The Mount Sinai school district swore in a new board member Sept. 26 to replace three-year trustee Michael Riggio, who vacated his position in August.
AnneMarie Henninger, a physical therapist and Mount Sinai resident, was unanimously voted in by the six remaining board members several weeks after the seat became open.
The board decided to vote internally on a new board member soon after Riggio announced he was stepping away from his position. Board President Robert Sweeney said the entire board spent two nights for four hours each in September reviewing the 10 applications submitted by district residents.
“We were looking for people who were looking to build consensus, listen, participate and learn,” Sweeney said. “In our process one of the questions we asked was ‘how have you worked for the support of the community and volunteered for the community previously?’”
Henninger did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The board had three options in choosing a new member to fill the position vacated by Riggio. It could have either held a special election, leave the seat vacant until the scheduled trustee elections in May or request applications from interested community members and then vote on a new board member internally. Sweeney said the board did not want to miss out on having a seventh member and not have a swing vote, and that it did not think it was financially viable to hold a special election so soon after the last community board and budget vote in May.
Candidates for the position needed to be a qualified voter in the district, be a resident of the district for at least one year and could not be a current employee of the district. Mount Sinai looked for candidates to show their prior community service or volunteer work in the district as well as their ability to attend one to three meetings a month and be available at all times to communicate. Sweeney said Henninger fit all those qualities, and more.
“It was very interesting to listen to her perspective on how she has often been called into special education committee meetings,” Sweeney said. “We had 10 good community members come forward – all good people with varying degrees of participation in the community, but it was also her knowledge of the district, her participation in the district and its board meetings that made us choose her.”
Riggio was elected to trustee position during the May board elections, though he decided to officially step down Aug. 5 after receiving an offer for a new job in Florida. The job would take too much of his attention from his responsibilities that he didn’t wish to become a detriment to the work of the board, he said.
Henninger’s seat will come up for vote again in May 2019. Three at-large seats will be up for grabs at that time, and the person to receive the third most votes will take up Riggio’s seat, which will have a two-year tenure instead of the usual three years for the other seats.
Students in Mount Sinai are expected to grow up a little faster than those in other districts. While a majority of neighboring towns keep their fifth-graders in the elementary school, Mount Sinai, since the early 1990s, moves its 10- and 11-year-olds up to the middle school.
A mother challenged the concept during an Aug. 23 board of education meeting when she asked administrators to consider making fifth grade part of the elementary school again in the future.
The conversation has been ongoing ever since.
Renee Massari, a mother of two elementary school students, proposed the idea last month, saying she didn’t see the academic or social benefit of having fifth-graders learn under the same roof as eighth-graders. In fact, she believed the drastically different environment negatively affected the young students — who occupy their own wing on the second floor of the building.
“I’ve seen it through many of my friends’ children here — many of them don’t excel.”
“I’ve seen it through many of my friends’ children here — many of them don’t excel,” Massari said during the meeting. “It’s almost like they feel deflated because it’s difficult for them to handle those responsibilities expected of our fifth-graders. Because [realistically], they aren’t middle schoolers.”
Massari explained to the board that, from her understanding, the fifth-graders’ premature graduation to the middle school was prompted solely by a lack of classroom space in the elementary school. She asked if an administrator could evaluate current classroom space, adding the school has seen a declining enrollment rate over the last few years.
“Ideally, I would love for the fifth-graders in this district to have the same transition that 99 percent of the districts on Long Island have,” Massari said. “We can house them in the elementary school, a building they’re familiar with, and keep the same program where they transition from classroom to classroom and get them exposed to that before going to a whole different building.”
Board Trustee Robert Sweeney agreed with Massari and said the decision decades ago to move the students into the next building had nothing to do with education and everything to do with space and misjudgment. He also urged the board to reevaluate the concept.
“It’s a fallacy to have elementary students up there,” Sweeney said. “I think we have to look at it because there’s no educational benefit [to it].”
Superintendent Gordon Brosdal, an admittedly “old school guy” who said he would even like to see the sixth grade in the elementary school, told Massari her proposal would be explored — but classroom space, or lack thereof, in the district’s smallest building remains an issue. He said it will take a lot more than one available classroom to bring back the fifth-graders to the elementary school and expansions on the building would be costly.
“But in the meantime, what we have to do is make sure the nurturing environment continues in the fifth grade,” Brosdal said.
Teachers, he said, know to treat their students with the same level of care and support elementary school students experience. And although the move up offers a completely new setting, with lockers and classroom changes and multiple teachers during the day, Brosdal sees it as a good transition opportunity.
