After a heated and at times divided election, Smithtown voters elected three new school board members. At the center of the debate was the district's response to COVID-19, the reopening of schools and race relations. Newsday's Chelsea Irizarry has more.  Credit: Howard Schnapp; Barry Sloan

Two of Long Island's larger school districts — Smithtown and Port Washington — ousted their incumbent school board candidates during Tuesday's elections, replacing them with people intent on change.

In Port Washington, challengers Adam Smith, Adam Block and Nanette Melkonian won three at-large seats over Lawrence Greenstein, Nora Johnson, Elizabeth Weisburd, all incumbents, and Justin Renna.

Block and Smith had asserted that many voters were unhappy over what they saw as the insufficient distance-learning last spring, as well as the district dragging its feet on restoring full-time in-person schooling in the fall.

In Smithtown, challengers Stacy Murphy, John Savoretti and Karen Wontrobski-Ricciardi defeated incumbents Mandi Kowalik, Charles Rollins and Jeremy Thode. The three campaigned on a platform that questioned the district's equity efforts and accused the district of teaching "critical race theory."

Long Island voters on Tuesday approved 116 of 120 school budgets for 2021-22, effective July 1. Across the Nassau-Suffolk region, budgets for 124 districts total a combined $13.75 billion. Four Island districts, voting early on May 11 because of the Jewish holiday, already had approved their budgets.

The four districts that failed to pass their budgets were Bridgehampton, Three Village, Wantagh and Northport-East Northport. Bridgehampton, Three Village and Wantagh were attempting to override their state tax cap.

A district experiencing a budget defeat has the option of revoting on the same budget, revoting on a revised budget, or skipping a revote and adopting a so-called contingency budget that freezes taxes at the previous year’s level.

Whereas school elections in the past have often been low-wattage affairs filled with unopposed incumbents and dry propositions, this year was peppered with pandemic-related issues and culture wars that have gripped the nation.

In Port Washington, Smith said that none of the challengers had any aspiration to run for the school board before the pandemic. But last August, school officials announced that the elementary school students would not be returning to in-person school five days a week.

Parents were outraged and began protesting in the fall. In response, the district moved to make in-person elementary schools the rule.

"That was the galvanizing issue," said Smith, 38, adding that the group since has broadened its message to focus on greater transparency, accountability and improving academics.

Melkonian ran as an independent, focusing on creating greater educational excellence and better communication between the school board and community.

Melkonian said she did not focus her campaign on critiquing the school board, but rather on "growth and progress." The former special educator said she has one child in the school system and two others who went through it.

In Smithtown, the three winners did not respond to attempts to reach them for comment Wednesday, but a leader of the Long Island Loud Majority, which supported them, said the win was just the beginning.

"This all started with five mothers not liking what their children were being taught," said Kevin Smith, of Lindenhurst, founder of the group. "This will not stop at Smithtown."

In March, Smithtown Assistant Superintendent Paul Strader told speakers during a school board meeting that the district had not "explicitly invested resources in the teaching of critical race theory." Critical race theory is a body of thought examining the intersection of race and the law.

Strader said the district was "providing opportunities for students to see themselves reflected in literature available through our school and classroom libraries so that all students can feel included, represented and part of the Smithtown school community."

Earlier this month, district administrators and school board members refused Newsday’s interview requests and did not answer questions about the district's equity work, which parents have said includes topics on race, but also those having to do with LGBTQ, special education and different cultures.

Laura Spencer, president of the Smithtown Teachers Association, said the school board race "did not go in the direction we were hoping."

"It is my hope that our newly elected Board of Education members will spend time getting to know what our curriculum actually is, and can see that many of the campaign statements do not reflect our practices in the classroom whatsoever," Spencer said.

Elaine Gross, of Huntington, president of ERASE Racism, also said she was disappointed with the election results in Smithtown.

"We can't sleep on this. We can't ignore this," Gross said. "We're helping people to understand the full history of our country."

She said the lack of such teaching is "why Long Island is among the 10 most segregated regions in the country."

The Northport-East Northport school district was among those who failed to pass their proposed budget.

The proposed budget of nearly $175 million narrowly lost by a vote of 2,069 to 1,902. District officials called for a 0.75% tax increase, well within the local cap limit.

On Wednesday, residents interviewed by Newsday described the "no" vote as a protest against Northport’s decision in April to close two elementary schools. The Bellerose Avenue and Dickinson Avenue schools are due to shut down in August.

"I can tell you why I personally voted ‘no’ — they don’t listen to us," said Kyle Halm, a former medical assistant and stay-at-home dad who objected to the idea of shuttering schools important to their neighborhoods. "One of the trustees on Facebook said we were wrong to vote ‘no.’ But my son comes first and other people’s children come first."

Nicole Richichi, a clinical social worker and mother of two, said she and her husband voted in favor of the budget, but knew dozens of people who opposed it.

"I do know a lot of people are very unhappy about the closing of the two schools while taxes are still going up," Richichi said.

A school board member, Thomas Loughran, denounced the negative votes as wrong, adding, "Voting down the budget isn’t going to reopen the two schools."

Superintendent Robert Banzer, in a statement, said: "The district is currently processing the results of the budget vote and determining the appropriate path forward. … The budget will be discussed further at a special Board of Education meeting" on May 27.

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