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James Grossane

It was an afternoon of pride and sentiment as 427 graduates from Smithtown High School West’s Class of 2017 celebrated an important academic milestone during the 102nd annual commencement exercises on the football field June 22.

After a salute to the flag, the jazz choir sang the national anthem, followed by Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Grossane’s welcome to the students and their guests. In giving advice to the graduates, Dr. Grossane called on the lessons learned in the readings of “Winnie the Pooh” stories as they related to individuality, unselfishness, comfort, wealth and trust. “Trust in your abilities to deal with anything,” he said.  

Honor speaker Cory Zhou, who was elected by his peers in lieu of a valedictorian and salutatorian, encouraged classmates to find passion in their lives and to use their natural talents. “Do not subjugate your gifts out of fear,” he said. “Instead, flaunt them and be proud of them.” Class president Courtney Grafstein spoke about the importance of reaching out to others. “Everything we do, no matter how small, can make a difference in the lives of others,” she noted.

Prior to the presentation of the class, Principal John Coady thanked the students for their assistance in making Smithtown High School West a school of excellence. “You have left a mark on this school,” he said. “I thank you for what you have done and what you will do.”

After each graduate was called to the stage to receive his or her diploma from administration and faculty, concert choir seniors and the jazz choir paid tribute to the parents and graduates with a performance of “The Sweetest Days.”

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Superintendent James Grossane file photo

District administration fears financial “doom and gloom” might be on the horizon for the Smithtown school district.

The Smithtown board of education voted unanimously to adopt Superintendent James Grossane’s proposed $236,027,619 budget for the 2016-17 school year at a meeting Tuesday.

Thanks to a full restoration of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which was enacted six years ago in an effort to close a state budget deficit by deducting funds from each school district’s state aid allotment, the budget includes some additional expenditures for 2016-17, despite what could be a perfect storm of financial stress for the district.

That decision added approximately $3.2 million in revenue to Smithtown’s budget for the upcoming school year. However, both Grossane and Andrew Tobin, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said they are concerned that will be the final increase in state aid they will receive for the foreseeable future.

“The reality is, where is the future aid going to come from?” Tobin said during the board of education meeting Tuesday. “We know foundation aid historically has been directed to high-need districts, not to districts such as Smithtown. So we’re concerned, just like we were with the [Gap Elimination Adjustment] that we’ll be last in line to get future foundation aid increases. That’s the general concern going forward, that we might be solely reliant on tax levy revenue to help out our budgets going forward.”

In addition, the district benefitted during this budget season from a relatively low pension payment requirement, a perk that can’t be counted on every year. Grossane said he’s bracing for the possibility of a negative tax levy increase cap at some point in the coming years, because the district has a $2 million bond from the early 2000s coming off the books. That will result in an equal reduction to both expenses and revenue, though it will impact the tax levy increase cap. The district will look to rebuild their depleted capital reserve funds to address building repairs at multiple schools that have been neglected.

“These are all realities, and when they’re going to happen, we’re not sure,” Grossane said. “Hopefully never, but they are happening [to other districts in the state]. We can’t say that they’re not. It is very important, as we plan for the future, that we keep those things in mind.”

School board trustee Grace Plourde spoke Tuesday about the years leading up to the enactment of the state-mandated cap on tax levy increases in 2011.

“In the years running up to the tax cap, we had members of the board of education, who are no longer here, whose view was basically that anytime a school district put a little money in the bank, that was akin to theft,” Plourde said. “So they turned the district’s piggy bank upside down and shook it.”

Plourde also spoke about state laws that incentivize school district residents to vote against budgets that pierce the tax levy increase cap as well as limits on unassigned fund balance.

“It’s a little frustrating that every place we try to look to head off a problem, to prevent the day where we are going to have to make deep and painful cuts in program — like we’ve had to do in the past when we’ve had budget crises — every time we try to put a little money away or to do something to head off a crisis like that, we are thwarted by the state of New York,” she said.

The adopted budget will distribute money received from the restoration of the Gap Elimination Adjustment to one-time expenditures for 2016-17, rather than using it on programs that require yearly funding. Those expenditures include elementary and secondary staff development for teachers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum and investment in materials to help that development.

