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Board of Education

Trustee Adam DeWitt resigned from Port Jeff's BOE. File photo by Elana Glowatz

If you were out enjoying the last drop of summer at the beach or on vacation you might have missed it. Port Jefferson’s board of education appointed a new member at an Aug. 29 meeting following the Aug. 1 resignation of Adam DeWitt, who was elected to a third term in May 2017.

The board voted 4-1 in favor of appointing Port Jeff resident Ryan Biedenkapp, one of six candidates who ran to fill three open seats in the May 2018 election and placed fourth. New trustee Ryan Walker was the lone vote in opposition of the appointment. He said he wanted to take more time to discuss other options, like opening up the process to interested applicants to be interviewed and selected from by the board, or holding a special election within 90 days of DeWitt’s resignation. René Tidwell, another newly minted member of the board, abstained citing similar reasons to Walker, with whom she campaigned in May.

“I think we’ve had time to discuss it, to bring up our feelings about it,” BOE President Kathleen Brennan said prior to the Aug. 29 vote, referencing a similar discussion at an Aug. 14 meeting, at which the board’s options to fill the vacancy were laid out. “I don’t think that we are rushing this. I think Mr. DeWitt resigned Aug. 1. It’s now the end of the month.”

The board’s options included leaving the seat vacant until the May 2019 vote, holding a special election at a cost of about $10,000, or appointing someone to fill the seat. Members Brennan, David Keegan, Tracy Zamek and Ellen Boehm voted in support of option three to appoint Biedenkapp based on how previous boards handled surprise vacancies in the past.

2018 BOE candidates Ryan Biedenkapp, Mia Farina, Jason Kronberg, René Tidwell, Tracy Zamek and Ryan Walker. File photo by Alex Petroski

“I think we’ve got someone in the community who’s committed to doing it, who’s done the thoughtful work of making the commitment,” Keegan said.

Biedenkapp received nearly 500 votes in May, falling a little more than 100 votes short of Zamek, securing her the third trustee seat.
“I feel like it’s just a no brainer in my opinion,” Zamek said, who had campaigned with Biedenkapp.

The newly appointed trustee could not  immediately be reached  for comment. Although, the board president said she had been in contact with Biedenkapp and he was interested in the position. Brennan said, at the request of the board following the Aug. 14 meeting, she also reached out to trustees who recently stepped down or did not seek re-election to gauge their interest. Both declined.

Tidwell argued the board was in the unique position to appoint someone with qualifications that could be an asset to the board. She supported the idea of doing due diligence to find a new member by conducting interviews and further discussion amongst the BOE.

“I believe our board should also consider all other community members who expressed an interest in serving on the board as well as those who have served previously,” Tidwell said. “I think if this board is going to take the first steps in bridging the divide that has existed in our community, then pursing a transparent and equitable process for filling this vacancy is a first step in the right direction.”

Tidwell’s reference to a community divide was a harkening back to a Dec. 2017 $30 million bond referendum that was overwhelmingly voted down by the community. It sparked a heated community debate based on the items included in the list of proposed projects.

Walker said, in part, he was opposing Biedenkapp’s appointment because the appointee had previously been in favor of adding lights to the athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road and it would be a betrayal of  Walker’s campaign message. The elected trustee added he would work with the new member if the majority were in favor, a point Tidwell also reiterated.

DeWitt said he was proud of his time on the board, adding that he learned a lot and appreciated his fellow members’ desire to better the community. He also wished his former colleagues well.

“It became increasingly more challenging to attend the meetings because of my work schedule,” DeWitt said.
He is employed as a school principal at a seventh- and eighth-grade building by Longwood school district.
“I don’t like to do anything if I can’t commit fully, it’s not fair to the community,” DeWitt said. “I wish I could continue to make the commitment.”

Biedenkapp’s appointment will run through May 2019.

School district releases 80-page report alleging disclosure of confidential information, inappropriate actions

Commack School District's board of education at the start of the 2017-18 school year. Photo from Facebook

A Commack schoolboard  trustee has resigned her seat after the district launched a four-month investigation into her actions.

Pamela Verity submitted a letter of resignation to Commack School District effective July 31, which was unanimously accepted at an Aug. 1 special board of education meeting. She had been the subject of a special investigation for allegedly disclosing confidential information privy to her as a board trustee and removing school district property from Marion Carll Farm.

As members of the board of education, we essentially trade in confidential information…”

— Jarrett Behar

“As members of the board of education, we essentially trade in confidential information:  confidential information about our children, confidential information about our employees,”  Jarrett Behar, vice president of Commack’s school board, said. “We cannot get to a point where we decide that the ends justify the means. There are rules in place that need to be followed and we have a duty to follow them.”

On April 24, Commack’s board voted 3-to-2 to hire attorney Jeffery Smith to undertake an independent investigation of Verity based on accusations she had disclosed confidential information on multiple occasions and taken actions that were an inappropriate use of her authority.

The school district released Smith’s 80-page report Aug. 2, following Verity’s resignation, that details his interviews with 10 individuals — all board of education members, Superintendent Donald James and four school employees — between May 2 and 18.

“This investigation was spurred by posting of confidential information on Facebook,” reads page 3 of the report.

“I made mistakes, I definitely made mistakes.”

— Pamela Verity

In his investigation, Smith said it was alleged that Verity disclosed details of a confidential personnel matter regarding harassment in the workplace on social media. The investigator said the content indicated the board member had been emailing about, texting about it and expressed her opinion in violation of both state law and district policies.

Verity said she admitted to having inadvertently made a public Facebook post on the subject while multitasking but denied it contained detailed information such as specific names.

