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Paul Ryan

Screenshot from portjeff.com/opentodayvideo/

Over a decade since disbanding, the Port Jefferson Civic Association was back in action Monday, Jan. 9.

Eighteen village residents filled the Meeting Room of the Port Jefferson Free Library, discussing several pressing local issues and establishing their priorities as a body.

Michael Mart was a member of PJCA under its previous configuration. He shared a history of the organization and why village residents have banded together in the past.

“The history and importance of the Port Jefferson Civic Association, as I recall it, was to serve as a vehicle by which individuals come together,” Mart said. “Its concerns are essentially local in nature: streets, safety, recreation, parks and open government.”

He added the civic association “acts to represent opinions, concerns and agendas of its members to the local governing body.”

Mart said PJCA has functioned in various capacities in the past. At one time, it had produced a regular newsletter, held meet-the-candidates events, offered scholarships to local students and even took the village government to court.

PJCA was “a very active group,” Mart said. “It starts small here, like in this room, and makes itself known to other residents, offering to give voice to their concerns.”

The members of the newly formed civic gave introductions, outlined their reasons for joining and discussed their priorities. 

Ana Hozyainova, a 2022 candidate for village trustee, organized the event. She stated her goals for the civic body.

“I hope that we can have a group that can be a force for discussion and greater transparency in the village,” she said. 

Myrna Gordon discussed communications between the village and residents and other environmental themes. “I would love to see better transparency or communication and more of our village residents getting involved in the important issues that we face,” she said.

Other residents echoed the call for greater transparency within the village government. 

Among them, a 2022 trustee candidate for the Port Jefferson school board, Paul Ryan, identified a supposed divide between the public will and the decisions made by elected officials.

“Since I ran for the BOE last year, I’ve noticed a lot of disconnect between what people want and think is important and what is happening, the decisions that are being made,” he said. “I hope as a civic association, we can channel that voice more strongly and more effectively to make positive change.”

Suzanne Velazquez, candidate for village trustee in 2021, spoke of the “sense of apathy that has crept in” among residents. She also considered the civic association as fulfilling a necessary community end. 

“I have had a lot of good conversations about the need to revitalize the civic association,” the former trustee candidate said.

Holly Fils-Aime, president of the local environmental group EcoLeague, described continual development within the village as among her priorities. 

“We really have to consider how overdeveloped Long Island is,” she said, adding that residents must be vigilant about looking out for their forests, wildlife and the natural environment.

Steve Velazquez echoed this sentiment. He criticized the alleged overdevelopment of Upper Port, arguing that plans for the property that formerly accommodated PJ Lobster House are “not in character with this village.” Velazquez expressed a desire to see a “true historic district” within Port Jeff village.

In common, those in attendance voiced similar concerns over the perceived lack of transparency, environmental issues and the implementation of projects without resident input. Bluff stabilization at East Beach, according to Mart, encompasses each of these themes.

Referencing the $3.75 million the village recently received to construct an upper wall between the East Beach bluff and the Port Jefferson Country Club clubhouse, Mart said the money “is not the issue — the issue is that we didn’t get to vote on it.”

Also in attendance was guest speaker John Turner, conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society. He advocated for a villagewide open-space program along with a sustainability plan.

Turner pinpointed specific examples on Long Island of progress concerning the environment. He cited the novel irrigation system at Indian Island Golf Course in Riverhead, which uses wastewater from a sewage treatment plant to irrigate the golf course. 

“That wastewater is no longer dumped in the river and the bay,” Turner said. “The nitrogen is all taken up by the grass,” averting contamination of local surface waters. He suggested the village could explore comparable wastewater reuse opportunities.

He added, “The other beauty about this water reuse, from a water quantity perspective, is that we have water quantity challenges on the Island. … Using that water for the golf course means that 66 million gallons of water stay in the ground.”

Expressing her vision for the civic, Gordon said the organization could prevail so long as its members stay persistent. “You have to stay the course,” she said. “We can’t get tired. We have to support each other, we have to ask questions, and we have to go in front of our village trustees and ask, ‘What is going on?’”

File photo by Elana Glowatz

In a public referendum held Monday, Dec. 12, Port Jefferson School District residents voted down two ballot measures totaling $25 million in school infrastructure improvements.

