Port Jefferson BOE gives project updates, residents express concerns over declining enrollment

Port Jefferson BOE gives project updates, residents express concerns over declining enrollment

By Nasrin Zahed

Port Jefferson Board of Education convened on Tuesday, April 9, to kick off the start to the final quarter of the school year. The meeting highlighted achievements and initiatives, such as academic recognition and community engagement discussions. Updates on student activities were shared alongside discussions on budget and curriculum enhancements, reflecting the district’s focus on educational advancement.

John Ruggero, principal of Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, announced the valedictorian, Eric Chen, and salutatorian, Michelle Wu, for the Class of 2024. Both students were congratulated on their exceptional academic achievements.

Capital projects

Following a few other brief presentations, Sean Leister, deputy superintendent, provided a comprehensive overview of the current status and future plans for capital projects. Leister began by addressing the delays encountered at the state level regarding project approvals, which contributed to the district falling slightly behind schedule.

For the 2022-23 period, Leister highlighted ongoing projects such as the middle school retaining wall and drainage, the high school bleacher project, the elementary pool repair and the completion of a segment of the high school roofing project. He noted that despite initial budget estimates, actual project costs varied with some coming in under budget while others exceeded projections.

Transitioning to the 2023-24 period, Leister outlined projects still under review, including the ADA bathroom and phase one of the windows replacement at the high school, while also mentioning completed projects such as the rear boundary fence at the elementary school and the cancellation of the stop-arm booth project.

Looking ahead to 2024-25, Leister proposed additional projects, including the renovation of the high school orchestra room, further pool maintenance and additional roofing work. He emphasized the importance of maintaining a contingency budget to address unforeseen circumstances, detailing the restrictions and limitations associated with such a budget.

Public comment

During the presentation, community member concerns regarding declining enrollment and long-term planning were raised. Leister acknowledged the importance of addressing these concerns and assured attendees that discussions regarding future plans were ongoing.

However, concerns raised by Port Jefferson residents during the public comment period shed light on broader community apprehensions. 

Village resident Suzette Smookler expressed worries about declining enrollment and long-term planning, emphasizing the need for transparency and proactive measures. She urged the board to consider contingency plans and engage in open dialogue with stakeholders to address these concerns effectively.

“Whether I look at BOCES reports, your reports, Newsday’s reports, we definitely have a significant declining enrollment,” Smookler said of the district’s current enrollment figures. 

Smookler asked the board how they plan to address the current enrollment numbers. “What is the plan B?” she asked. Smookler continued advocating for a more inviting conversation from residents. “Openness and communication go a long way,” she said. “I would appreciate it if maybe you [the board] can get a committee, a group together, some people from in town, some who have never had children, some who have put six through the distinct. I think by doing that you will foster less divisiveness and distrust.” 

Another resident, Gail Sternberg echoed similar sentiments, posing questions before the board with regard to the district’s current reserve fund status. Sternberg noted the current amount of reserves the district has, at approximately $23 million, though only $1.8 million can be used on an unrestricted basis, as Leister explained. 

Board President Ellen Boehm reassured attendees that discussions regarding long-term planning and enrollment were ongoing. Boehm noted the board’s intention to consider the formation of a committee to facilitate dialogue and collaboration among various stakeholders.