“I made mistakes, I definitely made mistakes,” she said, but denied her actions were intentional or as malicious in intent as she felt was implied.

The report also critically examined conversations Verity had with district employees where alleged confidential information was disclosed or where her actions were considered inappropriate conduct of a trustee, according to the district.

“I wear my board hat all the time, I don’t have any First Amendment rights anymore?” she said. “If it was up to them I would not be allowed to post [on social media], I would not be allowed to support people.”

If some of these actions were genuine mistakes, they would have merited an apology and a commitment that they would not be repeated and that hasn’t happened.”

— Page 19 of investigative report

Verity said as an educational advocate with the Opt Out movement prior to joining the board, she consulted with other school trustees and lawyers for advice on handling situations and how to handle confidential matters. The Commack district, she asserted, has a much stricter definition of what qualifies as confidential information than state law requires or surrounding districts’ policies. 

Commack school officials also said Verity removed documents from Marion Carll Farm without permission. The former board member said she did pack up and take home documents while working on a fundraiser for the site for safekeeping. All were returned to the district, according to Verity. The district admitted to receiving a box of paperwork but says it did not receive a full inventory list of all items removed from the farmhouse as per its request.

“If some of these actions were genuine mistakes, they would have merited an apology and a commitment that they would not be repeated and that hasn’t happened,” Smith wrote on page 19 of the report.

Verity said she doesn’t want to spend her time and energy defending herself from accusations but would rather move forward.

“I thought at first maybe if I speak my truth, this will turn around. It didn’t,” she said. “[The report] doesn’t reflect both sides at all, not at all.”

Community members at the Aug. 1 special meeting questioned how much the four-month investigation had cost the district given the independent investigator was hired at $150 an hour. The total bill was not yet available, according to Behar.

[The report] doesn’t reflect both sides at all, not at all.”

— Pamela Verity

“This procedure and process obviously did come at a cost and we do not take any endeavor where we spend taxpayer money lightly,” he said.

The district has three legal options when it comes to addressing Verity’s seat on the board of education, according to school district attorney Eugene Barnosky. The board’s choices include holding a special election to fill the vacancy within 90 days, appointing an individual to serve or leaving the seat unfilled. Verity was in her second year of a three-year term, due up for re-election in May 2019.

Behar said no decision had been made yet on how best to proceed.

“What happened today is very new,” he said. “We will make a decision, whatever decision we make will be made public. The community is always welcome to give its input.”

Verity said she hopes to continue lobbying for curriculum changes as part of the Opt Out movement against increased state testing and the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Miller Place residents listen to the board of education discuss the proposal of hiring armed guards and including it in the 2018-19 budget. File photo by Kevin Redding

Miller Place residents passed this year’s $72,685,864 school budget with 616 yes votes and 209 no. The second proposition, the library budget, passed 722-101.

“The budget increase at 2.1 percent maintains all current academic programs, clubs and athletics, as well as maintaining our capital project planning,” Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said in the weeks before the budget vote.

The budget saw a 2.8 percent increase to the tax levy. The increase stayed within the tax levy cap, so the budget only required a simple majority to pass.

The budget includes a $530,000 transfer to capital funds for initiatives such as new high school courses for honor chemistry, virtual enterprise — a course on learning about global business and enterprise — and Engineering Design using VEX Robotics, which includes design kits used to design automated devices and robots.

Incumbent trustee Keith Frank ran unopposed for his second three-year term and received 688 votes.

Frank ran on a platform of trying to offer programs for all students with different interests, especially including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math classes.

“We’re trying to balance the needs and the wishes of everyone, whether it’s arts, athletics or music — whatever the kids want to do,” Frank said before the election. “Kids should be able to go out and properly tackle the world.”

Board president Johanna Testa said she was happy to see Frank back for another term.

“We’re looking forward to the next couple of years with him here,” she said. “[Keith Frank] is an attorney and he’s had experience dealing with contract negotiations and things of that nature. That’s been a benefit to us.”

Elwood Middle School will get a new roof with the passage of Proposition 1 by voters. File photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Across the Town of Huntington, voters went to polls May 15 and gave their stamp of approval to their districts’ 2018-19 budgets. Many of the districts are planning to use funds to increase their security measures in schools or make critical infrastructure and building repairs.

Yet, threat of hazardous weather and early evening storms made for a light voter turnout, with fewer ballots being cast than in previous years. This disappointed some board of education members, who rely on their taxpayers’ votes as a critical measure of community feedback.

Harborfields 2018-19 budget

Harborfields voters approved the district’s $86,086,696 budget for the 2018-19 school year, by 966 votes to 275 votes. The approved budget is an increase of nearly $2 million over the current year and will impose tax levy increase of 2.19 percent for district taxpayers.

“The community’s continued support of the district allows us to provide a ‘world-class’ education to the children of our community,” Harborfields Superintendent Francesco Ianni said. “We look forward to implementing several enhancements to the curriculum for next year, including the restructuring of the high school science research program and a new literacy curriculum. In addition, the proposed budget will allow us to enhance security throughout the district.”

Harborfields votes by the numbers

$86M budget: 966 Yes votes to 275 No votes

Board of education
Suzie Lustig: 949 votes
Steve Engelmann: 862 votes
Joseph Savaglio: 744 votes

The superintendent said the district will reorganize its pupil personnel services department to include a chairperson of special education, allowing the school psychologist more time for child-focused responsibilities.

The proposed spending plan features funding to restructure Harborfields High School’s science research program to allow the teacher to have dedicated time set aside to support students in their individual pursuit of science inquiry. Other enhancements contained in the district’s approved budget include a new literacy curriculum; additional resources for science classes districtwide; and new educational classes in engineering, computer science and business entrepreneurship.

