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Port Jefferson School District

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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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Port Jefferson High School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

New York State has issued a glowing report on the state of a local school district’s finances.

The Port Jefferson School District received a “spotless” report from the New York State Comptroller following an audit meant to examine if the school board properly managed its voucher payment system.

Audit vouchers are made on all school expenditures, where either the school board or a designated auditor looks at each claim to determine if each item complies with district policies and whether the amounts are necessary district expenditures before the cost is paid. The comptroller’s audit, which spanned from July 2016 to September 2017, stated Port Jeff’s claims audit process was “adequately designed and that it had been properly implemented.”

“This report reflects proper oversight by the board of education and the stringent controls put in place and carried out by our business office personnel,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said in a statement. “The carefully conducted examination and positive results are a testament to the district’s comprehensive policies and procedures for claims payments.”

The comptroller’s office reviewed one percent of all claims paid by the district during the span, which amounted to 60 general fund claims. These claims totaled close to $300,000, including $2,705 from 10 “extra-classroom activity” claims. The office determined Port Jeff’s system was working as intended, and that the school could support all of its expenditures.

Brian Butry, a spokesperson for the comptroller’s office, said while they don’t have specific numbers on how many schools have problems with their audit voucher systems, Port Jefferson has been more responsible than others.

“These types of audit results are not that common and, as noted in the final report, the district should be commended for their well-designed claims system,” Butry said.

The report said district officials created well working procedures to analyze extra-classroom activities such as clubs, where each has a treasurer and faculty advisor, and that payment orders were supported with fully signed invoices.

“Given that there were no negative findings indicates the district’s claims process has an overall well-designed system,” Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister said in a statement. “As our district places a strong emphasis on ensuring tax dollars are spent effectively and efficiently, we are pleased with the outcome of this auditing process, as it reinforces from an external perspective.”

Mark Barden, a founder of the nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise, presents violence prevention strategies to a room full of Suffolk lawmakers and school officials during an Aug. 16 event at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue as Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. looks on. Photo by Alex Petroski

On Dec. 14, 2012, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut left more than 20 people dead, mostly first-graders, shocking the world and changing it permanently. Much of that change can be attributed to the efforts of those who were most personally impacted by the tragic events of that day.

Parents from Sandy Hook were invited to St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue Aug. 16 by Suffolk County Sheriff’s office to share details about four programs they’ve created aimed at preventing violence in schools to a room packed with Suffolk County school district superintendents, administrators and lawmakers.

Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization, was founded by parents including Mark Barden, a professional musician originally from Yonkers who had moved to Newtown in 2007 with his wife to raise their three kids. His son, Daniel, was seven years old  when he was killed during the tragedy.

“It is very real and a very personal mission that I do this work to honor that kid, who we used to jokingly call ‘the caretaker of all living things,’ because that’s how he lived his life,” Barden said of his son.

He said Daniel was known for trying to connect with other kids he saw eating alone, for holding doors for strangers in public, and for picking up earthworms from the hot sidewalk and moving them to safety in the grass, among other instinctual acts of kindness he regularly displayed.

“It is very real and a very personal mission that I do this work to honor that kid, who we used to jokingly call ‘the caretaker of all living things,’ because that’s how he lived his life.”

— Mark Barden

“That’s how I’ve chosen to honor his life is through this work,” Barden said.

Sandy Hook Promise’s approach to carrying out its mission of preventing all gun-related deaths can be viewed as an extension of Daniel’s legacy of caring for those in need. Barden was joined Aug. 16 by two other members of the organization — Myra Leuci, national account manager, and Marykay Wishneski, national program coordinator — who detailed the initiatives the nonprofit pitches to school districts interested in improving their prevention strategies.

The four strategies , which fall under the nonprofit’s Know the Signs program, are taught to youth and adults free of charge in the hopes of fostering an environment that empowers everyone in the community to help identify and intervene when someone is at risk.

Say Something is an anonymous reporting system that teaches kids how to recognize warning signs, especially on social media, and gives them an outlet to get adults involved. Start With Hello is a training program that teaches students how to be more inclusive and connected to peers. Safety Assessment & Intervention program is geared toward adults and aims to teach them how to identify, assess and respond to threats of violence or at-risk behavior prior to a situation developing. The Signs of Suicide program teaches people how to identify and intervene to get help for those displaying signs of depression or suicidal behavior. The nonprofit offers in-person training for each program, though Say Something and Start With Hello are available to be downloaded and self-led by interested districts.

Since assuming office in January, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said he has made improving school safety and developing uniform, countywide approaches a top priority. Just a few weeks into his tenure, the country was rocked by the mass shooting Feb. 14 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed by a lone gunman.

“It’s an obligation that I feel I have as the Suffolk County Sheriff, to work with all of our partners, but I do feel I cannot stand on the sidelines and just watch,” Toulon said. “We really have to be proactive. Everyone from our police departments, our school administrators, everybody’s taking this banner on. Thankfully we’re all working together to really keep our communities and our children safe.”

Toulon has offered free safety assessments on a voluntary basis to interested districts. Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) has taken several steps  already to improve schools’ safety including starting an initiative that allows interested districts to grant access to in-school security cameras to the police department, and securing funds for a mobile phone application for municipal workers and school district employees that can be activated and used in the event of an active shooter situation to notify law enforcement. Bellone announced new initiatives to increase police patrols in school buildings, assign additional officers to the SCPD’s Homeland Security Section and establish a text tip line to report troubling activities this month.

“We are educators, so partnering with law enforcement and those with the skilled lens of how to best ensure the safety of our students has been paramount,” said Ken Bossert, president of Suffolk County Superintendents Association who leads Elwood school district. “So the focus and attention that law enforcement has paid on our schools is just greatly appreciated.”

Representatives from districts across the North Shore attended the informational forum and expressed interest in implementing some or all of what Sandy Hook Promise has to offer, including Huntington Superintendent James Polansky and Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano.

“It shows that our sheriff has a pulse on the public safety worries of our parents.”

— Kara Hahn

“A lot of what we heard today I’m going to roll out just informationally to my administrative staff,” Polansky said, adding Huntington has taken up Toulon on his offer to assess building safety already. “We’re actually looking to pursue a lot of the initiatives Sandy Hook Promise has to offer.”

Casciano expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s a great resource, and we’re very interested in pursuing it,” he said. “We’ll be making our contacts.”

Several attendees commended Toulon for embracing a leadership role on school safety, including Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D), who was among the wide array of lawmakers at the event along with the school officials.

“It shows that our sheriff has a pulse on the public safety worries of our parents,” said county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who is a licensed social worker. She called Toulon’s approach incredibly important. “It shows that he has the recognition that when you have a shooter at the door of a school, it’s too late, and this really needs to be about prevention. We cannot police this, we need to prevent this. And that’s what this is about.”

Bossert said superintendents in the county have been working to put together a uniform blueprint for school safety and are planning to roll it out later this month. For more information about Sandy Hook Promise, visit www.sandyhookpromise.org.

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