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Peter Van Middelem

Mount Sinai parents have been asking to move fifth-graders from the middle school back to the elementary school. File photo by Erika Karp

The Mount Sinai community sent a clear message May 17 — they’re happy with the trajectory of the district. Three incumbents were re-elected to serve on the board of education and the district’s budget passed with 80 percent support.

Although turnout wasn’t quite what the district expected, the voters who did head to the polls overwhelmingly approved the $59,272,525 budget for the 2017-18 school year, with 1,007 for and 251 against.

“I’m very happy that it passed,” Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said. “We have great programs here. We can maintain those programs. We made the AP Honor Roll two years in a row, almost every team right now is in the playoffs, our music program is better than ever, so to be able to keep those programs is great, but we’re not resting on that. Now we can get to work on bolstering our elementary reading program, we have a new principal coming in who has high expectations. There are programs we want to put in place that a lot of our kids need in the elementary school.”

He commented on the 200 person drop in voter turnout.

“I’m not happy,” he said. “We have 9,000 eligible voters. I’d like to see 500 to another 1,000 approve it so we have everyone together.”

Incumbents Robert Sweeney (1,013), Edward Law (866) and Peter Van Middelem (860) were all re-elected. Challenger Michael McGuire, who ran last year, nearly doubled his 2016 results, with 597 votes.

“I am honored and humbled that the community decided to re-elect me … to try to do my best for the residents and students,” Law said. “I’m looking to bring back the same stability and fiscal discipline while expanding our programs … to bring students more opportunities.”

For Van Middelem, that’s what it’s all about.

“It’s all for the community,” he said. “First and foremost on all our minds is doing what’s best for the people here.”

Law addressed the challenges the district is facing.

“Whether it’s infrastructure and building repairs, our programs, our class sizes are getting smaller,” he said, noting a shrinking student population. “It’s now about how we maintain or keep on enhancing our programs given our fiscal financial constraints. And that’s what I hope to continue to work on.”

The district will maintain its K-12 programs, including the recently established full-day kindergarten, advanced placement offerings in the high school and its recently established Columbia Writing Program for  2017-18.

The spending plan for next school year includes funds for an academic intervention services teacher in reading, a second security guard, an additional nurse and three new courses — virtual enterprise, college accounting and culinary arts.

Sweeney said he is excited about the new offerings.

“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “Maybe we’ll have neighboring districts who will be interested in sending their students and maybe they have programs we would be interested in.”

He said he’s looking for ways to improve the district.

“We need to start looking at how we can innovate,” he said. “We can’t rely on the state to take care of us.”

He said with teachers and staff who are willing to take on the challenges, he’s proud to see how far the district has come.

“You go back in time, this was a feeder district,” he said. “We had two little schools and we weren’t a big deal. This little district, 2,100 students, leads in AP, in colleges we go to, championships in sports. This district has started to really show how to grow.”

Sweeney said the district is hiring a new elementary school principal with a Columbia Writing Program background, to enhance what already exists, and the Socratic method is used to help students talk through challenges in the high school, and he’s hoping to bring the same system to the middle school level.

“I feel very strongly about this community,” Sweeney said. “I’m very proud and honored to serve. It’s a great school district. It requires real work and smart decisions. The community needs to realize how important it is … this is our town. I live on the other side of the high school and we pick to live here. We didn’t think about this house versus that one, we picked to live here because of this school district. I dare say if you asked many of out community members, that’s what they did.”

Mount Sinai High School. File photo by Barbara Donlon

In Mount Sinai, four candidates — three incumbents and one newcomer — are vying for three at-large seats on the school board.

Robert Sweeney

President for five of his six overall years on the school board, Sweeney wants to stay on top of the district’s finances and continue to give the community a voice in how their children are educated.

The father of five and lawyer by trade has lived in Mount Sinai for 15 years and serves on the Eastern Suffolk BOCES advisory committee as well as the executive board of the Maritime Explorium children’s museum in Port Jefferson.

Sweeney said he’s running for a second term as a result of his deep commitment to the school district.

“Mount Sinai doesn’t really have a main street, so the community is the three school districts — that’s where my interest is,” Sweeney said. “I want to continue to be community-involved and have a say in where education is directed. I think the state education department in Albany is trying to take away a lot of the local control of school districts that were always meant to be community based.”

Sweeney said he ran for the board six years ago because he was concerned about taxes in the district. Admitting he was still concerned, Sweeney wants to continue to ease the burden on the taxpayers.

“From day one on the board, I’ve advocated for long-term financial planning,” he said. “While I was president, we never pierced the tax cap … I’ve had my own law practice for 30 years and in running a business, you pay attention to money coming in and going out. We have to understand what revenue we receive in the school district and work within our means.”

Edward Law

Law has served the board for the past six years, three of which he served as vice president. A former coach in the district’s intramural youth soccer program, he works as a management consultant who helps organizations transform themselves either by implementing computer systems to be more efficient or cutting costs — which, he said, lines up with what he’s brought to the board.

