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Comsewogue School District

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.

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

By Alex Petroski

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

Corey Prinz

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Swenning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Rennard

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

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

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

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

May vote will also feature $32M bond proposition for district wide capital projects

Comsewogue school board President John Swenning and Superintendent Joe Rella, along with the rest of the board and administration, have begun 2018-19 budget preparations. File photo by Alex Petroski

Taxpayers in Comsewogue School District have two important choices to make at the polls May 15.

The board of education unanimously adopted its proposed $91,947,730 budget for the 2018-19 school year during an April 12 meeting. The board also voted back in March to add a second proposition to the ballot to seek permission from the community to borrow $32 million over a 15-year span, with about $3 million in interest, to execute more than 100 repairs and upgrade projects across the district’s six buildings.

If passed, next year’s budget would be about $2 million more than the current year, with contractual, retirement and health insurance increases for faculty and staff being the primary driver of the increase. The higher costs will be covered in large part by a 2.2 percent tax levy increase, a 3.2 percent increase in state aid, and a slight reduction in full-time employees due to several retirements.

Bond

$32 million

$3 million in interest

15-year life

Would fund upgrades at all six district buildings

The district has also placed an emphasis on security, budgeting for additional security guards and mental health support services. The budget for buildings and grounds staff, comprised of custodial workers, security guards and maintenance workers, was increased by 7.5 percent for 2018-19.

The district’s stated budgeting goal based on its public presentation provided by Assistant Superintendent for Business Susan Casali is to “develop a school district budget that is taxpayer sensitive and aligns with the district student learning objectives.”

Casali will be publicly presenting the adopted budget a total of six times, with Saturday, April 21, at JFK Middle School at 9 a.m. being the next opportunity for district residents to catch it.

The bond proposal and list of projects came at the recommendation of the district’s Facilities Committee, a group of 21 professionals from across the Comsewogue community including members of the board, administrators, architects, engineers, former teachers and civic association members assembled in early January and tasked with presenting recommendations to the board. It will need to be approved as a separate proposition from the standard 2018-19 operating budget.

“The proposed facility improvements preserve the integrity of the school buildings, address repairs, improve instructional resources for all and upgrade athletic facilities,” district administration said in a statement.

Budget

2018-19 total: $91,947,730

2.2% tax levy increase

3.2% more in state aid

School board President John Swenning said during a March meeting the bond proposal was the result of hard work and community input.

“I just want to say thank you to the Facilities Committee that spent a lot of time going through our buildings,” he said. “This bond was brought to us from the community members. They found what they felt needs to be addressed and they came and presented it to the board. We’re going to accept it just as the committee has submitted it to us.”

The district has made a concerted effort to inform voters about the contents of the bond, filming and disseminating an informational YouTube video featuring Superintendent Joe Rella, mailing brochures to residents, and hosting several public presentations at district buildings as well as before the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association.

Some of the projects include required upgrades to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; repairing parking lots and sidewalks; adding security vestibules at all of the district buildings; fixes to exterior and interior building infrastructure; improving athletic fields and facilities; and kitchen upgrades. Some of the higher-priced projects included in the committee’s recommendation are: a new roof with solar panels at Terryville Road Elementary School; interior work at John F. Kennedy Middle School, including some classroom and hallway renovations; and upgrades to the high school concession stand building. If passed, the average taxpayer would see an increase of about $120 annually to their school tax bill, according to the district.

A student-led movement calling for gun control legislation has reached Port Jefferson. Stock photo

The national walkout planned for March 14 came and went in Port Jefferson, and students stayed indoors. However kids from both Port Jefferson and Comsewogue school districts didn’t sit out of the gun control conversation playing out across the United States.

As discussions of a national movement sprung up in early March calling for students across the United States to at once exit school buildings beginning at 10 a.m. as a form of protest in response to the shooting that killed 17 people in Florida in February, administrators across the North Shore grappled with the idea of allowing students to demonstrate without punishment and the possible dangers associated with walking out of school.

Officials from both districts elected to schedule indoor assemblies to discuss school violence and gun control, encouraging students not to physically walkout of buildings.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts, so the day and time will be meaningful,” Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano said ahead of plans being finalized.