“Plus, they’re kind of isolated and not mixing with the older grades when they don’t have to,” he said. “At the same time, I understand parents feel their kids are not ready to move up because of maturity and a lot of other reasons, and want them to remain in a nurturing environment.”
In the weeks following the meeting, Brosdal reached out to elementary school principal Rob Catlin, and together they projected six classrooms would be needed in the building to accommodate the roughly 175 students in the current fifth-grade class.
One would be hard-pressed to find three available classrooms, according to Catlin, who is currently in the process of meeting with parents about the issue.
“I’ve heard the same concerns from a couple different people now and I’m reaching out to some parents for some meetings to talk about it,” Catlin said. “As the year goes on, and if the topic continues, I’m more than happy to keep talking. But it’s in an early stage right now.”
Mount Sinai resident Beth Erdmann, whose children are in seventh and 10th grades, said every parent experiences panic in the midst of the elementary and middle school transition but soon realize it’s not a big deal.
“I’ve heard the same concerns from a couple different people now and I’m reaching out to some parents for some meetings to talk about it.”
“When it’s your first child, it seems too soon and scary, but they are in their own wing and it’s a nonissue,” Erdmann said. “There were no adverse effects to my children … fifth and sixth grade are still treated as elementary. The location is just in the middle school. I was worried and bothered at the time, [but] my kids were fine.”
Debra Wesolowski agreed, having gone through the transition multiple times with four children.
“Once they were there, I couldn’t imagine them in the elementary school,” Wesolowski said. “Kids are a lot more mature now than years ago … you see how mature and responsible the fourth-graders become as the year goes on [and] by the time they graduate from fourth grade they have outgrown the elementary school and need to advance to the next stage. The middle school does a great job transitioning them.”
But Jennifer Ruger Lazarou, an elementary school teacher, feels the kids are too young.
“I think keeping them in the elementary school one more year is a good idea, and will still make them just as prepared,” Lazarou said. “I teach in a K-through-six building and can’t even imagine the sixth-graders being exposed to middle school any earlier.”
Brosdal said district office and building administrators have begun the exploration of a move.
“It is too early in the process for the board to make a decision one way or another,” Brosdal said. “The expense of such a project would impact the district’s budget and bond proposal.”
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 for2017-18.
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.”
In Mount Sinai, four candidates — three incumbents and one newcomer — are vying for three at-large seats on the school board.
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.”
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.”
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.”
A beloved Mount Sinai administrator, whose kindness and compassion have served the district for nearly four decades, is retiring at the end of the year — leaving behind huge shoes to fill.
Every morning for the last 17 years, principal John Gentilcore has stood in front of Mount Sinai Elementary School to greet his students with his warm trademark smile as they hop off the bus.
As part of his daily routine, he also makes a point to put time aside in his administrative schedule to visit classrooms and engage with the kids, oftentimes sitting, legs crisscrossed on the floor with them. When lunchtime rolls around, Gentilcore pulls up a chair and eats with them in the cafeteria, making sure to sit at a different table each day.
“I definitely get more from the kids than they get from me … they’re so genuine,” the principal said, adding that there’s something about the kids that brings a smile to his face.
When Gentilcore became principal in 2000, kindergarten teacher Willow Bellincampi noticed right away just how much the kids loved him.
“Sometimes with the principal, kids are afraid, but when John comes through the door, they’re so happy,” she said. “He’s always around, he gets down to their level, looks them in the eye when talking to them and not a lot of adults do that. ‘I’ll send you to the principal’ is never a threat to them because they love him. He’s compassionate.”
At 60, Gentilcore admitted although it wasn’t an easy decision, retiring at this point in his career will give him more time to spend with family and friends, and travel.
“I definitely get more from the kids than they get from me … they’re so genuine.”
“I’ve been really proud to be part of the Mount Sinai district and I will miss the people, the great faculty, staff, and, first and foremost, I will miss the children,” he said.
Before becoming principal of the elementary school, Gentilcore taught several grade levels and coached girl’s varsity soccer at Friends Academy, a private school in Glen Cove, after graduating from SUNY Oneonta.
As the son of a superintendent — his father — and an elementary school principal, Gentilcore said he received informal education at the dinner table with them.
He was first named principal at the school in 1987, before being named the assistant principal at Mount Sinai Middle School in 1991, and principal in 1995. Ultimately, he landed back at the elementary school in 2000, where he said he “felt at home.” In 2003, he received his doctorate from Hofstra University.
“There’s something about kids that is very refreshing,” he said. “The elementary school is where their educational journey begins and it’s where we can start a real foundation together. Throughout the day, if a little one needs my assistance, I’ll conference with them. I try to make each day a little bit better than the day before.”
