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Superintendent Robert Banzer

District to hold May 1 community forum to discuss status of lawsuit over power plant’s tax assessment

Northport High School. File photo

Northport school officials are calling for Long Island Power Authority to uphold a decades-old promise over taxes on its power plant as a June trial date looms.

Superintendent Robert Banzer has called for LIPA to stand by a 1997 agreement made between the district, the utility company and former New York State Gov. George Pataki (R) in an April 16 letter to community residents. Banzer alleged the power company had agreed not to seek to lower the assessed tax value of the Northport power plant as long as local authorities did not abusively increase it over time.

“While it is a very complex issue that goes back to the 1990s, it boils down to one simple premise: LIPA made a promise to our school district and we are fighting hard to make sure they, and others, continue to fulfill their promise,” Banzer wrote in the letter.

LIPA made a promise to our school district and we are fighting hard to make sure they, and others, continue to fulfill their promise.”
– Robert Banzer

In 2010, LIPA and National Grid filed a lawsuit against the district challenging the assessment of the power plant and demanding a 90 percent reduction in taxes, also seeking the difference in tax refunds retroactively.

“Obviously, a 90 percent reduction to the power plant’s assessment would be devastating to the school district, its residents and most importantly, our students,” Banzer wrote.

The district currently receives about 38 percent of its overall revenue from the taxes paid on the Northport power plant, or the equivalent of nearly $53 million per year.

The superintendent said the district has been involved in settlement discussions with LIPA “which at this point, has not yielded a reasonable resolution.” The utility company’s latest proposed settlement would be a 50 percent reduction in taxes over a nine-year period, according to the
superintendent, which would increase the tax burden on district residents by millions per year. Banzer said if this proposal took effect, the schools would be forced to “make additional modifications, including cutting programs and staff significantly.”

In his letter to residents the superintendent stated that the district remains open to negotiating a settlement with LIPA. He did not respond to requests for further interviews.

The two parties have limited time to reach an agreement as a state supreme court trial is slated to begin in June.

Obviously, a 90 percent reduction to the power plant’s assessment would be devastating to the school district… ”
– Robert Banzer

State senators John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) introduced legislation April 20 that could help mitigate any potential impact of the lawsuit on Northport taxpayers. The bill seeks to lengthen the time frame over which LIPA’s taxes would be gradually reduced from nine years to a proposed 15 years. In addition, it would grant the municipal governments and school districts who lose a tax assessment challenge to LIPA after April 1, 2018, access to the state’s electric generating facility cessation mitigation program. This way, town government and schools could create reserve funds to mitigate the burden on their taxpayers.

Other municipalities, villages and school districts have had better success in bargaining with the utility company to varying degrees. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced April 3 that the town government had reached a settlement with LIPA on its assessment lawsuit over the Port Jefferson power plant. Port Jefferson School District officials called this news “deeply troubling.”

“This decision will … place the school district in harm’s way,” the district’s statement said.

A community forum will be held May 1 at 7 p.m. in Northport High School’s auditorium where district taxpayers can learn about the potential impacts of the LIPA lawsuit on their school taxes and their children’s education as it moves forward.

 

Northport-East Northport school parent Mary Gilmore urged school officials to conduct a longitudinal study of air quality in the schools. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Northport-East Northport board of education called on a specialist last week in an attempt to clear the air with concerned parents over potential health risks from gas fumes detected at Northport Middle School last spring.

At the Sept. 28 meeting, Dr. Lauren Zajac of Mount Sinai Hospital, a pediatrician specially trained in environmental health, fielded questions by the board and residents and encouraged the district to implement an indoor air quality program in all its schools.

“As a pediatrician and a mom myself, I would want to make sure our schools have good air because nobody is doing that right now — let’s become a leader in the state when it comes to indoor air quality,” Zajac said over a Skype call in the cafeteria at William J. Brosnan School.

“I hope we don’t hear 10, 20 or 30 years down the road students are developing illnesses. No level of unnecessary exposure to these chemicals is at all acceptable … ignorance to this is no excuse.”

— Denise Schwartz

She assured the agitated residents in the room that moving forward is the best plan of action.

“We can’t change what happened in the past and I’m sorry it happened, and I know it’s stressful,” Zajac said. “I recommend channeling this passion and energy into making sure a really good program is put in place.”

The board assured Zajac and residents it has begun the process of implementing a Tools for Schools program, which shows school districts how to carry out a practical plan to resolve indoor air problems such as volatile organic compounds and mold “at little to no cost using straightforward activities and in-house staff,” according to the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency website.

“Today we had a kickoff meeting for that program,” Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer said. “Tools for Schools is comprehensive and deals with anything having to do with air quality.”

Zajac’s appearance before the board followed consistent urging from the community for a longitudinal study of the school district to get to the bottom of four chemicals commonly found in perfumes and latex paints found in high concentrations in classrooms 74 and 75 in the K-wing corridor April 24. After an earth science teacher smelled fumes in the classroom, an investigation found the source to be a petroleum-based warehouse beneath the K-wing.

That discovery six months ago led to the closure of those rooms for the remainder of the school year. It remains off limits today.

The materials were removed and a series of air quality tests have since been conducted, one by a company called EnviroScience Inc. three days after the odor was first found. A second air quality test was performed by J.C. Broderick & Associates Inc. July 22.

Although the tests came up with “nothing that sounded the alarms from a health perspective,” according to Zajac whose team analyzed the data reports, parents have long feared for their children’s health in connection to the fumes.

Zajac pushed for the school and community to forego the longitudinal study as it may not provide the answers everyone is looking for. There are many unknown factors surrounding the possible exposures, and chemical levels in general are apt to change with each day, according to the specialist, resulting in an unreliable study.

