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Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northport-East Northport school district. File photo

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Northport-East Northport school officials gave residents their first look at the district’s $166.2 million 2018-19 budget draft.

Superintendent Robert Banzer and assistant superintendents presented a $166,165,381 first draft of its budget for next year at the March 1 board of education meeting. It represents a 1.75 percent increase over the current year’s $163.3 million budget, or a $2,858,541 increase.

“We are presenting a budget that supports the mission, vision, core beliefs and priorities of the district,” Banzer said. “While continuing a historically low tax levy increase.”

At the March 1 trustees meeting, the board conducted a line-by-line review of the district’s approximately $11.8 million draft budget for buildings, grounds and transportation.

Some of the budgetary highlights from buildings, grounds and transportation
section include $120,000 for the purchase of a new 66-passenger bus; $69,500 budget for new snow removal equipment; and $50,000 for the purchase of a four-wheel drive vehicle.

A significant portion of the proposed buildings and grounds budget, more than $340,000, has been set aside for new security equipment and services. Leonard Devlin, the district’s
supervisor of security, has proposed installing approximately 30 additional interior cameras and 20 exterior cameras districtwide along with purchasing nine license plate readers, one for each building.

“It allows the principal and myself to identify a vehicle coming on the school property,” Devlin said. “It would give me a clear video of the license plate to prevent vandalism and identify those vehicles that come onto our property at 2, 3, 4 a.m.”

In addition, Devlin has requested the district set aside $28,000 to purchase a new security vehicle to replace an aging vehicle that while having 90,000 miles is spending more time in repair shops than on school grounds, he said.

David Stein, vice president of the board of education, questioned if the district should consider increasing all security lines in the budget by as much as 20 percent.

“There is a lot of work for us to do in this new environment,” he said at the March 1 meeting. “One thing I am certain I heard tonight is there needs to be an increase in substance and value.”

Stein was backed by his fellow trustees in asking Devlin to come up with a wish list of security equipment and personnel for the district in the upcoming weeks. The district will revisit the budgeted lines for security at a future budget presentation, as well as weighing whether the budget allows for additional security personnel.

The next presentation on the proposed budget for instruction, technology, BOCES and special education is March 8 at 7 p.m. at William J. Brosnan School. A preliminary budget hearing for district taxpayers is set for March 22.

District faces larges cost increases in employee health care benefits, state Teachers' Retirement System contributions

Huntington High School. File Photo

Huntington school district administrators will be counting every penny to reduce their drafted 2018-19 budget by more than $2.64 million to come in under the state tax levy cap before May.

Huntington Superintendent James Polansky gave residents their first look at the district’s suggested $132,294,449 spending plan for next school year at the Feb.26 board of education meeting. The drafted budget represents a 4.82 percent increase from the current year’s budget,  significantly more than its 3.14 percent cap.

“A budget-to-budget change of over $6 million, that is not where we are going to land,” Polansky said. “That is not going to fly.”

The main driver of the Huntington school district’s increased expenses are non-discretionary costs, according to the superintendent, which includes teacher and staff salaries, employee health benefits, pension contributions, transportation, building maintenance and utilities. In total, the district’s non-discretionary costs are anticipated to increase by 5.66 percent.

“Salaries are a part of that, but the biggest chunk is health care insurance,” Polansky said. “We do have some alternatives we can look at in the teachers’ contract and we have work to do there.”

The district will be hit by a mandated increase in its contribution to the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System. Its rate is expected to increase from 9.8 percent up to 10.63 percent of its payroll. That will cost Huntington approximately $800,000 more per year, Polansky said.

Huntington officials also estimated its transportation costs will increase by 3.35 percent, or more than $380,000, due to annual cost increases in addition to paying for more student aides and bus monitors.

“Buses are an extension of the school,” Polansky said. “If something happens there, it’s treated like something that happens in a classroom.”

The district is working with a transportation consultant to review its bus routes in the hopes of increasing efficiency, according to the superintendent. Any cost savings measures the consultant may be able to suggest for next year have not yet been factored into the district’s draft 2018-19 budget.

