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Comsewogue

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The Port Jefferson Elks donated funds, knowing it was going towards Comsewogue graduates in the military. Photo from CSD

Comsewogue staff, students and parents worked extra hard this year to not only make things the best it could be for their current students, but also for those graduates now in the military. 

“Since early December, we have been looking for partners in the community who could help us financially with some of our costs to send care packages around the world,” said teacher Andrew Harris. “It is a very hard time of year for local businesses, so we decided to ask our local Elks organization.”

Harris said that after a few weeks, the Elks organization told them they would contribute $500 buy gift certificates for those serving. 

“I was blown away because they too have had it difficult, but when I went to the lodge, I learned that these are very special people who were truly concerned about our local community and truly helping,” Harris added. “I have appealed to many large corporations only to be turned down. The Elks were delighted to be asked and give to us. They tend to do things one dollar at a time with each member donating their own hard-earned money.”

When Harris received the contribution, he went to the local Target where the store matched his initial $500. 

One of the most powerful items in the care packages are always the handwritten notes that the students send. At John F. Kennedy Middle School, teachers Dave Anzini, Katy Dornicik and Melissa McMullen decided to make great lessons out of creating the letters. 

“The essence of a strong writing program is one that engages students in authentic, meaningful experiences that not only build their skills as writers but invites them to wield their writing as a powerful tool for the greater good of society,” McMullen said. “They were powerful, indeed, as one of the moms whose son was to receive a package said, ‘I was just looking into the bag you dropped off for Ryan. After reading the wonderful letters I started to cry. Please thank your students and let them know how proud and thankful I am as Ryan’s mom for their kindest and the awesome letters they wrote and pictures. I know Ryan will love them and will enjoy them. They will be put in his memory box to share with his friends and family always.’”

Some of the students wrote inspiring messages asking lots of questions about what life was like on an aircraft carrier for example. Six grader Sophia Nielsen said, “I’m very grateful to the soldiers. They’re such amazing people. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. They save so many people’s lives and risk their own life for us. I wish them the very best. Stay safe and healthy. You deserve the best. Thanks for your dedication and support!”

Comsewogue alumn LCpl Paul Piotrowski is currently stationed overseas. Photo from CSD

When one military member and graduate LCpl Paul Piotrowsk received his care package and letters. He was delighted, and texted from an undisclosed location overseas to his former teacher Ms. Droge (Dornicik), and her students, that it meant a lot for him to receive his gifts and letters from them and how much he appreciated it. He is currently a Marine working hard as a crew chief and operator of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle.

Even former students were inspired to get involved. Arianna Morturano, a 2019 graduate, decided to help out by selling holiday items to help fundraise.

 “After growing up in this very amazing community, I wish to give back to those who serve and protect. My former classmates are selfless, brave and the true embodiment of what it means to be a warrior. They deserve to be honored for their service,” she said.

Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said giving back to those serving is a great experience for the students.

 “It is such a great lesson for students to see how empowered they feel when they can do something for others,” she said. 

“These actions made such a big difference for those military graduates that they have a direct connection to.  I am proud to be part of such an outstanding team!”

Courtesy of Comsewogue School District and Andrew Harris 

 

The Eagles of Rocky Point faced a formidable Comsewogue squad in the opening week of League IV bowling action at Port Jeff Bowl Jan 14. Despite falling to the Warriors 29.5 — 3.5, Eagles head coach Anthony Vertuccio, who fields a young roster, said a bright spot on the day was senior Sean Vogel. Sean has tremendous potential this season but was also impressed by his 8th grader along with three 10th graders.

Comsewogue retakes the lanes Jan 21 on the road against Middle Country at AMF Centereach Lanes at 3:30 p.m.

The Eagles were back in action Jan. 19 where they hit the road against East Hampton at The All Star lanes in Riverhead. Results were not available as of press time.

Above photo of Comsewogue junior Steven Orland; bottom photo of Comsewogue senior Joshua Rivera.

How libraries look during COVID times. Photo from Comsewogue School District

Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic and schools are still adjusting. The school library, a place of solace for elementary schoolers and high school seniors alike, has had to adhere to the new and ever-changing COVID-19 protocols.

Local districts, however, have embraced the changes and have implemented new services that they never would have started if it wasn’t for the crisis.

