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Jim Polansky

On hand for the March 24 press conference were Bob Vecchio, Nassau Suffolk School Boards Association executive director; Jim Polansky, superintendent of Huntington school district; Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island; state Assemblyman Doug Smith (back); and state Senators Monica Martinez and Kevin Thomas. Photo by Angela Porwick/Health and Welfare Council of Long Island

Long Island advocates received support from elected officials and school administrators last week to call on New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) to include a program that will save all families money regarding school meals in the 2024 state budget.

Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, addresses attendees at the March 24 press conference. Photo by Angela Porwick/Health and Welfare Council of Long Island

Proponents gathered at Jefferson Primary School in Huntington Friday, March 24, to make their plea to the governor at a press conference. The call comes after federal waivers that provided free breakfast and lunch for all students during the COVID-19 pandemic ended last June.

Speakers asked for the governor to provide fully funded school meals for all students in the 2024 state budget. The move could potentially help nearly a quarter million students on Long Island alone.

The Healthy School Meals for All New York Kids program has received bipartisan support in both the state Senate and Assembly. Senators and Assembly members have allocated $280 million in funding in their budget proposals. Supporters say such a program that would provide free lunch and breakfast to students can have a broader effect, taking pressure off food banks and positively impacting the community as a whole. Speakers at the press conference said that many families whose children are eligible for free meals at school are too embarrassed to apply, while others, who are not eligible due to strict income thresholds to qualify, still experience financial stress. 

Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, said while universally free meals at school was something families could count on during the pandemic, once the federal program ended, 243,000 children in Suffolk and Nassau counties lost their access to free school meals. She added HWCLI is part of a broader statewide coalition of more than 250 organizations asking the governor to include the Healthy School Meals for All program in the budget.

“We know that throughout history we get these moments in time where our actions can really magnificently transform future generations to come,” Sanin said at the press conference. “Today is one of those moments.”

She added that many on Long Island suffer from hunger, poverty, and economic and family stresses that prevent them from receiving proper nourishment.

“When every child in New York can access meals at school, we will be actively reducing hunger,” Sanin said. “We will be actively reducing underachievement. We will be actively reducing poor health outcomes. We will be actively reducing behavioral challenges.”

Jim Polansky, superintendent of Huntington school district and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said the economic crisis that has followed the pandemic has made the “universal free meal programs more important than ever.”

“Many people in our community, throughout the region and across the state are struggling to put food on the table, and it may take years for those struggling to recover financially,” he said. “Food insecurity has unfortunately become commonplace.”

He added some districts in the state are able to continue providing free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision program, yet there are also districts that do not meet the CEP criteria. CEP provides a federal non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas.

“No child should go hungry, and no child or family should be stigmatized because they qualify for benefits resulting from family income status,” Polansky said. “Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that children who arrive to school hungry can develop significant mental health issues, including depression and anxiety as well as physical health issues, which lead to difficulties in focusing on academics and other school activities.”

The New York State 2024 budget is due April 1.

Superintendent Jim Polansky. File photo by Rohma Abbas

According to a New York State Comptroller’s report, Huntington school district has been overestimating their budget costs for the past three years.

Because of those miscalculated expenses, the recent audit says tax levies may have been greater than necessary from 2012 to 2015, resulting in the district collecting excess money from taxpayers that became surpluses in their fund balance.

“District officials consistently presented, and the board approved, budgets which overestimated expenditures for these three years,” state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s (D) report said. “As a result, district officials spent an average of approximately $4.7 million less than planned each year.”

A fund balance is the surplus of budget funds at the end of the year, which can be set aside as savings until the total reaches more than 4 percent of that year’s budget. According to the comptroller’s office, if the reserve is higher than that, the money must be spent to lower property taxes, pay for one-time expenditures or reduce debt.

To avoid exceeding that 4 percent, the district rolled over the excess fund balance with the alleged intent of using the funds to finance district operations in the next budget cycle — but according to the audit that never happened.

“Total actual revenues exceeded expenditures by as much as $4.1 million and no amount of appropriated fund balance was used to finance operations,” the audit states. “As a result, the district’s tax levy may have been higher than necessary to fund district operations.”

The comptroller’s office said that between the false rollovers and overestimated costs, Huntington school district appeared to be under the 4 percent maximum — when really it wasn’t.

“As a result, the board and district officials may not have adequately presented the district’s financial condition to its residents.”

The report recommended that the district “develop procedures to ensure it adopts more reasonable budgets to avoid raising more real property taxes than necessary.”

In a response letter to the comptroller’s office, Huntington Superintendent Jim Polansky explained his position on the report.

“Our budget is an estimated spending and revenue support plan,” Polansky said. “As such, the district will continue to appropriate fund balance at a level estimated to address a potential operating deficit, but will always strive to spend within budgetary constraints and access available revenues to offset that spending.”

Polansky cited increasing enrollment — due to the reopening of the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School in 2013 and the opening of a housing development within district boundaries in 2014 — as the main drivers of increased budget appropriations.

