Times of Middle Country

District’s teachers association partnered with groups to get books for community

Middle Country Central School District Board of Education President Karen Lessler and Middle Country Teachers Association President Nadia Resnikoff of Dawnwood Middle School were the driving forces behind this year’s book distribution. Photo from Middle Country school district

The Middle Country Central School District Teachers Association’s free book fair for the community was a huge success.

Hundreds of students, families and members of the community searched through and took home donated books. Attendees lined up around the corner to take advantage of the program meant to give the gift of reading back to the community.

 Hundreds of students, families and members of the community lined up to look through more than 15,000 books donated by the Middle Country Teachers Association. Photo from Middle Country school district
Hundreds of students, families and members of the community lined up to look through more than 15,000 books donated by the Middle Country Teachers Association. Photo from Middle Country school district

“We are proud of our teachers for the work they do with our students inside the classroom, but also the work they do with them and the rest of the community outside of the classroom,” Middle Country Superintendent of Schools Roberta Gerold said. “The Middle Country Teachers Association is setting a positive example for our students — giving them the gift of reading and teaching them the importance of giving back.”

The teachers of the district aimed to give back to their community in a way that spread the spirit of reading and critical thinking. Through a partnership with New York State United Teachers, First Book and the American Federation of Teachers, the Middle Country Teachers Association was able to collect more than 15,000 books to distribute to community members.

“We were excited for the opportunity to give books to a population of people that might otherwise not be able to buy their own during this holiday season,” Dawnwood Middle School teacher Nadia Resnikoff said. “As a member of the Middle Country Teachers Association, we are always looking for new ways to foster education throughout our community and we were proud to be able to give back in this way this year.”

For more information about academic programs available at the Middle Country school district and a calendar of events, please visit www.mccsd.net. To learn more about the student experience and news from the district, also visit www.mymiddlecountryschools.net.

Students in teacher Eric Gustafson’s fourth-grade class at Setauket Elementary School hold wrapped gifts to be donated. Photo from Three Village school district

By Rebecca Anzel

Opportunities for warming hearts abound during the holiday season and those who give tend to receive much more.

Five years ago, when Linda Bily, cancer patient advocacy and community outreach director at Stony Brook Cancer Center, and others noticed some patients did not have family members to share the holidays with, she started the Adopt a Family program.

The first year, 20 families were “adopted” by 20 departments, which donated gifts such as winter coats, new sneakers and gift cards for grocery stores and gas stations. This year, Bily estimates that 75 families will be adopted by departments and community groups.

“This is a good thing for patients going through chemo because it’s one less thing they have to worry about,” Bily said. “The people that donate the gifts get as much out of it as the patients — and they always go above and beyond. It makes them feel good to do it.”

From left, Stony Brook ‘elves’ Maryellen Bestenheider, Mary Alice Plant and Michele Hass make the season bright for some cancer patients and their families. Photo from Stony Brook Cancer Center
From left, Stony Brook ‘elves’ Maryellen Bestenheider, Mary Alice Plant and Michele Hass make the season bright for some cancer patients and their families. Photo from Stony Brook Cancer Center

Patients and their families are nominated by the nursing staff and social workers. The only requirements are that they receive treatment at the cancer center and are facing financial hardship.

Alicia McArdle has been a social worker at the cancer center for two years and nominates families to participate in the program. She said what separates this program from others like it is that it includes cancer patients of all ages, not just children.

“So many people are nominated, it’s unbelievable,” McArdle said. “It’s a way to give our patients joy during a difficult time, and it definitely brightens their days.”

Once a patient agrees to participate he or she gives Bily a wish list. It contains items like a new pair of sweatpants, music, or gloves — never anything like a new Xbox or cellphone, Bily said

“You wouldn’t believe how a new pair of sneakers and a really warm winter jacket can change someone’s life,” McArdle said. “It really helps because most of our patients want to pay their bills first and they put themselves last. It’s nice to put them first for once, and they’re so appreciative for it.” Only first names are shared, in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Bily said once a group has participated in the program, it almost always does so again. That’s true of the cancer center’s radiology department, which has adopted a family every year. Elizabeth Kramer said her 22-person department looks forward to the holiday tradition.

“We’re all very fortunate and we want to help these people that are in need,” she said. “A lot of them cannot afford to buy gifts for their family, so we enjoy purchasing and wrapping presents for them.”

Radiology is adopting a family of four this year — a mom, a dad and two children. Kramer said the father asked for music to relax and “zone out” while he receives chemo. Kramer added the radiology department always purchases a supermarket gift card as well.

In December 2014, Judith Mitchell, a mother of five was receiving radiation at the center to treat her breast cancer, and she needed help. She knew she would have trouble affording gifts such as clothes and shoes for her holiday presents for her children.

