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Earl L. Vandermeulen

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Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister. Photo by Kyle Barr

While the Port Jefferson School District is preparing its budget for the 2019-20 school year, the shadow of LIPA still hangs over the small school district.

Superintendent Paul Casciano said the LIPA outcome, at least in terms of drafting next year’s budget, was not as bad as it could have been. 

“It was translated by the town to be on the assessment rather than our payments,” he said. “With the glide path it gets more challenging later on, but we have time to make adjustments.”

“With the glide path it gets more challenging later on, but we have time to make adjustments.”

— Paul Casciano

In December 2018, the Town of Brookhaven settled with LIPA over the tax assessment of the Port Jefferson power station whose white and red smokestacks can be seen almost anywhere near the harbor. LIPA filed a lawsuit almost a decade ago against both Brookhaven and the Town of Huntington saying its plants in Port Jeff and Northport have been overassessed by millions of dollars and were seeking a 50 percent reduction. The settlement decision agreed to lower LIPA’s assessments by 50 percent over a nine-year period from $32.6 million to $16.8 million starting with the 2017-18 tax year.

Even after the settlement, district officials said the Port Jefferson School District would have the second lowest school tax rates compared to others in Brookhaven Town, only being beaten by Riverhead. The district, going into the ninth year of the settlement, would have a tax rate approximately 100 less than the average of non-Port Jefferson school rates, according to the district.

The school district, along with several village residents, feared what a 50 percent reduction could do to school taxes. Casciano, along with Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister, hosted a special meeting for district residents where they estimated a tax rate of 159 in the 2019-20 school year, and an estimated 243 by the 2026-27 school year.

If local revenues remain flat and with their expected tax levy cap sitting at 1.18 percent, the district expects their current $43.9 million budget will adjust to a $44.1 million rollover budget next school year, an increase of $232,930 if the district maintains all current programming and staff. The current school tax levy — the money a school makes in local area taxes — of $36,434,479 would jump to $37,075,627, more than the schools expected 1.2 percent tax cap.

Leister said this would mean reductions, but the district is currently in the process of creating the upcoming school year’s draft budget.

“We haven’t identified those reductions yet,” Leister said. “We are going to take the next few weeks to see if it can be done through efficiencies: We have to identify what our enrollment looks like, what our student interest looks like and what our scheduling looks like.”

Casciano said this difference is minimal, and it can be made up on the school’s end by tighter budgeting.

“If the community stays in support of the district, it won’t be as dramatic,” the superintendent said. “If the school has to absorb the entire cost of the tax loss, it will be.”

“A cynic would look at it and say you’re just trying to dampen any resistance in the short term and pushing it back.”

— Todd Pittinsky

Before news of the settlement, residents had proposed that the district combine with other area districts, but Leister said that combining with a district like Comsewogue or Mount Sinai would overall increase tax rates. Port Jefferson’s estimated tax rate in the 2019-20 school year is 159 compared to Comsewogue’s 262, assuming an annual levy increase of 2 percent, or under the New York State tax cap.

While the difference is minimal for this school year, the district said the glide path of LIPA’s assessment reduction ramps up over time. While the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years see a 3.5 percent reduction, later years show reductions going up to 7.5 and 8.25 percent.

Todd Pittinsky, a Port Jeff resident and professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, said it would behoove the district to think long term when it comes to the reductions over time, and not make those cuts more drastic when the reductions start to increase dramatically.

“A cynic would look at it and say you’re just trying to dampen any resistance in the short term and pushing it back,” Pittinsky said. “I would hope that the effort is one-eighth each year. The formula you are using is going to push back the pain of dislocation or relocation, and it would be very easy to think that other decision makers will be in this role.”

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Port Jefferson Middle School English teacher Allison Giannusa shared her class lesson with educators from the Anhui province, China. Photo from PJSD

By David Luces 

It was a case of east meets west as a delegation of Chinese educators visited the Port Jefferson School district Jan. 15 to experience and learn about the American education system. 