Under the current draft budget, the average Huntington taxpayer’s school tax rate would increase by 5.65 percent. It would also require a 60 percent supermajority approval by voters to be adopted, as is standard when budgets pierce the tax levy increase cap. Polansky repeatedly referred to the $132 million proposal for 2018-19 as a starting point.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said. “It is a concern at a time when we have a lot of needs to be addressed both educationally and in security.”

The district will need to reign in its discretionary spending, according to Polansky, which covers staffing, textbooks, supplies, technology, sports and co-curricular activities.

In the upcoming weeks, school administrators will give several budget presentations, including March 12 on employee benefits, debt service and capital funding; and March 26 on instruction and staffing. The district has pushed back its final review and workshop to April 9. Polansky said the decision was made to give as much time as possible for final state aid figures from Albany before adopting a proposed budget to go before voters May 15.

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There’s a lot of talk about public-private partnerships at all levels of government. If our state officials can strike a deal to benefit New York’s inmates, we think it’s time to negotiate for the benefit of our collective future — Suffolk County students.

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced a deal with a private company, JPay, to provide free tablets to approximately 51,000 state prisoners. JPay is a Miami-based company that provides technology and services to help the incarcerated stay connected with people outside prison. The state prisoners will be able to read e-books, listen to music and even have family send money back to them.

“The decision by New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to allow inmates to be provided free tablets is a slap in the face and an insult to every hardworking, law-abiding, taxpaying family across New York State that struggles to provide these same tablets and other school supplies for their children,” said state Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue).

We have to agree. To be clear, helping incarcerated citizens develop tools for success upon their release is a worthwhile endeavor for both the individuals and the society they hope to assimilate back into at the conclusion of their sentence. However, if such a deal can be struck for those in jail, we’d like to see the New York State Department of Education at least attempt to negotiate a private-public partnership with technology manufacturers or educational software providers to see if a similar arrangement can be made.

It’s no secret that many Suffolk County teachers wind up purchasing basic supplies — crayons, construction paper, glue, markers, calculators and other supplies — for their classrooms out of their own pockets. If a penny of funding for basic staples is coming from teachers’ pockets, more expensive, big-ticket items must also be a problem, despite the passage of the Smart Schools Bond Act in 2014, which was enacted for the purpose of updating technology in schools.

Kings Park High School announced it received approval for its state technology initiative in November 2017, one of the first districts on Long Island to do so. It is the first time the district can afford major technological upgrades in 10 years. Let that sink in — the computers, networks and internet capabilities our students rely on are more than a decade old.

Suffolk County’s public schools educate more than 235,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the New York State Department of Education’s figures for the 2016-17 school year. While this is five times more than our state prisoners, it should not be perceived as impossible.

We’d like to see the state education department and our school districts get creative in finding solutions to budgetary problems. School budget season is getting underway and finding and negotiating public-private partnerships with some of the large businesses in their backyard could be the solution taxpayers are looking for.

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Here are a couple of things to think about in this new year. First, it is the Chinese Year of the Dog. Each year is related to a zodiac animal within a 12-year cycle, and the Dog is in the 11th position, after the Rooster and before the Pig. Other Dog years include births in 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994 and so on. You get the pattern. If you are a Dog, you are undoubtedly loyal, honest, kind, amiable and sincere, although you’re probably not all that good at communications. As a result, sometimes you are perceived as stubborn. However, you make up for that by always being ready to help others.

Enough of that and on to the latest law for Suffolk County. As you have probably experienced by now, wherever you might be shopping and inclined to make a purchase, you will have to add 5 cents to the total if you want a bag. Two bags: 10 cents. Again, you get the pattern. That means if you are shopping in a supermarket or a hardware store or Macy’s, you will need to pay for each bag. We have, however, been trained for such a situation by Costco. For years, those who shop in their warehouse-like stores have carried purchases out to their cars in shopping carts and then loaded the contents into their trunks, one item at a time. Costco has never provided bags, although it has been known to offer boxes when available. The smart ones among us carry cloth bags into the store in advance so we can load cars more efficiently at the end, and I suppose that is what the rest of us will learn to do if we don’t buy the bags. Although the charge is only a nickel, it is irksome because the nickels don’t go toward funding an environmental cause but revert to the store.

