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Comsewogue School District

There was much finality to this year’s school graduations at Comsewogue school district. As high school seniors got ready to leave for new horizons, superintendents Joe Rella will soon be leaving his position. 

At Comsewogue High School, as the evening sun crept toward the horizon June 26

, blocking in the football field with the cooling shade of trees, as the students were graduating so was Rella, or at least that is how he said he saw it.

Rella was in for his own surprise, as he was brought on stage alongside incoming superintendent Jennifer Quinn and members of the school board. In front of the stage, graduates held up a sign reading Dr. Joseph V. Rella Performing Arts Center. Quinn announced the high school auditorium would now be sporting Rella’s name.

“Clearly you’re a lot smarter than I am. It took you four years to graduate high school, it took me almost 26,” Rella said, speaking to the students with a 2019 tassel on his hat. “Remember, wherever you go and whatever you do, you will always be one of us.”

Steven Nielsen, who lost his 17-year-old son James from a rare form of cancer a little less than a year ago, spoke to the graduating class about his son and what values he could share even after his untimely death.

“I think James is a good inspiration of how to live,” he said. “He was an amazing person, he was smart, he was handsome, he was extremely kind and unbelievably empathetic. Remember that, be kind, use that as an example. Think of other people in everything that you do.” 

Underneath each of the graduates’ chairs, stuck into the rough metal seats, was a Pokémon card. These, Nielsen said, were there to represent each of them had the opportunity to “evolve.”

He and his wife Jean, both teachers in the Comsewogue School District, accepted a diploma in honor of their son, with Steven Nielsen holding the cap and gown his son would have worn to graduation.

To cap off Comsewogue’s graduation ceremony, as the scenery got dark, fireworks rose above the trees of a distant field, and all the newly graduated students stared up at the sky. Unknown to high school principal Joe Coniglione, the field lights would take several minutes to warm up, and so the graduates cheered in the dark, hats flying through the air like tasseled stars.

The efforts of Craig den Hartog beautify local hamlets year after year after year

Craig den Hartog in front of his truck often seen by the side of Old Town Road. photo from PJS/T Chamber of Commerce

Craig den Hartog, a Terryville resident, was only a neon ink blot on the side of Old Town Road. A hunched figure in the weeds, his body bent over, his head low to the dirt, he could have been praying. 

A sign for Old Town Blooms in front of his planted daffodils. photo from Old Town Blooms Facebook

On the edge of the road, near to passing cars streaming past upward of 50 miles per hour, den Hartog was in his own sanctuary. The side of the road was his chapel that he has cultivated for upward of 10 years. In that time, he has planted tulips and bushes alike, one to keep the poison ivy and other invasive plants down, the other to make the corners along the road striking to anybody who takes the time to look at them.

Den Hartog is the owner of Emerald Magic Lawn Care landscaping company and the founder of Old Town Blooms, a community group that looks to maintain beautification efforts along Old Town Road and into the rest of the local hamlets. 

“You got to try and work with, and against, Mother Nature,” said den Hartog as he attacked the weeds along Old Town Road the morning of May 18. One particular stretch was choked with poison ivy and litter. 

The founder of Old Town Blooms has made it a personal mission to clean up his local area, though he is an old hand at landscaping. It’s been nearly a decade since he started, but his mission of beautification continues undaunted.

In numerous places the Terryville resident’s flowers bloom — daffodils and tulips. In the Steven J. Crowley Memorial Park, all the flowers that shine bright with oranges and purples are thanks to his constant efforts.

The Old Town Blooms project started nearly a decade ago, with him and neighbors having an “attitude adjustment hour,” calling themselves lawn lizards where a bunch of them would go to neighbors’ houses to do a specific piece of lawn maintenance. That was when the neighbors started to see just how dirty and overgrown Old Town Road had become with weeds, garbage and construction debris, including a growing pile of bricks. After complaining to Brookhaven town and not getting a response, they realized they were on their own. 

Since then, Old Town Blooms has planted thousands of flowers along the course of the road from Coram into Terryville and East Setauket. Den Hartog has become notorious in the area for his cleanup efforts and his attempts to get his neighbors involved. Having extra flower bulbs on hand, he has stuck them in his neighbors’ mailboxes and has felt great pride in seeing those flowers bloom in the beds in front of their homes.