Mitchell was asked by cancer center staff if she wanted to participate in the program.

“The program was a blessing because there’s no way we could have done for these children what our adopters had done,” she said. “It’s nice to know that people are really willing to help others who cannot help themselves, because sometimes when you have cancer, it’s hard. My cancer did not affect me alone, it affected my whole family.”

“What’s nice about this program is that it’s giving and it warms the heart. “It’s such a beautiful experience being able to provide gifts and it gets your mind off yourself during the holiday season.”

— Jennifer Scarlatos

Business owners in the community also get involved.

“What’s nice about this program is that it’s giving and it warms the heart,” Jennifer Scarlatos, co-owner of Toast Coffeehouse in Port Jefferson, said. “It’s such a beautiful experience being able to provide gifts and it gets your mind off yourself during the holiday season.”

She participated in the program with her employees last year, and also helped her daughter’s fourth-grade class at Setauket Elementary School adopt a family.

Teacher Eric Gustafson said it was a great opportunity to remind his students of the importance of giving — not just receiving. He remembered the children excitedly telling each other about gifts they picked out while they all wrapped the presents together.

“It was such a fun day and the kids really got into it,” he said. “Once you put together everything they bought, it made for a pretty impressive pile, and it put us in the spirit of giving.”

Gustafson encouraged other classrooms to participate, and Kramer added churches and other groups should consider it as well.

Lisa Egry and her son Shaun meet his second companion dog, a yellow lab/golden retriever mix named Honey, last year. Photo from Canine Companions for Independence

A Setauket woman is doing her part to provide a best friend for someone in need in the form of a black lab/golden retriever puppy named Yucca II.

Since late July, Michele Galasso, 50, has been a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence — a national nonprofit organization that matches highly trained assistance dogs to children and adults with disabilities at no cost to the recipients. And she couldn’t be happier.

“It’s wonderful and life affirming,” said Galasso. “I know the power and the beauty and the love that dogs bring to people — it’s an inspiring thing. It feels so good that I can help make that happen for a person.”

Ever since Yucca II turned 8 weeks old, it’s been Galasso’s job to take her into her home, raise her, teach her basic commands and socialization skills, and expose her to any and all types of surroundings by the time she leaves after 18 months of standard training.

From there, Galasso will return her puppy to CCI’s regional headquarters in Medford, where another six months of more advanced training will take place.

Ultimately, if Yucca II passes a rigorous evaluation process based on her different strengths, she can be matched with a person who might need her — a wounded veteran or an abused child, for instance.

CCI’s standards for the dogs are exceedingly high, with only about four out of 10 making it through the program, and so the puppy raisers are considered the backbones of the organization.

By the time they are fully trained, the dogs know more than 40 commands and be able to perform helpful tasks such as turn lights on and off, open and close doors, pick up dropped items and even help their human get dressed, according to John Bentzinger, CCI’s public relations coordinator.

“If you’re someone who wants to have some degree of independence … on command, these dogs can pick up an item as small as a dime and put it in your lap for you,” he said in a phone interview. “The more puppies being raised, the more people we can serve.”

Galasso said she was inspired to get involved with CCI when she met fellow dog lover Caryl Swain, who had been a longtime CCI puppy raiser. It was Swain who encouraged Galasso to attend a puppy training class at CCI, as well as a graduation ceremony in which diplomas were given out and leashes were ceremoniously handed over from the puppy raiser to the dog’s permanent recipient.

It was this ceremony that sealed the deal for Galasso.

“When I saw the individuals with their families receive their new service dogs, I knew that this was the service endeavor I have been searching for,” she said.

After a thorough interview process, including a rundown of all of her new responsibilities as a puppy raiser, like taking care of vet bills and food, and a long waiting period, CCI eventually told her to come pick up her puppy on July 29.

Galasso said that raising Yucca II is a lot of work but extremely rewarding. Yucca II is well mannered and loves working on her one-word commands, she said. Galasso puts a special yellow cape on Yucca II as she is permitted to go to many public areas that family pets aren’t allowed to, and visits the nearby senior center once a week.

To help the puppy adjust to a wide variety of surfaces, Galasso walks her indoors, outdoors, on the grass, in the street, as well as busy areas like Stony Brook Village. She’s also training her not to eat off the floor, in case the person she’ll assist were to drop their medication.

Galasso said that Yucca II loves people, especially children. On Halloween, she said Yucca II even sat in the middle of the stairs, which face a storm door with see-through glass only at the top of it, so she could look out and see the kids as they came up in their costumes.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, I hope she gets placed with a child,’ because she really loves them.”

