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Comsewogue School District

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23. File photo by Bob Savage

By Rob DeStefano

What can you accomplish during a 25-year career at Comsewogue School District? Greatness. Let me explain: While I was a sophomore at Comsewogue, we were introduced to Joe Rella as the new teacher in the music department, a quarter century ago. In the months that followed, students started talking about music, band, theater and jazz with an increased frequency not measurable before. Something special was beginning.

I don’t remember which concert it was, winter or spring, but as a junior participating in the newly reinvigorated jazz band, it happened. We sat playing an upbeat swing-time classic — maybe Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” — and this new teacher stepped away from the conductor’s podium. We stayed cool, kept playing, though we wondered what was happening. He walked to the audience and offered a hand to his wife. A moment later, this new teacher and his wife were doing the Charleston in front of an audience of parents, while our band played. In that moment, the magic became real. Comsewogue had hired our own “Mr. Holland.” We had our first glimpse of who Rella was.

In the years that followed, class after class grew to appreciate his style — and his impact. His collaboration with our music educators led to a number of new opportunities for students. We had a pep band at home football games. Our theater performances recruited more students, some discovering talent they didn’t know they had. Even more, they found confidence, overcame shyness and lifted each other to perform at higher levels. This influence benefited all the district’s high school students when he became principal in the 1998-99 school year. How he found the time to continue to accompany students in their musical endeavors, I don’t know.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Rella’s appointment as Comsewogue’s superintendent in 2010 coincided with my election to our board of education. To call the last eight-plus years of working with him “unforgettable” is an understatement. Just as he inspired our students, he’s been a source of trust, candor and community to Port Jefferson Station residents, and beyond.

He’s proposed innovative solutions to challenges that threaten public education. He’s stood up for our children and an educational curriculum that prepares them to be their best. He’s advocated logic in the face of unreasonable and irresponsible policies dictated by out-of-touch government actions. As he prepares to retire after nine years as superintendent, his influence on our district, community and public education are deep and long lasting.

Great leaders don’t act alone. At each step in his 25-year journey, Rella has influenced the culture of the departments, schools and communities he’s worked with. Those who became Warriors along the way have become part of this culture of openness, collaboration and unwavering spirit. That makes me very excited for our community and Comsewogue School District’s future.

Our district administration has delivered great community successes in recent years. We’ve weathered the limitations of the property tax cap without compromising the quality of student education. Student access to technology has grown at all levels. Our arts programs are amazing. If you haven’t been to one of our schools’ art shows or musicals lately, I highly recommend them.

We’ve received accreditation from the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a first on Long Island for a full-sized district, putting our educational standard significantly above those dictated by the New York State Education Department. Program performance has been on a strong incline. Our literacy program and programs for English language learners are providing stronger foundations toward the educational growth of every student. Our problem-based learning program is proving our students have the analytical, critical thinking skills for 21st century success. They not only pass state exams but demonstrate deep knowledge of topics and an understanding of the world around them.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue board of education member and a Comsewogue High School graduate

On top of all this, our district — and really, our community — culture is unprecedented. Our students are not only academically thriving, but they are responsible stewards of the schools and neighborhoods to which they belong. The number of volunteer initiatives and the number of students who participate is awesome to see. And the latest of these, “Joe’s Days of Service,” is one of the great cultural legacies that I have no doubt will become a lasting part of how Comsewogue students give back to the community that has supported them, even after Rella moves on. Our students, past, present and future, will continue to make us proud.

As incoming superintendent, Jennifer Quinn represents the next stage in our community’s Warrior spirit. She has worked alongside Rella to get us where we are. As our district has been elevated, she has built, evolved and driven the programs that are enabling our students to thrive. I’m extremely excited about the vision she has shared to continue Comsewogue’s trajectory toward the very best in academics, athletics and arts. Our community is becoming a more attractive place to live and raise a family. Ask your local real estate agent to confirm this. Where we’re headed, the place we live will become an even more coveted venue — a benefit for all residents.

Legacy takes many forms. Rella’s real, lasting impact on our community is proven by how we celebrate and carry forward the torch he passes along to us all. The job belongs to all of us. We must not lose sight of what makes ours a special place to be. We must recognize the opportunity ahead of us and continue toward it with the same unwavering commitment. We must continue to work together, support each other and continue to carry Comsewogue forward with pride because, in some way, we’ve all had the blessing of being students of Joe Rella. We are a family of Warriors.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue School District Board of Education member and a graduate of Comsewogue High School.

