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Port Jefferson School District

Seniors Annalisa Welinder, left, and Ava Schully, valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. Photo from PJSD

Two young women, Annalisa Welinder and Ava Schully, have, respectively, attained the title of valedictorian and salutatorian for the Port Jefferson Class of 2019. 

Welinder has an impressive and diversified high school résumé, including taking eight honors and 12 Advanced Placement courses and one college-level class. She is an Advanced Placement Scholar, a Presidential Scholars Program nominee and a National Latin Exam four-time gold medalist. She serves as president of the Latin Club, is a member of Mathletes and member of the school’s Academic Team. Welinder is also a member of both the track team and tennis team.

A violinist, Welinder is a member of the prestigious National Youth Orchestra, where she served as a concertmaster in 2017, with which she traveled to numerous concert halls, including Carnegie Hall. She and her brother have run a summer music camp — Sound Strings Long Island — for all age levels and she is a frequent award winner for various violin competitions. Welinder is also interested in creative writing endeavors.

Asked for some words of wisdom to share with future graduates of the school, Welinder had an uncomplicated response. “Everything seems easier and more doable if you enjoy it,” she said.

Welinder is excited to enter the freshman class at Stanford University in September.

Schully, as salutatorian, commended her family, peers and teachers who have helped her succeed in school and other aspects of her life. 

Schully’s list of achievements is comprehensive and includes taking 10 AP courses, four honors courses and two college-level courses. She was on the school’s soccer team in ninth grade and has run on both the school’s track team and cross-country team. She is a member of the Peer Leadership, Interact, Drama and Latin clubs as well as a member of Tri-M Honor Society and Sources of Strength.

Schully took a service trip to Peru to help build a clean water system for local people, attended a six-week intensive study of classical music at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, took part in the Philadelphia International Music Festival and recently performed on cello in the National Association for Music Education All-Eastern music conference in Pittsburgh. Her extracurricular activities include being a member of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York and Stony Brook University Young Artists Program. She has received numerous school awards and is active in the local community.

Schully’s plans after high school include exploring how music can promote community partnerships and cross-cultural relations. She has committed to Brown University where she plans to create her own major that focuses on a mixture of topics including ethnomusicology, human development, international relations, education and nonprofit organizations in an interdisciplinary context.

“Challenge yourself in classes you’re actually interested in and take part in extracurricular activities that you love,” she said. “Don’t worry about doing what you think a college admissions office might want to do and just pursue your passions. The rest will follow.”

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The Port Jefferson School District Armed Forces tribute. Photo from PJSD

The Port Jefferson School District will unveil its new Armed Forces tribute at a dedication ceremony with students May 30, at 10 a.m., at the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. 

The tribute, created to express gratitude to those former students and staff members who have served in the armed forces, will salute military personnel with welcoming remarks from student leaders and school and local government officials. The Port Jefferson Middle School band will perform and students from Edna Louise Spear Elementary School will share poetry written especially for the occasion. 

“More than two dozen school staff and community members came together to form this committee with enthusiasm and camaraderie to honor those who served,” said Superintendent Paul Casciano. “The culmination of months of planning, fundraising and fellowship has resulted in a tribute of which our school community will be very proud.”

For those who cannot attend the event, a public recognition will be held Saturday, June 22, at
9:30 a.m.

Port Jefferson High School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Port Jefferson School District

With the final voters leaving the polling stations at the stroke of 9 p.m., the Port Jefferson School District residents passed the $43,936,166 2019-20 budget with 559 for and 160 against.

In addition to the vote, the second proposition to use $3.6 million in funds from the capital reserve fund for high school roof repairs passed 591 to 125.

Results of the budget are read to board members. Photo by Kyle Barr

The new budget is a 0.11 percent increase from last year’s budget, and 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 have said they had a lower tax cap this year due to a reduction in capital projects funded by general appropriations.

“I have two words, thank you,” said Superintendent Paul Casciano. This will be the last budget overseen by the Casciano, as his position will be filled by incoming superintendent Jessica Schmettan in October. “The board and administration worked hard to make a budget the public would be receptive to, and apparently we were.”

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 the 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.

District keeps two incumbents, elects one newcomer

Much less controversial than last year’s election, Port Jefferson residents decided to keep two current members of the board and vote in one newcomer.

Incumbent trustee Ellen Boehm, a seven-year member of the board, was again asked to take her seat securing 521 of the votes. 

“I’m pleased with the positive confidence of the residents in Port Jefferson,” she said.

Ryan Biedenkapp is sworn in. Photo by Kyle Barr

Ryan Biedenkapp, who had been appointed to the board to replace resigned board member Adam DeWitt, was elected to the board to serve out the rest of DeWitt’s term, ending June 30, 2020. His seat will be up for election come that time. Biedenkapp was sworn in for the first time the night of the election.

