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Huntington school district

Huntington High School. File photo

Exactly two months after a New York Times Magazine article about the deportation of a Honduran immigrant rocked the Huntington school community, Suffolk County Police Department and Suffolk County school superintendents have agreed on a job description for school resource officers.

Kenneth Bossert, president of Suffolk County Schools Superintendents Association, said his organization has been diligently working hand-in-hand with Suffolk police to craft the one-page document that sets out a 19-point bullet list outlining the roles and responsibilities of every school resource officer shared with TBR News Media Feb. 26.

“This document is intended to specify what these roles and responsibilities have been and is in no way intended to modify this existing program, which has achieved much success since it was established decades ago,” read a joint statement issues by Suffolk police and the superintendents association.

Suffolk’s SRO program was established in 1998, but there has never previously been a formal written document outlining the responsibilities of an SRO, according to Bossert. The issue has become a matter of pressing local concern after ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier wrote in her Dec. 27 article that Huntington’s SRO officer Drew Fiorello was allegedly involved in providing evidence resulting in the deportation of Alex, a Huntington High School student accused of being involved with MS-13.

“[An MOU] is different from a list of roles and responsibilities, it has a legal seriousness to it different from those.”

-Josh Dubnau

“For years, I believed the [school resource officer] was placed there to protect us,” 2016 graduate Savannah Richardson said at Jan. 9 board of education meeting. “I was never aware information shared with the SRO would end up in the hands of ICE.”

At the top of new one-page policy document outlining of an SRO’s responsibilities is, “perform all duties, responsibilities, and lawful requirements of a duly sworn Suffolk County Police Officer.”  This is immediately followed by the directive that SRO officers should, “Forge and maintain effective relationships” with all students and school staff.

Some of the outlined duties and responsibilities set forth in the SRO policy are very broad based and vague in details. For example, “Assist school officials when matters involving law enforcement officers are required” does not give any further explanation but seems open to individual interpretation.

Both Bossert and a police spokesperson made clear the document is not in any way to be construed or taken as a Memorandum of Understanding.

“If any individual district opts to take further action, that would be up to individual board of education and the SCPD,” Bossert said.

Huntington Superintendent James Polansky and the district’s board of education previously promised in a Dec. 28 letter to the community that they would seek an MOU as “such an agreement would establish formal procedural guidelines associated with the SRO position, as well as with information flow and restrictions.”  The superintendent also expressed in January that any MOU would likely need to be individualized per school district.

Polansky did not respond to requests for comments on the new SRO policy outlining the position’s role and responsibilities.

Several requests made by Huntington school district parents, students and community members over the last two months for clear boundaries and restrictions on the SRO’s position are not reflected by the new one-page policy. There is no mention made of SROs receiving required training in areas such as cultural competency or restorative justice practices and nothing regarding privacy of students and their records. Notably, there was no community forum or event provided for residents as was repeatedly requested by Huntington parents and students to give their input on the agreement. 

“This document is intended to specify what these roles and responsibilities have been and is in no way intended to modify this existing program…”

— Joint statement

Huntington parent Josh Dubnau reissued his call for a full Memorandum of Understanding contract as “necessary” between the school district and Suffolk police at the Feb. 25 board of education meeting while wearing a T-shirt that read, “Agents of Change.”

“[An MOU] is different from a handshake agreement, different from a gentleman’s or woman’s agreement,” he said. “It is different from a list of roles and responsibilities, it has a legal seriousness to it different from those.”

Dubnau called for Huntington school administrators to give more specific details on what they have alleged were inaccuracies in the New York Times Magazine piece as well as what steps the district has taken internally to prevent a similar situation from occurring again.

“What internal investigation has taken place to figure out what went wrong and to identify what needs to change?” he asked. “What changes if any have unilaterally been put in place by the school to prevent children from being labeled as gang associated and to provide a process for families to be aware of that and challenge it if it indeed happens. “

Jennifer Hebert, president of Huntington’s board of education, reacted only to tell Dubnau that it was “not the forum to address this.” The board does have a policy of not responding to speaker’s questions during its public comment period. However, no trustee chose to address the issue during a time set aside for closing remarks by board members.

