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Joe Rella

There was much finality to this year’s school graduations at Comsewogue school district. As high school seniors got ready to leave for new horizons, superintendents Joe Rella will soon be leaving his position. 

At Comsewogue High School, as the evening sun crept toward the horizon June 26

, blocking in the football field with the cooling shade of trees, as the students were graduating so was Rella, or at least that is how he said he saw it.

Rella was in for his own surprise, as he was brought on stage alongside incoming superintendent Jennifer Quinn and members of the school board. In front of the stage, graduates held up a sign reading Dr. Joseph V. Rella Performing Arts Center. Quinn announced the high school auditorium would now be sporting Rella’s name.

“Clearly you’re a lot smarter than I am. It took you four years to graduate high school, it took me almost 26,” Rella said, speaking to the students with a 2019 tassel on his hat. “Remember, wherever you go and whatever you do, you will always be one of us.”

Steven Nielsen, who lost his 17-year-old son James from a rare form of cancer a little less than a year ago, spoke to the graduating class about his son and what values he could share even after his untimely death.

“I think James is a good inspiration of how to live,” he said. “He was an amazing person, he was smart, he was handsome, he was extremely kind and unbelievably empathetic. Remember that, be kind, use that as an example. Think of other people in everything that you do.” 

Underneath each of the graduates’ chairs, stuck into the rough metal seats, was a Pokémon card. These, Nielsen said, were there to represent each of them had the opportunity to “evolve.”

He and his wife Jean, both teachers in the Comsewogue School District, accepted a diploma in honor of their son, with Steven Nielsen holding the cap and gown his son would have worn to graduation.

To cap off Comsewogue’s graduation ceremony, as the scenery got dark, fireworks rose above the trees of a distant field, and all the newly graduated students stared up at the sky. Unknown to high school principal Joe Coniglione, the field lights would take several minutes to warm up, and so the graduates cheered in the dark, hats flying through the air like tasseled stars.

Andrew Harris, right, stands with Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella and two other Comsewogue students. Photo from Joe Rella

Amanda Perelli

Those who know him say Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher at the Comsewogue High School, is an empathic teacher in the classroom and an advocate for service within the community, and that he often goes above and beyond.

Harris recently organized Joe’s Day of Service, a community service initiative where students and community members pledge to give back.

“Sometimes kids are like, ‘Oh, I have to get another five to 10 service hours,’ but with him the kids are so happy doing it. He’s really visionary in many ways,” Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella said. “He moves comfortably between and among the teachers, the administrators, the elementary students, secondary students, and really gets them excited about service. He’s a selfless person and that comes across in everything he does.”

Comsewogue High School students clean headstones at Calverton National Cemetery May 30 as part of Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Harris has been a member of the district for 14 years, but it wasn’t until last year, with the help of his colleagues, that the idea for Joe’s Day of Service was born. 

The name was inspired by Rella for his constant dedication to better the community. 

Harris asked Rella what he thought of creating more districtwide volunteer opportunities and Rella was instantly on board.  

“He said, ‘What do you think about creating some opportunities [in service],” Rella said. “We have different opportunities at the High School level, where kids have to do community service as a part of the National Honor Society — what about if we did it on a district level? I said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea’ and he’s transformed the whole concept of service.”

The superintendent added the community was missing a districtwide event to get everyone involved at once.

Students in Harris’ class pitched how they thought they should spend the day — excited to work outside the classroom and with others within Comsewogue. 

“We had a movement here for many, many years to get kids more involved in their community — giving back, to be more empathetic,” said Joseph Coniglione, the principal at Comsewogue High School. “The goal was to do that through community service in the area. We had a large sum of students who went out and did individual projects and a tremendous group, who went to the Calverton National Cemetery to clean off the head stones and get them prepared for the veterans.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said Joe’s Day of Service was so successful she expects it will only grow in coming years.

