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Jarrett Behar

Commack HIgh School. Photo from Google Maps

By Harry To

The Commack school district is in the midst of adopting a new budget for the 2021-22 school year. The revised budget reduces the planned tax increase from 1.99% last year to 0.99% and establishes funding allocation for the district with a 2.69% budget-to-budget increase. There will be a budget hearing this Thursday, May 6, with a final vote on Tuesday, May 18.

Along with the new budget vote, incumbent Jarrett Behar will face off against longtime Commack resident Gustave Hueber for a spot on the Commack school district board of education.

Jarrett Behar

Jarrett Behar

A board member for six years, Behar has put an emphasis on keeping tax rates low while also focusing on ensuring a smooth transition back to in-person instruction.

“We will continue to run the board in a fiscally conservative manner to ensure that students can achieve the futures that they want while keeping tax rates low,” he said in a phone interview.

While currently serving as the vice president of the board, Behar has resided in the Commack school district for 15 years. In an email, he touted his lengthy experience, as well as his extensive community involvement.

“That wealth of community involvement allows me to understand the concerns from all corners of Commack,” he said. “I am able to listen to ideas and concerns from a variety of different sources and advocate to the district administration on behalf of our community.”

In his personal life, Behar is a practicing attorney. A partner at a Hauppauge-based law firm, Certilman Balin, he graduated from New York University School of Law in 2000 and served as the competitions editor on the NYU Moot Court Board student academic journal.

He has children attending Commack schools, a major reason for his candidacy.

“I have two children in Commack schools and more than anything, I want them and all children in my hometown to receive a top-quality education,” Behar said. “I truly care for this community and its residents, working hard to serve our people in one capacity or another for almost a decade.”

Gustave Hueber

Gustave Hueber

The challenger, Gustave Hueber, is also an active community member.

After graduating from Binghamton University and Queens College, Hueber began his 34-year career in education that includes being a school psychologist, assistant principal and, currently, principal of The Three Village Academy — an alternative high school in the Three Village school district.

Hueber has a long history in Commack. Having resided in the district for 22 years, he has had three kids go through the Commack school district, with his youngest graduating high school in 2020.

“All three received an excellent education at Commack and were well prepared for their college experience,” he said in an email.

Throughout his time in the district, he has been a coach for Commack Little League, PAL football and basketball at Christ the King CYO in Commack. Hueber attributes this experience to his children being active in sports.

Like his opponent, he has put an emphasis on reopening schools. However, he is critical of how Behar and other board members have handled their reopening plans.

“The reopening plan, which was proposed and implemented during 2020-21 by the current BOE members and the superintendent, was a disappointment to many,” he said. “After closing school last spring for almost four months, their reopening plan continued to leave students sitting home every other day since September, with no plan to have them return.”

He said that neighboring school districts dealing with a similar situation to Commack were able to return to five-day-a-week instruction while others returned to full instruction for the spring semester.

Another plan he hopes to implement is an alternative school program, which is similar to the one that he currently spearheads at The Three Village Academy. The program is aimed at kids who deal with a variety of issues such as depression, anxiety and bullying.

“The kids in my experience get along great with one another,” he said in a phone interview. “They all have stories to tell, and it’s just a great environment.”

He believes that his insight will provide an invaluable perspective on a school board where educators are sparse.

“The people on the board are lawyers, engineers and that’s great, but my 34 years as an educator means I know the questions to ask,” he said. “The way I see it is if I wouldn’t support something as a parent, why would I advocate for it as a board member? A lot of the time there’s a lot of emphasis on how something can be done without thinking about the consequences.”

The budget and board of education votes will take place May 18 at Commack middle and high schools from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

After 50 years of trials and tribulations, the Commack School District is forging ahead with a plan to use the Marion Carll Farm on Commack Road for educational purposes, but some activists are not happy with the decision. 

Since July, the district has been renting its barns to Long Island University. The site is expected to become the region’s first veterinarian school of medicine by September 2020.

“We expect animals to be on the site by February,” said Superintendent Donald James.

