Walking into the Port Jefferson School District administrative offices, it’s apparent changes are on the way. Jessica Schmettan, the incoming superintendent, has moved into the office where outgoing superintendent Paul Casciano once sat. Schmettan’s desk is like a blank slate, mostly bare save for a few files and pencil holder. Casciano, on the other hand, has moved into a back room and works off a laptop.
Just on the other side of a wall is Casciano’s temporary desk. As the man who was only meant to be an “interim superintendent” finishes up his third and final year as super, he is anticipating the coming of Oct. 31, his last day before retirement. He said he expects to take some much-needed vacation time and perhaps get down to writing a book or two.
The incoming super is a nine-year Port Jeff resident, and Casciano said she was one of the best first decisions he made when he came into the district.
“She’s bright, she’s a problem solver, and she’s younger than me, so she is likely to be around for a long time,” he said.
It’s the start of something new, but the continuation of the old, both exiting and incoming superintendents said, and there are many challenges the district will face in the years to come.
Impact of LIPA glide path
Closing on a year since Port Jefferson village and the Town of Brookhaven settled with LIPA over the Port Jefferson Power Station’s tax assessments, school officials said the decision is going to be a heavy deciding factor in every ongoing budget for the next eight years of the glide path. Later years will see even more challenges as the glide path increasingly reduces the tax dollars paid to the school.
Though the district expects it will maintain a tax rate that’s less than all other surrounding school districts, it also means local residents are going to make up a larger portion of revenues.
“This is not only a financial issue, but that issue impacts our core mission, which is teaching and learning,” Casciano said. “It has a lot of pieces — our position is the burden is going to need to be shared, that’s our take on it all along.”
Schmettan expects things will need to be cut, including potentially some certain classes with low enrollment.
An increase of taxes always brings the thought that some residents would be pressured to leave.
“It’s going to depend on how the community reacts — we don’t want to trim so much we have nothing left, we also don’t want people feeling they can’t live here anymore,” Schmettan said. “We’ll still maintain a low tax rate after those eight years, lower than other surrounding districts, but I think that as people start to see what may or may not happen, you’re going to get community support.”
Both superintendents emphasized the need for support from the community as the district moves forward in the glide path. Casciano said his belief is parents who may have had their kids graduate from school already have the responsibility to at the very least be active with the district, giving the same opportunity to those families who are just beginning their path in grade school. The outgoing super likened it to a balance, adding a school district’s strength will also show itself on home values.
“There are two schools of thought, there are people who look at it as, ‘Hey, I don’t have anything vested now,’” he said. “I don’t agree with that — the quality of the schools says a lot about your property values, whether you’re intending to sell or leave it to someone else when you go.”
Because of these changes, the district announced it would be hosting School-Community Partnership meetings in a roundtable setting, looking to give local residents the chance to offer their opinions on where things could go during the next eight years.
The School-Community Partnership is the way the district hopes to gather interest in moving forward, both from people who have kids in the district, have seen their kids graduate, or for those who don’t have any children in Port Jeff.
“It’s really an open forum for community members, to express our concerns over the glide path,” Schmettan said. “It will really be like an open forum for people to share their concerns in smaller groups — not livestreamed — more open for discussion, and not as structured as a board meeting.”
The difficulty will be coming to a consensus. While some parents may look at a class with low enrollment and look to take the ax to it, another parent with a student in that class may think differently.
People are being encouraged to provide input on programs, facilities and financial challenges being reviewed by the board of education and administration. The first meeting is slated for Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School/Middle School library, at 350 Old Post Road, in Port Jefferson.
This school year, the district dropped a kindergarten class because of generally low enrollment at the youngest level. Its total student population of 1,077 students is one of the smallest on Long Island. Last year’s graduating class was 97, but regularly fluctuates between the high 80s and 90s.
But thinking down the road, the new superintendent has to consider what it will mean when the smaller classes finally make their way to the high school senior level in 12 years.
And considering the LIPA glide path, she will also have to consider what will happen should lower grade enrollment continue to shrink. Schmettan herself has two children in the district, both in this current kindergarten class.
“We have to engage the community more, we have to show everybody, especially for people who don’t have kids what is the value of the school district and how does it impact your home value,” the incoming super said.
She added the recent homecoming events were a great way to get people more active in the district’s goings-ons.
The outgoing super said the important thing is keeping the district attractive to new homebuyers looking to settle down and raise children in the district.
“Right now, you have the best of both worlds, low taxes and a great school system,” he said. “We want to maintain a good school system, so it might come up some families might say I was staying here because taxes were way low, people with multiple homes will say I’ll own one, not three. The families that purchase may in fact have children, and that’s because of the quality of the schools.”
What makes Port Jeff special
Though Casciano is leaving Port Jeff after three years, he said he came to learn more individuals in the district than he had when he worked for years at William Floyd. Schmettan said the same for her time as assistant superintendent at the Sachem school district.
That small size means there are very few ways to keep a secret, but, as the outgoing and incoming supers agreed, it also means students are more accepting of each other. They referenced the recent shooting at the Port Jeff Liquors, as when they got the notification of the incident the buses had just left from the middle school. District officials went to the scene to make sure students weren’t going to walk through, and elementary principal Tom Meehan even walked some students home.
“I feel fortunate I’ve had the opportunity to work in Port Jeff, know the people who work in the community,” Casciano said. “There’s a real warmth, there’s a real caring for how the kids do, not only on the part of the parents but on the part of the teachers.”
Schmettan said the district is representative of the larger community.
“Our students are so diverse in what they approach,” she said. “Our kids are so diverse, and they mix and mingle so well, and they’re really open to each other. They’re so accepting of one another. That’s definitely something I see in our community as a whole. The school district is a microcosm of the entire community.”