Last year in Mount Sinai, a young man named Shaun Egry — who suffers from cerebral palsy — was matched with an assistance dog from CCI. His mother Lisa said that they’ve been involved with CCI since 2004 and received their first dog in 2007 when Shaun was just 10 years old, confined to a wheelchair and in need of a friend.

She said the dogs have not only helped him physically, but emotionally too.

“He went from not speaking in public and being kind of embarrassed and ashamed to being very outgoing, and now he talks so much that he just doesn’t stop anymore,” said Lisa Egry. “It’s just a big confidence builder, and gave him what he needs to not feel so self-conscious of his disability.”

As a puppy raiser, Galasso knows that the toughest part of the job will be returning Yucca II back to headquarters, which she’ll have to do in February 2018. But it’s been stressed by CCI that a majority of the dogs are deemed unsuitable to be matched with anybody and, in that case, are then offered back to the puppy raisers as pets. Of course Galasso would be thrilled to bring Yucca II in permanently, she said, but she has faith that the puppy has what it takes to make it.

“My hope is that she succeeds through all her training and becomes an assistance dog,” said Galasso. “She’s a very special pup: She has a very sweet, easygoing temperament, she’s highly motivated to learn and she’s in excellent health. I just feel very strongly about the good that she can do for someone.”

Spectators browse through Suffolk County Community College's new photo gallery at the Eastern Campis in Riverhead. Photo by Kevin Redding

Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead held an opening reception last week for its annual Eastern Campus Student Art Exhibit, a show that takes place every fall in the Lyceum Gallery of the Montaukett Learning Resource Center on the Eastern Campus.

Centereach’s Sarah Mullen with her photo, top left, that was featured in the gallery. Photo by Kevin Redding
Centereach’s Sarah Mullen with her photo, top left, that was featured in the gallery. Photo by Kevin Redding

The salon-style show serves to highlight exceptional work created by students in the college’s applied arts programs. This year’s exhibit contains over 60 works that will be displayed in a variety of media and sizes, all of which have been done for classes on campus within the last two years.

Students majoring in photography, graphic design, computer art and interior design were able to submit up to three pieces of their choosing and have the opportunity to leave their often-isolated creative spaces and gauge a reaction of their work from the public..

Ralph Masullo, professor of photographic imagery, said that the gallery has proven to be incredibly valuable for the artists in many ways.

“When you’re an artist and put your work out, you’re basically putting yourself out,” Masullo said. “For students who tend to be very timid about that, it’s their first experience to be exposing themselves as an artist. It’s a good experience for them. Just standing around and listening to comments from strangers is very helpful.”

Sarah Mullen, 22, of Centereach, said that this was her first art exhibit on a college-level, even though she’ll be graduating from SCCC this year with a photography major.

Mullen submitted two photos that will eventually be part of a travel photography book she’s been working on this semester as a special project that highlights lesser-known locations on Long Island. One was taken at Avalon Park in Stony Brook and the other at Prosser Pines in Middle Island. The photo titled “Nature’s Tranquility” of stone steps ascending deeper and deeper into a beautiful forest is so mesmerizing that it became the official image for the reception, appearing on all promotional fliers.

Photos in Suffolk County Community College’s new gallery are observed. Photo by Kevin Redding
Photos in Suffolk County Community College’s new gallery are observed. Photo by Kevin Redding

“It’s nice to have the exposure here,” Mullen said. “Usually, as an artist, all you’d have besides a gallery is the internet, and it’s cool for someone to come physically see your work on the wall. When it’s on the computer, you can still edit it, you can still change things. Once it’s on the wall, that’s it.”

One of the most striking photos in the gallery came from Kiera Pipe, 19, of Miller Place. Taken at Peconic River Herb Farm in Riverhead, the photo captures a sundress hung up on a line in between two shutters on the top floor of a rustic and worn-down barn. One observer said it was haunting and looked almost ghost-like.

Pipe, who’s a photographic imagery major, said that she likes to see whether or not her work means something to someone else or provokes an emotion of any kind. Constructive criticism, she said, makes her a better artist.

“I’m really new to submitting my work into events like this,” Pipe said. “It’s really interesting to watch other people look at my images, while I’m kind of trying to figure out what they’re thinking. I think it’s really awesome … it’s a good feeling.”

Kiera Pipe, of Miller Place, had her photo hung up in Suffolk County Community College’s new gallery. Photo from SCCC
Kiera Pipe, of Miller Place, had her photo hung up in Suffolk County Community College’s new gallery. Photo from SCCC

Growing up on the North Shore, she naturally gravitated toward photography, with a specific focus on landscapes.

“I like all the components that go into it,” she said. “Your eye travels in so many different directions when you’re looking at a landscape. [Growing up] on the water, everything always looks so different. It’s the same place and everything, but the shores and the sky changes so much … it always becomes a different photo.” 

