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Port Jefferson School District

Finding a parking spot in Port Jefferson is often difficult, but a valet parking service could change things. File photo

By Alex Petroski

Despite concerns raised by members of the community, a valet parking system backed by restaurant and other business owners as well as elected officials in Port Jefferson Village is slated to begin this coming weekend.

The plan has progressed thanks to the efforts of the Port Jefferson Business Improvement District and Pro Port Jefferson Association, a group assembled to act in the interest of restaurant owners in the village. During a contentious public village board meeting in early June, members of the community spoke out against and in favor of the plan after Tommy Schafer, owner of Schafer’s and Tommy’s Place, and John Urbinati, owner of The Fifth Season restaurant, and others revealed the plan to the public.

At the time the village board had not been involved in the planning or implementation of the service, but because the designated staging area for car drop off is on village property, they had to approve the plan, which they had since the June meeting. The plan will proceed as a pilot with the possibility of cancellation at any time at the discretion of the village, according to Mayor Margot Garant.

The route valets will take to park cars at once the system is implemented. Image by TBR News Media

The service will function pursuant to a contract between the BID and the Port Jefferson School District. The municipal parking lot on Maple Avenue across the street from the fire department will be used as a staging area. Cars will be dropped off at that spot, parked at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, then picked up from the same spot. The service will cost drivers $7. The pilot program will take place during the summer months until Labor Day on Fridays and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to midnight, and Sundays from noon to 11 p.m.

Valets will take cars from the lot behind Ruvo restaurant and bar, take a left on Maple Place, a right on Main Street, a right to cross over Barnum Avenue and a left into the high school lot. To return cars to the staging area for pick up, valets will exit at the opposite end of the lot onto Old Post Road then take a left on Main Street and a left onto Wynn Lane to re-enter the municipal lot. Valet drivers will not use Barnum Avenue, Tuthill Street or Spring Street, three residential roads which were discussed as possible routes during the June meeting, according to Garant.

Marge McCuen, a longtime village resident, spoke out against the proposed plan during the meeting because she didn’t want excess traffic on Tuthill Street, where she and her husband John live, during the night hours. She called the service an “invasion” of a residential area for the purpose of making money, a disturbance of quiet streets, and also objected to a lack of public hearings or advanced notice for residents.

“The whole thing is, they don’t seem to care about the people,” she said in a phone interview.

Schafer and Urbinati each expressed excitement for the possibilities at their respective restaurants now that customers will presumably have an easier time parking.

“I think it’s a great joint venture that the businesses and the village itself have been able to come together and make this project work,” Urbinati said in a phone interview.

Garant said resident concerns from the June meeting were taken into account in mapping out a pick up and drop off route, and the board aimed to have as little additional traffic on residential streets as possible.

The program is cost neutral for the village, and should revenue exceed the initial investment by Advanced Parking Services, the valet company in agreement with the BID, 25 percent of profits would go to the company and the remaining 75 percent would be split between the school district and village.

Port Jefferson valedictorian Chiara Rabeno and salutatorian Xinyi Hong. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

By Jill Webb

At the top of their respective classes at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School and Comsewogue High School are five talented and smart 2017 graduates.

Chiara Rabeno has earned her place as Port Jeff high school’s valedictorian. She will graduate as an AP Scholar with Honor with eight AP credits and has received a National Merit Scholar letter of commendation along with earning a gold award on the National Latin Exam three years consecutively.

In addition to her commitment to academics, Rabeno was an active participant in athletics during her high school career. She played softball and field hockey, earning an All-Conference distinction two years in a row.

Port Jefferson salutatorian Xinyi Hong and valedictorian Chiara Rabeno during 2017 graduation. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

Rabeno was  president of  National Honor Society, and balanced the rest of her time as a member of the Interact Club, Environmental Club, Science Olympiad, and  a participant in the STEM program.

The valedictorian attributes her success to having supportive family and friends who encourage her, along with finding time to focus on things she enjoys.

“Ultimately by doing what you love to do, I think that you’ll end up doing well in everything else,” Rabeno said in an interview.

In the fall, Rabeno will study biology at Boston College, on the pre-med track to become a doctor.