The next Huntington BOE regular business meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. March 25 at Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School.

Huntington High School. File Photo

Huntington school administrators are cautiously aware of the district’s 2.57 percent tax cap in approaching their strategy to drafting the 2019-20 budget.

Superintendent James Polansky gave his first presentation on the district’s 2019-20 budget with a carefully thought out exposition of the district’s state-mandated tax cap allowing a 2.57 percent tax levy, or an increase of approximately $2.77 million over the current year’s budget.

“That number does not dictate the board will raise taxes by 2.57 percent, they could go above — I wouldn’t advise it — or they could go below,” Polansky said. “2.57 percent is the highest we could go without needing to secure a 60 percent supermajority.”

Huntington taxpayers approved a $129.8 million budget for the current 2018-19 school year, of which 84 percent is paid for by the tax levy on district homeowners and commercial businesses.

My request of having a librarian in each elementary school is of increasing importance.” 

—James Graber

For the upcoming 2019-20 year, the superintendent said the district’s overall tax levy number is higher than 2 percent primarily due to two factors: an assessed growth in the school district’s tax base, which increased the tax levy cap, and $475,611 carried over from last year.

“In basic terms, the carryover means we didn’t levy all we could have to the limit last year,” Polansky said.

In preparing the draft 2019-20 budget, the superintendent said initial estimates show two of the district’s major costs will decrease. The district’s state-mandated contribution rates to the NYS Teachers’ Retirement System and the Employees Retirement System are anticipated to drop.

The proposed 2019 Executive Budget of New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)contains funding for a number of educational initiatives, but also calls for increasing foundation aid by 1.9 percent statewide. If approved by the state Legislature, Huntington stands to receive $49,615, or a 0.52 percent increase over the current year, which it will have the discretion on how to spend.

James Graber, president of Huntington’s teachers association, called balancing the budget an “unenviable task” but requested the board make several considerations.

“My request of having a librarian in each elementary school is of increasing importance,” he said. “As we are seeking to develop lifelong learners and a love of reading, these resuscitations are critical.”

Graber said currently elementary students only are scheduled for library time once every other week. He also requested more resources be made available to help meet the needs of English language learners and additional classes at secondary school level, where some classes have more than 30 students enrolled.

Polansky encouraged residents or groups with interests in the budget, or a particular interest in the 2019-20 budget, to reach out to his office as soon as possible.

“As the presentations go on into April and we get closer to adopting a budget, that’s sometimes when people start to offer ideas and give food for thought to the administration or the board,” he said. “That’s late in the process, it starts now.”

The district’s next budget presentation will be 7 p.m. Feb. 25 in the auditorium of Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School. The official budget hearing is slated for May 13, prior to the May 21 budget and school board trustee vote.

Mark Barden, a founder of the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, presents violence prevention strategies to a room full of Suffolk lawmakers and school officials during an Aug. 16 event at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue as Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. looks on. Photo by Alex Petroski

On Dec. 14, 2012, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut left more than 20 people dead, mostly first-graders, shocking the world and changing it permanently. Much of that change can be attributed to the efforts of those who were most personally impacted by the tragic events of that day.

Parents from Sandy Hook were invited to St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue Aug. 16 by Suffolk County Sheriff’s office to share details about four programs they’ve created aimed at preventing violence in schools to a room packed with Suffolk County school district superintendents, administrators and lawmakers.

Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization, was founded by parents including Mark Barden, a professional musician originally from Yonkers who had moved to Newtown in 2007 with his wife to raise their three kids. His son, Daniel, was seven years old  when he was killed during the tragedy.

“It is very real and a very personal mission that I do this work to honor that kid, who we used to jokingly call ‘the caretaker of all living things,’ because that’s how he lived his life,” Barden said of his son.

He said Daniel was known for trying to connect with other kids he saw eating alone, for holding doors for strangers in public, and for picking up earthworms from the hot sidewalk and moving them to safety in the grass, among other instinctual acts of kindness he regularly displayed.

“It is very real and a very personal mission that I do this work to honor that kid, who we used to jokingly call ‘the caretaker of all living things,’ because that’s how he lived his life.”