With nearly 1,000 district residents turning out in wintry weather, just 24 votes would separate the yeas and nays on Proposition 1, a $23.1 million infrastructure package that targeted various facilities throughout the school district. The measure failed by a narrow margin of 498-474. Proposition 2, a $1.9 million proposed artificial turf field at the high school, was defeated 734-239, a roughly 3-1 ratio against the measure.

In an email statement, district superintendent of schools, Jessica Schmettan, offered her commentary on the outcome.

“While the district is disappointed in the results of the Dec. 12 bond vote, we thank all who participated,” she said. “The small margin of defeat of Proposition 1 was particularly upsetting, as the challenges that exist with our aging building infrastructure remain a top concern for the district and, as such, will require further discussion for how best to proceed.”

‘I think it’s very shortsighted by this community.’

— Margot Garant

Mayor Margot Garant, a PJSD alum, publicly supported both measures leading up to the referendum. In an interview, she also expressed disappointment at Monday’s results.

“I don’t think that’s the Port Jeff way to let things get so deteriorated,” she said. “I think [the Board of Education] came up with a doable plan, and it was the time to do it because the community is still being subsidized by the LIPA power plant.”

The mayor added, “The schools are so important to this community. It’s what people look for when they come to live in Port Jeff. It’s one of the pillars that makes this place so special. … Just because you don’t have a child in the district doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be investing in this community.”

Leading up to the election, New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), whose district encompasses Port Jefferson, supported the infrastructure upgrades within Proposition 1. In a phone interview, he referred to Monday’s school election outcome as part of a regional electoral trend and a “reflection of the post-pandemic moment.”

“The escalating cost of food and fuel have put a lot of people on edge,” he said. “I would guess that what we’re seeing is a reflection of the general anxieties about inflation.”

Though Englebright was sorry to learn that the voters defeated the facilities improvements, he was less amenable to the artificial turf proposal. He regarded the potential risks associated with synthetic turf as an unsettled science, with crumb rubber possibly having “some contamination issues,” along with added costs for maintenance and replacement. “It’s a very expensive proposition for those reasons,” he said.

Englebright was not alone in his reservations about the turf proposal. Paul Ryan, a former BOE candidate, was a vocal opponent of Proposition 2 in the months leading up to the vote. In an email statement, Ryan said Proposition 2 likely impacted the outcome of Proposition 1.

“I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that Prop 1 failed to garner enough community support,” he said. “I believe it failed because of the inclusion of Prop 2,” adding, “I suspected that enough of the residents would be upset by the turf that they [would] vote down the whole bond.”

Monday’s negative vote has prompted questions about the long-term prospects of the school district. For Garant, residents have an active stake in maintaining school facilities, which she said closely correspond to property values.

“Your home values are in direct correlation and are so connected to the value of the schools,” she said, adding, “I think it’s very shortsighted by this community. I’m disappointed, and I want to encourage the school board to continue their efforts, go back to the grind and maybe come back again.”

Some have advocated for PJSD to merge with a neighboring district due to its declining student enrollment in recent years. Garant regarded this idea as misguided, maintaining that support for the school district is in the village’s long-term interest.

“The miscommunication that’s going out there is that we can just merge with another district,” she said. “If we did that, our taxes would double immediately. I think that’s what people don’t really understand.”

Englebright noted the important place public schools occupy within the greater community. However, he suggested residents may need to take time for the broader economic trends to settle before taking on additional expenses.

“That school district has a long and distinguished history of service,” the assemblyman said. “People in Port Jefferson are rightly proud of their schools,” but adding, “I think that we have to give it a little time.”

Ryan again took on a different tone, insisting that future referenda within the district will require closer coordination with those supporting these projects financially.

“The administration and BOE need to demonstrate that they are able to hear the residents’ concerns, prioritize only essential infrastructure and take a fiscally responsible approach to spending,” he said. “If they do not, they may find annual budget votes contentious.”

Graphic from the district website

Port Jefferson School District residents are confronting a major public referendum on Monday, Dec. 12.

Earlier this month, the district’s board of education passed two resolutions to put the combined $25 million in capital bonds projects out for a public vote. 

Now district officials are making their pitch to the general public, with three bond tours scheduled for October and November. Approaching this weighty decision, the community is evaluating its options.