Like Rabeno, salutatorian Xinyi Hong has  received a gold award for three straight years on the National Latin Exam. She has a lengthy list of academic achievements, including being a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, an AP Scholar with Distinction, and earning the American Chemical Society Award.

Hong’s parents emigrated from China, and Hong herself was born in Germany. Her family came to the United States when she was six years old, moving to Port Jefferson when she was in fifth grade.

Hong served as  co-captain of the Science Olympiad team,  treasurer of the Environmental Club, and sits first chair viola in the school’s orchestra.

Comsewogue High School valedictorian Marissa Kaye Lehner. Photo from Lehner

She said one of her proudest accomplishments is overcoming shyness as a way to contribute to her own personal growth.

“I would be scared to say hi to people,” Hong said in an interview. “That’s something I’ve definitely had to work towards as opposed to something that came easily to me.”

When she attends Duke University in the fall, Hong said she will pursue a science-related field.

During graduation June 23, Rabeno and Hong broke with tradition somewhat, delivering their valedictorian and salutatorian addresses together on stage. They shared the stage  and spoke in tandem about the gifts the other possesses. The address touched on the honesty of Hong and the sentimentality of Rabeno, delivering the ultimate message of needing balance in order to achieve their full potential.

At Comsewogue High School, Marissa Kaye Lehner has been named the class of 2017 valedictorian.

A Nation Merit Scholar, Lehner took nine advanced placement classes during her time at Comsewogue. She was a part of several national honor societies, including music, English, math, science, social studies, and Spanish.

Outside the classroom, Lehner was  co-captain of the tennis team, winning a doubles match during the Section XI conference championships. She was a part of the academics club, math team, Bringing Unity Through Youth club, robotics and Girl Scouts.

Lehner said a key trait in her development as a student and person is she isn’t afraid to ask for help, and frequently encourages others to “rely on the people you have around you.”

Co-salutatorian at Comsewogue High School Lauren Ehrhard. Photo from Ehrhard

Attending the University of New Haven this fall, Lehner will major in national security, working towards a career as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government.

Two students had matching grade point averages for second place in Comsewogue’s senior class and will share the salutatorian position — Lauren Ehrhard and Lucas Szeto.

Along with taking seven AP classes throughout high school, Ehrhard has been involved with athletics, including softball, and Athletes Helping Athletes, a club designed to teach elementary school students what it means to be a good athlete.

She was a member of Task Club, a community service organization called BUTY, chamber orchestra, and pep band.

One of her favorite experiences was being the director for a Night For Jason, an annual talent show that raises money for Friends of Karen, an organization supporting families with children suffering from cancer.

The biggest force driving her academically is having “really big dreams ahead of me,” Ehrhard said. “I know that the only way to reach that is to get good grades and be the person I know I can be.”

Ehrhard will be studying criminal justice at the University of New Haven, where she will join the ROTC program in preparation for joining the Air Force post-college.

Co-salutatorian at Comsewogue High School Luis Szeto. Photo from Szeto

Like his co-salutatorian, Szeto took seven AP classes. Szeto said school has always been something that has come easy to him, though that didn’t stop him from putting in his full effort.

Szeto is also proud of his musical achievements — he plays the upright bass. He participated in two different music festivals, the Long Island String Festival and the Suffolk County Music Educators Association festival, and contributed to  the Bay Area Summer Orchestra.

Lisa Szeto, his mother, recalled as a child Szeto told her he wanted to start playing video games. She told him she didn’t have time to teach him how, so Szeto took it upon himself to learn how to read so he could play.

“If he wants to learn something he will learn it with gusto,” his mother said of the memory. “If he doesn’t he will get through it.”

After graduation, Szeto will be attending Rochester Institute of Technology and majoring in computer science.

Parents of seniors at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School in Port Jefferson have been prepping for the big reveal of their 2017 prom theme for months. Monday night, prom-goers pulled up to the high school dressed to the nines; riding in outrageous cars, trucks, trollies, military vehicles and more; and strolled the red carpet through droves of family and friends into the gymnasium which was decked out in a Disney motif.

Every year parents of graduating seniors volunteer their time and money and spend months brainstorming, painting and constructing decorations for the annual June celebration. Theme is kept a secret until the prom actually begins.

