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Voters weigh in on school budgets, candidates

A sign urging for a "yes" vote across

A sign urging for a "yes" vote across from Baldwin Middle School as Long Islanders prepare vote tomorrow on school budget and board elections. (May 20, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

As voters traipsed in and out of Bellport Middle School Tuesday afternoon, they spoke of the choice of supporting the school budget or reigning in costs.

"I passed it, because it's for the kids," said Danette Washington of Bellport, who has two kids attending district schools.

Kathy DiFranco, also of Bellport, said she supported the budget even without a personal stake in the schools. "It's something we feel strongly about, even though we don't have kids," she said.

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Ryan Crabtree of Bellport, who is a teacher in another district and father of two daughters who attend South Country schools, also voted for the budget. "I want educational quality to stay," he said.

Joe Farber of East Patchogue said he voted for the budget even as a father with grown children. "I felt that when we retire, we all want to vote the budget down. But everything goes up in costs-- and the kids need it," Farber said.

But the budget, which exceeds the state-mandated tax cap, also irked some residents.

"I'm tired of paying taxes for all these schools," said Leila Bryant of Bellport Village, who noted that she and her children attended Catholic schools. "It looks to me [the budget] is all teacher salaries. I want to see higher scores, higher marks."

And Tom Quinn of Bellport said he was upset about the rise in taxes. "It's getting to the tipping point where I can't sell my house because the taxes are too high," he said.



In Long Beach, where incumbent Roy J. Lester is being challenged by Matthew Adler, Jes Bellsey and Elizabeth Treston, turnout was steady in the late afternoon at Lido Beach Middle School.

Alan Graboyes of Lido Beach said he voted for Lester, 63, who has spent a total of 12 years on the board spanning three separate terms. Graboyes said he voted for Lester because the incumbent has a history of responding quickly to constituents' needs.

"He's accessible. A very honest gentleman," Graboyes said.

But Jean Hauser of Lido Beach said she voted for Bellsey, 33, because believes the school board needs a change.

"I think that we need someone younger on the board, and I like the fact that she's been through the school system here," Hauser said.



As North Babylon schools made a bid to pierce the state-imposed tax levy cap for the second year in a row with a $112 million budget, turnout appeared light Tuesday afternoon at Marion G. Vedder Elementary School, where administrators will gather tonight to announce the final vote count.

Many of those who trickled in at midday were retirees who nonetheless said they followed school issues closely. "This school does a good job," said Rose Grant, 87, who said she voted to approve the budget. "This is for our children's future, for all our futures."

Meryl Williams, 70, retired from a 36-year career teaching in schools from Hauppauge to Taipei, said she was willing to pay higher taxes if it meant preserving extracurriculars. "Not everybody is academically inclined," she said. "The teams, the art -- these are the extras that make life worth living." For her, those taxes were an investment: "Those kids are going to be taking care of us when we're old," she said.

But the budget Williams voted to approve, which includes a 3.4 percent tax levy increase, will cost most residents about $250 more than one that had stayed at the cap, with a 2.65 tax levy increase. Some of her neighbors said that would sting.

Irv Messinger, 86, said he lives on a fixed income and "any increase they have, I have to take from somewhere … For some people, it's the difference between whether I buy drugs to save my life, or I don't eat quality food, or I skip meals."

Messinger's friend Paul Lurie, wouldn't say how he intended to vote, but made it clear that both the costs and benefits carried weight for him.

"I've taken advantage of public schools with my children, and our children went through state university," he said. "I understand the value of public education but I want them to take a good look at what they're doing."

Because it will pierce the tax levy cap, North Babylon's budget will require approval from 60 percent of voters, rather than a simple majority.



Besides budgets, today's elections feature several hotly contested school-board races.

In Wyandanch, challengers James Crawford and Yvonne Holder Robinson seek to unseat incumbents Barry Sexton and Michael Talbert Sr. Both Crawford and Robinson have served as board trustees before -- a common occurrence in the Wyandanch district, where political control shifts frequently.

This afternoon, both sets of candidates sat under pavilion awnings in a school parking lot, passing out campaign literature. Robinson, 57, said she had been there since 6:45 a.m.

"The main issue is coming in and cleaning up the problem -- making sure the teachers are on task, and the children have the books they need," Robinson said.

Another issue revolves around a report that surfaced last week, accusing a former Wyandanch superintendent, Sherman Roberts, of using a doctorate from an unaccredited college to collect $3,000-a-year stipends. The report, from a private attorney hired by the district, recommended that school officials demand the money back. Roberts, who still works as a district registration director, has declined to comment on the report.

The report has become a campaign issue -- though residents speak of it only privately -- because Talbert was once a vocal Roberts supporter.

Robinson declined to discuss the report this afternoon, saying it was a legal matter.

Talbert walked away from his pavilion when approached by a reporter, and Sexton would not comment except in response to Robinson's assertion that the district was in a "mess."

"Well, she created the mess," Sexton said.