So expect to see people crossing parking lots with the items they have just purchased in their hands. While the perennially curious among us will be fascinated to check out what people buy, the instinct to bag a purchase to prove it was paid for rather than whipped off the shelf and out the door will make some of us uneasy. Best to invest in some large and solid cloth bags, which are what they bring to stores in Europe and elsewhere. And by the way, this should be a great help for our local waterways and wildlife since so many plastic bags have caused harm. So BYOB, or “bring your own bag,” and know that you are helping a fish.

On to another topic to consider in 2018. Private schools and universities are going to take a beating from the loss of international students. Total tuition from those students, who generally pay more, will decline as a result of more restrictive immigration policies for those wishing to come to study here. Visa applications are being more carefully scrutinized and foreign students are finding it harder to stay in the United States after graduation. There had been a huge increase in foreign students here, supplying $39 billion in revenue to the U.S. economy last year, but now schools in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries are attracting some of those dollars. The decline in new students nationwide was some 7 percent just this past fall.

That means colleges will have to cut offerings and American-educated grad students who may want to settle here will be lost to the nation. It also means colleges will not be able to help low-income students as much with tuition aid. Diversity is also affected. Enrollment is already falling from China and India, the two biggest sources of students from abroad. Of course this is not only a national issue but also a local one: Stony Brook University is here. Long Island has numerous schools, and with fewer students less money will be spent locally.

Meanwhile enjoy the weather. Let’s celebrate the thaw.

Port Jefferson High School Principal Christine Austen. File photo

Being named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education is an achievement that takes a village, but leaders in Port Jefferson School District attribute the designation to one confident, tough yet compassionate woman.

Christine Austen is in her third year as principal at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. In that short period of time, according to her colleagues, she has imposed her strong will, ideas and work ethic on the school and is the person most responsible for the school being recognized on a national level in September with the Blue Ribbon honor.

“The award acknowledges and validates the hard work of students, educators, families and communities in striving for — and attaining — exemplary achievement,” the education department’s website says regarding qualifications for Blue Ribbon distinction. About 300 public schools nationwide were awarded in 2017.

Teachers Eva Grasso and Jesse Rosen accompany Austen to Washington, D.C., as part of receiving the award. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

For helping to earn the prestigious award for Port Jeff and for her tireless efforts to improve the academic, social and emotional well being of all of her students, Times Beacon Record News Media named Austen a 2017 Person of the Year.

“The things that are happening at the high school among the staff, with the students, with the community, you can’t have those things happening without a principal who’s really moving it, is a big part of it, gets involved — she does not look at the clock,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said.

According to Jessica Schmettan, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, Austen’s relentless commitment to analyzing the effectiveness of academic programs and initiatives, and examining results with a critical eye have created quantitative improvements in student performance since she became principal.

“She’s always attuned to the data to help push the academic limits forward, and we definitely see those quantitative results,” Schmettan said. The curriculum and instruction director pointed out Austen’s strengths as a principal are far from limited to fostering academic excellence though. “The principals I’ve worked with always demonstrated a clear strength — who was more of a social and emotional leader, who was more of an instructional leader, who focused more on the community. Everybody that I worked with demonstrated a strength in certain areas, where Chris I think embodies all of those things and that’s really unique.”

Austen and her husband Phil are each products of the Port Jefferson School District and community. She got her start working for the district as a librarian, and eventually served as a kindergarten-through-12th grade assistant principal for her first foray into the administration world. Despite competing against at least one other candidate with experience as a principal, Austen wowed the school board at her interview, which led to her earning the position.

“She came in the room, straightened her back, she sat in the chair and just emitted this confidence that, ‘I’m going to nail this, I’m going to give you my best answers,’” board of education President Kathleen Brennan said. Brennan said Austen’s confidence, without arrogance, stood out during her interview and has translated seamlessly into the position.