Dressed in purple and white caps and gowns, the 97 students who make up the 2017 Earl L. Vandermeulen High School graduating class were presented with diplomas at the annual commencement ceremonies June 23.

In a unique presentation, valedictorian Chiara Rabeno and salutatorian Xinyi Hong shared the stage together and spoke in unison about the gifts and choices each of their peers possess. Their address touched on the honesty of Xinyi and the sentimentality of Chiara, winding up with the ultimate message of needing balance in order to achieve their full potential.

During the commencement, speakers offered congratulations and words of wisdom. Among those addressing the students were Earl L. Vandermeulen High School Principal Christine Austen and Superintendent of Schools Paul Casciano, in his first commencement address as the district’s leader.

The ceremony featured several musical performances by the school’s orchestra led by Michael Caravello; the presentation of the American flag by the Port Jefferson Fire Department; the presentation of the traditional class gift — a new water fountain installed for all students to enjoy; as well as motivational speeches peppered with anecdotes and advice by Student Organization President Rebecca Stafford and Elisa Scott, mother of graduate Charlie Scott, who gave the parent address.

Port Jefferson graduate and Tony Award-nominated director Rebecca Taichman. Photo from Taichman

When Rebecca Taichman was a student at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, starting in 1984, she felt lost. With a reputation since elementary school of being a bit of an oddball, she found it difficult, and unappealing, to fit in with the rest of the pack.

She was an outsider, she said, until her senior year when she took  an acting class offered by Robert Krusemark, an English teacher at the time.

“I burst to life,” Taichman said in a phone interview. She was recently nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Direction of a Play for the critically lauded Broadway production, “Indecent.” The show is also nominated in the Best Play category. “I loved it [and] I really found myself there. Mr. Krusemark had a huge impact on me; he suggested that I apply to go to this Yale School of Drama summer program and because of him and that class, I did that.”

From that class, in which she recited monologues by playwrights like George Bernard Shaw, Taichman began her journey that has since seen her direct dozens of New York-based and regional plays, operas, and musicals. She has taught theater arts at NYU, MIT, and Yale and is among just five nominees in her category at the 71st Annual Tony Awards this Sunday, June 11, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

“It’s amazing and I’m really proud of her,” one of Taichman’s closest friends Cynthia Lee, a classmate in the Port Jefferson School District from first through 12th grade, said in a phone interview.

Laughing that she and Taichman felt like the offbeat kids in John Hughes’ movies while in high school, Lee recalled her friend’s sudden foray into theater.

“I was kind of surprised…I didn’t realize she had that bug in her and that was something she was going to pursue, [but] then she took off with it in college,” Lee said. “I can’t imagine her not going down that path.”

After graduating high school in 1988, Taichman became absorbed by all things theater, recognizing the art form as her true language.

“I can’t imagine her not going down that path.”

— Cynthia Lee

“I knew it was my vocabulary, that was very clear, I’m still not sure exactly why, but it was clearly my way of thinking,” she said.

It was at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada that she first dabbled outside of acting, taking part in casting, literary management, dramaturgy and eventually directing, cutting her teeth with a production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.”

“It was clear I was a better director than I was at any of the other things,” she said. “I was not a very good actor and as soon as I started directing, it was so clear I never would’ve cast me. That’s where I found my talent lay.”

Five years later, she ventured back to the Yale School of Drama, this time to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing.

Back at Yale, she discovered “The God of Vengeance,” a Yiddish play written by Sholem Asch in 1906, which would become the inspiration for “Indecent.” Taichman’s production is about the events surrounding the early Broadway productions of Asch’s controversial and landmark drama which depicts a brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with one of his prostitutes.

During the original run of Asch’s play in 1923, which featured the first kiss between two women on a Broadway stage, Taichman explained, most of the cast and crew were indicted and thrown in jail for “indecency” and “obscenity.”

“It took my breath away,” Taichman said of the original play by Asch, which she’d adapted as her thesis at Yale and been actively trying to do something more with since 1997.

“I was not a very good actor and as soon as I started directing, it was so clear I never would’ve cast me.”