Now he is the owner of Holtsville-based Emerald Magic Lawn Care Inc., where he does soil testing and diagnosis. He said those skills work great toward keeping the area safe from dangerous plants, as such things like mulching and which plants prevent weeds is often
very misunderstood.

“A big part of my job is not just diagnosing the problems in the landscape but also educating the client,” he said. 

Though the flowers present a united and vibrant resolution to beautification, many of his efforts go unnoticed. Plants that may seem like natural growth are actually specifically planted by the veteran horticulturist. Plants like purple coneflower and sedum are his “volunteers,” or the plants others would just throw away if they become overgrown. They help stem the tide of weeds, and he has to make sure that Brookhaven’s subcontractors don’t come in and mow his preventative plants. Since the program started, he has spent thousands of dollars of his own money on plants to bring life to the two-lane road.

It’s not just Old Town Road that has received his touch but the surrounding community. Joe Coniglione, the principal of Comsewogue High School, said Hartog helped with beautification of the school, sprucing the area up with flowers of gold and blue, the school colors. 

“You got to try and work with, and against, Mother Nature.”

— Craig den Hartog

“Him having spread that around this community is really uplifting,” Coniglione said. “His kids went through Comsewogue, they are long gone, but he is still involved in the community and the school… he’s just a great person.”

Den Hartog’s daughter, Michelle, lives in Queens and works at the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Huntington as a teacher, but she tries to come out once or twice a year to help her father. Nearly 10 years ago, when the work started, she could only think how simple a fix it was, and she has started to do the same kind of cleanup and bloom plantings with the children at her school.

“Even starting at young ages, it’s so important to teach taking care of your community,” she said. “Every year, coming down this road in March and April and seeing all the daffodils it makes me so happy — just the seven miles — I’ll just do the drive just to see the blooms.”

Joan Nickeson, the community liaison for the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce had met den Hartog years ago in the early spring, surprised by the sight of bright yellow daffodils popping up along Old Town Road. The Terryville resident would become involved with the chamber and was instrumental in area beautification, helping to remove invasive vines on trees and to maintain the chamber-owned train car at the corner of Route 112.

“At home we call him for our green issues,” she said. “He and my husband Rich could ‘talk trees’ for hours … We are indebted to him.”

Den Hartog has a passion for getting others involved, calling all who help him in his efforts “bloomers.” This passion for beautification has extended well past the confines of Old Town Road. Debbie Engelhardt, the director of the Comsewogue Public Library, said the library organized a community cleanup in conjunction with the overall Great Brookhaven Cleanup. Den Hartog was there offering his expertise, and she said they will be working with him in the future.

“We are indebted to him.”

— Joan Nickeson

“Craig’s contribution was cutting the ‘mother vines’ of the poison ivy plants endangering many of the trees along Terryville Road,” Engelhardt said. “I was amazed at how many trees had been enveloped; most of us drive by and don’t think about these things. I’m glad the community has Craig out there, so we can keep as many trees healthy as possible.”

Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) has seen the work of the Terryville horticulturist on multiple occasions. 

“He has always played an active role in our community,” Cartright said in an email. “Mr. den Hartog works hard as both a local business owner and on his volunteer endeavor, Old Town Blooms. Craig’s dedication to rallying our community and organizing local beautification efforts is truly commendable and a gift to the Port Jefferson Station-Terryville community.”

However, cleaning up such a vast area with himself and a few of the occasional volunteers does begin to become a mental rock climb. He admitted he does occasionally procrastinate on parts of the project, especially considering its vast size, not to mention his own business and the work he does at his house. But that’s when the script flips, once work begins, the momentum carries him through.

“As soon as I start, I start enjoying myself,” he said. “If you want something done, you just have to start.”

Comsewogue valedictorian Ankita Katukota and salutatorian Jessica Sperling. Photos from CUFSD

Comsewogue High School announced the top students of the 2019 graduating class are seniors Ankita Katukota and Jessica Sperling, who have been named valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively.

Katukota finished her high school career with a 101.43 weighted GPA. She served as the varsity tennis captain and interned at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. She was a member of the jazz band, Brookhaven youth court, Women in Science and Engineering and Athletes Helping Athletes. 

She will attend University of California, Los Angeles and plans to study pre-med. 