A silver lining, school librarians across the North Shore explained how the changes have impacted them, their schools and their students.

Alice Wolcott, librarian at Elwood-John Glenn High School, said that COVID changed the landscape of public education, meaning they had to reimagine their space.

“This year we transitioned the book loan program to a digital platform, which will continue to support students’ pleasure and academic reading while still observing COVID restrictions,” she said. “Students can browse the collection online via Follett Destiny [a library management system], and if they find a title they’d like to borrow, they can request that book through our book request form.”

To adhere to COVID rules, the books are delivered in a Ziploc bag to first period teachers.

Since some students are not physically in their first period classes, the district also increased their digital library as a main focus.

Shoreham-Wading River High School librarian Kristine Hanson and Albert G. Prodell Middle School librarian Ann-Marie Kalin created an initiative to meet the need for printed books while reimagining the online presence in concert with OPALS, the open-source library system.

They created a book delivery service at their schools called BookDash, which allows students to electronically submit requests with their student ID. Then, physical books are either delivered to students at Prodell or picked up at the high school library doors at the end of the school day. The initiative is promoted through English classes, and a multitude of book recommendations are available via the OPALS pages, blogs and links.

“Kids are reliant on what’s in the catalog, books that never went out before are going out like wild,” Kalin said. “For the time being we’re making the best of it all.”

With the BookDash initiative, Kalin said students are excited to get their hands on actual books.

“So many kids are so tired of being on the screen and are desperate for that interaction with each other,” she said. “I’m seeing readers I never saw before, and there are so many requests for books. It’s very successful.”

Along with Shoreham-Wading River, other districts across Long Island are using an e-book platform called Sora, including Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School in Rocky Point.

Monica DiGiovanni teaches Sora to third graders in Rocky Point. Photo from RPSD.

Librarian Monica DiGiovanni has been visiting classrooms, having students log into their Chromebooks. She is teaching them how to check out library books with the new service, which enables students to borrow a book and read it right on their devices. Another program, Destiny Discover, enables students to find a physical book in the library and have it delivered directly to them since their libraries are currently not open.

DiGiovanni said that their school libraries have become break rooms for teachers and classroom spaces to accommodate kids in a socially distanced way.

“The library has become an interactive thing,” she said. “Students are definitely utilizing it.”

Although Rocky Point school libraries had to reshape themselves and close the doors to students, Elwood school district was able to open the doors at the high school last week. Wolcott said that right now 15 students are allowed in the library at a time, with designated seating and other stipulations in place.

“The students are really responsive and they’re following all the protocols,” she said. “It’s great to have them back.”

She even sees students, who were not her typical regulars, interacting with the library catalog more than they did before.

“Now it’s nice they’re browsing the shelves,” Wolcott said. “They’re picking books they would not have chosen otherwise.”

Donna Fife, library media specialist at Elwood Middle School, said that early on, the district was keeping library services running smoothly, while her younger students are opting to read more.

“I am seeing names I never saw before requesting books more frequently,” she said. “I know how I feel at the end of the day ­— I would have a hard time playing video games after screen learning.”
Fife said she thinks students are looking for something tangible now that some are looking at a computer all day long.
“They’re requesting to hold a physical copy instead of looking at another screen,” she said.

Nicole Taormina, librarian at Boyle Road Elementary School in the Comsewogue school district, said that new regulars have blossomed throughout the pandemic.

“They really love browsing online,” she said. “It’s a different experience — they are really excited now because they use their Chromebooks and have their own accounts.”

Taormina said that while the changes have been different, she’s looking forward to some normalcy in 2021, and is grateful for what 2020 helped her with.

“I’ve been able to tweak things,” she said. “And the students have been able to learn things that they may have not been able to learn before.”

Also in Comsewogue, Deniz Yildirim, a librarian at Terryville Road Elementary School, said that teaching her library classes has been different compared to years past.

“It’s been a huge change,” she said. “We can’t hand out worksheets anymore, and we do a lot online to cut down on contamination. No other class can come in other than what’s assigned in this room.”

When Yildirim visits classrooms at her school now, she will deliver books that children ask her for.

“It breaks my heart that they can’t browse,” she said. “But we’re making it work.”