— Rebecca Taichman

She eventually met and pitched the idea to Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel about seven years ago, and Vogel quickly got on board. Finding its legs at the Vineyard Theater in Union Square before racking up awards on Broadway, “Indecent” is a music-and-dance-filled yet powerful stroll through the decades as a group of actors perform “The God of Vengeance.”

“[It’s] ultimately a love letter to the theater and the power of making art in increasingly dangerous times…it’s an extremely important story, one about homophobia and anti-immigration, similar to what we’re experiencing now,” she said. “It’s quite special to be recognized for this particular piece, having thought about it for decades. People can apparently feel how deeply my heart is in it.”

Taichman’s sister Laura tried to put the Tony nomination into perspective.

“It’s so exciting and totally well-deserved — she has worked so hard, this play has been her baby for 20 years and it’s a heartening experience to watch this happen,” she said. “For the reception to be a Tony Award nomination rather than a conviction for obscenity feels just.”

Finding a parking spot in Port Jefferson is often difficult, but a valet parking service could change things. File photo

By Alex Petroski

Restaurant owners in Port Jefferson Village brought forth an idea to the board that might help to alleviate one of its oldest and most challenging problems. In a June 4 letter to other business owners in the village, John Urbinati, owner of The Fifth Season restaurant, announced his intentions, along with other members of the Pro Port Jefferson Association to propose a communal valet parking system. Several restaurant owners attended a June 5 public board meeting to announce their intentions and allow the community to weigh in.

The proposed system would be a contract between the Port Jefferson Business Improvement District and the Port Jefferson School District. Currently the plan would see the municipal parking lot on Maple Avenue across the street from the fire department used as a staging area for downtown visitors.

Cars would be dropped off at that spot, parked at Earl L. Vandermuelen High School, then picked up from the same spot. The service would cost drivers $7. The pilot program will take place during the summer months until Labor Day on Fridays and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to midnight, and Sundays from noon to 11 p.m.

“Parking is the number one issue that affects our bottom line as business owners,” Urbinati’s letter said. “There are not enough parking spaces in the village we love and try to succeed in and customers are turned off when they get tickets. Anytime there are village events going on there are no spaces available.”

Tom Schafer, owner of Schafer’s and Tommy’s and president of the Port Jeff BID, did a bulk of the speaking on behalf of the restaurant owners during the meeting.

“Regardless of anyone’s opinion on what the vision for the future of the village is, the one thing everybody seems to be in agreement on is that there’s not enough parking,” he said. “Maybe there’s going to be hovercrafts in the future, I have no idea, but for now, traffic is a foregone conclusion.”

Many village residents in attendance pushed back against the idea because of the possible increase of traffic on their streets, and because of a lack of public notice or input prior to the imminent implementation of the program, though no date is currently set for its inception.

“Did anybody think to ever let the people know that live on those streets, that buy the houses on those streets, so they can get to know they’re going to have traffic coming and going at all hours,” Marge McCuen, longtime village resident, said. “Each and every property owner is funding what goes on in this village with our taxes. A public hearing should have been held before you ever came up with this. You might have had this grand plan, and I’m not questioning your motives, but don’t question ours either.”

Another village resident asked that studies be done on how often parking is totally unavailable and how much traffic actually flows on the streets proposed for usage prior to the pilot program to see what the impact might be. Village Mayor Margot Garant said she did not anticipate the village committing funds to study that data.

“We’re interested in pursuing this because we think it’s necessary,” she said. “We have an obligation to support the new stores. There are new people making investments in this community every single day and they’re helping us make this community a vibrant and healthy community.”

The program would be cost neutral for the village, and should revenue exceed the initial investment by Advanced Parking Services, the valet company in agreement with the BID, 25 percent of profits would go to the company and the remaining 75 percent would be split between the school district and village. The approximately 300 employees of the restaurants would also use the valet system for their shifts.

Trustee Bruce D’Abramo also voiced vigorous support for the idea.

“I, for one, say if the ‘i’s’ are dotted and the ‘t’s’ are crossed we have to give this thing a chance,” he said.

No official vote was taken during the meeting after a lengthy discussion between several residents and business owners.

This version was updated following the June 5 board meeting.

