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Port Jefferson School District

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Capping off a week of school-spirited events and a parade complete with floats from each grade level, the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School Royals football team took the homecoming win against Bayport-Blue Point, 34-16, Oct. 6.

Many spectators were in town to celebrate their 40 year high school reunion and joined in the festivities by riding in the parade and cheering on the Royals. Others lined the streets of Port Jefferson Village as the students and Disney-themed floats, student-musicians led by music teacher Mark Abbonizio, families, board of education members, teachers and administrators shared their royal pride.

Port Jeff schools' 2018 Wall of Fame honorees Heather West-Serignese, third from left; Elizabeth Schwartz accepting on behalf of her mother Honor Gracey Kopcienski, fourth from right; and David Okst, second from right, pose with high school principal Christine Austen, left, and the students who introduced them after the Oct. 5 ceremony. Photo by Alex Petroski

Some of Port Jeff’s best and brightest had their day in the sun as part of the school district’s homecoming weekend.

Port Jefferson School District welcomed three new honorees to its Wall of Fame during an Oct. 5 ceremony in the high school library. The 2018 inductees are Heather West-Serignese, a 1999 graduate who became a chef and was the winning contestant on the cooking show “Hell’s Kitchen,” in addition to her work establishing a support group for mothers suffering from postpartum depression; David Okst, a 1985 graduate who excelled in high school and at Penn State University as a student and track & field athlete and has since volunteered his time to coach several high school athletic teams; and Honor Gracey Kopcienski, a Port Jefferson High School graduate who died in September 2016 at 84 years old, and was the organist at Infant Jesus R.C. Church in the village for more than 50 years, known for her compassion, kindness and dedication to serving the community.

The Wall of Fame was created in 1996 with the goal of honoring former students and faculty members for achievements in their chosen field who were part of the school community for at least two years and have been out of the district for at least five. Honorees must be nominated by another member of the school community.

“They all possess a passion for community service and they have all dedicated their lives to helping others, and I think that is a very important point for our graduates and our students that are sitting here,” high school principal Christine Austen said during the ceremony.

Heather West-Serignese

West-Serignese described herself as someone who overcame many challenges growing up, including learning disabilities and battles with depression. She studied at The Culinary Institute of America after graduation and earned an associate’s degree from Suffolk County Community College. She excelled professionally in the kitchen, winning Season 2 of Gordon Ramsey’s “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2007 and later becoming the head chef at a casino in Las Vegas.

Heather West-Serignese. Photo by Alex Petroski

In 2016, she and her husband John had their first child, Jackson, which led to a period suffering from postpartum depression. In June 2017, the couple lost their second child when she was 22 weeks pregnant.

West-Serignese and her friend Emily Ciancarelli, who also suffered from postpartum depression, started East End Play Dates in 2017, a group meant to help moms deal with the condition by getting out of the house and arranging play dates with others sharing the same experience. The organization achieved 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and has helped more than 8,000 moms since its inception.

“It’s kind of awesome because I had severe problems in high school with learning, and a lot of teachers were very supportive, but at the same time there were kids that you knew weren’t going to succeed and I was probably below that line,” she said. “I was told even in college that I wouldn’t amount to much and I got bullied a lot in high school, and I got bullied a lot in college, and then to kind of come back as one of the successful people, it’s kind of like a ‘told you so.’”

She said she struggled through her school years and embraces that she can be held up as an example for people achieving success even when it seems unattainable early in life.

“When I was in high school I was put at risk for almost committing suicide because things were difficult — things were really hard,” she said. “I’ve been there, I’ve been at that low point where I thought that I wasn’t going to accomplish anything, and I thought that anybody would care, but now looking back, I’m looking back at all the things I would’ve missed out on. Nothing was perfect. It was really, really hard — but if you want something it’s completely possible.”

David Okst

David Okst. Photo by Alex Petroski

During high school, Okst was a member of the National Honor Society and a stand out performer on the track. He continued both of those trends while at Penn State University, and upon graduating, returned to the community where he joined the Port Jefferson Fire Department, a role he has filled for more than 20 years. He currently volunteers his time as a coach for boys varsity cross country, winter track and spring track.

Five years ago, Okst made a substantial contribution to Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, which went toward expanding the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

The runner turned firefighter and coach called the induction an incredible honor.