Although reluctant, the school board voted to accept Gentilcore’s August retirement.
“He is the consummate elementary school principal, a gentleman who deeply cares about his students, and we will miss him as a board and a school district,” Board trustee Robert Sweeney said during the Feb. 15 meeting.
Assistant principal Elizabeth Hine considers Gentilcore the best mentor she could ask for.
“I can’t say enough about how wonderful he is as a boss and a principal,” she said. “He taught me how to handle students, parents, everything … he’s just amazing. He enjoys what he does. It’s all about the kids, and he keeps that in the forefront of his mind and that’s how he makes all his decisions. It’s going to be a challenge for a lot of teachers to come in on a daily basis knowing he’s not going to be there.”
Mount Sinai Superintendent of School’s Gordon Brosdal has worn many hats in his 46 years in education. But there’s one hat he wants to wear for a little bit longer.
On March 16, the school district’s Board of Education unanimously voted to extend the superintendent’s contract for an additional five years. Brosdal, whose initial contract ended next year, will maintain his position as until 2022, and add to his already expansive career.
“It creates stability in the district when everyone knows that you’re going to be here,” Brosdal said.
The average lifespan of a superintendent is five years, according to Brosdal. While superintendents typically start with a three-year contract, the board of education can vote to hire someone new to fill the position. Board members can also change, which can affect whether a superintendent remains with the district or start looking for another job.
Although Mount Sinai’s Board extended Brosdal’s contract, the superintendent’s salary agreement, which is linked to the tax cap, and benefits, will remain the same. His benefits include personal days, vacation time and health care, among some other benefits.
The district hired Brosdal in July 2014, with a starting salary of $195,000, staying under the $200,000 limit.
In his two years with the district, he lobbied for full day kindergarten and the district’s new writing program. Since the implementation of full-day K and the writing program, kindergarten students have learned how to read and write faster than those in previous classes.
“He has been a leader among leaders,” said Board of Education President Robert Sweeney. “I think he’s added so much to our district.”
Although Sweeney was unavailable for further comment, he has worked frequent with the superintendent and encouraged his fellow board members to vote in favor of the contract extension. Trustee and Vice President of the Board, Peter Van Middelem, added that Brosdal is widely respected across many districts on the Island.
Brosdal said he hopes to add more electives for students to take at Mount Sinai High School, including a virtual enterprise course. The course will allow students to study entrepreneurship and learn about accounting, human resources and other skills that will help them in college and their future career endeavors. The superintendent said he has many ideas for updating the district’s curriculum, which are currently on the back burner until the district can afford to implement the ideas.
Prior to working in the Mount Sinai school district, Brosdal worked at the Middle Country and William Floyd school districts. He’s served as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent in the past four-and-a-half decades. He will be one of few individuals on the Island who serve more than five decades in education.
“I feel this is the best opportunity I’ve had in my career,” Brosdal said. “I love coming to work. I work with great people. It’s a great district … and it’s like being renewed. I would like to work the rest of my career here, and we’ll see what happens at the end of five years.”
Enrollment soars above school district's estimates
When Mount Sinai school board members proposed full-day kindergarten, they didn’t expect 160 students to enroll.
But the new program brought an enrollment increase of more than 40 percent, according to numbers the Mount Sinai Board of Education examined during a recent meeting, leading the district to hire another teacher.
By the end of the 2014-15 academic year, which had half-day kindergarten, there were around 112 students enrolled. With the 2015-16 enrollment, Mount Sinai had to bump up the number of teachers to seven.
In May, the board estimated that 125 students would enroll in the full-day program, but by mid-July, there were 151 students.
“All year long … we promoted full-day K at a number around 125 and [aid Mount Sinai received from the state] was based on that number,” Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said. The increase “was a little bit alarming to the board and myself.”
Brosdal said the new program could be popular because full-day kindergarten is easier for a parent’s schedule. He expects several more children to enroll before class starts on Sept. 8, pushing kindergarten enrollment past 160 students.
According to Linda Jenson, assistant superintendent for business, the extra teacher the district had to hire added $85,000 to the budget, bringing the total program cost to $635,000.
Despite that increase, residents will not see taxes go up, Jenson said. Officials dug up the extra money from within the approved $56.7 million budget for 2015-16.
Mount Sinai lengthened the kindergarten day to give young students more time to learn subjects like language arts, math, social studies, science and music.
“We wanted to give our kids and our teachers adequate time to address Common Core, the demands of the curriculum,” Brosdal said.
In half-day kindergarten, students were in school from 8:55 a.m. until 11:05 a.m. With the full-day program, they will stay in the classrooms until 2:58 p.m.
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.”
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.
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