  • Capital bonds vote to be held Monday, Dec. 12
  • Proponents of Proposition 1 say facilities improvements are necessary to draw families into the district and maintain property values
  • Critics question the environmental risks and cost effectiveness of artificial turf in Proposition 2, district stands by the measure

Proposition 1

The lion’s share of the two ballot measures will go toward Proposition 1, a $23.1 million infrastructure package to modernize the district’s aging and outdated facilities. Such improvements target heating and ventilation systems, renovations to the locker rooms and team rooms, and relocation of art, technology and music rooms, among other reconfigurations.

In an email statement from Jessica Schmettan, superintendent of schools, she outlined how infrastructure improvements will help the district meet its academic standards. 

“Many of the existing items are original to the buildings, most dating back to the 1960s,” she said. “Our mission in Port Jefferson has always been focused on academic rigor and personalized instruction for all students. … In order to focus on these areas, we need to modernize and renovate aging facilities.”

Mayor Margot Garant expressed support for these investments. For her, it is prudent to invest now while district taxpayers are still subsidized by the Long Island Power Authority. 

“We are in a position right now where we have five years left on our glide path,” Garant said, referring to the gradual decline of LIPA subsidies in the coming years. “For every dollar that we spend, LIPA is still picking up 50 cents on that dollar. These facilities need to be protected, and they need to be invested in.” The mayor added, “If we don’t make those investments, that’s going to start to have impacts on property values and on whether people want to come and live here.”

New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has followed the matter closely. In an exclusive interview, he likened investments in school facilities to an oil change on a car: Residents can either pay now or pay in the long term.

“I think the mayor is right,” Englebright said. “This is a moment. If you miss that moment, then the buildings deteriorate and they become less appropriate for the next generation of students going into them.” He added failing to recognize these needs is “short-sighted thinking.”

‘There is still an open question as to whether these artificial fields are a) without biohazards and b) cost effective.’

— Steve Englebright

Proposition 2

The second ballot measure varies widely from the first in terms of scope and cost. It has also drawn significantly more opposition from the public and even members of the Board of Education. 

Proposition 2 concerns the $1.9 million proposed crumb-rubber artificial turf field for athletic competitions. This proposal also comes with continual costs for replacement every eight-to-12 years, a sticking point for some.

Paul Ryan, a district resident and former BOE candidate in 2022, is among the most vocal opponents of this measure. “My position on Prop 2 is that it is financially irresponsible in this economic climate of high inflation,” he said. “It’s a heat sink and will fill our harbor with microplastics, less safe than grass and less enjoyable for most of our community to play on.” He added that the process to put out the turf field for public referendum was “conducted in an ethically dubious manner.”

Ryan is not the only one against the turf field proposal. During a special meeting of the BOE on Tuesday, Sept. 13, numerous other residents raised objections to Prop 2 on similar grounds.

Citing the potential for environmental or ecological harm, Englebright, a geologist by training, expressed in his interview reservations about using artificial turf.

“The underpinnings of the artificial turf is rubber, and it usually comes from waste tires,” he said. “That has proven to be a source of contamination.” The state assemblyman added, “In the universal sense — I don’t mean specifically for this school district — there is still an open question as to whether these artificial fields are a) without biohazards and b) cost effective.”

On the other hand, during the Sept. 13 meeting, many parents and students showed support for the turf proposal, contending that it would foster school pride and bolster a sense of community identity.

Regardless of the mixed reaction, the school district remains supportive of Proposition 2. “The district is equally supporting both propositions on the ballot that represent a variety of needs,” Schmettan said.

Long-term uncertainty

During this year’s trustee election for the Board of Education, candidates debated the topics of declining student enrollment and the chance that PJSD will merge with another school district in the coming years. [See “Port Jeff BOE candidates tackle the issues,” The Port Times Record, May 12.]

Though these debates remain unsettled, Schmettan holds that the capital bonds will help draw families into the district while meeting its academic aims.

“There is no doubt districts across Suffolk County are experiencing a decline in student enrollment,” she said. “However, merging with another school district erases our unique opportunities and increases school tax rates.” The superintendent concluded, “We need to improve facilities to match our outstanding academic programs and explore ways to attract families with children to the area.”

Garant spoke in similar terms. She believes Port Jefferson remains a desirable location to raise a family. However, preserving a high standard of living and quality public schools comes at a price.

“When you go for a bond initiative, it’s a project of significant proportions,” the mayor said. “I’d rather see us make an investment and secure the quality of life that we have. And that will be up to the voters.”

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.