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Riverhead candidates: Student programs, overcrowding and ‘politicking’ claims

Brad Harnig

Addressing ballooning student enrollment while enhancing programs under the tax cap and ensuring that administrators adhere to policies are top priorities for this year’s Riverhead school board candidates.

Six people are running for three open seats, with incumbents Christopher Dorr and Amelia Lantz seeking re-election. A seat left open by the resignation of Lori Hulse — who was elected town justice last fall — is also up for grabs. 

The top two vote-getters will be appointed to full three-year terms. The third qualifying candidate will serve the one year remaining in Ms. Hulse’s unexpired term.

Candidates Brad Harnig, a Long Island Railroad conductor; longtime school board watchdog Laurie Downs; and Greg Fischer, a perennial candidate for various local offices, are also on the ballot for the second year in a row.

Newcomer Thomas Kruger, an assistant superintendent in the town’s water district, is also seeking a seat.

During a “Meet the Candidates” event at Tuesday’s school board meeting, Mr. Dorr touted his background as an instructional support and data specialist with the Plainview-Old Bethpage School District and said he believes his experience handling state mandates for English as a New Language students, teacher evaluations and testing, among other requirements, is beneficial to the school board.

“I believe the biggest challenges facing Riverhead School District is how to maintain excellent programs … as we’re balancing state mandates,” he said.

Mr. Dorr lives in Baiting Hollow and has three children: twins in seventh grade and a 2013 Riverhead High School graduate. He has also coached PAL football and lacrosse.

Mr. Harnig, of Calverton, who has three sons in the district, said he believes his nine years’ experience as a LIRR union leader is a valuable asset for the school board and is running because he’d like “to continue to see the school district get better.”

“This district is a melting pot with opportunities to interact with all races, creeds, colors, nationalities,” he said. “And that’s what I wanted my kids to grow up with.”

As for running for school board, Mr. Harnig described himself as a “team player” and said he’d like to learn more about district policies while making sure “the taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely.”

Mr. Harnig, 47, who also served in the U.S. Navy and has volunteered as a cub master for Riverhead Cub Scout Pack 242 and a Riverhead Little League coach, said he values education and wanted to set an example for his children about the importance of school by enrolling at St. Joseph’s College in his 40s and earning a bachelor’s degree in organizational management.

Ms. Lantz, a U.S. Air Force veteran who returned to college at age 50, was first elected to the school board in 2010 and currently serves as vice president.

The lifelong Riverhead resident said she’s proud of the school board’s accomplishment during her tenure, including passing a districtwide capital improvement bond project in 2011 and enhancing student programs under the state-mandated tax levy cap.

“I’m last on the list on the ballot, but they always save the best for last,” she said.

Ms. Downs was absent from Tuesday’s meeting for medical reasons and Mr. Kruger said he couldn’t attend because of a work obligation.

The News-Review interviewed both candidates separately this week and both said they decided to run after community members asked them to serve on the school board.

Ms. Downs, of Riverhead, is a former president of the Riverhead High School Parent-Teacher Organization and volunteered as a PTO executive council president and Middle School PTO secretary. In addition, she volunteered to videotape school board meetings between 2000 and 2015.

She said that, if elected, she would work toward making school board meetings “more open to the public,” by, for example, holding public work sessions — which the Town Board does — to discuss policy decisions.

In addition, Ms. Downs said she’d like to see the high school return to a nine-period day, which parents, teachers and students have been demanding since last year in order to save classes that have been dropped or dwindling clubs.

Mr. Kruger, also of Riverhead, has three grown children who graduated from Riverhead High School. He’s active in Little League and softball and is pleased with the district’s progress on its capital improvement project.

One reason he’s running for school board, he said, is to help the district address an upswing in the number of students entering to the district.

As of March, 184 additional Limited English Proficient students have enrolled, bringing the districtwide total to 1,160 LEP students — which school officials say represents 22 percent of the district’s 5,300 student population.

“I’m going to do the best I can for everybody — employees, taxpayers and students,” Mr. Kruger said.

During Tuesday’s school board meeting, Mr. Fischer, a strategic business consultant from Calverton, described himself as a “business-heavy candidate” and said he would work toward gaining new revenue sources for the district, such as grants.

He said he believes his background can help the district financially. His has previously volunteered as an EMT, firefighter, Greater Calverton Civic Association trustee and 9/11 volunteer.

Mr. Fischer also claimed the district needs to do a better job with its purchasing procedures, including making sure invoices are “certified payrolls.”

“I’m hopeful the voters will choose me to clean up some of these issues and several wasteful practices, including areas we’re not using the best value in terms of our purchasing process,” he said.

Later in the evening, Mr. Fischer addressed the school board as a resident during the public comment portion of the meeting and claimed he found “electioneering in the schools, including the distribution of a candidate’s sign.”

Mr. Fischer, whose daughter attends Riley Avenue Elementary School, provided the News-Review with a photo of a campaign sign for Mr. Kruger — whose wife teaches at Riley Avenue — located inside the building.

After learning about the issue late last week, a News-Review reporter visited the district office, Roanoke Avenue and Riley Avenue elementary schools Friday and found no campaign signs either on school grounds or in the front lobbies.

At the meeting’s conclusion, school board president Susan Koukounas said she wanted to address Mr. Fischer’s claim but did not do so after Superintendent Nancy Carney advised her not to.

When asked after the meeting to comment on Mr. Fischer’s claim, Ms. Carney told the News-Review that the district “issued a memo out to all of the staff saying that there’s no politicking on school grounds.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Carney emailed the following statement to the News-Review: “The district has learned that certain campaign materials supporting a particular Board of Education candidate were brought into one of the schools. These materials have been removed and the staff have been reminded that it is not appropriate for such materials to be in the schools.”

Mr. Kruger wasn’t immediately available for comment on the issue.

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Photo: Brad Harnig addressing the crowd at Tuesday’s school meeting during the “Meet the Candidates” event. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)