“I think sometimes when we come to school to work or teach or coach we don’t realize sort of the impact we have on kids,” he said. “Every day the things we say and do, even the mood we’re in, you know the kids see all that. I just love being around the kids, seeing them every day, seeing the crazy things they say, the ridiculous things they do, it’s really a lot of fun for me, and I would never trade that for anything.”

Honor Gracey Kopcienski

Kopcienski was awarded with the recognition posthumously, as her daughter Elizabeth Schwartz, pictured below, attended to accept the honor on her behalf. She and her husband Johnny, who also went by Alfred and was also a graduate from the high school, were community members through and through, having married in 1952 and producing eight children and 24 grandchildren.

Her more than five decades at Infant Jesus made her a pillar in the community, contributing her musical talents to hundreds of weddings, funerals and Masses. She was also generous with her gifts, teaching music and accompanying countless children and local performers. She played for the Manhasset Glee Club, Port Jefferson Choral Society, Southold Town Choral Society, Choral Society of Moriches, SUNY Stony Brook, and master classes given by the opera singer Eleanor Steber in her Belle Terre home, according to Schwartz.

Elizabeth Schwartz. Photo by Alex Petroski

Kopcienski was also generous beyond her musical talents, actively supporting the Port Jefferson Rotary Club in charitable efforts, as well as donating a piano to Infant Jesus Parish Center and contributing funds for another at her old high school. She was also a regular contributor and supporter of Hope House Ministries.

“My mother Honor and her husband Al were the kind of people that never said ‘No’ to a need in the community,” Schwartz told the students attending the ceremony. “And when you walk by someone who’s homeless and think, ‘somebody should take care of that;’ or you see somebody who is struggling with mental illness and you say, ‘somebody should take care of that;’ or when you hear about famine in other countries and you say, ‘somebody should take care of that;’ those somebodies were my mother and my father, and I hope today, that being on the Wall of Fame, you’ll walk by that every day and think, ‘I want to be that somebody.’”

She summed up what the day honoring her mother was like.

“Being here is a validation of the importance of people every day giving back to community, and that’s how I feel coming back here,” she said. “This is the way we want to be — this is who we want to be as a society, and I’m hoping that a little bit of that will be left with Honor’s picture behind.”

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Port Jefferson’s boys golf team defeated Mount Sinai on the links 8-1 Sept. 27 at Willow Creek Golf & Country Club in Mount Sinai, moving its record to 4-1 this season. The Royals will be back in action Oct. 4 at 3:30 p.m. at Port Jefferson Country Club against Longwood.

Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano and board President Kathleen Brennan. File photos by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski & Sara-Megan Walsh

Port Jefferson and Northport-East Northport school districts, as well as the Town of Huntington, were dealt a blow in the legal battle against Long Island Power Authority in August. But, it doesn’t mean they are going down without a fight.

Port Jeff board of education voted unanimously — 6-0 with board President Kathleen Brennan absent — during a Sept. 24 special meeting to file an appeal of New York State Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Emerson’s Aug. 16 ruling that LIPA “made no promises” to the Town of Huntington, Northport-East Northport and Port Jefferson school districts not to challenge the taxes levied on its power stations.

Huntington Town Attorney Nick Ciapetta said the municipality formally filed its appeal of Emerson’s decision the following day, Sept. 25.

The judge’s ruling dismissed the third-party lawsuits brought forth by Huntington and the two school districts which alleged LIPA broke a promise by seeking to reduce the power plant’s taxes by 90 percent. The resolution passed by Port Jeff school board authorized its legal counsel, Ingerman Smith, LLP, to file the appeal.

“We do think her decision was incorrect, and clearly we do recommend that the board consider filing a notice of appeal in this proceeding,” said attorney John Gross of Ingerman Smith, LLP, prior to Port Jeff’s Sept. 24 vote.
Northport-East Northport’s board trustees had previously voted to pursue an appeal at their Sept. 6 meeting.

Gross, who has been hired to represent both Northport and Port Jeff schools, said the districts

will have six months to perfect appeals. During this time, the districts’ legal team will prepare a record including all exhibits, witness depositions, and information gathered from the examination of about 60,000 pages of documents. He said a brief outlining the  legal arguments against Emerson’s decision will be crafted prior to submitting the appeal.
LIPA will be given several months to prepare a reply, according to Gross, prior to oral arguments before a four-judge panel in New York State Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Further appeals are possible following that decision. Gross said the process could take more than a year.

