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Shoreham-Wading River school district

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Members of Miller Place Boy Scout Troop 204 stand outside the wake for Andrew McMorris, a 12-year-old scout from Troop 161 killed earlier this week by an allegedly drunk driver. Photo by Kyle Barr

From Riverhead to Miller Place, red ribbons hung on street signs, store facades, schoolyard fences and mail boxes. The North Shore community was draped in red, the same crimson color worn on the shirts and kerchiefs of Boy Scouts. The color now adorns a community in mourning.

As news spread that 12-year-old Andrew McMorris, a Shoreham resident of Boy Scout of Troop 161 and student at Shoreham-Wading River’s Albert G. Prodell Middle School, was killed by an allegedly drunk driver Sept. 30 while on a hiking outing with several members of his troop on David Terry Road in Manorville, the community quickly galvanized in support. Four others from the troop were injured as a result of the crash, according to Suffolk County police.

Red ribbons line the entrance to Shoreham-Wading River High School in honor of Andrew McMorris of Boy Scout Troop 161, who was killed by an allegedly drunk driver Sept. 30. Photo by Kyle Barr

In the week since the news broke, hundreds of residents headed onto local community Facebook pages to share their grief and ask what assistance they could offer the family. Some offered to send food in their time of need. Others buckled down and started making ribbons and wristbands for residents to show their hearts went out to all those hurt by the tragedy.

Pamela Garee, an agent with Wading River real estate company Coldwell Banker M&D Good Life, who works closely with Troop 161, quickly got about 70 volunteers to create 700 red ribbons by Oct. 5. Each ribbon cost $10, with all proceeds going to support the troop, the Shoreham-Wading River school district’s Wildcat Helpers of the Arts and Music, and nonprofit advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Ribbons are still available at the Coldwell Banker office at the Shoppes at East Wind in Wading River.

“We’re really doing it to be supportive of the troop, the boys, the victims and their families,” Garee said. “The support from the community — it’s been wonderful.”

Garee said she expects to sell more than 1,000 ribbons by the end of the weekend Oct. 7.

Suffolk County has also taken up the task of honoring the Boy Scout, as County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) office announced Oct. 4 it would place ribbons at the entrances to 16 major county parks.

“It is with great sadness that we remember Andrew, but I am proud to honor this bright, dedicated young man with this small act of remembrance,” Bellone said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family now and forever in the wake of this immeasurable tragedy.”

The first of three wakes were held for Andrew Oct. 4. The sidewalks were lined with red ribbons, and a near-constant stream of friends, family and community members journeyed to the Branch Funeral Home of Miller Place to pay their respects. Members of Boy Scout Troop 204 of Miller Place stood at attention in front of the funeral home, serving as an honor guard paying respect to the fallen fellow scout.

Others in the community were decorating their own houses and storefronts with the ribbons. Shortly after David and Gloria Kurtinaitis, owners of Forte’s Florist in Wading River, got word of the tragedy they used their own material to decorate their shopping complex with the symbol.

Red ribbons adorn businesses, homes and other public areas in Shoreham to honor Andrew McMorris, a 12-year-old Boy Scout from Troop 161 who was killed by an allegedly drunk driver Sept. 30. Photo by Kyle Barr

“It’s great when the community comes together, it’s just a hard way to do it,” David Kurtinaitis said.

The incident occurred Sept. 30 as the troop was taking a day hike through the Greenbelt Trail in Manorville. Thomas Murphy, 59, of Holbrook was driving a 2016 Mercedes southbound on David Terry Road at approximately 1:55 p.m. when his vehicle struck the scouts who were walking northbound on the shoulder of the roadway, according police.

McMorris was rushed to the hospital but died due to his injuries Oct. 1, police said. Along with McMorris four other boys were also hit by the driver. Denis Lane, 16, of Shoreham; Kaden Lynch, 15, of Calverton; and Matthew Yakaboski, 15, of Calverton, sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Thomas Lane, 15, of Shoreham, was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital where he has continued to be treated for serious injuries as of Oct. 5.

Murphy was charged with driving while intoxicated, though Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini’s (D) office has left open the possibility of upgrading the charges. An attorney for Murphy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The SWR school district has put a notice on its website saying support services were available to students and staff, and that parents or guardians could call the school should they wish their children to get grief support.

In a statement released to Newsday, the McMorris family shared Andrew’s love for acting, the Boy Scouts and aviation.

