a creature was stirring and not a shadow was found,” read
Losquadro from a large scroll to the cheers of onlookers. “I cannot tell a lie, my prediction so
accurate does not come from the sky. I saw what I saw in a blink of an eye.”

Those who attended were treated to free hot cocoa to warm up and celebrate the good
news. Both Losquadro and Carrington asked residents to make donations to the ecology
center to help support care for its animals and programs.

Parking spots in the Brookhaven Town Marina lot were given to Port Jeff Village as part of a 2015 agreement, but the deal alienated parkland, according to the AG's office. Screen capture

To accommodate the sale of a Brookhaven Town-owned building within Port Jefferson Village jurisdiction, the entities reached an intermunicipal agreement in 2015 to swap parking spaces. An informal opinion from the attorney general’s office dated Dec. 13, 2017 has left the deal in limbo.

Brookhaven sold the property on the corner of Main and East Main streets to private developer Agrino Holdings LLC. The developer has since turned the space into first floor retail with apartments above. The change of use of the building triggered a requirement within village code for additional parking, but downtown Port Jeff has a perennial parking problem, with a constant space shortage that can make it difficult for new developments to meet village code requirements. To offset the lack of spaces, the town reached an agreement with the village on a parking space swap — giving the village control of spots at the town-owned marina lot overlooking Port Jefferson Harbor in exchange for spots behind what was previously First National Bank of Port Jefferson and the town tax receiver’s office.

Upon hearing of the agreement at a village board meeting, Michael Mart, a longtime village resident and former member of Port Jeff’s parking committee, said he had some questions. Mart said he believed the deal created an alienation of parkland, as the town-owned spots were meant for boat trailer parking at the marina and boat launch. He took the issue to other interested Brookhaven Town residents who joined up for his cause, and after some back-and-forth in a series of letters to the editor in The Port Times Record by both Mart and Village Mayor Margot Garant, in April 2016, the town attorney’s office requested an informal legal opinion from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asking, “Must the Town of Brookhaven seek legislative approval for the alienation of parkland for an intermunicipal agreement with the Village of Port Jefferson to maintain and control 30 vehicular stalls at a Town marina?”

In Kathryn Sheingold’s response for Scheniderman in December, the New York state assistant solicitor general in charge of opinions vindicated Mart’s contention.

“We are of the opinion that because land currently dedicated to park purposes — parking for the marina — would be made available for parking for other than park purposes, that is, general municipal parking, the change would constitute a diversion of park property that must be authorized by the Legislature before it can occur,” she wrote.

Englebright said in an interview last week he would not support legislation that results in the alienation of parkland.

“I’m open to a conversation if someone can persuade me that the precedent being set is good, but at the moment, from what I see, this is [not a good outcome], despite everyone being of good intent,” he said if he were to receive legislation for the swap as initially crafted. “My door is always open, but I’m very cautious about messing around with parkland.”

Port Jeff Village Attorney Brian Egan said the village has been in touch with the town attorney’s office and the sides are evaluating options, though he does expect an agreement will be reached to rectify the situation, and the sale of the building will not be voided.

““The fact of  the matter is that this informal opinion is only an opinion,” Egan said. “The town attorney and village attorney respectfully disagree with this non-binding opinion on the attorney general’s opinion of the facts and the law. [The document] is not the pinnacle of clarity if this transfer of parking for parking constitutes alienation … I’m confident with the creativity of the town and the village we will come up with a solution.”

Village Deputy Mayor Larry LaPointe said in a statement Egan is reviewing the opinion and the village will decide if any further action is necessary. Brookhaven Town Attorney Annette Eaderesto offered a statement on the matter through a town spokesperson.

“The town will not be seeking alienation,” she said.

A legal battle could ensue should the municipalities fail to reach an agreement.

This post was updated Jan. 29 to correct Michael Mart’s course of action in 2016. This post was updated Jan. 30 to amend Brian Eagen’s quote and to include a statement from Annette Eaderesto.

A look at Port Jefferson Harbor from the Village Center during Winter Storm Grayson as blizzard-force winds and more than a foot of snow pound the coast Jan. 4. Photo from Margot Garant

Winter Storm Grayson arrived early Jan. 4 and pounded Port Jefferson, and the surrounding areas to the tune of more than 16 inches of snow.

The storm was officially categorized as a blizzard by the New York office of the National Weather Service, with sustained winds or frequent gusts greater than 35 mph, “considerable” falling and blowing snow, visibility of less than a quarter of a mile and more than three hours of duration. Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Town of Huntington Supervisor Chad Luppinacci (R), Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) declared states of emergency for each of their respective jurisdictions.