What eventually unfolded in Port Jeff, after collaboration between administration and students, was an assembly in the auditorium open to all students, in which victims of the shooting were honored, and then attendees were given the opportunity to deliver remarks that were approved by the administration prior to the event, according to students Gavin Barrett and Matt Pifko. The pair are among a group of students who both operate @pjhswalkout, an Instagram account which has served to organize those in the district interested in becoming more organized and vocal on gun control and overall school safety, and also participated in collaborating on the March 14 events with school officials, including Principal Christine Austen.

March For Our Lives to take place in PJS

By Alex Petroski

In accordance with the call to action issued by survivors of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a local March For Our Lives rally will take place in Port Jefferson Station at the intersection of Routes 112 and 347 March 24 from 1 to 3:30 p.m., according to representatives from the activists North Country Peace Group.

Students and families from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and others worldwide will take to the streets to demand action from elected officials to stem the escalation of gun violence and mass shootings in the nation’s schools. The Port Jefferson Station gathering is one of more than 650 events planned for that day.

The students and their parents are sponsoring the rally with help from The North Country Peace Group, Long Island Rising, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Building Bridges in Brookhaven. Two of those groups, Building Bridges and Moms Demand, were formed specifically in response to gun shootings.

The organizers said all are welcome to attend the Port Jefferson Station rally. To participate in the program (priority will be given to students) or to learn more about the event, contact ncpeaceg@gmail.com.

“I thought the assembly was a respectful balance of honoring the victims of the Parkland shooting and providing the students in attendance with an opportunity to bring awareness to the #Enough movement,” Austen said after the event.

Barrett and Pifko said the assembly had outcomes they viewed as both positive and negative, but overall applauded administration for its efforts in creating an environment in which students could express their views.

“I personally was able to share a lot of what I wanted to say,” Barrett said.

He added that an aspect of the planning was also to afford a platform to a friend with more conservative political leanings pertaining to gun control.

“Whatever people took away from our message, we were able to give them that freely and the school did let us speak freely on that front,” Pifko said. “We were able to inject political stances on it and genuine intent.”

The pair said they took issue with the conclusion of the assembly, which featured several faculty members reading an open letter purported to have been written by an educator that went viral on social media as news of a walkout swirled. The message of the letter was that rather than walking out of school, students should walk up to classmates viewed as outcasts in an effort to create a more inclusive school environment, a sentiment both students said they could get behind. But Barrett and Pifko said they weren’t aware the letter would be read, and while they could agree with the overall sentiment, they did not appreciate that the letter had a condescending tone, and included the line “Gun control or more laws is not, and will not, be the answer,” and felt the reading constituted faculty taking a political stand.

“The message of the letter was inclusivity; we want to encourage our students to make positive connections with one another in order to foster a welcoming school climate,” Austen said.

The students were clear to point out they don’t believe in tearing up the Second Amendment, but rather have a simpler political message and goal to their activism, which they said they plan to continue beyond the already-scheduled upcoming national demonstrations.

“We feel that students should be educated on the truth about gun legislation and gun control in a clear, concise and accurate manner,” Pifko said. “I think we educated people. We’re trying to create a discussion among peers.”

A station was also set up in the school where students were assisted in penning letters to members of Congress to express opinions on gun control. Barrett and Pifko said they also are trying to organize a group of students to travel to Manhattan March 24 to participate in New York’s version of March for Our Lives, a sister march to one taking place in Washington, D.C., the same day.

“One way or another these shootings have to stop,” Barrett said.

Ben Zaltsman, the school’s student body president, said he thought the assembly went perfectly and struck a good balance between memorial and political activism.

“I think the entire service was well balanced,” he said.

Comsewogue High School Principal Joe Coniglione and Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Quinn did not respond to questions asking what was being planned on the 14th or how the day played out after the fact, but Quinn said administration was working with students on an event.

Maddy Glass, a student at Comsewogue High School, said in a text message that like Port Jeff, students in Comsewogue were encouraged to participate in the district plans rather than exiting the building, which included an auditorium assembly. Glass and about 30 of her peers were granted permission by Coniglione to exit the assembly at 10 a.m. and head to the gymnasium, where students observed a moment of silence and made phone calls to the offices of local elected officials to voice their opinions on gun control.

