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Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano

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Vapes, or electronic cigarettes, are becoming more and more popular among young people, despite a lack of research about the health effects. Photo by John Petroski

By Sabrina Petroski

The “vape life” has found its way into the Port Jefferson School District, making it one of many being forced to address the new trend.

On Jan. 10, Earl L. Vandermeulen High School hosted a community forum about the dangers associated with the use of electronic cigarettes and vaping among young people. The forum, led by the Senior Drug Abuse Educator with the Suffolk County Department of Health, Stephanie Sloan, gave parents and teachers a wealth of information on the issue.

The use of e-cigarettes rose exponentially between 2011 and 2015 across the United States within both middle and high schools, according to Sloan, who cited statistics from a 2016 report on the matter by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Sloan said e-cigarette use increased from less than 2 percent in high schools to 15 percent, and less than 1 percent in middle schools to 5 percent over that time period. According to Sloan, more young people are using the various devices because they are curious, there are fun flavors, and there is no perception of risk.

“They are not harmless and we have to work together to encourage healthier decisions among adults and youth,” Sloan said.

Though there isn’t a lot of conclusive research on e-cigarettes yet, what we do know is the liquid, known as e-juice, is made of a combination of nicotine and propylene glycol, with traces of diacetyl, acetoin, ultrafine particles of metal, and benzene. Sloan pointed out, there is no water in the vapor being inhaled.

The devices come in different shapes and sizes; some as small as an actual cigarette, while others are the size of a cellphone. The smallest, and most popular among young adults is the size and shape of a USB drive, and it leaves no odor, making it easy to hide on school grounds.

“They are not harmless and we have to work together to encourage healthier decisions among adults and youth.”

— Stephanie Sloan

“The problem is, it is very difficult to detect,” said Christine Austen, the high school principal. “Compared to cigarettes there’s no scent, there’s no smoke, and there’s no evidence unless other students report it.”

The trend started in Port Jeff last school year but has become much more frequent since, according to leadership in the district. In an effort to stop students from picking up the habit, the school district has added a section about the dangers of e-cigarettes into the curriculum of every health class.

“We want the kids to know that there are varying amounts of nicotine and other synthetics in these vapes,” said Danielle Turner, the Director of Health, Physical Education and Athletics. “Prevention is most important because of what we still don’t know.”

Though there are age restrictions on buying e-cigarettes and vapes, the underage students are still finding ways to obtain them. According to Robert Neidig, Port Jefferson Middle School principal, students say they can access them online with gift cards or through older siblings and friends.

E-cigarettes have recently been added to the Clean Indoor Air Act, making it illegal for them to be used anywhere tobacco products are banned, including on school grounds. Sloan urged administrators to treat the devices the same as cigarettes when punishment is being decided.

According to Superintendent Paul Casciano, punishments for students caught with e-cigarettes on school property are handled on a case by case basis. A parent of both a middle school and a high school student said during the forum he believes there should be a blanket punishment.

“Just a phone call home isn’t enough,” he said. “All of the students should be treated the same in spite of other infractions. The first offense should be a warning, and the second should be a blanket punishment.”

The Port Jeff school district received a grant which will allow it to install vapor detectors in the bathrooms of the school, and going forward the district plan is for the faculty and staff to continue their efforts to keep the community aware and educated.

If you know of or suspect any stores that are selling e-cigarettes or accompanying items to people under the age of 21, you can contact the Department of Health Services Investigation Team by calling 631-853-3162. For more information on the dangers associated with e-cigarettes contact Stephanie Sloan by calling 631-853-8554, or emailing [email protected].

An electronic sign in front of Port Jefferson High School alerting residents about the referendum. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

After months of passionate and at times heated debate, the Port Jefferson School District community has spoken.

Residents voted overwhelmingly against a $30 million capital bond proposal that carried an additional $10 million in interest over its 15-year life and included over 20 districtwide repair and upgrade projects. The issue garnered feverish local attention at numerous school board meetings and on social media forums since it was presented to the public by the district and board of education in September, driving more than 1,700 voters to the polls on referendum day Dec. 5. After all was said and done, 1,355 residents voted against the bond, with just 374 voting in favor of it. By comparison, just 412 people voted on the 2018 budget and school board vacancies back in May.

A lawn sign on Barnum Avenue encouraging residents to vote ‘No’ on a $30M PJSD bond proposal. Photo by Alex Petroski

The proposal featured a three-story addition to a wing of the high school, additional classrooms at the high school and elementary school, a turf football field at the high school and lights for the Scraggy Hill Road athletic fields, among many more improvements. Some of the fixes — like additional girls locker room space and handicapped parking spaces at the high school track — were included to get the district in compliance with Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act and will likely need to be addressed either using the district’s capital reserves or a reworked bond proposal.

