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Ellen Boehm

By Nasrin Zahed

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

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

Capital projects

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

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

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

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

Public comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic from PJSD website
By Aidan Johnson

The Port Jefferson School District Board of Education held its monthly meeting on Tuesday, July 11, at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School.

During the “old business” section, Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan discussed several capital projects the voters approved in May 2022.

During the school year, the board has to get its plans approved by the New York State Education Department. Once approved, the projects can go out to bid.

A small section of the high school’s roof needs to be renovated and was awarded to a responsible bidder.

Elementary school pool

For the elementary school pool, even though NYSED approved it, the Suffolk County Board of Health still needs to approve it, asking for several redesigns of certain items, including where drainage sites are to be located. 

Therefore, the project could not go out to bid, and as of this meeting, the pool will likely not be getting done this summer.

The school budgeted $561,000 for bleachers, but the price is coming in at just under $1 million, with some of the bids being for a smaller-scale bleacher than the downsized 650 seats (there are currently around 1100 seats) that the school would prefer.

Continuing supply chain issues are also getting in the way, and the bleachers may take anywhere from 10 to 12 weeks for production.

The pool is still open for student use.

Middle school drainage/BOCES

The retaining wall and drainage for the middle school have yet to have a bid come in under the $2.3 million allocated from the capital reserves. 

Because of this, the board does not expect the retaining wall to be done this summer. The school architect is looking at redesigning the wall with poured concrete faced with stone instead of using pricier cinder blocks.

During the public comment section of the meeting, the parents of a child who will be attending the elementary school in the upcoming year expressed their concerns about the BOCES program that has been brought into the building.

‘Our primary concern is to keep things safe for all students.’ ­

— Ellen Boehm

Currently, BOCES is renting five classrooms as integrated for this summer and then four classrooms when September starts, Schmettan said in an interview.

“Those students will be integrated for recess, and then they will have gym, art and music with our teachers, but by themselves,” she said. “It adds revenue to the district and some differently abled children.”

The father of the child shared his worries about letting non-PJSD employees, along with the new students, have “unfettered access to this building,” he said.

“These are students that we don’t know, whose IEPs and potential issues we are not allowed to know by law,” the father said.

“We, as Port Jefferson, have no control over these particular students, and these are employees that are hired by BOCES, not Port Jefferson,” he added.

In response, BOE president Ellen Boehm said that over the past week, the school has been operational with the BOCES students, and there has not been a situation.

“Our primary concern is to keep things safe for all students,” she said. “At this time, there are no red flags.”

The Port Jefferson father responded that Boehm’s judgment was based on only one week in the summer when the Port Jeff students were not in attendance.

He also asserted that the BOCES agreement would not bring the district the financial benefit previously stated in the May meeting.

“Not including your potential chargebacks, Port Jeff will only see an average of $43,000 per year throughout the three-year lease, not the $105,000 that was estimated and listed in the budget proposals back in January as leases for Spring Street with no mention of Scraggy Hill,” he said.

However, Schmettan clarified why the board’s estimate is correct in her interview after the meeting, saying, “There’s a lease agreement for the actual space, which is what [he] was referring to, and then there are chargebacks for the teachers, so it does still estimate to about $100,000.”

“He is just estimating the cost of the actual physical space, but there’s also the cost of the employees associated that our teachers are providing instruction for,” the superintendent further explained.

Newly-graduated Royals display their diplomas. Photo courtesy PJSD

The Earl L. Vandermeulen High School Class of 2023 received their diplomas during the 129th commencement exercises on Friday, June 23. 

Principal John Ruggero welcomed those in attendance while Student Organization President Lola Idir led the Pledge of Allegiance. The string orchestra then performed the National Anthem, followed by congratulatory words from Student Organization President Amy Whitman. 

Members of Earl L. Vandermeulen High School’s Class of 2023 during the school’s 129th Commencement ceremony. Photo courtesy PJSD

Dr. Frank Andriani, father of student Frank Andriani, gave a heartfelt address acknowledging the district for providing opportunities to students and preparing them for the world once they graduate.

Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan then addressed the Class of 2023. Class President Alexa Ayotte presented the traditional class gift, and Valedictorian Olivia Schlegel shared kind words with her fellow graduates.

Ruggero then presented the Class of 2023 to Superintendent Schmettan and Board of Education President Ellen Boehm. Each student walked to the podium for their diploma while Ruggero highlighted their personal achievements and postgraduation plans. 

The newly-graduated students then stood and tossed their caps in the air, marking a successful conclusion to their high school years.

Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, above, will serve as the polling site for this year’s board of education election. File photo

By Raymond Janis

As election day approaches, candidates for the Port Jefferson School District Board of Education had an opportunity to share their thoughts on the major issues facing the district.

During a virtual panel on May 9, candidates Ellen Boehm, Randi DeWitt, Paul Ryan and write-in candidate Don Pollard each spoke in turn. The candidates covered a wide range of subjects from declining student enrollment to possible redistricting schemes to infrastructure investments and more.