“I felt like the assembly got to what we needed to in some places, but not the way we really needed,” Glass said. “A walkout would’ve brought everyone together in a different way, but since our ‘walkout’ to the gym was only about 30 of us it still felt like students were divided.”

She said she also realized administrators were in a difficult position in deciding how to handle the day, and appreciated the efforts made to allow students to express their opinions. Glass also said she hoped the outcome of increased activism amongst her peers would be Congress implementing actions to stop mass shootings.

“I’ve never been the type of kid who loved school, but I felt like I had some safety there, and with all of these school shootings and knowing people affected by them, I don’t feel as safe as I used to,” she said. “And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.”

A student-led movement calling for gun control legislation has reached Port Jefferson. Stock photo

The gun control debate in the United States has been fully underway seemingly for decades. Following the shooting in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead, the debate has taken on a different tone, and thanks to the activism of survivors, many of whom are high school students, the conversation hasn’t yet retreated to the back burner even a few news cycles removed from the shooting. In fact, the MSD students have ensured their cause will be garnering attention through at least April 20.

Two nationwide student walkouts have been planned and are being promoted on social media.

On March 14, the group Women’s March Youth EMPOWER is calling for students, teachers, school administrators and parents to walk out of schools for 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 Parkland victims,
beginning at 10 a.m. The purpose of the protest, according to a website promoting it, is to shine a light on Congress’ “inaction to do more than Tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.” The walkout is being promoted on social media using the hashtag #ENOUGH.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts so the day and time will be meaningful.”

— Paul Casciano

On April 20, a similar protest is being planned to coincide with the anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. The organizers of this event, simply called National School Walkout, are also calling for those in school buildings to stand up and exit at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes of silence, followed by an “open mic” session in which students will be encouraged to voice opinions. The organizers of this walkout envision a day-long event concluding at the end of the school day.

“We’re protesting the violence in schools and the lack of change that has occurred to stop that,” the website created for the event says. “This issue needs constant attention if we hope to change anything, so multiple events on multiple days is a productive way to help fight for our cause, a safer country.”

Local school districts and students are addressing if or how the marches might play out here, with logistics and safety being of the utmost concern for administrators.

In Port Jefferson School District, administration is taking a hands-on approach in handling a potential protest. Superintendent Paul Casciano said the district’s principals are working with students and teachers to finalize plans.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts so the day and time will be meaningful,” he said. He added that when plans are established the district will make them public to ensure parents are informed about what might take place.

Ben Zaltsman, student body president at Port Jefferson High School, shared details about plans for protest, which will take on a tone meant to honor victims rather than a political message. He said initially students expressed a desire to walk out among themselves, but that administration found out and was concerned about safety hazards associated with leaving the building. Instead of a walkout, the district and student
government got together to formulate a plan to commemorate the day and participate in the national movement.

“Something like this is not disruptive. I don’t think it’s political.”

— Ben Zaltsman

Zaltsman, who’s heading to Rice University in the fall, said he and the rest of the high school’s student government met with administration and agreed on a 17-minute ceremony in the auditorium March 14.

“The April one seems like it’s more political — this is to honor and remember Parkland victims,” Zaltsman said of the two rallies. He said he’s not sure how many students might participate in the voluntary demonstration, which will take place during fourth period, but he expects it will be many. He also said it’s possible students will decide to walkout on their own anyway, but that he hadn’t heard of anyone planning to do so.

“My mom said she knew I was already participating and I have a younger brother who is expected to participate too,” Zaltsman said when asked if he’d discussed walking out with his parents. “Something like this is not disruptive. I don’t think it’s political.”

Comsewogue School District Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said in an email students were working on organizing a demonstration, though the district did not provide specifics in time for print.

Parents in the district have strong opinions on the idea of their kids participating in a political protest
during school hours in a discussion on a Facebook page comprised of Comsewogue community members.

“Instead of walking out and protesting, walk into the cafeteria and talk to kids you normally wouldn’t,” poster Caitlin Mae, a district employee, said while expressing skepticism that a walkout would accomplish much. “Befriend those who don’t have friends. Scold those students who encourage bullying.”