“Andrew wanted to fly before he could walk,” the statement read. “Airplanes, helicopters and rockets were the obsession of his life, and he achieved his first piloting goal this past summer during AeroCamp … Andrew was occasionally chided by parents, coaches and teachers for having his head in the clouds, but for Andrew, that only made sense.”

The support for the scout troop members and the McMorris family has even extended beyond the Shoreham community. A GoFundMe fundraising campaign for Troop 161 has exceeded $13,000 of a $15,000 goal as of Oct. 5, just five days after Andrew’s passing.

Andrew participated in AeroCamp, a youth flight educational program hosted by Mid Island Air Service. The organization released a statement highlighting Andrew’s love for aviation.

Red ribbons adorn businesses in Shoreham to honor Andrew McMorris, a 12-year-old Boy Scout from Troop 161 who was killed by an allegedly drunk driver Sept. 30. Photo by Kyle Barr

“Andrew worked hard during camp to complete his Boy Scout Aviation Merit Badge and we were so proud of him,” the statement read. “We are saddened by this senseless loss and offer his family our deepest condolences.”

A Change.org petition titled “Name an AA 787 after Andrew McMorris,” which seeks to get American Airlines to name a jet after Andrew, has already reached well over 12,000 signatures. The petition’s creator, aviation photographer Hunter Lyons, is seeking response from the airline that could help get Andrew’s name on a plane.

Andrew is survived by his mother, Alisha, father, John and sister, Arianna. In their statement the family asked that no items be placed as memorials at the scene of the crash, and instead that residents tie a red ribbon to their property, and that instead of sending flowers residents donate to Troop 161, WHAM and MADD.

“Bright and hardworking, Andrew was an honor roll student,” the family’s statement said. “Classmates, teachers and friends found him sometimes silly, always funny and, occasionally, a bit cheeky. He was a friend to everyone and showed kindness to all.”

This post was updated Oct. 8 to include the possibility the District Attorney will upgrade charges against Murphy.

Graffiti, broken windows discovered on the property Aug. 27

Shoreham-Wading River School District is preparing to seek proposals for the sale or lease of the Briarcliff Elementary School building. Photo by Kyle Barr

Shoreham-Wading River School District has announced it’s in the final stages of exploring a sale of the vacant Briarcliff Elementary School building and property after it was vandalized with graffiti and windows were broken Aug. 26.

The school district posted a notice to its website Aug. 29 saying it had started the process of publicizing a request for proposals about a sale or lease of the property and that it will be submitted to the board at its Sept. 25 meeting.

Graffiti found on the vacant Briarcliff Elementary School building Aug. 27. Photo by Kyle Barr

“As a follow up to the feedback received during the public workshops the district held last winter and spring, the board of education is in the early stages of exploring the possible lease or sale of the facility with the help of a specialized real estate agent identified through a RFP process,” the district said in a statement. “No final decision on this matter has been made to this date as an RFP is in the development stages.”

Briarcliff Elementary School closed its doors in 2014. It was built in 1907. Since its closure, the district has had to pay for ongoing operating costs — approximately $95,000 annually, according to the district.

In April, district officials sat down with residents in round-table discussions about possible options for the Briarcliff property located on Briarcliff Road in Shoreham. While many residents said they would like to keep the property in the district’s hands, such as moving either the library or district offices to that location, officials stated there was very little they could use the building for. The school board voted to create an RFP on a sale of the property at its June 26 meeting.

Graffiti found on the vacant Briarcliff Elementary School building Aug. 27. Photo by Kyle Barr

The announcement of the intent to sell comes a few days after the property was vandalized. A member of the Shoreham/Wading River Community Facebook group posted photos at about noon Aug. 26 showing graffiti along the rear end of the property closest to the field and playground. One door labeled “16” had been pulled open and two windows right next to it had been smashed.

The graffiti was largely random, some showing expletives. One message read “make out hill,” and another said “Hallow (sic) Point,” most likely misspelling “hollow point.” The windows that were broken had already been boarded up with metal plates and the door relocked by Aug. 29.

The school district called the police at approximately 1:30 p.m. the same day, a spokesperson for Suffolk County police said. Later that afternoon the district put a notice on its website saying it was working with law enforcement in an ongoing investigation.

“The District takes matters of safety and security very seriously,” district officials said in a statement. “Briarcliff, like each of our schools, is monitored through video surveillance, by members of our district staff and through the use of an alarm system. The district is cooperating with members of law enforcement to the fullest extent possible.”