The average Harborfields school district resident will see their annual school taxes increase by an estimated $222.80 per year. This is based on the average home having an assessed value of $4,000, in which an assessed value is a dollar value placed on the property by the Town of Huntington solely for the purposes of calculating taxes based on comparable home sales and other factors.

“The community’s input was vital to the creation of this budget, so I thank those residents who participated throughout the process and those who took the time to vote,” Ianni said.

Harborfields board of education

There were three candidates running uncontested for three seats on Harborfields board of education in this year’s election.

Current Vice President Suzie Lustig received 949 votes and was re-elected to her seat. Newcomers Steve Engelmann received 862 voters and Joseph Savaglio received 744 to join the district as board trustees starting in the 2018-19 school year.

Elwood school district

Elwood taxpayers passed the district’s $61,606,082 budget for the 2018-19 school year by 896 votes to 327 votes. The adopted budget is an increase of nearly $1.3 million over the current year. It represents a tax levy increase of 2.71 percent, which fell under the state-mandated tax cap.

Elwood votes by the numbers

$61.6M budget: 896 Yes votes to 327 No votes
Proposition 2: 854 Yes votes to 345 No votes

Board of education (uncontested)
Heather Mammolito: 918 votes
James Tomeo: 983 votes

“On behalf of the entire administration and board of education, I would like to thank all residents who voted in support of the proposed 2018-19 budget,” Elwood Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said in a statement. “Your support will allow the district to continue to enhance our academic program for our students, as well as increase security throughout the district. We are continually grateful to the Elwood community for its support of our district.”

Proposition 2

Voters cast their ballots in favor of Proposition 2, approving by 854 votes to 345 votes. The measure will allow school officials to create a capital reserve fund for future improvement projects that were not included in the bond approved earlier this year. Under the terms approved, the district will set aside a maximum of $500,000 a year, not to exceed a total of $5 million over a 10-year period to help pay for capital projects.

Elwood board of education

Two incumbent Elwood board of education trustees ran unopposed for another term serving their community. Trustee Heather Mammolito received 918 votes and trustee James Tomeo, received 983 votes to be re-elected to their seats.

Trustee Mike Riggio, above on right, is congratulated by current board of ed president Lynn Capobianco after it was announced he won his second term this year. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Instead of three, there’s four cheers for Mount Sinai School District, as all four of the board of education’s propositions passed with flying colors.

Residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of the $60,203,745 budget, with 769 voting yes and 193 no. The library budget received even more support on an 849-116 landslide. Receiving the second-highest voter approval was Proposition III, which will transfer $5 million from an unassigned fund balance to the capital fund to start immediate critical facility improvements, with 787 voting in favor and 176 against. The capital projects that will immediately be tackled are repairs to the high school roof, replacement of the turf field and the hardening of campus security, mainly through fencing in the entire campus.

Proposition I [Budget]: 769-193

Proposition II [Library]: 849-116

Proposition III [Capital Project]: 787-176

Proposition IV [Reserve Fund]: 761-199

“I’m ecstatic, especially to see the community support,” Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said. “I was concerned about Proposition III — these are things we absolutely need and couldn’t wait for a bond to do. Even if it were approved tomorrow it would take two years, and our one turf field could be condemned tomorrow.”

He said replacing the roof is of the utmost importance though, noting the issues seen each time it rains, like it did on the day of the budget vote May 15, with wind and heavy rain ravaging the North Shore as a storm rapidly passed.

“I’d hate to see the picture of what it looks like tomorrow,” the superintendent said. “It’s a disaster every time it rains.”

Other security improvements in addition to the fencing, included paying for armed guards and adding security vestibules at the entrances to the campus and adding more patrol routes for security personnel near the new fencing along the perimeter of the schools, among others.

“Ever since that tragedy Feb. 14 we’ve taken measurements necessary to keep our students safe,” Brosdal said, referring to the shooting in Parkland, Florida. “When these schools were first built alongside each other we never thought this would happen, so we will take the appropriate steps so that come the fall this will look like a different campus. There’s no fluff — this is all needed.”

Proposition IV was given the green light 761-199, which transfers money from fund balances to establish a $10 million capital reserve fund.

“If we have emergency repairs that are needed, now we can plan to pay for them,” trustee Mike Riggio said. “It’s a home run. And the best thing is it’s not costing our taxpayers any more money.”

Votes are counted in Mount Sinai. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Riggio, who was re-elected to the board with 747 votes, said he’s looking forward to serving another term.

“I understand much better what my role is in everything that we have to do and I’m ready,” he said. “I ran focused on security three years ago and I’m still focused on that and the fiscal stability of the district. People are losing their jobs, programs are being cut elsewhere, and we don’t want that to happen here. You have to budget right and be fiscally sound into the future.”

Board President Lynn Capobianco, who chose not to seek re-election to focus on family, was sad to see the voter turnout.

“It’s so light — under 1,000 and we usually have 1,400 or 1,500,” she said. “Perhaps it was the weather, the uncontested board or the budget being under the tax cap, but I am disappointed in the low voter turnout.”

The president said she’s proud of some of her accomplishments during her tenure — like seeing through the establishment of a full-day kindergarten program and the Columbia Reading and Columbia Writing programs, and said she’d like to see the creation of a science research or robotics program.

Steve Koepper, who ran unopposed for her seat on the board of education, received 651 votes.

“I felt now was a good time to offer more of my volunteer time in service to educational process to help shape the future of Mount Sinai schools,” said Koepper, an 18-year resident, in a previous interview. The father of two previously volunteered on the district’s bond committee. “There are problems like declining enrollment that need to be looked at, and I’m here so that we can work together and move forward.”

