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Comsewogue School District

For voters in both the Port Jefferson and Comsewogue school districts, what’s old will be new again. Incumbent Adam DeWitt and newcomer David Keegan will be the only two names on the ballot May 16 for those living in the Port Jeff district with two seats open. Bob Ramus, a nine-year board member, announced earlier in 2017 he would not seek another term. Residents in Comsewogue will also see two names running for two open seats. The candidates are incumbents Ali Gordon and James Sanchez.

Port Jefferson School District

Adam DeWitt. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Adam DeWitt will be elected for his third term on the Port Jefferson board of education. He was first elected in 2013 on an interim basis, then won a seat during the 2014 to begin his first full term. The 42-year-old principal in the Longwood school district lives in Port Jefferson and has two children who attend the district.

He said he initially decided to run four years ago because he was concerned at the possibility of the district losing a substantial amount of revenue based on a legal battle with the Long Island Power Authority and the Port Jefferson Power Station, and is still committed to working on it.

DeWitt praised his colleagues on the board for the environment he has seen develop during his time serving.

“That’s another reason I want to continue to be on it … we created a system of efficiency and collaboration,” he said.

He said one of the things that has happened during his time that he’s proud of playing a part in is the district’s updated rules on transgender students use of bathrooms and locker rooms as of April 2016. The new policy allowed students to identify in their records how they would like their gender to be identified.

David Keegan, 47, has been an information and technology sales professional for the last 24 years. He is currently an area sales manager at Cisco Systems and a resident of Belle Terre.

“As an avid reader of American History I have come to appreciate and understand the importance of civic responsibility and commitment to community,” he said in an email. “As a Port Jefferson community member and parent to two children in the district, I am keenly interested in helping to assure the district continues to strive to provide a world-class education for all of our children.”

He also referenced the situation with LIPA as a deciding factor for his engagement with the school board, though there are other things he said he hopes to help accomplish in his first term, like expansion of STEM opportunities for students.

Comsewogue School District

Ali Gordon. Photo from Ali Gordon

Ali Gordon began her time on the school board in 2011. She is begining her third term in 2017. Gordon currently works as a senior advocate for the Suffolk County Office for the Aging. The 45-year-old has lived in Port Jefferson Station since 1999 with her husband and three of her four children, two of which are still attending Comsewogue schools.

Gordon said she originally ran for the position as an extension of her own advocacy and activism in local government. She spent several years in the PTA for Terryville Elementary School and even organized letter-writing campaigns for the district to address local issues in education with elected representatives.

She shared why she decided to run again this time around.

“I’m running again because Comsewogue has made incredible strides toward providing all of our students with a well-rounded, student-centered education, but there’s always more that can be done,” she said in an email. “Within my next term I look forward to advocating for Comsewogue to secure permission from New York State to officially be part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and expanding opportunities for students to earn college credit during high school.”

James Sanchez. Photo from James Sanchez

James Sanchez is the vice president of the Comsewogue board.

He is 62 years old and has lived in the district for 27 years. He works at the Port Jefferson Ferry as a dock master. He was first elected to the board in 2011 and said his goal when he first decided to run was to do anything he could to foster high student achievement through optimum, responsible use of taxpayer funds.

During his tenure he has served on the budget and finance, buildings, grounds and maintenance and board and district policies committees.

Sanchez shared some of his goals for his upcoming third term in an email.

“Developing a safe and secure school in which we have the mindfulness to protect all against bullying, harassment and discrimination is essential for providing a student friendly classroom,” he said. In this way we can create a safe and supportive school environment.”

Comsewogue school board President John Swenning and Superintendent Joe Rella, along with the rest of the board and administration, have begun 2018-19 budget preparations. File photo by Alex Petroski

The Comsewogue School District is in strong financial shape, but as has been the case in recent years, their outlook could be stronger. Superintendent Joe Rella presented a 2017-18 budget draft during a February board of education meeting that would be an increase of 2.9 percent more than the current year’s budget and would maintain all existing academic programs.

