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Board of Education

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The Three Village Central School District board of education trustees were sworn in July 8. Back row, Vinny Vizzo, Irene Gische, Inger Germano and Deanna Bavlnka. Front row, Dr. Jeff Kerman, Bill Connors and Jonathan Kornreich. Photo from Three Village Central School District

By Andrea Paldy

The first in-person Three Village school board meeting since schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic July 8 was eventful. Everyone wore mandatory face masks, and seating was arranged for social distancing. Most notable was the tense public participation session marked by sharp opinions.

“It is important tonight that we distinguish the personal from the political.”

— David McKinnon

There was also the routine swearing in of board members — incumbents Inger Germano, Irene Gische and Dr. Jeff Kerman — for new terms. The board elected Germano as its new president. She succeeds Bill Connors, who continues to serve as a trustee. Gische was reelected vice president.

Rising to the forefront, though, were recent parental criticisms of the district, though those who spoke during the meeting sought to balance their criticism about distance learning and district governance with their support for teachers.

“It is important tonight that we distinguish the personal from the political,” said David McKinnon, a professor of Neurobiology at Stony Brook University and recently an unsuccessful school board candidate.

“At a personal level, there’s a high level of respect for the teachers in our district, and there are deep ties of gratitude within the community to individual teachers for their efforts to advance the education of our children,” said McKinnon, who was not on the slate of candidates endorsed by the Three Village Teachers Association.

However, he said, when it came to the political system, the school board elected to “facilitate parental oversight” of the district wasn’t doing its job. The TVTA, he said, is both a labor union and a special interest lobby group, which “aggressively pursues its own agenda,” and has made decisions for the district that exacerbated an already challenging situation.

McKinnon went on to say that he believed that the nearly 3,800 votes cast for both him and Shaorui Li respectively represented “a massive vote of no confidence” in the board and union leadership. In order to win back the trust of a large segment of parents, McKinnon said the district would need to have a “clean and functional school board, with independent, parent-backed candidates who know and care about education.”

Li said that she and other parents wanted to help teachers, not attack them.

“In the Asian culture, we have a very high respect for teachers, and we rely on teachers to give our kids their education,” the engineer and entrepreneur said.

McKinnon’s wife, Barbara Rosati, who is president of the Three Village Parents Alliance, which counts more than 250 district families among its members, also spoke. She made the distinction between her concerns about TVTA president Claudia Reinhart’s “role in the governance of our district and its consequences on our children” and her appreciation for the district’s teachers.

“I cannot believe I was dragged here tonight to say unequivocally that we support and we love our teachers, that we believe in their expertise and guidance,” she said, alluding to the pandemic. Rosati, a research assistant professor at the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at SBU, questioned the leadership of Reinhart, who she said “is not teaching currently and is not involved in any parent-teacher interaction.”

She added that it was “irresponsible and cruel to let teachers believe that our community is at war with them.”

Addressing teachers and administrators, Rosati added: “We have your backs. We will be here to help and support you like we have always done.”

“I am here because we, along with our administrator colleagues and the board of education, are under attack.”

— Claudia Reinhart

Reinhart rejected claims that the criticism was not directed at the teachers, paraprofessionals and teaching assistants the union represents.

“I am here because we, along with our administrator colleagues and the board of education, are under attack,” she said.

The union president said they’d been forced to listen to people “like Ms. Rosati” and others who had written to the board to “demand answers and reactions to nothing more than hearsay — hearsay that is usually completely incorrect.”

Reinhart, who taught music in the district, said the union does not try to hide the fact that it endorses candidates.

“Why would we?” she asked. “We want people on the board who understand public education and the needs of students and staff. We want people on the board with a proven record of overcoming challenges and moving us forward in good times and bad. Your candidates lost the election. The community has spoken. You need to get over it.”

Reinhart directed comments to the many teachers at the meeting.

“We must stand together united against this attack,” she said. “We must stand together to defend our professions, the work we do and the job we have done. We have nothing to be ashamed of. It is time we started saying that out loud.”

She urged parents, teachers, administrators and the community “to stand up and say, ‘Enough.’” She ended by drawing from the words of the late Albert Shanker, former president of the United Federation of Teachers and American Federation of Teachers, saying, “Along with the responsibility of negotiating good contracts, it is the obligation of teacher unions to preserve public education.”

“That is our goal,” Reinhart told the audience. “There is nothing less at stake than our future,” she added, sparking enthusiastic applause.

Fall Plans

Besides those who spoke in-person at last week’s meeting, three parents sent letters that included appreciation for teachers, but also expressed concern about the district’s spring execution of remote learning, plans for the fall and limited communication from the school district.