Hempstead residents took to the polls Tuesday mostly seeking change of the school board and were split about approving the proposed $178.8 million budget for 2013-14, keeping in mind students’ needs.

The proposed budget calls for a 2.99 budget percent increase and a 1.98 percent local tax levy increase, which is within the state tax levy cap of 2.87 percent.

“I voted down the budget,” said community activist Diane Goins, 70, who has lived in the village for 22 years. “These children are not getting the education that they should get. We get the most state aid out of all the districts and the children can’t read.”

Goins said she voted for incumbent JoAnn Simmons, a two-term trustee, and newcomer Tia Morris, an import specialist for a contractor of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“I feel Tia Morris might tip the scale back to where it should be,” Goins said.

Community activist Reginald Benjamin, 56, who has lived in Hempstead for 15 years, said he voted down the budget. He voted for Lamont Johnson, a retired Hempstead Village police officer of 19 years, and Andre Fields, an assistant project counselor for a non-profit organization and a 2005 Hempstead High School graduate.

“The school board needs to change,” said Benjamin, executive director of ABBA (Able Bodies of Believer’s Alliance) Leadership Center in Hempstead. “The board has been disorganized. They don’t represent the needs of the community… I’m looking to change the entire board.”

But residents like Carolyn Richardson, 64, voted to approve the budget. She also voted for Simmons and Johnson.

“Lamont was a very good police officer,” said Richardson, who has lived in the village since 1967. “He’s for the children.”

Village resident Denise Brown, 59, also voted to approve the budget citing that the students need afterschool programs and more books. The 1972 Hempstead High School graduate has lived in the village for 40 years.

“There is a lot of things the kids should have and they don’t have,” Brown said.



As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, nearly 300 people had already voted in East Quogue's 2013-14 school budget, according to district clerk Lenore Rezza.

Voters in East Quogue were weighing whether to pass a $23 million budget that would pierce the property tax cap.

The proposed levy would rise 4.65 percent, exceeding the state tax cap limit of

2.46 percent for the district.

The proposed budget includes a teacher salary increase of 1.75 percent.

Two teacher aides and a part-time librarian would be cut.

Linda Stanton, 62, of East Quogue, voted against the proposed budget.

"I think it's a little much," she said. "I'm retired and living on Social Security, so it's very difficult to meet these rising costs. Seniors are already struggling to hold onto their homes."

Stanton retired in 2011 after working as administrator for Westhampton Beach's building department.

"I hate to take programs away from the kids and see them do without, but there's just got to be another way to move around the funds without raising taxes," she said.

Ralph Pepe, a special education teacher at Sachem North High School in Lake Ronkonkoma, voted to pass the budget in an effort to allow the district to continue providing quality education.

"My four children went through the East Quogue school system and got a great education," said Pepe, 57, of East Quogue. "I'd be shortsighted if I didn't vote to pass the budget. How could I vote down a budget and hold these kids back from getting the quality education my kids did."



At Half Hollow East High School in Dix Hills, voter turnout was brisk in the late morning to early afternoon. A small sampling of voters found that their top issues included school board transparency, student participation, school closings and administrator salaries.

Carol Morisco and Diana Mohrman, both 40-plus-year residents of the district, said they think the district is “wonderful” and does a good job of educating students and they want to see the district maintain that standard. But they did have questions about how some board decisions were made this year, especially how the district could at first float suggestions of deep cuts and closing a school, only to settle with keeping the school open.

“We need more transparency,” Morisco said. “If we didn’t need to make all of those cuts why were they put out there. Where did the extra money come from to fill the gap? I’m not sure how they made up the gap.”

Jacob Henner, 18, said voting in his first school board election was the fulfillment of his civic duty and also a chance to represent the population most impacted by school budgets.

“In general the process needs more student involvement,” he said. “Also there is a lack of getting student opinions and that’s a big problem in the process.”

For example, he said when the district decided to create a committee to look into closing one of the district schools in the future, students were not asked to join.

“The people they were requesting to join were people from each building, and parents, but not students,” Henner said. “That’s a concern.”

Kelly Woodworth agreed. The 21-year-old was voting in her second school board election. She said she came out to show her support for art department programs. It was disappointing, she said, that more young people are not voting.

“A lot of my friends are registered and don’t vote because they don’t care,” she said. “If you don’t vote, then it‘s like a vote for the side that you wouldn’t want.”

Potential school closings were a hot topic. In January, the district announced it was considering such closures as a cost-saving measure.

Jane Landow, a senior citizen who has lived in the district for 16 years, praised the district's programs but said closing a school might be a good idea.

“You don’t keep a school open if there are no students in it,” she said. “It should go according to the needs of the people.”

And as far as those good programs and services for residents, she said she was especially delighted with the quicker voting system, which the district has used for the last two elections.

“It was a breeze,” Landow said. “I was in and out in no time. The district is very organized.”

Stanley Kalemaris, who graduated from the district in 1960, said he thought the board should have closed one of the schools. “I think the board was a little timid in its decision,” he said. “The demand is going down. I think if they had closed one of the schools they could have saved some programs.”


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