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The Three Village Central School District held a town hall Jan. 26. District administrators, including Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich, answered questions that had been submitted ahead of time. Screenshot from Three Village Central School District YouTube

By Andrea Paldy

In a departure from its normal meeting format, the Three Village Central School District held a town hall last Wednesday, Jan. 26, that gave the public an opportunity to ask administrators a broad spectrum of questions that included the budget and enrollment, COVID protocols, mental health support, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) and school start times. 

The town hall, which was held in-person at the Ward Melville High School auditorium, also offered a virtual component. More than 100 viewers tuned into the two-hour-long YouTube livestream. District administrators answered questions that had been submitted ahead of time. 

Alan Baum, executive director for human resources and secondary curriculum, facilitated the town hall. While the district was open to various structures for future forums, Baum said the benefit of pre-submitted questions was that it ensured that answers given were “accurate, comprehensive and detailed.” Administrators, he said, had the benefit of being able to gather the necessary information. 

Concerns about the ongoing pandemic prompted an expected avalanche of questions about procedures, masking and vaccines and represented both the sentiments of parents who felt the district was being overly cautious, as well as those who believed it could do more. Questions about this dominant topic included whether the district had looked at studies related to the psychological and learning effects of masking and distancing on students, and whether the district would take legal action to end the mask mandate. Concerns were also raised about masking requirements not being enforced and why students and teachers were not mandated to take the vaccine.  

Executive director of student and community services Erin Connolly fielded many of these questions. She said the district would not take legal action against the mask mandate, and that due to the newness of masking and social distancing there have been no studies available about their long-term effects. She added that concern about possible effects is behind the district’s implementation of “extensive” SEL (social emotional learning) programs targeted at mitigating issues related to COVID-19.  

There has been no decision to mandate the vaccine for students, but if there were one, it would be made by New York State and not by the school district, administrators said. Teachers, on the other hand, are required to be either vaccinated or to test regularly, said Dawn Mason, executive director for pupil personnel services. She added that vaccination is a personal decision to be made with one’s doctor.  

Pandemic-related questions also included whether the district would go remote again or offer a remote learning option. Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich said the district would not offer a remote learning option, though it did offer livestreaming for secondary students and tutoring for elementary students during the omicron surge. The decision to go remote would be based on local infection rates and availability of teachers and staff. Such a decision would be made “with careful consultation with the board of education, with our administration and the department of health,” Pedisich said.  

“We view our schools to be the central pillar to the infrastructure of our community and, as such, schools are critical. They are essential to student learning, social and emotional and psychological growth, and so we feel very, very strongly about the importance of in-person learning, and we’ll do everything we can to keep our schools open, healthy and safe,” the superintendent said. 

Administrators also spoke about the district’s ongoing focus on student mental health, saying district programs focus on “the whole child” — academic, as well as their social, emotional and physical health and well-being.   

The district’s enrollment has seen a decline over the past 15 years. When asked to compare current enrollment and staffing — 5,651 students and 589 instructional staff members — to those of the 2012-13 school year — 7,307 students and a staff of 591 — it became clear that staffing levels, which include some “COVID hires,” are virtually the same at present, despite the almost-2,000 student decrease over the years.  

In addition to reduced class sizes and more electives, Jeff Carlson, deputy superintendent, said Three Village is providing more services to students and has added more social workers and psychologists to the staff over the years after having cut staffing down to 545 full time equivalents in 2013-14.

“Every school district has social workers and psychologists,” he said. “We have more than most. We’ve worked hard to build those numbers back up in staffing.”

Pedisich later said current enrollment numbers do not include the district’s prekindergarten students, which can range between 180 and 200 students. Though the district saw a decrease in the secondary populations, it is currently seeing a bump in elementary students by 105 students, which Pedisich attributed to changes in the housing market and families moving from the city because of the pandemic.  

Paul Gold, director of social studies and assistant principal of Ward Melville, answered questions about the district’s DEI committee, which he chairs. The district is not teaching critical race theory, widely known as CRT, which he said is taught in law schools and “has no place in K-12 schools.” Gold added that what the district does teach about race and racism is “through the lens of history” and that teaching “does not come with blame or shame. It comes with context and conversations about how over time so many Americans have worked to promote equity and equality for so many groups that have been historically marginalized.”

