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Port Jefferson School District

Earl L. Vandermeulen High School robotics team. Photo courtesy PJSD

Members of the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School robotics team took part in the recent FIRST competition at Hofstra University, putting their knowledge to the test against 50 other New York high school teams and six international teams from as far as India and Taiwan. 

This year, Port Jefferson was joined by Mount Sinai High School students. Their combined efforts helped the team make it to the final rounds to place seventh overall — an extremely challenging event to win, given the level of international competition. 

Students used their math, science and engineering abilities and took months to design and build their robot, following strict rules, limited resources and an intense time limit. The teams were challenged to raise funds, design a brand, hone teamwork skills and program their industrial-size robots to play a complex field game against like-minded competitors.

“We call FIRST Robotics Competition the ultimate sport for the mind,” Port Jefferson’s technology and engineering teacher and robotics team adviser Brian Chalmers said. “Applying skills learned in the classroom during competition is always a positive opportunity for our students. It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get.” 

He added, “We are proud of our students and grateful for our professional volunteer mentors who shared their time and talents to guide these students to success.”

Earl L. Vandermeulen High School Tri-M Music Honor Society students. Photo courtesy PJSD

The Earl L. Vandermeulen High School Chapter 2172 of the Tri-M Music Honor Society hosted its 16th annual honors recital and induction on April 4. 

This year’s inductees are students Thales Cheng, Caitlin Dickhuth, Kenneth Dixon-Lanza, Mari Fukuto, Iris He, Andi Kelly, Kay Moran, Fiona Reichers, Samantha Reichers, Alice Snyder, Emily Snyder, Kristina Shterengas and Madison Testa. 

Requirements needed to become a member of Tri-M are based on the society’s five points of distinction: scholarship, character, cooperation, leadership and service.

Graphic from PJSD website
By Mallie Jane Kim

Port Jefferson School District residents will have another chance to vote on a capital bond to fund school improvement projects, this time for $15.9 million. 

This vote — scheduled for Tuesday, May 16 — comes just after the community rejected a pair of proposed bonds totaling $24.9 million last December. The district’s Board of Education approved putting the bond up for community approval at a meeting Tuesday, March 14, with the support of all six members present — trustee Ravi Singh was absent.

If the current proposal passes, taxpayers will pay for the bond in installments over several years. The vote will take place alongside the vote to approve next year’s annual district budget.

School officials suggest the proposal is more modest than the pair of bonds voted down in December, making no mention of replacing the high school’s grass sports field with artificial turf, a point of contention last time. 

This bond would fund improvements to, for example, locker rooms, heating, cooling and ventilation systems, and alterations to some interior spaces. The details of this plan are on file for public review in the district clerk’s office, and the district will post more information about the new bond under the “Bond Project” tab of its website.

The board also plans to allocate more money toward capital improvement projects in the annual budget, according to Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister, which would help to pay for some facility update priorities and better plan for future needs. 

“Seeing how difficult it is to go out for a bond and how hard times are, we were talking about gradually increasing the allocation,” he said while presenting the second draft of the district’s 2023-24 budget to the board. He added that he hoped this plan would mitigate the need for additional capital bonds in the foreseeable future.

Leister explained that updates to school infrastructure, health and safety — including security — and instructional classrooms would all be considered in school budgets moving forward. 

“We thought by trying to incorporate those three things in future budgets, we can help bring up the level of our areas and the learning of our students,” he said.

Immediate plans for these funds include creating an ADA-compliant bathroom at the elementary school, installing a stop-arm security booth at car entrances to the middle school and high school, beginning a window replacement plan at the high school and refitting some classrooms. 

Leister also noted science and computer labs would be due for remodeling, adding that “all the different areas that are functional but are maybe [from] the ‘70s or ‘80s and need to be brought up to current levels.” 

Furthermore, Leister said stop-arm security booths are necessary because some GPS mapping apps list school driveways as regular roads and the administration wants to limit cut-through traffic.

The current draft version of next year’s school budget has a shortfall of $222,547. Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan said this would be filled by staffing reductions to be decided before Leister presents the final budget to the board in April. 

The board plans to increase the tax levy by 1.98%, just under the 1.99% cap set for the district by state regulations

Edna Louise Spear Elementary School head custodian Paul Scalcione visited first graders. Photo courtesy PJSD

First graders in Laura Kelly’s and Paige Lohmann’s class at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School have been learning all about communities in their social studies unit.

Students were exposed to different texts and activities to help build on the concepts of community roles and responsibilities. They were introduced to maps and discussed important places that make up their community. 

