South Country Schools board of education vote

A dozen candidates vie for four seats


The South Country School District has four open seats, each three-year terms and one to fill a vacancy commencing May 18, 2022 to June 30, 2023.

Board president Anne Hayes is the only incumbent. Both Clyde Parker and Melissa Aruta are not re-running.

Anne Hayes

During her first term as a member of the board of education, she served as president of the board.

“There was a steep learning curve for me despite my prior experiences as an attorney helping people plan for themselves and their families, as a parent of two children who graduated from Bellport High School, and as a longtime volunteer on committees for the school district and a local church,” she said

She credited training courses from the NYS School Boards Association preparing her with the necessity of distinguishing between the role of the board (“governance”) and the role of administration (“day-to-day operation”) and the importance of recognizing the difference between fact, bias and opinion. 

“I also learned how to help the board function effectively as a governing body as opposed to individual members, and how to bring concerns to the superintendent so that they can be appropriately addressed,” she said. “It was gratifying to hear recently from fellow board members that I was fair even when I did not agree, recognizing that the board speaks with one voice, and that I helped make everyone a better board member.”

The accumulated experience and knowledge, she said, will come with her when should she be re-elected.  She also promised to help the board work together as it creates the best possible relationship with the new superintendent, right from the start. 

“To establish that relationship, we must collaboratively define our mission and vision, and set goals and priorities,” she said. “The board must then maintain that relationship with the superintendent by ongoing communication and evaluation of progress toward our goals.”

As the Vision, Vision, Goals and Priorities, she proposes: “Our Mission continues to be: Providing the most comprehensive, challenging, and enriching education for our children that we can.

“Our Vision should be: Preparing each student for life in our rapidly changing world and enabling them to be healthy, self-sufficient, competent adults, capable of being caring and contributing community members after graduation.    

“Our Goals should be: Providing challenging and effective educational programs, support services, and co-curricular activities, delivered in a safe learning environment which assures fair treatment and respect for all students, our faculty and staff.

“And, our Priorities in meeting those Goals should be: (1) Focus on social emotional learning, behavioral education strategies, and consistent implementation of a disciplinary process designed to enable growth and assure a safe learning environment; (2)  Improved student achievement academically, socially, and emotionally, especially given the pandemic-related disruption and the importance of healthy student interactions; and (3)  Fiscal accountability, good stewardship of taxpayer funds, and long-term planning to ensure continued progress in our educational delivery.”

She added that she is excited to help move the district toward its potential for greatness, knowing that they can build on the effective programs and improve the areas which need priority attention. 

“We [board, administration, faculty, staff, students, families and community members] can do this by working together in the best interests of our children.  A vote for me will be a step toward achieving that vision,” she said.

Tara Kavanagh

Tara Kavanagh has been practicing law for 28 years. She has maintained an office in Bellport Village since 1998 and focuses her practice in the areas of real estate, estate planning, and estate administration. 

She also lives in Bellport with her husband, Tom Ford, and is a mom to four grown daughters.  Two of her four daughters are graduates of Bellport High School and all four have attended the district. Kavanagh has been a resident of the South Country School District since 1993.  Her experience includes 14 years as a member of the Town of Brookhaven Planning Board, and she is currently a founding board member of Friends of Bellport Bay (FoBB), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation that focuses on local environmental issues. 

She has been considering a run for school board for several years.  This year, she decided that it was time. Kavanagh values public service and believes that each of us, to the extent we are able, should be willing to share our time and talent with our community. She is excited to begin the work of helping to make the school district, and all its buildings, a place where students and teachers feel valued, respected, and safe. 

Kavanagh firmly believes that a high-quality public education system is vital to a healthy democracy, because well-prepared students become informed citizens, discerning voters, and critical thinkers.  Indeed, these students will become leaders who can pave the way for the students coming behind them.

She is very interested in programs for students who do not intend to attend college, civic literacy programs, and encouraging extra-curricular engagement among all students, particularly those learning English as a new language. She also believes that her personal and professional experience will be an asset to the board of education and was recently endorsed by the Bellport Teachers’ Association.

Joseph L. Barry

Joe Barry, a resident of East Patchogue, was raised in Bayport and graduated from the University of Dayton in Ohio.  For the past 27 years, he has worked for numerous not-for-profit organizations, leading them to achieve challenging fundraising goals.