The exhibit is open through Dec. 14 in the Lyceum Gallery, located at 121 Speonk Riverhead Road on the Eastern Campus in Riverhead. Gallery hours are Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The gallery is closed on Sundays and holidays (gallery closed from Nov. 24 to 27).

The growth Long Island could see in renewable energy resources if the project is approved. Image from Invenergy

By Rebecca Anzel

The largest renewable energy project ever proposed for Long Island has near unanimous support

Clean Energy Link, introduced by Chicago-based private energy developer Invenergy, LLC, would produce 701 megawatts across 55,671 acres — about the size of Long Island’s North Fork.

Four wind farms and two solar farms would be privately funded and built in rural areas in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, and the power generated would be transferred to a substation in central New Jersey and converted from AC to DC. Then, it would be shipped 80 miles underground and underwater by a transmission line and connect to the Long Island Power Authority’s grid at a 3.5-acre facility on Ruland Road in Melville.

A spokeswoman from Invenergy said the company submitted a proposal to LIPA, and is hoping it will be granted a contract. It is unclear how much money LIPA is willing to pay for the electricity Clean Energy Link will generate, but if the power authority approves the project, it is expected to be operational by the end of 2020.

“I’ve been in this business since 2003 and this is probably one of the most, if not the most exciting project we’ve done,” Mike Polsky, Invenergy’s CEO, said at a press conference on Oct. 24. “It’s a very remarkable, bold and transformational step for New York State, and despite some naysayers, whatever they may say, it will happen.”

Clean Energy Link is a step toward achieving a mandate set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in August that 50 percent of New York’s electricity needs to come from renewable energy sources by the year 2030. The first checkpoint is a requirement that utilities need to purchase energy from nuclear power plants in the state by April 2017 in an effort to prevent the facilities from closing.

“New York has taken bold action to become a national leader in the clean energy economy and is taking concrete, cost-effective steps today to safeguard this state’s environment for decades to come,” Cuomo said in a press release. “This Clean Energy Standard shows you can generate the power necessary for supporting the modern economy while combating climate change.”

According to Invenergy, about 9.5 million megawatt hours per year need to be produced by renewable energy sources statewide by 2030, and the Clean Energy Link project would produce about 1.6 megawatt hours per year.

How the wind and solar energy would make its way to Long Island. Image from Invenergy
How the wind and solar energy would make its way to Long Island. Image from Invenergy

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said because Nassau and Suffolk counties have about 3 million residents, it is a “notoriously very difficult place” to build anything. He expressed his support of the renewable energy project at a press conference in part, he said, because Long Island has experienced extreme weather and other impacts from increased carbon dioxide emissions.

“We have to be leaders on this issue — Long Island has to be out front,” he said. “… Part of that leadership means identifying what makes sense and maximizing the potential of the things that make sense. We are more at threat from climate change than just about any other region in the country.”

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said the most important aspect of the project must be its affordability for residents. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, New York had the seventh highest electricity prices in the country in 2015.

“The residents need to benefit. Period,” Anker said. “Energy costs are too high and we need to come up with a way to make it affordable for Long Island residents.”

One of her other concerns is if local communities are able to give feedback before LIPA officials decide whether to grant Invenergy a contract for the Clean Energy Link project.

For Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), Clean Energy Link makes environmental sense because by increasing New York’s use of renewable energy, the state’s reliance on foreign fuel lessens, and therefore its carbon dioxide emissions will decrease. He also said the proposal is economically sound because the project would be constructed in states where land is cheaper and in more abundance than on Long Island, a point echoed by other local politicians.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said he’s opposed Invenergy’s other project on Long Island — a 24.9 megawatt solar farm in Shoreham on the former Tallgrass Golf Course. It was approved by LIPA in May and is supported by other Brookhaven officials, who recently passed changes to the solar code prohibiting trees from being cut down for the construction of solar arrays.

“I don’t like the idea of solar farms on Long Island that impinge upon or displace green space,” Englebright said.

He added that transporting the power the Clean Energy Link project would provide underground is smart, because it would not be subject to disruptions due to weather.

“LIPA would be wise to move in the direction that this offers, which is the renewable direction,” Englebright said. “We’re an oceanic island, and putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere ultimately drowns us.”

To Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), the most impressive aspect of Invenergy’s Clean Energy Link proposal is its “multipronged” approach. Renewable energy should not be produced by just wind or solar individually. The project’s potential impact is greater because it would make use of both.

She also said lower energy bills would go a long way toward generating community support. According to Invenergy, the project’s proposed start date was chosen to make full use of federal incentives for solar and wind energy production, a savings that would be passed along to residents.