Ellen Boehm

Boehm has served on the Board of Education for 10 years and is currently president. Commenting on her many family members who graduated from Port Jefferson schools, she said, “The royal blood runs thick in our family.”

Throughout her time on the board, Boehm has maintained active involvement in several clubs and volunteer organizations. She has taught religious classes at the Infant Jesus R.C. Church, planned the centennial celebration of Port Jefferson High School and is a self-proclaimed sports mom, arts mom and class mom.

“Volunteering really has given me enjoyment while connecting with the students and other parents in the community,” she said. “I am running again to continue to serve the students and families of Port Jeff and to help keep our great programs great.”

Boehm said building a consensus among community members will be the biggest obstacle facing the school board in the coming term. Although some have suggested a possible merger with another school district, Boehm sees opportunities for district expansion through redistricting.

“If we can somehow redistrict, we increase the [number of] families and potentially increase our enrollment,” she said, adding, “We have to start thinking bigger than how we are falling apart. There are things that have to be done with the infrastructure … but we have to identify the things we treasure in Port Jeff.”

Boehm favors the redistricting approach over any potential merger with a neighboring district. If Port Jeff were to merge, Boehm believes the district would lose much of its identity. “We all know what happened when Mount Sinai pulled out,” she said. “To me, a merger would be the last thing I would want to do, but I would really like to look into expanding the district.”

Randi DeWitt

DeWitt has been a teacher in the Mount Sinai School District for 24 years, teaching a first grade inclusion class for the bulk of that time. She has been on the Port Jefferson school board for three years. 

DeWitt has served on the policy and curriculum committees of the school board and this year chaired the facilities committee. Currently she serves on the executive board for the Port Jefferson prom, which she said jokingly is “probably more time consuming than anything that I have ever done in my entire life.”

A long-time resident of Port Jefferson, she described the many ways in which she has immersed herself into the community culture. “I enjoy playing softball on Tuesday nights and volleyball and golf … and tennis,” she said. “That’s something that I really enjoy doing and that I love about our community.”

DeWitt considers declining enrollment and aging infrastructure to be the two greatest problems facing the district. 

Declining enrollment is an issue which affects the community as a whole, she said, adding that infrastructure investments are necessary to keep the district competitive.

“We have a school with an outstanding reputation, but I really do think that our facilities are in need of some modernization,” she said. “We have some [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance needs that have to be met, some safety concerns across our buildings and grounds and … in order to draw those young families we really need to look at the exterior and interior of our schools and we really just need to be appealing.”

On the topic of a possible merger, DeWitt concurred with Boehm. “I went to Port Jeff and have a very strong sense of passion for our district,” she said. “I just couldn’t imagine a Port Jeff student or athlete wearing anything other than Port Jeff. That would be tough.” She added, “I definitely would never want to lose our sense of identity.”

Paul Ryan 

Ryan went to Scraggy Hill Elementary and Port Jefferson Junior High before attending The Stony Brook School. For nearly 20 years, he was away in China studying to become a practitioner of Chinese medicine, then returned to Port Jeff.

While Ryan was in China, he taught English to Chinese students. When he returned to the United States, he filled a vital need during a critical time in the community’s history, serving as polling inspector when some seniors had left their posts in fear of the COVID-19 virus.

“When there’s an opportunity, I do my best to step up and that’s why I’m stepping up for the school board,” he said. 

Ryan said building a relationship between the community and the school will be essential to keep the school district operating through this period of declining enrollment. He hopes to identify a prospective niche that will help the district draw more families to the district. 

“We know that people move to Port Jefferson for the special needs program,” Ryan said. “So is there a way that we can build off of something like that?” He added that additional language programs would represent another possible niche and could offset some of the diversity and inclusion problems that the district is also facing. 

Ryan considers redistricting unrealistic. “The people that I have talked to about redistricting say it’s very unlikely that it would happen,” he said. “I don’t think there’s another school district around us that is going to give up its student population.” He added, “As far as mergers go, we can avoid a merger if the school and the school board … have strong community support.”

Don Pollard

Relatively new to the district and the area, Pollard has lived in Port Jefferson for six years. His background is in finance and he now runs a small brokerage firm. 

Before he moved to Port Jeff village, Pollard volunteered at Habitat for Humanity. He was active in Caroline Episcopal Church of Setauket, working to grow the parish and its finances. He helped to successfully organize a Halloween dance for the school and has served on the parents advisory board for sports, helping to expand the district’s athletics program. 

For Pollard, the greatest obstacle facing the district is declining enrollment. “In three years, when we have 60 kids in a class, everything else is really secondary because we won’t have a school district, or it’s going to be really difficult to maintain a school district,” he said.

Pollard proposed creating a task force between local government and the school district to map out a course of action which can better address the enrollment dilemma. He said mitigating the enrollment problem will require joint efforts between the school board, local government, village residents and parents. Pollard also suggested that strengthening the athletics department could help to curb declining enrollment as parents would have less incentive to send their children off to private schools with stronger sports programs.

On the question of a possible merger, Pollard said the board must find ways to prevent this scenario. “That should be first and foremost,” he said.

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.