21 candidates backed by Long Island Opt-Out win school board seats

Kelli Anne Jennings, left, and Diana Andrade, here

Kelli Anne Jennings, left, and Diana Andrade, here in front of Tremont Elementary School in Medford on May 25, 2014, are newly elected Patchogue-Medford school board members who were endorsed by Long Island Opt-Out. (Credit: James Carbone)

Twenty-one school-board candidates backed by a Long Island group that supports students' rights to refuse state testing won seats in the May 20 elections, including six challengers who ousted incumbents.

Jubilant leaders of the Long Island Opt-Out organization said victories by their endorsed candidates in 14 districts, spotted across the region from Hewlett-Woodmere to East Quogue, showed the strength of their movement.

Long Island Opt-Out had endorsed 42 candidates in 26 districts. For Nassau and Suffolk counties overall, the elections filled 250 board seats in 124 districts.

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"You have to be involved, you have to agitate," said Jeanette Deutermann, an opt-out leader and mother of two students in North Bellmore. "When you talk about effecting changes across the Island, it really came down to dealing with boards of education that can make these decisions."

State education officials have repeatedly said that students who opt out of testing lose the chance to compare their own academic progress against common benchmarks of achievement.

Thousands of parents across the region have protested New York State's standardized testing system since the spring of 2013, when exams were revamped to reflect tougher Common Core academic standards. Student passage rates plummeted that year.

Earlier this month, 10,765 children opted out of the latest round of state math tests, according to a Newsday survey of more than half the Island's districts. The figures represented about 1 of 8 students in those districts.

In the East Meadow district, some parents complained that students who refused to take tests were told to remain at their desks without reading materials, rather than going to school libraries, as allowed in some other districts. East Meadow parents dubbed the practice "sit-and-stare."

The controversy carried over to the polls.

On Tuesday, Scott Eckers, 33, an East Meadow resident endorsed by Long Island Opt-Out, won a seat on his district's board. Eckers beat out incumbent Corey Fanelli, 24.

"You can't punish students for what the parents decide, so I don't think the policy of sit-and-stare is appropriate," said Eckers, who teaches social studies in another district.

He added that he supports higher academic standards, but believes the rollout of the new regimen has been bungled.

East Meadow school officials declined to comment.

Other winning board candidates backed by Long Island Opt-Out included Alexandra Gordon, 41, of Port Jefferson Station, a constituent affairs aide in the office of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone; James Sanchez, 59, also of Port Jefferson Station, a purser aboard the local ferry; and Michael Beneventano, 20, of Hicksville, a sophomore at St. John's University and intern with the Major League Baseball commissioner's office.

At least eight of the victors have education-related backgrounds. They include Carolyn Dodd, 67, of Amityville, a former president of that district's local teacher union, and Sean Callahan, 45, of Rocky Point, an attorney with New York State United Teachers, a statewide union group.

Diana Andrade, 45, an endorsed winner in the Patchogue-Medford district, is a teaching artist in Suffolk elementary schools and a dance instructor. Another local victor supported by Long Island Opt-Out, Kelli Jennings, 36, is a per-diem special education teacher and speech therapist.

Andrade and Jennings beat three other candidates, including Brett Houdek, 53, the board's incumbent president, who works as a manager at National Grid in Hicksville.

"I think we have a large number of parents in the district who have woken up because of Common Core," Andrade said.

She added that her own son, a third-grader, has struggled with a new math curriculum. Houdek declined to comment.

Regional analysts said school board races are imprecise measures of political trends, but that remarks by candidates at recent state political conventions indicate that education issues are hot this year.

"It's clear that Common Core and other educational issues are going to be influential in the candidates' pursuing suburban voters," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

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