“While I am disappointed in the result, I am encouraged that so many residents took the time to vote,” district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “The district and our board of education will discuss the matter further at subsequent meetings. The safety, security and compliance concerns that we were attempting to address through the projects in the capital bond still exist and need attention.”

Many of those opposed to the bond pointed to the uncertainty surrounding an ongoing district and Port Jefferson Village lawsuit against Long Island Power Authority, as both entities stand to potentially lose substantial tax revenue in the coming years should a settlement or decision in the LIPA case be reached. LIPA has contended it pays too much in property taxes to operate the Port Jefferson Power Station, now that sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades have drastically reduced the regular need for the plant. The district and village’s annual operating budgets are funded in large part due to that revenue. Others were also opposed to the “all or nothing” proposal, which included upgrades that were seen as imminently necessary alongside projects that were viewed as extravagant, like the stadium lights at the Scraggy Hill fields and a new synthetic playing surface for the varsity football field.

“I think the result demonstrates that the community is seeking more transparency and fiscal responsibility from the board and the administration,” said Rene Tidwell, a district resident who was vocal in her opposition to the proposal. “We as a community are eager to roll up our sleeves and help identify urgent projects to fix compliance issues and to help prioritize long-term projects.”

Tidwell said she was not previously as engaged in the goings on of the board of education prior to the emergence of the debate over the bond.

“There had been talk in the community about it and when I started looking closely at the information the board provided I ended up having more questions,” she said. “Many in the community felt there wasn’t a consistent resource or outreach to the entire community with respect to contributing input for what went into the bond proposal.”

Depending on the assessed value of a district resident’s home, the bond would have resulted in an increase of between $289 and $1,185 annually in property taxes, according to the district.

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant publicly requested that the district hold off on bringing the proposal forward in September until a resolution was reached on the LIPA issue.

“Tonight’s heavy turnout and result reflects the engagement and passion of our community,” Garant said Dec. 5 via email. “They spoke to the board of education with resounding voices of concern over this bond proposal and while doing so, expressed their deep concern for the children in our school district, clearly stating their support for the ‘needs,’ and not the ‘wants’ in the proposal.”

Sean Leister, deputy superintendent; Fred Koelbel, facilities and operations administrator; and architect John Grillo discuss aspects of the bond with attendees of the walk-through. Photo by Alex Petroski

They say seeing is believing, and administrators from the Port Jefferson School District are hoping that rings true for homeowners in the district.

Paul Casciano, superintendent, Sean Leister, deputy superintendent, Danielle Turner, athletic director, principals from the three schools, architect John Grillo and other administrators took interested community members on two guided tours over the past week to examine the classrooms, hallways, buildings, grounds and athletic fields slated for renovations and repairs should a $30 million bond proposal pass a vote scheduled for Dec. 5.

Several residents have expressed concerns with committing to the 15-year payment plan with the looming possibility of a substantial loss of revenue from the Long Island Power Authority, with litigation pending against the energy provider. At least one resident who attended the high school tour said the LIPA specter might impact her vote.

“I for one, as a citizen, am concerned about what [the LIPA situation] means for our taxes, and really that’s the only reason I would say ‘no’ to this,” the resident said.

Other residents raised questions about why certain aspects of the bond, for the most part referring to upgrades associated with athletics, can’t be done during regular annual budget appropriations.

“We try and do the smaller items — when I say smaller I mean around $200,000 — through the budget process,” Leister said in response. “But for a capital project you’re talking millions, and that’s much harder to add to the budget. It would cause a big spike in the tax rate.”

Casciano further explained the thinking behind presenting the bond, which administrators have been working on since 2015, to residents this year at the end of the high school tour.

“We have a responsibility to give [the residents] an opportunity to decide what they want to do given their budget, given their beliefs, and everything else,” he said. “If they’re not supportive of it, we get that, but if we don’t give them the opportunity then I wonder if we’re fulfilling our responsibility to do what we’re supposed to do.”

A tour of Edna Louise Spear Elementary School and the adjacent district offices was held Sept. 20. Around seven Port Jeff residents attended the first walk-through, according to social media posts by at least one attendee on a private Facebook group comprised of a few thousand villagers.

Following the Sept. 20 tour and public comments made by the Port Jefferson Village Board in opposition of pursuing permission to borrow the money, members both in favor and against the bond referendum have taken to the group page to publicly state their case. Perhaps as a result of the warming debate over virtual avenues, about 30 people attended the physical tour of the high school and middle school Sept. 25.

A common refrain from district administration since the topic was introduced in depth during a Sept. 12 board of education meeting is that the projects designated in the bond proposal are too urgent and too expensive to address within standard annual budget appropriations or with an unappropriated reserve fund. The district currently has about $1.5 million in unappropriated surplus, according to Leister. State law allows districts to keep up to 4 percent of its total budget in reserves to be used on unforeseen expenses.