“I’m really excited to go to UCLA and ready to try something new,” she said. “The school is really well-known for its pre-med program.”

Katukota shared some advice to students who are heading into high school. 

“I would just say keep working hard, get involved in extracurricular activities and keep striving for what you want,” she said.

Sperling, as salutatorian, finished her high school career with a 100.2 weighted GPA. During her time at Comsewogue, Sperling served as   T.A.S.K. club member, student government president, Comsewogue Board of Education student representative, Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association student representative, Spanish honor society vice president and yearbook editor-in-chief. 

Sperling will attend Binghamton University in the fall and study political science. 

“I’m really excited to go Binghamton,” she said. “I’m really interested in law and hope to go to law school [in the future] and possibly go into government work.”

Sperling said she is looking forward to continuing doing work in the community and being active in campus clubs and organizations at Binghamton. 

The senior also shared some advice to students heading into high school. 

“Have a good balance between school and your personal life,” she said. “I think it is really important to have time for yourself and enjoy your high school experience. Before you know it it’s over.”

Joe Rella reflects on his career, his fight over state tests and how music fits into all of it

Retiring Superintendent Joe Rella and incoming Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

Joe Rella, the soon-to-be retired superintendent of the Comsewogue Central School District once, nearly 30 years ago, found himself without a job.

He was in business administration for close to 15 years, saying he had been “on top of the world,” before his company, the last private electric supplier in New York, closed. After he lost his job he did everything he could, from a paper route in the early morning to playing a local church organ, just to add a little extra money into the pot. His late wife, Jackie, went part-time in college and started working at Mercy Hospital. That’s when he saw it, an ad for a part-time job.

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

“I couldn’t even say the name,” he said in a sit-down interview less than a month before his final high school graduation ceremony June 26. “Com-sew-ogue,” he said it phonetically. 

He lived in Farmingdale at the time, but he grew up in Flatbush Brooklyn, where they used to call this area of Long Island “East Jesus,” because “only God lived out here”, there were so few people.

The job was part-time music teacher, where he would be accompanist to a middle school music teacher for a salary of $28,000. Over time, this part-time instructor would become a full-time music teacher, the high school principal, and eventually work his way up to superintendent of the entire district.

Jennifer Quinn, the current assistant superintendent and person tapped to become the next head of school starting in September, said in her 13 years of experience with the district, this climb from music teacher to superintendent was rare. She had never seen it or heard of its like since.

Rella said the jump from music teacher to a district leader wasn’t so much of a huge leap, especially considering his more-than-decade- long experience in business administration, yet he likened the practicality of music to running a school, helping one interact with people, and taking mistakes in stride.

“Because one thing you learn, there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s a springboard to your next part of the piece,” he said.

Quinn described herself as following in Rella’s footsteps. When the retiring super moved from high school principal to assistant superintendent, she became principal. When Rella moved into the big chair, he tapped her to be one of his assistant superintendents.

“It’s not a big shift, because all the programs we’ve done over these years, she’s responsible for,” Rella said.

Quinn has been encouraged to lead discussions and programs, with Rella there to offer advice.

“The fact is he always puts other people before his own ego,” she said. “Because in most places it’s close of business one day and then the next person starts. He’s purposely stepped back and given me the opportunity to start to do things and he’s here to guide me.”

They both described several necessary components for a good district leader. One is to communicate back to residents, and not wait days to respond to emails or phone calls. Another is to “be present,” to have your face and name be known not only by teachers but by students.

“They need to know who you are — kids do, parents do, everybody does” he said. “Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

To say the school district has been inspired by Superintendent Joe Rella would be an understatement. Unlike many other districts where one could be hard-pressed to find people who know the name of their head of schools, the name of Rella often brings an immediate impression. Rella has become a rallying cry for supporting student-first initiatives and programs based on a general idea of “kindness.” Just one example is Joe’s Day of Service, designed by special needs teacher Andrew Harris. 

Beyond Comsewogue, Rella became a name on the lips of New York State officials and even beyond, all due to standardized testing initiatives put forward on both the federal and state levels.

In 2013, the superintendent was at the forefront of protests against Common Core State Standards (implemented late in 2012), writing a letter to New York State officials asking them to address concerns or remove him from office. The letter went viral, and later that year Rella was at the head of a rally held at Comsewogue High School decrying Common Core. He said it became apparent immediately after the first standards were released to school districts that there would be no way to test the exams and offer criticism to the state’s program plans, adding letters sent to all New York superintendents suggested the state expected only a third of students would pass this first round of testing.