Unopposed board of education races go to incumbents, one newcomer in Port Jefferson

Compared to Election Day in November, the May version for school district budget votes and board of education candidates in the Port Jefferson area was seriously lacking in drama.

Board of education races came to a close in the Port Jefferson and Comsewogue school districts May 16 with little suspense, as two candidates ran for two open seats in each district. Both districts’ budgets were also passed, with 82 percent of Port Jeff voters and 79 percent in Comsewogue giving their stamp of approval to the 2017-18 spending plans.

Port Jefferson

Adam DeWitt. File photo by Elana Glowatz

A second proposition on the ballot in Port Jeff was also overwhelmingly passed by the community, allowing the district to release $456,000 from a capital reserve fund to be used on renovations and infrastructure-related improvement projects.

“On behalf of the Port Jefferson board of education, administration, students and staff, I extend my appreciation to the Port Jefferson community for their continued support of our district,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an emailed statement. “Through the approval of our school budget, our district will continue to offer our students a high quality educational program. Additionally, the support of Proposition 2 allows the district to replace portions of the high school and middle school roof, continuing our investment in district facilities.”

Port Jeff’s 2017-18 budget will be nearly $43 million, a roughly 3.5 percent increase over last year. Almost $36 million of revenue will come from property taxes. The budget was passed with 338 “yes” to 74 “no” votes.

Adam DeWitt will begin his third term on the Port Jeff board of education after receiving 357 votes. He and newcomer Dave Keegan, with 356 votes, each ran unopposed for two seats.

“I am very grateful to the Port Jefferson community for giving me the opportunity to join the Board of Education,” Keegan said in an email. “I am excited to begin my tenure and to contribute to helping keep the Port Jefferson School District among the best public school systems in the country.”

DeWitt said in a phone interview he was thrilled with the support the community showed for the upcoming year’s spending plan.

“I couldn’t be prouder to continue to serve on the board for another three years,” he added.

Comsewogue

Ali Gordon. Photo from Ali Gordon

Voters in Comsewogue passed the district’s approximately $90 million budget by a 789 to 208 margin. The district’s tax levy will be 2.8 percent higher than for the current year.

“I’m very, very thankful to our wonderful community for its overwhelming support of our budget,” Superintendent Joe Rella said in a phone interview.

Ali Gordon, who ran unopposed, will begin her third term on Comsewogue’s board of education beginning in July after receiving 882 votes. Board vice president James Sanchez will also be granted another term, as 846 community members checked off his name.

James Sanchez. Photo from James Sanchez

“There are great things happening in our schools every day, and I’m proud to be part of a team that prioritizes innovation and creativity in education,” Gordon said in an email. She called it an honor to be able to serve the community for a third term.

Sanchez expressed a similar sentiment.

“As an incumbent I am honored to be given the opportunity in serving a third term, allowing me to be the voice and advocate for the Comsewogue families and students,” he said in an email. “I’d like to give a heartfelt thanks for entrusting me as your representative on the board.”

For voters in both the Port Jefferson and Comsewogue school districts, what’s old will be new again. Incumbent Adam DeWitt and newcomer David Keegan will be the only two names on the ballot May 16 for those living in the Port Jeff district with two seats open. Bob Ramus, a nine-year board member, announced earlier in 2017 he would not seek another term. Residents in Comsewogue will also see two names running for two open seats. The candidates are incumbents Ali Gordon and James Sanchez.

Port Jefferson School District

Adam DeWitt. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Adam DeWitt will be elected for his third term on the Port Jefferson board of education. He was first elected in 2013 on an interim basis, then won a seat during the 2014 to begin his first full term. The 42-year-old principal in the Longwood school district lives in Port Jefferson and has two children who attend the district.

He said he initially decided to run four years ago because he was concerned at the possibility of the district losing a substantial amount of revenue based on a legal battle with the Long Island Power Authority and the Port Jefferson Power Station, and is still committed to working on it.

DeWitt praised his colleagues on the board for the environment he has seen develop during his time serving.

“That’s another reason I want to continue to be on it … we created a system of efficiency and collaboration,” he said.

He said one of the things that has happened during his time that he’s proud of playing a part in is the district’s updated rules on transgender students use of bathrooms and locker rooms as of April 2016. The new policy allowed students to identify in their records how they would like their gender to be identified.