The $89,796,337 budget first draft was constructed based on the district receiving nearly $500,000 less in foundation aid than they expected after New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) proposed an adjustment to the formula, used to calculate how much districts receive from the state, which was established in 2007.

According to the activist coalition Alliance for Quality Education, the formula was put in place in response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit resolution, which ensured $5.5 billion would be committed to mostly high-need school districts in 2007, and was supposed to take effect over the course of four years. The decision was reached 14 years after the initial lawsuit in 1993. It eventually reached the New York State Court of Appeals, which ruled high-need districts were being neglected. The money still has not been fully
phased in.

A summary in Rella’s budget presentation said the district is disappointed in the decision to change the formula.

“The district lost out on $462,000 that would have helped lead to stronger educational programs for our students,” the summary said. “The foundation aid formula change is unacceptable…we are going to be forced to reduce services if we do not see additional state aid.”

Rella was vocal in his opposition of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which was enacted seven years ago in an effort to close a state budget deficit by deducting funds from each school district’s state aid allotment. The aid deducted by the adjustment was fully restored to districts last year.

In total, Comsewogue will receive nearly $31 million in funding from the state for the upcoming school year. About $55 million in revenue will come from property taxes, which is 2.7 percent more than the 2016-17 school year. The increase won’t require a cap-piercing vote because the district did a fund transfer for several capital improvement projects, which are exempt from impacting the tax levy increase cap because the money was taxed previously.

Some of the capital improvement projects slated for the upcoming school year include asphalt replacement at the high school, a new roof at Terryville Road Elementary School and upgrades to the turf on the high school field.

Assistant superintendent for business Susan Casali said the district is also budgeting to increase their reserves.

“I think financially we’re very sound,” Casali said in a phone interview. She added enrollment is increasing by about two percent for 2017-18, which is a positive sign for financial considerations going forward.

Casali attributed a large chunk of the $2,559,120 increase compared to the current year’s budget to the expiration of the district’s transportation contract. A new agreement will be reached after the contract is put out for bid.

According to Rella, the district also plans to expand on a pilot consortium program, which began in 2016-17, where two ninth-grade classes were exposed to a project- and inquiry-based curriculum, alternative to typical Regents classes, to create a deeper understanding for several subjects. Casali predicted the expansion will require the hiring of at least one more full-time teacher.

The final budget discussion is scheduled to take place March 30 before the board can adopt it April 3. A budget hearing will be held for the public May 2 and the vote is May 16.

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Joe Rella is planning to continue as Comsewogue’s superintendent for the immediate future, though he says he’s retiring in 2019. Photo by Barbara Donlon

The Comsewogue school district and community scored a win at a board of education meeting Feb. 6. The board unanimously approved a resolution to extend the contract of the district’s superintendent through the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Joe Rella was named superintendent in 2010, though he has been entrenched in the community for more than two decades. He said during an interview after the meeting he plans to be back for the school year beginning this September, and the following year, but at the moment his plan is to retire in August 2019. His contract, which was approved Feb. 6, will see him earn just over $216,000 in 2017-18, a 2 percent raise over his current salary for this school year. The passage of the resolution was met with applause from the board and community members in attendance.

“Pope Francis said at some talk I heard him give, and I love the expression he used, that the shepherd has to smell like the sheep.”

— Joe Rella

“I’m always ambivalent about it,” Rella said about the decision to remain at the helm of the district. “I’ll be 68 years old in 2019 — leave while you’re having fun. I love this place and you’ve got to know when to go. I’ve had a good run here and I’m happy, and I’m happy I’m here. But it’s time — I feel it.”

Rella began in the district as a music teacher 23 years ago, then spent eight years as principal of the high school. Next year will be his eighth as superintendent. He moved into the community — down the block from the high school — 20 years ago, he said.

“You’ve got to be close to the people and you’ve got to be close to the kids,” he said about the decision to move into the district where he works. “Pope Francis said at some talk I heard him give, and I love the expression he used, that the shepherd has to smell like the sheep. You can’t do it from down the block, you can’t phone it in and that means you got to be close to the people you work with. It’s an ideal setup.”