— Mark Barden

“That’s how I’ve chosen to honor his life is through this work,” Barden said.

Sandy Hook Promise’s approach to carrying out its mission of preventing all gun-related deaths can be viewed as an extension of Daniel’s legacy of caring for those in need. Barden was joined Aug. 16 by two other members of the organization — Myra Leuci, national account manager, and Marykay Wishneski, national program coordinator — who detailed the initiatives the nonprofit pitches to school districts interested in improving their prevention strategies.

The four strategies , which fall under the nonprofit’s Know the Signs program, are taught to youth and adults free of charge in the hopes of fostering an environment that empowers everyone in the community to help identify and intervene when someone is at risk.

Say Something is an anonymous reporting system that teaches kids how to recognize warning signs, especially on social media, and gives them an outlet to get adults involved. Start With Hello is a training program that teaches students how to be more inclusive and connected to peers. Safety Assessment & Intervention program is geared toward adults and aims to teach them how to identify, assess and respond to threats of violence or at-risk behavior prior to a situation developing. The Signs of Suicide program teaches people how to identify and intervene to get help for those displaying signs of depression or suicidal behavior. The nonprofit offers in-person training for each program, though Say Something and Start With Hello are available to be downloaded and self-led by interested districts.

Since assuming office in January, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said he has made improving school safety and developing uniform, countywide approaches a top priority. Just a few weeks into his tenure, the country was rocked by the mass shooting Feb. 14 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed by a lone gunman.

“It’s an obligation that I feel I have as the Suffolk County Sheriff, to work with all of our partners, but I do feel I cannot stand on the sidelines and just watch,” Toulon said. “We really have to be proactive. Everyone from our police departments, our school administrators, everybody’s taking this banner on. Thankfully we’re all working together to really keep our communities and our children safe.”

Toulon has offered free safety assessments on a voluntary basis to interested districts. Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) has taken several steps  already to improve schools’ safety including starting an initiative that allows interested districts to grant access to in-school security cameras to the police department, and securing funds for a mobile phone application for municipal workers and school district employees that can be activated and used in the event of an active shooter situation to notify law enforcement. Bellone announced new initiatives to increase police patrols in school buildings, assign additional officers to the SCPD’s Homeland Security Section and establish a text tip line to report troubling activities this month.

“We are educators, so partnering with law enforcement and those with the skilled lens of how to best ensure the safety of our students has been paramount,” said Ken Bossert, president of Suffolk County Superintendents Association who leads Elwood school district. “So the focus and attention that law enforcement has paid on our schools is just greatly appreciated.”

Representatives from districts across the North Shore attended the informational forum and expressed interest in implementing some or all of what Sandy Hook Promise has to offer, including Huntington Superintendent James Polansky and Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano.

“It shows that our sheriff has a pulse on the public safety worries of our parents.”

— Kara Hahn

“A lot of what we heard today I’m going to roll out just informationally to my administrative staff,” Polansky said, adding Huntington has taken up Toulon on his offer to assess building safety already. “We’re actually looking to pursue a lot of the initiatives Sandy Hook Promise has to offer.”

Casciano expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s a great resource, and we’re very interested in pursuing it,” he said. “We’ll be making our contacts.”

Several attendees commended Toulon for embracing a leadership role on school safety, including Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D), who was among the wide array of lawmakers at the event along with the school officials.

“It shows that our sheriff has a pulse on the public safety worries of our parents,” said county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who is a licensed social worker. She called Toulon’s approach incredibly important. “It shows that he has the recognition that when you have a shooter at the door of a school, it’s too late, and this really needs to be about prevention. We cannot police this, we need to prevent this. And that’s what this is about.”

Bossert said superintendents in the county have been working to put together a uniform blueprint for school safety and are planning to roll it out later this month. For more information about Sandy Hook Promise, visit www.sandyhookpromise.org.

Details on two additional propositions on the ballot regarind capital

Huntington High School. File Photo

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Huntington school district taxpayers will be asked to vote three times when they head to the polls May 15.