Meanwhile, Huntington Town, Northport-East Northport school district, LIPA and National Grid have agreed to pursue non-binding mediation relating to the case, which begins Sept. 26. Gross said while Port Jeff is not a party to the mediation, it will be monitoring the outcome because the process could establish a pattern of resolution for its case. He also said the district can withdraw its appeal at any time, but once that occurs it cannot rejoin the process.

“Legal actions taken by the Town [of Brookhaven], [Port Jefferson] Village and school district to generate an equitable solution to the LIPA tax assessment challenges are intended to protect its residents and children against exorbitant property tax increases; especially in a very short interval of time,” Port Jeff school district said in a publicly released letter Sept. 12 prior to passing a resolution authorizing the appeal. “Please know, that the district fully understands that the decision about engaging legal counsel is one to be made with great care, as it always carries a financial implication while never guaranteeing a verdict in one’s favor.”

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Port Jefferson High School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Most school district administrators and staff, like students and teachers, are able to take the summer to recharge and unwind. In Port Jefferson School District, Fred Koelbel, director of facilities and transportation, gets no such respite.

The overseer of all things buildings and grounds in the district was at the Sept. 17 board of education meeting to fill the board and the public in on the work done during the summer months and beyond. Some projects were completed using capital reserves while others were handled “in-house” by district employees, though virtually all were completed prior to the start of the 2018-19 school year.

“We had the opportunity to see a lot of these improvements firsthand, and I certainly would commend the staff that worked on them, it was impressive,” board President Kathleen Brennan said.

Koelbel spoke about some of the bigger projects accomplished by his team of workers.

“The biggest project we undertook, and it actually started before the summer, was the complete renovation of the electrical distribution system in the high school,” Koelbel said.

Beginning during spring break, Hauppauge-based All Service Electric Inc. re-fed power lines through underground trenches. Previously, power lines from outdoor polls into the school were fed along overhead lines, susceptible to the elements and to trees. The job was completed during the summer.

“This did two things for us — now if our power goes out, part of the grid went out and we’re much higher priority to get restored,” Koelbel said. “Before when it was, a tree knocked down a line on our property, it was just our property was out, and the neighborhood might still be on and we might not be as high of a priority. But now we also have more reliable service because it’s underground, so it’s not affected by the trees.”

He said the task wasn’t easy for the vendor and commended the job.

“It snowed on them, it rained, the trenches filled up with water, their boots were getting stuck in the mud and the clay, but they persevered and got lines in,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier with the work they did.”

The new underground feeds will soon also house the school’s cable and phone lines, eliminating the need for any cables fed to the school overhead.

Many of the projects were simpler to complete, though not necessarily less time consuming. The high school track was torn up and resurfaced. The second phase of a multiyear roof replacement project continued. Sidewalks in front of the high school were replaced, as were crumbling bricks in the façade of the exterior of the building. The section of the high school driveway nearest to the main entrance on Barnum Avenue was repaved.

One of the more visually noticeable upgrades took place in the high school gymnasium. Koelbel said a new sound system and video board were installed, and the walls were repainted purple and white.

“It really has a flavor of ‘welcome to our house,’” he said of the refurbished gym.

In the elementary school, the floors of two classrooms were removed and replaced, as were the carpeted floors in a couple of hallways.

“It’s like a huge Petri dish, it’s not a good choice,” he said of carpeting in elementary school hallways, which was replaced with tile flooring.

Several doors to classrooms in the elementary school were replaced as part of another multiyear implementation, as many were beginning to show their age, according to Koelbel. Door locks in both school buildings were upgraded as well.

Blinds on the windows of classrooms in both buildings were replaced with rolling shades. Additional security cameras were added across district buildings, as were fire extinguishers for every classroom, and several fire alarms were also upgraded at the high school.

District Superintendent Paul Casciano and Assistant Superintendent Sean Leister each commended Koelbel and the district’s staff for completing the projects in time for the start of school.

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Wyandanch traveled to Earl L. Vandermeulen High School Sept. 15 and defeated Port Jefferson on the football field 26-23. The Royals have opened the young season with two straight losses. They’ll look to get in the win column Sept. 21 at 6 p.m. at Mount Sinai.

Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano addresses the Class of 2018 during graduation June 22. File photo by Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson School District will be looking for new leadership following the upcoming school year.

Superintendent Paul Casciano announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2018-19 school year, effective July 1, 2019, during an Aug. 29 board of education meeting.