He estimated about half of the students at the high school have his cellphone number.

Rella used the word “love” repeatedly in describing his relationship with the people of the district. In August, his wife Jackie passed away, and he said the outpouring of support he received from the community was overwhelming.

“This community just put their arms around me and my family,” he said. “They were wonderful — so kind and caring. I had more food come to my house than I could possibly eat. One of my sons was actually driving it down to the soup kitchen because we had no place to put it. They just went wild. That’s the way they are here.”

Beyond the feelings of home and family, Rella associates with the district. He said he’s sticking around to see a couple of big projects to completion.

The district submitted an application to be accredited by the Middle States Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a regional membership association that gives its stamp of approval to districts based on their rigorous standards. Several schools on Long Island have received the distinction, though if accredited Comsewogue would be the only full district of public schools on Long Island recognized by the commission. Results of the application are expected this spring.

Comsewogue also participated in a pilot consortium program where two ninth-grade classes were exposed to a project- and inquiry-based curriculum, alternative to typical Regents classes, as a means to create a deeper understanding for several subjects, which Rella said the district plans to expand on next year.

“I can be myself. I’m too old to be anything else at this point. It’s been like that since I got here.”

— Joe Rella

“There’s a lot of really exciting things happening, and that’s what keeps me coming back every day,” Rella said. “Plus it’s a wonderful community. The kids are super, the faculty is super, the administrators.”

The superintendent joked the three stoplights between his home and his office can turn his five-minute ride into 10 some mornings, though he knows no one wants to hear that complaint.

Rella attributed much of his success and comfort in the district to his relationship with his assistant superintendents Jennifer Quinn, who handles curriculum and instruction, and Susan Casali, who is in charge of business.

“Jennifer is a wizard at curriculum and literacy — Susan is a wizard at finance,” he said, adding that the trio has a great working relationship based on mutual trust. “[An idea] still counts if I didn’t think of it, and I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

Rella’s duties are not limited to the job description of a traditional superintendent. He will be playing the piano in the high school drama club’s productions of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” Feb. 10 and 11. He also accompanies students trying out for the New York State School Music Association. Performances require accompaniment by a pianist, which can be expensive for rehearsals and would deter some students from applying. So the superintendent lends his time on nights and Saturdays to get students up to speed.

Rella said the combination of his involvement in student activities, living in the community and sending two of his kids through the district has made Comsewogue a perfect fit.

“It gives you some credibility,” he said. “I’m not making decisions for other people’s kids that I wouldn’t make for my kids. Plus, you go to the same barbershop; you go to the same supermarket … I can be myself. I’m too old to be anything else at this point. It’s been like that since I got here.”

Rella admitted it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but most days, it is.

“From the day I got here, there have been tough days, but never a day I said to myself, ‘I’m packing it in,’” he said. “There have been days I’ve said to myself, ‘If they find out I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, this is going to be a problem.’ They’re very honest people. They’ll tell you what’s on their mind. I’m not made of china; I’m not going to break.”

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Rella speaks out against standardized testing in 2015. File photo

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella will be staying with the district for at least another four years, as his contract has been extended through August 2020.

At Monday’s board of education meeting, the board approved the amended contract, which includes an $8,000 salary increase in 2015-16 for the five-year superintendent.

It will be the first raise for Rella, who took the helm in September 2010 at a $200,000 salary.

In addition to the salary increase, Rella will be contributing 17 percent to his health benefits. While that number is slightly lower than in previous years, the district switched health insurance companies, resulting in lower premiums.

The contract does not absolutely define Rella’s salary and benefits from 2016-17 and beyond — the board must meet with him and discuss those points each year.

Shortly after voting on the contract, the board thanked the superintendent, who was once principal of the high school, for his hard work and dedication to the district.

Board President John Swenning said that Rella has been a blessing to the Comsewogue community.

“You can’t go anywhere that he is not recognized by students and parents.”

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Assistant Superintendent for Business Susan Casali explained the district’s budget proposal last week. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Comsewogue School District hopes to adopt a budget that increases staff while staying within the state-imposed limit on its tax increase.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Susan Casali explained during a school board workshop on March 26 that the budget proposal would also reduce the district’s dependency on its reserves and make security improvements.