Pine Barrens Society Executive Director Dick Amper agreed that community support is imperative for the success of the project.

“If the people who produce solar cut down forests for it, or put it in residential neighborhoods or replace farms that produce food for it, the public is going to turn against solar,” he said. “It took 25 years for everybody to come along and agree we need renewables. They’re not going to like them if we put it in bad places, and we can’t afford to have the backlash because we need solar.”

Ru Jurow was able to afford this new home with the help of a grant from Community Housing Innovations. Photo from Douglas Elliman

By Guy Santostefano

For most, homeownership is a dream, and for many, it’s also a big challenge.

For some Long Islanders, owning a home seems financially out of reach, but that’s where Community Housing Innovations can help.

The cost of living continues to rise, while home and apartment rental costs make saving to buy a home nearly impossible. Lenders are now requiring larger down payments for many homebuyers — so a buyer seeking to land a modest $250,000 home on Long Island may need $25,000 cash up front, plus another $10,000 in closing costs. Saving $35,000 is not an easy task. But for those who qualify, help is available.

Community Housing Innovations is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-sponsored agency that assists first-time buyers in meeting the challenges of homeownership. From homebuyer education classes to credit counseling, and down payment and closing cost assistance, the company’s staff have the ability, and most importantly, the financial resources to help buyers realize their dream.

Grants earmarked for closing costs and down payments have averaged $25,000. Other programs offered through the nonprofit, in conjunction with the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, help a novice buyer arrange special savings accounts geared toward meeting down payment requirements.

“Being able to buy a home allows my children and I to have a sense of permanency and security.”

—Ru Jurow

Andrea Haughton, the director for home ownership at Community Housing innovations, reports that since 1997, 31 homes on Long Island have been purchased through the program, which has bases in Patchogue, Hempstead and White Plains.

For Ru Jurow, a graphic designer living in Farmingville, this program was critical.

A single mom, Jurow has been paying nearly $2,000 a month in rent and utilities for a small home in the Sachem school district.

“I wanted to stay in the same school district, as I have two teen children, both honors students,” she said. “And after 10 years in the same rental, we really needed more space and privacy for the kids.”

Jurow found a charming three bedroom, two bath home one mile from her current rental, and did a search on Google for grant programs for new homebuyers, coming across Community Housing Innovations’ website. She saw she met the requirements, and applied, receiving a $25,000 grant, which she said, must be split with 51 percent going toward renovations and upgrades, and 49 percent going toward closing and other costs.

“Being able to buy a home allows my children and I to have a sense of permanency and security,” Jurow said. “With the purchase of our own home, we can feel pride.”

According to Haughton, the grant is recorded on the home’s title as a second position lien for ten years. This encourages the owner to stay in the house and thus avoid paying penalties. Eligibility guidelines and other key information can be found on the organization’s website, www.chigrants.org, or by visiting their Patchogue offices.

“All three of us are incredibly excited,” Jurow said of her family beginning its new journey. “My daughter has been planning how she will get to decorate her own room and can’t wait to have big sleepover parties with her friends in the finished basement. My son is looking forward to having a work-out room in the basement and I am a huge baker and cannot wait to get into that kitchen and cook up a storm.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has feuded with the federal government about getting resources to New York during the coronavirus pandemic. File photo by Erika Karp

The divisive and inflammatory nature of the 2016 presidential election has raised concerns across the country about Americans’ ability to “come together” now that the dust has begun to settle. One Suffolk County organization was concerned enough to send a letter to school districts with a warning for administrators and teachers.

“We are concerned for the safety and well-being of the students of Suffolk County as we know you are as well,” the letter dated Nov. 10 from leaders of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and Anti-Bias Task Force read. “We are reaching out to ensure that all school climates are one where students feel safe and supported physically, emotionally and academically.”

The Human Rights Commission has existed in Suffolk County since 1963 and it focuses on investigating claims of bias and discrimination. Rabbi Steven Moss has been the chairman of the organization for more than 20 years. He said they were compelled to write the letter in light of incidents, both local and across the country, that have been reported in the aftermath of Election Day.

“New York is, and will always be, a place of acceptance, inclusion and a bastion of hope for all people. We will never allow fear and intolerance to tear at the fabric of who we are.”

— Andrew Cuomo

“I’m sure [people] realize bullying has occurred before the election and will continue onward,” Moss said in a phone interview. He said most incidents reported to the commission thus far have involved elementary-level students making references to deporting classmates.

Moss said he believes incidents involving younger students can easily be traced back to conversations at home, and because of this the commission plans to send a similar letter to local Parent Teacher Associations in the hopes of spreading the conversation beyond classrooms.