And she said that all school libraries have made progress in 2020 than the past 10 years.

“Publishers, authors and librarians are working very hard to make sure kids are reading,” she said. “It’s the least we can do for them during these trying times.”

Taylor Kinsley, a librarian at Minnesauke Elementary School in the Three Village school district, said their schools have been allowing browsing within the libraries.

She said students have to use hand sanitizer before and after touching the books to be sure they have clean hands, and they reorganized the setup of the library, featuring no reading carpets on the floor.

“Elementary students are always excited to have the freedom to pick the books they want,” she said.

The district sanitizes the used books and quarantines them for about a week before putting them back on the shelves.

“I think normalcy is really important for them,” Kinsley added, referring to her students. “We’re being supercautious so why take that away from them?”

The state just announced they will be cancelling the Jan. Regents exams. File photo

State officials said the January 2021 Regents exams will be canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Announced last week, state Interim Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa, along with her administration, said they were canceling the exams at the start of next year. The decision will apply to all Regents exams that had been scheduled for Jan. 26 through Jan. 29.

Over the summer, the New York State Education Department canceled the June and August exams due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Roger Tilles, of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the state’s Board of Regents, said the decision is only fair. 

“A lot of schools started at different times this year,” he said. “We started teaching all-remote, sometimes hybrid, Zoom classes, some in-person. How could you have one uniform test for all students?” 

According to Tilles, it is always difficult to have equity in a state uniform test. 

“Even without the pandemic, it’s inequitable because some schools have better resources and can attract certain types of teachers who have specialties that other schools don’t have,” he said. “So, the kids who are in high-needs districts are getting the same tests as students in the lowest-need schools in the state and compare those students to the other.”

Since there has been disparity in the way students have learned the last eight months, the board began thinking about how to handle the state testing early on in the year. It was officially announced on Nov. 5 that the tests would be canceled. 

“Throughout the pandemic, our priority has been the health and well-being of our students and educators,” Rosa said in a statement. “We determined the January Regents exams could not be safely, equitably and fairly administered across the state given where the pandemic currently stands. We will continue to monitor applicable data and make a decision on other state assessment programs as the school year progresses, being mindful of the evolving situation.”

And due to the cancellation, NYSED will propose modifications to the assessment requirements that students must meet in order to earn high school diplomas, credentials and endorsements at the upcoming December Board of Regents meeting. 

Dr. Jennifer Quinn, superintendent of the Comsewogue School District, said she also believes this was the right decision. 

“There are inequalities in different school districts and it wasnt creating a level playing field,” she said. 

One problem Quinn said she sees in the future is because of the January cancellation, students who planned on taking the English exam will be unable to. 

“A lot of our students take the English Regents in January,” she said. “If they end up giving it in June because they canceled in January, it’ll put the students at a disadvantage and will have to take it on top of their other exams.”

A representative from Three Village Central School District said the only Regents typically taken in January is the English exam, but now the students will have to take the exam in June.

“In the past, we have had a few students re-take a Regents examination in January to improve their score, but the number of students re-taking a Regents in January has been small,” the district said in a statement. “The impact is anticipated to be minimal.”

According to the statement sent out by NYSED, the modifications apply to all students who are completing a secondary-level course of study or makeup program in January and are scheduled to participate in one or more of the January 2021 Regents exams. 

“To ensure students are not adversely impacted by the cancellation of the exams, the department will ask the Board of Regents to adopt emergency regulations pertaining to the assessment requirements that students must meet in order to earn diplomas, credentials and endorsements,” the statement said. “Under the proposed emergency regulations, students who are planning to take one or more Regents examinations during the January 2021 examination period at the conclusion of a course of study or makeup program shall be exempt from the requirements pertaining to passing such Regents examination to be issued a diploma.”

Other local districts said that due to the population size within their districts, the cancellation of the exam would not impact them. Port Jefferson, Miller Place and Rocky Point school representatives all said the decision does not affect their districts.

“There is little impact on our students in Port Jefferson, as we have very few students who take Regents exams in January during a non-COVID year,” Christine Austen, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Port Jefferson School District, said. “Any student who was enrolled in a Regents-level course last year was exempted from taking the assessment and received Regents credit towards graduation as long as they passed the course for the year. Due to the low number of students who usually take the January Regents exams, it isn’t a concern at this time.”