Part of the unit included first graders interviewing community members in and around the school. Students could ask questions of the classroom visitors to help foster their learning through direct interaction. 

Visitors included music teacher and local firefighter Christian Neubert, school nurse Joan Tucci, building head custodian Paul Scalcione and Superintendent of Schools Jessica Schmettan. They learned how each member contributes to their community and the role that each plays.  

“It was an excellent learning experience for them,” Lohmann said.

Buddy Program students at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School. Photo courtesy PJSD

Edna Louise Spear Elementary School students not only think about others in their local community, but they often do something about it.

Students in Christine Bokina and Kristi Krieg’s fifth grade class and Maureen Zajac’s second grade class teamed up to bring some smiles to the faces of local children through the school’s Buddy Program, creating an initiative of kindness, sharing and love for others. 

Parents and guardians received notice of the need for the hundreds of treat bags and small plush toys and sent their second and fifth graders to school with the items. 

In a quick turnaround that highlighted their teamwork, the cross-grade-level collaborators created Valentine’s Day cards for the Port Jefferson-based donation center Give Kids Hope’s Project Valentine. 

The cards will be presented to children assisted by the organization. The Buddies took another step forward, putting together candy-filled treat bags for children in the shelter.

Port Jefferson School District’s Science Olympiad students. Photo courtesy PJSD

Teams across the region competed in the Eastern Long Island Regional Competition on Jan. 28, at Hauppauge High School. 

The Earl L. Vandermeulen High School Science Olympiad A team placed fifth out of 53 teams. Port Jefferson also had a B and C team compete. There were 21 STEM events and the top 10 teams in each event earned a medal. 

The state competition will be held on March 17-18 at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. Eight teams will represent Eastern Long Island at the New York State competition. Other teams competing besides Port Jefferson are Bay Shore, Bayport-Blue Point, Half Hollow Hills East, Hauppauge, The Stony Brook School, Ward Melville and West Babylon. 

Coaches were high school science teachers Amanda Perovich and Melissa Garcia.

“I am so happy we were back to a fully in-person Science Olympiad competition this year, and I am exceptionally proud of these students,” Perovich said. “Their interest, hard work and dedication to science and STEM events really shows in their results.”

Trustee Lauren Sheprow. Photo from Port Jefferson Village website
By Lauren Sheprow

Lauren Sheprow is a Port Jefferson Village trustee.

The past two bonds put forth by the Port Jefferson School District were defeated by the taxpaying residents of Port Jefferson. The $30 million bond put forward in 2017 had significant public opposition. The vocal majority was virtually ignored, but the vote ensured their voice was heard. Fast forward to 2022 and a new $25 million bond proposal. Lesson learned? Partially.

The 2022 bond was somewhat more palatable. Those who put it forward did the right thing by separating the athletic field turf project ($1.9 million) from the HVAC projects, classroom relocations and locker room/team room facility upgrades ($23.1 million). Neither proposition passed but the administration returned to the drawing board Jan. 24 to come up with a new bond, and will once again ask Port Jefferson taxpayers to pay for capital projects that have been ignored for far too long.

I, like many in the village, am torn at the enormity of the cost estimates for these projects (and like many in the community I have spoken with, I am interested in understanding more about how the architect of record comes up with these cost proposals but that’s a conversation for another day). I wonder if we shouldn’t look at more creative, cost-effective mitigation than what was proposed in Prop 1 of the 2022 bond. I am also curious as to which projects might be able to be completed using capital reserves that the district has on hand from its annual budget process. The good news is, as we learned at the Jan. 10, 2022, Board of Education meeting, the administration was able to identify general fund balance monies to build an ADA compliant bathroom at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School (which was in Prop 1 of the 2022 bond proposal).

Putting that debate aside, I wanted to clarify something reported in the Jan. 19 edition of The Port Times Record – that at a recent meeting of the Port Jefferson Village Board of Trustees I cited a Newsday report indicating that approximately 80% of the $14 billion federal COVID-19 relief funds have yet to be spent by public schools statewide, which is accurate. What was misunderstood was that I suggested the heating and ventilation systems upgrade proposed in Prop 1 of the 2022 bond may qualify under existing COVID relief conditions. I want to clarify that I fully understand that the existing COVID relief funds for which the school district is eligible has reached its limit at $375,000 and that Port Jeff doesn’t qualify for additional relief funds due to student count, free or reduced price lunch ratio and combined wealth ratio. 