“We must be prepared for whatever the decision may be from the state Education Department and the governor.”

— Kevin Scanlon

Responding, Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich said that she shared parents’ frustration about the upcoming school year.

“I feel as though we are all navigating in the dark at this point because we have not received any direction at all from our governor [Andrew Cuomo (D)] or the SED [New York State Education Department],” she said.

Earlier that day Pedisich had sent a letter acknowledging parents’ “unanswered questions about the reopening of school this fall” and shared the governor’s most recent plan to release guidance July 13 [see details at end of article] and require districts to return their plans for reopening by July 31.

During the meeting, Pedisich noted that other states — Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, among them — had already provided their school districts with plans for reopening.

“I will tell you that we are working very hard … over the last several weeks, and I apologize for the lack of communication,” she said, adding that she would not “deal in conjecture and supposition,” because she didn’t think it was fair to families and staff.

The superintendent specifically addressed concerns about remote learning.

“We are looking at all options to make it more effective for our families,” she said. “We understand that there were numerous challenges, and we won’t make excuses for those. But moving forward, I think we are in a much better place. And I have great confidence in the members of our team, and I have confidence in our administration, our staff and our parents. We will do the best for the community. We owe it to them, and they deserve nothing less.”

So far, Pedisich said, the district plans for every student from kindergarten to 12th grade to have access to a Chromebook for remote instruction, and a survey about distance learning was sent out to parents and staff last week.

In an email, Kevin Scanlon, assistant superintendent for educational services, said the district has also offered more than 90 courses to its staff, with the majority focused on online instruction. There are more than 1,500 teachers, administrators, assistants and paraprofessionals enrolled in the courses to prepare for the fall, he said.

“We must be prepared for whatever the decision may be from the state Education Department and the governor,” Scanlon said.

The state released its reopening guidelines on Monday. The document offers districts guidance on face coverings for staff and students, configuring classrooms, hallways, lunchrooms and other shared spaces to maintain social distance and safety, as well as recommendations for ways to maximize in-person instruction. While the document states that “the goal is to return all students to in-person instruction,” it encourages districts to prepare “a phased-in approach or hybrid model” because of “the dynamic nature and risk of community transmission” of the virus.

District plans will have to address how they will conform to state recommendations on social distancing, personal protection equipment, hygiene and disinfection, extracurriculars and transportation, as well as health monitoring and containment.

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Ward Melville High School. Photo by Greg Catalano

By Andrea Paldy

This spring, voting on the school budget and school board faced the notable challenge of taking place during a pandemic, but other than record levels of voter participation, the final results were anything but unprecedented.

Inger Germano. Photo from Germano

With the absentee ballots counted, Three Village residents voted overwhelmingly in favor — 6,096 for and 3,135 against — to approve the $218.84 million budget for the 2020-21 school year.

Residents also chose to return incumbents Inger Germano (4,727 votes), Irene Gische (4,506) and Dr. Jeffrey Kerman (4,479) to the school board, over challengers Shaorui Li (3,722), David McKinnon (3,799) and Vinny Menten (2,810).

During a phone interview this week, Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich expressed gratitude to the community for its support and confidence in the budget. But not everyone was satisfied with the election process.

Three Village parent David Tracy expressed his dissatisfaction in a letter that was read during the board’s June 24 meeting. He was “extremely disappointed,” Tracy said, with the teachers union’s ability to “enforce their will on a board of education election.”

The Three Village Teachers Association and New York State Union of Teachers endorsed Germano, Gische and Kerman and paid for the candidates’ campaign signs.

“Having independent candidates is absolutely paramount in ensuring the best interest of all parties involved, mainly the students and the taxpayers,” he said.

Tracy compared the unions’ public and financial support of candidates to “Congress or other political bodies voting for their own raises.” In his letter, he also spoke of what he said is a trend of budget increases despite declining enrollment and voiced his concerns about nepotism, favoritism and conflicts of interest.

While Barbara Rosati, president of the Three Village Parents Alliance, congratulated the newly reelected board members, she too questioned the election process, asking how independent, community-backed candidates could compete against the efforts of the TVTA and NYSUT.

Rosati is married to McKinnon, one of this year’s independent candidates. She said that with the union president having “regular access” to  administrators and board members “in private settings,” that such access can sometimes mean that the board as a whole is bypassed in some decisions — something she believed happened with the launch of this spring’s remote learning. 

Irene Gische. Photo from candidate

“I love and support our teachers, and they deserve to have a strong union, but I am concerned about our district’s governance in the current situation,” Rosati added.

Board members and administrators did not respond to Rosati’s request for “comments, insight and solutions” during the meeting.