“I’m honored the town saw fit to bring me back,” Biedenkapp said. “I look forward to serving the kids, all of the kids.”

Newcomer Randi DeWitt, a teacher at Mount Sinai Elementary School, will be taking the post as board member thanks to a vote of 473. 

“I thank the community for their belief in me, and I look forward to working with the rest of the board members,” she said.

Mia Farina was the last candidate standing, securing only 291 votes. She said she plans to run again for the board next year as well.

“I just wanted to thank everyone who supported and voted for me even though I did not make the board this time,” Farina said in a Facebook post. “I have made so many new friends and learned so much through this campaign. So many people have helped and supported me with inspiring words.”

Comsewogue Union Free School District

Comsewogue school district voters resoundingly passed its 2019-20 budget with a vote of 660 to 152.

The district’s second proposition to create a capital reserve fund also passed with high margins, 656 to 150.

The new budget of $93,974,755 is an increase of $2,027,025 from last year and includes a $57,279,755, a 2.2 percent increase from last year and below this year’s tax levy cap of 3 percent.

“The budget passed by 81 percent, the highest margin it has ever been at Comsewogue,” Superintendent Joe Rella said. “I just want to thank the community from the bottom of my heart for supporting us.”

One increase came in the form of pupil personnel services from $3,322,061 to $3,678,447. PPL aids students with special needs. 

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella. File photo

While the district experienced a total enrollment decline of 40 students, the number of students with special needs has increased, according to the assistant superintendent, and each of those young people is more expensive overall than a typical student. In addition, the district is hiring one additional social worker and a new social worker teacher’s assistant.

Other major increases include a 27 percent and $696,209 increase in debt services, but this is offset slightly by a $570,000 or 33 percent decrease in interfund transfers.

Meanwhile, the district is going ahead with the first phase of its bond project; bids were scheduled to go out to companies in April. District voters approved the $32 million bond last year, which the district said would go up in several phases. The first phase, costing about $5.8 million, will complete work on the parking lots at the Boyle Road Elementary School and the Terryville Elementary School, along with the creation of security vestibules in all school buildings and adding new locks to doors throughout the high school building.

District re-elects incumbents

Being uncontested, current trustees Robert DeStefano and Francisca Alabau-Blatter maintained their seats.

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Alden Mohacsi will be traveling to the Czech Republic thanks to a scholarship. Photo from Mohacsi’s Facebook

A Port Jefferson graduate will be spending his summer in the Czech Republic, teaching high school students English thanks to a Fulbright scholarship.

Alden Mohacsi, 22, a history major at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, will be making his way to the Czech Republic this summer for the chance to teach high school students English through “art and music.”

“It’s an incredible honor to be named a Fulbright Scholar,” Mohacsi said. “I can honestly say that expression, ‘It takes a village,’ holds true for me.”

Mohacsi has been a docent at the Port Jefferson Historical Society, and thanked them, among others, for helping him make it through college. He is graduating May 19 with a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in art history.

“I’m so grateful for all the help and guidance I received growing up in Port Jeff — from my teachers, coaches and mentors, the amazing team at the Performing Arts Studio, the Port Jeff Historical Society, and all the friendships and support,” he said. “I’m looking forward to working with and being a part of the world’s largest and most diverse international educational exchange program.”

The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program and is designed to build lasting connections between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The program is funded through an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations and foundations around the world also provide direct and indirect support to the program, which operates in more than 160 countries worldwide. Mohacsi is one of more than 2,100 U.S. citizens who will conduct research, teach English and provide expertise abroad for the 2019-20 academic year.

The Port Jefferson school board at an April 2019 meeting. Photo by Kyle Barr
Comsewogue Union Free School District

Two seats are up for Comsewogue’s school board, and both remain uncontested.

Comsewogue’s budget vote and trustee election will occur May 21 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Comsewogue High School.

Comsewogue board of education member and graduate Rob DeStefano

Robert DeStefano

Current trustee Robert DeStefano is looking forward to continuing along with the board, all the while continuing on without longtime superintendent Joe Rella at the helm of the district.

The trustee said he is “born and raised,” in the Comsewogue school district, and has lived in the district for more than 40 years. He is finishing his ninth year on the board and is looking for his fourth term on the board.

“It’s a special place to be, it’s a special place to grow up, it’s a wonderful place to raise a family, and I’m just proud to serve the community,” he said.

With the outgoing Rella and incoming superintendent Jennifer Quinn, DeStefano said he expects it to be a smooth transition.

“As a student of his, and having worked with him, it’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “Dr. Quinn’s been in this district for so much of the same time, and her accomplishments in the district speak for themselves.”