But, Cynthia Clark, a concerned citizen, who formed the Marion Carll Preserve Inc. said she has asked the New York State Attorney General’s Charities Bureau to intervene. Her goal, she said, is to acquire, restore and sustainably run the site in perpetuity according to benefactor Marion Carll’s wishes. 

“For 50 years, the district has squandered this gift,” Clark said. “It’s a crime! A cultural and ethical crime.” 

Clark said that she has commitments with Harbor Harvest to buy organic produce grown on the 9-acre site and can secure grants to restore all buildings. But the district unanimously chose the LIU proposal over her application earlier this year. 

LIU’s proposal, according to an LIU spokesperson, met both the wishes of Marion Carll’s Last Will and Testament along with the Commack School District’s standards for financial viability. The district stated the plan will include providing valuable educational programs to the children of the district. James said that the district expects to implement a shadowing program that will provide an opportunity for students to look at career options that they might not otherwise consider. Animals on the premises will include cows, goats and chickens. The district also expects to offer lessons on beekeeping to the students. 

The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has not been adequately maintained.  Carll’s will, granting the property to the district, stipulates maintaining the buildings as historical museums for educational purposes. Clark sounded the alarm this past summer, she said, when the property was being cleared without appropriate permits and as work commenced to replace the barn’s roof. The state Department of Education has since issued a stop work order.

The home on the Marion Carll Farm in its current condition.

In an interview on the Marion Carll Farm, James said that he expects to have all needed permits before the year’s end. LIU’s rent of $15,000, he said, will fund the stabilization of the house and barn and be used to properly catalog and preserve the contents of the building. After that, the district said it will remove the antiques within the farmhouse while restoration occurs.  

The house is not part of the lease with LIU, but the district is counting on the rental income to finance repairs. LIU, James said, has already spent $700,000 repairing the historical red barn and replacing its roof and clearing dead trees and overgrowth. The university will also cover expenses related to installing historically correct fencing, complete repairs to the barn and other buildings and lend labor to restore the historic home. Over the next 10 years, LIU is committed to spend $175,000, James said, and the district is committed to spend $350,000, which is the savings associated with LIU maintaining the entire property. 

Clark, who is a preservation specialist for leather clothing and furniture, estimates that the restoration project will cost $2.5 million plus another $1.5 million to restore the furnishings in the house. The preserve, she said, applied for nonprofit 501(c)(3) status last year, but the application is still pending. She said that she’s already spent thousands of her own money on the project, but expects to be able to secure the funds she needs through grants and said in a telephone interview that she is aligned with a successful grant writer with a “100 percent track record.” She could not provide the name. 

Clark’s plan was one of several options that the district considered earlier this year. The district ultimately chose the Long Island University lease, largely because of its long-term economic viability.  

Long Island University’s College of Veterinary Medicine spokesperson Mary  Studdert stated in an email that it has received a Letter of Reasonable Assurance from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Education (AVMA-COE) enabling LIU to immediately begin accepting applications for the fall 2020 semester. At full enrollment, the veterinary school will serve 400 students, with 100 in each graduating class and will be the first College of Veterinary Medicine in the New York Metropolitan area.

The conflict with Clark arises just years after the district was sued by the Carll heirs to revert ownership back to the Carll heirs because of the district’s failure to fulfill the will’s obligations. The district ultimately won the 2012 case in summary judgment on statute of limitation grounds, stating that the heirs were 12 years too late. Restrictions on the district’s obligations were lifted to clear title, according to board member Jarret Behar. James said that the district could now legally sell the site, if it wanted to, but said the board is committed to its preservation and use as a historical museum with educational purposes. 

The house, according to the district, is structurally sound, but part of the building is still taking on rain. The main structure is covered with a rubber membrane to control leaks, but James said in an email that more leaks formed in different places and need to be fixed. The stop work order, he said, is now yet another hurdle that interferes with the district’s efforts to properly maintain the site.

One of many structures on the 9-acre Marion Carll Farm.

Clark said that she can reveal no details about her conversations with the attorney general’s office but said that she is hopeful. 