Many of her colleagues spoke about Austen’s knack for deftly walking the fine line between holding students accountable without being punitive, while always remaining positive and generally warm.

“If you’re working in this field, and she’s no exception, her ‘put the students first’ mentality is definitely a great strength,” Assistant Principal Kevin Bernier said.

Bernier shared a story about an incident that occurred during a pool party at a student’s home in 2016.

Port Jefferson high school Principal Christine Austen, second from right, and others from the school celebrate its National Blue Ribbon School award. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

A student at the party, who frequently had seizures, was the only person in the pool at one point. Bernier said he noticed something was wrong with the student, and realized he might be having a full seizure in the pool at that moment.

“It only took a second,” Bernier recalled. “I said, ‘Is he OK?’ You saw something and he started to go down and before I even blinked my eyes, [Austen] was in the pool. If he went under he was going to take in water right away, and it was literally before I could even blink my eyes she was in the water.”

Bernier noted, Austen is far from an avid swimmer and the student was much taller than her, making the rescue no simple task.

“It took quite a bit of courage to dive into that pool,” said Edna Louise Spear Elementary School Principal Tom Meehan, who also was at the party.

Middle school Principal Robert Neidig, who started the same year as Austen, said he considers her a mentor. He said she’s great at giving one on one advice, but he also loves to hear her speak publicly because she strikes a perfect tone of humility and warmth accompanied with an unquestionable confidence that creates a perfect mixture for a leader.

“I couldn’t imagine doing the job without having her perspective,” he said.

Casciano summed up some firsthand observations he’s had since Austen took over at the high school.

“You’ll see her in the hallway putting her arm around a child,” he said. “She knows them and knows just from expressions on their faces, she could tell whether or not they’re having a good day, bad day. And if things look like they aren’t going well, she’ll engage the student and try to encourage them.”

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Mean test scores for Port Jefferson School District students in 2016 and 2017 on AP exams in 10 major subjects. Graphic by TBR News Media

The results are in, and Port Jefferson School District teachers, administrators and students have plenty to be proud of.

Jessica Schmettan, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, presented data regarding Port Jeff students scores on Advanced Placement tests taken in May 2017 during a Dec. 12 board of education meeting. AP is a program that offers college-level curriculum and exams to high school students, and college credits are available based on performance in the courses. The College Board, a nonprofit formed to expand access to higher education in North America, created the AP program. The exams are scored from 1 to 5, with scores 3 or higher considered proficient and a minimum standard to be able to earn college credit.

Participation in AP courses and performance on exams overall are trending up in Port Jeff. In 2017, Port Jeff students took 354 AP exams, compared to 280 in 2015. Schmettan said the district was proud to see the increase in the number of students taking the exams and expects that number to increase as more AP offerings are made available to students.

PJSD superintendent, board discuss future after bond fails

By Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson School District superintendent, Paul Casciano, and board of education president, Kathleen Brennan, each made public comments Dec. 12 regarding the future of capital improvement projects that would have been addressed by a $30 million bond, a proposal that was voted down by a wide margin by district residents Dec. 5.

Casciano: “Our capital bond proposal was defeated [Dec. 5]. Our board of education and administration are in the process of reviewing what implications there are in the results to determine which steps would be in the best interest of our students. Although we’re disappointed by the outcome, we are grateful that so many residents took the time to vote. Our discussions moving forward will be focused on how best to address the problems that we are facing, namely the health, safety and security of our students and staff; compliance with state and federal regulations; our aging infrastructure; and our overcrowded and overtaxed athletic fields. Hopefully at some point in the future we’ll actually get to plan how to transform our instructional settings into a 21st-century learning environment.”

Brennan: “This is our first board meeting since the vote, so clearly we had no time to discuss the outcome among the board members. I can assure you that we hear you, we heard the vote from the public, and we plan to study that and clearly and carefully and slowly move forward. We certainly will include the public in those plans. So I thank you for your comments and your interest in our district.”