School board President Tom DiGiacomo said Tuesday that the district would take all of the comptroller’s suggestions seriously.

“The administration and board have already taken and will continue to take the actions recommended by the comptroller in terms of responsibly analyzing historical trends in expenditures and revenue streams, while also considering fiscal uncertainties in particular areas,” he said in an email.

District administration and the board are in the process of drafting the budget for the 2016-17 school year. The next budget meeting is on March 21 at the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School.

Montesano crucial to success of Abrams after it was shut down for gun violence

Rae Montesano has served as principal at the STEM school since 2014. Photo from Jim Hoops

Huntington Superintendent Jim Polansky is searching for a new leader for the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School following the news that Principal Rae Montesano will retire at the end of the school year.

“Rae has been instrumental in helping me to put this school in a place where it has found tremendous success, and great things have happened for children since she took over as principal,” Polansky said in an interview following Monday night’s school board meeting. “She will be missed based on all of the work and effort that she has put forth.”

Montesano has held the position since July 2014, though she served as the acting principal beginning in January of that year. She was previously the district’s chairperson of science and instructional technology for grades seven through 12.

“I’m just very appreciative of the confidence that the board had in me to make me the principal and of the wonderful opportunities here at Huntington,” Montesano said.

The Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School opened in September 2013, three years after the building, then called the Jack Abrams Intermediate School, closed in July 2010 due to recurring gun violence in the area. Between that spike in gun violence and when the school reopened with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, police reported they had successfully reduced crime around the school.

“On a personal level if it wasn’t for Rae, I don’t know if we could have gotten this off the ground,” Polansky said during Monday’s meeting. “I know I couldn’t have done it myself. Rae has been right there with everybody every step of the way.”

Montesano has a degree in psychology from Cornell University and a master of science in education from Hofstra University, according to a press release from the district. She worked at various districts before landing in Huntington, including Harborfields Central School District.

I’m going to miss the children,” Montesano said in an interview Monday night. “I’m certainly going to miss my colleagues and the parents. Everyone’s been very supportive of me in the district.”

School auditorim dedicated in honor of late advocate as family members, former colleagues pay him tribute

Meredith Spector hugs Jim Polansky at a memorial celebration in honor of Adam Spector that saw the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School auditorium dedicated in his name. Photo by Rohma Abbas

The memory of the late Adam Spector will live on at the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School.

On Monday night, friends and family of Spector, who lost a battle with cancer last year, gathered to dedicate the school’s auditorium to him and to tell stories about a man who endeared many at a venue for which he cared deeply.

There was hardly a dry eye among Spector’s colleagues.

“I think about Adam every single day,” said Jennifer Hebert, vice president of the Huntington board of education. “There’s not a day that goes by that he’s not in my heart.”

Huntington Superintendent Jim Polansky’s voice broke as he offered personal words about Spector.

He said when he first got to know Spector, the two had no idea they grew up in the same hometown. Polansky jokingly said he recently flipped through his high school yearbook to find Spector in it, “featured more prominently” than he was.

“Adam was always one to keep me on my toes with his questions and most importantly his enduring sense of humor,” Polansky said. “It was always apparent that he loved Huntington and that this school district had a very special place in his heart. He was one of the strongest people I ever met.”

Other school board trustees also offered touching words.

“He was my enzyme, my catalyst into being involved in the board of education,” Trustee Xavier Palacios said, his voice breaking. “His spirit will always live here. I’ll never forget what he taught me.”

Meredith Spector, Adam Spector’s wife, said renaming the auditorium was a fitting tribute to her husband, who always wanted to see the school reopened after it was shuttered several years ago following a rash of crime in the area. Spector made reopening Jack Abrams one of the main thrusts of his campaign for school board. She called the board’s decision to reopen the school as a STEM school “turning lemons into lemonade,” and something Spector was greatly honored to be a part of.

“It’s truly an honor and Adam would be so happy,” she said in an interview before the meeting. “He was so happy and proud to be part of the board of ed and such a great team. They turned what was a bad situation, the closing of Jack Abrams Intermediate, into something so wonderful, the STEM school.”

The new name of the auditorium, the Adam Spector Memorial Auditorium, is affixed in bold letters to a brick wall outside the auditorium. In a celebratory gesture, family members flanked by a group of people ripped the protective covering off the brand new sign.

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Huntington High School marked its 154th annual commencement on Friday, June 26.

The Blue Devils celebrated in style, marking the occasion with a processional, speeches by a number of students and school officials, words of wisdom from Valedictorian Caitlin Knowles and Salutatorian Joe Saginaw and much cheer from excited parents. It was also longtime Principal Carmela Leonardi’s last graduation, as she celebrates retirement this year.

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The New York State Capitol building in Albany. File photo

By Jim Polansky

As the dust attempts to settle following two weeks of state assessment administration, preceded by months of politically charged debate and activism, I’ll, once again, express my plea that the state powers-that-be reflect on the situation and its root causes and attempt to redirect their decision-making toward what is in the best interests of the children of New York.

