Photo: Denise Civiletti

Seven people are seeking election to three open seats on the Riverhead Board of Education this year.

The top two vote-getters in Tuesday’s polling will win a three-year term expiring June 30, 2021. The third-place finisher will win a seat on the board for one year, serving out the balance of an unexpired term that’s up June 30, 2019. The position is a volunteer position; trustees serve without compensation.

Polls are open May 15 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the district’s four elementary school buildings. The district is divided into four election districts. Voters must cast their ballots at the elementary school where a child residing at their address would attend grades K-4.

Voters will also be asked to decide three ballot propositions. Proposition I approves the 2018-2019 operating budget; Proposition II authorizes the expenditure of up to $154,500 from the Cafeteria Fund (Food Service Fund) on capital improvements to the kitchens at Phillips Avenue, Aquebogue and Riley Avenue schools; Proposition III establishes the a Cafeteria Capital Reserve Fund, authorizing the district to set aside up to $400,000 per year, up to $4 million over 20 years, to fund capital improvements to the district’s school cafeterias.  (See separate story.)

Here’s a rundown of the 2018 trustee candidates. Their comments are drawn from statements made at the May 8 school board meeting, during which each candidate was allotted three minutes to address the audience, as well as from subsequent phone interviews.

Joshua Berezny, 28, is a 2008 graduate of Riverhead High School. He has lived in Riverhead nearly all his life. Berezny describes himself a self-employed “entrepreneur in various fields.” He is the son of nine-year board member and former board president Kathleen Berezny, who chose not to seek a fourth term on the board at the expiration of her term in 2011.

“I started coming to board meetings when I was a child when my mother was on the board and I kind of fell in love with politics,” Berezny said.

Berezny views his candidacy as an opportunity for the community to be represented on the school board. He said he’s learned from speaking with residents that people don’t feel represented by the board.

“It’s the same thing over and over and over,” he said. “They say nobody wants to listen. Everybody wants to talk down,” Berezny said.

“A vote for me is your voice up here.”

Brian Connelly, 43, of Riverhead is the father of two daughters who attend Riverhead schools. He is a NYC firefighter. His wife Bonnie is a special education teacher in the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district.

Connelly says he is running because of “civic responsibility” to volunteer to help the district.

“The board of education, the superintendent, the administrators and educators have done an exceptional job strengthening our academic programs while respecting the tax cap,” Connelly said.

“The reason we’re a focus school isn’t because we’re failing, it’s because of standardized testing. We’re not allowing the teachers to teach,” Connelly said. “My goal is to put the curriculum back into the hands of educators. They’re the most qualified people to teach our children.”

He said teachers need flexibility to match the curriculum with the needs of their students — and that they currently don’t have that flexibility because of Common Core and standardized testing.

“I’m running just because I care. I really do.”

Greg Fischer, 61, of Calverton is the father of four children, two of whom are students in Riverhead public schools. He has associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from CUNY and SUNY schools. A management consultant for 35 years, Fischer says he’s a “turnaround specialist.” Riverhead schools “need a turnaround.”

He said Riverhead, a designated “focus” district is “a failing school district that’s failing a lot of children.”

The district has “enough resources if redeployed properly to fix the focus problem,” Fischer said.

“We’re not just failing kids at the bottom who aren’t graduating. “We’re failing kids at the top too. Those kids are not getting the resources they need and the opportunities they need,” he said. The district can make “structural changes” that will “have a lot more kids achieving higher goals.”

This is Fischer’s fifth run for school board. He is also running for State Senate this year, a post he has sought election to once before. He has also run for Riverhead town councilman, town supervisor and assessor.

“I would guarantee you there would be open government here. I would guarantee you appointments would be legal. I would guarantee you the spending of money would be legal. That’s what I do.
If you know anything of me in other races you know I have chased illegalities before with limited success, but I think you really have to be on the inside to fix the real problems.”

Ron Fisher, 35, of Flanders has lived in the district nearly all his life. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from St. Joseph’s College (2004) and is the owner of Fisher’s Signs and Shirts in Southampton. He is married for five years to James Christensen and is the president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association.