About $5.9 million of the proposed project would go toward upgrades associated with athletics, with the largest sticker price belonging to the replacement of the grass varsity football field with a turf surface.

“We’re a small school but we run a very full athletic program,” Turner said. Overuse of the grass high school football field has resulted in the football and lacrosse teams needing to relocate for practices, on occasion, and even for some games during the last calendar year. A turf field and lights at the athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road would alleviate crowding issues with sports practices, according to Turner.

Upgrades at the adjoining high school and middle school building would cost $13.6 million and $2.2 million, respectively. The construction of a three-story addition to the high school building would add up to six brand new classrooms at a cost exceeding $7 million.

“We want to make sure that the kids have every opportunity to expand programs, to expand course offerings and space is something that we need,” said Christine Austen, the high school principal. She added she understands the decision is ultimately up to the community.

Fixes at the elementary school would total nearly $4 million, and the adjoining district office portable building would be demolished and relocated to the grounds of the high school at a total cost of $4.3 million.   

The elementary school elements of the proposal include fresh air ventilators for 12 classrooms in the building’s 200 and 300 wings. It would also include the construction of two new classrooms to be used by the guidance department and resource room teachers, who currently are periodically educating some students in a hallway, according to Tom Meehan, elementary school principal.

“With these improvements everyone would have a home — we wouldn’t be juggling,” Meehan said.

Casciano said there is a possibility the board of education will decide to split the referendum into multiple propositions, rather than an “all or nothing” vote, though it would not be more than two propositions. If passed, the upgrades would cost a taxpayer who pays $8,000 annually in school taxes to pay an additional $396 annually.

A public meeting regarding the bond is scheduled for Oct. 2 at the elementary school in the board of education meeting room at 7 p.m.

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File photo by Elana Glowatz

The Port Jefferson School District has its sights set on a massive face-lift that would impact all of its buildings, but it will come at a substantial cost.

District administration presented a $30 million capital bond proposal to the board of education and the public during a board meeting Sept. 12 which would feature a three-story addition to a wing of the high school, additional classrooms at the high school and elementary school, a turf football field at the high school and lights for the elementary school field, and many more improvements. The district’s total budget for the 2017-18 school year is about $43 million total.

Proposal highlights

•$7.6M to construct a three-story addition at PJHS

•$2.3M to construct new music room and instrumental practice room at PJHS

•$2.2M to build addition to PJHS cafeteria and renovate kitchen space

•$1.2M to replace windows at PJHS

•$2.5M to construct two additional classrooms at elementary school

•$1.7M for locker room renovations at PJHS

•$1.6M for installation of stadium lighting at Scraggy Hill fields

•$1.4M for a new synthetic turf football field at PJHS

•$3.7M to convert tech ed building to new central administration headquarters

•$1.6M to install drainage walls at north side of middle school building

The district will need community approval on a referendum currently slated for a vote Dec. 5 to be able to proceed with obtaining the bond and ultimately beginning construction. If approved the construction would tentatively begin in 2019 and payments would be made annually beginning at about $1.5 million and concluding with a final $2.5 million installment in the 2033-34 fiscal year. The project would result in a homeowner who pays $4,000 annually in school taxes being asked to contribute an additional $200 per year. The district plans to post a “school tax calculator” tool on its website in the coming weeks to allow residents to check how much their tax bill would increase with the additional $30 million burden, on an individual basis. The ask comes at a time of financial uncertainty for the district, which along with several other municipalities on Long Island could potentially lose a substantial amount of property tax revenue pending the outcome of a lawsuit against the Long Island Power Authority.

“Regardless of what happens with LIPA, we to need to take care of the schools,” District Superintendent Paul Casciano said during the meeting. “The best investment you can make, and I know I’m a public school educator so you expect me to say stuff like this, but the best investment you can make is in your schools, and it affects your property values. To neglect the schools is not really a wise move in terms of investment.”

Port Jefferson resident Drew Biondo was one of several community members in attendance who expressed concerns about an “all or nothing” referendum, as he said he viewed some of the components of the proposal as vital and others as less urgent. Casciano and Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister both said during the meeting the district hadn’t yet decided how the referendum would appear on the ballot, be it broken up into more than one component to be voted on or a straight, “yes” or “no” vote on the proposal in its entirety.

“I’d have to think hard about a turf field and lights,” Biondo said. “I understand the need, but when we’re facing possible closure of a power plant … I haven’t made a decision, but one of the things that will probably sway me is if this is an all or nothing. If it’s all or nothing, I don’t know which way I’ll go.”

The district is seeking more community input on the proposal through a survey on its website which was originally going to close Sept. 15, though Casciano said it may be left open for longer. Public tours will be held Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. at the elementary school and Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. at the high school for those interested in seeing the areas designated for upgrades.

UPDATE: The district has extended the window for community members to complete the bond proposal survey on its website through Oct. 9.