 “The Comsewogue community is very close knit, and neighbors have already been working with students, teachers and faculty to improve the lives of others through the Joe’s Day of Service projects,” Cartright said. “Andy Harris and those involved have portrayed this initiative as continuous from the start, so I have no doubt that participation will increase as more members of the community learn about the project.”

Andrew Harris, right, stands with Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartwright (D). Photo from Joe Rella.

Harris spearheaded the initiative, developing one day-long service event that taught students the value of service while helping out the community. 

“There are major problems everywhere — addiction, depression — and the thing is, they say one of the best things to do is to help other people,” Harris said in an interview at Brookhaven Town Hall, where the students were recognized for their efforts by the town board June 14. “I wanted the students to understand that, because they don’t always have the opportunity. I wanted them to get a taste of that just in one day and understand that when you give to others you feel rich.”

Harris has inspired students to give back to their local communities, and he also teaches the importance of being a civic leader in service. 

“Andy is a veteran special education teacher, but what sets him aside from a lot of people is his ability to really be empathic toward people,” said Coniglione. “He’s probably one of the kindest souls you’ll ever meet in your life. He really tries to make others life better and just happier.” 

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23. File photo by Bob Savage

By Rob DeStefano

What can you accomplish during a 25-year career at Comsewogue School District? Greatness. Let me explain: While I was a sophomore at Comsewogue, we were introduced to Joe Rella as the new teacher in the music department, a quarter century ago. In the months that followed, students started talking about music, band, theater and jazz with an increased frequency not measurable before. Something special was beginning.

I don’t remember which concert it was, winter or spring, but as a junior participating in the newly reinvigorated jazz band, it happened. We sat playing an upbeat swing-time classic — maybe Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” — and this new teacher stepped away from the conductor’s podium. We stayed cool, kept playing, though we wondered what was happening. He walked to the audience and offered a hand to his wife. A moment later, this new teacher and his wife were doing the Charleston in front of an audience of parents, while our band played. In that moment, the magic became real. Comsewogue had hired our own “Mr. Holland.” We had our first glimpse of who Rella was.

In the years that followed, class after class grew to appreciate his style — and his impact. His collaboration with our music educators led to a number of new opportunities for students. We had a pep band at home football games. Our theater performances recruited more students, some discovering talent they didn’t know they had. Even more, they found confidence, overcame shyness and lifted each other to perform at higher levels. This influence benefited all the district’s high school students when he became principal in the 1998-99 school year. How he found the time to continue to accompany students in their musical endeavors, I don’t know.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Rella’s appointment as Comsewogue’s superintendent in 2010 coincided with my election to our board of education. To call the last eight-plus years of working with him “unforgettable” is an understatement. Just as he inspired our students, he’s been a source of trust, candor and community to Port Jefferson Station residents, and beyond.

He’s proposed innovative solutions to challenges that threaten public education. He’s stood up for our children and an educational curriculum that prepares them to be their best. He’s advocated logic in the face of unreasonable and irresponsible policies dictated by out-of-touch government actions. As he prepares to retire after nine years as superintendent, his influence on our district, community and public education are deep and long lasting.

Great leaders don’t act alone. At each step in his 25-year journey, Rella has influenced the culture of the departments, schools and communities he’s worked with. Those who became Warriors along the way have become part of this culture of openness, collaboration and unwavering spirit. That makes me very excited for our community and Comsewogue School District’s future.

Our district administration has delivered great community successes in recent years. We’ve weathered the limitations of the property tax cap without compromising the quality of student education. Student access to technology has grown at all levels. Our arts programs are amazing. If you haven’t been to one of our schools’ art shows or musicals lately, I highly recommend them.