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Isabella Gordon, 15, organizes the nearly 300 pounds of hygiene products she collected for donation. Photo from Ali Gordon

Inspired by a leadership camp she attended over the summer, Comsewogue High School sophomore Isabella Gordon identified a problem in her community and took it upon herself to fix it. Before she knew it, her bedroom was piled high with feminine hygiene products set for donation.

Isabella, 15, said she had been interested in attending the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls Leadership Worldwide camp, a program offered by the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill in Hyde Park New York aimed at helping attendees gain confidence, develop a voice and unlock one’s leadership potential, ever since her older sister attended more than a decade ago. She went this past summer and met young women from around the world, and upon returning home, she was struck with an idea.

The teenager said she came across a video on YouTube that detailed the difficulty homeless women on their menstrual cycle have in obtaining hygiene products and wasted little time springing to action.

“I was interested and talked to my mom that night and was like, ‘Hey, I want to work on this,’” she said following a Comsewogue board of education meeting Nov. 5, where her mom Ali Gordon has served on the board for three terms. “So for the next week or so me and my sister were kind of just thinking up names for it and we ended up with ‘Hygiene for All,’ came up with a mission statement, because I felt so passionate about it.”

Isabella said she set up a Facebook page for her newly formed initiative and asked people to donate products for her cause by sending them to her home. Eventually her bedroom was piled with items in bins waiting to be distributed to those who needed them. Mineola-based nonprofit food bank Island Harvest organized a “stuff-a-bus” event Oct. 6 at Comsewogue’s homecoming football game, during which attendees of the game were encouraged to bring food items to be donated to those in need. Isabella and Hygiene for All provided the food bank with more than 100 boxes of feminine hygiene products, dozens of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, and deodorants. In all the haul amassed nearly 300 pounds, according to Gordon.

“It was incredibly inspiring to have my 15-year-old come up with the idea,” the BOE member said. “Inspiring and very exciting. She didn’t need much assistance at all. She had a vision for this and really wanted to be able to help people and she’s done that and plans to continue to do that.”

Isabella said she hopes to one day turn the project into a charitable venture and is already interested in expanding it to more communities and school districts. She said she hopes to pursue a degree in medicine, at this point with her eye on one day becoming a midwife. Feminine hygiene products are among the most requested items for all food pantries, as many homeless and disadvantaged women are forced to choose between spending money on items like these and food, according to Food Bank for New York City, which holds an annual campaign calling for products for women.

“I feel very proud, especially of my community, so I’d say it went pretty well,” Isabella said.

To donate visit Hygiene for All’s Facebook page and send a private message to get the address.

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Comsewogue’s board of education applauds Superintendent Joe Rella, seated, during a Nov. 5 BOE meeting, where it was announced he will retire and be succeeded by Jennifer Quinn, deputy superintendent, right. Photo by Alex Petroski

Comsewogue School District took the first step in preparing to bid farewell to a giant in the community during its Nov. 5 board of education meeting.

The board regretfully accepted Superintendent Joe Rella’s intent to retire during the meeting, effective Aug. 31, 2019, and also approved placing Jennifer Quinn, current deputy superintendent, in line to succeed him beginning next school year. Both moves have been long expected, as Rella shared his intention to step away from the district with TBR News Media in a 2017 interview, though the motions by the board made it official and brought the end of Rella’s career at the helm of the district into clearer focus. Both motions drew standing ovations from those in attendance and from members of the board.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he said a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision. He said he and his late wife Jackie, who died following a bout with breast cancer in 2016, had long discussed 2018-19 as being his last year, as it would be his 25th in the district and ninth as superintendent.

“I’ve always believed you leave while you’re having fun, and I’m having fun,” Rella said. 

The district resident said he appreciated the way the community embraced him and credited those interactions with making him a better man. He said he plans to enjoy his retirement spending time with his seven grandchildren. He credited Quinn with spearheading much of the district’s successes of recent years, including attaining a prestigious accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools in 2017, as well as a rapidly expanding problem-based learning curriculum introduced as an alternative learning method aimed at increasing student success in state-mandated standardized testing.