DeStefano has two kids enrolled in the district and holds degrees in business marketing and business management from New York University Stern School of Business and holds a master’s of business administration degree from Long Island University. He currently works as a product marketing manager at IT company ivanti.

He said he is looking forward to finally beginning work with the $32 million bond proposal, which was passed by residents in a 2018 vote. This summer the bond will begin to address parking lots in the two elementary schools and will improve athletic fields and address other exterior building infrastructure.

“It will allow us to make investments in the district in a variety of ways, in a very fiscally responsible way in the next several years,” he said. 

He said he sees the new budget as fiscally responsible, with the tax levy rise a full percentage point lower than the cap. He said it is especially important, because as he sees it, the economy will eventually take a turn for the worse, following the cycle of boom and bust.

“You can’t just go to the cap because it’s there, you have to be responsible with the funds we get from our residents,” he said. “My time on the board started as we were just trying to pull out of the last recession. I don’t have a crystal ball to say how bad the next one will be, but I know there is going to be one, you don’t need a crystal ball to tell that.” 

Continuing disagreement with New York State over Common Core, DeStefano said he wished there could be more direct dialogue with leadership in Albany. While he appreciated the efforts of representatives like New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), he said the district will continue to respect parents’ decisions to opt out.

Francisca Alabau-Blatter file photo

Francisca Alabau-Blatter 

Trustee Francisca Alabau-Blatter is running again unopposed for her seat on the school board.

Alabau-Blatter did not respond to requests for comment.

Originally from Spain, she moved to Long Island at 13 years old. She has three kids in Comsewogue and teaches Spanish in the Central Islip school district. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art education and a master’s degree in computer graphics.

Port Jefferson School District

Three seats are currently up for vote in the Port Jefferson School District, with two set for a three-year term commencing July 1, 2019 and ending June 30, 2022, and one a two-year term making up for the unexpired term of Adam DeWitt, from May 21, 2019 to June 30, 2020.  With two incumbents running again for their positions, two newcomers are also hoping to offer their services to the school board.

The Port Jefferson trustee election and budget vote will occur May 21 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Port Jefferson High School.

Ryan Biedenkapp

Ryan Biedenkapp

Ryan Biedenkapp came onto the board last year after Adam DeWitt, then elected to his third term, resigned in August 2018. The then-board voted 4-1 to bring Biedenkapp onto the board after he ran for it in May that year, and now he is seeking a full term in his current seat.

A nine-year resident of Port Jefferson, the candidate said he has three kids enrolled in the district, a 15-year-old and two 13-year-olds. His son, Parker, has autism.

He currently works in the biotech industry in the sales department for biopharmaceutical company AbbVie. 

With having kids of differing ages and experiences, Biedenkapp said he’s able to keep in mind the many young people in the district, from those on sports teams to those with special needs.

“I think having somebody with a broad range of knowledge of what’s offered — what’s available, what’s good, what’s working, what’s not, what do we have that we’re really proud of that we want to keep, what do we think we need to do a little better with,” he said.

Biedenkapp said he, along with the rest of the board, was active and engaged in this year’s search for a superintendent to replace Paul Casciano, who will now be leaving in October. 

“You have to drop your ego, and you have to look for a compromise,” he said. “If you can come at it with a logical, rational act, always placing quality education for your children as true north, then you can come up with some really good decisions.”

While the trustee pointed to the board’s work on the current budget as fiscally sound, he said that with the downvote of the 2017 bond referendum, there needs to be a significant look into school’s infrastructure.

In the wake of the settlement between the Town of Brookhaven and Long Island Power Authority, which will reduce its tax payments to the district over time by 50 percent, the board has had discussions about consolidating or removing school programs with low enrollment. Biedenkapp said it will be a hard decision process going into the future, there are some classes with low turnout that still require a full state-certified teacher to be present.

“When you look at it down at a micro level, it shows were not doing the best we can for all our students,” he said.

He added it’s important the board show their support toward teachers, especially when it comes to Common Core testing or mandated tests that the board has had discussions of recently.

Ellen Boehm

Ellen Boehm

Ellen Boehm, a 26-year resident of Port Jefferson and graduate of Port Jefferson High School, said she is running again for her seven-year seat to help the district deal with issues such as the outcome of the LIPA settlement.

“In consideration of what’s finally been resolved with the LIPA issue, that we have a glide path, as a district and community we have to identify what we want to keep or strengthen in programs, and what’s really not important to us,” Boehm said. “We have an exceptional education program. As a community we have to decide what we have to spend money on when things get tight, and perhaps they won’t get tight … we have to have some very candid conversations.”