Port Jefferson School District was one of two school district chosen to be toured by the Chinese educators. The trip, organized in part by Stony Brook University, had the delegation from the Anhui province in China take a tour of the district and witness interactive lessons inside its classrooms. 

Chinese educators visited the Port Jefferson School District buildings. Photo from PJSD

“I think this is a wonderful opportunity for educators from another country to come in and see how we do things here,” Christine Austen, the Principal of Earl L. Vandermeulen High School said “This is unique because of the size of the school and the scope of our educational program.” 

The Chinese educators, accompanied by three Mandarin translators, were welcomed to the school with the school’s orchestra playing Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” On a tour of the high school the group visited a chorus classroom where they caught a glimpse of students beginning to warm up their vocal cords, then later took a tour of the high school gym facilities. In between spots the educators were able to ask some students about their experiences in the Port Jeff school district. 

Austen said the educators may have seen things that they haven’t observed in other school districts. 

“We take a lot of pride in the school district,” Austen said. “We want to show our students that we are open to having these conservations and we are welcoming to everyone.” 

Superintendent Paul Casciano said the district had an important responsibility when it came to showcasing American education to the delegation. 

“Their impression of the American education system will be based on what they’ve seen and learned [here],” Casciano said. 

In September, the district joined in an Educational Leadership Program with Stony Brook with some high school teachers. The program offers courses to prepare educators for advancement in position such as superintendent and principal. 

Craig Markson, the director of the Educational Leadership Program at Stony Brook University said the Office of Global Affairs has a collaborative relationship with principals of schools in the Anhui province of China. The educators wanted to visit the United States to see how the American educational system works.  

The superintendent said the district set up the date and time with the Chinese delegation back in December.

“It forced us to be introspective and I think that’s really healthy.”

— Paul Casciano

“We already had a relationship and connection with the university,” Casciano said. “Markson contacted me about the planned trip and they were looking for schools to visit.” 

The superintendent said for two weeks before the visit they asked themselves what made the school district so special and what the
students and teachers might learn from the experience.

“It forced us to be introspective and I think that’s really healthy,” the superintendent said. “It’s a small snapshot — only a couple of hours — we only get to see the short-term impacts of something like this. We don’t even know what the long-term effects will be.” 

Though the two districts have cultural differences, Markson said they both share a common goal. 

“One thing that we all have in common is trying to prepare our children to meet the demands of a 21st century economy,” Markson said. “So we are learning from each other.” 

Austen said she’s excited to learn later how the delegation used what they learned in Port Jeff back in Anhui province.

“I can’t wait to hear what they have to say — I’ve never been to a school in another country, so this is an opportunity to gain knowledge on how they do things,” Austen said. “Everyone can learn from one another.” 

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Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano addresses the Class of 2018 during graduation June 22. File photo by Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson School District has a lot on its plate, and whoever ends up sitting in the captain’s chair is going to need a strong character to deal with it all.

In August Paul Casciano, the district’s current superintendent, announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2018-19 school year. By July 1, 2019, a new superintendent will have to fill the position.

“The most important decision a school board makes is who they hire as a superintendent, because that’s basically your CEO,” Casciano said. 

While the board still has to interview candidates in January and February of next year, come May 2019, board President Kathleen Brennan said she expects the board will make its final choice.

“Different people interact with the superintendent differently.”

—Kathleen Brennan

In the meantime, the Port Jefferson school board is looking for community feedback on what they would most like from a superintendent. Working with Eastern Suffolk BOCES, the board released an online survey to community members asking them to judge what best qualities they wanted from the head of their school district. Some of the questions ask residents to rate how important a prospective superintendent’s knowledge of finance and business is or how important is their background in education.

While a superhuman superintendent would exhibit five stars in all these qualities, Brennan said the questions are there to gauge how important one quality is compared to another. She added people who work in education might place a greater emphasis on the new superintendent’s educational knowledge versus a local business owner placing more significance on the financial health of the district.

“Different people interact with the superintendent differently,” Brennan said.

