By Danny Schrafel
Several members of Huntington’s town board bristled at comments from Huntington school board leaders during a town board meeting Tuesday, during which school trustees said they felt like they had been left in the dark on development and tax issues that could impact the district.
The Huntington School Board, represented by President Emily Rogan, argued that communication has been lacking from town hall on proposals to add apartments to Huntington village and on the scope of revitalization efforts in Huntington Station, which officials said could increase district enrollment.
However, Supervisor Frank Petrone said the district hadn’t shared those concerns with him before publicly airing their criticisms during Tuesday’s meeting.
Reading a statement on behalf of the board’s six trustees and Superintendent James Polansky, Rogan said the board believes “that the interests of the Huntington School District have been largely ignored in recent times” and that the school district has been disproportionally impacted by development, tax abatements and “poorly-regulated rental properties.”
“There’s a level of frustration that has been expressed by several trustees and members of the community in terms of what is and isn’t happening,” Rogan said.
She later cited a proposed $2.4-million tax abatement for the Hotel Huntington project, which is under the jurisdiction of the Suffolk County Industrial Development Agency; plans to add dozens of apartments above storefronts in Huntington village; and proposed residential development as part of Renaissance Downtowns’ Huntington Station revitalization plans.
“We certainly support efforts to improve and revitalize our local community. However, our repeated requests to be kept informed of actions that would potentially impact our district, both financially and in terms of school enrollment, appear to have fallen on deaf ears,” Rogan said.
But several town board members felt differently.
In a terse exchange between themselves and Rogan, Petrone and Councilman Mark Cuthbertson objected to the characterization. The supervisor and Councilwoman Susan Berland told Rogan they “hadn’t received a call” that the board wanted to meet with him, and stressed they are always open to that.
“By all means, we’ll talk. But my concern is… in most cases, when we do this, if it’s not your way, it’s no way,” Petrone said.
“I don’t believe there’s anything about… how this board has functioned, that has been, ‘only our way or no other way’,” she said.
Petrone said “everyone on this board is an advocate” for Huntington Station, and agreed that many times the district has “gotten the raw end of the deal.” But downtown revitalization, he said, will produce tax benefits for Huntington schools.
“We have been [advocates] – but we also are advocates of the entire town, and we’re advocates of the entire Huntington Station, which is shared by [South Huntington] School District 13 as well,” he said.
After Rogan said that word of the IDA hearing on Hotel Huntington tax abatements came largely as a surprise to the district, Cuthbertson, who explained that the town has no jurisdiction over those tax abatements, said he was “surprised” at their surprise.
“As part of the IDA process, all taxing jurisdictions get notice of what is proposed,” Cuthbertson said.
Speaking from the town board audience, Polansky said that the district was advised of an Aug. 28 hearing in Melville to consider the abatement about a week prior. Polansky testified at the hearing. But Rogan said there was a larger issue at hand.
“I think what we are talking about is having some advocacy on the part of the town in speaking up for the school district,” Rogan said, referring to the tax-abatement issue.
“That’s not what you said,” Cuthbertson replied. “You said you were surprised.”
“Mark, you don’t have to be hostile,” Rogan retorted. “I wasn’t being hostile – I was being respectful.”
The councilman later said that Huntington wasn’t the only district burdened by questions of development and tax abatements.
“The Half Hollow Hills School District has the same type of pressures and the same type of concerns we’re talking about,” Cuthbertson said, citing tax abatements for Canon’s North American headquarters.
Another meeting between town and school officials, Petrone said, could produce protocols that would improve communication.
“By all means, let’s sit down and go through this once again, and hopefully we can come up with some understandings so that each of us will pick the phone up rather than coming to a podium,” he said.