“We couldn’t accept what was happening to our children,” he said. “If a teacher comes in and says, ‘I’m only expecting a third of my class to pass this year,’ I would say, ‘Why don’t you throw your keys on the desk.’”

“Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

— Joe Rella

Though it’s been several years, the state’s testing standards still put Rella on a rant, though now he sees the district moving beyond it. Comsewogue implemented a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum for groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders. Last year the district relished statistics that said those who were involved in PBL had better overall Regents test scores than their contemporaries, though he said the state was not interested in any kind of replacement for standardized testing with PBL. Instead the district has looked to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools, from which they were granted accreditation in 2017.

The superintendent continued that, since the huge outcry has boiled down into a low simmer, parents have been making the choice for their own children whether they would take the tests. 

“They haven’t budged,” he said.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he has told TBR News Media previously a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision to retire. 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.

Now, he’s living with his son and his grandchildren, whose little shoes will soon be running around the Comsewogue school district. He’s looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren while working on his piano and gardening skills. 

But while he will still be close to the district, Quinn said the legacy he left will be attempted to be replicated in the years to come.

“You will never be punished for not being perfect, you will be helped, you will be coached,” she said.

Rella again likened his job to music, and the drive to improve that is always at the forefront of practice, because what is school if not practice for life?

“You’re learning a piece of music — brand- new — you don’t know it, you’re not going to play it perfect right away, but what you do know is with careful practice, you’re going to get better,” he said.

Students got to interact with therapy dogs before the start of their exams. Photo from Andrew Harris

In the Comsewogue High School cafeteria, where the air would usually becomes tense with the anticipation of final exams at the end of the school year, signs were posted on empty chairs during regents week which read, “Come pet me… and chill.”

School Social Worker Taylor Zummo said that the dogs had an incredible impact on the students. Photo from Andrew Harris

Quickly those empty chairs filled up and lines started to form behind them. Sitting in the now filled chair was a student who would be taking their regents within the next few minutes. Opposite them was a therapy dog and it’s handler, both welcoming the student to relieve a little stress with a friendly canine.

“They have a calming effect on people,” said Bill Bodkin, a retired teacher and administrator at the high school. “The animals benefit just as much as the humans do. Medically, it lowers blood pressure and the pulse rate of the person petting them.”

Bodkin’s dog, Corey, was trained with the Smithtown-based nonprofit Guide Dog Foundation, and together they often visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

The idea of bringing in dogs before the regents exams was welcomed by high school Principal Joseph Coniglione. The dogs were an instant hit, with students gravitated to the dogs and some stayed with them up until the instant they went to take their exams.

Several other therapy dogs were sent in from Dog Works in Holtsville, where they go through rigorous training to become certified.

“These dogs are very unique, and not all of them make it through the process.” Said Deb Feliziani, who works for Holbrook-based Dog Works and is the owner and trainer for the hounds Gabby, Bette and Comet, all who levelled their training to aid the high schoolers.

In addition to the therapy dogs, district teachers said students were taught meditation and breathing techniques to help lower stress and anxiety before testing.

“As students waited to take their regents exams, in a room that is typically filled with nervousness and fear, there was a lighthearted energy that took over as they interacted with the therapy dogs,” said Taylor Zummo, a high school social worker. “Between the smiles on their faces and the laughs of excitement, it was clear that these dogs had an incredible impact on the students. There is something quite powerful that happens when dogs are in a room, and it was apparent that the students could feel it too.”

Tom King, a special education teacher, has been taking his own certified therapy dog named Bailey, a Labradoodle, to class for years. King and Bailey walked around to students who had pre-testing jitters and were quickly surrounded by them all wanting to pet Bailey.

From left, retired teacher Bill Bodkin, Teacher Dave Hughes and Principal Joe Coniglione said the dogs lightened the mood for students taking the regents. Photo from Andrew Harris

Overall, the visits were a huge success, said Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher and advocate for therapy and service dogs who helped get the dogs to the high school.

“I saw many of my students light up when a dog comes to visit our class,” he said. “I especially see this for students with Autism and decided to make it a part of my curriculum. You would be amazed if you saw the level of excellence these students rise to when they know a dog is visiting.”