A superintendent makes the day-to-day decisions for the entire school district, often trying to keep to the vision of the school board, including spending, staffing, facilities and school programs. 

However, the next superintendent of Port Jeff will have to find ways to handle the situation involving the local National Grid-owned power plant. LIPA has alleged the plants in both Port Jefferson and Northport have been overassessed in its payment of millions of dollars in annual property taxes, though Dec. 14 the Town of Brookhaven announced it had reached a settlement with LIPA, promising to reduce the Port Jeff plant’s assessments by around 50 percent over nine years.

The fallout of whatever ends up happening with LIPA has the possibility of directly impacting residents property taxes as well as school funding. Casciano said it will be important in the future to make sure the fallout of LIPA does not fall too much on either the district’s head or on residents.

“The next superintendent is going to need to take a balanced approach,” Casciano said. “We don’t just represent the residents who have children, it affects their taxes and we’re cognizant of that. … On the other hand, our core mission is teaching and learning — our real clients are children — we can’t turn our back on that and call ourselves educators.”

The Port Jeff school district is of much smaller size compared to neighboring districts, though the current superintendent said they enjoy small class sizes and specialized programs. Should a final LIPA decision impact the district negatively, the next superintendent would have to make hard choices on which specialized education programs to prioritize if the economic situation gets any more complicated.

Based on that looming potential crisis, Casciano said a new superintendent is going to need a strong backbone.

“No matter which way you go, you never satisfy everyone with a decision,” he said. “When it comes to schools which has taxes and kids involved with it, there is a lot greater passion attached to those voices.”

“No matter which way you go, you never satisfy everyone with a decision.”

—Paul Casciano

Brennan said she expects the incoming superintendent should use the current district administration, which has been cultivated to provide a good support structure to whoever steps into the position.

“We’re not overstaffed administratively, by any means,” the board president said. 

Casciano said while he expects a new superintendent to bring their own ideas and creative solutions to problems, he doesn’t expect them to overhaul on current staff.

“It’s a successful school district, and to come in and think there’s major changes to be made says you don’t really know the district,” he said.

The school board will be hosting a public meeting Jan 3. with Julie Davis Lutz, COO of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, to allow residents to express their thoughts on the necessary skills for the next superintendent. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium.

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By Bill Landon

Mount Sinai Mustangs showed off their wrestling chops Dec. 15 during the annual Bob Armstrong Memorial Cup multischool wrestling tournament at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School in Port Jefferson.

In five different weight classes Mount Sinai’s Jack Tyrell, Joe O’Brien, Joe Goodrich, Mike Sabella and Matt Campo each took the top spot on the podium.

Comsewogue High School held its graduation ceremony on the football field on June 23. Nearly 300 seniors that made up the class of 2016 were recognized on a perfect summer evening. Speakers included District Superintendent Joe Rella, School Board President John Swenning, New York State Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), senior class President Julia Diaz, Valedictorian Casey Nevins and Salutatorian Eric Ranaldi.

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Port Jefferson school district held their annual senior prom at the high school Monday. The outside of the school and the gymnasium were decorated in a classic rock motif, with decorations and memorabilia harkening back to the days of the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. In keeping up with tradition, prom goers arrived in various creative modes of transportation, including a bulldozer, to step out onto the red carpet and head into the school.

Friday marked the 122nd graduation ceremony at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School in Port Jefferson School District. The commencement ceremony for the roughly 80 members of the class of 2016 was held on June 24, at the fields in front of the school on a sunny summer evening.

Friends, family and members of the community, like Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant were at the ceremony. Senior Class President William Witrock presented the class gift; two televisions to be installed in the school’s fitness center for future students to enjoy while using cardio equipment.

Valedictorian Shannon Christ, salutatorian Marianna Spentzos and Student Organization President Jessica Gray from the class of 2016 also made speeches during the graduation ceremony.

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The Class of 2015 celebrated their graduation in Port Jefferson on Friday, remembering their pasts as they looked toward their bright futures.