Eastport South Manor School Board Fills Vacant Seat, Draws Criticism From Parents

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After saying for weeks that they would discuss their options in public before taking action, Eastport South Manor Board of Education members caught some by surprise by filling the vacant seat on their board last week without soliciting any input from community residents, or sharing any details about the process.

After a brief discussion on Wednesday, September 18, board members unanimously appointed Patricia Harran, a Manorville resident whose son, Stephen, is now a senior at the junior-senior high school in Manorville, to fill the post left vacant following the July resignation of longtime member Janet Stevens.

Board President Kenneth Cooke said the day following the meeting that he and the five other board members believe that Ms. Harran, who has never sought election to the board before, would be a good fit because of her involvement in the district through its Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO), and noted that they contacted her in recent weeks to ask if she would be interested.

“We decided that she would be a very good candidate for the remainder of this term,” Mr. Cooke said, noting that her term expires at the end of June, meaning that Ms. Harran would have to seek reelection in May if she wants to keep serving.

But some parents who regularly attend the meetings said they were dismayed that board members made their decision behind closed doors before rubber-stamping the resolution during the public portion of last week’s meeting.

Ken Colvin, who has two children in the high school and made an unsuccessful run for the Board of Education last May, finishing sixth out of nine candidates, said he thinks the district should have held a special election, a move that would have given community members some input on the final decision. He added that he and others would have been satisfied if the board had instead appointed Erik Lassen, who finished fourth in the race.

“I think a lot of people were expecting to vote on a new board member,” Mr. Colvin said during last week’s meeting. “I like Patti Harran a lot, but that is a separate issue.”

The district’s policy book states that board members had the option of appointing someone to the vacant seat or holding a special election. State law does not permit a board to leave such seats unoccupied, according to Richard Snyder, ESM’s assistant superintendent for business.

When reached on Friday, Mr. Colvin said it is important for parents to have confidence in their school board, which serves as a liaison between community members and school administrators, and that denying parents the opportunity to weigh in on the subject damages that relationship. “What sense does that give a parent?” he asked.

Holly Berdinka of Manorville, who has children attending both the South Street and Dayton Avenue elementary schools, said in an email that she was “appalled” that board members opted to appoint someone rather than let voters decide who should replace Ms. Stevens. Many other parents expressed similar concerns through posts on a Facebook group page called “ESM Parent Advocates.”

But Mr. Cooke explained that holding a special election would have been too costly. ESM Schools Superintendent Mark Nocero estimated that it could cost as much as $15,000, because the district would need to rent polling machines, hire workers to oversee the election, and purchase enough ballots for every registered voter in the district. An official with the Suffolk County Board of Elections said she could not estimate what the cost would be, stating that it varies district to district.

“It didn’t make sense to us, as a Board of Education, to spend taxpayer money on a special election because five or six people wanted that,” said Vice President Kevin Gleason, adding that parents had the opportunity to convey their opinions during earlier board meetings and none did.

Still, Mr. Colvin and others said they had expected the board to discuss the vacancy in public at some point, allowing them to share suggestions about potential candidates at that time. The issue was originally scheduled to be addressed during the board meeting on August 21, but discussion was postponed because the board’s attorney was not present. It was on the agenda for the board’s meeting on September 4, but, once again, discussion was delayed because one member was absent.

One board member, however, said this week that they never intended to solicit the opinions of parents.

“That would have been a discussion amongst the board members, not a discussion amongst the crowd,” Mr. Gleason said. “The community would have had no input in that discussion.”

Other board members are confident in their selection, noting that Ms. Harran is a good fit for the post.

“Patty Harran is a wonderful person to have on that board,” Mr. Cooke said on Thursday. “I think the decision that we made last night was the right one for the school district.”

Ms. Harran, who worked as a nurse for close to 30 years, and her husband, Stephen, live in Manorville. She said she first became involved with the PTSO when her daughter, Brenna, who graduated from the district in 2011, entered the district. She currently serves as co-president of the PTSO, a position she intends to continue holding during her tenure on the board.

Mr. Nocero pointed out that Ms. Harran has raised thousands of dollars in scholarships for students through the PTSO, and has organized dozens of events.

“She has worked tirelessly for the children of this district,” Mr. Nocero said. “She is a child advocate, and I think she will continue to serve our students well in this new capacity.”

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