Harris added he has been training dogs for years, though he had taken advice from Feliziani to travel to Canada to find the “perfect dog.” This young hound named Ramsey has learned to alert people with medical emergencies and assist with walking up and down stairs. At only 11 months he can climb ladders, complete obstacle courses and assist people. At home, the dog acts a protector and house pet to him and his family.

“He has been in training since the day he was born and has taken rides on various forms of public transportation and socialized with people and other animals,” Harris said. “I think it helps me be a better teacher because you continually learn positive reinforcement.”

Teachers at the high school said they expect to utilize the dogs in the future in the school district.

Information provided by Andrew Harris

The Port Jefferson school board at an April 2019 meeting. Photo by Kyle Barr
Comsewogue Union Free School District

Two seats are up for Comsewogue’s school board, and both remain uncontested.

Comsewogue’s budget vote and trustee election will occur May 21 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Comsewogue High School.

Comsewogue board of education member and graduate Rob DeStefano

Robert DeStefano

Current trustee Robert DeStefano is looking forward to continuing along with the board, all the while continuing on without longtime superintendent Joe Rella at the helm of the district.

The trustee said he is “born and raised,” in the Comsewogue school district, and has lived in the district for more than 40 years. He is finishing his ninth year on the board and is looking for his fourth term on the board.

“It’s a special place to be, it’s a special place to grow up, it’s a wonderful place to raise a family, and I’m just proud to serve the community,” he said.

With the outgoing Rella and incoming superintendent Jennifer Quinn, DeStefano said he expects it to be a smooth transition.

“As a student of his, and having worked with him, it’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “Dr. Quinn’s been in this district for so much of the same time, and her accomplishments in the district speak for themselves.”

DeStefano has two kids enrolled in the district and holds degrees in business marketing and business management from New York University Stern School of Business and holds a master’s of business administration degree from Long Island University. He currently works as a product marketing manager at IT company ivanti.

He said he is looking forward to finally beginning work with the $32 million bond proposal, which was passed by residents in a 2018 vote. This summer the bond will begin to address parking lots in the two elementary schools and will improve athletic fields and address other exterior building infrastructure.

“It will allow us to make investments in the district in a variety of ways, in a very fiscally responsible way in the next several years,” he said. 

He said he sees the new budget as fiscally responsible, with the tax levy rise a full percentage point lower than the cap. He said it is especially important, because as he sees it, the economy will eventually take a turn for the worse, following the cycle of boom and bust.

“You can’t just go to the cap because it’s there, you have to be responsible with the funds we get from our residents,” he said. “My time on the board started as we were just trying to pull out of the last recession. I don’t have a crystal ball to say how bad the next one will be, but I know there is going to be one, you don’t need a crystal ball to tell that.” 

Continuing disagreement with New York State over Common Core, DeStefano said he wished there could be more direct dialogue with leadership in Albany. While he appreciated the efforts of representatives like New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), he said the district will continue to respect parents’ decisions to opt out.

Francisca Alabau-Blatter file photo

Francisca Alabau-Blatter 

Trustee Francisca Alabau-Blatter is running again unopposed for her seat on the school board.

Alabau-Blatter did not respond to requests for comment.

Originally from Spain, she moved to Long Island at 13 years old. She has three kids in Comsewogue and teaches Spanish in the Central Islip school district. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art education and a master’s degree in computer graphics.

Port Jefferson School District

Three seats are currently up for vote in the Port Jefferson School District, with two set for a three-year term commencing July 1, 2019 and ending June 30, 2022, and one a two-year term making up for the unexpired term of Adam DeWitt, from May 21, 2019 to June 30, 2020.  With two incumbents running again for their positions, two newcomers are also hoping to offer their services to the school board.

The Port Jefferson trustee election and budget vote will occur May 21 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Port Jefferson High School.

Ryan Biedenkapp

Ryan Biedenkapp

Ryan Biedenkapp came onto the board last year after Adam DeWitt, then elected to his third term, resigned in August 2018. The then-board voted 4-1 to bring Biedenkapp onto the board after he ran for it in May that year, and now he is seeking a full term in his current seat.

A nine-year resident of Port Jefferson, the candidate said he has three kids enrolled in the district, a 15-year-old and two 13-year-olds. His son, Parker, has autism.