“There was nobody else I would’ve ever wanted to do it,” he said of his successor. “She’ll take this to the next level. She has the street creds because she’s been here. I know there’s an impulse sometimes to do intergalactic searches to find a superintendent, and while the credentials might be outstanding, you don’t know the community and it takes time to build up trust.”

Quinn has been with the Comsewogue district for 13 years, spending four years as high school principal before working side by side with Rella for the last nine as an assistant superintendent and eventually deputy superintendent.

“Joe is the most amazing teacher you could ever ask for, I have learned more than I could have ever imagined working with him,” Quinn said. “He is brilliant. He’s able to see 15 steps down the road. To me that’s a skill that’s so valuable.”

Members of the board of education heaped praise on both administrators in expressing their mixed emotions for the road ahead.

“Everybody knows how amazing Dr. Rella is because he’s so out there and in your face, and in your answering machine and on your cellphone,” board member Ali Gordon said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is how phenomenal Dr. Quinn is and what a team they’ve been all along. She has a phenomenal vision for this district.” 

Board member Rob DeStefano said Rella once gave him advice prior to a big school concert when he was a student and Rella had just began as superintendent.

“What if I mess up, what do I do? Do I stop? Do I keep going?” DeStefano recalled asking Rella ahead of his first big saxophone solo as a high school senior, to which the superintendent replied: “Don’t worry about how it sounds, just play it loud.”

“We’re all very thankful for each of you,” DeStefano said in closing his remarks.

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2018 Regents exam results for Comsewogue students in problem-based learning classes versus traditional ones. Click to enlarge. Graphic by TBR News Media

“Teaching to the test” is a concept that no longer computes in Comsewogue School District.

Administration and faculty in Comsewogue, for the last two school years, have experimented with a problem-based learning curriculum for small groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders, an alternative to the traditional educational strategy of focusing assignments and assessments toward the goal of performing well on state-mandated standardized tests at the end of the year. Now, Superintendent Joe Rella has data to back up his notorious aversion to one-size-fits-all education and assessment.

In all subjects, Comsewogue students in PBL classes passed 2018 Regents exams, scoring 65 or better, at a higher rate than those in traditional classrooms, according to data released by the district. On chemistry, geometry, algebra II, global history and English 11 exams, PBL students achieved mastery level, scoring 85 or better, at significantly higher rates than their non-PBL classmates.

“We played in your ballpark — we scored runs.”

— Joe Rella

“We played in your ballpark — we scored runs,” Rella said of how he interpreted the data, meaning students taught by alternative methods still displayed an aptitude on the state’s required tests.

Though Rella and the district have taken steps to try to have PBL assessments replace Regents exams, no avenue to do so has been greenlighted by the New York State Department of Education to this point for Comsewogue. Emails requesting comment on the significance of Comsewogue’s test results sent to the education department and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) press office were not returned.

During the 2017-18 school year, about half of Comsewogue’s ninth- and 10th-graders, roughly 300 students, took part voluntarily in PBL classes, which emphasize hands-on learning and real-world application of concepts as assessments — similar to a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation — as opposed to the traditional “Regents model.” The students were still required by the state to take the Regents exams as all students are, and their performance has inspired the district in year three of the pilot to expand its PBL curriculum offerings on a voluntary basis for 2018-19 to its entire student body — kindergarten through 12th grade.

The superintendent said the impetus for the district to experiment with PBL started three years ago, when he and about 20 Comsewogue teachers spent a day at the New York Performance Standards Consortium in Manhattan. The organization was founded on the belief that there was a better way to assess student learning than dependence upon standardized testing, according to its website.

“In traditional settings, the teacher did most of the work, we listened, we copied notes and then we were tested on it,” Rella said. “The way the structure was, you spent a year learning stuff. At the end of the year, you took a test to see what you knew.”

In PBL classrooms, regardless of subject, Rella explained that a problem is initially presented, and students learn skills that are meant to help them practically find an answer to the problem. One group of PBL students during the 2017-18 school year decided to approach opioid addiction as a subject matter. Rella said chemistry students and English students worked on parallel tracks addressing that problem, with the science classes researching and presenting on the science behind addiction and the brain, and the English classes creating a public service announcement on the topic. The students presented and defended their findings and approach to the Suffolk County Legislature, with two students eventually being asked to join the county’s commission on substance addiction, according to Rella.

“It’s the problem that drives the learning rather than, ‘I learn to take an assessment at some future date.’”