David Keegan, 47, has been an information and technology sales professional for the last 24 years. He is currently an area sales manager at Cisco Systems and a resident of Belle Terre.

“As an avid reader of American History I have come to appreciate and understand the importance of civic responsibility and commitment to community,” he said in an email. “As a Port Jefferson community member and parent to two children in the district, I am keenly interested in helping to assure the district continues to strive to provide a world-class education for all of our children.”

He also referenced the situation with LIPA as a deciding factor for his engagement with the school board, though there are other things he said he hopes to help accomplish in his first term, like expansion of STEM opportunities for students.

Comsewogue School District

Ali Gordon. Photo from Ali Gordon

Ali Gordon began her time on the school board in 2011. She is begining her third term in 2017. Gordon currently works as a senior advocate for the Suffolk County Office for the Aging. The 45-year-old has lived in Port Jefferson Station since 1999 with her husband and three of her four children, two of which are still attending Comsewogue schools.

Gordon said she originally ran for the position as an extension of her own advocacy and activism in local government. She spent several years in the PTA for Terryville Elementary School and even organized letter-writing campaigns for the district to address local issues in education with elected representatives.

She shared why she decided to run again this time around.

“I’m running again because Comsewogue has made incredible strides toward providing all of our students with a well-rounded, student-centered education, but there’s always more that can be done,” she said in an email. “Within my next term I look forward to advocating for Comsewogue to secure permission from New York State to officially be part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and expanding opportunities for students to earn college credit during high school.”

James Sanchez. Photo from James Sanchez

James Sanchez is the vice president of the Comsewogue board.

He is 62 years old and has lived in the district for 27 years. He works at the Port Jefferson Ferry as a dock master. He was first elected to the board in 2011 and said his goal when he first decided to run was to do anything he could to foster high student achievement through optimum, responsible use of taxpayer funds.

During his tenure he has served on the budget and finance, buildings, grounds and maintenance and board and district policies committees.

Sanchez shared some of his goals for his upcoming third term in an email.

“Developing a safe and secure school in which we have the mindfulness to protect all against bullying, harassment and discrimination is essential for providing a student friendly classroom,” he said. In this way we can create a safe and supportive school environment.”

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School board president Kathleen Brennan. File photo

For the immediate future, the Port Jefferson school district is in a stable financial position as they plan for the 2017-18 school year, though a February petition filed by National Grid could impact the district’s outlook sooner rather than later.

The district’s assistant superintendent for business Sean Leister presented a second draft of the budget for next school year. Currently the plan includes a rollover of all curriculum in the current year’s budget, including some recommended enhancements, and also adds funding for four new staff members district-wide, two of whom will be full-time employees in the special education department. After accounting for contractual increases in staff member salaries and benefits, as well as several infrastructure-related capital improvement projects, the result is a $43,293,012 budget, which is about $1.9 million more than the 2016-17 version. The district will see savings due to a reduction in New York State pension system rates, which Leister’s presentation indicated as a contributing factor in maintaining academic programs despite a slight increase in expenses.

Leister summed up the district’s current financial situation during the presentation.

“We’ve reduced borrowing fees on our money through prudent cash management, we’ve entered into an energy performance contract to save money on lighting and heating efficiency, we continue to review the allocation of staffing, greater stability in administration has led to a reduction in mentoring costs and a high school electrical upgrade will give us different solutions enabling us to operate more efficiently,”
he said.

The budget includes a 2.35 percent tax levy increase, which after exemptions will allow the district to collect the maximum allowable revenue from property taxes while remaining below the state-mandated 2.0 percent cap.

About $35.6 million of the district’s revenue comes from taxpayers, though that number could be slashed drastically in the coming years, pending a lawsuit filed by the district in conjunction with other local municipalities to prevent LIPA proposals to reduce its tax burden. Almost half of the district’s property tax revenue comes from the Port Jefferson Power Center.