Incumbent Tracy Zamek; newcomers René Tidwell, Ryan Walker win PJ BOE seats after heated campaign

Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano and Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella. File photos

By Alex Petroski

Voters in the greater Port Jefferson area went to the polls in a giving mood May 15.

Port Jefferson School District residents approved the $44.9 million budget with 774 voting in favor and 362 against, while also passing a second proposition permitting the release of capital funds for a long-planned partial roof repair project at the high school.

“I’m really happy that the community came out and endorsed our spending plan for next year,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said after the results were announced. “It’s really important. They showed a lot of support for public education in Port Jefferson School District, so we’re really, very happy about that.”

Across town in Comsewogue School District, the $91.9 million budget was also passed by an easy margin; 829 to 263. The district’s approximately $32 million capital bond proposition received 768 votes in support to just 315 against. The 15-year borrowing plan includes about $3 million in interest and will provide funds for upgrades in each of the district’s six buildings. The projects selected were the byproduct of extensive planning on the part of the facilities committee, a group of about 20 professionals from across the community.

Port Jeff’s new board of education members Ryan Walker and René Tidwell with re-elected incumbent Tracy Zamek. Photo by Alex Petroski

“We are grateful to our community for its continued support of our schools and our students,” Superintendent Joe Rella said in a statement. “Their approval of the bond and 2018-19 budget will enable us to enhance and enrich health and safety, infrastructure and the three A’s – academics, arts and athletics.”

Port Jeff’s approved budget includes a roughly 2.3 percent tax levy increase compared to the current year, while Comsewogue’s increase will be 2.1 percent.

Tracy Zamek, an incumbent on Port Jeff’s school board, secured one of the three seats up for grabs in a six-way race, securing 604 votes. She’ll be joined on the board by newcomers Ryan Walker, who received 660 votes, and René Tidwell, who got 649. Tidwell and Walker campaigned on a joint ticket, as Zamek did with candidates Jason Kronberg (369 votes) and Ryan Biedenkapp (481 votes).

“I’m honored to be re-elected again,” Zamek said. “I look forward to standing up for the kids in Port Jefferson School District. I look forward to the challenges ahead of being fiscally responsible with the LIPA challenge, as well as keeping Port Jefferson School District intact.”

The discussion surrounding the board of education vote in Port Jeff became contentious at times, especially on social media. Much of the angst can be traced to the possibility of decreasing revenue from property taxes as the district — along with Brookhaven Town and Port Jeff Village — work toward a likely settlement in a legal battle with the Long Island Power Authority over the utility’s assessed property tax value on its Port Jeff power plant, which LIPA contends is over-assessed. The district gets a large chunk of its operating budget revenue as a result of housing the plant.

“I’m thrilled at the turnout,” Tidwell said. “I’m thrilled that the budget was passed, and I’m ready to move forward. Right now, I just want to heal the division in our community and I’ll work together to figure out how we move forward.”

“We’re pleased at the results obviously, and we feel that it’s a time for all of us to come together and to work as a team.”

— Ryan Walker

Walker expressed a similar sentiment.

“We’re pleased at the results obviously, and we feel that it’s a time for all of us to come together and to work as a team,” he said. “I think we’re going to have an amazing board this time and we’re going to accomplish amazing things. So, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve the people of the Port Jefferson School District.”

Biedenkapp, Farina and Kronberg did not respond to requests for comment sent via email by press time.

Comsewogue’s board of education vote was a foregone conclusion. Board President John Swenning, incumbent Rick Rennard and first-time candidate Corey Prinz ran an uncontested race for three open seats.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to serve another three years on the board,” Rennard said, adding he was pleased to hear of the budget and bond approvals.

Swenning, a mainstay on the Comsewogue board since 2005, called the district an incredible place to live in a statement.

“As a board trustee I am honored to work with fantastic administrators, teachers and staff and to represent a very involved and appreciative community,” he said.

Prinz, a district resident since 2004 and a commercial banker at Bank United, said he was thrilled to see the support for the budget and bond and is looking forward to working with the district.

New York voters on the North Shore overwhelmingly approved passing all of the proposed budgets and extra propositions, despite low voter turnout May 15. Stock image

The evening of May 15 was a good one for school boards across New York State, as residents cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of district budgets.

According to the New York State School Boards Association, the new state budget delivered a school aid increase of $859 million despite a tight fiscal year. Besides general spending plans and even with some new programs and club offerings, all of our North Shore districts have kept any projected tax levy increases within the state mandated limit. The biggest challenge with budgets this year was meeting most of parents’ and students’ concerns regarding school safety. Some districts had to shift funds around to allocate spending for additional security guards, entrance vestibules and bulletproof glass windows, among other ideas to make sure students and staff are protected and feel safe.

Here’s how school district budget votes on the North Shore of Suffolk County went:

Commack
Voters chose to approve the $193,222,797 proposed Commack budget with 1203 yes votes to 419 no.

Current board of education Vice President Jarrett Behar ran unopposed and received 1,302 votes.

Comsewogue
Comsewogue residents voted 829 yes to 263 no in favor of the proposed $91,947,730 budget. John Swenning, Rick Rennard and Corey Prinz ran unopposed and garnered 901, 818 and 769 votes, respectively. Louise Melious did not seek re-election. A proposition was also approved 768-315 to authorize a $32-million bond proposal for upgrades in all six schools in the district.

Elwood
Elwood’s $61,606,082 budget passed by a vote of 896 to 327. Proposition 2, the establishment of a capital reserve fund, passed by a vote of 854 to 345. Heather Mammolito (918) and James Tomeo (983) were both reelected to the board of education.