“This storm was actually worse than predicted for us,” Bellone said during a briefing Jan. 5. “We saw up to 16 inches of snow in certain parts of the county. This was, as we discussed, a very difficult and challenging storm because of all the conditions — high rate of snowfall, very rapid rate and high winds. It made it very difficult. I want to thank all of those who heeded our calls to stay off the roads yesterday. There were far too many people on the roads. The result was hundreds of motorists ended up stranded.”

Based on unofficial observations taken Jan. 4 and 5, the highest snowfall total reported by the New York NWS office was in Terryville, where 16.4 inches of snow fell during the storm. Suffolk County appeared to take the brunt of Grayson’s wrath according to the NWS data, not only in actual snowfall, but also as the home to the highest wind gusts in the state during the storm, with gusts exceeding 60 mph.

Despite the substantial snowfall totals, Main Street in Port Jeff Village was up and running and open for business Friday morning, according to Garant, who said the village’s Department of Public Works did an “A++” job in an email.

“We have a good system and a great team in place,” she said, adding she was thrilled with how quickly village streets were passable. “The community really makes this possible for us by staying home and avoiding parking on the snow emergency streets.”

Steve Gallagher, the village’s DPW superintendent, said 22 village DPW employees worked using nine trucks equipped with plows and nine trucks with both plows and sanders to clear the streets. He estimated the village used between 150 and 200 tons of salt and sand mix to mitigate the impact of road and sidewalk icing. He reiterated Garant’s point that cooperation from the public is critical in returning the village back to business as usual following a storm.

“Village roads were passable at all times thanks to the dedication and commitment of the men in the DPW,” he said. “People staying off the roads and not parking in the streets would help expedite the clearing of the roads and allow a better job.”

PSEG Long Island reported 97 percent of the 21,700 of its customers who lost power as a result of the storm had their service restored by 9 p.m. Jan. 5.

“Our goal, always, is to restore power as quickly and safely as possible,” a spokesperson for the utility said in a press release. “We ask our customers for a fair amount of patience and to know we will be there just as soon as it is safe.”

The storm came in the midst of a record-setting stretch of below freezing temperatures, according to the NWS. A streak of 13 straight days with a maximum temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit measured at Long Island McArthur Airport in Islip was snapped Jan. 9. The 13-day duration was the second longest period of below freezing temperatures reported at the airport since 1963.

Rivera is honored by members of Brookhaven Town Board for his advocacy and support work surrounding the disease. Photo from Councilwoman Cartright's office

By Jennifer Sloat

He has been called an angel, the personification of goodness and strength, a champion of the underrepresented and an inspiration. Frank Rivera is all of that and more.

Rivera is the founder and president of Sarcoidosis of Long Island, an awareness and advocacy group for sarcoidosis, a rare and often debilitating disease from which the Coram resident is suffering. In 2004 at the age of 36, he received an incorrect diagnosis of lung cancer for which he underwent treatment. The X-ray showed lumps in his lungs. It was after a hospital visit in 2011 for abdominal pain that he was correctly diagnosed with sarcoidosis.

Frank Rivera, at center, cuts a ribbon at Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park to signal the start of his Sarcoidosis Awareness 5K. Photo from Councilwoman Cartright’s office

Things got even tougher for Rivera as complications from the disease arose. It attacked his neurological system, eyes and gallbladder. In April 2012, he went back to the hospital with more stomach cramps and learned his colon had ruptured. He contracted sepsis and nearly died.

Through it all Rivera continues to fight, not only for his own health, but for the health of others affected by the disease. His organization raises awareness for sarcoidosis patients at local, state and federal levels, and helps them find doctors and treatment.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said Rivera came to her office a few years ago and told her his story and idea to start a not-for-profit organization.

Anker said his tireless work with elected officials and medical research experts have provided him the guidance and resources to help residents dealing with sarcoidosis.

“He has accomplished so much,” Anker said. “It was his goal, and it remains his goal.”

County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), a practicing ear, nose and throat physician, said when he heard Rivera was creating awareness, he reached out to lend support. Spencer, who lost his mother to the disease, said he was fascinated by the work Rivera does.

“It hit close to home,” the legislator said. “Many have not even heard of the disease.”

Spencer said that what Rivera has done also generated a lot of funding to aid sarcoidosis patients in seeking medical attention and emotional support.

“I hope to continue to support him,” he said. “I hope to see him do more great things for those who don’t have champions.”

Some of the organization’s efforts include a health fair and a 5K run/walk at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

“He gets folks together to share ideas and stories, and to support one another,” Anker said. “It is amazing what Frank has done considering he is dealing with his own challenges, both physical and mental.”

The Town of Brookhaven celebrates National Sarcoidosis Awareness Month in April, and it’s a direct result of Rivera’s work and dedication.

“The town board has learned an overwhelming amount about the misconceptions surrounding sarcoidosis and the hurdles patients face who are suffering from rare diseases,” said town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station). “This is due in large part to Frank’s efforts. Listening to Frank speak about his personal experiences is a testament to his strength of character.”