No decisions have been made yet by the Board of Regents regarding the June and August 2021 exams or any other state assessment programs. 

This article has been amended to better clarify the Three Village School District’s statement on the Regents cancellation. 

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If anything, high school athletes know how to lead a chant. Though instead of doing it on the field to rally their team, this time their barking voices were used to call them back to the field.

Around 60 Comsewogue athletes and their parents stood at the corner of routes 112 and 347 Sept. 18 rallying for support in demanding that Section XI, which runs Suffolk County’s scholastic sports, allows sports to start their seasons in September. 

Cole Blatter, a junior on Comsewogue’s football and wrestling teams, said despite Section XI’s promise that the new seasons for sports could start in January, there’s really no way to be sure, especially because they felt the rug was pulled out from under them already.

Sports “really adds structure to my day — I go to school and then I go to football,” he said.

For his teammates, many of them seniors, the Comsewogue athlete said he could not even well describe how upset they are.

“It’s their last season — some are never going to play football again, some of them are never going to wrestle again, some will never play lacrosse again,” Blatter said. “All of that stuff that made them happy, it’s just been taken away from them.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) gave localities the option to play certain sports deemed low risk Aug. 24, specifically excluding sports like football and volleyball because of their use of shared equipment. Though Section XI originally said it would host fall seasons for all other sports, the entity and its athletic council reversed course Sept. 11 and said it would push all sports into truncated seasons starting Jan. 4. 

The Comsewogue group was part of a large protest earlier that same day outside the Section XI building in Smithtown, demanding their voices and concerns be heard.

Parents of athletes who came to the corner of Route 112 were just as upset about the situation as their children. 

“It’s their senior year, they already lost their junior season, so to have everything be combined next spring, and we still don’t know what the [infection rate] in January is going to be — we don’t know if this promise of January is even going to happen,” Danielle Deacy said. “You’re taking so much away from these kids … scholarships, recruitment. This is such a critical time for a lot of these kids that they’ve been playing since they were 5 years old.”

Deacy, the mother of Jake, a senior at Comsewogue High School, said with the numbers being what they are, and how COVID-19 does not impact young people as much as it does older groups, “the percentage of risk compared to what they’re losing is not worth it.”

When Section XI made its decision, it said in a statement to its website Sept. 11 that it was based on the potential for increased positive cases of COVID-19, reduced spectators, a lack of locker room and facility use, increased costs related to security and transportation, and the general well-being of athletes, parents, coaches and other staff.

Still, at least one member of the Comsewogue board of education wrote a letter in favor of those protesting, namely board president John Swenning. He said in a letter read out to the assembled parents and athletes that the district has had conversations with Section XI, adding that if schools remain mostly COVID-free, then athletes should be able to play before the expected Jan. 4 start date.

“Section XI acknowledged we should continue to have an open discussion with our superintendents and athletic directors to monitor the status of the health and well-being of our students,” Swenning wrote in his letter.

But for the students, who have already missed what was planned to be the original sport start date Sept. 21, every day that goes by is another loss.

“We want to play, we want the chance to have our seasons here,” Jake Deacy said. “Our spring seasons were cut short, we can’t let that happen again.” 

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File photo

Suffolk detectives are continuing to investigate an incident where a teenager was stabbed in Port Jefferson Station Monday night.

Police said that following a dispute with three teenage males Sept. 14, a 16-year-old male was stabbed multiple times on the soccer field behind Boyle Road Elementary School, located at 424 Boyle Road, at around 8 p.m. Police added that the assailants then fled on foot down Bedford Avenue.

The victim was transported to a local hospital for treatment of serious injuries. His name was not released as he is a minor.

Detectives are asking anyone with information on the stabbing to contact the 6th Squad at 631-854-8652 or Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS (8477).

The Pew Research Center released a report last year saying more than half of U.S. adults, 55 percent, at least some of the time get their news through social media. Photo art

While there were times when people would meet at the post office or corner store to discuss local happenings or gossip, much of that has been transferred online, specifically, for many communities, onto Facebook.