At Northport High School swastikas were drawn in spray paint on the walls of a theater storage room this week, according to Suffolk County Police. Moss said it is important for school administrators to act decisively and harshly with incidents like these, even if they fall short of constituting a crime, and Northport-East Northport Superintendent Robert Banzer is taking the action seriously.

“Our primary objective as a school district is to educate our students in a safe and respectful environment,” Banzer said in an email. He added an investigation is ongoing. “The recent events in our high school have challenged us and make us realize that, although our students participate in many opportunities to build a respectful and safe environment, work remains.  Our high school principal Dan Danbusky is meeting with the student leaders to generate ideas about how best to address not only the recent incident but to help the school community further enhance dignity, respect and acceptance for all.”

Banzer also said the administration plans to meet with local religious leaders to gather their input and insights and assess programs to help the district meet its goals of being a more inclusive school community.

Port Jefferson Village organized a peaceful vigil that was held Nov. 20 at the Village Center designed to show community support for “all segments of society,” according to a press release.

“In response to the fear and hurt felt by so many, Suffolk County needed the opportunity to show everyone our support and commitment to ensuring their freedoms, and to reassure them that they have a safe space here,” Cindy Morris, a Suffolk County resident and co-organizer of the event said in a statement.

Moss said he is hoping much of the inflammatory conversation during the election season, especially from the campaign of President-elect Donald Trump (R), was rhetoric designed to dominate news cycles and spike polling numbers and eventually it will die down.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) shared many of the same concerns as Moss and the Human Rights Commission. He announced several actions Nov. 20 to protect civil rights and combat hate crimes in the state, including the creation of a State Police unit to investigate such crimes. He also plans to advance legislation that would expand protections of the state’s human rights law to all students, and to establish a legal defense fund to ensure immigrants have access to representation regardless of status.

“New York is, and will always be, a place of acceptance, inclusion and a bastion of hope for all people,” Cuomo said in a statement. “We will never allow fear and intolerance to tear at the fabric of who we are.”

The commission’s letter also called on school districts to share programs they already had in place designed to promote unity and togetherness. Some of those include a Gay/Straight Alliance, the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate campaign, the No One Sits Alone Campaign and suicide awareness and prevention programs, to name a few.

Banzer indicated Northport has several programs aimed at promoting inclusive school communities through unity and respect, and the district plans to continue that effort going forward.

Those who have experienced incidents of hate or discrimination are encouraged to reach out to the Human Rights Commission by calling 631-853-5480 or emailing [email protected]

Additional reporting contributed by Victoria Espinoza.

Mount Sinai’s girls’ soccer team celebrates its Suffolk County title win. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Success isn’t given, it’s earned, and our North Shore teams this fall have earned it.

Our student-athletes aren’t just building character through lessons of teamwork, or gaining strength and endurance, or learning about winning and losing — they’re leaving legacies.

Port Jefferson’s varsity girls’ soccer team celebrates a second consecutive state championship. Photo from Port Jefferson school district
Port Jefferson’s varsity girls’ soccer team celebrates a second consecutive state championship. Photo from Port Jefferson school district

Some teams may have seen their losses as failures, but we can’t forget the history that was made this season. Centereach’s football team made the postseason for the first time since 2002; Ward Melville’s field hockey faced off in the state finals for the second straight season; and Mount Sinai’s girls’ soccer team made it to the Long Island championship after claiming the program’s first county crown.

Newfield’s soccer team also made big moves this season. The boys played in the county finals for the first time, and the girls, who were part of a developmental league in 2012 — designed for weaker teams to play competitive games without the possibility of postseason play — won 11 games this season and made it to the Suffolk quarterfinals. Smithtown East’s girls’ volleyball team had a near-perfect season. They lost just one game heading into the Suffolk finals. Northport made it back to the girls’ soccer county finals after two seasons, getting over the semifinal hump. And Ward Melville’s football team will be playing in the county finals for the first time in three decades this weekend, after upsetting No. 1-seed and previously undefeated Lindenhurst last week.

And then there was total dominance by teams like the Port Jefferson’s girls’ soccer team, which brought home back-to-back state titles after its third-straight almost perfect season. Kings Park’s girls’ volleyball team cruised to its sixth straight county and Long Island titles, and plays in the state finals this weekend, and Smithtown West’s boys’ volleyball team, which brought home the school’s first county and Long Island titles this year, will also play in the state tournament this weekend.

We have fully enjoyed covering our sports teams this season and are proud of their success. Of course it’s fun to watch and write about victory, but it’s also gratifying to see the student-athletes in our coverage areas working hard to make their communities proud.

We also would like to commend all of the hardworking coaches — who are volunteers, in some cases — for their dedication to bettering our youth. With so many opportunities available for kids to stray down the wrong path, it is a breath of fresh air to see our athletes thrive.

