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Incumbent Tracy Zamek; newcomers René Tidwell, Ryan Walker win PJ BOE seats after heated campaign

Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano and Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella. File photos

By Alex Petroski

Voters in the greater Port Jefferson area went to the polls in a giving mood May 15.

Port Jefferson School District residents approved the $44.9 million budget with 774 voting in favor and 362 against, while also passing a second proposition permitting the release of capital funds for a long-planned partial roof repair project at the high school.

“I’m really happy that the community came out and endorsed our spending plan for next year,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said after the results were announced. “It’s really important. They showed a lot of support for public education in Port Jefferson School District, so we’re really, very happy about that.”

Across town in Comsewogue School District, the $91.9 million budget was also passed by an easy margin; 829 to 263. The district’s approximately $32 million capital bond proposition received 768 votes in support to just 315 against. The 15-year borrowing plan includes about $3 million in interest and will provide funds for upgrades in each of the district’s six buildings. The projects selected were the byproduct of extensive planning on the part of the facilities committee, a group of about 20 professionals from across the community.

Port Jeff’s new board of education members Ryan Walker and René Tidwell with re-elected incumbent Tracy Zamek. Photo by Alex Petroski

“We are grateful to our community for its continued support of our schools and our students,” Superintendent Joe Rella said in a statement. “Their approval of the bond and 2018-19 budget will enable us to enhance and enrich health and safety, infrastructure and the three A’s – academics, arts and athletics.”

Port Jeff’s approved budget includes a roughly 2.3 percent tax levy increase compared to the current year, while Comsewogue’s increase will be 2.1 percent.

Tracy Zamek, an incumbent on Port Jeff’s school board, secured one of the three seats up for grabs in a six-way race, securing 604 votes. She’ll be joined on the board by newcomers Ryan Walker, who received 660 votes, and René Tidwell, who got 649. Tidwell and Walker campaigned on a joint ticket, as Zamek did with candidates Jason Kronberg (369 votes) and Ryan Biedenkapp (481 votes).

“I’m honored to be re-elected again,” Zamek said. “I look forward to standing up for the kids in Port Jefferson School District. I look forward to the challenges ahead of being fiscally responsible with the LIPA challenge, as well as keeping Port Jefferson School District intact.”

The discussion surrounding the board of education vote in Port Jeff became contentious at times, especially on social media. Much of the angst can be traced to the possibility of decreasing revenue from property taxes as the district — along with Brookhaven Town and Port Jeff Village — work toward a likely settlement in a legal battle with the Long Island Power Authority over the utility’s assessed property tax value on its Port Jeff power plant, which LIPA contends is over-assessed. The district gets a large chunk of its operating budget revenue as a result of housing the plant.

“I’m thrilled at the turnout,” Tidwell said. “I’m thrilled that the budget was passed, and I’m ready to move forward. Right now, I just want to heal the division in our community and I’ll work together to figure out how we move forward.”

“We’re pleased at the results obviously, and we feel that it’s a time for all of us to come together and to work as a team.”

— Ryan Walker

Walker expressed a similar sentiment.

“We’re pleased at the results obviously, and we feel that it’s a time for all of us to come together and to work as a team,” he said. “I think we’re going to have an amazing board this time and we’re going to accomplish amazing things. So, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve the people of the Port Jefferson School District.”

Biedenkapp, Farina and Kronberg did not respond to requests for comment sent via email by press time.

Comsewogue’s board of education vote was a foregone conclusion. Board President John Swenning, incumbent Rick Rennard and first-time candidate Corey Prinz ran an uncontested race for three open seats.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to serve another three years on the board,” Rennard said, adding he was pleased to hear of the budget and bond approvals.

Swenning, a mainstay on the Comsewogue board since 2005, called the district an incredible place to live in a statement.

“As a board trustee I am honored to work with fantastic administrators, teachers and staff and to represent a very involved and appreciative community,” he said.

Prinz, a district resident since 2004 and a commercial banker at Bank United, said he was thrilled to see the support for the budget and bond and is looking forward to working with the district.

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As we sit crunching numbers for 2018-19 proposed school budgets, we can’t help but wonder how many parents and taxpayers are paying attention. We already know the answer — not enough.

School taxes make up more than 60 percent of the average homeowner’s property taxes in Suffolk County, according to a 2017 analysis done by ATTOM Data Solutions, a real-estate information firm. Despite this fact, voter turnout for school budgets remains dreadfully low year after year.

In May 2017, the ballots cast by a mere 412 people determined how Port Jefferson School District would spend its more than $43 million to educate about 1,000 enrolled students. Now, its taxpayers face coming to terms with a settlement of Long Island Power Authority’s lawsuit over the tax assessment of the power plant and what it might mean for their wallets.

To cast an educated vote May 15 on your district’s proposed 2018-19 school budget is a test of every Long Island taxpayer. There’s a little more than a week left, so start studying.

Ever since the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting Feb. 14, this year has been marked by tense debates between students, parents and school administrators over school safety. On March 14, Rocky Point High School students participated in the National School Walkout despite knowing they would face in-school suspension. These students brought their dissension to the board of education trustees. Elections for these vital positions are held annually during the budget vote. Unfortunately, only 909 people in Rocky Point voted in 2017 on who would be determining if the students’ punishment was fair.