In addition to clarifying that equity and inclusion go beyond race to include gender, physical and intellectual ableism and sexuality, Gold responded to questions about funding for the district’s committee. The committee is populated by teacher, parent, staff and administrator volunteers who are not paid. He also explained that professional development is among the committee’s priorities and that one of its subcommittees is working on professional development opportunities for staff.

Questions were also asked about the district’s commitment to finding a way to implement a later start time for secondary students. Pedisich, who acknowledged the health benefits of a later start for students, said the board of education would have to discuss reinstatement of the late start time committee, which has been on hold since the pandemic.  

A recording of the forum, which also covered transportation, testing and school lunches, can be viewed on the Three Village Central School District YouTube page. 

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An aerial view of Smithtown from the Town of Smithtown Draft Comprehensive Plan

While many are pleased that the Town of Smithtown has laid out comprehensive draft plans for each of its hamlets, some residents are concerned with several of the proposals.

“I think we got a lot of areas of town that would make you scratch your head, and say why are there houses next to businesses, next to industry.”

— Mike Cooley

We Are Smithtown, an advocacy group for town residents, hosted an online community forum about the town’s comprehensive plan March 1 to summarize officials’ suggestions and share residents’ concerns, as well as give participants a chance to share their thoughts. Approximately 85 residents took part in the forum.

The plans

In December, the town released its Draft Comprehensive Plan and initiated the State Environmental Quality Review process. Virtual public outreach meetings were held separately for Commack, Hauppauge, Nesconset, Kings Park, St. James and Smithtown proper in January and February. In 2019, the town began the process with public meetings where town officials presented maps and offered interactive sessions. An online questionnaire was also made available at the beginning of the process.

Mike Cooley, vice president of the group, said at the March 1 forum that a lot of what residents see around town is due to piecemeal planning since there hasn’t been a comprehensive plan since 1957. He said in 2015 there was a draft plan but it wasn’t adapted.

“I think that’s why a lot of our downtowns and our main streets look the way they do, and maybe not what you picture as Main Street USA or what you’ve seen in some other places,” Cooley said. “I think we got a lot of areas of town that would make you scratch your head, and say why are there houses next to businesses, next to industry.”

He added that 97% of the town is already developed.

Housing wants

We Are Smithtown vice president Phyllis Hart said while the town talks about people wanting affordable housing, many are asking for single-family homes not apartments. She said in the town’s plan on page 40 it’s stated that 77% respondents to a town survey said they encourage or strongly encourage single-family residential. There were 44% who wanted the town to discourage or strongly discourage duplexes.

“The town is looking to throw up apartments in every vacant piece of land, which will not maintain the residential feel and character of this area,” she said. “The town has not made a clear case of why this is necessary.”

“The town is looking to throw up apartments in every vacant piece of land, which will not maintain the residential feel and character of this area. The town has not made a clear case of why this is necessary.”

— Phyllis Hart

We Are Smithtown has shared concerns about potential multihousing units in Hauppauge and The Preserves in Nesconset where developers broke ground in October. Hart made a case to why single-family homes, that add residential character, keep people in the area. Property values have increased in the town for decades, she said, and buying a home is an investment while homeowners contribute to the tax base. She added that Smithtown’s population has been stable for the last 50 years, and there is no mass exodus as many developers and town officials claim when talking about the importance of affordable apartments.

The group and other residents have been vocal that some of the proposed apartments in the area aren’t affordable.

“We had an influential developer speak with us recently and gave us an eye-popping statement,” Hart said. “With large state and local subsidies, a one-bedroom apartment in this area would be as low as $2,000 a month. As low as $2,000 a month? Affordable for who? Most Apartments in this area are over that.”

She said for most affordable housing is about a house’s price and taxes, and there’s a need for more starter homes, townhouses and condos to enable people to start putting roots down in a community. Hart added developers have said they can’t build affordable apartments without tax breaks, which she said leads to the IDA giving them tax breaks in the millions. She added that the developer gets the tax break, while apartment complex dwellers use town and school district services.