In an interview with RARE Daily, a Global Genes patient advocacy organization, Rivera said his focus is helping others with hardships before worrying about himself.

“There are 200,000 sarcoidosis patients,” he said. “I always consider myself a representative for those 200,000 patients. I always think about what they need.”

Anker said despite his own struggles he’s always being positive to inspire others to have the will to get through the tough times.

“He always has a smile on his face and goodness in his heart,” Anker said. “His mind is going 1,000 miles an hour to accomplish what he has set out to do. He has been able to accomplish so many of his goals.”

Born in response to tragedy, the organization aims to start conversations about immigration rights, racial divisions, social injustice

Tom Lyon, center, and Gregory Leonard, right, of Building Bridges in Brookhaven with an attendee of the group’s 2017 Martin Luther King Day Jr. event. Photos by Will McKenzie

By Daniel Dunaief

Tom Lyon, Mark Jackett and Susan Perretti, among many others, don’t have all the answers. In fact, they are filled with difficult questions for which the Town of Brookhaven, the state of New York and the country don’t have easy solutions.

That, however, hasn’t stopped them from trying to bring people together in Brookhaven to address everything from social injustice to immigration rights to racial divisions.

Members of Building Bridges in Brookhaven, Lyon, Jackett and Perretti have met regularly since 2015 when the group formed in the wake of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Members of the group Building Bridges in Brookhaven share the common purpose of opening up community dialogue. Photos by Will McKenzie

Building Bridges personally connects with people, according to Tehmina Tirmizi, who is the education chair at the Islamic Association of Long Island. Building Bridges members attended an interfaith event at IALI in late 2016, and its members have gathered with others for monthly vigils to support Muslims.

Tirmizi said she appreciates the understanding, solidarity and unity and feels members of Building Bridges are out there for support.

The group meets on the second Monday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. to get together and talk, forge connections, understand differences and encourage peace. They have met at churches throughout the region, as well as at the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding at the Suffolk County Community College campus in Selden.

“The origins were in response to the shootings,” said Jackett, an English teacher at Smithtown High School West. He added continued gun violence is part of what the group is trying to address. “It’s part of the sense of urgency.”

Jackett decried the drumbeat of hatred, negativity and division in the country and in communities on Long Island.

“We’re trying to be a voice speaking up in favor of bringing people together and finding ways that we have common ground and respecting the dignity and humanity of all people,” Jackett said.

The gatherings bring together people of different backgrounds, ages, races and sexuality and attract a crowd from a wide cross section of Long Island.

This past year, the organization hosted a celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and a Unityfest at Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach in September. The MLK event drew more than 200 people, while the Unityfest brought almost 300.

The Unityfest enabled Building Bridges to donate $1,600 to support Hobbs farm and highlight its program to supply fresh produce to local food pantries.

Coming in February, the group will host its second annual MLK festival, which moves beyond King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech and embraces his broader approach.

“King talks a lot about the beloved community,” said Lyon, who is also one of the founders of Building Bridges. “That was his ultimate vision for the world and it involves a lot more than [defeating] segregation.”

Lyon said former head of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover had an enemies list, as did former President Richard Nixon. For King, his enemies were militarism, racism and materialism.

While BBB formed in response to violence in a church and brought people together through church organizations, it is an interfaith group, Lyon said.

The group encourages people to contribute to, and participate in, other efforts on Long Island as well.

Many of the group members belong to other organizations, according to Jackett. Building Bridges has also been supporting other efforts, which include Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and People Power Patchogue, a group dedicated to defending civil rights and creating stronger and safer communities.

Building Bridges has also formed subcommittees on immigration rights and criminal justice reform.

Jackett said efforts to address and combat racism need to be done regardless of who is in office.

“We try our best to do that work and highlight the need,” he said.

“We’re trying to be a voice speaking up in favor of bringing people together and finding ways that we have common ground and respecting the dignity and humanity of all people.”

— Mark Jackett

The group has a Facebook page and the group is working on a website too. A mix of retired people and people still in the workforce, the members of Building Bridges have been discussing the architecture for a web page. It is also hoping to forge deeper connections with millennials through Stony Brook University, Suffolk County Community College and a new Artists Action Group in Patchogue.

Perretti, a retired writer who worked as an editor at St. Joseph’s College, suggested that Building Bridges is looking to create a network of people who can respond to various needs.

“We need to build ourselves into a community more and more and when that happens, more people will come,” Perretti said.

The group is also focused on jumping to action during times of crisis.

“This is the opportunity to get to know people who may be the targets of hate or violence and to develop a friendship and alliance with them,” Perretti said. “When something happens to them, it happens to us as well.”