“On behalf of the entire administration and board of education, I would like to thank all residents who voted in support of the proposed 2018-19 budget” Elwood Superintendent Ken Bosset said. “Your support will allow the district to continue to enhance our academic program for our students, as well as increase security throughout the district. We are continually grateful to the Elwood community for its support of our district.”

Harborfields
Members of the district voted 966-275 to pass the proposed $86,086,696 budget. Steve Engelmann (862), Joseph Savaglio (744) and Suzie Lustig (949) were all elected to the board of education. Incumbents Donald Mastroianni and Thomas McDonagh did not seek re-election.

“I would like to thank the entire Harborfields community for its support of the 2018-19 budget, as well as the board of education for its commitment to providing the best opportunities possible for district students,” Harborfields Superintendent Francesco Ianni said. “The community’s continued support of the district allows us to provide a ‘world-class’ education to the children of our community. We look forward to implementing several enhancements to the curriculum for next year, including the restructuring of the high school science research program and a new literacy curriculum. In addition, the proposed budget will allow us to enhance security throughout the district. The community’s input was vital to the creation of this budget, so I thank those residents who participated throughout the process and those who took the time to vote.”

Huntington
Huntington’s board of education put forth a proposed $129,812,991 that was passed 1,215 to 314.

Proposition 2, which asked Huntington residents to approve the release of about $7 million from the district’s capital reserves fund for critical infrastructure repairs, was passed with 1,293 yes votes to 209 no.

Proposition 3, which sought to create a new building improvement fund that the district said is necessary in order to transfer money from the district’s existing repair reserve that will be used for turf field replacement, was also passed 1,260-238.

Huntington board of education trustees Christine Biernacki, receiving 1,029 votes, and Thomas DiGiacomo, receiving 898 votes, were re-elected to another term. Lynda D`Anna received 816 and will take over the seat currently held by trustee Emily Rogan July 1, as she did not seek re-election.

Kings Park
The Kings Park community passed its $92,168,700 proposed budget with 1,189 yes votes to 550 no.

This community is very supportive of education and the job that we’ve done here in Kings Park,” Kings Park Superintendent Timothy Eagen said. “It’s a very supportive budget, and we have some strategic adds and supports in the budget. I’m just really happy that we can go forward with the spending plan that the board of education and I have carefully developed over the last couple of months.”

Incumbents Diane Nally and Kevin Johnston won their board of education trustee seats back, with 1,281 and 1,383 votes, respectively. Challenger Darryl Valinchus tallied 530 votes.

Johnston expressed some disappointment regarding low turnout at board meetings

“We would like to have more input from people in the community,” he said as polls closed. “This is a $92 million budget we’re talking about, and very few people show up for the school board meetings. I think over the last few years with Diane [Nally] we’ve accomplished a great deal providing for the students in Kings Park, but we still have a ways to go.”

Middle Country
Resident overwhelmingly passed the district’s $250,124,601 budget, 1,438-495. In an uncontested board of education trustee election, Kathleen Walsh, Arlene Barresi, Karen Lessler and Daniel Hill won their seats back, with 1,467, 1,408, 1,398 and 1,372 votes, respectively.

Miller Place
Voters in the district passed the $72,685,864, 616-209. Keith Frank ran unopposed, and won his second three-year term with 688 votes.

Mount Sinai
The $60,203,745 budget was passed by residents, 769 to 193 and the library 1,111 to 144. A proposition transferring $5 million from unassigned fund balance to the capital fund passed 787-176, and a proposition to transferring money from fund balances to establish $10 million capital reserve fund passed 761-199.

Trustee Michael Riggio was re-eleccted to serve a second term with 747 votes, and newcomer Stephen Koepper earner 651 votes. Koepper ran unopposed after board President Lynn Capobianco decided not to run again.

Northport-East Northport
Northport-East Northport residents said “yes, yes, yes” to all three propositions.

The $166,810,381 proposed budget passed with 2,287 in favor and 754 against.

Proposition 2, which asked voters to approve the release of $900,000 from the district’s capital reserve funds for infrastructure upgrades and repair, also passed 2,524-555.

Proposition 3, which will establish a new Capital Reserve III Fund that the board says is necessary for several critical infrastructural improvements including roof replacements of its buildings, window replacement, bathroom replacement, masonry and concrete work, floor replacement, wall replacement, classroom renovations, library and multimedia center renovations and gym reconstruction, among other projects, was also met with voter approval, with 2,403 in favor and 696 against.

Incumbent David Stein and challenger Victoria Buscareno were elected to serve for three years, and incumbent David Badanes was elected for two years. This staggering the terms of board members is due to a proposition two years ago that reduced the number of board members from nine to seven. Stein received 2,173 votes, and Buscareno received 2,195, and Badanes earned 1,915 votes. Trustee Tammie Topel chose not to run again. Challenger Thomas Loughran did not receive enough votes.

Port Jefferson
Community members passed the $43,889,812 proposed budget 774–362. A proposition for a partial roof replacement at the high school also passed, 874 – 257. In a six-way race for three board of education seats, Ryan Walker (660), Rene Tidwell (649) and Tracy Zamek (604) won seats. Ryan Biedenkapp, Jason Kronberg and Mia Farina lost, with 481, 369 and 276 votes, respectively.

Rocky Point
Rocky Point residents voted to pass the $86,128,785 budget with 499 yes votes to 226 no.

“Voter turnout was a little low,” Rocky Point Superintendent Michael Ring said. “Most come out to vote after 5 p.m. Thankfully enough came out.”

Although running uncontested, incumbent Ed Casswell and newcomer Gregory Amendola were elected to the board of education, receiving 551 and 571 votes, respectively.

