Port Jeff BOE candidates tackle the issues

Port Jeff BOE candidates tackle the issues

Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, above, will serve as the polling site for this year’s board of education election. File photo

By Raymond Janis

As election day approaches, candidates for the Port Jefferson School District Board of Education had an opportunity to share their thoughts on the major issues facing the district.

During a virtual panel on May 9, candidates Ellen Boehm, Randi DeWitt, Paul Ryan and write-in candidate Don Pollard each spoke in turn. The candidates covered a wide range of subjects from declining student enrollment to possible redistricting schemes to infrastructure investments and more.

Ellen Boehm

Boehm has served on the Board of Education for 10 years and is currently president. Commenting on her many family members who graduated from Port Jefferson schools, she said, “The royal blood runs thick in our family.”

Throughout her time on the board, Boehm has maintained active involvement in several clubs and volunteer organizations. She has taught religious classes at the Infant Jesus R.C. Church, planned the centennial celebration of Port Jefferson High School and is a self-proclaimed sports mom, arts mom and class mom.

“Volunteering really has given me enjoyment while connecting with the students and other parents in the community,” she said. “I am running again to continue to serve the students and families of Port Jeff and to help keep our great programs great.”

Boehm said building a consensus among community members will be the biggest obstacle facing the school board in the coming term. Although some have suggested a possible merger with another school district, Boehm sees opportunities for district expansion through redistricting.

“If we can somehow redistrict, we increase the [number of] families and potentially increase our enrollment,” she said, adding, “We have to start thinking bigger than how we are falling apart. There are things that have to be done with the infrastructure … but we have to identify the things we treasure in Port Jeff.”

Boehm favors the redistricting approach over any potential merger with a neighboring district. If Port Jeff were to merge, Boehm believes the district would lose much of its identity. “We all know what happened when Mount Sinai pulled out,” she said. “To me, a merger would be the last thing I would want to do, but I would really like to look into expanding the district.”

Randi DeWitt

DeWitt has been a teacher in the Mount Sinai School District for 24 years, teaching a first grade inclusion class for the bulk of that time. She has been on the Port Jefferson school board for three years. 

DeWitt has served on the policy and curriculum committees of the school board and this year chaired the facilities committee. Currently she serves on the executive board for the Port Jefferson prom, which she said jokingly is “probably more time consuming than anything that I have ever done in my entire life.”

A long-time resident of Port Jefferson, she described the many ways in which she has immersed herself into the community culture. “I enjoy playing softball on Tuesday nights and volleyball and golf … and tennis,” she said. “That’s something that I really enjoy doing and that I love about our community.”

DeWitt considers declining enrollment and aging infrastructure to be the two greatest problems facing the district. 

Declining enrollment is an issue which affects the community as a whole, she said, adding that infrastructure investments are necessary to keep the district competitive.

“We have a school with an outstanding reputation, but I really do think that our facilities are in need of some modernization,” she said. “We have some [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance needs that have to be met, some safety concerns across our buildings and grounds and … in order to draw those young families we really need to look at the exterior and interior of our schools and we really just need to be appealing.”

On the topic of a possible merger, DeWitt concurred with Boehm. “I went to Port Jeff and have a very strong sense of passion for our district,” she said. “I just couldn’t imagine a Port Jeff student or athlete wearing anything other than Port Jeff. That would be tough.” She added, “I definitely would never want to lose our sense of identity.”

Paul Ryan 

Ryan went to Scraggy Hill Elementary and Port Jefferson Junior High before attending The Stony Brook School. For nearly 20 years, he was away in China studying to become a practitioner of Chinese medicine, then returned to Port Jeff.

While Ryan was in China, he taught English to Chinese students. When he returned to the United States, he filled a vital need during a critical time in the community’s history, serving as polling inspector when some seniors had left their posts in fear of the COVID-19 virus.

“When there’s an opportunity, I do my best to step up and that’s why I’m stepping up for the school board,” he said. 

Ryan said building a relationship between the community and the school will be essential to keep the school district operating through this period of declining enrollment. He hopes to identify a prospective niche that will help the district draw more families to the district. 

“We know that people move to Port Jefferson for the special needs program,” Ryan said. “So is there a way that we can build off of something like that?” He added that additional language programs would represent another possible niche and could offset some of the diversity and inclusion problems that the district is also facing. 

Ryan considers redistricting unrealistic. “The people that I have talked to about redistricting say it’s very unlikely that it would happen,” he said. “I don’t think there’s another school district around us that is going to give up its student population.” He added, “As far as mergers go, we can avoid a merger if the school and the school board … have strong community support.”

Don Pollard

Relatively new to the district and the area, Pollard has lived in Port Jefferson for six years. His background is in finance and he now runs a small brokerage firm. 

Before he moved to Port Jeff village, Pollard volunteered at Habitat for Humanity. He was active in Caroline Episcopal Church of Setauket, working to grow the parish and its finances. He helped to successfully organize a Halloween dance for the school and has served on the parents advisory board for sports, helping to expand the district’s athletics program. 

For Pollard, the greatest obstacle facing the district is declining enrollment. “In three years, when we have 60 kids in a class, everything else is really secondary because we won’t have a school district, or it’s going to be really difficult to maintain a school district,” he said.

Pollard proposed creating a task force between local government and the school district to map out a course of action which can better address the enrollment dilemma. He said mitigating the enrollment problem will require joint efforts between the school board, local government, village residents and parents. Pollard also suggested that strengthening the athletics department could help to curb declining enrollment as parents would have less incentive to send their children off to private schools with stronger sports programs.

On the question of a possible merger, Pollard said the board must find ways to prevent this scenario. “That should be first and foremost,” he said.

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