Barry has served as director of development at both Brookhaven Memorial Hospital and Stony Brook University and is currently the chief development officer at Island Harvest Food Bank.  He also has experience in board rooms as a collaborator and community builder and has extensive experience in grant writing and government relations, which, he said, will benefit the district.

A resident of South Country School District for the past 21 years, Barry and his wife Stephanie have three children.  Ben (18) graduated from Bellport in 2021.  Ben’s education was enhanced by the Plumbing and Heating Program at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, granting him a plumbing certification and OSHA training, giving him a leg up as he entered the workforce with a local fuel oil company.  Bridget (15) is a high honors student, member of the Honor Society, student musician and a varsity athlete at Bellport High School.  Charlotte (11) is a sixth grader at the middle school, and is an active and engaged student. 

Barry is a champion for children in the community, a past president of the Kiwanis Club of Patchogue, and a liaison for the Bellport High School Key Club inspiring leadership skills for students. He has also worked with youth sports in the community having coached baseball and softball for the past 16 years in Little League, earning coach of the year, and has coached South Country Youth Soccer League.

“I am running for the school board out of gratitude for the experiences my children have had, and I know that I can assist in addressing the challenges we are currently facing,” he said recently. 

Barry said he feels he can help stakeholders understand the impact the community at large and the school system have on each other.  As a parent of three children with diverse educational experiences, he believes he can be a reasonable voice for parents on the board sharing his experience and knowledge of the current issues facing the schools.

Barry seeks to foster an environment to assist faculty and students in overcoming recent academic deficits, while advocating for increased academic rigor in the South Country Schools. Opportunities should be available for students to accomplish dreams for college or the workforce. 

“An equally important issue is discipline in our schools,” he added.

He wants to advocate for closer partnership among administration, faculty, and staff to develop a comprehensive and collaborative approach to discipline.  Barry advocates for providing greater structure in our schools, helping students and teachers create a learning environment while fostering a safe place for students to learn. He was recently endorsed by the Bellport Teachers Association.

Barry feels strongly about reinstating quality experiences that enhance student academic life, much of which was canceled due to the pandemic.  Offering school trips and other programming is proven to foster personal responsibility. 

“School experiences provide hope for a future through a positive environment,” he said, knowing that his voice as an active, involved parent is an important one.

Gregory C. Miglino

As a former South Country School Board president and lifelong community member, he said found it impossible to ignore the deteriorating situations within the school district. 

“I have been approached by parents, teachers, administrators, and residents who universally paint a picture of a district in crisis,” he said. “They have told me about everything from violence in our schools to fiscal waste and mismanagement.”

This March, the district sent out a letter informing the community of the potential for a 7.76 percent school district tax hike. As a result, he said he started looking into why and discovered that the district was facing serious fiscal problems. At the top of the list was a $21 million capital deficit.

“Instead of being forthcoming about the true cause of the problem, the district embarked on a misinformation campaign, blaming past boards going back 15-18 years. It was not until an April 11th meeting of the Miramar Beach Civic, that school district officials finally admitted they mis-accounted for and then misspent the $21 million over the last 11 years. This caused me great concern, because misinformation campaigns are counterproductive and only serve to create mistrust and tear our community apart,” he continued.

“The misspending of the $21 million by the district creates a fiscal crisis that dwarfs anything we have ever faced. Yet, if rumors about the current board’s choice to be our next superintendent are true, this board has chosen a person with zero central office experience. A district in crisis has no time for on-the-job training. Being a superintendent requires a specific skillset. That person needs to have relationships that are built from years of working at the central office level.”

“A school district’s prime mission is to provide a balanced education for our children and give them the tools needed to thrive in whatever they choose in life.  We must offer students all the support they need to succeed. For this to occur, board of education members, administrators, teachers, and staff must provide a safe and disciplined learning environment.  This requires that the code of conduct be enforced and applied equitably to all students. At the very least that means no cursing, no hitting, no threatening, no fighting, and no bullying, by anyone.”