“We have a great board of education — its going to be a loss that [Vice President] Scott Reh is leaving, but Greg Amendola is going to be a great addition to the team,” said Casswell, who will be serving his second term. “With every budget cycle it’s a challenge to enhance and grow programs yet be very fiscally responsible. With that said we’re always looking for any college and career initiatives that will open up options for our kids.”

Shoreham-Wading River
Voters approved the $74,776,072 budget 790 for to 233 against.

It was a very low turnout compared to last year’s more than 2,000 that came out to vote. Current board of education President Robert Rose won his seat back with 772 votes. James Smith ran unopposed and nabbed 767. He will be taking the place of first-year trustee Michael Yannucci, who did not seek re-election.

Smithtown
The community passed the proposed $244,913,464 budget with 1,873 yes votes and 800 no.

Proposition 2 passed 2,090 to 583, which allow the district to use of $13.3 million from the district’s capital reserve, to fund specific projects.

Board newcomer and challenger Mandi Kowalik received 1,618 votes to unseat incumbent board of education trustee Christopher Alcure, who received 935. Incumbent Jeremy Thode was re-elected to his seat with 1,790 votes.

Three Village
Three Village residents voted 1,412 for to 536 against the proposed $209.8 million budget. With no challengers, incumbents William F. Connors Jr. and Deanna Bavlnka won their seats back with 1,553 and 1,482 votes, respectively.

2018-19 school budget, board of education trustee vote to be held May 15

Commack Superintendent Donald James. Photo from Brenda Lentsch

The school year is almost finished, and while students are sitting at the edge of their seats ready for summer, their parents and other Smithtown residents are being asked to vote May 15 on the school budgets and board elections.

Budgets saw increases across the board as districts attempt to increase security options and offer up more school programs and courses at nearly every grade level.

The Commack School District adopted its 2018-19 proposed budget with a $3 million increase aimed at expanding college level courses at the high school while also conducting a districtwide security review. The proposed budget of $193,222,797 contains a 1.61 percent increase over this year’s budget.

“We are very proud of our budget, and have again come in lower than our tax cap through our fiscally conservative, multiyear planning process,” Superintendent Donald James said in a statement. “All of our schools’ current academic and extracurricular offerings are included in next year’s budget with no cuts in programs — along with new opportunities for exploration and learning.”

We are very proud of our budget, and have again come in lower than our tax cap through our fiscally conservative, multiyear planning process.”
– Donald James

Board Vice President Jarrett Behar said the planned security review is based on community feedback. The district plans to put in a request for proposal for a districtwide security audit to identify potential security problems in the district and potential improvements.

“We really wanted to shy away from knee-jerk reactions,” Behar said. “These events that happened were horrific, but we wanted to take a considered approach.”

The budget maintains current programs while expanding upon others. If approved, it will expand the pottery wheel classes for sixth-graders and add more college level, project-based courses for high school students, and a Movement in the Arts program that will attempt to give elementary students 40 to 60 minutes of physical activity during the school day.

The proposed budget also provides funding for replacement vehicles for the security and maintenance departments, updated computers with more antivirus and malware programs and enhancements to Wi-Fi connectivity in the district buildings.

If approved, the budget will impose a 2.51 percent tax levy increase, which falls within the state mandated tax levy cap. This budget accounts for an anticipated decrease in state aid, which saw a decrease in the amount of building aid among other financial aids.

Commack board of education

One trustee seat is currently up for vote, and incumbent trustee and current vice president on the board Jarrett Behar is running unopposed. He says the biggest problems that the Commack school district will face in the upcoming years has to do with state financing.

“Largely, it’s funding issues, mostly from the state, and we’re going to continue to fight against unfunded mandates and to get Foundation Aid formula fixed so we get our fair share of state funding,” Behar said. “The foundation aid formula is like the formula for Coke, nobody can really figure out what it is. Whatever it is, I don’t think we’re getting enough as we should.”


By the numbers:
$193.2M proposed 2018-19 school budget
1.61 percent year-to-year increase
2.51 percent tax levy increase

Behar is a 12-year resident of Commack and he has been trustee on the board for the last three years. Before that he worked on the Rolling Hills Primary School PTA and as coach in both girls and boys basketball. He currently works as a partner at Sinnreich, Kosakoff & Messina LLP in Central Islip. He believes his experience both in the community and as an attorney helps him to work with others on the board.

“The whole board starts with the mentality of what is best for the children and works from there. Couple that with the long-term planning that the board has put in place [and] I think we’ve done a really good job,” Behar said.

Board President Steve Hartman said that Behar’s legal expertise has been very helpful when dealing with any legal issues that come up in meetings.

“Mr. Behar has worked diligently with his fellow BOE members over the past three years to ensure that our children have had as many opportunities as possible throughout their school year,” Hartman said in a statement. “He also wants to ensure that our children go to school in an environment that makes them feel safe and secure. I look forward to continue working with him as we continue to improve our programs districtwide.”

Behar’s son, Jeffrey, is in fifth grade at Sawmill Intermediate School and his daughter, Mollie, is in first grade at Wood Park Primary School.

Go Vote 

Board elections and budget vote will take place May 15 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Commack Middle School and Commack High School.

2018 BOE candidates Ryan Biedenkapp, Mia Farina, Jason Kronberg, René Tidwell, Tracy Zamek and Ryan Walker. File photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Candidates for Port Jefferson School District’s board of education have thrown themselves into the world of public service at a tumultuous time for the district and education more broadly. To better inform voters about the positions of the six candidates vying for three trustee seats prior to heading to the polls May 15, each was asked to provide answers to the same  questions.

