Smithtown Central School District returned bumpily to in-person Board of Education meetings this week with heated exchanges between school board candidates and district trustees.
The public portion of a two-hour meeting Tuesday night began one hour in with questions from Stacy Murphy, a school board candidate who led rallies starting last summer for a return to 5-day, in-person schooling for all students. District officials, citing pandemic concerns, did not make that shift until this spring.
"Parents had to take the reins and relentlessly hold this district accountable to provide a 5-day option … and relentlessly monitor every decision because we lost the trust you would do this for us," said Murphy, a guidance counselor for Amityville schools whose children attend school in Smithtown.
"Every decision I made was in the safety of kids, the staff and the community," answered one trustee, Jeremy Thode. "People in this community lost their lives because of COVID … I never wanted to be responsible for having one kid or family die because we’re letting more kids in, because we didn’t know all the stuff that was out there."
District officials moved cautiously in the face of a stubbornly high infection rate and at times changing guidance from federal health officials. But as a consensus grew among experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that schools could open safely, some parents grew frustrated as Smithtown lagged neighboring districts that moved more swiftly to reopen. Murphy and others said the district’s hybrid model for older students — alternating remote and in-person learning to make social distancing easier in schools — had been largely a failure because of technical problems and difficulties inherent in remote learning.
Murphy complicated that picture with comments Tuesday that alluded to "groups of people in power and control that want certain things to be done" with "priorities and agendas going ahead of our kids." When an apparently puzzled board member asked for clarification, she named those groups: teachers unions.
Smithtown Teachers’ Association officers did not respond to a request for comment. STA is a member of the New York State United Teachers union, which said in a release earlier this year that in-person learning is best but urged caution about a return, saying that the decision should be made school-by-school and district-by-district.
Following Murphy, Karen Wontrobski-Ricciardi, also a school board candidate, opened her remarks by announcing that she was not bound by New York State mask laws because of her asthma and lung damage. Board president Matthew Gribbin said she would nevertheless be required to comply with the district’s mask policy.
She asked the board to consider a 0% increase on the property taxes that make up the district’s largest source of funding.
While possible, administrators said, such a move would likely require dipping into reserves, cutting programs and ending an ongoing effort to reduce class sizes. She closed her remarks by promising to send the district’s attorney a copy of the state mask regulations.
Murphy and Wontrobski-Ricciardi are running on a slate for school board this spring with John Savoretti. Terms for Thode, Mandi Kowalik and Charles Rollins are expiring and all are seeking reelection, a district representative said.