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Commack School District

Trustees decide to leave Verity’s seat vacant for 2018-19 school year, will operate with four members

Commack BOE with former trustee Pamela Verity, seated front left, pictured at the start of the 2017-18 school year.

A month after a controversial investigation led to the resignation of a Commack board of education member, the price tag on that review has finally come through.

The Commack school district spent an approximate total of $72,443.24 on the four-month investigation of former trustee Pamela Verity. The board of education announced it intends to remain at four out of five members until the May 2019 school elections.

Board Vice President Jarrett Behar initially announced the district’s special investigation cost more than $60,000 at the Sept. 6 meeting. When the total was first announced, Verity said she found that number to be low compared to what she had seen before resigning from the board.

“I saw the bills prior to being off the board, and they definitely exceeded that number,” she said.

However, school officials said the district has since received additional invoices and corrected its initial estimate bringing the total bill up to more than $72,000.  

“What was not included in those [initial] costs were the costs of legal issues leading up to the
investigation,” said Laura Newman, the assistant superintendent for business and operations. “Those costs were reflected in the April billing by Lamb & Barnosky, totaling $10,585.06. In addition, there will be an additional bill of $1,798.97 reflecting August charges from Lamb & Barnosky.”

The law firm of Lamb & Barnosky, which serves as council to the district, was paid nearly $49,000, including disbursements, from April through August for work done relating to the investigation, according to documents obtained by TBR News Media. Attorney Jeffrey Smith, who had been hired on contract as an independent investigator at a $150 hourly rate, was paid $17,550 for writing the 80-page report released Aug. 2. His fees were included in the disbursements under the June invoice from Lamb & Barnosky. 

In addition, Albany-based law firm Girvin & Ferlazzo was paid approximately $13,500 to verify information that was written in the report and to prepare charges against Verity. Lastly Philip Maier, a hearing officer, received $3,600 in fees paid to attend the first two days of hearing, which did not take place.

Superintendent Donald James confirmed the money came from the legal section of the school’s 2018-19 budget. This is out of the total 2018-19 budget of $193,222,796.

School officials accepted Verity’s letter of resignation at an Aug. 1 special meeting. This came after a four-month investigation into allegations she had disclosed confidential information privy to her as a board trustee and removing school district property from Marion Carll Farm. 

Board members discussed their options for the vacancy left by Verity at an Aug. 16 special meeting. Eugene Barnosky, the district’s attorney, said trustees could host a special election, appoint a new member themselves or leave the seat vacant. The trustees voted 3-1 to remain at four members until the next election cycle in May 2019 with member Jen Carpenter casting the lone dissenting vote.

Carpenter said she worried that without some sort of election it could harm the board’s ability to build trust in the community.

“If there’s a way to get [information of the vote] out there — with word of mouth or on social media — if we do vote and do decide to go in that direction, you’re electing us to be here, share those decisions and be here with you,” she said.

Behar said he feared there would be low turnout for a special election, considering that only 6 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot on the district’s  2018-19 budget and, historically, significantly less people have voted in prior special elections.

“For somebody to serve for that limited period of time to get that low of a level of community participation, the cost benefit analysis is just not there,” the vice president said.

James said the district did not want to rule out community involvement in the decision process, but it did not want to spend an estimated $12,837 to host a new special election.

Several community members spoke at the Aug. 16 meeting advocating for a special election.

“It’s ridiculous,” East Northport resident Dan Fusco said. “The district didn’t want to pay $13,000 to host special elections but they’d spend [tens of thousands] on an investigation? That doesn’t make sense.”

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.

Commack Superintendent Donald James. Photo from Brenda Lentsch

Across the Town of Smithtown, voters headed to the polls May 15 to show their overwhelming approval of their school district’s 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 school officials, who rely on their taxpayers’ votes for critical feedback and as a measurement of community involvement.

2018-19 budget 

Commack residents passed the district’s $193,222,797 2018-19 budget by 1,203 votes to 419 votes against. The approved budget contains a $3 million increase to expand college level courses at the high school while also conducting a districtwide security review.


Commack budget results
by the numbers

$193.2M 2018-19 budget: 1,203 Yes votes to 419 No votes

Board of education
Jarrett Behar: 1,302 votes 

The budget will maintain all current programs while expanding upon others. Classes that will be added include the pottery wheel classes for sixth-graders, 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 district’s spending plan 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.

Angela Cicalo, Commack’s PTA council president, expressed her concern about the low turnout of less than 2,000 voters.

“It’s sad that we have about 6,000 students in all of the buildings here in Commack, but only about 2,000 people normally come out and vote,” Cicalo said. “And there will probably be fewer than that this year. Sometimes the voter turnout is low when the incumbent is running unopposed and there aren’t a lot of candidates to choose from.”