— Joe Rella

“You have to acquire knowledge in order to solve the problem, so there is traditional teaching going on,” he said. “But right from the beginning, it’s the problem that drives the learning rather than, ‘I learn to take an assessment at some future date.’”

Rella credited District Administrator for Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Polychronakos as the driving force behind professional development and empowering district faculty to embrace the district’s new approach.

“We’ve so far created about 20 units of study districtwide that are ready to go for next year and we’ve piloted some of them and worked out some of the kinks,” Polychronakos said. “We’re going to continue to really just take the standards that we have from the state and make them into more of a project-based, or problem-based, learning type of experience for the kids.”

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By Anthony Petriello

Comsewogue High School will be rockin’ for a good cause July 19 with John Elefante, former lead singer of the American classic rock group Kansas.

A concert — called A Night of Hope — is being presented by the Warriors of Faith Christian Club, a group of Comsewogue students who organized the event to benefit the family of Brian McGuire, a district resident, former NYPD detective and 9/11 first responder who died suddenly April 30, leaving behind three children and his wife Karin, according to a GoFundMe page set up on behalf of the family. The event is meant to raise money for the family and for attendees to gather for prayer and discussion, according to a flyer promoting the concert.

Joining Elefante will be Kevin Chalfant, former lead singer for the Alan Parsons Live Project and former member of the world-renowned 1980s rock group Journey.

A benefit concert is being held at Comsewogue High School July 19 at 7 p.m. to benefit the family of a late community member.

Chalfant said he is eager to perform and was dedicated once he was informed about the circumstances surrounding the benefit.

“When John Elefante asked me to join him on Long Island for this wonderful family get together I was very happy,” Chalfant said. “I never knew the officer but when I heard that he was a first responder on 9/11, that’s all it took for me to be committed to this wonderful event.”

The money donated through ticket sales and a silent auction will go toward paying for college educations for the McGuire’s three kids. Their oldest son, Thomas, graduated from Comsewogue June 21, and will be attending Suffolk County Community College in the fall. Their son Michael will be entering 11th grade this upcoming school year, and their daughter, Danielle, will be heading to eighth grade.

Local businesses including Chick-Fil-A, School of Rock, and Wahlburgers, among others, as well as clergy from Axis Church of Medford, Harbor Church of Patchogue, Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, and the Christian Cultural Center in Smithtown are working together to promote and organize the event along with the Comsewogue students. All of the funds raised will be directed to the McGuire family.

Pastor Anthony Pelella of Axis Church is one of those coordinating the event, and said he wanted to be involved just to help a family in need.

“We just wanted to give them something to make them smile,” he said.

Pelella will be delivering a message of hope prior to the concert. He said he believes in the notion that the Port Jefferson community is an extremely interconnected and faith driven place to reside.

“I believe that the Port Jefferson community hurts together,” He said. “When one person hurts we all hurt together, and when one person smiles we all smile together.”

Comsewogue school board President John Swenning also said he is looking forward to the event and raising funds for the cause. While Swenning is not the main coordinator of the concert, he said he is putting his full effort behind it and working to maximize the aid the concert generates for the McGuire family.

“It is humbling to see a community come together to help a neighbor in their time of need,” Swenning said. “There is no place I would want to raise a family other than the Comsewogue community.”

The silent auction will consist of gift baskets and guitars autographed by Elefante and Chalfant.

Assigned seat tickets can be purchased at www.comsewoguehs.seatyourself.biz. Special tickets are also for sale for a meet and greet and dinner with the band, with food provided by Wahlburgers. Tickets for the meet and greet dinner are being sold by Axis Church, which can be reached by emailing info@axisny.org. The event begins at 7 p.m. at Comsewogue High School. Standard admission tickets will also be sold at the door.

Ibuki Iwasaki, Eli Doyle, Luke Begley, Charles Clark finish atop their classes

By Anthony Petriello

Ibuki Iwasaki. Photo by Alex Petroski

At the conclusion of the 2018 school year at Earl L. Vandermeulen and Comsewogue high schools, four graduates stood at the top of their respective classes. These extraordinarily talented students include valedictorian Ibuki Iwasaki and salutatorian Eli Doyle from Port Jeff and valedictorian Luke Begley and salutatorian Charles Clark from Comsewogue.

At Earl L. Vandermeulen, Iwasaki finished the year at the top of the class with a 101.4 cumulative grade point average. Iwasaki was president of the National Honor Society and a member of the Mathletes team, for which she competed in more than 20 competitions, and won the All-County title for the 2017-18 school year.