Graffiti found on the vacant Briarcliff Elementary School building Aug. 27. Photo by Kyle Barr

The building already has a number of security cameras along its facade. One is located on the main entrance, another at the entrance to the trailers on the northern part of the property and another behind the property. Though there are also flood lights located on the roof of the property facing the back field.

Shoreham resident Lisa Geraghty has been following the ongoing Briarcliff story for more than a year, and she said she understands the tough decisions the school board had to make on the property.

“The nearly $100,000 annual cost to maintain the building with just enough winter heat to prevent the pipes from freezing and occasional mowing and security checks could never cover the amount of work the building needs,” Geraghty said. “The six-figure maintenance cost isn’t enough to cover steady security.”

The district will be hosting its next school board meeting Sept. 4.

Shoreham-Wading River school district Superintendent Gerard Poole, second from left, and the board of education. Photo by Kevin Redding

The board of education was met with loud cheers and a round of applause for its decision March 27.

Shoreham-Wading River school district added pre-kindergarten classes in its initial 2018-19 budget, but after receiving backlash from parents, the board unanimously voted to remove it from the plans.

“I’m a firm believer in early childhood education,” said Shoreham resident Megan Rowick, who said she attended the March 20 meeting in favor of the idea, but that her feelings quickly changed. “There are great benefits for social, emotional and cognitive development, and while not mandated by New York State I feel that pre-K is a gift.”

She explained what changed her mind.

“I absolutely support public education and I am a big proponent of a pre-K program in Shoreham-Wading River. But it’s our job not to push our own agenda, and I hear what the community is saying and want to make a decision based on that.”

— Erin Hunt

“When I saw the plans I immediately had concerns, and I know I’m not alone,” said the pre-K, kindergarten and first-grade teacher, whose son and 3-year-old daughter will have gone through pre-K programs. “Why wasn’t the community surveyed to see who has children that will be 4 years old before Dec. 1 and who would be interested in this pre-K program? It would have been helpful to gather information prior to this, then you would know how many sections you really need, or who would choose our program.”

The board of education announced at its March 20 meeting the plan was to include the addition of part-time pre-K classes into the district’s $74,776,072 budget draft. To fund the proposed program and avoid piercing the tax levy increase cap while keeping at the current 0.9 percent increase budget-to-budget, $270,000 in contingent funds was worked into the draft. Kindergarten class sizes would have increased at Miller Avenue School to clear classrooms for the program.

Residents questioned if the district had done sufficient research.

Wading River resident Robin Heavey said she was concerned, since the program was set to begin with an expectation of declining district enrollment, that if the trend were to reverse, the larger class sizes would place a burden on the teachers and their students.

“I do not think it is fair to those children, especially at such a tender age when they are learning reading and mathematics and things that require such attention from teachers, to put them in a situation where they are increasing their numbers for a non-essential and a non-required program,” she said.

Colette Grosso agreed that there’s no crystal ball for what enrollment would look like, and added she would prefer to see the money spent elsewhere.

“When you say the money could be used for this [pre-K] program or things that come up as needed, I’m just wondering why some of our needs over the past couple of years have not been addressed,” the Shoreham mother said. “We’ve had two suicides, I can’t even quantify how many suicide attempts we’ve had, several of which have been this year.  You’ve got kids in the hospital for anxiety, eating disorders, all kinds of things — with the current climate, don’t we think security and mental health staff would be the best use of this money?”

Wading River resident Nick Gallucci pointed out the elected representatives on the board campaigned on a message of financial responsibility last year. He asked the board if pre-K would not just be economically feasible now, but five years from now.

“I think pre-K is an essential element to a child’s education,” he said, adding his two children have gone to pre-K through a private organization in Wading River. “My belief right now is that this is getting rushed to get passed when there is a general distrust in the district’s spending habits. Tying pre-K into a budget in a rushed manner regardless of the negative tax cap only fosters that district and strays far for the 2017 hashtag #RestoreTheFaith.”

The 17-year public education high school teacher pointed out how last year’s budget just passed with a close 1,112-992 vote and said while he originally indented to stand up in front of the board and ask that pre-K be a separate proposition in the budget vote, he understood it is no longer an option after the district decided it would be packaged within the budget. He said, looking at the issue like a patchwork quilt — trying to do a lot with a little — he now sides with those who wanted pre-K removed from the budget.

“My belief right now is that this is getting rushed to get passed when there is a general distrust in the district’s spending habits.”