My point in this conversation was to think beyond the bond/tax increase model. As I see it, we have three tools in the toolbox that we haven’t fully investigated:

1. Explore a more strategic conversation with our state and federal elected representatives to understand if or how the funding criteria can be reevaluated so unspent funds don’t languish.

2. Resident participation: By attending BOE meetings, committee meetings — especially the finance committee and bond planning meetings — our residents have an opportunity to voice their opinions in real time and become more engaged in the BOE’s selfless and tireless efforts to make our school district the best it can be.

3. Fundraising: We need an official alumni association for Earl L. Vandermeulen High School. The purpose of such an association is to foster a spirit of loyalty and to promote the general welfare of the district. Alumni associations exist to support the parent organization’s goals, and to strengthen the ties between alumni, the community and the parent organization. It works for higher education. It can work for our alma mater. 

Our alumni infrastructure, although not organized, is very strong. Passionate residents, including Port Jeff alumni, started the still active Royal Educational Foundation in 1991 when a need was identified to fund unfunded teacher programs. Port Jeff has a hall of fame, hosts an annual homecoming parade and event, and for more than 60 years parents of graduating seniors have been raising funds for the iconic Port Jeff Senior Prom experience. And for nearly nine decades, tens of thousands of Port Jeff grads have been coming back to Port Jeff for high school reunions because of their strong connection to their alma mater.

Consider the possibilities. If we create a capital campaign for a specific project and reach out to alumni who may have a deep connection to said project, with naming rights and all bells and whistles, who knows what can be accomplished? A new instruction area for the music program? New locker room and team room facilities for our student athletes? An annual hall of fame recognition dinner?

Port Jeff alumni are some of the most talented, accomplished people in the world. Let’s engage them with their alma mater and ask for their help. Let’s find a way to support the Port Jeff School District, its students, faculty and staff by connecting the tens of thousands of alumni living among us and away from us to their alma mater through an official PJ alumni association. It will require a great deal of organization, establishing a 501(c)(3), and infrastructural support including digital assets and content curation.

Interested? Contact me at [email protected]. 

Let’s do this.

Port Jefferson School District students and art teachers with director of music and fine arts, Michael Caravello (right). Photo courtesy PJSD

The One River School for Art and Design’s Port Jefferson Station location recently exhibited student artwork from the Port Jefferson School District’s fine arts department.

As a collaborative effort, student artwork across grades K-12 was showcased. An opening reception was held on Saturday, Jan. 7, welcoming students and families to celebrate their artistic achievements. 

The school district thanked art teachers Skylar Benatar, Meghan McCarthy, Nancy Randazzo and Stacey Schuman; director of music and fine arts Michael Caravello; and the One River School’s assistant director of education, Ellen Jones, for organizing this special community event.

Students in Kari Costanza’s class at Edna Louise Spear Elementary School with Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Brendan Bernath. Photo courtesy PJSD

United States Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Brendan Bernath recently headed back to his base in Lake Erie, where his unit missions consist of search and rescue, law enforcement and homeland security. But first, he stopped in to thank the students of Edna Louise Spear Elementary School in Port Jefferson. 

The school’s Buddy Program, the cross-grade-level initiative of fifth graders from Kari Costanza’s class and first graders in Laura Kelly’s and Paige Lohmann’s class, created and sent holiday cards of gratitude to servicemen and servicewomen. Bernath’s visit was an opportunity to thank them on behalf of his colleagues for their gesture.

To prepare for his visit, the students brainstormed questions from how he spent his holidays to how fast his boat travels on the water. They also created some welcome signs, choosing patriotic colors to honor him and his unit.

Bernath was thoughtful and engaging with the students, sharing a firsthand glimpse into his everyday work and his mission to explore the world. He encouraged students to learn more about the waters of Long Island and the Coast Guard stations that welcome students to tour their facilities.

Port Jefferson School District students with music teacher Edward Pisano (right). Photo courtesy PJSD

Members of the Port Jefferson School District music and fine arts department joined in the festivities of the annual Charles Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson Village Dec. 2-4.

Music students and teachers entertained the spectators with seasonal songs during various performances throughout the village. Students in the district’s Drama Club assisted Santa at the Village Center in the elf workshop and served as background actors in the Stony Brook University film crew taping of the event.

“They did a fantastic job of interacting with the villagers and students and children just waiting to see Santa,” drama club adviser Tony Butera said.

The unique event was another opportunity for teachers and students to share their Port Jefferson School District award-winning talents in a public setting.