I can attest to the fact that the administrators, teachers and staff members in Huntington clearly understand their responsibilities. They continue to develop and refine their crafts but have never lost sight of the individual differences demonstrated by the students in their classrooms or buildings. They comprehend the concept of college and career readiness and recognize their roles within a systemic approach to a child’s education. They have instructionally prepared their students in alignment with the new standards, while continually striving to instill in students a love of learning. They have done everything possible to put aside their anxieties in the face of statewide educational unrest, rapidly moving evaluation targets and mandates that seemingly appear out of nowhere. I imagine all of this is characteristic of the majority of schools and districts throughout the state.

I’d like to think that some learning has been accomplished or perspective gained from recent events. For example, broad-scale changes are likely to meet with failure if necessary preparations are not made or if measures are not put into place to facilitate those changes. (The cliché applies — one cannot build a plane while it is being flown.)  No amount of federal monies is worth the potential outcomes of a rushed and, therefore, flawed change process.

I’ll add that the importance of accountability and evaluation should not be minimized. But an unproven system based on unproven measures will surely contribute to inaccurate outcomes — both false positive and false negative.

Education Law §3012-d has been passed. It requires the state’s Board of Regents to redesign the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) process by June 30 and subsequently requires districts to submit a new plan by Sept. 1. The bulk of plan development would be slated for a time when key stakeholders may not be available.

There are numerous education-related issues facing New York at this juncture. These issues must be approached with common sense and, again, with an eye toward what is best for our students. Why not begin such an approach with accepting the recent recommendation and allowing districts until at least September 2016 to build valid and sensible APPR plans?  Give districts the time, resources and capacity to do this right. Provide them with the guidance and support they need.  Leave threats of withholding aid out of the equation.

Education in New York is broken as a result of misguided and rushed initiatives that have left districts to their own devices to address state policy issues and misinformation spread throughout their communities. It is imperative that those in Albany reflect on what has happened and take the critical steps needed to restore transparency, close the wounds and repair what was and could return to being one of the finest educational systems in the country.

Jim Polansky is the superintendent of the Huntington school district and former high school principal.

Spending plan includes funding for 25 positions

Jim Polansky file photo by Rohma Abbas

The Huntington school board voted to adopt a $120.3 million proposed 2015-16 budget that funds nearly 25 additional positions, including a new high school assistant principal, as well as two additional soccer teams at J. Taylor Finley Middle School.

Board members adopted the spending plan at a meeting on Monday night, but not without lengthy discussion on one last-minute budget amendment to add girls and boys soccer teams to Finley. A majority of board members were in favor of including about $38,000 in funding for the two teams, something for which some parents have been clamoring. However, board President Emily Rogan and Vice President Jennifer Hebert were against the move. The pair said they felt the money could better benefit students in other ways, like funding a full-time primary school librarian, an additional psychologist at the high school or putting the money toward robotics.

“While I am a big supporter of sports … I don’t necessarily think that adding another soccer team to the middle school is going to reach as many kids as some of the other things we’ve talked about,” Rogan said.

In the end, trustees Tom DiGiacomo, Bill Dwyer, Xavier Palacios and Bari Fehrs supported adding the teams. DiGiacomo said parents have long been requesting the teams.

“This is not an anomaly,” he said. “This is something that has been in the conversation for several years now.”
The 25 additional positions are a mix of instructional, noninstructional, administrative and contingency staff, Superintendent Jim Polansky said in an interview on Wednesday morning. The superintendent said 11.7 positions are instructional and six are noninstructional, the latter including some teachers’ aides. The number also includes the addition of a new high school assistant principal position, a district Science, Engineering, Technology and Math, also known as STEM, coach and five contingency positions. Contingency positions are included in the budget in case they’re needed based on enrollment or other factors.

In Monday night’s budget presentation, Polanksy unveiled the district’s state aid figures. The district will be getting an additional nearly $1.5 million in aid from the state next year, bringing the total to about $14.1 million.

The aid will allow the district to pay for five contingency positions, at a cost of $352,275, the high school assistant principal at $193,859 and the district STEM coach at $89,361. Those costs include salary and benefits, according to Polansky’s presentation.

An additional assistant principal is needed to assist with managing the 1,400-student high school and collecting data on teachers. Polansky said currently, two administrators oversee operations there, and if one student is having a bad day, an administrator could spend an entire day working on the issue, leaving the high school in the hands of one administrator.

If approved by voters on May 19, the budget would increase by 2.36 percent over this year’s spending plan, from $117.6 million to $120.3 million. The budget stays within a state-mandated cap on property tax levy increase. For the average resident with a home assessed at $3,622, taxes would increase next year by about $184.

The budget also includes a proposition asking voters to allow the district to spend just over $1 million in capital monies it already has in reserve to pay for state-approved projects.

The school board budget hearing is on May 11, and the budget vote and trustee election are on May 19.