Huntington’s board of education has put forth a proposed $129,812,991 budget for the 2018-19 school year. The board members also elected to put two additional measures asking for the release of reserve funds to tackle various capital projects and repairs needed in the district’s eight buildings.

“I do believe the budget we are discussing this evening does not short change any educational programs,” Superintendent James Polansky said in an April budget presentation. “We’ve been very responsible in terms of how we put our budget together and taking into account the taxpayer burden the way we do.”

 “We’ve been very responsible in terms of how we put our budget together and taking into account the taxpayer burden the way we do.”
– James Polansky

Polansky said the district has set aside funds to continue to increase and expand its education programs. Huntington High School will have a computer science course added as well as a virtual enterprise course, a new business elective which simulates an entrepreneurial business for students to run.

The proposed budget also includes funds to redesign the math curriculum for the mid-level grades and augmenting the elementary school and social studies programs.

If approved, the adopted 2018-19 spending plan would represent a budget-to-budget increase of 2.85 percent, or approximately $3.6 million more than the current year. The primary costs driving up the budget
include the district’s approximately $800,000 increase in contributions to the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System, health care insurance for faculty and staff and rising transportation costs.

If approved by voters, the average Huntington homeowner will see their annual school taxes increase by an estimated $213.69, or approximately $17.81 a month. This is based on the average home having an assessed value of $3,430, in which an assessed value is a dollar value placed on the property by the Town of Huntington solely for the purposes of calculating taxes based on comparable home sales and other factors.

Proposition 2

Proposition 2 will ask Huntington residents to approve the release of about $7 million from the district’s capital reserves fund for critical infrastructure repairs. The list of projects includes the replacement of the roofs at three elementary schools, Flower Hill, Jefferson and Southdown at $1.5 million each; tile replacement in 17 bathrooms at Jefferson and Nathaniel Woodhull School; security vestibules at Flower Hill and Washington primary schools; and replacing two of Woodhull’s boilers. If approved by voters, Proposition 2 will have no impact on the tax levy or tax rate.

Proposition 3

Under Proposition 3, the district seeks to create a new building improvement fund. The superintendent said making a new fund is necessary in order to transfer money from the district’s existing repair reserve, which can primarily be used in emergencies, to a newly named capital reserve that will be used for turf field replacement. If Proposition 3 is approved, it will also have no impact on the tax levy or tax rate.

Go vote 

The polls will be open May 15 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Huntington High School. 

Huntington High School. File Photo

Huntington school district taxpayers will be asked to vote three times when they head to the polls May 15.

Huntington’s board of education unanimously adopted its proposed $129,812,991 budget for the 2018-19 school year at its April 19 meeting. The board members also elected to put two additional measures asking for the release of reserve funds to tackle various capital projects and repairs needed in the district’s eight buildings.

“I do believe the budget we are discussing this evening does not short change any educational programs,” Superintendent James Polansky said at the April 19 meeting. “We’ve been very responsible in terms of how we put our budget together and taking into account the taxpayer burden the way we do.”


Adopted 2018-19 Budget:
$129,812,911 total
2.85 percent budget-to-budget increase
2.68 tax levy increase
2.68 tax rate increase

If approved, the adopted 2018-19 spending plan would represent a budget-to-budget increase of 2.85 percent, or approximately $3.6 million more than the current year. The primary costs driving up the budget include the district’s approximately $800,000 increase in contributions to the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System, health care insurance for faculty and staff and rising transportation costs.

Polansky said the district has set aside funds to continue to increase and expand its education programs. Huntington High School will have a computer science course added as well as a virtual enterprise course, a new business elective which simulates an entrepreneurial business for students to run.

“Not many schools have this program yet, Huntington will be one of the first,” Polansky said.

The proposed budget also includes funds to redesign the math curriculum for the mid-level grades and augmenting the elementary school and social studies programs.

State Aid

Since March 26, the district has been able to trim more than $750,000 from its initial draft budget to bring the proposed tax levy intreasse to 2.68 percent. This is largely due to receiving $479,000 more in foundation aid than anticipated after state lawmakers approved the final state budget, according to Polansky, a significant boost from a mere $22,000 expected under the executive budget of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). The board of  education also approved using $155,000 from the district’s early retirement system reserves to offset the tax levy increase.