“It is gratifying to see the number of our students [taking AP courses] continuing to grow and the offerings in AP,” board of education member Mark Doyle said during the meeting.

The mean score for Port Jeff students increased when comparing 2016 results to 2017 results on exams in 13 subject areas, including chemistry, environmental science, world history and calculus. In each of those particular subjects, more than 90 percent of students taking the test scored a 3 or better. In addition, the mean Port Jeff 2017 scores in 14 subject areas exceeded the New York State means. In environmental science and chemistry, the Port Jeff means were more than a full percentage point better than New York State means. Schmettan said she was impressed to see the 2017 chemistry scores as the district mean was 4.00, compared to 2.90 across the state and 3.13 in 2016 in Port Jeff.

Average scores in English language and composition, English literature and composition, world history, and U.S. history all went up from 2016 to 2017. However, AP calculus scores skyrocketed in 2017, jumping from 2.57 on average last year to 4.15, which represented the largest increase in any subject.

“We saw a very strong comeback in AP calculus, and we’re proud of that,” Schmettan said.

In another area of mathematics, statistics, 2017 test takers struggled compared to last year. The average 2016 score was 3.92, compared to 3.05 this past May.

“We’re hoping that is a similar event as to what happened in AP calculus last year, that perhaps it is an event not a pattern in the data,” she said.

Port Jeff came in below other New York State test takers on average in five subjects: macroeconomics, biology, Spanish language and culture, music theory and computer science. Biology scores have come down from a mean of 3.19 in 2014 to a 2.92 in 2017.

In total 29 students in Port Jeff were named AP Scholars with Distinction, which is granted to test takers who receive scores of at least 3.50 on all exams taken and scores of 3 or better on five or more exams. Six students were named National AP Scholars for earning a 4 or better on all tests taken and at least a 4 on eight or more exams.

“This is something that we should very much be proud of in Port Jefferson,” Schmettan said.

Visit www.portjeffschools.org to see the full results and click on “Curriculum & Instruction” under the “Departments” tab.

The best way to defray the cost of a college education is to open a 529 plan.

By Linda M. Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: I would like to help defray the cost of college for my grandson, Joe. My daughter and son-in-law are not in a position to pay full tuition, room and board. I don’t want them or Joe to borrow for his education.

THE QUESTION: What is the best way to help out without hurting Joe’s chances of receiving needs-based financial aid?

THE ANSWER: Although there are a number of ways to defray the cost of Joe’s education, including giving him money, giving money to your daughter and son-in-law or paying the college directly, for many people the best way to assist with college expenses is to set up a Section 529 College Savings Plan (a “529 plan”) with Joe as the beneficiary. Your various options are discussed below.

If you want to simply gift money to Joe for his education, you can give him up to $14,000 per year without incurring any gift tax. However, when the college reviews his financial aid application and determines how much Joe should contribute toward his education, they will take any gifts you have given him into consideration. Since students are expected to contribute approximately 20 percent of their savings to their education, the more you give to Joe directly, the less aid he will receive.

If you decide to give money for Joe’s college expenses directly to your daughter and son-in-law, you can gift each of them $14,000 for a total of $28,000 per year. Clearly you can make a larger annual contribution to Joe’s education this way; but, like the funds gifted to Joe, the funds you gift to your daughter and son-in-law will be taken into consideration when calculating any financial aid that may be awarded to Joe. The negative impact of gifting funds to his parents rather than to Joe will be less than the impact of gifts made directly to Joe because his parents are only expected to contribute about 6 percent of their assets to his education.

Paying the college Joe attends directly is an option that avoids any potential gift tax issues on gifts exceeding the $14,000 annual limit. Paying the college directly would allow you to make larger contributions annually to his education; but, this method is not recommended since the money paid directly to the college will be considered as income to Joe. Like gifts to Joe, payments to the college will adversely impact the amount of aid Joe may receive.