“My involvement over the past six years has brought a lot of transparency and fiscal discipline for the public,” Law said. “We’ve been able to keep our taxes and costs under control to the best of our ability … although the tax cap puts a lot of pressure on us, we’ve been able to expand in a very fiscally-prudent manner. We’ve added a lot of AP classes, implemented full-day kindergarten and the Columbia writing program. Our music and fine arts program has been growing and sports teams have been extremely successful.”

The father of three said, looking ahead, he and the board want to start vocational training programs, mostly revolving around hospital services and culinary arts, so students don’t have to travel to outside schools for college credit.

“I want to stay part of it,” he added about maintaining his seat. “I’d love to continue to be part of helping improve the district. We’ve been pretty darn effective over the past six years.”

Peter Van Middelem

A product of the Mount Sinai school district, Van Middelem, who serves as commissioner in the fire district and president of the youth lacrosse program, has lived in the community his entire life. He’s seeking a second term on the board because, he said, he “lives and breathes helping people.”

Van Middelem said he’s proud of the work the board’s done in the last three years — implementing full-day kindergarten, adding components to the music program without piercing the cap — and looks forward to making things even better for students in the district.

“Like anything else, you always want to leave something better than you first found it — we’ve identified different areas we need to improve and I want to continue with that,” he said. “You might see me at a school board meeting, might see me on the back of a fire truck, or at a fire district meeting … I’m just trying to make the community a better place.”

After graduating from Dowling College with an accounting degree in 1996, Van Middelem worked as an accountant for many years before becoming a New York City firefighter in 1999 — where he served for 12 years. He has experience auditing neighboring districts and values communication with others. He has three children, two currently in the district, and his mother and brothers still live in the area, too.

“Mount Sinai is home,” he said. “I love the water, love the people, and love helping to create an environment where kids can excel.”

Michael McGuire

The father of two moved to the community three years ago because of the school district’s reputation. The Port Jefferson native serves as an accountant in his family’s CPA firm, is a former Marine, and served as a police officer in New York City from 2001 to 2008. He recently completed his first year of classes at Touro Law Center in Central Islip.

McGuire decided to run for the board because he believes his professional experiences with auditing and examining financial statements for governments and nonprofits within the CPA firm will provide valuable, and what he sees as much-needed insight into solving the district’s financial problems.

“I’ve gone to the meetings and the district is projected to be broke in two years,” said McGuire, whose one-year-old child will become part of the district in three years. “We have a great district … but there’s a lot of wasteful spending. We need to stop blaming the governor or tax cap and everyone else and look internally on how to save money now to prevent cuts in the future.”

McGuire said it’s unacceptable that the board is presenting a budget with a $1.8 million deficit this year, and said there are plenty of ways to generate revenue.

“A lot of schools have BOCES programs they run at schools and other schools pay tuition to be part of it … the school cut BOCES a few years ago and I’d like to bring it back,” he said. “The school could also rent out fields to PAL or flag football leagues to increase revenue. I want to make sure the school can keep being amazing without worrying about having to cut things to keep it running.”

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Mount Sinai school board Trustees Robert Sweeney, left, and Peter Van Middelem, right, are sworn in as board president and vice president, respectively. Photo by Erika Karp

The Mount Sinai school board has a new vice president this year.

At the district’s annual reorganization meeting on July 1, Peter Van Middelem, who just finished his first year on the board, was elected to the position in a 4-1 vote. Van Middelem, a retired New York City firefighter, succeeds former Vice President Donna Compagnone, whose term was up this year and decided not to seek re-election.

Van Middelem said his main objectives for the new year include keeping positive communications and relations with the community and the district’s teachers, seeing how new programs, such as Columbia University’s Teachers College Writing Project, which provides writing curriculum and professional development for teachers, is implemented, and keeping taps on the new full-day kindergarten program.

“I know that our emphasis right now is to make sure kindergarten is running and up to speed,” he said in a phone interview.

Van Middelem commended his predecessor for all of her work and stated that he had big shoes to fill as vice president.

Trustee Lynn Capobianco, who was re-elected to her second three-year term in May, cast the lone dissenting vote at the meeting. She said she couldn’t support Van Middelem as he allegedly did some political campaigning in his role as president of the Mount Sinai Lacrosse program. According to the Internal Revenue Service, 501(c)(3) organizations are “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Lynn Capobianco takes her oath of office. Photo by Erika Karp
Lynn Capobianco takes her oath of office. Photo by Erika Karp

Capobianco said that in doing so Van Middelem jeopardized the tax-exempt status of the organization. According to an IRS database, Mt. Sinai Lacrosse Inc’s status had been automatically revoked in February 2013 for failing to file a return for three consecutive years. Van Middelem declined to comment on Capobianco’s concerns.

“I respect him greatly for the work he has done for that organization, but based on those issues I think the leadership comes into question,” Capobianco said.

While the board saw a change in its vice president, Robert Sweeney, who was elected to his second three-year term in 2014, is staying put as president. Board newcomer Mike Riggio was unable to make the first meeting and was sworn into his position at an earlier time.

Sweeney thanked the board for its vote and seemed to set the tone for the 2015-16 school year. He pointed out how the trustees were all wearing pins that read, “Respect public education.”

“This is an important statement that we are making about our teachers. … We respect them,” he said.

Sweeney continued to speak about the importance and need for public education.

“I wouldn’t be here and in my career without it,” he said.