“It sounds cliché, but a lot of us receive tax bills twice a year and they are not pretty to look at,” the superintendent said. “We are trying to be mindful.”

Proposition #2:  Use $7.1 million from district’s capital reserves for infrastructural improvements

Proposition #3: Create a new Building Improvement Fund in order to be able to use funding from the Repair Reserves to replace the turf field

If the adopted budget is approved by voters, the average Huntington homeowner will see their annual school taxes increase by an estimated $213.69, or approximately $17.81 a month. This is based on the average home having an assessed value of $3,430, in which an assessed value is a dollar value placed on the property by the Town of Huntington solely for the purposes of calculating taxes based on comparable home sales and other factors.

Proposition #2

Proposition 2 will ask Huntington residents to approve the release of about $7 million from the district’s capital reserves fund for critical infrastructure repairs. The list of projects includes the replacement of the roofs at three elementary schools, Flower Hill, Jefferson and Southdown at $1.5 million each; tile replacement in 17 bathrooms at Jefferson and Nathaniel Woodhull School; security vestibules at Flower Hill and Washington primary schools; and replacing two of Woodhull’s boilers. Polansky said the full funding necessary is already available from the district’s reserves and projects cannot be sent to the state for approval, a step needed to begin construction, until the voters approve the funding. If approved by voters, Proposition 2 will have no impact on the tax levy or tax rate.

Proposition #3

Under Proposition 3, the district seeks to create a new building improvement fund. The superintendent said making a new fund is necessary in order to transfer money from the district’s existing repair reserve, which can primarily be used in emergencies, to a newly named capital reserve that will be used for turf field replacement. The district’s turf field is nearing 10 years old, according to Polansky, which is its recommended lifespan. If Proposition 3 is approved, it will also have no impact on the tax levy or tax rate.

A formal budget hearing will be held Monday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m. at Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School auditorium.

Huntington High School. File Photo

A coach bus transporting dozens of Huntington area students home from a spring break trip smashed into an Southern State Parkway overpass late Sunday night, seriously injuring two 17-year-old girls.

New York State Police said at 9:08 p.m. April 8 officers responded to a one-vehicle crash involving a 2000 Prevost coach bus traveling eastbound on the Southern State Parkway that had crashed into the exit 18 Eagle Avenue overpass in the Town of Hempstead. There were 43 students and chaperones onboard returning from a trip to eastern Europe.

“We were informed shortly [after the crash] that several individuals who were injured in the accident were members of the Huntington High School community,” read a statement from Huntington Superintendent James Polansky posted on the district’s website. “While injuries apparently ranged in severity, preliminary reports indicate that all have been treated and released, or remain under treatment. Our thoughts and prayers remain with all families involved.”

State police identified the driver of the coach bus as Troy Gaston, 43, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who was working for Journey Bus Line. Police said Gaston had used a non-commercial GPS device to determine the best route from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington was via the Belt and Southern State parkways.

Gaston has a valid Pennsylvania commercial vehicle driver’s license. He was cooperative at the scene, according to police, where he was evaluated by a state police drug recognition expert for any sign of alcohol or drug use. The driver voluntarily offered a blood sample which came back with no trace of alcohol use and a drug evaluation is still pending, police said.

“This was an avoidable accident,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) during a press conference.

Schumer said in 2012 he held a press conference at the same overpass where the accident occurred calling for improved safety standards including the use of commercial GPS systems to warn truck and bus drivers about the clearance heights of bridges.

In 2013, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and agency with a primary mission to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries, sent notification to all truckers and transportation companies about these commercial GPS systems.

“This driver should have never been using the Southern State,” Schumer said. “And the GPS equipment was available to tell him.”

While installation of these commercial GPS systems was recommended by the federal agency, it is not mandated by law, according to Schumer. The senator said he would look into legislation to requiree the systems be used and drivers be properly trained to prevent future accidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board was also notified of the accident, according to police, but it did not meet their response criteria. It will be monitoring the ongoing investigation.

