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School Board Struggles To Find Common Ground

Issues include communications, board protocol at long, difficult meeting

The last meeting of 2012 for the Syosset CSD Board of Education started off on a somber note with a moment of silence for the 26 victims of the Newtown, CT school shooting. However, the quiet, contemplative mood did not continue: the Monday, Dec. 17 meeting was filled with arguments. While the board did cover a wide variety of topics, clearly granting the community’s wish from earlier in the year for greater transparency and more public discussion, several trustees, as well as the residents in the audience, often seemed confused about what was going on. Several months into the 2012-2013 academic year, it seems the board is still figuring out how to work together effectively.

Even a seemingly simple suggestion, like trustee Josh Lafazan’s motion to set up an official district Facebook page to be used for emergency communications during storms like Hurricane Sandy, resulted in a lot of friction; Superintendent Dr. Carole G. Hankin indicated she didn’t see what purpose a Facebook page would serve, board president Dr. Michael Cohen said that communication during the hurricane had been sufficient, and trustee Stephanie Avidon contended that keeping up with a Facebook page was really “a full-time job.” As he did throughout the evening with several motions, Lafazan tried to garner support for his idea, only to have the board unable to come to a consensus and prolong the decision for another night.

There also appeared to be a lack of consensus about proper board protocol. In response to a question from resident Fred Gang about splitting large classes into two smaller sections, Cohen said that he and board vice president April Neuendorf had spent plenty of time at a district school discussing the issue with parents and faculty. Trustee Dr. Marc Herman (who recently stepped down this past summer after a long tenure as board president) asked for specifics about this visit, since he was not aware of it. Cohen seemed taken aback by this request.

“There’s no conspiracy,” said Cohen.

“I didn’t say there was a conspiracy, you did,” said Herman. This exchange led to an argument between Cohen and Herman, which briefly derailed the meeting. Cohen contended that Herman’s accusatory behavior was inappropriate in light of the recent Newtown school shooting.

“It’s like Newtown doesn’t exist for some people in this room,” said Cohen.

Trustee Chris DiFilippo also presented several motions, including the proposal to create a subcommittee on finance where residents could offer feedback on financial concerns. Trustee Dr. Alan Resnick noted that he received an email with information for this proposal that day at 4 p.m., timing he considered “inappropriate” since board members were left with little time to peruse it. DiFilippo agreed to move the discussion back to next month, but noted that the timing was not out of the ordinary.

“This district has very often given information on the same day [as the meeting], often close to 4 p.m.,” he said dryly.

Another major area of discussion was MSG Varsity, the television network that broadcasts high school sports as well as extracurricular activities like Robotics and Mock Trial. Syosset remains one of the few districts on Long Island that does not have a relationship with the network. MSG gave a presentation on the services they offer at the October meeting, and while competitor Fios was supposed to make a presentation at a later meeting, they have yet to appear. Lafazan insisted that now that Fios had cancelled its presentation twice, the company had displayed a lack of interest in the account and the district should sign up with MSG before the next athletic season begins.

However, Hankin clarified that Fios had only cancelled on the district once; she herself had asked them not to come to the December meeting due to the number of presentations already on the agenda. The board appeared to come to a consensus to invite Fios once again and to sign up with one network or the other at the January 2013 meeting.

In general, most of the disagreements centered over communications and the proper role of the board, with Lafazan and DiFilippo in particular asking for more community participation in district decisions, as well as more access to information. Hankin, who seemed visibly upset towards the end of the evening, said that these topics were “all very nice, but they don’t have anything to do with the education of our children. That’s my job.”

In addition to these discussions, the board also viewed two presentations: one from award winners in the Siemens Science Competition. Ranjeev Chabra (regional finalist) and Kush Dave (semifinalist), and a presentation about a possible $16 million-plus energy performance contract with Johnson Controls. The technology firm, which has done similar projects at schools all over Long Island, proposed a 17.9-year project to overhaul the energy efficiency of district buildings for a proposed $503,980 in eventual savings. Included in this project would be new lighting, an energy management system that would allow staff members to adjust lighting and temperatures remotely, and replacements for the district’s aging boiler systems, particularly at the elementary schools. Hankin noted that replacing the boilers was imperative for safety reasons.

In response to a question from DiFilippo, it was determined that the technology involved would be non-proprietary, meaning the new systems could be serviced by a third-party if necessary. Lafazan asked Hankin if the board was voting on the contract that night and she replied in the affirmative; later, when he asked why the vote wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda, she said they were not voting on it that evening, and there was no vote.

Towards the end of the three-hour-plus meeting, Hankin acknowledge the issues that were evident to everyone in the South Woods Middle School Auditorium. “This is a board struggling, and as the superintendent, I’m struggling…I hope someone is listening, because there’s a lot at stake here.”

However, despite all the friction, the board did demonstrate that they are making the effort to become more open to the community; the two-minute time limit for comments and questions from the audience, recently criticized for being too short, has now been doubled to four minutes. Residents were repeatedly encouraged to take advantage of the Audience To the Public segment to voice their concerns, both that evening and going forward.

The next meeting of the board of education will be held on Monday, Jan. 14 at South Woods Middle School.