He currently works in the biotech industry in the sales department for biopharmaceutical company AbbVie. 

With having kids of differing ages and experiences, Biedenkapp said he’s able to keep in mind the many young people in the district, from those on sports teams to those with special needs.

“I think having somebody with a broad range of knowledge of what’s offered — what’s available, what’s good, what’s working, what’s not, what do we have that we’re really proud of that we want to keep, what do we think we need to do a little better with,” he said.

Biedenkapp said he, along with the rest of the board, was active and engaged in this year’s search for a superintendent to replace Paul Casciano, who will now be leaving in October. 

“You have to drop your ego, and you have to look for a compromise,” he said. “If you can come at it with a logical, rational act, always placing quality education for your children as true north, then you can come up with some really good decisions.”

While the trustee pointed to the board’s work on the current budget as fiscally sound, he said that with the downvote of the 2017 bond referendum, there needs to be a significant look into school’s infrastructure.

In the wake of the settlement between the Town of Brookhaven and Long Island Power Authority, which will reduce its tax payments to the district over time by 50 percent, the board has had discussions about consolidating or removing school programs with low enrollment. Biedenkapp said it will be a hard decision process going into the future, there are some classes with low turnout that still require a full state-certified teacher to be present.

“When you look at it down at a micro level, it shows were not doing the best we can for all our students,” he said.

He added it’s important the board show their support toward teachers, especially when it comes to Common Core testing or mandated tests that the board has had discussions of recently.

Ellen Boehm

Ellen Boehm

Ellen Boehm, a 26-year resident of Port Jefferson and graduate of Port Jefferson High School, said she is running again for her seven-year seat to help the district deal with issues such as the outcome of the LIPA settlement.

“In consideration of what’s finally been resolved with the LIPA issue, that we have a glide path, as a district and community we have to identify what we want to keep or strengthen in programs, and what’s really not important to us,” Boehm said. “We have an exceptional education program. As a community we have to decide what we have to spend money on when things get tight, and perhaps they won’t get tight … we have to have some very candid conversations.”

The candidate said she has agreed with the incoming superintendent Jessica Schmettan, who said she hopes to resurrect the budget advisory committee, allowing residents to sit down and discuss what will and what won’t be cut in future budgets. She said there are residents who need to be able to talk about the school budget who might be retired or not have students within the school district. She said the district will also need to pay attention to the infrastructure of its schools and grounds and pay attention to what may need to get fixed in the future.

“We all have different interests, and we all need to work together to see that we have a great, stable school,” she said.

Both her daughters are graduates of the school district. 

She said the strengths of the school district are its diverse and in-depth education programs and its wide base of extracurricular activities. 

“We don’t have a lot of wasted spending in the budget,” she said. “The past boards have been pretty fiscally responsible.”

She added the current board works well together, and whenever there is disagreement, it is always handled professionally and openly.

“There’s many times we don’t all come from the same thought process, and the open exchange of ideas and the conversations we have are great,” she said. “It’s not a board that spends time fighting. We all have that common interest to do what’s best for the community.”

Randi DeWitt

Randi DeWitt

Randi DeWitt, 43, said she grew up in Port Jefferson, and while she moved away first for college and later for work, it was its quaint setting that drew her back home, where she has now lived for close to 40 years. She now has two kids in the school district, one in eighth grade, and the other in ninth grade, and she said she felt it was time to run for school board now that her kids are a little more independent.

“It’s a great way to volunteer and to give back to my community,” she said. “I grew up in a family that always encouraged community service.”

The trustee candidate has been a teacher for several years at Mount Sinai Elementary School, teaching first-graders. She has been the designated inclusion teacher in the district for several years and teaches both typical students and students with special needs. 

She said that her education experience, along with having attended schools in Port Jefferson from kindergarten through 12th grade, gives her insight in what needs to be done for the district, especially in terms of the ongoing budget changes the district will experience due to the fallout from the LIPA settlement.

“It gives me some insight and vision for the school district,” she said. “Ultimately I would love to preserve the programs we currently have, while also managing and realizing these fiscal challenges that are going to lie ahead due to LIPA.”

While the district has had discussions about the need to either consolidate or cut programs with low enrollment to stay under budget, DeWitt said while she would love to preserve as many programs as possible, she would like to be there to help determine that important programs don’t get slashed.