“Solutions exist for all problems,” he said. “But solutions take time and require competent, in-charge leadership.  I successfully navigated our district through the last financial crisis. I will draw on that experience to immediately address the fiscal stresses and structural deficiencies we all know exist. I have recruited running mates—former board president Marian McKenna and Amy Price-Thomas—who have the kind of leadership experience our district needs to get this done. “

“On May 17, the three of us would appreciate your vote. On Day 1, we’ll get to work on bringing back a school district that is safe, fiscally accountable, and responsive to all.”

Marian McKenna

Marian McKenna has been a district resident for 45 years and is a realtor. She holds degrees from Cornell University and is married with three children who have all attended South Country Schools.

Additionally, both her sons attended the United States Naval Academy and are serving as officers in the Navy. Her daughter is a registered nurse who is married to an Army officer. McKenna also volunteer as an admissions officer for the United States Naval Academy and a fundraiser for America’s VetDogs to assist disabled veterans.

“I have been involved in the South Country community for the majority of the time I have lived here,” she said.

She has served in the Woodside Estates Civic Association, on the South Country Budget Advisory Committee for 15 years, the Economic Development Zone as district representative for six years, as middle school kickline coach, as a PTA member, and was previously on the board of education for 10 years and at one point served as president.

“While on the board, we saw wonderful things happen in this district: elimination of multi-million-dollar debt, improvement in buildings and grounds, schools removed from the state’s ‘Schools in Need of Improvement’ list, additional AP, honors classes and enrichment classes, solar energy added to the schools, settlements of all the employee contracts and some of the lowest tax increases in the last 30 years,” she said. “I decided to run again after reading articles of the terrible shape our district is in financially and attending budget meetings held by the current administration. I, like many residents of this district, am appalled at the ineptness of this current board of education and the mismanagement of the money entrusted to them to run this school district, as well as the management of this district by some of the people in central office.”

She said she believes she can bring the experience and knowledge of what it takes to run the district the way that gave her children a good education, so other children can have that as well. She also hopes to also watch out for the needs and concerns of all residents.

“My life experiences have given me knowledge of how a district should be run, leadership skills, the ability to solve problems and true knowledge of working on a team,” she added.

If elected, she hopes to accomplish fiscal soundness, quality education for the children, order in the schools, safety for the children and an improved work environment for the staff.

“I will do my best to bring this all together. No more fiscal irresponsibility, no more blatant ignorance on the board’s part as to what is going on in the district and central office, and no more deterioration of our district,” she said.

Dr. Alesia Olsen

Alesia Olsen has a doctorate in education leadership and accountability and over 30 years classroom experience teaching at every level from kindergarten to Columbia University. She is also certified in special education and as a teacher of American Sign Language. 

“I ask for your vote to help me win one of the four seats vacant on the South Country CSD Board of Education,” she said. “Most importantly, I have the knowledge and skills to work with diverse stakeholders throughout our community and beyond. Moreover, I have a plan based upon distinction for our students.”

Her candidacy, she said, is about activating the principles of unity, transparency, and excellence to center the schools on students and center the community on schools. This, she said, is simple with the right leadership.

“The low graduation rate, high suspension rate, and the all-around low morale are all signs that the good things being accomplished, that the plan for improvement is not being shared well enough for stakeholder buy-in,” she explained.

Olsen retired last Thanksgiving from the Babylon School District and is the president and CEO of one of the largest educational service providers on Long Island. In the 10 years the business has been open, they have grown the business from one district in 2012 and now service students in over 65 districts island-wide.

“What I have noticed post-pandemic is that all students are troubled. Each student received different amounts of educational trauma and we must do a better job collectively to reach them,” she said. “The upcoming Regents season is going to quantify the learning loss experienced by our most capable remote learners. The remediation necessary for elementary students can only be extrapolated.”

“The good news is that we have a fantastic core of educators in the SCCSD. Given the right tools, opportunities, and mission, the challenges can be overcome. We can never take on the challenges as long as we have the same myopic leadership or exchange that leadership for an ideology of hate and exclusion.”

“I am an independent, innovative thinker,” she continued. “The people and ideas that brought us to this calamitous period are not capable of the crisis innovation necessary to lead us out of it. I have specific plans, ask me. Go to my social media for details. But ask them to be specific as well. Like all change, this will not happen in an instant, but I believe my leadership can bring about the first key steps in these directions. Unity, transparency and excellence. My name is Dr Alesia Olsen and I ask for your vote.”