— Nick Gallucci

“My fear is heading into this budget that they are going to vote on one issue, and I don’t want my child’s education within this district being jeopardized by a program that is already existing within this community,” he said. “Perhaps our focus should be on things that cannot be replicated.”

Board of education president Robert Rose agreed that while no one could argue with the merits of a pre-K program, the process left much to be desired.

“Why the rush?” he asked before then asking the board if it was unanimous in removing the item from the budget. “The board should give the same about of time to pre-K like we are the future of the Briarcliff building. Are we really prepared? We’re putting the horse before the cart.”

Rose said Superintendent Gerard Poole recommended to the board on three separate occasions to hold off including pre-K in the budget — that it wasn’t the best fit this year. Rose said Poole also made the recommendation the board take the next six months to work with the community on the idea.

“We want to make sure it’s the most transparent process possible,” he said.

Trustee Erin Hunt, who proposed the idea after hearing the desire for a program from other residents, personally agreeing, said she appreciated the feedback and is thankful that the past two meetings people had shown up.

“I wish the conversation went differently — I absolutely support public education and I am a big proponent of a pre-K program in Shoreham-Wading River,” she said. “But it’s our job not to push our own agenda, and I hear what the community is saying and want to make a decision based on that. To potentially sacrifice the negative levy for a program I personally believe in I think is a mistake. I would never want a budget, especially this one, which is an outstanding budget, to fail.”

The Shoreham power plant on North Country Road provides peak power to the community and payments in lieu of taxes to the Shoreham-Wading River school district. Photo from Jason White

A Brookhaven organization recently saved energy in the most literal sense, and a reliable revenue stream too.

The Town of Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency (IDA) announced Nov. 27 it prevented the shutdown of an electric-generating plant in Shoreham, which provides peak power to the community and is expected to contribute $852,000 in property taxes or payments in lieu of taxes, commonly known as PILOTs, to the Shoreham-Wading River school district this year.

Brookhaven’s business arm has entered into a new, 20-year PILOT agreement with owners of the 90 megawatt, jet-fueled facility located on 10 acres of land on North Country Road, leased by the Long Island Power Authority. The facility’s previous PILOT and power purchase agreement between LIPA and Brookhaven expired this past August after 15 years.

In the proposal for the PILOT, which became the adopted policy when it was approved by the IDA in January 2017, projected gradual benefits range from $1.2 million in its first year to $1.7 million in its 20th.

The partnership began in September 2016 when members of J-Power USA — owners of the facility since 2010 — realized the expired pact would bring about a 33 percent reduction in revenue and a 50 percent reduction in economic benefits. The members were also told by LIPA representatives that the nonprofit would not be involved in negotiating a new PILOT.

“We wanted to see if Brookhaven would be able to offer a new PILOT that would  allow us to remain financially viable and our agreement has removed that big uncertainty,” said Jason White, director of asset management at the J-Power Shoreham branch. “Our facility uses General Electric combustion
turbines and while it doesn’t operate a lot, it’s important to the electric grid for stability purposes. It’s maintained so that it can respond very quickly if it’s called upon.”

White said although there had to be consideration to disassemble the power plant and move off Long Island in the case an agreement couldn’t be reached, it wouldn’t be a simple process, and the facility’s six
employees live close by.

“Our preference all along was to continue to operate the plant site and to continue to be a contributor to the local community,” White said.

By securing the power plant’s place in Shoreham, revenue is boosted for the school district, which relies heavily on it as a source of both energy and property tax revenue.

“I am pleased that we have been able to close on this new agreement with J-Power,” said Frederick Braun, chairman of the IDA. “Had we been unable to keep this plant from moving off Long Island with this new agreement, the Shoreham School District and other taxing jurisdictions would receive no payments at all, resulting in an even larger loss to those taxing jurisdictions.

The school district, which included the finalization of $852,000 in PILOT revenue in its Revised and Lowered Expenditure Budget & Tax Levy in October, approved the agreement in a resolution during a board meeting last Jan. 10.

“Be it resolved that the Board of Education of the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District supports the proposed financial assistance contemplated by the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency in connection with the J-Power Peaker Plant,” the letter read.

Lisa Mulligan, the IDA’s chief executive officer, said she had been in contact with the district’s board of education since meetings began with J-Power “as they were the most impacted by this.”

“We didn’t want to pursue something if they were not interested in it,” Mulligan said. “But the board wrote to us and told us they were … I think it’s important to bring money into the school district and also provide this power to residents when it’s needed.”