Facebook, which was originally designed for college students to judge the attractiveness of coeds, has since morphed into a social media giant. Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, is worth over $54 billion. In that time the site has gained that popularity; the population of the over 2.3 million Facebook users has also skewed older as now the average user is between the age of 25 and 34.

In a 2017 report by Pew Research Center and Elon University, experts in the technology world generally said they believe online discourse will be shaped even more by trolls and other bad actors. Anonymity, experts said, is a leading cause of the general negativity seen with online communication.

“The most you can do with a forum is provide guidelines of what’s appropriate and what’s not and try and induce some level of civility.”

— Rob DeStefano

But what should happen if that negative communication is with the person living down the street, or with a mother or father in the same grade as your own child?

It’s hard to estimate just how much work goes into maintaining these community pages, and even more so, keeping individuals’ posts from spilling over into name calling, anger or worse. Community group admins, some of whom asked not to be named in this article due to the sensitivity of their jobs or their work with the community, spoke with TBR News Media about the difficulty of keeping topics online from spiraling out of control, especially those that deal with politics. It is something many admins of pages who wish to keep talk civil deal with on a daily basis.

Karen Sobel Lojeski, a professor in the College of Engineering at Stony Brook University, has talked about the impact social media has made on the professional world, but she also coined the name, The Threshold Generation, or effectively the last generation of people, aged in their 20s and upward, who knew what it was like to live both with and without these connective technologies.

Many of those who run these community groups are a part of that so-called threshold generation, and have noticed what has happened to the general discourse over time. Rob DeStefano, a member of the Comsewogue school board and lifetime member of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community, created and has run the Comsewogue Community Facebook page since 2010. What started as a group of just a few hundred members looking to talk about what was working or not working in the school district and local community has become 5,400 members posting about everything from local happenings to medical advice to politics, though one’s mileage may vary on the last one. 

“It’s certainly gotten harder because of the different ways social media is used compared to how it was then, but you just try and hold true to what the intent of the page is,” DeStefano said. “The goal is to make sure everyone in the community knows of things that are happening locally or beyond.”

The “beyond” is where things get complicated. Every year the community is notified of the Terryville Fire Department’s carnival or route for Santa during Christmastime, but when neighbors start discussions on topics, for example, about recent police protests and rallies, the dialogue becomes rough, to say the least.

“Your heart hurts hearing the way some people talk to each other on social media because you know it’s very different than how they behave in person,” he said. “The most you can do with a forum is provide guidelines of what’s appropriate and what’s not and try and induce some level of civility.”

Worse, is when these groups where admins try to stay nonpartisan deal with rumors, or worse, conspiracy theories. In early May, a video called “Plandemic” made its rounds on social media. In a video that called itself a trailer for a larger documentary, former chronic disease syndrome researcher Judy Mikovits talked about a large organized effort of global elites to profit off infectious diseases, despite there being no tangible evidence of this widespread conspiracy.  

“Then, even walking down the street or watching my kids games with other parents you could feel the hatred and tension.”

— Brenda Eimers Batter

The Pew Research Center released a report June 29 with a survey of 9,654 U.S. adults about how many people see conspiracy theories in COVID-19 news. The report said one in five of those who often rely on social media for coronavirus news say they watched at least part of the “Plandemic” video, while a comparative 10 percent of respondents who said they don’t get COVID news through social media saw it. Among those who have heard of this conspiracy, a reported 36 percent said they think it is either definitely or probably true.

“Plandemic” spread to multiple Facebook groups in the local area, and though many admins delete posts sharing the video, it wasn’t before likely hundreds of members saw it. 

Usually, the most volatile discussions revolve around politics, but sometimes, even cases of a local school district issue can devolve into vitriol. What’s worse is when that animosity leaps the screen and starts impacting normal life. Brenda Eimers Batter, who admins the nearly 2,500-member Facebook group UNOFFICIAL INFORMATIONAL Port Jeff Villagers, said she has seen how online dialogue can have a real impact on normal life. In 2017, with the Port Jefferson School District asking residents to vote on a $30 million bond, Eimers Batter said things got “really ugly.” 

“Then, even walking down the street or watching my kids games with other parents you could feel the hatred and tension,” she said. “That’s when I stepped in and tried to clean it up.”