“I am self-motivated,” she said of her academic drive. “My mother trusts me to seek out challenges.”

She attributed her success to her natural curiosity.

“I like to learn and try out new things whenever I can,” she said.

Eli Doyle. Photo by Alex Petroski

Iwasaki was also a member of the Science Olympiad team, where she was a first-place and third-place winner in various competitions. The team travels to universities near and far to compete against other high schools in a sports-style science tournament sponsored by organizations like NASA, Lockheed Martin and the United States Air Force. Iwasaki had also been a player on the varsity tennis team since eighth grade and was undefeated individually in the league this year. She is a National Merit Scholarship recipient, an AP Scholar with Distinction, and had earned a perfect score for three years at Level IV NYSSMA on the violin. Iwasaki will be attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall but said she has not declared an official major.

“I want to take advantage of all the opportunities MIT has to offer,” she said.

Eli Doyle finished high school with a 100.9 GPA. Doyle said he is grateful to the high school faculty for allowing him to achieve greatness.

Luke Begley. Photo by Alex Petroski

“I appreciate the opportunity my school has given me to achieve what I have achieved,” he said.

In addition to being an exemplary student, Doyle excelled on the field as well as the stage, having played tennis since ninth grade, earning honors from the Suffolk County Junior Tennis League, and working as part of the stage crew for school plays, musicals and concerts. He also volunteered at Jefferson’s Ferry Life Plan Community in South Setauket and spent his time with the residents, earning him the Presidential Volunteer Service Award. Like Iwasaki, he was also a member of the Science Olympiad squad, finishing in first place in both optics and astronomy competitions. He was a member and officer of the Student Organization for all four years of his high school career and had the opportunity to participate in the Simmons Summer Research program at Stony Brook University where he studied ferroelectric fluid, which is a type of magnetic fluid that can be used in many applications from computer hard drives to rocket fuel. Doyle will be attending Brown University this fall where he will study engineering physics.

At Comsewogue, Luke Begley was named valedictorian, finishing with a 101.5 GPA. Begley is a music-minded scholar as well as a scholar-athlete. He was a member of the NYSSMA All-State Orchestra on the double bass and played midfield on the Comsewogue varsity soccer team. He attributed his academic success to his parents and his teachers.

Charles Clark. Photo by Alex Petroski

“They always motivated me and created an environment where I could succeed, and my teachers always knew how to keep me interested and engaged,” he said.

Begley was also the president of the French National Honor Society, captain of the Academic Quiz Bowl team and an AP Scholar with Distinction during his junior year. He credited his drive to succeed to his close friends.

“We keep a good balance of competition and cooperation where we compete to be the best academically but still help each other when it is necessary,” he said.

Begley will be attending Princeton University this fall where he will be double majoring in physics and music.

Comsewogue salutatorian Charles Clark had a 101.3 GPA to wrap up his senior year. He could not be reached for comment.

The Comsewogue High School Class of 2018 said its goodbyes June 21 at the annual graduation ceremony June 21 on the football field. Valedictorian Luke Begley and Salutatorian Charles Clark addressed the crowd in attendance and the class of nearly 300.

Comsewogue High School students clean headstones at Calverton National Cemetery May 30 as part of Joe's Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Stories of Comsewogue School District students and staff engaging in acts of kindness are hardly rare, but an event conceived by a teacher and several students carried out May 30 somehow raised the bar.

High school teacher Andrew Harris said he thought of the idea of a full day of community service projects last school year, and in talking with some of his colleagues, a larger idea was born. By this school year, the event had a name — Joe’s Day of Service, after Superintendent Joe Rella — and students were making pitches in Harris’ class for how the student body should spend the day.

“There are major problems everywhere — addiction, depression — and the thing is, they say one of the best things to do is to help other people,” Harris said in an interview at Brookhaven Town Hall, where the students were recognized for their efforts by the town board June 14. “I wanted the students to understand that, because they don’t always have the opportunity. I wanted them to get a taste of that just in one day and understand that when you give to others you feel rich.”

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Ninth-grade students Julia Ratkiewicz and Rachel Plunkett proposed the idea of visiting Calverton National Cemetery, where members of the United States armed forces are laid to rest, to spend the day cleaning gravestones. By May 30, nearly 200 Comsewogue High School students headed to the Calverton cemetery — on seven buses donated for use that day by Suffolk Transportation Service.