Jessica Glass, the mother of a junior at the high school, said she had discussed the possibility of walking out with her daughter.

“I would be proud of my kids if they had strong views and chose to express themselves in this way.”

— Rachel Begley

“She feels very strongly about reform and is interested in all the aspects of how to bring it about,” she said. “Is gun reform the answer? Is mental health awareness the answer? Is more teacher/parent awareness of students the answer? Is a walk out the best idea? She doesn’t have the answer, but she feels that students in a movement would bring awareness to an issue on a higher level than the awareness is now. That’s what’s important to her, raising awareness in many ways for change.”

Several others said they viewed students walking out of school at a set date and time as a security concern in and of itself.

“We are all worried about security, I don’t think a walkout is such a good idea,” Edward Garboski said. “By doing so we are allowing our kids to become perfect targets. I would hope our parents see the same thing I see. My kids will not walk out of school.”

Others applauded the idea of students being politically and civically engaged.

“I would be proud of my kids if they had strong views and chose to express themselves in this way,” Rachel Begley said. “They don’t have a vote, so this is one way of making themselves seen and heard.”

While the federal government deals with the political gridlock long associated with gun control, New York is working on action to at least improve safety in the short term, though not to address gun laws.

“Every New Yorker and every American is outraged by the senseless violence that is occurring in schools throughout the country,” state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a statement Feb. 28. The state Senate approved a series of bills March 5 that include more funding for security cameras, armed police officers or security personnel for districts that want it, panic buttons, active shooter drills, better emergency response plans, hardening of school doors and more. A package of gun control measures proposed by Senate Democrats was rejected.

Comsewogue board of education President John Swenning and the rest of the board unanimously passed a resolution to establish a $32M bond referendum in May. File photo by Erika Karp

Comsewogue School District is going to ask taxpayers for a little more when they head to the polls in May.

The board of education approved a resolution with a unanimous vote at its March 5 meeting to officially add a referendum on a $32 million spending plan recommended by the district’s Facilities Committee in February. The list of slated upgrades and improvements is more than 100 items long and addresses areas in each of Comsewogue’s six buildings. If passed, the money would go toward improving health and safety, infrastructure, academics, arts and athletics.

“The proposed facility improvements preserve the integrity of the school buildings, address repairs, improve
instructional resources for all and upgrade athletic facilities,” district administration said in a statement.

The list of areas in need of improvement was the byproduct of several meetings and discussions by the committee, a group of 21 professionals from across the Comsewogue community including members of the board, administrators, architects, engineers, former teachers and civic association members. The group was assembled in early January and had been tasked with presenting recommendations to the board.

“I just want to say thank you to the Facilities Committee that spent a lot of time going through our buildings,” board president John Swenning said during the meeting. “This bond was brought to us from the community members. They found what they felt needs to be addressed and they came and presented it to the board. We’re going to accept it just as the committee has submitted it to us.”

Some of the projects include required upgrades to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; repairing parking lots and sidewalks; adding security vestibules at all of the district buildings; fixes to exterior and interior building infrastructure; improving athletic fields and facilities; and kitchen upgrades. If approved by voters, the bond would have a 15-year life with about $3 million in interest. Some of the higher-priced projects included in the committee’s recommendation are: a new roof with solar panels at Terryville Road Elementary School; interior work at John F. Kennedy Middle School, including some classroom and hallway renovations; and upgrades to the high school concession stand building. If passed, the average taxpayer would see an increase of about $120 annually to their school tax bill, based on conservative state aid estimates, which won’t be known until the spring.

“We’ve really touched everywhere that your child could be, from safety in the parking lots and curbs, to every elementary classroom getting a face-lift,” said Stephanie Jaklitsch, a former teacher in the district who also has children attending Comsewogue schools. Jaklitsch is a member of the Facilities Committee and was among the contingent who presented recommendations to the board Feb. 12. “Our students are going to see changes all the way through their education.”

The bond vote will be held at the same place and time as the annual operating budget vote and school board trustee elections. Polls will be open at Comsewogue High School May 15 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The district has suggested it will hold informational meetings going forward to get the community up to speed on the contents of the bond.

