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Push for full-day kindergarten motivated school board candidacies

David Stein, who was voted in as a

David Stein, who was voted in as a trustee in the Northport School District, outside the Laurel Avenue Administration Office in Northport on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Credit: Andrew Theodorakis

Drives to expand full-day kindergarten classes in school elections across Long Island have boosted the candidacies of new school board trustees who pushed the issue in their home districts.

Voters in the Northport-East Northport district on Tuesday elected David Stein, 41, a retired New York City police lieutenant who led the fight for a full-day program there -- starting a Facebook page, organizing a petition and rallying hundreds of people to show up at meetings for months.

Stein's own 5-year-old will attend kindergarten in the fall at the district's Dickinson Avenue Elementary School.

"I became the face of the kindergarten movement, but it wasn't my movement, to be completely clear," Stein said Wednesday. "It wasn't my will, it was the will of the entire community speaking."

In East Meadow, meanwhile, a stay-at-home mother named Melissa Tell, 43, won a board seat, largely on the strength of her participation in a grassroots movement of full-day kindergarten advocates, who wore bright yellow T-shirts at board meetings to show their unity.

Tell's visibility during the campaign "absolutely" helped her get elected, said Jodi Luce, a psychologist and leader of the movement, who added that the shirts were a way of saying, "Here we are. You can see us. We are not going away."

Northport-East Northport and East Meadow were among four districts where voters approved budgets including full-day kindergartens. Elwood and Mount Sinai also did so.

Floral Park-Bellerose and Harborfields are the only remaining districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties without full-day programs, though Floral Park-Bellerose moved to an extended four-hour day last year.

On the Island, as elsewhere, successful school board candidacies often start with a popular cause -- say, a petition to restore sports teams or to extend bus transportation. Identification with such campaigns can give newcomers the motivation and just enough edge to oust board incumbents in races that tend to be tight.

Tell, for example, beat her opponent, Walter Skinner, 51, who has served nine years on East Meadow's board, by just 32 ballots. The vote was 2,608 to 2,576.

At the same time, East Meadow's $192.8 million budget, which carried a spending increase of 0.9 percent, passed overwhelmingly -- 4,620 to 1,350.

Tuesday's voting provided dozens of dramatic contrasts between multimillion-dollar budgets that breezed through at margins of better than 2-to-1, while board contests were being fought down to the last dozen votes.

Experienced school board leaders, however, said that this is not so surprising.

The only new development, those leaders added, is that school budgets are now winning majorities that might once have been unimaginable, mostly because of the impact of state tax caps that are holding increases to record lows.

Meanwhile, board races are playing out in a more traditional way, with newcomers seizing on emerging issues and sometimes managing to gain slight advantages on incumbents.

"Every year, there's always an issue," said Steve Witt, a former president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, now serving his 21st year on the Hewlett-Woodmere school board.

Witt himself won re-election Tuesday in an uncontested race, as did more than 70 other incumbent board trustees across the bi-county region.

One emerging issue is a statewide test-boycott movement, which has attracted tens of thousands of supporters in this area. Long Island Opt-Out, a parent-run organization, endorsed at least 78 candidates in 43 districts in Tuesday's election, including 53 candidates who won board seats.With Bart Jones

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