That specific Facebook group, the most popular of a village with a real-world population of just over 8,100 residents, has seen changes over time, including a recent name change to add the word “Informational.” Smaller splinter groups in the village have broken off from the most popular page specifically for politics or for more hot button issues. It still does not stop some from regularly posting about such issues anyway.

For DeStefano, the objective is never to silence community residents, though he has felt he has had to delete posts when they seem incendiary. He says he tries to remind people that despite the digital divide, they remain neighbors.

“You wouldn’t talk to each other like this if you were standing on line next to a person in your local supermarket — so why do it here?” the Comsewogue school board trustee said. “People tend to isolate their behavior on social media as being separate from their identity, but it’s not.”

Chris Friedl, of Backwoods Landscaping and a Comsewogue High School graduate, plants sunflowers for Comsewogue’s graduating seniors. Photo by Andrew Harris

Comsewogue school district is trying to leave its seniors with a little bit more than a diploma for all those who saw their last high school year cut short.

Assistant Superintendent Joe Coniglione and Superintendent Jennifer Quinn look at the sprouts of sunflowers in Jackie’s Garden. Photo by Andrew Harris

The district has planted hundreds of sunflowers in the high school courtyard, known as Jackie’s Garden after the late wife of former Superintendent Dr. Joe Rella, who in February also passed away. 

The seeds number over 320, and should bloom into massive golden yellow flowers by the fall. 

The plantings came together thanks to Chris Friedl, 26, from Backwoods Landscaping. A 2012 Comsewogue graduate, he said he was very empathetic to the 2020 graduating class who were missing out on so much as a normal senior year. 

“It sucks, there’s no other way to put it,” Friedl said. “Going through all they’re going through with all this adversity, it’s incredible.”

Andrew Harris, a special education teacher in the district, said he floated the idea to district officials earlier this year. Friedl jumped at the chance to help. He was also the person who donated material for Jackie’s Garden several years ago. He has come back now and again to provide small upkeep to the flower boxes. 

After clearing and cleaning the empty planting boxes, the district hosted a ceremony May 16 where students’ names were read as the landscaper planted the seeds.

Friedl asked if he could plant a seed for Joe and Jackie Rella. Though the garden was meant for students, Harris told him he could.

“He always remembered my name out of thousands of students,” Friedl said of Rella. “Nobody had a bad word to say about him or Jackie, which just says miles about the kind of people they were.”

A day and a half after they were planted, Harris said he came back to the garden. There, growing in the earth, he thought he saw weeds. Normally sunflowers take five to 10 days before one sees them start to sprout, but the two seeds planted for the Rellas were indeed springing from the earth.

“The hair on the back of my neck started to stand up,” Harris said. “I remembered how when I told Dr. Rella about this particular butterfly that kept coming back to our garden, even though we never had any butterflies before. He told me in his gruff Brooklyn-accented voice, ‘Andy, I believe with every fiber in my body that that is a sign from Jackie.’ I looked at the new sunflower sprout and had no doubt about what it meant.”

Official info on Comsewogue graduations is still to be determined, though students were delivered their caps and gowns this week.

Friedl offered some advice to seniors.

“Stay strong, the entire community is behind you, and keep your path,” he said. “The community really wants you to succeed.”

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Lily Brosseau, on guitar, and Sydney Antos, both Comsewogue alumni, play and sing to residents and nursing staff of the Woodhaven Center of Care. Photo by Kyle Barr

What a year it has been so far. 

Since the passing of former Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella back in February, the entire nation has been shook by what seems like a crisis after crisis. 

High school students Gianna Pelella and Faith Schlichting perform for the residents of Woodhaven Center of Care in Port Jefferson Station. Photo by Kyle Barr

But June 2, with school buildings closed and the community only now crawling out from under the rock of months of quarantine, district teachers and officials still found ways to honor Rella’s ideals of service above self. This year, students, faculty and alumni showed their support to a local assisted living facility.

Joe’s Day of Service, which was started in 2018 by special education teacher Andrew Harris, usually includes students, faculty and alumni supporting the community by participating in projects around the district. Past years included cleaning graves at Calverton National Cemetery, cleaning animal cages at local rescue shelters and singing to residents of the Long Island State Veterans Home at Stony Brook University. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year district leaders had no choice but to think of something different.