Gyrodyne problems

James Bouklas, We Are Smithtown president, said the forum presenters didn’t have time to go over all the developments, but touched on Gyrodyne in St. James. Groups such as We Are Smithtown and the Three Village Civic Association have protested in the past the proposed plans to the former Flowerfield property which includes subdivision of the 75-acre-property to build a 150-room hotel with a restaurant, two assisted living centers, two medical office parks and a 7-acre sewage treatment plant.

“This is simply too big for St James, and I can’t even imagine something this size and scope that doesn’t transform our community.”

— James Bouklas

“This is simply too big for St James, and I can’t even imagine something this size and scope that doesn’t transform our community,” Bouklas said.

He added a development such as what Gyrodyne has proposed is inconsistent with the town’s draft plan and pointed out page 56 of the plan.

“It discusses that highly traveled corridors are not compatible with commercial development,” Bouklas said. “There’s an  idea that a very high-traffic corridor shouldn’t be promoting commercial development. You know, 25A is one of those high-traffic corridors.”

There are also environmental concerns about the property, he said, as the property was once used to manufacture helicopters. People fear that industrial solvents may be in the ground and other legacy toxins. He said any toxins could destroy nearby Stony Brook Harbor and groups have called for a forensic environmental audit to be done on the property.

“Is there a plume that we don’t know about?” he said. “Are we going to be disturbing it by all this development and are we going to be allowing that into our drinking water? Is this going to be the next Superfund site.”

Judith Ogden, a participant in the meeting and Head of the Harbor trustee, said she is working with the newly formed St. James-Head of the Harbor Neighborhood Preservation Coalition.

She said one of the concerns brought to her attention after sitting in on the town’s virtual public outreach meeting for St. James is that it’s the second most densely hamlet with the least amount of open space.

She agreed that Gyrodyne’s proposed development is not in agreement with the comprehensive plan. Residents are also concerned about talks that Bull Run Farm on Mills Pond Road in St. James may be slated for an assisted living facility, she said.

Ogden added during the hamlet meetings, the town sometimes says what is convenient but not accurate. She gave the example of town officials saying the county would be buying the development rights to BB and GG Farm on Route 25A down the road from Gyrodyne. However, at the time of the meeting the farm owners had not yet agreed to Suffolk County’s offer and the deal did not go through.

As of Feb. 25, a letter was sent to the owners from the Suffolk County executive’s office saying the offer from the county had expired, this after a 60 days extension requested by the owners back in December.

Ogden said many in the coalition are concerned that open spaces are disappearing, and they are asking residents to call and email town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and Town Board members and ask for a moratorium on large-scale plans until the comprehensive plan is finalized.

Bouklas said all questions, concerns and suggestions from the meeting are being compiled and will be sent to the town.

For more information about We Are Smithtown, visit www.wearesmithtown.org.

District to hold May 1 community forum to discuss status of lawsuit over power plant’s tax assessment

Northport High School. File photo

Northport school officials are calling for Long Island Power Authority to uphold a decades-old promise over taxes on its power plant as a June trial date looms.

Superintendent Robert Banzer has called for LIPA to stand by a 1997 agreement made between the district, the utility company and former New York State Gov. George Pataki (R) in an April 16 letter to community residents. Banzer alleged the power company had agreed not to seek to lower the assessed tax value of the Northport power plant as long as local authorities did not abusively increase it over time.

“While it is a very complex issue that goes back to the 1990s, it boils down to one simple premise: LIPA made a promise to our school district and we are fighting hard to make sure they, and others, continue to fulfill their promise,” Banzer wrote in the letter.

LIPA made a promise to our school district and we are fighting hard to make sure they, and others, continue to fulfill their promise.”
– Robert Banzer

In 2010, LIPA and National Grid filed a lawsuit against the district challenging the assessment of the power plant and demanding a 90 percent reduction in taxes, also seeking the difference in tax refunds retroactively.

“Obviously, a 90 percent reduction to the power plant’s assessment would be devastating to the school district, its residents and most importantly, our students,” Banzer wrote.

The district currently receives about 38 percent of its overall revenue from the taxes paid on the Northport power plant, or the equivalent of nearly $53 million per year.