The Stony Brook University Chapter of Black Lives Matter. Photo by Douglas MacKaye Harrington.

By Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Last weekend the Three Villages confirmed that it is not just people of color who want to revamp the justice system in America. A coalition of community groups gathered at the Stony Brook LIRR station to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Members of Black Lives Matter Stony Brook Chapter, Building Bridges in Brookhaven, North Country Peace Group, the White Coats for Black Lives Stony Brook Medical School chapter, and the Racial Concerns Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stony Brook marched together.

The Racial Concerns Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stony Brook created the march, after a banner in support of Blacks Lives Matter was vandalized this past year. Barbara Coley, co-chair of the Racial Concerns Committee, said the aim of the walk is to highlight the need for change in America’s law enforcement.

“Our goal for this march and rally is to focus attention on the criminal justice system that needs reform because it targets poor black and brown boys and men,” she said. “We march and rally to show our support for the movement for black lives.”

But the more than 200 Black Lives Matter supporters were not the only participants in attendance Saturday.

Several dozen North Country Patriots members were also on the scene. The North Country Patriots have been meeting at that location for years in support of American troops and veterans. The group originated out of support for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

“All lives matter, especially our troops. These people have no respect.”
— Howard Ross

They came to share their opposition to the movement with shouts of “All lives matter” and “Blue lives matter” in response to the marchers’ chants of “Black lives matter.”

Vietnam Veteran Howard Ross expressed his opposition to Black Lives Matter.

“I don’t disagree with them, because I believe all lives matter, but they don’t look at it that way and that is the sad part,” he said. “All lives matter, especially our troops. These people have no respect; it has nothing to do with Black Lives Matter. These people have no respect for our country and our democracy.”

Fran Ginter, another resident gathered with the North Country Patriots, held up a sign to support the power she believed all Americans should have.

“My sign says #Balls Matter,” Ginter said. “And ‘balls’ meaning the strength and honor and courage that the American people have. And we shouldn’t be dividing each other with Black Lives Matter. We should be uniting one another with American Lives Matter, Balls Matter.”

Most Saturdays the patriot group outnumbers the peace group, but on this day, the several hundred Black Lives Matter supporters upped the volume on the opposition.

Ryan Madden said he does not think being a Black Lives Matter supporter means you can’t also support veterans, along with many other groups in America.

“It’s [Black Lives Matter] one of the most open and intersectional movements, and it’s not mutually exclusive from supporting vets,” he said. “It’s supporting black vets, disabled vets, trans vets, all people from all shades and backgrounds.”

When he heard people on the other side of the street yelling, “All lives matter,” in response to their chants of “Black lives matter,” he said the real issue isn’t being focused on.

“I think they have a problem with the word black, and that’s the problem,” Madden said. “Like what was just chanted, all lives won’t matter until black lives matter, until indigenous lives matter, until trans lives matter. It [All Lives Matter] thinks it’s being this inclusive framework, but it’s not. It’s not listening to people who are saying our lives don’t matter in this society currently.”

While many members of the march held the south curb, engaging their opposition activists across the road, a majority formed a circle beneath the trees for a rally on the knoll to listen to poems, prose, and speeches in support of the movement.

“I think they have a problem with the word black, and that’s the problem.”
—Ryan Madden

Among rally participants were the White Coats For Black Lives from Stony Brook University Medical School. Second year medical student Toni McKenzie explained the organization’s purpose.

“White Coats For Black Lives is a national initiative that works to eliminate racism in health care,” she said. “We work in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement because we believe inadequate community policing and mass incarceration often affects the psychosocial health of our minority patients.”

Suffolk County Police Department had a dozen officers on hand to control traffic and ensure safety during the protest. Officers walked on the road alongside the marchers to control the eastbound cars that traveled closest to the protest route.

This raised dissent with some protestors.

I am a little discouraged by the character of this march,” Marcus Brown, a member of the Black Lives Matter group said. “I was under the impression that we would only be having a police escort across 25A and Nicolls Road because it is such a perilous intersection. That was part of the condition of our organization’s participation in this march, that there would not be a police escort the entire way. Because Black Lives Matter does not concede the police and the black community as having mutual interest. We believe that our interest is fundamentally antagonistic to the police in this country whose social function is to maintain racial order at the expense of black people.”

Despite the criticism of police presence, the event was seen as huge success.

Mark Jacket of Building Bridges said the event helped bring more awareness to the community.

“The turnout is phenomenal!” he said. “The importance of having this in a place like Stony Brook, in a place that is a predominantly a white community, is to acknowledge that there are bad things happening in America. Even though it is not happening in our immediate neighborhood, it is happening in the nation we live in. White people need to admit that racism is still strong in America, and if they are not comfortable with that, they need to stand up and say something about it.”