We’ve received accreditation from the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a first on Long Island for a full-sized district, putting our educational standard significantly above those dictated by the New York State Education Department. Program performance has been on a strong incline. Our literacy program and programs for English language learners are providing stronger foundations toward the educational growth of every student. Our problem-based learning program is proving our students have the analytical, critical thinking skills for 21st century success. They not only pass state exams but demonstrate deep knowledge of topics and an understanding of the world around them.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue board of education member and a Comsewogue High School graduate

On top of all this, our district — and really, our community — culture is unprecedented. Our students are not only academically thriving, but they are responsible stewards of the schools and neighborhoods to which they belong. The number of volunteer initiatives and the number of students who participate is awesome to see. And the latest of these, “Joe’s Days of Service,” is one of the great cultural legacies that I have no doubt will become a lasting part of how Comsewogue students give back to the community that has supported them, even after Rella moves on. Our students, past, present and future, will continue to make us proud.

As incoming superintendent, Jennifer Quinn represents the next stage in our community’s Warrior spirit. She has worked alongside Rella to get us where we are. As our district has been elevated, she has built, evolved and driven the programs that are enabling our students to thrive. I’m extremely excited about the vision she has shared to continue Comsewogue’s trajectory toward the very best in academics, athletics and arts. Our community is becoming a more attractive place to live and raise a family. Ask your local real estate agent to confirm this. Where we’re headed, the place we live will become an even more coveted venue — a benefit for all residents.

Legacy takes many forms. Rella’s real, lasting impact on our community is proven by how we celebrate and carry forward the torch he passes along to us all. The job belongs to all of us. We must not lose sight of what makes ours a special place to be. We must recognize the opportunity ahead of us and continue toward it with the same unwavering commitment. We must continue to work together, support each other and continue to carry Comsewogue forward with pride because, in some way, we’ve all had the blessing of being students of Joe Rella. We are a family of Warriors.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue School District Board of Education member and a graduate of Comsewogue High School.

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Comsewogue’s board of education applauds Superintendent Joe Rella, seated, during a Nov. 5 BOE meeting, where it was announced he will retire and be succeeded by Jennifer Quinn, deputy superintendent, right. Photo by Alex Petroski

Comsewogue School District took the first step in preparing to bid farewell to a giant in the community during its Nov. 5 board of education meeting.

The board regretfully accepted Superintendent Joe Rella’s intent to retire during the meeting, effective Aug. 31, 2019, and also approved placing Jennifer Quinn, current deputy superintendent, in line to succeed him beginning next school year. Both moves have been long expected, as Rella shared his intention to step away from the district with TBR News Media in a 2017 interview, though the motions by the board made it official and brought the end of Rella’s career at the helm of the district into clearer focus. Both motions drew standing ovations from those in attendance and from members of the board.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he said a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision. He said he and his late wife Jackie, who died following a bout with breast cancer in 2016, had long discussed 2018-19 as being his last year, as it would be his 25th in the district and ninth as superintendent.

“I’ve always believed you leave while you’re having fun, and I’m having fun,” Rella said. 

The district resident said he appreciated the way the community embraced him and credited those interactions with making him a better man. He said he plans to enjoy his retirement spending time with his seven grandchildren. He credited Quinn with spearheading much of the district’s successes of recent years, including attaining a prestigious accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools in 2017, as well as a rapidly expanding problem-based learning curriculum introduced as an alternative learning method aimed at increasing student success in state-mandated standardized testing.

“There was nobody else I would’ve ever wanted to do it,” he said of his successor. “She’ll take this to the next level. She has the street creds because she’s been here. I know there’s an impulse sometimes to do intergalactic searches to find a superintendent, and while the credentials might be outstanding, you don’t know the community and it takes time to build up trust.”

Quinn has been with the Comsewogue district for 13 years, spending four years as high school principal before working side by side with Rella for the last nine as an assistant superintendent and eventually deputy superintendent.

“Joe is the most amazing teacher you could ever ask for, I have learned more than I could have ever imagined working with him,” Quinn said. “He is brilliant. He’s able to see 15 steps down the road. To me that’s a skill that’s so valuable.”