The superintendent said the district has been involved in settlement discussions with LIPA “which at this point, has not yielded a reasonable resolution.” The utility company’s latest proposed settlement would be a 50 percent reduction in taxes over a nine-year period, according to the
superintendent, which would increase the tax burden on district residents by millions per year. Banzer said if this proposal took effect, the schools would be forced to “make additional modifications, including cutting programs and staff significantly.”

In his letter to residents the superintendent stated that the district remains open to negotiating a settlement with LIPA. He did not respond to requests for further interviews.

The two parties have limited time to reach an agreement as a state supreme court trial is slated to begin in June.

Obviously, a 90 percent reduction to the power plant’s assessment would be devastating to the school district… ”
– Robert Banzer

State senators John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) introduced legislation April 20 that could help mitigate any potential impact of the lawsuit on Northport taxpayers. The bill seeks to lengthen the time frame over which LIPA’s taxes would be gradually reduced from nine years to a proposed 15 years. In addition, it would grant the municipal governments and school districts who lose a tax assessment challenge to LIPA after April 1, 2018, access to the state’s electric generating facility cessation mitigation program. This way, town government and schools could create reserve funds to mitigate the burden on their taxpayers.

Other municipalities, villages and school districts have had better success in bargaining with the utility company to varying degrees. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced April 3 that the town government had reached a settlement with LIPA on its assessment lawsuit over the Port Jefferson power plant. Port Jefferson School District officials called this news “deeply troubling.”

“This decision will … place the school district in harm’s way,” the district’s statement said.

A community forum will be held May 1 at 7 p.m. in Northport High School’s auditorium where district taxpayers can learn about the potential impacts of the LIPA lawsuit on their school taxes and their children’s education as it moves forward.


On Tuesday, April 10, Harbor Country Day School will host a community forum, titled “Addictive Behaviors in Adolescents and Adults: Warning Signs, Risky Behaviors and Helpful Resources.” The forum will feature mental health, medical, and social services experts, who will lead attendees in a candid discussion about various forms of addiction, including technology and video game addiction, social media dependence, alcohol and other substance abuse, vaping and “gateway drugs,” and opioid addiction.

WHAT:   “Addictive Behaviors in Adolescents and Adults: Warning Signs, Risky Behaviors and Helpful Resources”

Panelists will include:

  • Kym Laube, Executive Director of Human Understanding and Growth Services, Inc. (HUGS)
  • Linda Ventura, Founder of Thomas’ Hope Foundation
  • Noam Fast, M.D., Medical Director of the Mather Hospital Chemical Dependency Clinic
  • Jason Bleecher, Licensed Master Social Worker & Substance Abuse Therapist
  • Carissa Millet, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

WHEN:      Tuesday, April 10, 7:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.

WHERE:     Harbor Country Day School

17 Three Sisters Road

St. James, NY 11780

HOW:   Free tickets are available at https://hcds.eventbrite.com or by calling (631) 584-5555

WHY:   As today’s adolescents and their parents and caregivers face growing societal and personal challenges, addictive behaviors are appearing in many new forms and to extreme degrees. The forum will provide an opportunity for a candid discussion about the prevalence of these addictions, warning signs to be aware of, and solutions and community resources for those in need.


About Harbor Country Day School

Founded in 1958 by conscientious parents, Harbor Country Day School is an independent, co-educational day school for children from preschool through eighth grade in St. James. Emphasizing a whole-child approach to education, Harbor offers a rigorous curriculum enhanced by signature programs in STEAM, global languages, math, and language arts, with a strong emphasis on character development. The school’s mission to “cherish childhood, cultivate wonder, and inspire confident learners and leaders” underscores every student’s experience and ensures that all of its graduates are prepared to lead fulfilling lives filled with wonder, confidence, and many successes. Harbor Country Day School’s summer camp program, Camp Harbor, is among the leading summer camp programs on Long Island.

Harbor Country Day School is chartered by the New York State Board of Regents and is accredited by and a member of the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS).  It is a non-sectarian, nonprofit organization under section 501(c) (3) of the IRS Code governed by a self-perpetuating board of trustees.  For more information, visit www.hcdsny.org.