In my opinion, the best way to defray the cost of Joe’s college education is to open a 529 plan. Many states, including New York, offer such plans that allow for tax exempt growth on investments so long as distributions from the accounts are used to pay qualified college expenses. Contributions to a 529 plan are subject to gift tax; but, the law allows contributions up to $70,000 to be made in one year as long as the person funding the plan files a gift tax return and applies the contribution over a five-year period.

If you open a 529 plan, you could decide how the funds in the account will be invested and to change the beneficiary in the event Joe decides not to attend college. You could also remove funds from the account for noncollege expenses although such a withdrawal will result in a penalty and tax liability.

Although the income on the investments in the plan will be considered Joe’s income, increasing the amount he will be expected to contribute to his education, it is only assessed at 50 percent as opposed to other income that is assessed at 100 percent so the negative impact is greatly reduced.

In some states you can avoid the negative impact of increasing Joe’s income if you transfer the 529 plan to your daughter before Joe applies for aid. Unfortunately, this option is not available in New York where transfers are prohibited unless the account owner dies or there is a court order. For this reason, it may make more sense if you simply contribute funds to a 529 plan opened by your daughter.

Regardless of the method you decide to use to defray the cost of Joe’s education, it is worth noting that gifts made to Joe or his parents after January of Joe’s junior year of college should not have any impact on his ability to get financial aid. That is because by then Joe will have already filed his aid application for his senior year.

Before you make a decision about how to help Joe and his parents pay for his college education, you should not only look at all the options available to you but you should discuss with an estate planning attorney how Joe’s college education should be addressed in your estate plan. You don’t want your estate plan to jeopardize whatever steps you may take during your lifetime to benefit Joe.

Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of estate planning and administration, real estate, marital agreements and litigation out of her Setauket office.

An electronic sign in front of Port Jefferson High School alerting residents about the referendum. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

After months of passionate and at times heated debate, the Port Jefferson School District community has spoken.

Residents voted overwhelmingly against a $30 million capital bond proposal that carried an additional $10 million in interest over its 15-year life and included over 20 districtwide repair and upgrade projects. The issue garnered feverish local attention at numerous school board meetings and on social media forums since it was presented to the public by the district and board of education in September, driving more than 1,700 voters to the polls on referendum day Dec. 5. After all was said and done, 1,355 residents voted against the bond, with just 374 voting in favor of it. By comparison, just 412 people voted on the 2018 budget and school board vacancies back in May.

A lawn sign on Barnum Avenue encouraging residents to vote ‘No’ on a $30M PJSD bond proposal. Photo by Alex Petroski

The proposal featured a three-story addition to a wing of the high school, additional classrooms at the high school and elementary school, a turf football field at the high school and lights for the Scraggy Hill Road athletic fields, among many more improvements. Some of the fixes — like additional girls locker room space and handicapped parking spaces at the high school track — were included to get the district in compliance with Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act and will likely need to be addressed either using the district’s capital reserves or a reworked bond proposal.

“While I am disappointed in the result, I am encouraged that so many residents took the time to vote,” district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “The district and our board of education will discuss the matter further at subsequent meetings. The safety, security and compliance concerns that we were attempting to address through the projects in the capital bond still exist and need attention.”

Many of those opposed to the bond pointed to the uncertainty surrounding an ongoing district and Port Jefferson Village lawsuit against Long Island Power Authority, as both entities stand to potentially lose substantial tax revenue in the coming years should a settlement or decision in the LIPA case be reached. LIPA has contended it pays too much in property taxes to operate the Port Jefferson Power Station, now that sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades have drastically reduced the regular need for the plant. The district and village’s annual operating budgets are funded in large part due to that revenue. Others were also opposed to the “all or nothing” proposal, which included upgrades that were seen as imminently necessary alongside projects that were viewed as extravagant, like the stadium lights at the Scraggy Hill fields and a new synthetic playing surface for the varsity football field.

“I think the result demonstrates that the community is seeking more transparency and fiscal responsibility from the board and the administration,” said Rene Tidwell, a district resident who was vocal in her opposition to the proposal. “We as a community are eager to roll up our sleeves and help identify urgent projects to fix compliance issues and to help prioritize long-term projects.”