The most direct way to make changes in a school district’s policy is to vote and become involved. The elected trustees on a board of education participate in the lowest form of government, smaller than the town or county government, but that shouldn’t reflect on the importance of the job. By running and winning a seat on the board, one can propose changes to a school district’s security measures or educational policies. This civic involvement is vital to bringing about change.

Yet all too often board of education races have little to no contest. The board of education trustee races tend to have even fewer ballots cast than the annual budget.

If Long Islanders want to be a force of change behind the factors creating high property taxes and have a say on poignant issues like school security, get out and vote. Ask questions of your board of education candidates to find out where they stand. Attend budget presentations to see exactly how your tax dollars are being spent. The polls will be open Tuesday, May 15. Take five minutes while dropping off or picking up your child from school to cast your ballot. It can make a difference in their education, and then you too can say you’ve done your homework.

Dr. Jason Kronberg during a meet the candidates event at Port Jefferson High School April 24. Photo by Alex Petroski

A Port Jefferson School District board of education candidate has agreed to pay a settlement to resolve a legal issue pertaining to his day job.

A pediatrics practice with several Long Island locations, including one in Port Jefferson, and its current and former partner physicians agreed to pay $750,000 to settle claims of improper Medicaid billing practices, according to an April 25 announcement by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. One of the partners of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the practice named in the press release, is Dr. Jason Kronberg, a Port Jefferson resident running for one of the school district’s three board of education seats up for election May 15. The practice operates as a limited liability partnership under the name Freed, Kleinberg, Nussbaum, Festa & Kronberg M.D. The legal action was brought about by a whistleblower, and the case was pursued under the federal False Claims Act and the New York State False Claims Act jointly by federal and state investigators.

“The practice corrected the problem on our own in 2011, and we have had no issues since that point.”

— Jason Kronberg

According to the release, the practice billed the Medicaid program, which provides health coverage to millions of Americans including eligible low-income adults, children, people with disabilities and others and is jointly funded by state and federal governments, for services provided by physicians who were not enrolled in the program. Between July 2004 and December 2010, the practice and its partners employed a number of physicians who were not enrolled in the Medicaid program yet still provided care to Medicaid patients, the government’s investigation revealed. The defendants sought reimbursement from Medicaid for services provided by non-Medicaid enrolled physicians and did so by misrepresenting the identities of the individuals actually providing the treatment, the release said.

“The settlement related to billing practices from over eight years ago, a period when, for the most part, I was just an employee of the practice,” Kronberg said in an email, adding that the settlement shouldn’t interfere with his school board candidacy. “The practice corrected the problem on our own in 2011, and we have had no issues since that point. Given the extraordinarily complex nature of Medicaid billing rules, settlements like this are quite common – the government enters into thousands of them every year. We cooperated fully with the government investigation of this matter and we resolved the case with the government amicably.”

According to the complaint by the whistleblower’s attorneys accessed after Kronberg’s initial statement, he was a partner “at all relevant times herein.”

“I was a partner starting July 2009,” Kronberg said. “The complaint was 2005 to 2010. The statement said ‘for the most part’ — which is accurate.”

A request for comment sent to Kronberg’s defense attorney Christopher Fenlon was not returned, nor was a request sent to district Superintendent Paul Casciano.

“Today’s settlement reflects this office’s commitment to safeguarding taxpayer programs like Medicaid by vigorously investigating allegations of fraud in False Claims Act cases.”

— Richard Donoghue

According to Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel of the New York State School Board’s Association, an organization that provides support for school boards in the state, the settlement will have no impact on Kronberg’s bid for Port Jeff’s board. Worona said anyone qualified to vote is eligible to run for a board of education position in New York, with a felony conviction being the only disqualifier, adding that it will be up to the voters to decide.

“Providers serving Medicaid beneficiaries must be properly credentialed and thoroughly vetted to ensure that proper care is provided and to preserve the integrity of the Medicaid Program, which serves our neediest citizens,” U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement. “Today’s settlement reflects this office’s commitment to safeguarding taxpayer programs like Medicaid by vigorously investigating allegations of fraud in False Claims Act cases.”

As part of the settlement, New York’s Medicaid program will receive $450,000 of the $750,000 payment, according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office’s press release on the matter.

Kronberg said during a meet the candidates event at the high school April 24 he was seeking a seat on the board to lend his willingness to listen to all sides of a debate and weigh in impartially. He is one of six candidates running to fill three seats.

“I was asked to become a member of the school board to serve as a rational and non-biased voice in what has become a contentious environment,” he said in a personal statement. “I believe I will bring to the board a fiscally conservative yet socially liberal viewpoint.”

This post was updated May 1 with information from the complaint filed by the whistleblower and a second comment from Jason Kronberg.

Commack Superintendent Donald James presented the district's 2018-19 budget draft. File photo by Greg Catalano

A state audit cracked down on the Commack Union Free School District, accusing officials of mishandling funds and costing taxpayers.

