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Syosset Board Members Discuss New Ideas

Board and administration consider proposals from trustees DiFilippo and Lafazan while congratulating student achievement

After August’s contentious board meeting, members of the Syosset CSD Board of Education were largely on the same page at the Monday, Sept. 24 meeting. While some residents in attendance made it clear that they were unsatisfied with the district’s policies for community participation during the Audience to the Public segment, a cooperative board and administration who were largely receptive to the many ideas proposed by new trustees Josh Lafazan and Chris DiFilippo made for a sometimes tense, but productive meeting.

It was clear that the board was ironing out the protocol for having in-depth discussions of policy in public, in keeping with the desire of many in the district to see the board operate with greater transparency. Board president Dr. Michael Cohen also disclosed that he had read Robert’s Rules of Order in the interim, which got an appreciative laugh from the audience.

In general district news, Superintendent Carol Hankin announced that the district’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) plan had been accepted by the state, one of a minority of plans submitted to have that distinction. She also congratulated South Woods Middle School on being named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

In financial news, Robert J. Kerr, chairman of the Board of the New York Municipal Advisors Corporation, spoke about bond refinancing, which the board went on to vote on later in the evening. Kerr praised the district’s AA bond rating. “In fact, there’s only a handful of districts in the state that have that type of rating, and that’s what produces most of the savings that you’ll realize when you refinance,” said Kerr.

In student recognition, the board congratulated the 18 students recently named National Merit Scholarship Semifinalists (the most in the high school’s history) and the 23 students chosen to either perform at All State or as an alternate by the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA). Syosset High School Music Department Coordinator Michael Salzman, who introduced the student musicians, commented that in a time when other districts were seeing fewer All State musicians due to shifting priorities, he was proud to be part of a district that valued music.

“At a time when test scores are driving so many decisions in education, Syosset remains a place dedicated to educating the whole child,” said Salzman.

The meeting changed tone during Audience to the Public, where several residents expressed serious concerns. Martin Ugell spoke of a “plan to mass-fire all 144 teaching assistants for unjust cause effective June 30, 2013.” Ugell, whose wife is a TA in the district, spoke highly of the TAs, saying they provided great support to the district’s special needs students and were by no means replaceable.

During Ugell’s statement, the bell rang that the speaker had run overtime. When Cohen tried to quiet Ugell, he responded. “I have been here once in 26 years; I would like you to listen to me.” He went on to ask if the firing was for the betterment of Syosset’s children.

In response, Hankin denied that there was any such plan. “There is no plan, at all, for this June to get rid of the TAs,” she said. “I can tell you for sure, we haven’t talked about doing that.” However, she added, somewhat cryptically, that anyone who was unhappy with the TA contracts should speak to the union representatives who negotiated them.

Resident Robert Gershon asked about the status of the investigation into last May’s infamous robocall, which has been brought up by residents at the last several meetings. Gershon disclosed that when he got the call, he had to step out of court, concerned for the safety of his children, only to find out later that the call was not an emergency.

“Who authorized that call? Why was it needed, and when will the Syosset School District parents and children be told why that call was made?” asked Gershon.

Cohen responded that the district’s attorney had told them that the Nassau County District Attorney’s office has done “absolutely nothing with it,” referring to the investigation. “With all that’s going on everywhere around us, he or she just doesn’t understand how this could ride to the level that some people would like it to rise,” said Cohen. When members of the audience called out that Cohen hadn’t answered the question, he further stated that he could not discuss it further because it was a pending legal matter.

Frequent speaker Fred Gang raised the subject of the Syosset-Jericho Tribune, calling attention to the fact that the paper has been dropped as an official paper for legal advertisements. [Editor’s Note: This is true. The Syosset-Jericho Tribune has not been given the district’s legal notices since July of 2011.]

“The Tribune has printed articles and editorials very critical of the district, its conduct during the May elections, and the lack of transparency at public meetings. Dropping the Tribune gives the appearance of retaliation and an attack on freedom of the press,” said Gang, who went on to urge the board to reinstate the district’s legal notices being printed in the Tribune.

The superintendent responded that the district liked the Tribune, and constantly sends the paper press releases. She said she would look into the issue, but was emphatic that if the paper had been dropped, it would not be for the reason Gang alleged.

After fielding several other questions, the board went on to vote on a full slate of resolutions, including the adoption of a revised Code of Conduct, a Preparation of Annual Budget Policy, and an Internet Safety Policy. All documents are available on the district’s website, www.syossetistops.org.

For the first time in recent memory, the meeting continued after voting was concluded, with trustees Lafazan and DiFilippo prompting several discussions. First, Lafazan again raised the issue of changing the district’s communication from mail to email, stating that this could save the district $75,000 a year in supplies, mailing costs and labor. Several board members responded that while they approved of moving more of the district’s communication to email in general, they felt it was premature to completely get rid of the mailings.

“The problem is, there are many people, whether they’re seniors or not, who don’t have access to computers. And they want a mailing as opposed to email,” said immediate past president Dr. Marc Herman.

Lafazan also raised the issue of allowing the television station MSG Varsity to come onto school property to record athletics and other school events; Syosset is one of the few schools on Long Island that does not have a partnership with the station. “They will not put anything on television that the school district does not pre-authorize,” said Lafazan.

Trustee Alan Resnick noted that in the past, MSG Varsity had offered the district a $3,000 stipend for the ability to come to the district and record events, however they did not seem to be willing to negotiate at that time and would only film on their terms. Resnick continued that if MSG Varsity was now willing to offer the district a different deal, it may be worth pursuing. Board vice president April Neuendorf suggested that Lafazan set up a meeting with MSG Varsity for the station to outline their plan, which Lafazan said he would endeavor to arrange.

Some of the other ideas proposed by Lafazan during the meeting were creating a committee of bond experts within the community to help verify that the district is getting the best deals financially, writing in-house textbooks that the district could then sell to other districts to create a new revenue stream, and the possibility of one or more board members attending the upcoming New York School Board’s Association Annual Conference in Rochester. Cohen said that the board would look into the logistics and legality of these ideas, and encouraged Lafazan to provide more information where applicable.

DiFilippo then made two motions, the first a request to create a committee to discuss cost efficiencies for the district. “By creating such a committee, it will elicit input from the community; that input can be brought back to the board…it’s about taking the voice of the community, what the people on the street feel we should be taking a look at to reduce costs,” said DiFilippo. The board agreed to look into it, albeit with the caveat that “cost efficiencies” may need to be better defined.

DiFilippo’s second motion was to move the middle school graduation in June from C.W. Post to district grounds, saving the district approximately $22,000. This proposal will be discussed further at the next meeting.

The next meeting of the board of education will be held on Monday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. at the South Woods Middle School Auditorium.