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The Comsewogue board of education had a community bonding experience Feb. 12.

The school district’s six buildings are in need of upgrades and improvements, according to its facilities committee, a group of 21 professionals from across Comsewogue including members of the board, administrators, architects, engineers, former teachers, civic association members and more. The group was assembled in early January, and has been holding workshops and meetings to compile a list of projects to recommend to the board.

The committee presented a list of more than 100 upgrades considered of the highest priority and identified as the A-list. The projects would take place in each of the district’s schools if a bond referendum were passed. Some of the projects include required upgrades to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; parking lots and sidewalks; security at all of the district buildings; exterior and interior building infrastructure; athletic fields and facilities; and kitchen upgrades among many others.

The total price tag for the A-list would be almost $32 million, paid for during a 15-year period with approximately $3 million in interest, according to the committee. If passed, the average taxpayer would see an increase of about $120 annually to their school tax bill, based on conservative state aid estimates which won’t be known until the spring.

The committee also presented two other potential propositions for the board to consider: one a $9 million B-list of items deemed to be of lower priority and the third a complete overhaul of just the district’s air-conditioning units for approximately $13 million. Members of the committee said after touring the district facilities and buildings, its initial list of projects was in the ballpark of $75 million, which it then pared down to what currently appears on the A-list.

Susan Casali, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, served as the leader of the facilities committee.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” Casali said, of her colleagues on the committee. “It has been a great process, a lot of input, a lot of knowledge. We went through a lot of things and they really worked hard.”

Casali said the committee also took public input along the way from teachers, organizations and others in the community who had requests for upgrades.

“The board needs to know, and the public should know, how very carefully we looked at what items were to make the A-list,” said Joan Nickeson, a member of the Facilities Committee engaged in several aspects of the Comsewogue community. Nickeson also praised the work on the committee of architect Kenneth Schupner and engineer Frederick Seeba.

“The engineers and the architects, I don’t know how well you know these gentlemen, but I was so impressed with their knowledge and their ability to handle a myriad of questions,” she said. “We looked so carefully at every item.”

Stephanie Jaklitsch, a former teacher in the district who also has children attending Comsewogue schools, offered her input as a member of the committee.

“We’ve really touched everywhere that your child could be from safety in the parking lots and curbs, to every elementary classroom getting a face-lift,” she said. “Our students are going to see changes all the way through their education.”

Board of education president John Swenning, and Superintendent Joe Rella each thanked the committee for its thorough work, dedication to improving the Comsewogue environment and generosity in lending each of their personal levels of expertise to the group.

Some of the higher-priced projects included in the committee’s recommendation are: a new roof including solar panels at Terryville Road Elementary School; interior work at JFK Middle School, including some classroom and hallway renovations; and athletic upgrades at the high school to the
concession stand building.

The board will vote March 5 on the recommendations, and if it elects to move forward, to establish the specifics of the bond referendum and how it would appear on a ballot. The referendum would be included as a separate proposition on the same ballot as the annual budget and school board vote to be held May 15.

The full list of project recommendations is expected to be posted and available on the district website, www.comsewogue.k12.ny.us.

This post was updated Feb. 14 for grammatical fixes.

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Terryville Road Elementary School principal, April Victor, with some of her students. Photo from April Victor

By Sabrina Petroski

Goodbyes are never easy, especially when a school district has to say it to a dedicated, longtime advocate for students.

At the end of the 2017-18 school year, April Victor will be retiring from her position as the principal of Terryville Road Elementary School in the Comsewogue School District. Victor, who began in January 2001, said the past seventeen-and-a-half years have been some of the most rewarding in her life.

She said she made it her mission to turn her school into a family, an effort that has encouraged parents, teachers and students alike to work together to foster a safe and happy community.

“That’s what makes leaving so hard, because I’m leaving a family,” she said.

Victor said her proudest achievement was making the school a place where the children are put first, and the teachers and parents have a say in decision making. Once a month the district’s parent teacher association celebrates students who are seen as outstanding citizens, an initiative inspired by the longtime principal. Nominated by their teachers, each student receives a certificate and their picture is put up in the hallway of the school.

“We have to celebrate them, build the kids up,” she said. “We have to be kind and thoughtful, and care about our school.”