The board of education voted to close one of the district’s eight elementary schools for the 2017-18 school year as a cost-saving method in February. Parents against the closure spoke during the meeting in the hopes of convincing the board of education to reverse that decision in light of the unexpected spike in state aid for 2016-17. District administration and members of the board of education gave no indication that they would reconsider the closure.

The vote to approve the 2016-17 adopted budget is on May 17.

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Housing committee member Annemarie Vinas addresses the school board at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo by Alex Petroski

With a possible deficit looming, the Smithtown Central School District board of education is moving closer to a decision on the fate of its eight elementary schools, following a public work session on Jan. 19 and a board meeting on Jan. 26.

Discussions between the school board and the community were getting emotional this week.

Superintendent James Grossane, with the help of Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Andrew Tobin, backed up his five recommendations to the school board from a November 2015 housing report with statistics at the work session on Jan. 19.

“I can’t tell you that 2017-18 will be the deficit year, but it’s becoming more and more likely as we look out ahead that 2017-18, maybe 2018-19, if we don’t get those type of increases, we know our expenses are going to go up, we’re going to certainly be facing it at some point,” Tobin said during the work session.

At the work session the board, along with Grossane, discussed the findings of the housing report that made five recommendations, labeled Options 1 through 5, for money saving measures.

Of the five recommendations, all suggested closing at least one of the district’s eight elementary schools. Grossane’s report said that closing one elementary school would save the district $725,000 annually.

Four of the five options included closing Branch Brook Elementary, which caused an uprising among district parents and started a Save Branch Brook movement that included petitions, Facebook pages, presentations to the school board and matching blue T-shirts.

Meredith Lombardi, a resident in the district, made a heartfelt plea to the board on Tuesday night.

“I was in sixth grade and my school district was redistricted,” Lombardi said. “I was ripped from my school. I was told that I was going to be going to a new one.”

Lombardi expressed a fear of putting her three children through the same experience that she had.

“If you allow one of our schools to close, the children affected will never be the same,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi was one of eight “Save Branch Brook” parents who stepped up to the podium to address the board Tuesday night. Katie Healy was another.

“Branch Brook is our most efficient and cost effective school,” Healy said. “Branch Brook is not the school to close. It is the wrong place and the wrong time. Closing Branch Brook will not solve our district’s problems, it will just add more,” Healy said.

At the time that the recommendations were made, it was unclear what lead Grossane to suggest closing Branch Brook as a course of action. Parents from the Save Branch Brook contingent conducted their own housing-committee-style research and concluded that Branch Brook was the elementary school least deserving of closure based on building occupancy, square foot per student, students per usable classroom and utility cost.

They also offered their own recommendation, Option 6, which suggested that based on their findings Smithtown Elementary was the school that should be closed.

It is now clear what led Grossane to suggest Branch Brook for closure, records showed. The number of elementary school classrooms that feed students to the district’s two high schools must be close.

Currently, the eight elementary schools send 116 classrooms worth of students to Smithtown West when they reach ninth grade and 114 to Smithtown East, according to Grossane.

If Branch Brook were closed and district boundaries were not redrawn, 114 elementary classes would still be fed to East, while 96 would be sent to West.

This is a discrepancy that Grossane is comfortable with. Closing Smithtown Elementary, for example, which was put on the table by the community’s Option 6, would result in 114 elementary classrooms for East and 84 for West.

Grossane said that there would be no choice but to redistrict if that was the option that the board selected.

Additionally, the district needs to select a school for closure that does not leave their potential elementary school capacity vulnerable to growing enrollment. Grossane’s report said that even if the board chose Option 5, which would close Branch Brook and Dogwood Elementary schools, the district would be able to handle roughly 800 additional elementary students on top of the approximately 3,700 elementary school students enrolled for 2015-16 across the eight schools.

Closing one or two elementary schools would obviously increase average class size, though Grossane called instances where any classes would reach a district implemented maximum of 28 students “outliers.”