Commack board of education

Voters did not have many options when it came to candidates for Commack’s board of education. There was one trustee seat up for vote, and incumbent trustee and current vice president on the board Jarrett Behar ran unopposed receiving 1,302 votes.

“I want to represent our children and our community while looking out for their best interests.”

— Jarrett Behar

Even though Behar was running unopposed, he still made the rounds before going to work: stopping at the high school first — with his two children, Jeffrey, 11, and Mollie, 6, in tow — to shake hands and introduce himself to voters.

“I’m very invested in the district,” he said. “I want to represent our children and our community while looking out for their best interests.”

For his second term, Behar said that he would “love to convince Albany to fix or abandon the Foundation Aid formula and start giving moderate wealth districts like Commack more aid, which would in turn reduce the tax burden on our community members.”

He added that he will continue to advocate “for the curtailment or abolishment of the numerous unfunded mandates that serve to further burden our community.” 

Behar said he would also like to continue the board’s efforts in improving the district’s communication with the community.

“It has definitely gotten better, but we will continue to try to improve,” he said.

Karen Forman contributed reporting. 

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.

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Commack Superintendent Donald James presented the district's 2018-19 budget draft. File photo by Greg Catalano

As Commack school officials propose nearly $300,000 in additional security measures and upgrades for next year, many parents came forward looking for the answer to one question: “What about armed guards?”

“Let’s get real — let’s make this part of the discussion,” resident Timothy Griffin said at the March 8 board of education meeting. “It makes no sense to me to not allow retired police officers that you currently have employed as security guards to carry firearms.”

Richard Schramm, director of facilities, said that Commack school district currently employs 23 security guards, most of which are assigned to specific individual buildings. A smaller number are designated as patrol guards along with two security supervisors, according to Schramm, who roam the district throughout the school day.

It makes no sense to me to not allow retired police officers that you currently have employed as security guards to carry firearms.”
— Timothy Griffin

Anastasia Vetter told board members they should be making increased security a priority over mental health monitoring.

“As much as you try to incorporate all these teachings about anxiety and how to handle children with problems, there’s always going to be one you’re not going to get,” she said. “And I don’t know if my child or someone else’s child is going to have to pay the price.”

Ian Chaikin asked why the school district is only now battening down its hatches in the event of a shooter situation.

“Parkland was tragic and the most recent but what have you been doing since the first shooting, or the second or third?” Chaikin said. “You guys gotta get on the ball.”

Another resident called for armed guards as well as locked vestibules at all eight buildings in the district, locked parking lot gates and metal detectors upon entering the school.

School administrators have built in nearly $300,000 of security upgrades to the district’s 2018-19 drafted budget. Schramm said there is $263,500 of remaining bond funds in order to install new classroom lock sets at Commack Middle School and Commack High School. The proposal also includes pulling $15,000 from the reserves to upgrade the security staff’s radios and $15,000 in the annual budget for upgrade the district’s security vehicles.

Parkland was tragic and the most recent but what have you been doing since the first shooting, or the second or third?”
— Ian Chaikin

Superintendent Donald James assured the speakers that the District Security Connector Group will be formed in upcoming weeks, consisting of Commack security personnel, teachers, administrators, board trustees, two parents for each grade level, and two community members-at-large (residents without school-aged children) in addition to the superintendent himself. This group will be charged with crafting a request-for-proposal to hire an outside agency to do a comprehensive security review of the district and consider the community’s suggestions — including whether to hire armed guards.

The funds to hire an outside security company to review the school district’s current practices and provide a list of suggestions is built into the facilities portion of the 2018-19 draft budget, according to Schramm.

Commack Superintendent Donald James presented the district's 2018-19 budget draft. File photo by Greg Catalano

Status quo will reign in Commack, with a few new programs.

Commack Superintendent Donald James unveiled the first part of his proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year during a March 9 board of education meeting, which would maintain all existing instructional programs intact across each school.

The preliminary budget of $193,222,797 is roughly 1.61 percent higher than the current year’s budget, which was adopted at $190,163,464. The first budget workshop focused on general administration support and instructional spending — which, combined, make up a total 57 percent of the entire budget.

Budget highlights:
  • 2018-19 proposed budget 1.61 percent higher than current year
  • All instructional programs rolled over from current year, with several additions
  • Tax levy increase to be between 2.51 percent and 2.91 percent, though cap won’t need to be pierced
  • Total budget proposed for 2018-19 stands at $193,222,797 currently

The district plans on keeping programs such as Movement in the Arts, an exercise-educational program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade that was introduced last year. New curriculum would include more art and technology class options for sixth-graders, like digital animation and 3D printing; TerraNova learning assessment for students in Kindergarten through fifth grade; and Investigations in the Humanities, principles of engineering, American sign language, horticulture and school and community leadership for high school students.