Candidate Mia Farina answered the questions during a phone interview while the other five chose to respond via email. Their answers to the questions, or answers in part, are provided below in alphabetical order by the candidate’s last name.

If the district loses revenue as a result of a LIPA settlement, how can the BOE scale down the budget without doing too much harm to existing programs?

There is the possibility of losing property tax revenue as a legal battle plays out between Port Jefferson Village, the school district and Long Island Power Authority, which has a plant in the village. The utility company contends Town of Brookhaven  overassessed and is seeking to reduce the assessment. The district receives about half of the revenue in its budget from taxes paid by LIPA based on the plant’s assessment.

The village and Brookhaven have publicly stated a settlement is on the horizon, the result of which will likely reduce the plant’s assessment, though few details have been shared. The district has publicized a plan for the budget should an official settlement be reached in time to impact the 2018-19 school year, with
proposed cuts to instrument rental availability, textbooks, athletic teams, clubs and overnight field trips, to name a few.

Budget highlights
  • $44,945,812 for total operating budget
  • 3.72 percent increase in 2018-19 compared to current year
  • Additional expenses would be covered with 2.27 percent tax levy increase and 2.23 percent state aid increase
  • All programs rolled over from current year in next year’s budget
  • Expense increase largely due to contractual raises and increasing health insurance costs
  • Second proposition on ballot to release capital reserves for roof repairs
  • Vote May 15 at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School

Ryan Biedenkapp: “There will need to be a scaling down of nonmandated costs by looking to trim where student participation fails to justify the cost. An increase in taxes combined with increased community participation in seeking alternative funding sources will also be required. Maintaining the academic integrity of Port Jefferson schools should be the guiding principle when deciding where reductions will occur.”

Mia Farina: “There’s actually grants out there — privately — [like] music grants that actually [pay for] musical instruments and pay for the maintenance of those instruments, so that alone would cover that lost revenue. I went to public school, and we did fundraisers. We could sponsor events. We possibly may lose revenue. If we could do anything to bring that back by having the community involved … ”

Jason Kronberg: “Depending on how severe the loss of revenue is, I’d like to hold forums with the community to come up with potential cuts to the budget.”

René Tidwell: “As a member of the BOE, I will work diligently to ensure the high standards the district has set for its instructional programs remain in place. I believe the district needs to form a Citizens Advisory Committee immediately, with the objective to assess the impact of the loss of LIPA revenue under various scenarios (such as 50 percent reduction of revenue, reduction on assessment or reduction on payments, etc.).”

Tracy Zamek: “The board can scale down the budget by looking at budget trends, participation rates, enrollment patterns and non-mandated costs. However, a combination of program adjustments and increased taxes will be necessary in order to absorb the significant loss of revenue. The community will once again be asked to provide input through a values survey and community forum response initiative. Understandably, not everyone is going to agree on every priority, but the most important thing to remember is our students come first.”

Ryan Walker: “Several suggestions that have been successful in other districts come to mind, such as encouraging increased philanthropic contributions, seeking out unused state and federal financial aid
opportunities and grant writing. The first thing to consider is what must the district have in order to maintain the high quality of education that makes families chose to move to Port Jefferson.”

Do you believe security officers and/or educators should be armed on school campuses?

Security in schools is never far from district’s and parent’s minds, though this has been particularly true in the wake of the latest mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, which left 17 dead. Neighboring districts have moved to employ armed security personnel, while some participated in the national discourse through walkouts.

Biedenkapp: “I don’t believe in arming teachers, ever. The idea of having an armed security person inside our schools is one that gives me pause. The retention of a single, possibly two, retired officers, who also was/were licensed air marshal that was carrying [a] concealed [weapon] at the front of the school at the vestibule or outside the school on the perimeter is something that I would be inclined to support.”

Farina: “Absolutely not. Their job is to educate, not to have the responsibility of a [carrying] firearms. Security officers, I believe, should be armed if they’re fully capable of being armed, meaning training is a huge priority.”

Kronberg: “Weapons-trained security can be an essential layer of protection for our schools. There is no definitive study on the effectiveness of this form of protection, but in my opinion it is something, with proper training, that can help prevent and deter violence. Arming teachers in schools is an irresponsible idea.”

Tidwell: “I believe the answer to this question is best answered by the community itself, and as a BOE member, I would recommend a town hall meeting to listen to the community’s ideas and concerns regarding security for our facilities.”

Potential cuts pending LIPA settlement
  • Reduction of rental of music instruments for students ($12,000) Reduction in equipment ($18,000)
  • Reduction of textbooks ($15,000)
  • Reduction of 6 budgeted sports teams based upon student interest ($37,000)
  • Reduction of 6 extra curricular clubs based upon student interest ($18,000) Elimination of overnight/long distance field trips (Busing/Chaperons) ($18,000)
  • Reduction in Board of Education organizational dues ($2,000)
  • Reduction in District Community Printing/Mailings (Newsletters/Calendars) ($10,000)

Walker: “I worked in two school districts as a nationally certified School Resource Officer for the New York State Police Department. At first, residents were hesitant to have a police officer in full uniform, which included a gun, in the schools. Resident hesitation swiftly dissipated as I worked to build a positive collaborative relationship with students, families, administration, teachers and staff.”

Zamek: “I absolutely do not support the idea of having teachers armed in schools. Guns do not belong inside our schools. However, I would welcome a village and community discussion about having professional armed security guards on the outside of schools, especially at arrival [and] dismissal and on the perimeter of fields during recess.”

Do you think BOE communication and transparency with taxpayers can be improved, and if so, how would you do it?

