The People of the Year: Comanda & Gamberg
Superintendents, administrators and school board members across New York are rolling up their sleeves this month and breaking out their pencils as they toggle back and forth between budget lines to determine which programs or people will or won’t return for the 2014-15 school year.
Although Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda and his Southold counterpart, David Gamberg, face the same daunting tasks as other districts, this duo has helped that effort tremendously in recent years by working across district lines to expand programs while reducing expenses. They’ve pooled resources and developed multiple shared-service agreements, from AP courses to theatrical performances. Those efforts have helped the relatively small districts maintain and even expand student services.
Come this summer, when Mr. Comanda, 54, retires after working in Greenport for nearly a dozen years, Mr. Gamberg, 51, is expected to take his place. But he won’t be working just for Greenport; he’ll serve as head of both school districts for the next two years — a move state officials are calling a first for Long Island K-12 school districts.
For their dedicated work toward cutting costs while putting students first, they are The Suffolk Times’ overall People of the Year for 2013.
State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), a vocal proponent of shared-service agreements, has described Greenport and Southold as a model to show other districts they can expand quality student programs while saving taxpayer dollars and maintaining a district’s identity.
Over the years, Mr. LaValle has allocated grant funding to both districts to assist with their shared-service efforts. In September, he secured $150,000 to help the schools further their various shared-service plans, most notably a last-minute track construction project now underway in Greenport.
Mr. Comanda, who will continue as a part-time superintendent in the tiny New Suffolk elementary school district, has said he believes the Gamberg move is a win-win for all taxpayers involved.
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Mr. Gamberg will continue to handle tuition negotiations with New Suffolk as Southold’s superintendent — which means he’ll still be working with Mr. Comanda — and will also be responsible for working on Greenport’s secondary contract with the Oysterponds district in Orient, which sends its upper-grade students to Greenport. Those districts are currently finalizing a five-year tuition deal, which is expected to be completed before Mr. Gamberg takes over.
Greenport school officials have said their district’s facility upgrades, as well as its administrative structure, are in place to allow Mr. Gamberg to settle into his new role more smoothly.
During Mr. Comanda’s tenure as Greenport’s superintendent, the elementary school was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 and, in April, U.S. News & World Report ranked Greenport High School as one of the best in the nation.
Mr. Comanda’s administration and the school board gained the community’s support in 2010 for a $7.48 million bond to fund several capital improvements, including a new roof, windows and boilers. Those projects have since been completed. The school’s auditorium was also renovated and the district has also seen a new playground and science labs installed.
Greenport residents also approved a $1.27 million bond in 2010 for an alternative energy project. In November, the school district became the first on Long Island to get 100 percent of its electricity from a renewable energy source. The 260-kilowatt photovoltaic system covers nearly 85 percent of the building’s roof and generated about 156 kilowatts of electricity the day the school held a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Last July, after Mr. Comanda announced his plan to retire this summer, many people in both the Greenport and Southold communities said a top priority in choosing his replacement was continuing the shared-services momentum gained between the two districts.
Mr. Gamberg has said that he believes the new shared-superintendent arrangement will help to create efficiencies and save money for both communities during changing economic times.
“We want to protect the integrity of each district but, at the same time, try to realize the reality on the ground,” he said. “In the tax-levy cap environment, this could be something that saves both districts money and, additionally, provides more opportunities for shared programs.
“I feel honored by the prospect of taking this on,” Mr. Gamberg said. “I’ll do my level best for both school communities.”
Greenport school board member Tina Volinski said that since major building construction projects in the district have been completed and teacher and staff contracts are set for the next few years, she hopes Mr. Gamberg won’t feel he’s in over his head during his two-year term.
“I’m very excited about next year because he’ll help us further our shared services,” Ms. Volinski said. “Under the 2 percent cap, we need to share services in order to preserve programs.”
In addition to the state passing the 2 percent cap on annual tax levy increases, it also adopted the Common Core State Standards. The initiative has been nationally recognized and adopted by most states. Its aim is to better prepare students for college and careers by requiring instructors to teach more non-fiction and rigorous math to students at younger ages.
The state Department of Education has been heavily criticized by school officials across New York for pushing the new mandates before districts were ready for them. One of those critics has been Mr. Gamberg, who has joined other advocates in rallying against high stakes testing. Mr. Gamberg has also held a public meeting to address Southold parents’ concerns about Common Core. It was the first school district in Southold Town to hold such a meeting.
Southold parent Angela Tondo said she appreciates Mr. Gamberg’s efforts to ensure that students receive a quality education. She described him as a strong leader who is thoughtful and has an “open door policy” for anyone.
“I think he does a great job,” she said. “I respect him. When parents have concerns, he’s not afraid to come forward and address them.”