“Our aim in Commack is to prepare every student for whatever they want and need to achieve at their next level of learning while simultaneously maintaining and enhancing the educational program and academic achievement, as we define it, that Commack is known for and the community expects,” James said at the top of the presentation.

The budget is expected to stay within the tax levy increase cap, according to Laura Newman, assistant superintendent for business and operations. The projected tax levy increase in the budget draft is currently 2.51 percent, with a tax-cap increase of no more than 2.91 percent.

“I say that because there are sometimes budgetary decisions that are made that will change the tax cap formula and calculation,” Newman said of the wide-ranging projection.

Moving forward, district officials said they hope to deal with “the misperception” that the tax levy increase cap is two percent and make clear a 2.51 percent increase for Commack does not constitute piercing the cap.

“I don’t know any district in the Huntington-Smithtown cluster that has the two-percent number,” James said. “While Newsday’s and [Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s] perception is that it’s two, it’s not two.”

The 2018-19 budget’s slight increase over last year’s adopted budget is based primarily on instruction costs — more staffing, contractual increases and changes, a plan for a renewed enrollment projection report, districtwide technology upgrades and special education program enhancements. There is also a proposed hike in guidance, psychological and health services due to contractual changes. The total instruction budget will be $4,626,905 more than last year’s, up to $110,535,346.

The overall general support, which represents 11 percent of the budget and includes an increase in insurance and public information and services, is increasing by $499,873.

“We’ve worked very hard to come up with a budget that will keep us within tax cap but maintain our programs, which is, luckily, what we’ve been able to do,” Amy Ryan, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, assessment and student support services, said. “It’s sort of a boring budget in the sense that there are no big enhancements and, happily, no cuts. We have a very supportive community so it should be good.”

The school board will meet for its second budget workshop March 15, to discuss athletics, facilities, security, transportation, technology, staffing and undistributed costs, like retirement. The public will vote on the budget May 15.

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Jeremy Thode is sworn in at a previous board of education meeting in Smithtown. File photo

Jeremy Thode said he is just starting to learn the ropes as the newest trustee on the Smithtown board of education.

“So far it’s been wonderful,” Thode said. “The current board of ed members have been very welcoming and helpful.” Thode said that the administration has also been very helpful getting him acclimated with the history of the district.

Since being elected, Thode has been spending as much time as he can researching and reviewing the information from past administrations and understanding the ongoing issues being brought before the board.

Thode, a Nesconset resident, had been thinking about running for the school board for years, due to his education background and working with different school administrations.

He previously worked in the Commack School District as a physical education teacher and then athletic director. He assumed the same position at Center Moriches school district when he moved there and eventually gained many other titles before becoming assistant principal at Center Moriches High School.

Thode currently has four daughters enrolled in the Smithtown school district, Alexandra, Emma, Hannah and Olivia, spanning from the primary school to the high school.

“I am excited to continue learning the concerns and issues that are present in the district,” Thode said. Personally, I am most concerned with the social and emotional components of education for our students.

Programs like Athletes Helping Athletes, or AHA, Thode thinks have great value to the students, because he thinks a student with more connections to the school fosters a better relationship with the school.

“I really want to work with the administration to get students involved in as many activities and make as many connections as possible in the school district.”

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School district says ‘unauthorized person’ compromised vital student records like ID numbers, home addresses

Student data within Commack school district may have been compromised after an unauthorized person accessed records, the district said this week.

A statement posted on the district’s website outlined the potential data breach, calling it a potential release of high school student data, but cautioned that there was no concrete evidence that specific student data was downloaded. The district said the unauthorized party might have gained access to student ID numbers, names, addresses, contact information and schedules, but specified that social security numbers were not in jeopardy.

The district went public with the data breach alert on Sept. 17 and said it was important to make parents aware of the potential release of information, despite any evidence proving specific data was downloaded. As of the time of the initial post, Commack officials said the breach likely only applied to a very limited number of high school student records.

“Upon learning of the breach, the district immediately contacted the Suffolk County Police Department,” the statement said. “The district is working with the police department, and the police have moved forward to identify the person responsible.”

Commack’s tech department also bulked up the district’s data protection protocols by adding additional security features to student management systems, restoring any altered schedules and implementing a 24-hour active monitoring program. The current 24-hour monitoring system also showed no additional unauthorized attempts to access student data at this point, the district said.

In addition to working with the Suffolk County Police Department and conducting an internal security review, the district said it was also in the process of hiring an outside technology company to conduct a full electronic security review of the district’s student management system and networks in an effort to ensure systems are as secure as possible. Any additional updates will be brought to the public’s attention as developments occur, the district said.

“Please be assured that the district takes very seriously the protection of private student data, and actively monitors our networks,” the district said in a statement. “We continue to work to ensure that the district takes the steps necessary to prevent this type of incident in the future.”

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