“As we had discussed with the board in the fall of 2016, I was willing to complete the 2016-17 school year and two additional school years as your superintendent,” Casciano wrote in a letter dated Aug. 28, which was released publicly by the district in the aftermath of the meeting.

Casciano was hired during the summer of 2016, initially under an interim designation that was removed in Dec. 2016, effectively making him the permanent superintendent. Casciano took over for outgoing Ken Bossert, who transferred to a position leading the Elwood school district.

“Having the opportunity to serve the Port Jefferson School District is truly an honor and privilege of which I am extremely grateful,”Casciano wrote. “We have amazing students who attend our schools and the sky is the limit to what they can and will achieve. I am proud of what we have accomplished so far during my tenure.”

BOE President Kathleen Brennan said the board regretfully accepted Casciano’s resignation.

“I would like to thank Dr. Casciano for his service to Port Jefferson,” she said. “I had the opportunity to speak to the staff at the opening of school and shared with them that Dr. Casciano did not come looking for Port Jefferson, Port Jefferson went looking for Dr. Casciano when we were looking for an interim superintendent and he agreed to stay beyond the one-year interim that we had initially discussed. In fact, the board of education, the night he was interviewed, asked when he left the room, ‘Can he stay?’”

Casciano, a Stony Brook resident, had previously served as superintendent in William Floyd school district. He retired from the position about a year prior to starting with Port Jeff on an interim basis.

The board will be meeting in the coming weeks to discuss the next steps to search for a new superintendent of schools, according to a district press release. Casciano said in his letter he is willing to assist in the transition to a new superintendent’s tenure beyond his set retirement date.

“When Dr. Casciano was interviewed he said, ‘I have two speeds, go and stop, and what you see is what you get — I’m not going to come in and tread water,’” Brennan said. “The board was very happy to hear that and very happy that he didn’t tread water … So on behalf of the board, I would like to thank Dr. Casciano for his service to Port Jefferson.”

Trustee Adam DeWitt resigned from Port Jeff's BOE. File photo by Elana Glowatz

If you were out enjoying the last drop of summer at the beach or on vacation you might have missed it. Port Jefferson’s board of education appointed a new member at an Aug. 29 meeting following the Aug. 1 resignation of Adam DeWitt, who was elected to a third term in May 2017.

The board voted 4-1 in favor of appointing Port Jeff resident Ryan Biedenkapp, one of six candidates who ran to fill three open seats in the May 2018 election and placed fourth. New trustee Ryan Walker was the lone vote in opposition of the appointment. He said he wanted to take more time to discuss other options, like opening up the process to interested applicants to be interviewed and selected from by the board, or holding a special election within 90 days of DeWitt’s resignation. René Tidwell, another newly minted member of the board, abstained citing similar reasons to Walker, with whom she campaigned in May.

“I think we’ve had time to discuss it, to bring up our feelings about it,” BOE President Kathleen Brennan said prior to the Aug. 29 vote, referencing a similar discussion at an Aug. 14 meeting, at which the board’s options to fill the vacancy were laid out. “I don’t think that we are rushing this. I think Mr. DeWitt resigned Aug. 1. It’s now the end of the month.”

The board’s options included leaving the seat vacant until the May 2019 vote, holding a special election at a cost of about $10,000, or appointing someone to fill the seat. Members Brennan, David Keegan, Tracy Zamek and Ellen Boehm voted in support of option three to appoint Biedenkapp based on how previous boards handled surprise vacancies in the past.

2018 BOE candidates Ryan Biedenkapp, Mia Farina, Jason Kronberg, René Tidwell, Tracy Zamek and Ryan Walker. File photo by Alex Petroski

“I think we’ve got someone in the community who’s committed to doing it, who’s done the thoughtful work of making the commitment,” Keegan said.

Biedenkapp received nearly 500 votes in May, falling a little more than 100 votes short of Zamek, securing her the third trustee seat.
“I feel like it’s just a no brainer in my opinion,” Zamek said, who had campaigned with Biedenkapp.

The newly appointed trustee could not  immediately be reached  for comment. Although, the board president said she had been in contact with Biedenkapp and he was interested in the position. Brennan said, at the request of the board following the Aug. 14 meeting, she also reached out to trustees who recently stepped down or did not seek re-election to gauge their interest. Both declined.