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella praised Victor as being a brilliant educator and leader, with the ability to build a great community. Rella’s grandson attends Terryville Road Elementary School, giving the superintendent multiple reasons to keep a close eye on the school’s goings on, and the district leader beamed when asked about the work Victor has been doing in her school.

“April Victor has such a tremendous impact on the district and school community,” Rella said. “She will be missed beyond words and is a truly wonderful person.”

In 2007, Victor was named a TBR News Media Woman of the Year in education, for her leadership skills and her efforts to make sure her kids got every opportunity to fulfill their potential. Her peers spoke in glowing terms about their departing colleague.

“Ms. Victor has long had a positive effect on all who have had the opportunity to pass through the halls and classrooms of Terryville Elementary School,” said Robert Pearl, principal of Boyle Road Elementary School. “From children to faculty and staff, she has always been a remarkable anchor within the Terryville community. Her educational expertise, ability to understand the needs of her students and her compassion have enabled her to make a difference in the lives of her students each day. Personally, she has been an outstanding role model for me as I transitioned from teacher to principal.  She truly is the epitome of what every administrator strives to be.”

Victor delivered one final message to the Comsewogue community.

“Thank you for the opportunity to be with your kids and to lead them,” she said. “It’s been a blessing and I hope I made a difference. I’ll miss the energy from the children, and being able to witness their hard work and laughter. I will continue to pray for the community, for safety, joy and love.”

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A coat drive at Comsewogue High School resulted in about 50 coats being distributed to needy people in the Port Jefferson Station area. Photo by Alex Petroski

Residents in the Port Jefferson Station area and beyond need not be left out in the cold this winter.

A somewhat spontaneous winter coat drive sprung up in Port Jefferson Station last week thanks to the efforts of a pair of old friends: a business owner in Nassau County and an employee in the Comsewogue School District. David Jacobson, founding executive director of Collector Car Showcase in Oyster Bay started Layers of Love NY with his longtime friend John Worobey, who provides technology support at Comsewogue, working in the district for 17 years. The organization, which is referred to on its website as a movement, was the byproduct of a brief conversation between the friends earlier this year.

“I went into a classroom last year and there was a child hanging a coat out the window in the middle of the winter,” Worobey recalled during the Oct. 28 coat drive in the Comsewogue High School cafeteria. “I asked the teacher ‘what’s going on? Why is he hanging a coat out the window?’ She said that a lot of the kids in the class didn’t have coats and people donated coats, and his happened to smell like cigarettes. So he was hanging it out the window to air out.”

Worobey said when he told Jacobson about what he had observed his friend was equally taken aback.

“During a casual conversation he said to me some kids come to school with no coats on in the middle of the winter,” Jacobson said. “I was like ‘that’s not okay.’”

Jacobson said they decided they would host a coat drive later in the year and began collecting coats through a variety of avenues. He said they placed Layers of Love NY collection boxes at car dealerships around Long Island; and at The Hoffman Center in Muttontown, a museum named after Maximilian Hoffman, an Austrian-born racecar driver and importer of luxury automobiles in the 1950s; among other locations. On Oct. 1 the museum hosted an event called Driven to America, at which the organization collected even more coats. Jacobson said he heard stories from people showing up to the event who had purchased as many as 10 brand new coats to contribute for the drive.

By the time the event began at Comsewogue, about 250 coats were laid out across the cafeteria tables available for anyone who walked in to look through and pick the perfect fit.

“Whatever we give away today we’re happy,” Jacobson said. The event resulted in the distribution of about 50 coats, with families with multiple children arriving throughout the morning to bundle up ahead of winter. The co-founders of the event each indicated they planned to learn from the 2017 incarnation of their vision and use the information to improve it in years to come.

“It’s a stepping stone, something we’re going to build upon,” Jacobson said.

Worobey said he thought Comsewogue was the perfect location for a coat drive like this because of the community’s inherent nature of giving.

“That makes you feel good,” Worobey said, waving to a group that had just collected several coats and were heading on their way.

Jacobson said the organization will begin collecting coats for a 2018 drive next July. Anyone interested in learning more about Layers of Love NY should visit www.layersofloveny.com.

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