Christopher Ross

As a lifelong member of the community and 1992 graduate of Bellport High School, Christopher Ross said he is excited to run for a seat on the board of education.

For the past 20 years, Ross has been a practicing attorney with a general law practice, with a focus on litigation. He said he spends his days helping clients through some of the most complex, trying, and emotional times (both good and bad) in their lives.

He is married to his wife, Nancy, who is an elementary educator in the Middle Country School District; together they have three children. The oldest is a freshman at Bellport High School, and youngest two are in fifth and sixth grade.

“We are proud to live and raise our family in this community,” he said.

Before practicing law, he worked in the world of sports and entertainment on events like the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games, Monday Night Football, horse racing’s Triple Crown and college football, while working for companies like ABC Sports, ESPN, Disney Internet Group, Fireworks by Grucci, and the Women’s Sport Foundation. 

“My experiences give me a unique perspective and skillset, which if elected, I can bring to the board of education, to advocate for our children, families, and community from the inside,” he added. “The tasks and duties which lie ahead for the next board and future board members are not a one-person job; it is going to take a team effort with some hope, faith, hard work and dedication.”

Some of those tasks and duties, he said, include making sure students are educationally equipped for success, pursue more financially responsible policies which ensure a return on the community’s investment in our schools, make sure the communication and access to the board is open so concerns, thoughts, and ideas from parents, staff, and community members are heard, and encourage, promote, and expect safety and security at the schools so children, staff, and teachers have a safe and welcoming space to learn and grow.

“We want our children and community members to take pride in being Bellport students, alumni, and community members,” he continued.

Amy F. Price-Thomas

Amy F. Price-Thomas is a lifelong resident of the community having attended South Country Schools since kindergarten. 

As a wife and mother of three children, two currently enrolled in South Country and a newborn that will eventually attend school there as well, she said she has become concerned over the last few years with the direction our school district is heading. 

“It seems on almost a daily basis parents, kids, and school staff are reaching out to me with one horror story after another with everything from violence in our schools to lack of accountability for a myriad of things,” she said of why she decided to run. “The final straw for me in deciding to seek a position on the BOE was the letter I received in the mail from the district in March indicating there was a potential 7.76 percent increase in our next year’s school taxes.” 

She said she came to the realization that the district was being fiscally mismanaged and that her years of successfully managing budgets, her time working with kids, and ability to forge positive relationships with people to solve problems could be useful on the board of education. 

She currently serves as the boys soccer coach for the Bellport Soccer Club, board member for Oaklawn Cemetery, PTA parent, and community advocate for animals. In addition, she has 24 years of volunteer service in EMS, with 12 of those years serving as the chief of administration.

“My ability to get the job done correctly has had me receive awards from the NYS Senate, county legislature, Town of Brookhaven, and others,” she said. “Once elected, I expect to get to work immediately working with parents, staff, and the community on resolving the issues I mentioned previously and identifying ones I may be unaware of.”

At the top of her list, she said, will be the safety of the students and staff and the fiscal stability of the district. She will be running with Greg Miglino and Marian McKenna, who are both former BOE presidents. 

“All three of us are supportive of the public education system, but at the same time expect the leaders of that system to be fiscally responsible,” she added. “I truly believe that South Country is a wonderful community; that’s why I bought my home here and I am raising my kids here, and that’s why I am choosing to get involved. I am asking the residents of this school district for your vote on May 17 for trustee.”

Pat Ingrassia

Pat Ingrassia is a Catholic, father of two, family-man, and has been a resident in the South Country Central School District for over 12 years. Ingrassia is a 40-year veteran in the financial services industry, where he developed a successful planning-based practice, guiding dozens of families through all their financial needs; from retirement funds to preparing their children both financially and academically for college.

He said he has a track record both in his business and personal life, which makes him a uniquely qualified candidate for this position. He has had experience with the modern education system most recently by way of his two children, both of whom attended public school, graduated from college with zero debt, and have subsequently gone on to study at the top law schools in the nation. As public-school students, his two kids combined took 19 AP classes, garnered All-County sports designations, participated in state- and nationwide music ensembles, and graduated at the top of their respective classes.