The audit, which was released Aug. 5, said Commack school administrators needed to do a better job overseeing the budgeting process after the district overestimated expenditures in its adopted budgets and did not use surplus cash to finance operations. The audit also found the district did not maintain a “complete and adequate” record of its fuel inventory to safeguard and account for its fuel.

“From 2011-12 through 2013-14, total actual revenues exceeded expenditures by as much as $3.7 million,” Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said in the audit, and while the district had a $24 million fund balance, it only used $1.8 million to offset taxes. “Had district officials used more realistic budget estimates, they could have avoided the accumulation of excess fund balance and possibly reduced the real property tax levy.”

The report also found that discrepancies in the fuel inventory records were not investigated. According to DiNapoli, Commack’s head groundskeeper performed a monthly reconciliation of district fuel purchase and use records with the actual fuel on hand but never acted on discrepancies, even though anything left unresolved within 48 hours must be reported to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In response, Commack Superintendent Donald James said the district had “varying fiscal philosophies” but cited a list of changes it would be implementing moving forward. As for the comptroller’s remarks on Commack’s financial condition, James kept it short and sweet.

“The district will review the expenditure budget areas and the variables affecting such areas discussed in the audit report in depth to assure reasonable estimates are presented,” he said in a statement.

District spokeswoman Brenda Lentsch said the district saves money through strong budgeting practices and all of its savings are returned to the taxpayers the following year.

“We go to great efforts not to spend the money the residents of this community entrust to us,” she said in a statement. “Further, the district returns every dollar not spent in the budget to the taxpayers to keep the tax levy as low as possible, and to continue to offer the multitude of programs and services that Commack is known for, and the community expects.”

On the subject of fuel inventory records, James had a lot more to say.

“The district has taken great care and effort to develop and implement new procedures to ensure that fuel supplies are adequately safeguarded, accounted for and protected against risk of loss or unidentified leakage,” he said in a response outlined within the audit.

Moving forward, James said the district would record, monitor and reconcile its fuel inventory via a senior account clerk and install video surveillance systems to monitor the area of the 2,500-gallon underground fuel tank and pump.

DiNapoli’s audit set out to evaluate the district’s overall financial condition and fuel inventory, specifically between July 1, 2013, and Nov. 30, 2014. The comptroller extended the scope of his audit back to July 1, 2011, however, to provide better perspective and background.

DiNapoli recommended the district develop procedures to ensure it adopts more reasonable budgets — to avoid raising more real property taxes than necessary — and use more of its surplus funds to support future budgets and reduce the burden on taxpayers. He also recommended the district adopt written policies to ensure fuel is periodically measured and to report discrepancies promptly.

By Jane Lee Bock

Huntington schools have taken a big step toward ensuring that local taxpayers continue to see some money back in state rebates this year.

School districts have formed a consortium to help reign in expenses, implementing one more of the mandatory steps needed to comply with the regulations of the three-year state property tax freeze credit.

The credit is a new tax relief program that reimburses qualifying homeowners for increases in local property taxes on their primary homes, according to the program’s website. The credit applies to school districts in 2014 and 2015 and to most other municipalities in 2015 and 2016.

Cold Spring Harbor school district has been designated the lead agency for the consortium and is partnering with Western Suffolk BOCES to coordinate the plans and submit them to the state by June 1, 2015. In total so far, 19 districts are eligible to participate in this joint effort. Northport, Huntington, Harborfields and Cold Spring Harbor have officially joined the consortium.

William Bernhard, interim assistant superintendent for business at Cold Spring Harbor. File photo by Karen Spehler
William Bernhard, interim assistant superintendent for business at Cold Spring Harbor. File photo by Karen Spehler

In 2014, New York property owners received a rebate if their school district stayed within the state’s 2-percent property tax cap when developing its budget. In 2015, property owners will get a rebate if the districts demonstrate that they have plans that will develop efficiencies and cost savings, and their local municipal taxing districts stay within the tax cap. In 2016, the rebate requirements will be aimed at only municipalities, requiring them to stay within the tax cap and develop cost savings.

The state estimates this three-year program will result in $1.5 billion in taxpayer savings. This consortium meets the requirements of the government efficiency plan component of the property tax freeze credit.

No specific savings have been announced yet because the plans have to be submitted and approved by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance and any savings created by efficiencies implemented before 2012, when the freeze was initially created, are allowed to be included in each district’s component of the plan.

“What they have allowed us to do is that if we had some prior efficiencies that were instituted prior to June 2012, which is the first year of the tax cap, we can use that towards demonstrating our savings,” William Bernhard, interim assistant business superintendent of the Cold Spring Harbor school district said in a phone interview. “Many districts had to do that to stay within the tax cap.”

In addition, by grouping the districts together, they will be required to save one percent of their tax levy combined, instead of individually, he said. Those savings must be realized through the 2016-17 school years.
Bernhard said he hasn’t seen the full plan yet because the information has not been submitted.

Visit www.tax.ny.gov/pit/property/property_tax_freeze.htm for more information on the property tax freeze credit program.

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