SWR Board of Education president William McGrath explains why he opposes field testing during last Tuesday's meeting. (Credit: Paul Squire)

SWR Board of Education president William McGrath explains why he opposes field testing during last Tuesday’s meeting. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Last December, the Shoreham-Wading River school board took a stand against so-called “field testing” of students.

In a unanimous 7-0 vote, the board condemned the tests, which are ordered by the state to help testing companies fine-tune their questions. The board wrote in a resolution that the testing “would hurt children and abuse the public trust by subsidizing private enterprise without public discussion.”

The district’s administration moved forward with a plan to forgo the tests and have students go through normal school days during that allotted time.

But last Tuesday, the board was forced to backtrack on resisting the state’s rules after facing potential cuts in state aid — or worse — as punishment.

According to the school board, the state has not clarified whether the tests are mandatory.

The state refused to clarify what that means, said school board president William McGrath, leaving the district uncertain of whether it can opt out of the tests without facing consequences.

“This is clearly a situation of legal uncertainty,” said the district’s attorney, Patricia Unz.

“It’s a load of crap,” Mr. McGrath said. “I think that these tests … are a waste of instructional time.”

Earlier during last Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. McGrath pushed to cancel the tests and face any potential consequences from the state, which could include withholding state aid or punishment of district administrators.

“If it ‘means my job’ then it means my job,” Mr. McGrath said.

But while every board member at last Tuesday’s meeting said they opposed the field tests, Robert Rose and John Zukowski said they were worried the state would make an example of Shoreham-Wading River if they resisted.

“I totally disagree with them, I really do,” Mr. Rose said. “But I’m not willing to throw someone’s career out there and let the state do what they want with it.”

“People are drawing the lines in the sand in Albany, and I don’t want to be caught, as a district, on the wrong side of that line and maybe be the poster child for what Albany can do to a district,” added Mr. Zukowski.

An assistant district superintendent said the tests would be 45 minutes long and take place during the students’ normal class time — meaning, for example, that social studies field tests would be given during social studies class.

In the end, the risk was too great for the board, which unanimously and begrudgingly voted to hold the tests.

After the vote, Mr. McGrath explained to the one parent present at the meeting that the board’s hands were tied by the state education department. He urged residents to contact their state representatives and demand the tests be stopped.

“It has to come from the public,” he said. “The message has to get to them.”

psquire@timesreview.com

05/23/15 5:59am

You may have seen them hovering over your head at public events or perhaps you saw one flying around on a television news show. Amazon even has a plan to use them to deliver packages.

All the while, government agencies have had difficulty crafting regulations to address safety and privacy concerns involving unmanned aerial drones, and have put a de-facto ban on commercial use of the devices.

Now, after nearly five years of discussion, the Federal Aviation Administration has indicated it may in fact relax rules for the use of drones, a change that’s being celebrated as long overdue by local commercial drone pilots — though it’s unknown when any new regulations might take effect.

Some Suffolk County drone pilots say they’ve grounded their fleets while the FAA finishes up the new rules, but others — like Cutchogue’s Andrew LePre — have found loopholes to keep their fledgling businesses active.

“There’s always a way to save yourself,” he said Tuesday while in New York City buying more gear for his DJI Phantom 2 quad-rotor drone.

Drones are small unmanned aerial vehicles, normally flown by remote control, that can be used for aerial photography or surveillance. The most popular kind of drone uses small rotors, similar to a helicopter’s, to hover and fly.

The U.S. military also uses more sophisticated and larger remotely piloted aircraft to track or attack suspected terrorist targets abroad; those drones are not being regulated by the FAA.

Under the proposed regulations, drones would be restricted to altitudes of less than 500 feet during daylight hours. Drones would also not be allowed near airports.

Originally, the proposal required a drone to operate within its user’s sight. But FAA chief Michael Huerta reportedly said the FAA may scrap that provision and allow pilots to fly drones beyond their line-of-sight, according to an article in Fortune magazine.

Current rules require businesses that use drones to apply for permission to fly them, which is granted by the FAA on a case-by-case basis.