Looking ahead, Perretti said the group has to find ways to attract and encourage involvement from a broader base of community members in 2018.

She said she would like to make room for people who have vastly different views. She encouraged people with different opinions to engage in courageous conversations, without fear of reprisals or attacks.

“It’s nice and fun and easy to be with people we are like, [but] it’s really hard work to talk to people who hold different opinions who may argue with us,” she said.

Members of the Building Bridges community know they face uncertainty with the issues and challenges ahead.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Perretti said, adding that the group’s primary mission is to start conversations about the things happening in the United States.

“This is a community that wants to build and grow,” she said. “We need to hear other people. We’re open to ideas.”

Port Jefferson High School Principal Christine Austen. File photo

Being named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education is an achievement that takes a village, but leaders in Port Jefferson School District attribute the designation to one confident, tough yet compassionate woman.

Christine Austen is in her third year as principal at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. In that short period of time, according to her colleagues, she has imposed her strong will, ideas and work ethic on the school and is the person most responsible for the school being recognized on a national level in September with the Blue Ribbon honor.

“The award acknowledges and validates the hard work of students, educators, families and communities in striving for — and attaining — exemplary achievement,” the education department’s website says regarding qualifications for Blue Ribbon distinction. About 300 public schools nationwide were awarded in 2017.

Teachers Eva Grasso and Jesse Rosen accompany Austen to Washington, D.C., as part of receiving the award. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

For helping to earn the prestigious award for Port Jeff and for her tireless efforts to improve the academic, social and emotional well being of all of her students, Times Beacon Record News Media named Austen a 2017 Person of the Year.

“The things that are happening at the high school among the staff, with the students, with the community, you can’t have those things happening without a principal who’s really moving it, is a big part of it, gets involved — she does not look at the clock,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said.

According to Jessica Schmettan, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, Austen’s relentless commitment to analyzing the effectiveness of academic programs and initiatives, and examining results with a critical eye have created quantitative improvements in student performance since she became principal.

“She’s always attuned to the data to help push the academic limits forward, and we definitely see those quantitative results,” Schmettan said. The curriculum and instruction director pointed out Austen’s strengths as a principal are far from limited to fostering academic excellence though. “The principals I’ve worked with always demonstrated a clear strength — who was more of a social and emotional leader, who was more of an instructional leader, who focused more on the community. Everybody that I worked with demonstrated a strength in certain areas, where Chris I think embodies all of those things and that’s really unique.”

Austen and her husband Phil are each products of the Port Jefferson School District and community. She got her start working for the district as a librarian, and eventually served as a kindergarten-through-12th grade assistant principal for her first foray into the administration world. Despite competing against at least one other candidate with experience as a principal, Austen wowed the school board at her interview, which led to her earning the position.

“She came in the room, straightened her back, she sat in the chair and just emitted this confidence that, ‘I’m going to nail this, I’m going to give you my best answers,’” board of education President Kathleen Brennan said. Brennan said Austen’s confidence, without arrogance, stood out during her interview and has translated seamlessly into the position.

Many of her colleagues spoke about Austen’s knack for deftly walking the fine line between holding students accountable without being punitive, while always remaining positive and generally warm.

“If you’re working in this field, and she’s no exception, her ‘put the students first’ mentality is definitely a great strength,” Assistant Principal Kevin Bernier said.

Bernier shared a story about an incident that occurred during a pool party at a student’s home in 2016.

Port Jefferson high school Principal Christine Austen, second from right, and others from the school celebrate its National Blue Ribbon School award. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

A student at the party, who frequently had seizures, was the only person in the pool at one point. Bernier said he noticed something was wrong with the student, and realized he might be having a full seizure in the pool at that moment.

“It only took a second,” Bernier recalled. “I said, ‘Is he OK?’ You saw something and he started to go down and before I even blinked my eyes, [Austen] was in the pool. If he went under he was going to take in water right away, and it was literally before I could even blink my eyes she was in the water.”

Bernier noted, Austen is far from an avid swimmer and the student was much taller than her, making the rescue no simple task.

“It took quite a bit of courage to dive into that pool,” said Edna Louise Spear Elementary School Principal Tom Meehan, who also was at the party.

Middle school Principal Robert Neidig, who started the same year as Austen, said he considers her a mentor. He said she’s great at giving one on one advice, but he also loves to hear her speak publicly because she strikes a perfect tone of humility and warmth accompanied with an unquestionable confidence that creates a perfect mixture for a leader.

“I couldn’t imagine doing the job without having her perspective,” he said.

Casciano summed up some firsthand observations he’s had since Austen took over at the high school.

“You’ll see her in the hallway putting her arm around a child,” he said. “She knows them and knows just from expressions on their faces, she could tell whether or not they’re having a good day, bad day. And if things look like they aren’t going well, she’ll engage the student and try to encourage them.”

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