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Irene Gische

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Ward Melville High School. Photo by Greg Catalano

By Andrea Paldy

If this were a normal spring, Three Village residents would have voted this week for the 2020-21 school budget and board of education trustees. But in the wake of a global pandemic requiring school closures and social distancing, business has been anything but usual.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) pushed the school budget votes and board elections back from their May date to June 9 and said that “in an effort to keep New Yorkers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic,” voting would be conducted by absentee ballot. That means all 32,984 registered voters in Three Village will receive ballots with paid return postage to vote on the district’s budget and select three board trustees from a crowded pool of six candidates.

Incumbents Inger Germano, Dr. Jeff Kerman and board vice president Irene Gische are running to keep their seats against engineer and start-up founder Shaorui Li, David McKinnon, a professor of Neurobiology at Stony Brook University, and Vinny Menten, director of parts sales at Gabrielli Truck Sales.

Candidates are listed below in the order they will appear on the ballot.

Inger Germano

Inger Germano. Photo from candidate

Germano, 48, is running for her fourth term. In an email, Germano noted that when she first ran in 2011, the district faced seismic changes, including the implementation of Common Core, teachers annual professional performance review and the tax cap. Those past challenges position her to make informed decisions about staffing, programs and other changes that the district may encounter as a result of “uncertain financial times,” she said.

A health care administrator at Advanced Cardiac Care, Germano said her experience as a health care compliance officer and managing health care facilities will help when it’s time to make decisions about reopening schools. She mentioned additional issues the district would need to tackle. Chief among them, Germano said, was reopening schools “with the priority being the safety of the students and the staff,” emergency preparedness, online instruction and using technology “to supplement and enrich” student learning.

“The changes need to be made while ensuring that staffing and program changes due to budget cuts are made with minimal effect to the students,” said Germano, who has lived in the district for 14 years with her husband and two daughters.

During her tenure on the school board, Germano created the Facebook group, Three Village Connection, to foster communication and transparency between the community and board members.

She has served on the North Shore Montessori School board and volunteered for the Suffolk County Girls Scouts, St. James R.C. Church, Three Village Basketball and the Setauket Fire Department.

Irene Gische

Irene Gische. Photo from candidate

Gische first served on the Three Village school board from 1983 to 1995 and was president for two years. She ran again in 2011 and was elected. During a phone interview this week, Gische said she is running to “make sure that the programs that we have in place continue and that we continue to look for ways to improve the opportunities we give our kids.”

“The district was very different” when she ran in 1983, she said, explaining that it had considered eliminating foreign languages at the junior high schools. The vote was 4-3 “and that was what pushed me … that was too close for comfort,” said Gische, 74.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth and improvements in our programs and in our schools over
the years.”

A Three Village resident for 47 years, she’s proud of the district’s ability to prepare its students for the world and points to honors classes, strong academic teams and student acceptance at top colleges as examples of the district’s success. She doesn’t want any of these things to “fall by the wayside” in any situation, but especially not as a result of the pandemic, said Gische, who was the head teacher at University Preschool for 25 years.

Gische also highlighted the board’s successful budgeting. Even while “keeping a pretty tight budget, we have been able to maintain the programs that prepare our kids to move on, and that’s very important to me,” she said.

Gische and her husband have two daughters who graduated from Ward Melville and five grandchildren. Three have gone through district schools. Gische noted, though, that she counts among her honorary grandchildren the many junior high and high school theater kids she’s sewn costumes for over the years.

Jeff Kerman

Jeff Kerman. Photo from candidate

A dentist with practices in Miller Place and New York City, Kerman and his wife have lived in Three Village for 47 years.

“It is a wonderful community, and I want to keep it that way,” he said during a phone interview.

Elected in 2011 after serving from 1999 to 2005, the former board president acknowledged the challenges the district faces with remote learning, possible budget cuts and reopening schools safely. However, he said, the district has had “lots of issues that are very difficult to deal with, and we’ve managed to deal with them in our district very well.”

“We have excellent administrators,” he added, and they present the board with good advice to make good decisions.

“Whether school starts in September, our primary concern is the health of the kids and the staff,” he said. Also, paramount, is providing them with a good education, the former captain in the U.S. Army said.

Kerman, 75, said he first ran for the board to ensure that his two sons, Ward Melville graduates, received an “excellent” education. In his current bid, he said he wants to maintain the district’s reputation, while continuing to help it improve.

