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Port Jefferson School District

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New upcoming superintendent Jessica Schmettan speaks to school board. Photo by Kyle Barr

Board approves 2019-20 district budget

The Port Jefferson School District named the first female superintendent to the post Tuesday, and to top it off, she’s a nine-year Port Jeff resident.

At the board of education meeting April 9, the board named current Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Jessica Schmettan, 42, as the new superintendent effective Nov. 1 this year.

“I’m a resident, a taxpayer, and I have two kids in school,” Schmettan said of her connection to the village. “I’m just so excited to be chosen.”

The Port Jefferson School District welcomed new upcoming superintendent Jessica Schmettan, center with black coat, April 9. Photo by Kyle Barr

The upcoming superintendent beat out a field of over 20 candidates, many of whom Kathleen Brennan, the board president, said were highly qualified for the position.

“Just because she was an inside candidate, she was not tossed any softballs,” said Brennan. 

Schmettan holds a bachelor of science in special education from Long Island University, a master’s degree in instructional technology from the New York Institute of Technology, and School District Leader certification from the College of
New Rochelle.

Before coming to Port Jeff in 2016, she began her career as an educator in the Three Village Central School District. She also has experience with special education from the Roosevelt Union Free School District and United Cerebral Palsy of Long Island. She went on to work for seven years in the Sachem Central School District as administrative assistant for instructional support and programming and later assistant superintendent for elementary curriculum and instruction.

Though there was one other female interim superintendent in the past, Schmettan is the first full-time woman appointed to the position

“It’s exciting for my daughter so she can see what she’s capable of,” the upcoming superintendent said.

In August 2018, current Port Jeff superintendent Paul Casciano declared his intention to step down from his position. In the following months, continuing into the new year, the district worked with Suffolk County BOCES in the process of finding a new superintendent. Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister said most of the costs to the district were from advertising in newspapers, including The New York Times. While he is still waiting for the bills to come back with precise amounts, he estimated the cost to be about $15,000 to $17,000 to the district. 

While Casciano originally intended to stay until July, he extended that until Oct. 31 to aid in the transition.

“I’m so proud of Jessica as the first woman to be appointed to the head of schools in Port Jeff,” the current superintendent said. “She’s proved she has a deep knowledge of our core mission, teaching and learning.”

During the meeting, Brennan spoke directly to Schmettan. “One of the things you said in response to one of the questions you asked was you’re going to have to have courageous conversations. And that phrase struck me, and that kind of describes Port Jeff going forward, we are going to have to have a lot of courageous conversations.”

“I’m a resident, a taxpayer, and I have two kids in school.”

—  Jessica Schmetta

Many of those conversations will revolve around the impact of the settlement with Brookhaven town and the Long Island Power Authority over the taxes levied on the Port Jefferson Power Station. The settlement agreement cuts LIPA’s taxes on the power station in half incrementally for the next eight years. 

Schmettan said she plans to resurrect the budget advisory committee, so the public can get involved in the process of crafting future budgets. She expects the district will continue to see cuts and will have to make some difficult decisions, but she is optimistic about the future of the district, saying “we’re up to the challenge.”

Board adopts 2019-20 budget

The Port Jefferson school board has approved a budget that, while consolidating programs, will still see a small increase. Along with the budget, the board is asking residents to approve the use of capital reserves to fix sections of the high school and elementary school roofs.

The board approved a $43,936,166 budget April 9, a $46,354 and 0.11 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax levy, the amount of funds the district raises from taxes has also gone up to $36,898,824, a $464,354 and 1.27 percent increase from last year, staying directly at the 1.27 percent tax cap. Officials said they had a lower tax cap this year due to a reduction in capital projects funded by general appropriations. If the district pierced the tax cap, it would need 60 percent of residents to approve the budget come the May vote, rather than the normal 50 percent.

Leister said the district has slashed and consolidated a number of items, including professional development for staff, private transportation allocation, and a $142,000 reduction through scheduling and enrollment efficiencies for staff. The district has also cut the teacher’s retirement system by $25,000 and staff retirement system by $60,000. The biggest increases in budget came from health insurance for staff, increasing by approximately $555,580, and benefits, which increased by $408,480.

The district also plans to use $400,000 in the general fund budget to relocate the middle school office into an existing upstairs science classroom for what district officials said was security reasons.

Leister said the district should be creating a tax calculator for district residents to roughly calculate their school taxes. The program should be available up on the district website in about a week.

The board is also asking residents to vote on allowing the board to allocate funds from capital reserves, the funds built up over time from money unused by the end of each school year, to fix portions of the elementary school and high school roof, equaling $3,600,000.

The board will have its budget presentation May 14 at 7 p.m. in the high school auditorium before asking residents to vote on the budget May 21. Residents can vote from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.

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Port Jefferson Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

In the Port Jefferson School District Board of Education’s efforts to hire a new superintendent of schools, an online survey is collecting information on community input on the qualifications, instructional leadership and community engagement it expects from the next leader of the district.

The online survey is available in both English and Spanish and is open until Dec. 21. Those interested can use the links below:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ptjeffeng

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ptjeffspan

The district is allowing residents to fill out a paper copy as well if they visit the District Office located at 550 Scraggy Hill Road, Port Jefferson.

On Jan. 3, 2019, Dr. Julie Davis Lutz, Chief Operating Officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, will meet with interested community members to further provide residents an opportunity to discuss skills and characteristics that the new superintendent of schools should possess, and the short-term and long-term issues that he or she will need to address. This meeting will be held at the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School at 7 p.m.

Check back next week for more details in Port Jefferson School district’s search for a new superintendent.

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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.”