“Being a teacher, and having the best interest of Port Jefferson, I would hope any board member running for school board has the needs of the students who attend the schools at heart,” she said. “I would like to be part of that decision-making process.”

Mia Farina

Mia Farina

Mia Farina, a seven-year Port Jeff resident, is throwing her hat in the ring for the second year in a row, saying she could bring a fresh perspective on school security.

Farina has lived in Port Jefferson for seven years, having spent two years in itself trying to find a place to live in the village, saying it was the locally renowned school district that spawned her desire to help raise her now 7-year-old son.

She said her main concern is giving the community a voice on the school board and getting them more involved.

“Everyone talks budget, budget, but my concern is — are the children being lost because we talk about budget every meeting,” she said. 

The candidate has spent 21 years in law enforcement, and currently works as a detective for the New York City Police Department. She said there are several things the district can do to enhance the security of its buildings. While emphasis in Port Jefferson, and many other surrounding districts, has been put on security vestibules and identification card systems, she said she would hope to emphasize teaching kids to notice problem signs and teaching them about warning signs and what to do in an emergency situation. She said it can be taught in a fun and engaging way. 

“Kids are already inside the school, and the vestibule isn’t going to help protect those kids that are already inside the school,” Farina said. “I would like to implement more hands-on with the children, so that they can notice things, without scaring them … It’s being proactive instead of reactive.”

While Farina admitted she is not as adept with finances as other members of the board, she said the effect of LIPA, and the talk about cutting certain classes or programming, has her concerned. If current students enjoy certain classes, she said, it should only be fair that children like her 7-year-old should get that same opportunity down the road.

“My concern is keeping programs or helping keep from cutting programs when things come down to the wire,” she said. “I would like to sit down, you tell me what the budget is, and let us find ways to keep things, combine things together, or get grants or assistance from other school districts you can share … I need to know that there are other things being looked at.”

This post has been amended from when it was originally published in the May 9 edition of the Port Times Record amending the number of seats contested for the Port Jefferson School District.

File photo

Comsewogue school district representatives said they focused on keeping increases low while dealing with a decrease in school enrollment.

The Comsewogue Union Free School District has proposed a $93,974,755 budget for the 2019-20 school year, an increase of $2,027,025 from last year. 

Included in the budget is a proposed tax levy, the amount of money the district raises from taxes, of $57,279,755, a 2 percent increase of $1,140,786, below this year’s tax levy cap of 3 percent.

One of the main foci of the budget was for child mental health awareness.

“Everybody we met with, everyone was in agreement, students’ mental health and well-being — it was important to put more money into the budget for social and emotional learning and mental health issues,” assistant superintendent Susan Casali said.

One increase came in the form of pupil personnel services from $3,322,061 to $3,678,447. PPL aids students with special needs. 

While the district experienced a total enrollment decline of 40 students, the number of students with special needs has increased, according to the assistant superintendent, and each of those young people is more expensive overall than a typical student. In addition, the district is hiring one additional social worker and a new social worker teacher’s assistant.

“That’s why you don’t see the budget going down — there are students that cost us a lot more money,” Casali said. 

Other major increases include a 27 percent and $696,209 increase in debt services, but this is offset slightly by a $570,000 or 33 percent decrease in interfund transfers.

In terms of state aid, the district received a moderate increase from $31,800,000 to $32,700,000. 

In addition to the budget vote, the district is asking residents to vote on proposition 2, which would establish a capital reserve fund. This allows Comsewogue to set aside money for future capital projects, when it will require district residents again to take money out of the reserve. Casali said this is funded through unallocated funds the district has by the end of the year, and the fund does not increase taxes.

In the meantime, the district is going ahead with the first phase of its bond project; bids were scheduled to go out to companies in April. District voters approved the $32 million bond last year, which the district said would go up in several phases. The first phase, costing about $5.8 million, will complete work on the parking lots at the Boyle Road Elementary School and the Terryville Elementary School, along with the creation of security vestibules in all school buildings and adding new locks to doors throughout the high school building.

The district is lauding its Moody’s bond rating of AA2, and expects to have to keep up on payments for the next three years in order to maintain that rating.

Comsewogue will host its budget hearing May 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the district office board room. The budget vote will take place May 21, in Comsewogue High School from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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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