One incumbent and four challengers are running for two Riverhead school board seats that are up for grabs Tuesday night.
Incumbent and board vice president Susan Koukounas is facing former board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse, past candidates Greg Fischer and Laurie Downs and newcomer Brad Harnig.
Trustee Tom Carson is not seeking a second term, paving the way for at least one seat to change hands.
The News-Review asked each of the candidates what they believe is the biggest challenge facing the district and why the community should vote for them on Tuesday.
Ann Cotten-DeGrasse (Challenger)
Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse, 71, is a former Riverhead school board president and retired teacher from Jamesport. She served on the school board for six years before stepping away last June after running unsuccessfully in the 2013 Democratic primary campaign for town supervisor.
She taught at Riverhead High School from 1966 to 1997 and is a co-founder of the North Fork Breast Health Coalition.
“I am the only candidate who can see the school district strengths and weaknesses through four lenses: a teacher, an ex-teachers union president, a taxpayer and a Board of Education member,” she said. “I feel that makes me uniquely qualified. I understand the educational process and what it takes to make improvements in that process.”
Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said she’s appalled by the state’s decision to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores because she doesn’t believe high-stakes testing truly reflects the abilities of the district’s student population.
She also believes the district needs a “more definitive plan for training its teachers” for the new Common Core curriculum, such as staff development and follow-up training sessions.
“This would, I believe, improve student test scores,” she said.
Laurie Downs (Challenger)
Ms. Downs, 59, of Riverhead, has two children who graduated from Riverhead High School and works as an administrative assistant for MLicata Entertainment. She ran unsuccessfully for school board last year.
A former president of the Riverhead High School Parent-Teacher Organization, she also volunteered as a PTO executive council president and Middle School PTO secretary. In addition, she has volunteered to videotape school board meetings since 2000 and delivers the recordings to Riverhead Town Hall so the meetings can be broadcast on Channel 22.
“I speak at board meetings for those who can’t or are scared,” she said. “I lend my voice to the public, students, taxpayers and parents.”
Ms. Downs said she believes one of the biggest challenges facing the district is finding a balance between maintaining programs and finding ways to add new courses that students want.
She said she doesn’t have a “personal agenda” and her only interest in running for school board is to “serve both students and taxpayers.”
“I have no ties to the teachers union or any other special interest groups,” she said. “I believe in open communication with the public and performing public conversation with board members publicly.”
Greg Fischer (Challenger)
Mr. Fischer, 58, is a strategic business consultant from Calverton. In addition to two grown children, he has a son that attends Pulaski Street School and a daughter at Riverhead Charter School. He has run unsuccessfully for six different offices in the past eight years, including school board last year.
He said he believes his background in business, as well as his experience as a U.S. Department of Commerce Small Business Administration counselor, can help the district overcome its financial challenges.
“Funding is tight, supplemental streams of revenue, such as increased grant writing and partnerships, have not been developed sufficiently,” Mr. Fischer said. “The town bond rating has been downgraded and that will increase the cost of school borrowing because the tax base is burdened.”
His previous volunteer work includes: EMT, firefighter, Greater Calverton Civic Association trustee and 9/11 volunteer. He also provides pro-bono family law services.
Mr. Fischer said he believes he’s the best candidate in this year’s school board race because he has “absolutely zero conflicts of interest.”
“No conflicts by way of ties to teachers, union or administration, or vendors of any kind,” he said.
Bradford Harnig (Challenger)
Mr. Harnig, 46, is a Long Island Rail Road conductor from Calverton with three school-aged children.
He decided to run for school board because he believes student programs cut in previous years should be restored before any new staff is hired. For example, Mr. Harnig said, he disagreed with the school board’s decision to restore two positions — a middle school guidance counselor and a second assistant director at pupil personnel services — with additional state aid the district is expected to receive next year. Instead, he said the district should use those funds to restore a ninth period at the high school, as well as address the district’s overcrowded buses.
“I would like to see the students be the first priority,” he said. “I have no agenda, unlike other candidates that have run for political positions in the town. I will not shy away from asking hard, important questions. I will investigate before voting.”
Mr. Harnig believes the state did a poor job of rolling out the Common Core curriculum and opposes tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
“If elected, you can count on me to make sure that in very sensitive situations I will not give in to pressures from others,” he said. “I will use common sense with the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.”
Mr. Harnig has served in the U.S. Navy and has volunteered as a cub master for Riverhead Cub Scout Pack 242 and a coach for Riverhead Little League.
Susan Koukounas (Incumbent)
Ms. Koukounas, 43, is an assistant professor of mathematics at Suffolk County Community College and lives in Aquebogue. She has two sons, in seventh and ninth grades.
She was elected to the school board in 2012 and has served as the its vice president since last year. Ms. Koukounas is also a former Aquebogue PTO president.
“I will continue to advocate for equity in state aid,” she said of her decision to run for re-election. “I will continue to do what is right for our community and public education.”