The Southern State Parkway was closed until 7 a.m. April 9 to allow state police to attempt to reconstruct the accident and determine its cause. Police said they still need to verify the route the bus traveled using forensic evidence and conducting passenger interviews.

Anyone who may have witnessed the crash is asked to contact the state police at 631-756-3300.

Huntington High School. File Photo

Following the Parkland school shooting in Florida Feb. 14, there is no denying there’s been a raging national debate over gun control measures and school safety. As the student survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have spoken up, their actions have rippled outward creating a call for activism by students nationwide to have their voices and opinions on gun control heard. It has reached Long Island.

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.

“Our goal in responding to a planned student walkout is to keep our focus on teaching and learning, while at the same time providing students and staff with support in order to ensure the safety of all.”

— Brenden Cusack

Town of Huntington school districts and officials are weighing how the marches might play out here, with logistics and safety being of the utmost concern for administrators.

Huntington High School Principal Brenden Cusack sent out a letter to parents March 2 that clearly outlines the district’s stand on the upcoming walkout.

“While a school may not endorse a student walkout, Huntington High School respects our students’ constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” Cusack said. “Our goal in responding to a planned student walkout is to keep our focus on teaching and learning, while at the same time providing students and staff with support in order to ensure the safety of all.”

The principal also stated that students who choose to participate in the March 14 event will not be given an excused absence and will not be permitted to make up any class assignments they miss. Walkout participants will be monitored by the high school’s security staff, according to Cusack, and given specific instructions regarding how to egress from the building and provided with a staging area. Students are expected to remain in compliance with the district’s code of conduct and are not permitted to leave campus.

“In these times of heightened emotion, I ask that you please speak with your children about their feelings on this topic and any plans they may have for expressing their viewpoints,” Cusack said.

Prior to the protest, the Huntington school district will be hosting a forum titled “How Can We Stop Mass Shootings in Our Communities?” on March 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the cafeteria of Huntington High School. This student moderated forum is open to high school students, parents, family and community members “designed to engage in productive, respectful and meaningful dialogue.” Any students in attendance will be provided with community service credits, according to Cusack.

“In these times of heightened emotion, I ask that you please speak with your children about their feelings on this topic.”

— Brenden Cusack

School administrators in Elwood, Harborfields and Northport districts declined to comment on their plans for the walkout.

A second unconnected protest is being planned for April 20 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 their opinions. The organizers of the walkout envision a day-long event.

“We’re protesting the violence in schools and the lack of change that has occurred to stop that,” the website for the event reads. “The 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.”

While the federal government deals with the political gridlock long associated with gun control, New York State 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.

With additional reporting by Alex Petroski

District administrators to review security plans March 13; have plans to install more cameras

Huntington High School. File photo.

With Florida’s school shooting still in recent memory, Huntington school officials are taking the tragedy as a reminder to review their own security plans.

Parents were given a thorough rundown of Huntington Union Free School District’s plans to keep its nearly 4,600 students safe and planned security upgrades at the Feb. 26 board of education meeting.

“Any district that would say they are well prepared to deal with any and all contingencies that could occur would be stating something that is not true,” Superintendent James Polansky said. “I believe in this district we are as actively thinking what can and may happen as any other district out there. You have to be as many steps ahead as any district can be.”

Any district that would say they are well prepared to deal with any and all contingencies that could occur would be stating something that is not true.”
—James Polansky

Kathleen Acker, Huntington’s assistant superintendent for finances and management services, walked parents through the district’s general safety plans, which can be found online, in addition to informing them that a districtwide plan and highly-detailed building specific plans exist and are filed with state and local law enforcement.

“The plans are very dynamic and always change in response,” Acker said. “We will be doing a review on March 13 to see how comprehensive it is, but there’s always room to add a bit more.”

School officials have used part of the district’s $1.4 million Smart Schools Bond Act funds from the state to upgrade existing security cameras at the high school and install additional ones districtwide this year, according to Acker. She said the district has also recently partnered with Intralogic Solutions, a security technology provider, to pilot a new safety system. The Alert Domain Awareness System focuses security cameras on fire alarms to provide a view of who pulled the trigger, a method which was employed by the Parkland shooting suspect, to determine if it’s a credible alarm.