The candidate said she has agreed with the incoming superintendent Jessica Schmettan, who said she hopes to resurrect the budget advisory committee, allowing residents to sit down and discuss what will and what won’t be cut in future budgets. She said there are residents who need to be able to talk about the school budget who might be retired or not have students within the school district. She said the district will also need to pay attention to the infrastructure of its schools and grounds and pay attention to what may need to get fixed in the future.

“We all have different interests, and we all need to work together to see that we have a great, stable school,” she said.

Both her daughters are graduates of the school district. 

She said the strengths of the school district are its diverse and in-depth education programs and its wide base of extracurricular activities. 

“We don’t have a lot of wasted spending in the budget,” she said. “The past boards have been pretty fiscally responsible.”

She added the current board works well together, and whenever there is disagreement, it is always handled professionally and openly.

“There’s many times we don’t all come from the same thought process, and the open exchange of ideas and the conversations we have are great,” she said. “It’s not a board that spends time fighting. We all have that common interest to do what’s best for the community.”

Randi DeWitt

Randi DeWitt

Randi DeWitt, 43, said she grew up in Port Jefferson, and while she moved away first for college and later for work, it was its quaint setting that drew her back home, where she has now lived for close to 40 years. She now has two kids in the school district, one in eighth grade, and the other in ninth grade, and she said she felt it was time to run for school board now that her kids are a little more independent.

“It’s a great way to volunteer and to give back to my community,” she said. “I grew up in a family that always encouraged community service.”

The trustee candidate has been a teacher for several years at Mount Sinai Elementary School, teaching first-graders. She has been the designated inclusion teacher in the district for several years and teaches both typical students and students with special needs. 

She said that her education experience, along with having attended schools in Port Jefferson from kindergarten through 12th grade, gives her insight in what needs to be done for the district, especially in terms of the ongoing budget changes the district will experience due to the fallout from the LIPA settlement.

“It gives me some insight and vision for the school district,” she said. “Ultimately I would love to preserve the programs we currently have, while also managing and realizing these fiscal challenges that are going to lie ahead due to LIPA.”

While the district has had discussions about the need to either consolidate or cut programs with low enrollment to stay under budget, DeWitt said while she would love to preserve as many programs as possible, she would like to be there to help determine that important programs don’t get slashed.

“Being a teacher, and having the best interest of Port Jefferson, I would hope any board member running for school board has the needs of the students who attend the schools at heart,” she said. “I would like to be part of that decision-making process.”

Mia Farina

Mia Farina

Mia Farina, a seven-year Port Jeff resident, is throwing her hat in the ring for the second year in a row, saying she could bring a fresh perspective on school security.

Farina has lived in Port Jefferson for seven years, having spent two years in itself trying to find a place to live in the village, saying it was the locally renowned school district that spawned her desire to help raise her now 7-year-old son.

She said her main concern is giving the community a voice on the school board and getting them more involved.

“Everyone talks budget, budget, but my concern is — are the children being lost because we talk about budget every meeting,” she said. 

The candidate has spent 21 years in law enforcement, and currently works as a detective for the New York City Police Department. She said there are several things the district can do to enhance the security of its buildings. While emphasis in Port Jefferson, and many other surrounding districts, has been put on security vestibules and identification card systems, she said she would hope to emphasize teaching kids to notice problem signs and teaching them about warning signs and what to do in an emergency situation. She said it can be taught in a fun and engaging way. 

“Kids are already inside the school, and the vestibule isn’t going to help protect those kids that are already inside the school,” Farina said. “I would like to implement more hands-on with the children, so that they can notice things, without scaring them … It’s being proactive instead of reactive.”

While Farina admitted she is not as adept with finances as other members of the board, she said the effect of LIPA, and the talk about cutting certain classes or programming, has her concerned. If current students enjoy certain classes, she said, it should only be fair that children like her 7-year-old should get that same opportunity down the road.

“My concern is keeping programs or helping keep from cutting programs when things come down to the wire,” she said. “I would like to sit down, you tell me what the budget is, and let us find ways to keep things, combine things together, or get grants or assistance from other school districts you can share … I need to know that there are other things being looked at.”

This post has been amended from when it was originally published in the May 9 edition of the Port Times Record amending the number of seats contested for the Port Jefferson School District.

By Bill Landon

The Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats boys lacrosse team is on a tear, making short work of visiting Sayville with an 18-8 league victory April 6 to remain unbeaten. The Wildcats, a perennial powerhouse in the postseason, sit atop their division at 6-0.

The Wildcats have outscored their opponents 86-29 through six games, where their closest was an 8-6 win against Bayport-Blue Point in their season home opener. The Wildcats were back in action when they hit the road April 11 taking on Islip, where they won 18-7. SWR next hosts Harborfields April 12 at 7 p.m., and later Comsewogue April 16 at 4 p.m.

 

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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.”