Tidwell said she was not previously as engaged in the goings on of the board of education prior to the emergence of the debate over the bond.

“There had been talk in the community about it and when I started looking closely at the information the board provided I ended up having more questions,” she said. “Many in the community felt there wasn’t a consistent resource or outreach to the entire community with respect to contributing input for what went into the bond proposal.”

Depending on the assessed value of a district resident’s home, the bond would have resulted in an increase of between $289 and $1,185 annually in property taxes, according to the district.

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant publicly requested that the district hold off on bringing the proposal forward in September until a resolution was reached on the LIPA issue.

“Tonight’s heavy turnout and result reflects the engagement and passion of our community,” Garant said Dec. 5 via email. “They spoke to the board of education with resounding voices of concern over this bond proposal and while doing so, expressed their deep concern for the children in our school district, clearly stating their support for the ‘needs,’ and not the ‘wants’ in the proposal.”

Elwood Middle School will get a new roof with the passage of Proposition 1 by voters. File photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Elwood taxpayers are willing to pay for critical infrastructure repairs to their schools, but turned down athletic program and field upgrades.

Elwood School District residents approved Proposition 1 of a bond referendum by 718-371 votes to make health and safety upgrades to the district’s four buildings Nov. 28. A second proposition to spend $3.72 million in enhancements to the athletic fields and other amenities narrowly failed, by a 508-577 vote.

Dilapidated auditorium seating in Elwood Middle School, will be repaired as a result of the passage of a capital bond proposition. File photo by Kevin Redding

“My sincere appreciation to all residents who came out to vote,” Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said. “I think the voting results show the priority that Elwood residents place on education.”

The approved bond proposition contains $34.5 million in capital projects including the replacement of the roofs in each of the four buildings — Harley Avenue School, Boyd Intermediate School, Elwood Middle School, and John H. Glenn High School — which was included due to leaks and flooding issues; and fixing sidewalks and pavement cracks.

Large renovations are also slated for each of the individual buildings under Proposition 1. Three of the schools — Harley Avenue, Elwood Middle School and John Glenn — will undergo cafeteria renovations to install new ceilings, replace outdated lighting fixtures, replace damaged furniture and install new air conditioning systems. The intermediate school will have a new parking lot installed for approximately 60 vehicles as well as a newly designed parent drop-off loop for $260,000 to improve traffic flow. In both the middle school and high school, there will be renovations of art and family and consumer science classrooms.

The district will move forward with having construction plans drawn up by their architects and submit them to the New York State Education Department for approval, according to Bossert, which he said takes 12 to 18 months on average.

“We are trying to make the roofs a priority, as the roofs leak and cause flooding during inclement weather,” Bossert said. “It doesn’t make sense to do any of the interior work before the roofs are fixed.”

The superintendent said he hopes to have the plans submitted to the state as soon as possible, as the district will still need to go through the bidding process for contractors prior to starting construction. He estimated it may be five years before all of the bond work is completed.

A damaged ceiling tile resulting from a roof leak in Elwood Middle School, that will be repaired as part of a capital bond project passed by the community. File photo by Kevin Redding

“Having patience is important in this project,” Bossert said.

The average estimated cost to taxpayers for Proposition 1 is $221 per year, or $18.32 per month, for a home with median assessed value. A calculator that allows homeowners to plug in their tax information for an exact quote is available on the district’s website.

The failed Proposition 2 asked taxpayers for $3.72 million to make enhancements to the district’s athletic programs. It was separated from Proposition 1 by the board of education as it was expected to be a divisive issue.

“The reason it is separate is there was division among opinions in the community,” Bossert said at September presentation. “Some members of the community were strongly in support of this proposed $3.72 million as something they can afford to invest in, other factions said, ‘We don’t feel that way.’”

Proposition 2 would have permitted the district to build a new concession stand for the athletic fields with an outdoor bathroom, a synthetic turf field, sidewalks to make the fields ADA compliant and a new scoreboard for the varsity baseball field.

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