Tidwell argued the board was in the unique position to appoint someone with qualifications that could be an asset to the board. She supported the idea of doing due diligence to find a new member by conducting interviews and further discussion amongst the BOE.

“I believe our board should also consider all other community members who expressed an interest in serving on the board as well as those who have served previously,” Tidwell said. “I think if this board is going to take the first steps in bridging the divide that has existed in our community, then pursing a transparent and equitable process for filling this vacancy is a first step in the right direction.”

Tidwell’s reference to a community divide was a harkening back to a Dec. 2017 $30 million bond referendum that was overwhelmingly voted down by the community. It sparked a heated community debate based on the items included in the list of proposed projects.

Walker said, in part, he was opposing Biedenkapp’s appointment because the appointee had previously been in favor of adding lights to the athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road and it would be a betrayal of  Walker’s campaign message. The elected trustee added he would work with the new member if the majority were in favor, a point Tidwell also reiterated.

DeWitt said he was proud of his time on the board, adding that he learned a lot and appreciated his fellow members’ desire to better the community. He also wished his former colleagues well.

“It became increasingly more challenging to attend the meetings because of my work schedule,” DeWitt said.
He is employed as a school principal at a seventh- and eighth-grade building by Longwood school district.
“I don’t like to do anything if I can’t commit fully, it’s not fair to the community,” DeWitt said. “I wish I could continue to make the commitment.”

Biedenkapp’s appointment will run through May 2019.

BOE approved changes in 2017, slow transition to full compliance to continue into ’18-19 school year

A BOE policy is increasing healthy food options in PJ schools. Stock photo from Metro

Port Jefferson School District is looking to become a healthier place.

Students and parents returning this fall should expect to see further changes to foods offered in cafeterias, sold for team and club fundraisers, and even those foods allowed at school celebrations for the 2018-19 year to meet standards set in a May 2017 board of education policy change.

In a July letter addressed to parents from Danielle Turner, the now-departed district director of health, physical education and athletics, the policy was enacted to address nutritional concerns as well as increase students’ physical activity throughout the school day, a move designed to keep the district in line with state and federal regulations.

“Elements of the policy went into effect last year,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said. “We chose a path of gradual compliance starting with last year so our students and advisers could plan accordingly going into the 2018-19 school year.”

Under the policy, school meals in the district now must include fruits, vegetables, salads, whole grains and low-fat items, adherent to federal standards. In addition, food and beverages sold in vending machines and school stores must meet nutrition standards set by federal regulations. Food and beverages sold by clubs and teams for fundraisers, both on school grounds and off, will also be subject to the same regulations. The policy also impacts in school celebrations and parties where food and drinks are provided, saying building principals will “encourage” parents and staff to follow the guidelines, and restricts the use of food “as
an incentive or reward for instructional purposes.”

“As a school community, it is important that we model what we teach about health,” Casciano said.

Student body president and Port Jefferson senior Reid Biondo said clubs and teams were made aware the policy change was coming last year and started to make preparations to adhere to the changes when it comes to fundraising.

“The fundraisers are very important for clubs and teams,” he said. “Not being able to fundraise by selling food is a source of concern but the students at Earl L. Vandermeulen are very creative and are already coming up with solutions. Last year, one of the classes hosted a volleyball tournament in place of a bake sale. There are plenty of alternatives to bake sales but students and teams are going to need to work a little harder for their money.”

Despite the challenges created by the policy, Biondo said he sees the district’s point of view in trying to foster a healthier school environment.

“I think they are right to encourage a more healthy lifestyle and I think it is a step in the right direction,” he said. “Students should have access to healthy eating options and that part of this change in the school district excites me. However, I do not think removing the unhealthy choices entirely is the solution.”

Biondo pointed out that CVS is less than a five-minute walk from the school’s front door, and he suspects many of his peers will go there to purchase an unhealthy after-school snack. This would mean the revenue from bake or candy bar sale would be going to an outside source, while students continue making unhealthy choices. The senior also suggested the district should provide additional education about healthy lifestyle choices and consuming snacks in moderation, to encourage students to lead a healthy lifestyle in and outside of school.

Casciano said the district took the fundraising obstacles for extracurricular organizations into account when crafting the policy and suggested healthier alternatives can still be sold to raise money. He added the district’s hiring of Adam Sherrard to take over for Turner will have no bearing on the implementation of the policy.

The full board wellness policy can be found at www.portjeffschools.org under “Community” tab.

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