One way would be to introduce foreign language education in the elementary schools, he said. Kerman also spoke of his respect for the scientific support for a later secondary school start time, which is why he thinks it was important to form a task force to look into whether a change would be feasible for the whole community.

Kerman has been treasurer for 20 years of the nonprofit NYACAO Corporation, an organization that helps dental students, is a member of the American Dental Association and a founding member of the Suffolk County Dental Society and the Bronx County Dental Society.

Shaorui Li

Sharui Li. Photo from candidate

Li, 45, points to her research projects, funded by the Department of Energy and NASA, and work in the private sector and for national laboratories as experiences that will make her an effective board member. Her background has required her to work with budgets, operations and personnel management.

“I would strongly support initiatives that allow our students to explore our local professional landscape, to learn more about available career opportunities and be able to shape their own,” Li said in an email.

She suggested career workshops from the Three Village Industry Advisory Board, art programs through local art galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and technology and research programs through Brookhaven National Laboratory and the Stony Brook University Small Business Development Center. Through such collaborations, she hopes to enrich the curriculum and provide opportunities for all students to explore careers suited to their unique talents.

Li also has suggested taking advantage of district parents’ diverse talents and expertise as a resource, especially amid looming budget concerns.

Students should be the driving force of budget decisions, Li said. Teachers, whom she recognized as “excellent experts of traditional teaching methods,” are also critical, and investing in them will benefit students, she said. Li advocates for providing teachers with professional development to help them with the abundant and sometimes overwhelming online resources and programs that are available.

The six-year Three Village resident and mother of two district students has been active in professional organizations and the local community. She serves as the local society chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, has mentored the Gelinas Science Olympiad team, and has volunteered for local PTAs, the Long Island Chinese American Association, Three Village Civic Association and the Three Village Parents Alliance.

David McKinnon

David McKinnon. Photo from candidate

McKinnon, 62, is a 30-year resident and father of a current district student and two other children who attended Three Village schools.”

As a board member, the Stony Brook University professor said he would like to reform the elementary math curriculum, increase technology education and serve all students, especially those in the “middle” — kids who “have a lot of potential, but they are largely dependent on the school system to develop that potential.”

McKinnon proposes an “opt-in” program for elementary math learning that would “use specialist math teachers and would build on the success of the SchoolNova program,” which introduces basic algebra concepts at an early stage. SchoolNova is a local enrichment program at Stony Brook University that offers math, science, world language and art classes. Following this model would help prepare students for the math they encounter in junior high and would also enable them to learn computer languages at an earlier age, he said. It also could improve employment options for students, he added.

“Given how central computers are to our lives, I don’t think anyone should leave school without having at least a basic understanding of how a computer is controlled by a program they have written,” he said in an email.

Aware of the budget challenges that the pandemic poses to the district, McKinnon said he would work to make sure that the core mission of educating students in the fundamentals and providing them with practical skills is not “degraded” with budget cuts.

In addition to the curriculum reforms, McKinnon, who is married to Barbara Rosati, the founder of the most recent later-start-time movement in the district, is a supporter of the cause. Both he and Rosati are members of the Three Village Parents Alliance, which formed as an advocacy group to address various issues that affect the schools, including a later school start.

McKinnon said he is running in part to see a board that is more “responsive to parent or teacher-initiated proposals that can improve the learning environment and academic outcomes.”

Vinny Menten

Vinny Menten

In addition to helping the district provide an “excellent level of education that our students deserve,” Menten, 62, said he would like to help balance the budget to reduce waste, lower taxes and increase transparency.

A 50-year Three Village resident and 1975 Ward Melville graduate, Menten points to business degrees, certification in human resource management and experience working with budgets larger than $100 million as preparations for a seat on the board.

His ties to the community run deep. He owned an auto-repair shop in the district for 15 years, is the former commissioner of the Three Village Basketball League and was a substitute teacher at BOCES in automotive technology. In addition to having two daughters who graduated from Ward Melville High School, his wife of 35 years has been a special education aide in the district for 20 years. His father was a district carpenter.

“Cutbacks are inevitable,” he said in an email, alluding to the brewing budget storm, but he believes they can be achieved by “trimming the fat” first. “And thereafter, all parties involved should be willing to put a small level of skin in the game for the good of the school and the community, just like the private sector is doing,” he said.

Since enrollment has been declining for many years, Menten said that “with some innovative analysis and some persevering execution,” the district could use the savings to “limit the increase to the taxpayers far below the tax cap, while protecting the educational excellence that our students expect and deserve.”

