Skip to main content

Four candidates for BOE share reasons for running and what they hope to bring to the board


by Joanne Kountourakis | Thu, May 16 2024
A sign reminds community members of the upcoming budget vote and election of trustees. Candidates for two available seats on the board of education are, from left, Victoria Bento, Michael Cleary, Paul Darrigo and Carol Taylor.

A sign reminds community members of the upcoming budget vote and election of trustees. Candidates for two available seats on the board of education are, from left, Victoria Bento, Michael Cleary, Paul Darrigo and Carol Taylor.

We rely on your support to share good news!
Become a supporting member today.

In an effort to get to know the four candidates for the two seats on the Northport-East Northport board of education (BOE), the Journal asked each candidate the following questions, and is sharing their answers in full below. The candidates, in the order they will appear on the ballot, are Victoria Bento, Michael Cleary, Paul Darrigo and incumbent Carol Taylor. 

Coverage of this past Monday’s Meet the Candidate event will follow in a separate article. 

What was the impetus of your decision to run for BOE? Be specific: was there a particular moment/event that motivated you to put your name on the ballot? 

Victoria Bento: This community has been divided on the issue of what to do with the buildings. I sat in the high school auditorium watching presentation after presentation of all our "options" for those buildings. I remember thinking there has to be better options, which is when I started researching ways to use our buildings. At Meet the Candidates, I spoke about the potential for a CTE [career and technical education] program which could be a great use for Dickinson. This program would save money for the taxpayers because we wouldn’t have to use programs outside of the district, build community relationships by partnering with business owners to either assist in the classes or speak to the students about that field, and help with teacher retention because they would be teaching those classes. This is just one of the many reasons I decided to run.

Michael Cleary: For the past two years, I have been contemplating ways to contribute to the Northport community. Since my family and I settled in Northport Village in 2020, I’ve felt a strong desire to give back. Inspired by my oldest child, Sky, who traveled to Kenya with Students for 60K in 2023 and returned as a transformed individual, I decided to volunteer as a parent chaperone for the 2024 SF60K trip to Kenya. 

During this eye-opening experience, I realized that service goes beyond constructing a school building; it’s about building relationships, fostering hope, and making sacrifices. In our nightly reflections, I grappled with how to bring this spirit of service back to our Long Island community. It was during a six-hour bus ride back to Nairobi that I sat next to Dr. Licopoli, who suggested that running for a position on the board of education (BOE) would be an excellent way to continue serving. Intrigued by this idea, I made the decision to give back, share my expertise, and run for the BOE.

Paul Darrigo: I became an accidental activist when I grew increasingly frustrated that there was no meaningful community pushback against LIPA’s tax assault on our community. I am someone who doesn’t sit by and assume others will do it, so I stepped into the void. As a result of that year-plus process of rallying the community, I got to meet many good people in our district, on our board and in our administration. I also learned a lot about how public education is financed on Long Island. And I learned a little about politics along the way. 

I was one of the people who said we should settle the LIPA tax case and I was vocal in suggesting that I trusted our board and our administration to reduce costs to help the community absorb the shift of LIPA’s tax burden to us. 

Post-pandemic and post-district realignment, where some savings were realized, the Long Range Financial Planning Committee was formed to deal with the myriad challenges still remaining from the settlement, including what to do with our excess space, how to pay for overdue capital improvements and how to soften the blow of the burden shift. I applied to participate and was accepted. It was during this experience that I realized my corporate experience in financial services, combined with my communication skills, could be beneficial to the district if I served as a board member. I wanted to run immediately after our committee presented to the board at the end of 2022, but professional considerations kept me from doing so until this spring.  

Carol Taylor: When I ran in 2021 I expected to serve only one term. Several factors have prompted me to seek re-election. We have a new superintendent, Dr. Moyer, who needs an experienced board as he acclimates to our school district. The disposition of our school buildings is very important to me: I do not favor, nor have I been convinced that we must sell our buildings. Maintaining our community college HS elective model also must be preserved.

What unique skills do you bring to the board that will both complement current members and fill in the gaps? Are you able to offer skills/qualities that may not be fully represented/available on the current board? 