Members of the board of education heaped praise on both administrators in expressing their mixed emotions for the road ahead.

“Everybody knows how amazing Dr. Rella is because he’s so out there and in your face, and in your answering machine and on your cellphone,” board member Ali Gordon said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is how phenomenal Dr. Quinn is and what a team they’ve been all along. She has a phenomenal vision for this district.” 

Board member Rob DeStefano said Rella once gave him advice prior to a big school concert when he was a student and Rella had just began as superintendent.

“What if I mess up, what do I do? Do I stop? Do I keep going?” DeStefano recalled asking Rella ahead of his first big saxophone solo as a high school senior, to which the superintendent replied: “Don’t worry about how it sounds, just play it loud.”

“We’re all very thankful for each of you,” DeStefano said in closing his remarks.

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File photo

Comsewogue officials have finalized a budget for the next school year, days after the state came through for school districts in a big way.

The school board adopted Superintendent Joe Rella’s proposal for the 2016-17 school year during its meeting Monday night, supporting a $87.2 million budget that maintains all existing programs, thanks in large part to the state axing its Gap Elimination Adjustment.

The adjustment was enacted six years ago in an effort to close a state budget deficit, and deducted funds from each school district’s state aid allotment. Since its inception, it has cumulatively cost Comsewogue about $23 million in state aid, according to Susan Casali, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

But the new state budget, upon which lawmakers agreed last week, eliminated that deduction, netting Comsewogue roughly an additional $1.3 million in revenue.

“I think it’s great,” Rella said. “I’m glad we got it back. It means we don’t have to make any big cuts. We’re happy about it — it’s significant.”

Rella’s initial budget proposal in January banked on a full aid restoration, despite the fact that, while state legislators had been pushing for it, the restoration was far from a done deal. Other North Shore school districts, such as Huntington and Miller Place, planned for little to no restoration of the funding during their own budget processes.

Had the state budget fallen short in restoring the funding, Comsewogue would have been faced with some difficult decisions on program cuts.

“If that doesn’t happen, then it’s a whole different world,” Rella said in an interview in March. “We’re anticipating it will happen. Albany’s been very quiet about it, and I’m taking that as ‘no news is good news.’”

Casali said the district administration’s faith in state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), the majority leader who previously called the aid restoration a “top priority” this year, paid off during the budget process.

“From the very beginning we’ve done the budget assuming that Flanagan and everybody [else who] promised us this GEA, that they were going to make good on their promise, so we didn’t make any cuts in the budget,” Casali said.

School board President John Swenning expressed appreciation for the additional funds because the district can avoid cuts without presenting a budget to residents that would pierce the state-mandated tax levy increase cap.

The district will receive about $30 million in total state aid next year and will collect about $53.5 million from taxpayers.

“We appreciate what we get,” Swenning said on Monday. “Do we want more? Yes. Do we think we deserve more? … Yes, but we’re not going to be greedy and we’ll say thank you for all that we get.”

Residents will vote on the adopted budget on May 17. Polls at Comsewogue High School will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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A community and school district stalwart will be returning to his position for at least one more year, following a unanimous school board vote to extend his contract.

“I know where I’m going next year now, thank you,” Superintendent Joe Rella said to applause when the board vote to extend his contract passed at Monday’s board of education meeting. “Nowhere.”

Rella has opposed extending his contract any further than the 2016-17 school year, according to Susan Casali, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

The extension came with a 2 percent pay raise, bringing Rella’s salary to $212,160 for the next school year. His health care contributions are remaining the same, with him kicking in 17 percent to his premiums.

Many Comsewogue residents as well as those within the greater Long Island and New York State areas know Rella for his vocal opposition to state testing and the Common Core Learning Standards. He has hosted or attended numerous protests and forums on the topics, and spoken against the standardized testing practices that he says are harmful to children.

The superintendent started working in Warriors country as a music teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School. Before becoming a district administrator, he served as the Comsewogue High School principal.

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