The assistant superintendent said the district will spend approximately $100,000 to replace old doors at two elementary schools with doors that can be locked from the inside. It’s a process referred to as door hardening, according to Polansky, and it’s recommended classroom doors are locked at all times.

“Just a locked door serves as a deterrent,” he said. “If there’s a threat, they’ll keep moving.”

Huntington school district has hired one additional security guard, currently in training, and plans to review its deployment of guards throughout the district. The state has approved the district’s plans to construct a security vestibule at Jefferson Elementary School this summer, according to Acker. School officials are also waiting for state approval to build similar booths at Nathaniel Woodhull School and Southdown Primary School.

“If we can’t keep students and staff safe, nothing else matters.” 
— James Polansky

Last year, each building had video monitors installed at every greeter station so staff members could see visitors looking to gain entrance. Visitors are required to show photo identification.

The superintendent said he believes a key piece of ensuring student safety is preventative measures which have included anti-bullying programs and adding support staff — a social worker, a psychologist and more guidance counselors.

“They are not teaching kids in the classroom, but the services are indispensable,” Polansky said.

The Huntington superintendent said he had a meeting scheduled with 10 other school administrators across Huntington and Smithtown townships Feb. 27 to discuss the best ways to communicate and share security strategies in light of the recent shooting.

“Safety is our No. 1 priority,” Polansky said. “If we can’t keep students and staff safe, nothing else matters.” 

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.

Huntington High School. File Photo

Huntington school district has started to address the 2018-19 budget early, admitting there may be challenges ahead for the district.

Superintendent James Polansky gave a presentation at the Jan. 9 board of education meeting to outline how the potential impact of newly approved federal tax laws, the state’s budget deficit and the district’s increasing costs could significantly affect Huntington students and parents.

“There are a lot of question marks this year right now, making predicting the budget a little more difficult than it has been in the past,” Polansky said.

Among his top concerns are the impact of President Donald Trump’s (R) Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, as homeowners are limited to a $10,000 write off for state and local taxes — which includes property taxes. The superintendent said he believes many homeowners will wind up paying high income taxes due to the new limits on deductions.

“It’s no secret that school budgets make up the bulk of property taxes,” he said. “How will that impact voter consideration with regard to the school budget?”

Complicating matters further, Polansky said Jan. 9 he expected the district to get little to no increase in state aid for the 2018-19 school year given New York has a more than $4.5 billion shortfall.

Contrary to Polansky’s prediction, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) unveiled a $168 billion state budget Jan. 15 in which he proposed increasing state aid for elementary and secondary education by 3 percent for the 2018-19 school year. Cuomo’s proposed budget has until April 1 to be adopted by state legislators.

Polansky said Huntington school district is facing a number of factors that could lead to higher operating costs in the next school year, including increasing costs of employees’ contractual salaries and benefits. The district also will be subject to an increasing contribution rate from 9.8 percent up to between 10.5 and 11.8 percent of its payroll to the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System.

“For a district of our size or larger, that’s not an insignificant expense,” the superintendent said. “We are
obligated to pay into it just like every other school district in New York.”

The district’s presentations on the 2018-19 year will kick off Feb. 5 when Polansky said he will walk step-by-step through the process of calculating the district’s tax levy limit. This will include a discussion on growth of the tax base in Huntington, which he noted is a positive factor.

“Huntington for the last couple of years has been well below the tax levy limit,” he said. “I anticipate there is a good chance we will be well below that limit this year.”

In May 2017, voters approved a $126.2 million budget for the 2017-18 school year — with 1,022 ‘yes’ to 148 ‘no’ votes — that featured expanded enrollment for Advanced Placement and high school elective courses, upgrades to facilities, and additional summer enrichment classes.

Proposed budgetary changes for 2018-19 capital projects will be discussed March 12, followed by instructional and staff changes March 26. A full recap of the proposed budget will be given April 9, before expected adoption by the board April 16. 

“My goal is to get as much straightforward, concise and simplistic information out to my residents,” Polansky said.

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