However, board president Bill Connors did address the issue in a phone interview.

“We represent the community on the board of education, and we work with the teachers union because we have an awful lot in common,” he said. “We are working in the interest of the children, and I see them as a real partner.”

Though Connors sees the goals of the board and the union as aligned, he said there have been times when the two have not agreed. In 1997, for instance, the district narrowly avoided a strike over a provision in the teachers’ contract requiring them to contribute to their health insurance. The issue was resolved in time for the new school year.

Connors, who announced at the June 24 meeting that he is stepping down as board president, also clarified a statement Rosati made about the union president being on the district payroll. Her salary, Connors said, is reimbursed by the TVTA.

Pedisich declined to comment on the parent letters, but said she appreciates the community feedback.

Remote Learning and School Reopening Task Force

During the board’s June 29 meeting, the discussion centered on remote instruction and the reopening of schools in September.

Rosati was critical of the district’s handling of remote learning during the pandemic, calling it “chaotic.” She made comparisons to what she saw as more successful implementations of synchronous instruction in the nearby Half Hollow Hills District and the free summer bridge program offered by Smithtown to students in grades kindergarten through eighth.  She also posed questions about how the district will move forward with instruction and reopening in the fall.

“We recognize that there were aspects of our program that did not go as smoothly as we had wanted, or may not have been as effective,” Pedisich said of the implementation of distance learning in March, during the meeting.

She added that the district has more insight now.

“We are looking at what worked well and what did not work well,” she said.

Jeff Kerman. Photo from candidate

The district is preparing a survey that will go out to parents and staff in the coming days, Pedisich said. Though officials have received many comments from parents, she said they are difficult to quantify. A survey “can grab information we need and synthesize it quickly,” she added.

The superintendent also said that the district is waiting for guidance from the state, but that its school reopening task force is considering three models — one in which everyone returns, a hybrid model of some in-person classes and some remote, or an entirely remote model.

The district is also preparing for the possibility that the year could begin in-person but revert to entirely remote instruction as it did in March. For this reason, she said, the district will provide kindergarten through sixth grade students with Chromebooks that they will be able to use at home.

The reopening task force is made up of subcommittees for transportation, instruction, scheduling, childcare, athletics, mental health, health needs, facility needs and professional development and technology. Task force members include staff, administrators, parents and board members. Pedisich said parents were selected by the PTA council, while staff and administrators were chosen by their union leadership.

The instructional subcommittee, which has been further divided into elementary and secondary subgroups, is looking at guidelines for minimum standards of instruction and synchronous learning across the district. Pedisich said that the elementary level and secondary levels will probably look different. She foresees more structure for the more independent secondary students and more flexibility for younger children who might need assistance from parents.

She said that teachers are continuing to train over the summer to use Google Meets and Hangouts — conferencing software similar to Zoom — that are part of the Google platform the district already uses.

“We as educators feel that it’s so critical for us to be back in September,” Pedisich said, adding that teachers who will be working with new groups of students need to be able to assess their students’ learning styles and needs.

“That’s why we’re looking at following all of the recommendations from the CDC and the DOH, so that we can come back at least for a period of time so that we can get to know our students,” she said.

In other news, the board approved the contracts for the superintendent and the assistant superintendents.

Commack HIgh School. Photo from Google Maps

The average Commack homeowner will see an annual tax increase of around $200 if residents vote “yes” for the 2020-2021 school budget of $199,759,525. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, homeowners will vote on the budget via mail as no in-person voting will be made available.

The Commack School District Board of Education adopted the budget during its meeting held via Zoom May 19. If approved by residents, the tax cap levy increase will be 1.99 percent with a budget-to-budget increase of 1.37 percent.

Superintendent Donald James said the district, like others across New York state, is still waiting to hear if state aid will be cut later in the year, which means certain budget line items may still change. As Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a few weeks ago that districts can see cuts of 20 percent or more, James said that figure is an average and the exact amount, whether lower or higher, would be based on the size and wealth of the district. He said there could be rolling cuts as well.

“That’s not good news,” he said. “That’s challenging for us because once programs are in place you count on your funds coming in, and you count on managing your programs based on funds you think you’re going to get from the state.”

The superintendent said while it’s difficult to plan the budget without knowing the exact amount of reductions, they have developed alternative plans if they’re more than anticipated.

James said some reductions in the budget were enrollment driven and in place before the pandemic. There will also be reductions in personnel due to resignations or retirements. There will be 11 full-time employees less due to retirement, 10 FTE teacher assistants reduced after program reviews and 12.7 FTE, plus approximately 32 individuals such as school monitors and instructional aides due to enrollment decline.