“I think I’m going to explode if I hear ‘move forward’ one more time. You have to look back, you have to protect the children and staff that were there.”

— East Northport resident

“It would be very hard to draw conclusions as to whether a student’s visit to the nurse has anything to do with exposure concerns or unrelated illnesses,” she said, steering the conversation back to the future. “It could be done, but it would have so many limitations and I wouldn’t want it to take away effort from the most important thing — reducing the exposures from here on out.”

But some residents in the room weren’t as willing to let go of past problems within the school.

East Northport parent Denise Schwartz, whose three children have gone through the middle school, said she recently uncovered old newspaper articles documenting the school’s history of being a “sick building.” Mold, fungus and gas leading to headaches and fevers is not a recent problem here, Schwartz told Zajac.

“Every time it has come up, there has been some clean up that appeased people and then we move forward,” Schwartz said, implying negligence and incompetence by those in the school district. “I hope we don’t hear 10, 20 or 30 years down the road students are developing illnesses. No level of unnecessary exposure to these chemicals is at all acceptable … ignorance to this is no excuse.”

Mary Gilmore, a mother of two students whose classrooms were in the K-wing, urged for a longitudinal study to be done despite the unknown variables.

“Isn’t that the only way to know if there will be long-term health effects on the kids and staff that were in that building?” Gilmore said.

“My concern is that a study would be intensive and may not lead to any answers,” Zajac responded. “I’d be afraid so much would be put into this study and it wouldn’t be fruitful.”

Another East Northport resident, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed with the others that more focus should be on the past.

“I think I’m going to explode if I hear ‘move forward’ one more time,” she said, pleading for a study. “You have to look back, you have to protect the children and staff that were there.”

This version correctly identifies that Denise Schwartz’s children have already graduated from the middle school.

Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer and Board President Andrew Rapiejko discuss how to handle the vote that could lead to a decrease in board member size. Photo by Victoria Espinoza.

Northport residents will officially have a chance to reduce the size of the Northport-East Northport Board of Education this spring.

The board passed a resolution at Thursday night’s meeting that will add a proposition to the budget vote this spring to decrease the membership of the board from nine trustees to seven.

The United Taxpayers of Northport-East Northport came to the board with a petition in June saying that nine members have made the board less effective.

In their petition the United Taxpayers stated “statistical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that school districts operate in a more effective and efficient manner when the composition of the board is limited to no more than seven board members.”

Armand D’Accordo, a member of the group, backed up its sentiment.

“I have gotten the sense at board meetings — both through watching and interacting — that it seems a bit dysfunctional, due to the makeup of how many members and how long they’ve been around,” D’Accordo said in a previous interview.

He also said the organization became interested in this idea after reading a study by Nina Dorata, titled “School District Boards, Audit Committees, and Budget Oversight: Seeking a Formula for Good Governance,” published in the March 2013 issue of the CPA Journal, which exposed the correlation between school district budget increases and tenure of board members.

“I do feel confident in the public,” D’Accordo said of the resolution passing. “There is a general sense I have been getting while collecting signatures for this petition that the public wants a smaller school board.”

Trustees have said they do not think this is a necessary step.

“We have a large and diverse community with a lot of different areas to represent,” Vice President David Badanes said in a previous interview. “The more people that participate gives you more eyes for each issue. The statistics are speculative and so far the arguments do not convince me.”

After the vote, Trustee Jennifer Thompson asked if the district would be held responsible to inform the public on this issue.

“Since this proposition came from the community and not the board or the district, how will the community be informed of the pros and cons of it?” she asked at the meeting. “Who is responsible for disseminating that information?”

Trustee Lori McCue suggested that at one of the upcoming budget meetings, the board give the factual information, and discuss how, if this proposition is successful, the members would be dwindles down from nine to seven.

Northport-East Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Northport school district’s security greeters are on the verge of receiving health benefits — thanks in large part to the efforts of one of their own.

Diane Smith is in her seventh year as a greeter at Fifth Avenue Elementary School, and said she has never received health benefits, despite numerous pleas.

“Before this position was created, anyone could go to the office and often stroll right down to classrooms, creating a lot of interruptions,” Smith said in an interview after the meeting Thursday night. “We finally have some boundaries.”

Greeter’s duties include monitoring who is coming and going from school buildings, assisting in late arrivals and early releases and helping parents get forgotten items to the students, among other day-to-day tasks that may arise.

According to the district supervisor of security, the position of greeters was created about 10 years ago.

Over that time, the responsibilities of the job have changed, with greater emphasis placed on security in the aftermath of violent school-related incidents like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

“We [greeters] know the parents, grandparents and babysitters, as well as most of the personnel that visit our buildings,” Smith said in an email on Friday.

Smith said she has been working a second job to afford health care, while continuously searching for another job that would give her benefits, though she is hesitant to leave the Northport school district because she loves the job.

Smith said she has been expressing her desire for health care for the nine full-time greeters via letters and in person for years, to the school board and to district officials. She showed up on Thursday to take her campaign to the next level.

So far her efforts have been fruitless, but that could soon change.

“[The greeters are] going to get an opportunity for health insurance,” Superintendent Robert Banzer said during the meeting. “It just happened to be so ironic that she showed up today, because we just talked about it and kind of said, ‘Yes let’s go ahead and make it right and make sure they have an opportunity for health insurance.’”

Banzer attributed the delay in providing health insurance to the greeters to a switch from part-time to full-time designation.

Smith was skeptical when she left the meeting Thursday. She said it was more of the same rhetoric she’s been hearing since she began her battle.

However, as of Friday, she is approaching the situation with more optimism after receiving an email from Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Irene McLaughlin that established Jan. 19 as a meeting date for the greeters and members of the district to sit down and discuss health care options.

“I am very guardedly optimistic,” Smith said.

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