Victoria Bento: In my career I have worked on many projects that have helped shape me to be the leader I am today. I have two advanced degrees in School Building Leadership and School District Leadership. During my internship for those advanced degrees I worked on the Title 9 application which involved meeting with and addressing the needs of the district. I am the President and Professional Development Chair for the Long Island Family and Consumer Sciences Professionals. Under my presidency we have doubled our membership, created new committees and positions, and built community relations by bringing in vendors to our conferences such as field trip opportunities, mental health programs, safety, and more. I am open-minded and a good listener. In case anyone thinks a teacher doesn’t understand the financial aspects, I am also an award-winning travel agent. I have to work with very tight budgets, be cost effective while maintaining top notch quality, and listen to the needs of my clients.

Michael Cleary: In my business role as a Vice President of Sales, my educational background (BS Economics, Wharton School of Business UPenn), and my general demeanor, I bring several strengths and talents to the BOE.

Effective communicator: Whether I am meeting with the CEO, other leadership, or my team, I’ve learned that everyone’s time is valuable. One must be clear and concise while covering all required topics. I do not shy away from difficult conversations but always provide a space for others to share their opinions. My transparent communication style, open and honest updates, and reporting have been the backbone of my success in the business world and I believe they will resonate with the BOE and the district constituents.

Attention to detail: While working with retailer partners, every detail is important. Each contract/agreement must be reviewed in depth and each portion of the agreements scrutinized. As a public company, our books must be clean so an in-depth analysis of our accounting, budgets, and P&L is required.

Transparency: Working for a publicly traded company means there cannot be any surprises. I prefer to be as open and honest as possible while protecting confidential information. Transparency begets trust and I will bring that to the BOE.

Prioritization: The BOE cannot and should not try to take on every issue every year and will have to make choices on what they and the district will tackle. My ability to hear all sides and make choices about where to allocate the BOE’s time and energy will be a benefit. 

Agenda: Possibly most important is that I come in with no agenda other than the desire for the best education, lowest possible taxes, improved security, and enhanced test scores. I remain dedicated to the ongoing efforts to keep BOE policies relevant and respectful.

Paul Darrigo: My training is in financial analysis and my current job is to form consensus among multiple stakeholders in a corporate setting. I do not believe these skills are manifest with our board as currently constructed so I look forward to bringing them to bear for the benefit of the community. During my campaign I have received valuable feedback on what it takes to be a good board member, and chief among the pieces of advice I have received is that boards need to work hard at forming consensus wherever possible. It’s not always possible and that’s OK too. It takes strong communication (and listening) skills and it takes humility to recognize the value of others’ points of view.  I hope to be a contributor to building consensus whenever possible.

Carol Taylor: I wore many hats as a Northport-East Northport teacher and gleaned varying perspectives. I served in a leadership role within the United Teachers of Northport where I refined a capability to be open-minded to often conflicting viewpoints. While I value and strive for consensus, I learned to respectfully disagree. The board of education is ONE voice which requires from its trustees poise, patience and mutual respect. This current board, like boards before it, discusses and advances sometimes conflicting opinions. That’s healthy. We are certainly no echo chamber and I welcome that environment.

While there are other educators on this current BOE, I’m the only one who has worked here. I bring an “insider’s” perspective that spans many years of Northport-East Northport UFSD culture. My dad used to say a book starts on page one and to understand page 100 you have to start on page one. That is evident in my advocacy for the restoration of the elementary health teacher position and the addition of another elementary level psychologist.

During my time on the board, Trustee Badanes and I have examined and revised over 100 policies and advocated for new ones. I have the experience and, as I’m semi-retired, the time to continue to do this important work.

What specific challenges do you see facing the district in the next three years and how are you best qualified to be part of the solutions? What do you hope to see bettered/changed by the end of your term on board, if elected?

Victoria Bento: The contract that the bus company gave us this year is unacceptable. We need to seriously explore a new arrangement for the buses whether it be housing them ourselves on district property or finding a better contract with a different company. And it looks as if we could possibly be heading towards some pretty tough economic times in the near horizon. We could most likely be contending with having to make sure taxpayers don’t have additional burdens. It will be imperative that we have a plan in place for the end of the LIPA glidepath which would include offsetting increases without having to sell buildings. 