Fisher was appointed by the board last summer to fill one of two vacancies created by the resignation in protest by former board members Amelia Lantz and Ann Cotten-DeGrasse.

His describes his priorities as school safety, board transparency and getting the district out of “focus” status.

“Last year we were told we are a focus district because of opt-out rates,” Fisher said. “That did a huge disservice to the opt-out movement and it was wrong,” he said.

“We’re a focus district because we’re failing certain subsets of kids and we haven’t talked about it yet, all year,” he said.

“We need a board of education that is transparent, that supports the work of the superintendent, that balances the needs of the children, the taxpayers, the teachers and everyone in the district,” Fisher said.

“If I’m elected I’m going to continue to move the conversation further into the public and I’m going to engage this community to fix these problems.”

Susan Koukounas, 46, of Aquebogue has served six years on the board, is its past president and current vice president. She is an associate professor of mathematics at Suffolk County Community College. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from public universities and a doctorate in mathematics and administration from Dowling College. She is married to Ted and the mother of two Riverhead High School students. She is a former officer of the Aquebogue Elementary School PTO and a former CAP volunteer.

“I’m a true advocate of public education. As my record of service shows, I have no personal agenda. I will never use the school board as a political pit stop and I will never quit working for our students and our community,” she said.

“I am very dedicated and a hard worker. In six years on the board, I have only missed one meeting,” she said.

“Our mission is to inspire and academically empower all students to become tomorrow’s leaders by developing their unique gifts and potential, providing an environment that fosters integrity, creativity and respect and ensuring that our students become successful contributing citizens in the global community,” Koukounas said.

The district has “made great strides,” she said. “I want to continue my work with the board. We have a new superintendent and I think we can bring the district to another level.”

Amelia Lantz, 53, of Riverhead, is seeking election to a new term as trustee after resigning from the board in protest last June in the first year of her third, three-year term.

Lantz, who served for nearly 20 years in the U.S. Air Force with the 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton, is married to David and is the mother of two daughters who are students at Riverhead High School.

Having returned to college at age 50, she is enrolled part-time in the hospitality program at Suffolk County Community College.

Lantz said she resigned last year after doing everything she could to object to “what was taking place behind closed doors among several seasoned board members.” One action by a majority of the board had “a profound and direct negative effect on our children and our tax dollars,” she said. Her attempts to convince fellow board members “fell on deaf ears,” she said.

“My resignation was specifically designed to spotlight the poor decisions made by that board,” Lantz said.

“We are sitting on so much untapped potential in this school district, potential that can catapult us forward. Now is the time to seize this opportunity,” Lantz said. “My goal is to be part of the team dedicated and determined to lifting the label of focus school by adopting the progressive method of teaching reading comprehension and implemting a well-defined math program,” she said.

“Transparency must be our priority. We should accept nothing less than a 100-percent graduation rate and we must promote equity in education. With a proactive and progressive board this will be accomplished.”

Elizabeth Silva, 55, of Aquebogue, is the daughter of Colombian immigrants. Born in Manhattan she was raised in NYC and East Hampton. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Marywood University and a master’s degree in early childhood, special education and bilingual education from Adelphi University. Silva is a certified bilingual special education teacher and has worked at Eastern Suffolk BOCES for nearly 18 years.

She is married to Eduardo and is the mother of two daughters. Her older daughter is about to graduate from Sarah Lawrence College and her younger daughter is in eighth grade at Riverhead Middle School.

“If I’m elected to the board, I really want to push meeting with parents, talking with them, encouraging them to be involved with their kids, to get them involved in extracurricular activities — to be well-rounded students,” Silva said, “especially with Latino parents and special ed parents.”

Riverhead is “a diverse district” and there is “a need for equality for all students” to “build independent thinkers and independent learners,” she said.

“My background, education and work experience can be a valuable asset to our district,” Silva said.

“It was always in the back of my mind to get involved,” she said.

“We need to focus on the educational welfare and educational benfit to our children, on the best security for our students to make our schools safe and we need to address all of this together,” Silva said. “It’s a huge puzzle to put together and we need to do it together.”

This story is free to read thanks in part to the generous support of readers like you. Keep local news free. Become a member today.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.