These staff reductions have already resulted in budget savings due to the attrition. The superintendent said they may have to revisit reducing staff further, as the district may need to revisit the number of cafeteria monitors.

James said there is currently a task force looking at changes which may be required to open up schools with COVID-19 distancing practices put in place. The superintendent said transportation, sports, field trips, school gatherings and more could be affected. Possible changes could include temperatures being taken and physical measures to help with distancing. The possible increase in costs is something the district is unable to estimate at this time.

James said he has received some suggestions involving opening up school post-COVID to maintain physical distance, including reducing class sizes. He said to a certain degree the district could do so if they double the number of teachers, but the problem is the buildings don’t have double the number of classrooms.

He said the district may have to look at other ways to schedule student classes.

If the budget is passed June 9, the district plans to keep classroom sizes the same or lower, and mental health support and programs such as arts, music, physical education and more will stay intact. The district is also planning a Chromebook laptop initiative, and every student is set to receive one. James said it will be a benefit even when students return to classrooms as their books will now be loaded on Chromebooks.

James said there is a pandemic elimination adjustment of $226,250, and the district received federal stimulus money that took care of that and they may get more. He said there is not much in the capital reserve funds, however, if there is a 20 percent cut in state aid it would mean more than $6.6 million taken from the budget.

The superintendent said due to school closures the district saved $3 million, part of that money being for transportation, which could be applied to next year.

James said the district has properties they could sell to tenants who are interested, though he stressed that he was not talking about Marion Carll Farm. He said selling any properties would need residents approval through a vote.

There is a possibility of saving $2.55 million with the elimination of Common Core and individuals involved with the program such as instructional aides. Other things that could be looked into are reducing high school electives, field trips, art and music classes, staff reductions and professional development for teachers.

James said if the budget isn’t passed in June it would mean the district would have to cut an additional $2,834,090 from the budget for a total cut of $7.8 million. The Chromebook project would be eliminated as well as no equipment purchases would be made. Also, residents and community organizations would be unable to use the facilities and grounds, while elementary and middle school class sizes would need to increase and several high school electives, athletics and clubs would be eliminated.

A public hearing will be held June 2 during a virtual meeting that will be simulcast on the district’s website, www.commackschools.org.The budget vote is set for June 9.

Commack School District Board of Education has two seats up for grabs with incumbent Susan Hermer and Mike Weisberg running for one position. As for the second seat, incumbent William Hender is running unopposed. For more information on the candidates, visit www.tbrnewsmedia.com.

Ward Melville High School. File photo by Greg Catalano

By Andrea Paldy

As if times are not challenging enough, districts across the state must create budgets without knowing when, or by how much, state aid will be cut.

Jeff Carlson, deputy superintendent for business services, has removed $1 million from next year’s budget in anticipation of cuts beyond the $300,000 decrease in aid already projected by the state in March.

The current 2020-21 budget falls within the cap on the tax levy increase of 1.96 percent, for a total budget of $218.84 million. This is a 1.75 percent increase over the 2019-20 budget.

The district has begun to make contingency plans with alternate budgets, being referred to as Phase 2, which would mean a further $2 million reduction and Phase 3, which would require a deeper cut of $3 million. Cuomo has said school aid could drop by as much as 20 percent and cuts could take place as late as December, Carlson said.

If cuts go deeper than Phase 3, they will definitely affect services and student programs, Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich said at the district’s May 6 school board meeting. The board would have to decide whether to make deeper cuts to the budget or use district reserves, she said.

One thing officials do know is that they do not want to make cuts once the school year has begun and would not make cuts to instructional staff.

Pedisich said the district would have to look to reserves, because “any kind of midyear cuts in terms of services would be incredibly disruptive … and this year has been disruptive itself, so we don’t want to add to it and exacerbate the situation.”

The district held a hearing on the budget May 27. Carlson will also give a budget presentation June 1 at 6:45 p.m. at the Three Village Joint Council of PTAs virtual Meet the Candidates night on Zoom. This program will allow residents to hear from the six candidates running for three seats on the school board.

Also, the Three Village Civic Association and Three Village Chamber of Commerce will jointly host an online Meet the Candidates event Thursday, May 28, at 7 p.m. via Zoom conferencing. For information about how to be part of the online meeting, go to the websites of either the civic association, www.threevillagecivics.org, or the chamber of commerce, www.3vchamber.com, for links to the Zoom meeting.

Incumbents Inger Germano, Irene Gische and Dr. Jeff Kerman are running against Shaorui Li, David McKinnon and Vinny Menten.

All 34,025 registered voters in Three Village will receive ballots with paid return postage to vote on the 2020-21 budget and board trustees. Ballots must be returned to the office of the district clerk at the North Country Administration building by 5 p.m. on June 9.

Visit www.tbrnewsmedia.com for profiles on each of the candidates.

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Scott Reh, right, was sworn back into the Rocky Point board of education Jan. 14. Photo from RPSD

A familiar face has returned to the Rocky Point school district’s board of education. 

Scott Reh was officially sworn in to the board Jan. 14 and will serve in the role until the conclusion of the trustee term come May. Reh was appointed to fill the trustee seat vacated by Joseph Coniglione earlier this school year. 

To be on the board of education you must reside in the school district. Coniglione recently bought a home in Shoreham so he had to step down.  

“Rather than trying to find someone new, we went with Scott — we know him, he’s a stand-up guy,” Coniglione said. “He’ll do what’s best for the kids and the district.”

Reh has served on the board of education before. He served as a trustee and vice president for eight years up until June 2018, when he initially decided to step down. 

Reh said instead of going through a trustee election, the board asked him to come back in his old position. 

“They wanted me to fill the spot left by [Coniglione] until the end of school year,” Reh said. 

The trustee election will take place May 21.  The trustee elected as a result of community vote will be sworn in as normal. 

Reh said he has no plans on securing re-election in May and will let other candidates run for his seat. 

Shoreham-Wading River school district is considering converting the closed fitness center into a wrestling center. Photo by Kyle Barr Photo by Kyle Barr

Shoreham-Wading River High School students looking to make gains have been impeded with the loss of the school’s fitness center, and now the district is looking at its options for a new one.

The high school’s fitness center, which has been around since the late 1980s and is detached from the main building, was closed down in July this year because an assessment of the building by the school district’s internal engineer showed the flooring was not up to code for constant physical activity.

“The flooring in the fitness area needed structural support in order to meet that code requirements, and the amount came back for that being $200,000 to conduct those repairs,” Superintendent Gerard Poole said. “Over the summer the board asked that we look with our architect to take a look at decision making process alternatives within the school district to make a fitness center or a fitness room.”

With the loss of the old fitness room, the district has moved exercise equipment to room 102, located in close proximity to the high school’s lower floor cafeteria, on the other side of the school from the locker rooms and gymnasium. Current amenities for the temporary facility include a TRX cable-based exercise machine, medicine balls, dumbbells, bench presses and some cardio equipment, according to Poole.

At the SWR Sept. 25 school board meeting members said the district was considering three options. One is to fix the flooring in the old fitness center, which might be the most expensive. Another is to combine rooms 102 and 101 next to the high school cafeteria to create a new 1,400 square foot fitness space. Lastly the district could section off a portion of the auxiliary gym and combine it with an existing storage space to create another 1,400 square foot fitness center.

Shoreham-Wading River’s fitness center is closed while the board of education decides what to do next. Photo by Kyle Barr

Poole said the district did not have an exact date when they will come to a decision.

“I do not have a deadline, but as always we want to come to a decision as soon as we can,” Poole said. “It’s good to take out time for a decision as long as we’re spending money.”

While replacing the floor would cost $200,000, other options currently seem to cost much less.

Ken Schupner, an architect for Patchogue-based Burton Behrendt Smith Architects, whose services are retained by the school, said it would cost approximately $75,000 to $100,000 to break through the high school’s auxiliary gym to make room for a 14,000 square foot fitness center. Because of the work already done to room 102, extending that space into room 101 should also cost less than patching the old facility’s floor, the architect said.

Board President Michael Lewis questioned whether students will be able to utilize the space if the fitness center is located on the other side of the building from the locker rooms.

“Getting it close to physical education [facilities] is maximizing utilization for the sports teams, and with having it on the lower floor next to the cafeteria are the students really going to travel all the way there to work out?” Lewis said.

Schupner said while the room is located far from the gym, it also has an exit to the outside of the building, making it easier for students to access after practice on the sports fields.

If the school were to opt to use the auxiliary gym, it could disrupt current physical education classes. Poole said five classes are currently scheduled in that room, which is also used extensively by the wrestling and cheerleading teams.

Schupner said renovations to the detached current fitness center are less applicable for state aid compared to facilities located inside the building.

Shoreham resident Robert Badalian regularly used the old fitness center in the hours when it was open to the public, and he and others didn’t want to be left out of the conversation.

“We don’t want to be excluded,” Badalian said. “It was a place for people to exercise and feel comfortable — not be intimidated like you could if you go to another gym.”

Badalian also said he hoped the district would focus more on modernizing the fitness center, saying that compared to high schools like Ward Melville, which have a more modern fitness center, SWR is lagging behind.

Carolyn Baier, another Shoreham resident who was a regular at the fitness center, said having it open to the rest of the community helped get people more involved and in tune with their local school. Baier was on the SWR school board in the 1980s, back when the decision came down to create the fitness center.

“The young people who used it were so nice, they would pick up my weights for me when I hurt my hand,” Baier said. “This was a community thing.”

Trustee Adam DeWitt resigned from Port Jeff's BOE. File photo by Elana Glowatz

If you were out enjoying the last drop of summer at the beach or on vacation you might have missed it. Port Jefferson’s board of education appointed a new member at an Aug. 29 meeting following the Aug. 1 resignation of Adam DeWitt, who was elected to a third term in May 2017.

The board voted 4-1 in favor of appointing Port Jeff resident Ryan Biedenkapp, one of six candidates who ran to fill three open seats in the May 2018 election and placed fourth. New trustee Ryan Walker was the lone vote in opposition of the appointment. He said he wanted to take more time to discuss other options, like opening up the process to interested applicants to be interviewed and selected from by the board, or holding a special election within 90 days of DeWitt’s resignation. René Tidwell, another newly minted member of the board, abstained citing similar reasons to Walker, with whom she campaigned in May.

“I think we’ve had time to discuss it, to bring up our feelings about it,” BOE President Kathleen Brennan said prior to the Aug. 29 vote, referencing a similar discussion at an Aug. 14 meeting, at which the board’s options to fill the vacancy were laid out. “I don’t think that we are rushing this. I think Mr. DeWitt resigned Aug. 1. It’s now the end of the month.”

The board’s options included leaving the seat vacant until the May 2019 vote, holding a special election at a cost of about $10,000, or appointing someone to fill the seat. Members Brennan, David Keegan, Tracy Zamek and Ellen Boehm voted in support of option three to appoint Biedenkapp based on how previous boards handled surprise vacancies in the past.

2018 BOE candidates Ryan Biedenkapp, Mia Farina, Jason Kronberg, René Tidwell, Tracy Zamek and Ryan Walker. File photo by Alex Petroski

“I think we’ve got someone in the community who’s committed to doing it, who’s done the thoughtful work of making the commitment,” Keegan said.

Biedenkapp received nearly 500 votes in May, falling a little more than 100 votes short of Zamek, securing her the third trustee seat.
“I feel like it’s just a no brainer in my opinion,” Zamek said, who had campaigned with Biedenkapp.

The newly appointed trustee could not  immediately be reached  for comment. Although, the board president said she had been in contact with Biedenkapp and he was interested in the position. Brennan said, at the request of the board following the Aug. 14 meeting, she also reached out to trustees who recently stepped down or did not seek re-election to gauge their interest. Both declined.

Tidwell argued the board was in the unique position to appoint someone with qualifications that could be an asset to the board. She supported the idea of doing due diligence to find a new member by conducting interviews and further discussion amongst the BOE.

“I believe our board should also consider all other community members who expressed an interest in serving on the board as well as those who have served previously,” Tidwell said. “I think if this board is going to take the first steps in bridging the divide that has existed in our community, then pursing a transparent and equitable process for filling this vacancy is a first step in the right direction.”

Tidwell’s reference to a community divide was a harkening back to a Dec. 2017 $30 million bond referendum that was overwhelmingly voted down by the community. It sparked a heated community debate based on the items included in the list of proposed projects.

Walker said, in part, he was opposing Biedenkapp’s appointment because the appointee had previously been in favor of adding lights to the athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road and it would be a betrayal of  Walker’s campaign message. The elected trustee added he would work with the new member if the majority were in favor, a point Tidwell also reiterated.

DeWitt said he was proud of his time on the board, adding that he learned a lot and appreciated his fellow members’ desire to better the community. He also wished his former colleagues well.

“It became increasingly more challenging to attend the meetings because of my work schedule,” DeWitt said.
He is employed as a school principal at a seventh- and eighth-grade building by Longwood school district.
“I don’t like to do anything if I can’t commit fully, it’s not fair to the community,” DeWitt said. “I wish I could continue to make the commitment.”

Biedenkapp’s appointment will run through May 2019.

School district releases 80-page report alleging disclosure of confidential information, inappropriate actions

Commack School District's board of education at the start of the 2017-18 school year. Photo from Facebook

A Commack schoolboard  trustee has resigned her seat after the district launched a four-month investigation into her actions.

Pamela Verity submitted a letter of resignation to Commack School District effective July 31, which was unanimously accepted at an Aug. 1 special board of education meeting. She had been the subject of a special investigation for allegedly disclosing confidential information privy to her as a board trustee and removing school district property from Marion Carll Farm.