Michael Cleary: The most important challenges facing the district over the next three years will be: the utilization of the closed school buildings and grounds to get to neutral, if not positive, revenue for the district; ensuring the quality of education, facilities, staff, and security remain best-in-class and increasing our students’ testing scores; ensuring a balanced budget with no reduction in extra-curricular activities (though I do believe there is an opportunity to consolidate), and a soft landing from the LIPA tax settlement; and voting for a new BOE president.

Throughout my career and personal life, I try to approach everything with optimism, a desire to learn, and without preconceived notions. I work to move from "I think" to "I know" by gathering information, analyzing data, and reaching out to experts in the field. This methodology makes me uniquely qualified for the BOE. In addition, my years in the business sector have provided me with the skills to understand budgets, evaluate financial health, and align strategic objectives. I pride myself on keeping a cool head, reaching across aisles, and collaborating to find a win-win solution. 

Paul Darrigo: My biggest concern over the next three years is that we will have continuing financial stress, which will cause divisions and potential budget failures, due to: 1) more inflationary forces in our expense base that are outside our control; 2) a lack of teachers deciding to retire (due to incentives coming up again in 2027) at the same time that we have declining enrollment; and 3) higher costs, and the resulting public debate that a bond referendum for necessary capital improvements would cause. 

By the end of my first term, I hope to be able to say that the board has tackled the PR issue of our high spending per pupil and our mediocre rankings. This is not to suggest that our spending per pupil does not have merit and that we need to have higher rankings to feel better about the district, but I want our board to be able to communicate with the taxpayers of our community where the value is in our program and why rankings can be deceiving. We need crisper and more compelling communication in this regard.

Carol Taylor:
This district, like all districts, has challenges. For us, navigating the end of the LIPA glidepath requires a steady, experienced hand. I have been vocal against selling our buildings. This board recently paused the sale as it further examines options to plug the financial gap. I have gone on the record supporting either leasing and/or repurposing Bellrose and Dickinson Avenue schools. I have advanced the idea of utilizing Dickinson Avenue’s unique footprint to use its 40% unoccupied areas as Discovery Centers or CTE Centers for our students and students from other districts. In so doing, we utilize our property and create a new revenue stream.

During my first term, under the sage stewardship of our BOE President Dr. Licopoli, the district established the Data Dashboard. Our new Superintendent of Schools Dr. Moyer brought it to completion. My experience in education enabled me to advocate for the importance of the Dashboard as a necessary tool to advance our district’s goals. I’m eager to read the findings and see the improvement plans set forth by our building principals and chairs in this next school year.

I’ve advocated for an academic paradigm shift that restores some of our high school vocational elective courses. My years of teaching in an inclusion and then ICT model taught me that students possess varied talents and learning styles. In order to make fiscal room for new elective courses that prepare our students for the future, our elective enrollment trends must be analyzed. Drs. Moyer and [Dana] Boshnack have begun this process and I have full confidence that they will creatively address this shift. I’m eager to see their ideas. 

I’ve been on the board of education as we have hardened our schools to better protect our most valuable assets, our children and staff. There’s more work to be done as security measures are organic and ever evolving. I am not in favor of arming our security guards. I’ve publicly supported adding School Resource Officers to our district. We currently share one with four other districts. I’d like to see Northport-East Northport have its own School Resource Officers who are hired and trained by the Suffolk County Police Department. In many districts SROs are in plain clothes and are accepted into the culture of the schools they serve.

Finally, as a trustee on the Advocacy Committee alongside Trustee Thomas Loughran, we interface with government officials to advocate for governmental funding. In this next year, if I’m reelected, I hope that we could promote a change in the tax receipts’ date to better align us with our fiscal year and thus avoid borrowing funds through TANs [tax anticipation notes]. While their interest rates are modest, I’d prefer to use those funds for programs.

The annual budget vote and election of trustees is this Tuesday, May 21 from 6am to 9pm. Find your polling place here.

The Northport Journal thanks our Sustaining Sponsors and Friends and Neighbors for supporting local journalism: