New issues emerged in the Wantagh Union Free School District as Board of Education candidates Peter Mountanos and Laura Reich prepared for a runoff election on June 26 that neither expected.
For the first time in Wantagh history — and possibly in the history of the state — the vote total for two of the four candidates was an exact tie, with each receiving 927.
Former board President Kera McLoughlin topped the slate in the May 21 election, with 976 votes. Mountanos, the current board president, and Reich tied for second place, and first-time candidate Tara Cassidy received 824 votes.
Reich, an attorney currently working part-time as an accountant, said that state education law requires that a runoff election be held within 45 days of the original contest. Scheduling was somewhat complicated by end-of-year needs, such as testing and graduation ceremonies, so the vote will be held on a Wednesday rather than the usual Tuesday.
In the interim, questions have been raised about Mountanos’s eligibility for the board. State education law stipulates that candidates must live in the district without interruption for at least a year before filing to run for office. Mountanos has continued to list his parents’ home in Wantagh as his permanent address, while simultaneously maintaining a rental apartment in New York City, where he works for Google as a software engineer.
Mountanos said he uses the apartment only when he works late, or when problems with the Long Island Rail Road prevent his return to Wantagh. But he is also the chef/owner of Chez, a “contemporary restaurant in NYC run out of an undisclosed apartment,” according to its website — the same apartment.
The restaurant offers eight-course tasting menus in which diners must themselves provide two of the menu’s ingredients “that evoke the most familiar memories of a given theme for that dinner.” It is not a restaurant in the traditional sense: Service is limited to four diners per booking and the meal is served in the apartment. Nor is Chez open nightly; the next available booking is on Aug. 3.
“We consulted with attorneys before filing” to ensure eligibility, Mountanos said, adding that his state tax returns demonstrated that he did not meet the 183-day criteria for permanent New York City residency.
Cassidy said she did not believe anyone in the district verified her residency information, which is the responsibility of the board. “If [Mountanos] were ineligible, then his votes would have gone to others,” she pointed out. The margin between the top and bottom candidates was only 152 votes.
Both Reich and Mountanos said they were surprised by the outcome. “It was announced that I’d won,” Reich said of the initial results, which had her topping Mountanos by four votes. “Nobody heard about the tie. People are still congratulating me. So we’re both working hard to get the word out” about the runoff election. Reich expressed concern that such confusion would prevent many voters from turning out on the 26th.
“I was a little disappointed by the low voter turnout” in the election, Mountanos said. Roughly 2,000 residents, out of a population of more than 18,500, cast votes. “Unfortunately, when things are going OK, people tend to stay home,” he added. “When I was elected to the board [in 2012], we had a revolving door of administrators, and things weren’t in good shape. So when you have a scandal, people turn out.”
Neither candidate sees the current healthier state of affairs as a reason for complacency, however. For example, Reich questioned the wisdom of increasing the property tax levy by the full amount allowed under the state’s 2 percent formula. “I wonder if we need to go to the very top of the cap every year,” she said. “With the assessment process under review and so many people having their homes reassessed, it’s a very uncertain time.”
Mountanos said he didn’t believe making the cap permanent would have much effect on the overall budget process, however. “When it was first passed in 2011,” he said, “I sort of assumed it was here to stay,” despite the requirement that the State Legislature renew it annually.
Reich said she was also concerned that changes in the curriculum that resulted in more block learning might have unintended consequences. Art and music programs might suffer, she said, and she wondered how special-education students would adapt to the longer periods of instruction in math and science.
Speaking of the recent issues with cybersecurity in the district, Mountanos said that some people questioned why he had not been more involved, given his technology background. “As a board member, it would have been out of scope and inappropriate,” he said. But the attack “did highlight the need for some of the extra security measures that I’d been suggesting,” he added. “I can’t go into the details, but unfortunately, it’s really common that people don’t see the need for some of these measures, except in retrospect.”