The budget was originally proposed at that workshop to be $85.6 million, or a 2.7 percent increase over the current year’s budget, funded in part through an expected increase in state aid.

But after preliminary state aid numbers were released on Tuesday, showing Comsewogue receiving less than the $2 million bump it expected, the district is changing its budget proposal — Casali said in an email that the plan is to slash the budget by $400,000.

“Our overall goal is to stay under the property tax cap,” Casali said last week, referring to New York State’s cap on how much municipalities and school districts can increase their tax levy each year.

Comsewogue may raise its by 2.2 percent next year, and the budget proposal meets that cap.

Under the budget plan, the district would add a librarian, so that each school in the district would have one, and Comsewogue would replace its deans, who also have teaching responsibilities, with assistant principals to create more flexibility.

At John F. Kennedy Middle School, where there is already one assistant principal, the plan is to replace the part-time dean with a full-time assistant principal. At Comsewogue High School, the dean will become two assistant principals.

The district is also hoping to add assistant athletic coaches into the mix, for student safety and to help develop a stronger athletic program. In the past, those roles were cut for financial reasons.

Other improvements are proposed for the district’s facilities — according to Casali, Comsewogue’s wireless infrastructure hasn’t been updated in more than 10 years, and some classrooms need to be refurbished. Officials also hope to add cameras and other upgrades to the security system, based on recommendations from a security study that was completed last year.

While the budget has not been finalized, Superintendent Joe Rella said, “Whatever budget is put up [for a public vote] in May will be under the tax cap.”

Also on the ballot will be a proposition on transportation, to add bus service for 38 JFK Middle School students who currently walk to school. The students live within a half-mile of the building, which keeps them off the buses, but the heavy snow covering sidewalks this winter led the kids to walk in the street and spurred the transportation proposal.

The extra bus riders will not add cost to the taxpayer, as the district would reconfigure current bus routes to accommodate the kids.

The school board will adopt a budget at its meeting on April 13.

Joe Rella is planning to continue as Comsewogue’s superintendent for the immediate future, though he says he’s retiring in 2019. Photo by Barbara Donlon

Comsewogue officials have sealed their lips on a proposal not to give state exams to students next month.

Both Facebook and the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association website were buzzing this week, as school board members and residents discussed a proposed resolution saying the board would “seriously consider not administering the New York State standardized [English language arts] and math exams in grades 3-8, and the science exam in grades 4 and 8.” The board of education had encouraged parents to attend its workshop on Thursday night and speak about the state’s testing system.

But just hours before the meeting, the district went silent, and Superintendent Joe Rella and board members said legal counsel had advised them not to discuss the issue.

It is unclear whether the board will bring the resolution to a vote at its next business meeting, on Monday.

According to the resolution, the board takes issue with the state’s current education aid levels and teacher evaluation policies, and with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education reforms, one of which would base half of a teacher’s evaluation on student test scores.

The resolution says that the Comsewogue school board would consider not administering the state tests unless Cuomo (D) and state legislators “establish a fair and equitable state aid funding formula … so [schools] can provide for the educational needs of every child” and stop weighing student test scores so heavily in teacher and administrator evaluations.

At the workshop Thursday, a community member said the announcement before the meeting that officials would no longer discuss the matter had surprised her.

“I really can’t tell you why right now,” Rella responded. “We’ve been advised not to comment about it.”

According to state education department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie, the federal government requires the standardized tests.

“If a member of a board of education or school superintendent takes official action by refusing to administer a required state assessment, the responsible party would be at risk of removal from office by the commissioner of education pursuant to Education Law,” Beattie said in an email.

According to Article 7 of the state Education Law, the commissioner may, following a hearing, remove a school officer, including a school board member or a district administrator, if it has been “proved to his satisfaction” that the person willfully disobeyed “any decision, order, rule or regulation of the regents or of the commissioner of education.” The commissioner may also withhold state aid from any district for such actions.