The 2020-21 school year began with a tumultuous start for the Smithtown Central School District when local parents rallied in front of the administration building before various board of education meetings demanding schools to be opened five days a week for in-person learning during the pandemic. The charge was led by the Facebook group Smithtown Parents Watchdog Group, which was founded by Stacy Murphy, a guidance counselor in the Amityville school district.
Now Murphy along with educator Karen Ricciardi and real estate agent John Savoretti will go head-to-head with BOE incumbents Jeremy Thode, Mandi Kowalik and Charles Rollins. Voters on May 18 will have the opportunity to vote for Murphy or Kowalik, Savoretti or Rollins and Ricciardi or Thode.
Savoretti, Murphy and Ricciardi did not return requests to schedule interviews but created a Facebook page where they share their common goals via posts and a video.
Murphy said in the video she enjoys helping others.
“I love helping kids, and I love being a voice for their families and helping them navigate a very confusing educational system if you don’t have any role in it,” she said. “And, I want that for this community.”
According to the candidates, they want to raise the bar of the education received in the district and “to ensure that the education our K-12 kids are receiving is void of any one group’s agenda, affiliation, belief system or persuasion; and to encourage and provide every student with the tools to be bold enough to exhibit qualities of compassion, kindness and good citizenship to all.”
In the video, Ricciardi said looking out for students was important.
“What’s that old expression?” she said. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Well, this is what’s going on in Smithtown. They’re wasting these amazing resources with these kids.”
The candidates also have stated on their page that being fiscally responsible is a priority and that the needs of the students are part of every budget decision.
“Ensuring the community that every vote in favor of a budget item is an investment in our children by building a trust with the community that we will be board members who do not put our own agendas, beliefs and needs — or the agendas, needs or beliefs of any other organization — above that of the needs of the Smithtown student body.”
The three newcomers are also looking for more dialogue between the board and the community.
“Our goal is that we will have a school board of seven members who have absolutely no obligation or indebtedness to any group(s) that could jeopardize their ability to unequivocally put the needs of the students at the utmost forefront of each and every decision,” the candidates wrote.
In the video, Savoretti explained why the three decided to run together.
“Having one person change is a start, but when you have all three of us change, that’s a running start,” he said. “And what you’re doing is you’re sending a serious message to the other candidates who are in there, who are going to be coming up for election next year and the years after, that if you don’t wake up and start doing right by the kids and what’s right for the community, you’re not going to be there again.”
Kowalik is seeking her second term. A mother of three, she is a former elementary school teacher, author and community volunteer. In an email, she said she enjoys the challenging work of being a BOE trustee.
“I am extremely passionate, dedicated, professional and hardworking,” she said. “There was a definite learning curve during my first term, and I now feel even more equipped to address the needs of the Smithtown community. I would like to assess the needs of the community and the wants of the students regarding the time that was lost during the pandemic, and then work to ensure that we make up for what children and families feel like they missed out on.”
She said she felt the board made the right decision by not opening up all schools in the district right away for five days of in-person learning, saying they followed state guidance for the safety and health of “our students, their families, our staff and the community.”
Kowalik added that the Smithtown school district was one of a few that were back to full-time, in-person learning.
Thode, an associate high school principal, director of health, physical education, business, fine and applied arts and athletics in Center Moriches, is completing his second term as trustee. He agreed that the board did the right thing regarding opening schools in phases. He said the board has more work to do, especially with getting back to normal after the shutdowns. He added having experience with working through the pandemic is a benefit.
He said there were a myriad of reasons regarding school reopenings, and he agreed the board did the right thing following a hybrid model considering state guidelines and also followed the research that was available about the coronavirus.
“We chose to stay on the conservative side, and ensure that our kids were safe,” he said. “The number one priority was keeping the students safe, and the community as safe as possible.”
Among other concerns in the district, Thode said once school returns to normal it would be beneficial to look at the empty buildings in the district, which he said could potentially be utilized by local businesses or nonprofits and lead to students getting internships.
“It would be nice to use them as a hub for resources for the community that our kids might be able to get intertwined with,” he said.
Rollins, was appointed by the board and replaced Frank James, who stepped down in January. Rollins’ three children graduated from Smithtown schools, and he is a retired senior executive. He or Savoretti will complete the last two years of James’ term.
Involved in the community, he has served as president of the Smithtown Booster Club in the past and is currently its treasurer. He most recently served as senior vice president of operations for First Industrial Realty Trust until his retirement a few years ago.
With a background in business, he feels he has something to offer the board, and he has been working on a capital improvement plan with administration, which is considering taking out a bond in the next few months. Rollins said now is a good time with low interest rates.
“We will be communicating with our constituency to let them know what the plans are,” he said.
Rollins added that the $120 million capital improvement plan will include infrastructure as well as cosmetic improvements, which will include ventilation system work to respond to COVID concerns.
While he wasn’t part of the original plan to reopen schools, he believes the board and administration did the right thing by opening schools up slowly and said he has high praise for his colleagues, adding they made decisions based on “the science and the numbers, and the direction and guidance from health providers.”
Rollins said he is the president of the homeowners association where he has a house in Florida for vacations. He said he had to make similar decisions to help keep residents safe. The candidate said while some of those decisions weren’t popular, he had to put everyone’s health first. When he heard the Smithtown board was being criticized, he knew what they were going through.
“In my heart, I knew they were doing the right thing,” he said.
Recently the district received criticism for its inclusion, diversity and equity education. In a district letter to parents, the administration said such work has been deemed a priority for many educational organizations.
Rollins said the goal of making sure every student feels welcomed and comfortable is an important one. He added he has heard many passionate speeches from community members at board meetings, and he feels the goal can be achieved with conversations between parents and the board and administration.
Budget and vote
According to the district’s website, the 2021-22 budget of $262,319,665 is an increase of 2.79% over last year’s budget, which is a 1.75% tax levy increase.
Budget voting and board of ed trustees elections will be held Tuesday, May 18, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information on voting locations for the four election districts, visit the SCSD website at www.smithtown.k12.ny.us.