Recently National Grid, which provides energy to Long Island in partnership with LIPA, filed a petition with the New York State Public Service Commission in an effort to lift maximum restrictions on peaker units, which are additional power generators designed to be used during times of peak power consumption. Village residents said during a public hearing on the matter March 22 the petition is the first step in an impending fight over the repowering of the now-closed baseload plant, a solution the district and Port Jefferson Village have pushed as a compromise to LIPA’s proposals, though the power authority has deemed the plant “obsolete.”

At the March 21 board of education meeting, district superintendent Paul Casciano called the petition a “piece of the larger puzzle” in the dispute, which could significantly impact future revenue. Nothing imminent is expected relating to the district’s revenue from the plant.

Some of the infrastructure-related capital improvement projects include replacing the roof and electrical improvements at the high school, façade repairs and resurfacing of the high school track. Replacing the high school roof will require a second referendum to be voted on by the public because it would require the release of about $400,000 from the district’s capital reserves. Leister addressed the need for some of the various projects during
his presentation.

“We have some loose bricks that we need to tighten up for health and safety reasons,” Leister said of the façade repairs, which are slated for the high school and middle school. He also justified the need to replace the track. “The track has reached its useful life and if we don’t resurface it now for $360,000, we could be facing a million-dollar, full replacement.”

Leister added during the village board meeting the district has about $1.7 million in unused fund balance, which the district is allowed to keep as a “rainy day” fund as long as it is less than four percent of the total budget.

“You can see here we have a very healthy district and healthy reserves currently on our books,” he said.

The budget vote will take place May 16.

A view of the main page of a piece of Reclaim NY’s Transparency Project. Image from ReclaimNY website

Transparency and honesty play a major role in healthy democracies, and now New York State municipalities will have a watchdog tracking their effectiveness, providing feedback publicly to concerned citizens, by concerned citizens.

Last week, Reclaim New York, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established to “educate New Yorkers on issues like affordability, transparency and education,” launched a website designed to rate government accessibility and transparency based on an index of recommendations.

The site is part of the group’s New York Transparency Project, an initiative launched in 2016, which kicked off with 2,500 Freedom of Information Law requests for basic expenditure information to county, town and village governments, as well as school districts across Long Island and the state.

“This is an accountability tool,” Reclaim New York Communications Director Doug Kellogg said. “Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

The new system allows citizens to grade local governments based on 29 indicators, including whether contracts are posted on the internet, there’s access to expenditure records, notices of meetings and the minutes to the meetings are available and contact information is listed for elected officials. The municipalities will receive an overall, objective grade. The grade will indicate which are transparent and law-abiding, as budget information and records access officers need to be publicly available.

“Anybody who wants to help do something to make government more accessible and accountable, go spend 30 minutes and input ratings.”

— Doug Kellogg

“Citizens can hold their governments accountable at every level if they have the right tools for the job,” executive director for the organization Brandon Muir said in a statement. “This is a truly unprecedented moment for New Yorkers who want to reclaim ownership of their government. Working with this new site they can make proactive transparency a reality.”

To input data, users must register with an email address. When data is put into the system, it is vetted and sited prior to going live to avoid a “wild west” feel, according to Kellogg. The process of imputing data to extract a rating for municipalities has only just begun. Kellogg said it will take time to have an all-encompassing collection of information.

In May 2016, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district failed to comply with FOIL requests as part of the organization’s Transparency Project.

New York’s FOIL requires governments and school districts respond to records requests within five business days, whether with the information requested, a denial or an acknowledgement of the request. The response needs to include an estimated date when one of the latter two will occur. Denials can be appealed but  not allowed “on the basis that the request is voluminous or that locating or reviewing the requested records or providing the requested copies is burdensome, because the agency lacks sufficient staffing.”

As part of a project it dubbed the New York Transparency Project, Reclaim New York sent 253 Freedom of Information requests to school districts and municipalities on Long Island. It reported on its findings, saying that while many entities complied with state guidelines on processing such public records requests, and after the findings were released, Port Jefferson Village and Commack school district eventually complied with the requests.

Entities that it said complied included Suffolk County; Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington towns; Belle Terre and Lake Grove villages; and the Port Jefferson, Kings Park, Huntington, Smithtown, Mount Sinai, Miller Place and Rocky Point school districts, among others.

To become an evaluator for the website or to view data, visit www.reclaimnewyork.org and click on the Transparency tab.

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