The Carll family was one of Huntington’s earliest settlers and Marion Carll was Commack’s first teacher. She died in 1968 and willed the site to the district. The site was occupied by a Carll family member until 1993, as stipulated in the will. The district leased part of the site to BOCES from 1990 to 2000 and sought to sell the farm to developers for $750,000 in 2010, but the public referendum failed. 

Over the years, different school boards have had different ideas on how to use the property. James, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, said that the board is committed to doing what’s best for the district. 

Trustees decide to leave Verity’s seat vacant for 2018-19 school year, will operate with four members

Commack BOE with former trustee Pamela Verity, seated front left, pictured at the start of the 2017-18 school year.

A month after a controversial investigation led to the resignation of a Commack board of education member, the price tag on that review has finally come through.

The Commack school district spent an approximate total of $72,443.24 on the four-month investigation of former trustee Pamela Verity. The board of education announced it intends to remain at four out of five members until the May 2019 school elections.

Board Vice President Jarrett Behar initially announced the district’s special investigation cost more than $60,000 at the Sept. 6 meeting. When the total was first announced, Verity said she found that number to be low compared to what she had seen before resigning from the board.

“I saw the bills prior to being off the board, and they definitely exceeded that number,” she said.

However, school officials said the district has since received additional invoices and corrected its initial estimate bringing the total bill up to more than $72,000.  

“What was not included in those [initial] costs were the costs of legal issues leading up to the
investigation,” said Laura Newman, the assistant superintendent for business and operations. “Those costs were reflected in the April billing by Lamb & Barnosky, totaling $10,585.06. In addition, there will be an additional bill of $1,798.97 reflecting August charges from Lamb & Barnosky.”

The law firm of Lamb & Barnosky, which serves as council to the district, was paid nearly $49,000, including disbursements, from April through August for work done relating to the investigation, according to documents obtained by TBR News Media. Attorney Jeffrey Smith, who had been hired on contract as an independent investigator at a $150 hourly rate, was paid $17,550 for writing the 80-page report released Aug. 2. His fees were included in the disbursements under the June invoice from Lamb & Barnosky. 

In addition, Albany-based law firm Girvin & Ferlazzo was paid approximately $13,500 to verify information that was written in the report and to prepare charges against Verity. Lastly Philip Maier, a hearing officer, received $3,600 in fees paid to attend the first two days of hearing, which did not take place.

Superintendent Donald James confirmed the money came from the legal section of the school’s 2018-19 budget. This is out of the total 2018-19 budget of $193,222,796.

School officials accepted Verity’s letter of resignation at an Aug. 1 special meeting. This came after a four-month investigation into allegations she had disclosed confidential information privy to her as a board trustee and removing school district property from Marion Carll Farm. 

Board members discussed their options for the vacancy left by Verity at an Aug. 16 special meeting. Eugene Barnosky, the district’s attorney, said trustees could host a special election, appoint a new member themselves or leave the seat vacant. The trustees voted 3-1 to remain at four members until the next election cycle in May 2019 with member Jen Carpenter casting the lone dissenting vote.

Carpenter said she worried that without some sort of election it could harm the board’s ability to build trust in the community.

“If there’s a way to get [information of the vote] out there — with word of mouth or on social media — if we do vote and do decide to go in that direction, you’re electing us to be here, share those decisions and be here with you,” she said.

Behar said he feared there would be low turnout for a special election, considering that only 6 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot on the district’s  2018-19 budget and, historically, significantly less people have voted in prior special elections.

“For somebody to serve for that limited period of time to get that low of a level of community participation, the cost benefit analysis is just not there,” the vice president said.

James said the district did not want to rule out community involvement in the decision process, but it did not want to spend an estimated $12,837 to host a new special election.

Several community members spoke at the Aug. 16 meeting advocating for a special election.

“It’s ridiculous,” East Northport resident Dan Fusco said. “The district didn’t want to pay $13,000 to host special elections but they’d spend [tens of thousands] on an investigation? That doesn’t make sense.”