Heated Board of Education elections in North Merrick have become the norm in recent years, and with five candidates running for three at-large seats — including one former trustee who lost his seat in a close 2018 race — this year is unlikely to be an exception.
And in the Merrick School District, three candidates — a newcomer and two incumbents — are vying for two seats on the Board of Education.
Following last year’s close election in North Merrick, in which six-year Trustee Steve Enella was ousted by a narrow margin, longtime Trustee John Pinto resigned abruptly.
That race was fraught with social media sniping and unfounded allegations, and, after Pinto’s resignation, the board was split for months on how to fill his seat. Board and community members who supported Enella’s candidacy lobbied for him to be appointed, while others wanted to accept applications. Megan Ryan was appointed in October, and with Pinto’s term expiring this year, she is running for the seat.
In February, longtime Trustee Wendy Gargiulo also left an empty seat. A number of residents raised the issue of her residency — Gargiulo had moved to Suffolk County with her fiancé, they said. When an investigation by district officials appeared imminent, Gargiulo resigned, claiming that she had been the victim of harassment.
Her seat has remained vacant since.
Enella, 50, is running again, despite comments he made at a community forum last October decrying the election’s tenor and what he described as harassment. He told the Herald last week that as a lifelong resident and product of the Merrick school system, he has strong community ties.
He would like to focus on increasing children’s programs and greater responsibility with residents’ tax dollars, he said. He is a small business owner, which he said is a plus when it comes to balancing budgets and “the benefits of coming in under budget.”
“I am an independent candidate and free-thinker, and base decisions on facts, not emotions,” Enella said. “As a seasoned board member, there will be no learning curve, and I am able to jump right into the business of the board.”
Ryan, now an incumbent, said she understands the challenges of working within a group with diverse opinions and wants to improve on “an already excellent school district.”
Gerry Acuña, 41, a newcomer to the field, is married and has two children ages 7 and 6. He said that after regularly attending Board of Education meetings, he has seen both the community’s concerns and the good work of the school board. “After having some experience at Merrick Community Nursery School, where parent involvement is a requirement, and having enjoyed that, I felt this would be a good fit for me to continue working with my community,” Acuña said. “I look forward to the opportunity to work with the board and continue to improve an already great school district.”
Robert Crowley, 49, a certified public accountant with three children, also a newcomer, said that his professional experience has prepared him for maintaining a strong district while being fiscally responsible. “For the past 25 years I have advised my clients on business and personal matters in order for them to be successful,” he said. “I plan on using this same work experience to facilitate the growth and progress of the North Merrick Board of Education for the benefit of both the children and the community as a whole.”
Jennifer Hyland, 48, who currently serves as school board president, views the board and faculty as partners with each other and with parents, whose sole goal should be “to provide safe and successful learning experiences for our children.”
Hyland said she was focused on keeping the district’s programming strong within the constraints of the budget, and touted this year’s proposed spending plan, which has the second-lowest budget-to-budget increase in more than 25 years.
“It is imperative that the school board members maintain our community’s core values and not lose focus on important matters,” Hyland said. “The education, wellness and safety of our children are important to me, and I believe these are best accomplished by collaborative efforts between the board, superintendent, central administration, staff and parents.”
In Merrick, incumbents Gina Piskin and Sigal Negrin are facing off for their seats against Gabrielle Curcio, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat last year. A Merrick resident for 30 years who was an attorney in Manhattan for 10 years and has two children in the district, Curcio told the Herald that she wanted to join the board to make sure the district is using its resources — and tax dollars — efficiently. She also said that she was the only candidate with children currently in the district.
“I am in a unique position to give a voice to elementary school students, parents and teachers while cultivating transparent leadership and deepening community engagement,” Curcio said. “My goal is a collaborative relationship among parents, teachers and the community, where each constituent has input on and understands the district vision and how their efforts help advance community-wide success.”
Piskin is running for her fifth term. An administrator at CCP Solutions and a 23-year resident, she touted her years of experience on the board, during which the district accomplished “critical goals, while being faced with some unique and pressing challenges.”
“I serve on the audit committee, and take my fiduciary responsibilities very seriously,” Piskin said. “As a member of our Board of Education, for the past three years I have been one of two representatives on the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District board as well. I am keenly aware of the issues facing education as a whole, and I look forward to continuing to serve the community.”
Negrin, a 23-year resident, the mother of two children and the vice president of sales and events at RPM Raceway, is seeking a third term. She called serving on the board her honor and privilege. It was a natural progression for her from joining the PTA and chairing committees there, to eventually becoming PTA president and running for Board of Education.
“I take great pride in what our Board of Education has accomplished, and my main focus has always been doing what is in the best interest for all children within our schools,” Negrin said. “I want to continue to serve our community, develop strong new ideas and continue to enhance the education of all of our children while continuing to be a strong voice for fiscal responsibility.”
School budget and trustee votes will be held on May 21. Visit www.liherald.com in the week leading up to the vote for polling places and times.