Ingrassia said he is aware of what it takes to reach high outcomes of achievement and hopes to utilize this expertise in an administrative role, to ensure students and parents seeking high standards can feel confident in choosing to send their kids to the South Country Central School District.

Ingrassia seeks to join the board of trustees as a parent who ultimately wants to ensure his kids are in the position to reach the goals they set for themselves. Rather than acting as a roadblock, he said, schools should be in the position to facilitate the students’ goals, no matter how tall.

He also went to St. Anthony’s High School, has an M.B.A. in finance from Long Island University, C.W. Post, and an undergraduate degree in finance from Adelphi University. He enjoys golf, fly fishing, and skeet shooting in his spare time. He is also a member of the Idle Hour Fly Fisherman Club.

“There’s a movement that is making its way through our towns and cities across America. Its origin was during the pandemic, when schools were locked down and children were mandated and forced to stay home and learn remotely,” he said of why he is running. “Now, the movement is making its way north, and we find ourselves faced with decisions and at a crossroads. This is the opportunity for all the stakeholders (including residents who might not have children in the schools here) to take back control of the district.”

Gino Cruz

Gino Cruz was born in the Bronx, N.Y., raised in Shirley, N.Y., has lived in the community for 25 years, raised a son and helped raise his two stepsons and now a grandfather of four. He has also been married to his wife Georgianne for 25 years.

Cruz, along with his son Gino Jr., are both volunteer firemen for the Bellport Fire Department. Cruz was previously president of the South Country Library Board as well as past president of the South Country Community Conference, SCCC was originally started by the late Tony Gazzola. During that presidency, Cruz organized a cleanup of Station Road where over 10 tons of garbage was removed.

Cruz, along with the South Country Ambulance headed by chief Gregory Miglino Jr., had the biggest gun buyback event ever recorded in Suffolk County history. From 2011-2015, Cruz coached Bellport football and Bellport girls track, where he hosted annual Easter egg hunts for the children in the community. He directed 5K runs to raise money for the Bellport girls track team as well as three local children who were suffering from leukemia. Being a survivor of leukemia himself, this was a cause close to his heart.

If elected to the South Country School Board, Cruz’s goals are: to bridge the gap between the schools, community and staff; to help develop resources to support our students and staff; equal education for all students; fiscal responsibilities; recovery from COVID-19 for students and staff; thinking out of the box for our sports programs to relieve the financial pressure from the community, such as using private corporation donations for our sports infrastructure to keep them up to date.

“This is our family community. We need to serve, to have the ability to reach into our resources to see how we can best serve them,” he said.

Rafyel Flippen

Rafyel Flippen is 33 and is proud to be “born and raised” in Bellport. His mother and father were both Bellport graduates, as is he. He fondly remembers going through the South Country School District from Brookhaven Elementary all the way into Bellport High School, where he has many happy memories of playing basketball. He grew up knowing that Bellport would be his forever home and wants to make sure his daughter goes through the school district having similar experiences.

Flippen has worked at the Boys and Girls Club of the Bellport Area for almost 10 years. During that time, he has held many positions from running programs such as “Goals for Graduation,” which prepares teenagers for graduation and life after. One of his proudest moments was successfully running a program called “Men of the Future” which discussed current issues young men face and taught them to help one another. Currently, he is the afterschool program coordinator for children ages 5-12. These experiences allowed him to work with budgeting, scheduling, and a variety of other appealing skills needed for the South Country School Board.

He likes to say that he is a product of not only the school district, but the Boys and Girls Club. “It helped raise me and it built the foundation to make me the person I am today, and I am proud to now work there and give back to the community.”

He said he wants to continue his commitment to the community by running for the school board and giving back, all while being a voice for the students and their families. Besides his work at the Boys and Girls Club, five years ago he and his brother started a nonprofit called I Dream Athletics, which allows children from ages 5-18 to build on their potential, both on and off the basketball court. I Dream Athletics currently has over 60 children on several travel teams that compete all over the country. His mission is to make sure children see what they can be and build lifelong friendships.

Flippen is running for South Country Central School Board because he “bleeds Bellport.”

Spencer Eugene Stickley

Spencer Eugene Stickley’s name will appear on the ballot; however, he declined to submit to this story.


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