By Alex Petroski
Election night for the Smithtown board of education is approaching quickly.
The Suffolk Region PTA introduced Smithtown residents to five board of education candidates at the district’s Meet the Candidates night Wednesday, May 4, at the district headquarters on New York Avenue.
The terms of Smithtown school board trustees Theresa Knox and Louis Liguori conclude this year. Knox, who served on the board from 2000 to 2006 then again from 2007 to the present, will run for another term; Liguori was first elected in 2006 and will not seek a fourth term.
Elementary school principal Michael Saidens with director of finance of a Fortune 500-associated company, Robert Montana, and retired resident and active school community member Robert Foster will run for Liguori’s seat. Carpenter and father of four Accompsett Elementary students, Daniel Lynch, will challenge Knox.
During last week’s event, the candidates were allotted a three-minute opening statement, two-minute closing statement and one-minute responses to several questions provided by audience members.
Knox has been a Smithtown resident since 1987. Her three children attended Smithtown schools. She attended Stony Brook University and later worked for Citibank on Wall Street. She served as the PTA president at Nesconset Elementary School in 1990 and held a similar position in Smithtown High School in 1998. She said as a board member she’s served on every board of education committee possible, and has focused on college scholarships during her time on the board.
“College scholarship has become a mission,” Knox said May 4. “Any of you who know me for more than 20 minutes know that is my mission.”
Knox voted for the closure of Branch Brook Elementary School earlier in 2016, though she called it one of the hardest decisions she’s ever had to make. Knox explained why she’s running again, despite the fact that her friends think she’s crazy, she said.
“I think it’s the best place for me to use my talents to make a positive impact on the community,” Knox said.
Knox’s competitor, Lynch, said he is a lifelong resident of Smithtown. He grew up in Nesconset and attended multiple Smithtown schools, including High School West. He said after he graduated high school he put his passion for construction and talent working with his hands toward a career building homes for several different companies. Today he holds a leadership role with the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters union. He and his wife rented their first apartment in St. James, though they now live with their four sons in Smithtown.
“I want to be involved and address the issues that face my children today and all of your children as well,” he said about his reasons for running. “I offer perspective and an open mind, and I understand that I may be the new kid on the block but if elected I will absolutely commit to understanding and addressing all of these issues.”
Foster has lived in Smithtown for 27 years. His two children also attended Smithtown schools and have gone on to successful business careers after college, he said. Foster attended the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, and then went on to the military after graduation. He spent a long career in marketing and sales and has since retired. He was a member of the last housing committee conducted in 2015, which ultimately provided data used in the decision to close Branch Brook. He has been an adviser to robotics teams in the district and has attended school board meetings for the past seven years.
“By not having children in the district, I really care about all 9,000 students,” Foster said. “They need a quality education. A quality education can only come from a district that is in balance financially. Unfortunately this district is starting to get unbalanced.”
Foster said a lack of too many other obligations, like a job or a family to raise, makes him an ideal candidate.
“I have time to spend on what is a very complicated job being on the school board,” he said.
Montana also grew up in Smithtown. He currently has two children in the district, including one at Branch Brook. He is currently a financial analyst at Clintrak Clinical Labeling Services, where he is responsible for budgeting and financial planning. Montana said his business background would serve him well during Smithtown’s tough financial times which might lie ahead.
“I think that experience will be an asset to the board and to the school district,” he said. “My main issue is the declining enrollment. It definitely directly affects my family because we are Branch Brook people so we’re facing a school closing in the next year. I just want to be a part of the decision-making process.”
Montana and Foster both suggested that the school board going forward looks for a way to reduce contracted commitments to teachers in the district, which is an expense that accounts for the vast majority of the district’s budget.
Saidens is currently the principal at Tamarac Elementary School in the Sachem School District. Sachem is encountering a financial crisis of their own, with multiple schools set to close in the coming years. Saidens, the Smithtown resident who also taught elementary school in the district and sends his 6-year-old son to Tackan Elementary School, said his perspective witnessing the financial stress in Sachem could be helpful for Smithtown. He has a business management degree from Clemson University to go along with his education background.
“The No. 1 issue that makes me want to run for the board of education is helping to ensure that students are getting the best practices in our classrooms,” Saidens said. “Another concern that I have is making sure Long Island, specifically Smithtown, starts getting what they deserve. The amount of money that we send from this community up to Albany and the return that we get back isn’t equitable, and Smithtown needs their fair share.”