Shoreham-Wading River's controversial schools chief Harriet Copel is stepping down after years of political and budget battles, but without regrets over the fights she's weathered - and sometimes won.
Last night, Copel took a valedictory lap of sorts, when she led school-board members and a few local residents on a tour of the district's renovated Albert G. Prodell Middle School. Copel and other administrators managed to cobble together $1.5 million in repairs for the school this past summer, after state authorities threatened to shut down the building due to potential fire hazards.
"It's a brighter, more cheerful, more inviting environment," said Copel, now in her sixth year as superintendent, as she toured brightly lit hallways lined with new blue lockers.
On Monday, Copel informed board members by letter that she will not be seeking an extension of her contract, which expires in July. The decision, also announced to the public at a board meeting last night, effectively ends months of local speculation over the superintendent's job status, in a district that has endured persistent controversies over taxes and funding.
Last May, for example, voters turned down a $3 million plan to repair the Prodell School and another building, largely due to resentment over a district decision to impose a 25.9 percent tax hike. Copel and board members contended the tax hike was needed to stop the district's habit of borrowing money to help plug a revenue gap created by the 1989 closing of a nuclear power plant.
Five months later, residents approved a similar plan in the wake of the state's closure threat. Many voters also were convinced by the administration's success in scraping together money from reserve funds, a move that allowed repairs to be made without raising taxes.
Renovations at the middle school include widened hallways and additional exits, to allow for easier evacuations in case of fire. Three classroom wings have been rebuilt along with ventilation systems, and the structure also has a renovated art room and science lab.
Despite the controversy, some residents give Copel credit for pursuing the repairs even when voters initially said no.
Christine Zukowski, who has two children at the middle school, said Copel "found another way to put the health and safety of the kids first."