Around midday, just under 30 cars crowded with district residents drove through the Woodhaven Center of Care facility in Port Jefferson Station. There, cars honked horns and shouted their support to the residents and staff of the home, who like many assisted living and elder care facilities have seen months of lockdown, and residents are only now able to spend time outside. However, they must be wearing masks at all times out of their rooms, and visitors are still not normally allowed to enter the facility.

“In this time, with everything going on, I think this is wonderful,” said Patricia Cagney, a resident of the assisted living facility and longtime PJS resident. “We need celebration and good remembrances, and that’s what this is all about.”

While the passing cars showcased Comsewogue pride, two sets of musical artists performed for the assisted living residents and to the nursing staff of the long-term care facility. 

Cars lined along Woodhaven Center of Care in Port Jefferson Station to offer their affection to those inside. Photo by Kyle Barr

High school students Gianna Pelella and Faith Schlichting performed renditions of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” and Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Lily Brosseau and Sydney Antos, who both graduated from Comsewogue in 2018, presented Drops of Jupiter’s “Train,” with Brosseau on guitar and Antos on vocals. Both said their lives were impacted when college campuses shut down, but they said they plan to attend again when campuses hopefully reopen in the fall. 

“We felt really close to Dr. Rella, and we really wanted to participate in this day of service,” Brosseau said. 

Laura Marinus-Menno, the director of recreation for Woodhaven, said the last months have been especially hard for the residents, but this show of love and compassion from the school community has “lifted the spirits of our residents who are still under quarantine,” and called it “inspirational” as residents came out of their cocoons from being in isolation since March.

She said she is a Comsewogue alumni, as well as her children, and said Rella was “an amazing man.”

District staff and students also performed other acts of community kindness June 2. Residents made signs thanking local businesses, painted kindness rocks to display uplifting messages for essential workers and wrote messages for the community in chalk on their driveways. The school district finished planting sunflowers at Jackie’s Garden at the high school. There is a flower for each senior graduate they will be able to take home when they’re fully grown. 

Harris said such days as this stand in direct opposition to the pandemic and the horrors witnessed for the past several months.

“It’s the antithesis of everything going on,” he said.

Comsewogue and Port Jefferson high schools. File photos

With school district budgets and board elections on the docket for June 9 with an extension from New York State, this year’s crop of district spending and revenue plans have had to contend with many unknowns. 

In fact, budgets may change from now until June 1, as the current pandemic holds much in the air. COVID-19, by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) estimates, could result in approximately $61 billion less revenue for New York State from 2021 to 2024. The hope rests on the federal government supplying the state with emergency funding.

“It’s very, very hard to plan for the unknown,” said Glen Arcuri, the assistant superintendent for finance and operations at the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District.

The governor has three look-back periods for revising state aid. The last period is Dec. 31.

Though one certainty is the start of next school year will weigh heavily on officials, as many still do not know when students will again walk through facilities’ doors.

Additionally, complicating this year’s votes is everything must be done outside of polling locations. Suffolk County Board of Elections, based on an executive order, will mail ballots to each residence with a prepaid return envelope. A household may contact the district clerks for more information about ballots.

There are still many unknowns, even as districts craft budgets. Nobody could say whether students will have a fall sports season, whether students would have to wear masks and remain apart in the classroom, or whether there will even be the chance for students to learn in-person, instead
of online.

Numbers floated by Cuomo for state aid reductions have not inspired much hope. The governor said without state aid, school districts could see an upward of 50 percent reduction.

“A 50 percent reduction would be very painful for our school district, it would be insurmountable for any other school district,” said Port Jefferson Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister.

All that comes down to whether the federal government will provide aid to the state for it to maintain current budget figures. 

All budget information provided is the latest from the school districts, though it is currently subject to change. If it does, an update to this article will appear in the June 4 issue. 

File photo by Elana Glowatz

Port Jefferson School District

The Port Jeff School District is for the most part staying to the course established by previous budget presentations. 

Next year’s budget is looking at a 1.83 percent increase from last year for a total of $44,739,855. This year’s tax levy, or the amount raised through property taxes, is $37,356,454, a $457,630 or 1.24 percent increase from last year.

The district is expecting to receive $3,863,212 in state aid, a marked increase of 2.54 percent from last year. However, district officials said while the amounts have been set, there is no word on whether the state will reduce those amounts midstream into next school year. 