The May 3 board meeting gave Three Village residents another chance to learn about the 2017-2018 school district’s budget before heading to the polls April 16. Along with the budget, they will also vote on three school board trustees; all are incumbents who are running unopposed.

The board trustees on the ballot are Dr. Jeffrey Kerman, current board Vice President Irene Gische and Inger Germano. This will be the third three-year term for each since joining the board in 2011.

Jeff Kerman. Photo by Deanna Bavinka

Kerman, a dentist with practices in Mount Sinai and New York City, is the father of two Ward Melville graduates and served previously as the board’s president, in addition to a six-year term from 1999 to 2005. He currently sits on the board’s audit and facilities committees.

Well known for sewing costumes for the district’s theater productions, Gische is also a parent of Ward Melville graduates and grandmother of current Three Village students. She was head teacher at Stony Brook University’s preschool for 25 years. Prior to her current service on the board, Gische was a board trustee from 1983 to 1995, during which she was president for two years. Gische currently chairs the board’s policy committee.

Germano, the mother of two Three Village students, is president of medical management and billing company Universal Medical Billing, Corp. A Three Village resident since 2005, she also served on the North Shore Montessori School board and owns Global Alliance Realty with her husband. Germano sits on the board’s policy committee.

At the May 3 board meeting, Jeffrey Carlson, assistant superintendent for business services, addressed the issue of the $204.4 million budget that stays within the 3.4 percent cap on the allowable tax levy increase.

Carlson announced that the district will receive a $715,000 increase in state aid, up from the governor’s original proposal of $247,000. There will be no cuts to programs or services to stay within the cap, he said. In fact, the new school year will bring new programs.

As residents go to the polls, one of the most discussed additions is the free, district-run preschool for four-year-olds. The prekindergarten will replace the district’s current fee-based preschool, run by Scope Education Services. The district will now offer morning and afternoon sessions that run two and a half hours, five days a week, at Nassakeag Elementary School. 

Inger Germano. Photo from Germano

Some residents have questioned the district’s decision to subsidize a free preschool. Gloria Casano, who said her taxes have increased by $13,000 since purchasing her home in 1994, raised the matter at the meeting.

“I would like to know when you can give taxpayers a break,” she said. “With continuing enrollment decreases, you’re instituting a free pre-K?”    

Board president Bill Connors responded that the preschool and other new programs were not “frills” but lay the foundation for the district’s students. 

“We are very concerned about costs because they affect all of us in our community,” he said, adding, however, that the board is also concerned about maintaining the quality of educational programs.

Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich said the preschool and the additional programs would give students “the opportunity to be successful.” Also, she said, preschool is shown to save money in special services that would be needed later. 

“Early intervention is priceless,” she said.

Carlson said that it is estimated that the cost of the preschool will add about $20 to the average tax bill.

Other new academic offerings will include fourth-grade chorus and daily band and orchestra for ninth-graders, as well as additional secondary level electives, an expansion of the high school writing center and the introduction of math centers at the junior high schools. 

The budget covers small increases in staffing at the elementary level — up to 4.2 full-time equivalent positions (FTEs), Carlson said. The preschool will be staffed by three FTE elementary positions that will be reassigned to the preschool because of declining elementary enrollment. If the preschool reaches its capacity of 200 students, the district will hire two more teachers.  As of last week’s meeting, enrollment was at 111, requiring 3.5 FTEs, Carlson said. 

Irene Gische. Photo by Deanna Bavinka

With more students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), 2.2 FTEs will go toward elementary special education, health and physical education. The secondary level will see an increase in staffing of 1.15 FTEs, Carlson said.

Three Village will also hire a drug and alcohol counselor to work with students and their families. Additionally, the district will add a supervisor of technology and information systems to help pilot its one-to-one device program, an initiative to provide junior high students with notebook computers. Two FTEs will be added to the grounds and maintenance staff.

The district’s capital projects, which are reimbursed by the state at a rate of 66 percent, will include the installation of generators at the elementary schools and field renovations at Ward Melville High School and P.J. Gelinas Junior High. Also planned are building repairs at Ward Melville and Gelinas, as well as district-wide plumbing and bathroom renovations.

Voting for the budget and trustees will take place on Tuesday, May 16 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Residents zoned to vote at Arrowhead, Minnesauke and Nassakeag elementary schools will vote at Ward Melville High School. Those zoned for Mount Elementary School will vote at R.C. Murphy Junior High and those zoned for Setauket Elementary School will vote at P.J. Gelinas Junior High.