“I was in such a good mood, my mom asked, ‘Are you sure you were out cleaning gravestones?’” Julia said.

Rachel, who said she and Julia thought of the idea because they both have veterans in their family and wanted to show their appreciation, said she never imagined their small idea presented in class as a way to give back would turn into a districtwide day of service.

“It’s just the least we could do for them since they did so much for us,” she said.

Eleventh-grader John Quartararo, who also helped organize the trip, called his experience at the cemetery a beautiful day, and marveled at the mood and response from his classmates who participated on the trip.

While the high school students were at Calverton, other Comsewogue kids were at Save-A-Pet animal shelter in Port Jefferson Station, cleaning cages and spending time with the rescued animals. John F. Kennedy Middle School students visited Stony Brook University Hospital to sing in the lobby, then went over to the Long Island State Veterans Home on SBU’s campus to sing patriotic songs and spend time with the veterans living at the facility. Others collected toiletries to donate to the homeless. Some painted rocks as part of The Kindness Rocks Project, an initiative which calls on people to paint inspiring messages on rocks and leave them in places where they will be found by someone in need of a boost.

Comsewogue students are recognized during the June 14 Brookhaven Town board meeting. Photo by Alex Petroski

Local businesses even got wind of Joe’s Day of Service and contributed to the cause. Chick-fil-A, Wahlburgers, Bagelicious Café, Walmart, McDonald’s and Applebee’s Grill and Bar in Miller Place all offered support in one way or another.

Harris and the students involved each credited Rella for setting the tone at Comsewogue and in the community.

“All I did was go to the events and just get blown away at every single one,” Rella said. “It was an unbelievable show on the part of our students. I’m better for having been here. I’m a better person for just having been at Comsewogue. And that’s the way it is.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) commended Harris and the students involved for their efforts.

“I think it’s important that we highlight all of these [acts] because on one day, they provided all of this service to our community, to those in need,” she said. “I just want to say thank you so much for all that you do, Comsewogue, and keep up the great work.”

File photo

Preparing for an emergency is at the top of minds in the education world these days. Parents in the Port Jefferson, Comsewogue and Three Village school districts can sleep well, as their kids’ bus company had a unique opportunity to put its preparedness to the test.

Suffolk Transportation Service was among a small group of bus companies in the United States selected by the federal Transportation Security Administration to participate in a training program meant to assess and improve coordination between school bus operators and other agencies in emergency situations. The three local districts are among 16 in Suffolk County that use STS, and about 80 percent of those participated in the training exercise, according to the company’s Vice President of Operations Ray Grimaldi. The day-long training exercise was conducted by representatives from TSA, an agency of the federal Department of Homeland Security, at STS’s training facility in Bay Shore in May. The six-hour exercise featured simulations of actual emergencies, like one in which a bus driver found an explosive device on a school bus and had to decide on courses of action as the intensity of the simulation steadily increased. Grimaldi called the exercise powerful and comprehensive.

“It was actually awesome — it’s so realistic it’s crazy,” Grimaldi said. “It allowed us an opportunity to see how good we are, where we need to improve.”

Grimaldi said the company is still waiting on an official assessment from TSA on its preparedness, but agents conducting the exercise told him it was the best training session the agency has conducted to date. He said part of the reason STS was selected was because about eight years ago, the company volunteered to undergo a voluntary baseline audit by Homeland Security, which Grimaldi said yielded the highest score attainable.

“Our top priority as a school bus operator is student safety,” STS President John Corrado said in a statement. “STS is pleased to be selected to spearhead this training program in Suffolk County, which helped all participants enhance their coordination with other agencies to keep students safe.”

Port Jefferson School District’s Facilities Administrator Fred Koelbel was in attendance for a portion of the exercise.

“It was very interesting, and I think an illuminating exercise,” he said. “It really gave everybody some food for thought. Suffolk Transportation Service is on the cutting edge of so many things. We always say that the students’ day starts when he or she gets on the bus, and they embrace that.”

Local emergency responders including Suffolk County Police Department; the New York State Bus Contractor’s Association; and administrators, security and transportation personnel from the bus company’s districts were on hand to observe and participate in the day’s events.

Grimaldi said STS expects to see the results of the exercise in about two weeks.

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.

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