Comsewogue’s superintendent signs on for another year, retirement looms

Comsewogue’s superintendent signs on for another year, retirement looms

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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

The Comsewogue school district and community scored a win at a board of education meeting Feb. 6. The board unanimously approved a resolution to extend the contract of the district’s superintendent through the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Joe Rella was named superintendent in 2010, though he has been entrenched in the community for more than two decades. He said during an interview after the meeting he plans to be back for the school year beginning this September, and the following year, but at the moment his plan is to retire in August 2019. His contract, which was approved Feb. 6, will see him earn just over $216,000 in 2017-18, a 2 percent raise over his current salary for this school year. The passage of the resolution was met with applause from the board and community members in attendance.

“Pope Francis said at some talk I heard him give, and I love the expression he used, that the shepherd has to smell like the sheep.”

— Joe Rella

“I’m always ambivalent about it,” Rella said about the decision to remain at the helm of the district. “I’ll be 68 years old in 2019 — leave while you’re having fun. I love this place and you’ve got to know when to go. I’ve had a good run here and I’m happy, and I’m happy I’m here. But it’s time — I feel it.”

Rella began in the district as a music teacher 23 years ago, then spent eight years as principal of the high school. Next year will be his eighth as superintendent. He moved into the community — down the block from the high school — 20 years ago, he said.

“You’ve got to be close to the people and you’ve got to be close to the kids,” he said about the decision to move into the district where he works. “Pope Francis said at some talk I heard him give, and I love the expression he used, that the shepherd has to smell like the sheep. You can’t do it from down the block, you can’t phone it in and that means you got to be close to the people you work with. It’s an ideal setup.”

He estimated about half of the students at the high school have his cellphone number.

Rella used the word “love” repeatedly in describing his relationship with the people of the district. In August, his wife Jackie passed away, and he said the outpouring of support he received from the community was overwhelming.

“This community just put their arms around me and my family,” he said. “They were wonderful — so kind and caring. I had more food come to my house than I could possibly eat. One of my sons was actually driving it down to the soup kitchen because we had no place to put it. They just went wild. That’s the way they are here.”

Beyond the feelings of home and family, Rella associates with the district. He said he’s sticking around to see a couple of big projects to completion.

The district submitted an application to be accredited by the Middle States Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a regional membership association that gives its stamp of approval to districts based on their rigorous standards. Several schools on Long Island have received the distinction, though if accredited Comsewogue would be the only full district of public schools on Long Island recognized by the commission. Results of the application are expected this spring.

Comsewogue also participated in a pilot consortium program where two ninth-grade classes were exposed to a project- and inquiry-based curriculum, alternative to typical Regents classes, as a means to create a deeper understanding for several subjects, which Rella said the district plans to expand on next year.

“I can be myself. I’m too old to be anything else at this point. It’s been like that since I got here.”

— Joe Rella

“There’s a lot of really exciting things happening, and that’s what keeps me coming back every day,” Rella said. “Plus it’s a wonderful community. The kids are super, the faculty is super, the administrators.”

The superintendent joked the three stoplights between his home and his office can turn his five-minute ride into 10 some mornings, though he knows no one wants to hear that complaint.

Rella attributed much of his success and comfort in the district to his relationship with his assistant superintendents Jennifer Quinn, who handles curriculum and instruction, and Susan Casali, who is in charge of business.

“Jennifer is a wizard at curriculum and literacy — Susan is a wizard at finance,” he said, adding that the trio has a great working relationship based on mutual trust. “[An idea] still counts if I didn’t think of it, and I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

Rella’s duties are not limited to the job description of a traditional superintendent. He will be playing the piano in the high school drama club’s productions of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” Feb. 10 and 11. He also accompanies students trying out for the New York State School Music Association. Performances require accompaniment by a pianist, which can be expensive for rehearsals and would deter some students from applying. So the superintendent lends his time on nights and Saturdays to get students up to speed.

Rella said the combination of his involvement in student activities, living in the community and sending two of his kids through the district has made Comsewogue a perfect fit.

“It gives you some credibility,” he said. “I’m not making decisions for other people’s kids that I wouldn’t make for my kids. Plus, you go to the same barbershop; you go to the same supermarket … I can be myself. I’m too old to be anything else at this point. It’s been like that since I got here.”

Rella admitted it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but most days, it is.

“From the day I got here, there have been tough days, but never a day I said to myself, ‘I’m packing it in,’” he said. “There have been days I’ve said to myself, ‘If they find out I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, this is going to be a problem.’ They’re very honest people. They’ll tell you what’s on their mind. I’m not made of china; I’m not going to break.”