As members of the board of education, we essentially trade in confidential information…”

— Jarrett Behar

“As members of the board of education, we essentially trade in confidential information:  confidential information about our children, confidential information about our employees,”  Jarrett Behar, vice president of Commack’s school board, said. “We cannot get to a point where we decide that the ends justify the means. There are rules in place that need to be followed and we have a duty to follow them.”

On April 24, Commack’s board voted 3-to-2 to hire attorney Jeffery Smith to undertake an independent investigation of Verity based on accusations she had disclosed confidential information on multiple occasions and taken actions that were an inappropriate use of her authority.

The school district released Smith’s 80-page report Aug. 2, following Verity’s resignation, that details his interviews with 10 individuals — all board of education members, Superintendent Donald James and four school employees — between May 2 and 18.

“This investigation was spurred by posting of confidential information on Facebook,” reads page 3 of the report.

“I made mistakes, I definitely made mistakes.”

— Pamela Verity

In his investigation, Smith said it was alleged that Verity disclosed details of a confidential personnel matter regarding harassment in the workplace on social media. The investigator said the content indicated the board member had been emailing about, texting about it and expressed her opinion in violation of both state law and district policies.

Verity said she admitted to having inadvertently made a public Facebook post on the subject while multitasking but denied it contained detailed information such as specific names.

“I made mistakes, I definitely made mistakes,” she said, but denied her actions were intentional or as malicious in intent as she felt was implied.

The report also critically examined conversations Verity had with district employees where alleged confidential information was disclosed or where her actions were considered inappropriate conduct of a trustee, according to the district.

“I wear my board hat all the time, I don’t have any First Amendment rights anymore?” she said. “If it was up to them I would not be allowed to post [on social media], I would not be allowed to support people.”

If some of these actions were genuine mistakes, they would have merited an apology and a commitment that they would not be repeated and that hasn’t happened.”

— Page 19 of investigative report

Verity said as an educational advocate with the Opt Out movement prior to joining the board, she consulted with other school trustees and lawyers for advice on handling situations and how to handle confidential matters. The Commack district, she asserted, has a much stricter definition of what qualifies as confidential information than state law requires or surrounding districts’ policies. 

Commack school officials also said Verity removed documents from Marion Carll Farm without permission. The former board member said she did pack up and take home documents while working on a fundraiser for the site for safekeeping. All were returned to the district, according to Verity. The district admitted to receiving a box of paperwork but says it did not receive a full inventory list of all items removed from the farmhouse as per its request.

“If some of these actions were genuine mistakes, they would have merited an apology and a commitment that they would not be repeated and that hasn’t happened,” Smith wrote on page 19 of the report.

Verity said she doesn’t want to spend her time and energy defending herself from accusations but would rather move forward.

“I thought at first maybe if I speak my truth, this will turn around. It didn’t,” she said. “[The report] doesn’t reflect both sides at all, not at all.”

Community members at the Aug. 1 special meeting questioned how much the four-month investigation had cost the district given the independent investigator was hired at $150 an hour. The total bill was not yet available, according to Behar.

[The report] doesn’t reflect both sides at all, not at all.”

— Pamela Verity

“This procedure and process obviously did come at a cost and we do not take any endeavor where we spend taxpayer money lightly,” he said.

The district has three legal options when it comes to addressing Verity’s seat on the board of education, according to school district attorney Eugene Barnosky. The board’s choices include holding a special election to fill the vacancy within 90 days, appointing an individual to serve or leaving the seat unfilled. Verity was in her second year of a three-year term, due up for re-election in May 2019.

Behar said no decision had been made yet on how best to proceed.

“What happened today is very new,” he said. “We will make a decision, whatever decision we make will be made public. The community is always welcome to give its input.”

Verity said she hopes to continue lobbying for curriculum changes as part of the Opt Out movement against increased state testing and the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Miller Place residents listen to the board of education discuss the proposal of hiring armed guards and including it in the 2018-19 budget. File photo by Kevin Redding

Miller Place residents passed this year’s $72,685,864 school budget with 616 yes votes and 209 no. The second proposition, the library budget, passed 722-101.

“The budget increase at 2.1 percent maintains all current academic programs, clubs and athletics, as well as maintaining our capital project planning,” Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said in the weeks before the budget vote.

The budget saw a 2.8 percent increase to the tax levy. The increase stayed within the tax levy cap, so the budget only required a simple majority to pass.

The budget includes a $530,000 transfer to capital funds for initiatives such as new high school courses for honor chemistry, virtual enterprise — a course on learning about global business and enterprise — and Engineering Design using VEX Robotics, which includes design kits used to design automated devices and robots.