• Editorial: FAA needs to act now on drone restrictions


U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the most recently discussed FAA rules, made public in February, were “a lot better” than the old regulations; however, he suggested further changes, such as a requirement that all drones be programmed not to fly over sensitive airspace.

“These FAA rules are a solid first step but need a lot more refining,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “As the FAA finalizes these rules, I encourage them to strike a balance that both allows the commercial potential of drones to take flight, but also ensures near-misses with commercial aircraft and places like the White House don’t happen again.”

Mr. LePre was encouraged by the new FAA regulations, though he said many of the limits the FAA is considering are already being observed by drone pilots. The 500-foot height restriction, for example, is something he would rarely reach, he said.

His clients — mostly real estate agencies looking for aerial photographs of their listings — want shots taken 50 to 150 feet off the ground, “twice as high as the trees at most,” Mr. LePre said.

If the new regulations include line-of-sight requirements, Mr. LePre said he’ll use someone as a “spotter” to keep an eye on the drone.

Mr. LePre began using a drone about 18 months ago.

“I heard about what a drone could do,” he said. “It would be fun and make awesome video if I could get good at it.”

It took him hundreds of hours using the drone to be comfortable with it, he said. Ultimately, he started making commercial videos.

“It kind of happened by mistake,” Mr. LePre said. “It was kind of just a hobby but I didn’t know it would get to the point where it’d be good enough to sell.”

He now uses a $1,500 plastic drone for his photography and video, as well as a pair of virtual reality goggles that lets him see what the drone is seeing. Mr. LePre “doesn’t condone” those who use drones irresponsibly, but added that few pilots do, because the hobby is so complicated.

“People who can drop two grand on a toy mostly know what they’re doing,” he said.

Another local operator, who asked not to be named, said that until new FAA rules are in place, he’s keeping his drone on the ground.

“I’m just waiting on them to get their act together,” he said.

He’s been involved in the hobby of remote-controlled aircraft for more than 30 years, starting with planes and ultimately working his way toward the popular quad-copters used today.

He also said that commercial pilots haven’t been the ones violating sensitive airspace, like the recent White House incident. Instead, he said, it’s the recreational pilots — who operate with little care for the FAA’s rules — that are causing trouble.

“There’s no way the FAA is going to be able to regulate those people,” he said.

Meanwhile the Suffolk County Legislature is also considering banning the use of drones with cameras over county properties like beaches, parks and government buildings, citing security and privacy concerns.

The drone operator who asked not to be named said he’s taking no chances. Instead, he’s working to build a rover for local police to use when investigating suspicious packages. He said the Suffolk County Police Department has expressed interest in his idea.

“I’ve been concentrating on the ground,” the operator said.

psquire@timesreview.com

05/22/15 6:01am
Officer Montalnano walks his beat on East Main Street last week. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Officer Anthony Montalbano walks his beat on East Main Street last week. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Last year, a string of violent robberies targeting Hispanic and homeless residents in downtown Riverhead catapulted the town’s relationship with its Spanish-speaking communities back onto the front pages.

But despite the high-profile incidents that had some questioning the safety of Riverhead, year-round data compiled by the Riverhead Police Department tells a bit of a different story.

According to a monthly report recently released by the department, the total number of reported criminal incidents — especially drunken driving and drug possession — dropped in 2014 compared to the previous year. The report states that 3,447 incidents were documented by police last year, down from 3,502 in 2013.

That decrease continues an overall trend of fewer reported criminal incidents in the past decade, despite a growing population in Riverhead Town.

“The police department is doing a fabulous job,” said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who also serves as the town’s police commissioner. “Obviously, these past two weeks downtown we had some painful events. Hopefully that’s an anomaly.”

National trends show that fewer serious crimes have been reported nationwide during the same period.

Among the larger drops in reported incidents in Riverhead Town were driving under the influence arrests, down to 174 in 2014 from 209 in 2013. Incidents of drug possession and sales were also reportedly down from 101 in 2013 to 83 last year.

Car theft, burglaries and robberies were also down, according to the data.

The only criminal incidents to increase were larcenies, up slightly; two more rapes in 2014 and one more prostitution arrest than in 2013. More motor vehicle accidents were also reported in 2014 — a total of 2,169 — though there were slightly fewer fatal motor vehicle accidents.