The district and board have been criticized by members of the community for a lack of transparency and for their communication methods on issues, like how the district informed parents of a social media threat made by a student in February long after it was received and via email instead of a robocall.

Biedenkapp: “We can absolutely improve communication with all stakeholders, as well as our transparency. With respect to the taxpayers the district Facebook page should be utilized to give a brief synopsis of each BOE meeting, along with the live video of the meeting and quick links to any pertinent web pages. The school’s web page is rather cumbersome, but design of a new website would be fiscally irresponsible at this time. Residents should have an ability to have their phone number added to the school robocall list.”

Farina: “I think there’s always room for improvement in any type of communication whatsoever. I haven’t really had an issue [with] school communication because I’m very active. … I would ask the community for ideas on how they would want to be notified. Who’s not getting information that wants information? How do you get your information?”

Kronberg: “Communication between the board and community, although strong in many ways, can always be improved. I’m excited for the ‘super team’ approach arrived at by the superintendent for this fall [which brings community members from different sectors together to come up with ideas to solve problems]. While the meetings are online and available, it may be a good idea to provide a question and answer email session with board members, where community members can write in and receive answers to specific questions.”

Tidwell: “I believe there are significant gaps in the BOE’s communication process with all the district’s stakeholders. I would establish a telephone communication protocol that includes all district taxpayers — not just the parents of children attending the district’s schools. I would ensure that taxpayers who currently do not utilize the internet or social media are informed of upcoming BOE events in a timely manner. I propose utilizing cellphone alert applications to remind residents of upcoming meetings, important announcements, etc., all of which could have ‘opt-in’ or ‘opt-out’ choices for all residents.”

Walker: “The current way of disseminating information is adequate for those with children attending schools in the district. However, everyone else must seek out information by checking the district’s web page on a daily basis to make sure they didn’t miss anything important. Printed newsletter mailings to residents are infrequent, costly and not always timely. All residents should have an opportunity to register their email addresses with the school to have the same information sent to them as parents of school children. Board members should make themselves more available to attend public functions, have face-to-face interactions with residents.”

Zamek: “There needs to be a greater emphasis on enrolling every community member on our connect-ed phone, text and email system. I have already started to improve communication between the school and village officials by creating a direct line of communication between the two offices. The school now informs the mayor’s office monthly concerning school board meeting dates and times and provides an agenda.”

Comsewogue School Board President John Swenning speaks during the school’s 2016 graduation ceremony June 23. Photo by Bob Savage

By Alex Petroski

Barring support for an unforeseen write-in candidate, Comsewogue School District taxpayers already know who will be on their board of education next school year. Three candidates are running for three seats, two of whom are familiar faces while one is a newcomer. The terms for board President John Swenning, and Trustees Rick Rennard and Louise Melious are up this year. Swenning and Rennard are running again while Melious is not. She did not respond to a request for comment about her decision. Corey Prinz, a district resident since 2004, is the third candidate and is making his first bid for the board.

Corey Prinz

Prinz, 37, lives in the district with his wife and two kids — a second-grader and a fourth-grader. He has worked for Bank United as a commercial banker for about a decade. Prinz said he enjoys the small-town feeling in Comsewogue and sees it as a good place to raise a family. He was previously involved as a board
member for Comsewogue’s youth lacrosse program and said running for the school board seemed like a natural progression to get more involved.

“I’m excited – this is going to be a lot of fun,” Prinz said. “I go to bed excited about this starting up.”

He said his personal mantra in his position with the youth lacrosse program was to help kids succeed athletically, but more importantly “I want them to be good humans.” Prinz called this day and age in education and beyond very difficult for kids who face pressures based on academics, security concerns and socially, among countless others.

“We’re going through some changes here in the world,” he said.

Prinz said he thinks the current board has done a great job.

“Honestly, it’s about listening right now,” he said of his approach stepping into the position. “I don’t want to imply there’s something broken that I’m coming in to fix. It can always be improved.”

John Swenning

Comsewogue is known to have among the highest opt-out rates for standardized tests on Long Island, a charge led by Superintendent Joe Rella. While Prinz said he doesn’t have a problem with parents electing to have students skip tests, his kids have taken them.

“Eventually kids will have to deal with testing that isn’t pleasant and comfortable. I’m OK with them getting used to that,” he said.

Prinz said his focus will be on helping to create well-rounded offerings, with equal emphasis on education, athletics, music and any other areas important to students and community members.

Swenning, 54, attended Comsewogue schools and has been a board member since 2005. He works as a sales and design consultant in the home improvement industry. He and his wife Andrea have been married for 32 years and have four children, all Comsewogue graduates.

“I have been part of so many good things here and look forward to continuing to see Comsewogue accomplish great things for our students,” he said of why he decided to seek another term.

The district earned the prestigious accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools in 2017.

He said safety and security improvements will be a focus for the board going forward, as well as expanding the district’s project-based learning pilot program, which the district implemented in recent years as an alternative to typical Regents-based classes.

Rick Rennard

Rennard started on the board in 2014. He has lived in the district for 14 years and has a child at each level in the district — an elementary student, middle schooler and a high schooler. He is a teacher at Newfield High School in the Middle Country Central School District, and also serves as Boy Scouts cubmaster and assistant scoutmaster for Troop 354.

“The reason that I decided to run again for the school board is because after serving for four years, I feel very comfortable with the responsibilities and commitments that come along with the position,” he said. “I feel the district is moving in a very positive direction educationally, and I want to continue that movement.”

He also expressed a desire to continue the project-based learning program as a focus moving forward.

To vote on the district’s budget, a $32 million capital bond proposal and BOE candidates, go to Comsewogue High School May 15 between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

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