Incumbent trustee Keith Frank ran unopposed for his second three-year term and received 688 votes.

Frank ran on a platform of trying to offer programs for all students with different interests, especially including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math classes.

“We’re trying to balance the needs and the wishes of everyone, whether it’s arts, athletics or music — whatever the kids want to do,” Frank said before the election. “Kids should be able to go out and properly tackle the world.”

Board president Johanna Testa said she was happy to see Frank back for another term.

“We’re looking forward to the next couple of years with him here,” she said. “[Keith Frank] is an attorney and he’s had experience dealing with contract negotiations and things of that nature. That’s been a benefit to us.”

Elwood Middle School will get a new roof with the passage of Proposition 1 by voters. File photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Across the Town of Huntington, voters went to polls May 15 and gave their stamp of approval to their districts’ 2018-19 budgets. Many of the districts are planning to use funds to increase their security measures in schools or make critical infrastructure and building repairs.

Yet, threat of hazardous weather and early evening storms made for a light voter turnout, with fewer ballots being cast than in previous years. This disappointed some board of education members, who rely on their taxpayers’ votes as a critical measure of community feedback.

Harborfields 2018-19 budget

Harborfields voters approved the district’s $86,086,696 budget for the 2018-19 school year, by 966 votes to 275 votes. The approved budget is an increase of nearly $2 million over the current year and will impose tax levy increase of 2.19 percent for district taxpayers.

“The community’s continued support of the district allows us to provide a ‘world-class’ education to the children of our community,” Harborfields Superintendent Francesco Ianni said. “We look forward to implementing several enhancements to the curriculum for next year, including the restructuring of the high school science research program and a new literacy curriculum. In addition, the proposed budget will allow us to enhance security throughout the district.”

Harborfields votes by the numbers

$86M budget: 966 Yes votes to 275 No votes

Board of education
Suzie Lustig: 949 votes
Steve Engelmann: 862 votes
Joseph Savaglio: 744 votes

The superintendent said the district will reorganize its pupil personnel services department to include a chairperson of special education, allowing the school psychologist more time for child-focused responsibilities.

The proposed spending plan features funding to restructure Harborfields High School’s science research program to allow the teacher to have dedicated time set aside to support students in their individual pursuit of science inquiry. Other enhancements contained in the district’s approved budget include a new literacy curriculum; additional resources for science classes districtwide; and new educational classes in engineering, computer science and business entrepreneurship.

The average Harborfields school district resident will see their annual school taxes increase by an estimated $222.80 per year. This is based on the average home having an assessed value of $4,000, in which an assessed value is a dollar value placed on the property by the Town of Huntington solely for the purposes of calculating taxes based on comparable home sales and other factors.

“The community’s input was vital to the creation of this budget, so I thank those residents who participated throughout the process and those who took the time to vote,” Ianni said.

Harborfields board of education

There were three candidates running uncontested for three seats on Harborfields board of education in this year’s election.

Current Vice President Suzie Lustig received 949 votes and was re-elected to her seat. Newcomers Steve Engelmann received 862 voters and Joseph Savaglio received 744 to join the district as board trustees starting in the 2018-19 school year.

Elwood school district

Elwood taxpayers passed the district’s $61,606,082 budget for the 2018-19 school year by 896 votes to 327 votes. The adopted budget is an increase of nearly $1.3 million over the current year. It represents a tax levy increase of 2.71 percent, which fell under the state-mandated tax cap.

Elwood votes by the numbers

$61.6M budget: 896 Yes votes to 327 No votes
Proposition 2: 854 Yes votes to 345 No votes

Board of education (uncontested)
Heather Mammolito: 918 votes
James Tomeo: 983 votes

“On behalf of the entire administration and board of education, I would like to thank all residents who voted in support of the proposed 2018-19 budget,” Elwood Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said in a statement. “Your support will allow the district to continue to enhance our academic program for our students, as well as increase security throughout the district. We are continually grateful to the Elwood community for its support of our district.”

Proposition 2

Voters cast their ballots in favor of Proposition 2, approving by 854 votes to 345 votes. The measure will allow school officials to create a capital reserve fund for future improvement projects that were not included in the bond approved earlier this year. Under the terms approved, the district will set aside a maximum of $500,000 a year, not to exceed a total of $5 million over a 10-year period to help pay for capital projects.

Elwood board of education

Two incumbent Elwood board of education trustees ran unopposed for another term serving their community. Trustee Heather Mammolito received 918 votes and trustee James Tomeo, received 983 votes to be re-elected to their seats.