Additional reporting contributed by Victoria Espinoza.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) believes Suffolk County’s dire financial straights can be traced back to campaign promises made by County Executive Steve Bellone (D). File photo by Alex Petroski

Suffolk County’s nearly $3 billion budget for 2017 is waiting to be signed on the desk of County Executive Steve Bellone (D) after it was approved with several amendments by the Legislature Nov. 9. But legislators, Moody’s Investors Service and the director of the Budget Review Office for the Legislature have reported the county’s financial situation is dire.

The Legislature approved amendments to Bellone’s budget by an 11-7 vote. The Public Health Nursing Bureau, the Tobacco Education and Control Program and increased funding for overtime in the Sheriff’s Office were among the beneficiaries of the Legislature’s amendments.

Legislator for the 13th District, Rob Trotta (R- Fort Salonga), was among the seven who voted against the budget. He notably called for the resignations of Bellone and District Attorney Tom Spota (D) earlier this year for their roles in the promotion of former county police commissioner, James Burke, who in February pleaded guilty to charges of a civil rights violation and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

“The county finances are in total shambles,” Trotta said during an interview in his Smithtown office Nov. 15. “[The other legislators are] sticking their head in the sand. They’re not addressing the real problems. No one wants to address the problems. You need colossal change.”

Trotta’s primary concern is contractual pension and pay increases for county police officers. The former county police detective likened Suffolk’s current financial situation as treating a scratch on an arm that is hemorrhaging blood due to a severed hand. The county and the Police Benevolent Association agreed on the current contract which runs from 2011 to 2018.

Trotta estimated for every 200 cops that retire, it could cost the county more than $60 million. “We need to generate businesses and growth, but we can’t afford to,” he said.

Robert Lipp, director of the county legislature’s Budget Review Office, expressed many of the same concerns Trotta had in his assessment of the county budget.

“How are we able to provide services at needed levels when facing a structural deficit that is far in excess of $100 million in each of the past several years? It is a conundrum,” Lipp said in a letter accompanying his review of the budget in October. “The short answer is that the county’s structural deficit is increasingly driving our decisions. As a result, some initiatives, that may be considered crucial, are funded without regard for our ability to pay, while others are funded at less than needed levels because of our deficit position.”

The budget included $26.7 million in revenue from short-term bonds to pay for sick days, vacation days and terminal pay for the police but the measure was rejected by legislators in a bipartisan vote, though the county must still fullfill its contractual requirement with the police department.

“The county sets a bad precedent when paying for operating expenses with borrowing,” the assessment said.

The credit rating entity Moody’s Investors Service has projected a negative credit rating outlook for the county due to outstanding debt and a reliance on borrowing.

The budget actually calls for the collection of $2 million less in property taxes than the maximum allowed by New York State’s tax-levy increase cap. But about $50 million in increased fee revenue from various government services is included in the 2017 operating budget, in addition to more than $42 million in increases already enacted in 2016, according the Budget Review Office.

“In light of the size of the structural deficit, in spite of the large sums of recurring revenue that some of these fees bring in, we are still unable to make a dent in the structural deficit,” the letter from the Budget Review Office said. “That being said, some of these fees have been met with a great deal of criticism, including the false alarm program, the $300 mortgage fee, the 1-percent administrative processing fee on all contract agencies and the red-light camera program, to name a few.”

The county executive responded to concerns with Suffolk’s finances in an emailed statement through spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter:

“We always remain open if people have ideas to save money. Our simple goal is to meet our obligation to the Suffolk County taxpayers. This is a tight budget. But it is a fair budget, which protects taxpayers, prioritizes critical areas and avoids draconian cuts to important services. We will hold the line on taxes, but we will also continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety of Suffolk County residents and make the critical investments in growing our economy and protecting water quality.”

The assessment from the Budget Review Office did project an increase of revenue from sales taxes, which makes up more than half of the county’s total revenue and is an indication of an uptick in the economy. However, the office’s assessment warned sales tax revenue can be volatile, and increases can’t be assumed going forward.

William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), legislator for the 18th District, was among those who approved the budget, though he said he also sees potentially difficult times ahead. He voted in favor of the police contract, and he called the decision a “tug of war” between the need for additional revenue and public safety.

“I think once again the budget definitely was very difficult because of the substantial structural deficit we have,” he said. “We were able to maintain services to pass the budget this year, but we’re getting to a point where we’re going to have to make some difficult cuts … we still are facing a long-term challenge where at some point we’re going to have to make difficult decisions.”

Legislators for the 5th District, Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), and the 6th District, Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), each voted to approve Bellone’s budget. Neither could be reached for comment.