Mr. Walter said the drop in criminal incidents is thanks to some “tremendous enforcement” by the department.

“From the police chief through the captain to the rank-and-file patrol officers in the sector cars, this is a testament to the work they do for this town,” Mr. Walter said.

psquire@timesreview.com

Superintedent Steven Cohen (right) smiles as the results from Tuesday's school budget vote are read aloud. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Superintedent Steven Cohen (right) smiles as the results from Tuesday’s school budget vote are read aloud. (Credit: Paul Squire)

 

The Shoreham-Wading River school budget passed by an overwhelming majority Tuesday night, with more than 65 percent of voters approving the $68.6 million proposal.

Board of Education incumbents Mike Fucito and Robert Rose, who were running unopposed, were also re-elected. (more…)

05/19/15 8:00am
(L-R) United Healthcare’s Juliette Serrano and Robert McBrien; Pat Celli, United Healthcare Community Plan of New York president; Riverhead Councilman James Wooten; Sister Margaret Smyth; Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy. (Credit: courtesy)

(L-R) United Healthcare’s Juliette Serrano and Robert McBrien; Pat Celli, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of New York president; Riverhead Councilman James Wooten; Sister Margaret Smyth, North Fork Spanish Apostolate executive director; Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter; and Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy. (Credit: courtesy)

Sister Margaret Smyth had no idea thousands of dollars of private grant money was up for grabs.

She only found out when she got a call a couple of weeks ago announcing that the sister’s organization, the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, had just won $25,000.

“You didn’t have to apply for it; they just called me up and told me we got it,” Sister Margaret said. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

The United Healthcare Community Grant will be used to expand health care offerings from the Apostolate — which serves Hispanic and poor communities from Riverhead to Greenport.

The money will also be used to send children to summer camps, as well as pilot a Spanish literacy program for undereducated immigrants, Sister Margaret said. The funding matches nearly a quarter of the organization’s usual budget.

“[United Healthcare] appreciate all that goes on, so they selected us to get this,” she said. “It’s a huge amount.”

Sister Margaret’s organization was one of four chosen in New York State, said United Healthcare spokesperson Maria Gordon Shydlo.

“When I was doing research I couldn’t believe how much work she does in the community,” Ms. Shydlo said. “She’s just like a rock star.”

The North Fork Spanish Apostolate was the only local organization to be awarded a grant.

The funds set aside for health care programs will help cover co-pays for needy residents, as well as prescription medication that may otherwise be too expensive, she said. The Apostolate’s program is open to all, she added.

“Not just the Spanish community, but the [whole] community,” Sister Margaret said.

The Apostolate also sends needy children to summer camps like the 4-H camp in Baiting Hollow or to sleepaway camps. Last year, about 50 kids were given the opportunity.

“We’re looking for kids who can really use a week [at camp],” Sister Margaret said. “[We] try to expose them to more than just being home in the house all the time. And the kids love it.”

The Spanish literacy program, which would yield a certification that can help those seeking employment, will be organized through the Mexican consulate and offered in Riverhead.

“We have many people who don’t read and write their language,” she said. “They never had the opportunity to really go to school.”

Though many immigrants on the North Fork are not Mexican — most are Guatemalan or Salvadoran — a certification from the program will be recognized in countries outside of Mexico.

The Spanish Apostolate’s new grant comes after the organization moved last year to new offices at St. John the Evangelist’s Church. More than 60 volunteers help with the program, Sister Margaret said.

“I can always use more,” she said. “We continue to grow and grow and grow.”

psquire@timesreview.com

 

Resident Michael Burns (center) addresses the board last week as neighbors watch on. Mr. Burns was one of a handful to criticize a plan to build a new parking lot. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Resident Michael Burns (center) addresses the board last week as neighbors watch on. Mr. Burns was one of a handful to criticize a plan to build a new parking lot. (Credit: Paul Squire)

After a swarm of angry Miller Avenue Elementary School neighbors attended the Shoreham-Wading River school board meeting last week, demanding the district reconsider plans to build a new parking lot near their homes, architects presented second and third proposals for the project at Tuesday night’s meeting.  (more…)