“We’ll be working under a lot of uncertainty, from month to month to quarter to quarter,” Leister said. 

Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said the district has been watching the “political push and pull” of state aid reductions closely. 

“The swing in what that state aid is, is concerning to us, and the difficult part is it’s an unknown,” she said. “I think that needs to be drawn upon. There is a lot of advocacy happening to make sure there is some federal money to help with this large deficit.”

Leister added that legislation allowing the district to put aside unspent money from this year into next year’s in excess of legal reserve limits would also help.

Leister said this year’s budget increases are mainly due to the standard labor agreement increases, an increase in the retirement contribution rate and a decrease in debt services. Continuing building improvements included in the budget are the second part of the security vestibule capital project, a new replacement retaining wall to the technical education building, a replacement to the middle school heating system. 

This year’s capital reserve will also be used for some of these projects, including $2 million for continuing work on the high school roof replacement project. 

In terms of reserves, the district expects to use $3.4 million, leaving $14.5 million in reserve at the end of next year. This could be used “to help offset a reduction in state aid,” Leister said. “This is our rainy day funds, and I would definitely classify that as a rainy day.”

Because of the ongoing glide path due to the LIPA settlement, the district will experience a 3.5 percent loss. This is compared to last school year, where the loss was 6 percent. As a result of this smaller loss, there will be an extra $48,185 in power plant tax revenue at $1,477,185.  

Enrollment is continuing on a downward path. In 2014, total enrollment sat at 1,197, which became 1,115 in 2018 and turns to 1,052 in 2020. Along those same lines, Port Jefferson is reducing staff by three teachers, and a total equivalent of five full-time employees overall. That is subject to change as scheduling goes on.

The district also provided estimates for tax rates based on a property’s assessed value. A home with a $12,500 assessed value could expect a $20,466 bill at the 3.5 percent tax rate. On the lower end, a home assessed at $1,600 would see a $2,620 bill. The budget hearing will be hosted May 12 at 7 p.m.

Ballots must be returned to the district clerk’s office no later than 5 p.m. June 9.  Should additional ballots be required at a residence, the district clerk can be contacted by either email at [email protected] or by phone at 631-791-4221.

Comsewogue High School

Comsewogue School District

Comsewogue district officials said they are taking their savings from not operating to the same extent the last few months and, instead of putting it into the fund balance, are carrying it over to next year, boasting that doing so results in a 0 percent tax increase.

District residents will be asked to vote on two propositions, one is the budget of $96,635,581 and the other is take $1,500,000 from the capital fund and use it for high school improvements including two synthetic turf fields for baseball and softball, high school boiler room HVAC repairs and otehr classroom renovations. 

Associate Superintendent Susan Casali said the district is allocating an additional fund balance from operational savings from the closure of the buildings to this year’s budget, resulting in the no tax increase. Last year’s $57,279,755 tax levy, or the amount the district raises from area taxes, will then be this year’s as well.

Despite this, the budget largely remains the same from the district’s March presentations. The $96.6 million budget is an increase of 2.8 percent or $2,660,826.

“We still have to plan,” Casali said. “We’re assuming currently we’ll be opening on time in September.” 

Overall, programming is set to remain the same, the associate super said. The biggest budget increases come from instructional costs, with $819,111 extra going to regular school instruction and an additional $803,412 for special education. The district is adding one full-time psychologist/social worker and one other full-time employee to the technology department.

The district is also adding an additional section to the fourth grade at Boyle Road Elementary.

In terms of state aid, the district is seeing a planned reduction of approximately $150,000, or -0.5 percent to $32,550,000. Last year the district received $32,700,000.

The question of whether or not the district will even receive the full amount of this reduced sum still depends on whether or not the state will hold onto its current budget. 

Due to the rampant change in schedules for the actual budget and board of education vote, this year Comsewogue will be hosting its budget hearing June 1, with the actual vote scheduled for a week later, June 9.

Ballots must be given or posted for receipt by the clerk’s office in the state-issued return envelope by 5 p.m. June 9. Casali said it’s best for residents to catch the mail by June 2 to make sure it arrives on time.

This post was amended May 26 to better clarify the mail in ballots.