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Scandal boosts South Country voter turnout

Voting booths at the Bellport Middle School on

Voting booths at the Bellport Middle School on May 15, 2012. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Voters frustrated by a grade-fixing scandal that erupted in the South Country Central School District last year turned out in force Tuesday to elect a slate of three candidates who pledged to be more transparent.

Residents also voted roughly 2-1 in favor of a 2.49 percent tax levy increase.

Incumbents Lisa Di Santo Grossman and Robert Powell retained their seats, and newcomer Christopher Picini also won a spot on the board.

"We just turned an ocean liner on a dime," Picini said moments after learning he won. "Now, we can move forward."

More than 3,000 people braved the rain to cast their ballots Tuesday at Bellport Middle School, where they had their choice among seven candidates running for three at-large school board seats.

The election comes less than two months after former Superintendent Joseph Cipp Jr. resigned amid a grade-fixing scandal involving a former football player.

Cipp, Suffolk County's winningest football coach in a career that spanned more than three decades, was accused of boosting a star athlete's grades to win the student an athletic scholarship to Syracuse University.

Both Cipp and the player, Ryan Sloan, a freshman at Syracuse and a member of its football team, have denied the allegations.

The issue divided the school board -- which fought openly about the matter for months -- and the community. Parents who came by the hundreds to packed school board meetings said the argument had spilled into the schools with pro- and anti-Cipp camps arguing in the hallways.

Larry Stuchell, 46, is eager for at least one new face on the board: Picini.

The board has been criticized for its alleged lack of transparency and for not considering the needs of the entire community. Stuchell said he wants board members to pay attention to all students, not a chosen few.

The school district budget increased from $113,995,963 to $114,875,060 for the 2012-2013 school year. The tax levy rose from the current $53,353,439 to $54,680,246.

The 2.49 percent tax levy increase did not pierce the state's tax cap.

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