“Every school has a grade level that runs almost to maximum,” Grossane said at the work session. “If we close a building and we operate with seven, those outliers would smooth out. They’d shift. There would still be an outlier occasionally in every building. I’m not going to tell you there isn’t going to be a class in fifth grade that doesn’t have a 28 at some point within the next six years after we close a building, because there definitely will be. But it’s usually one grade per building. Most times, the class averages even out across the district.”

Members of the school board responded to Grossane’s findings as well as the overwhelming public comments from the previous meetings.

“I have been doing a lot of housing committee work over my time on the board,” Theresa Knox, a trustee on the board of education said on the 19th. “I’ve been through this within my own neighborhood, as many of you know. My children were not affected by the closing of Nesconset, but all of the children on the end of my little dead-end block were. And I have to look at them everyday. And they’re doing great.”

Knox responded to parents concerned about which elementary school their kids would be sent to if closures were carried out. “It had better be, that all of our elementary buildings are fine, educational, welcoming, nurturing, caring places.”

Discussions about the sale and/or repurposing of the district’s administration headquarters on New York Avenue in Smithtown are ongoing as well.

Public comments are not permitted during public work sessions. More debate and eventually a decision are inevitable in the coming weeks.

A date has not yet been selected for a vote on the matter.

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Superintendent James Grossane file photo

Traces of the potentially hazardous legionella bacteria have been found in cooling towers at both high schools in the Smithtown Central School District, Superintendent James Grossane said Thursday.

In a statement sent out to district parents and posted on the district’s website, Grossane said a state engineer collected samples Wednesday morning that confirmed “detectable concentrations of the Legionella bacteria” in cooling towers, which come into contact with their respective schools’ water systems at the Smithtown East and Smithtown West high school buildings.

The samples were collected as part of a safety precaution required by the New York State Department of Health.

The superintendent added that the incidents were isolated only to the towers and did not spread into their respective schools’ water supplies or the greater Smithtown area, and there have not been any reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria, at either school.

“The only areas affected were the cooling towers, which are now back up and running safely,” Grossane said in the statement.

The inspection came in response to the recent outbreak of illness caused by Legionella bacteria in the Bronx, in order to prevent a greater spread of the bacteria throughout the state, the Smithtown superintendent said. The Department of Health issued an emergency regulation over recent weeks requiring the registration, testing, inspection and certification of cooling towers throughout the region, prompting the Smithtown inspection and ultimate discovery of the bacteria.

The superintendent sent out an automated voice message to parents throughout the district assuring that both cooling towers were safe for students and staff at the high schools and will continue to be maintained twice monthly. Grossane also said the district took voluntary steps to complete an “offline system decontamination,” which included an additional chlorine treatment, a system drain and flush, manual surface cleaning, refilling with treated water and re-establishing treatment.

“Follow-up monitoring will be performed in accordance with the new regulation, which does include retesting as verification of the treatment,” Grossane said in the statement.

The Legionella bacteria can cause respiratory disease that could lead to health complications like pneumonia, which is sometimes fatal. Fewer than 100 cases are reported each year, typically in upstate New York, and most cases are singular isolated incidents, the Smithtown Central School District said. The bacteria exist naturally in water and moist soil and can be spread through the air from a soil or water source.

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Superintendent James Grossane file photo

The Dignity for All Students Act coordinators for the 2015-16 school year were renewed on Tuesday at Smithtown’s Board of Education meeting.

The Dignity Act is a New York State law that was put into effect in July 2012. It amended section 801-a of state education law regarding instruction in civility, citizenship and character education by expanding the concepts of tolerance, respect for others and dignity.

It is mostly focused on elementary and secondary school students and creates an anti-bully zone at school, school buses and all school functions.

This act is meant to raise awareness and sensitivity in human relations including different weights, race, national origins, religion, ethnic groups, mental and physical abilities, and gender and sexual identification.

This act requires all New York State boards of education to include language addressing the Dignity Act in their codes of conduct. Schools are also responsible for collecting and reporting data regarding material incidents of harassment and discrimination.

“It’s basically an anti-bullying law,” Superintendent James Grossane said after the meeting. “It’s to help with students who are feeling harassed or excluded.”

Coordinators for this act are usually the principals of every school building, according to Grossane.

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