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Outgoing East Rockaway school board trustees are lauded

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Patti Nicoletti recalls the first time she attended an East Rockaway Board of Education meeting, when her son, Jack, was in second grade, almost two decades ago. That experience sparked her interest in serving her community and eventually led her to run for the board. She has been a trustee for nearly a decade.

“I was so naïve, and I knew nothing about what a school board was or who was on it,” Nicoletti said. “I researched these people and found out they were people just like me. They were members of the community who were volunteering their time.”

Nicoletti, 57, was among the retiring trustees who were honored by the school board at its June 18 meeting in recognition of their years of service to the district.

“On behalf of our Board of Education, I wish our retirees a long, healthy and happy retirement,” Superintendent Lisa Ruiz said, according to a news release. “We thank you all for the many years of service to the children of our community and for the joy that your support has brought to our schools throughout the years.”

Nicoletti earned a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing-handicapped education from SUNY Plattsburgh and a master’s in speech pathology from LIU Post, which enabled her to work as a speech pathologist for more than three decades.

After sitting in on her first school board meeting 19 years ago, she continued to attend each month and observe board procedures for 10 years while Jack, now 26, and her daughters Kate, 23, and Emma, 20, were in school, before she ran for the board.

Nicoletti said she was proud of the board’s many accomplishments during her three terms as a trustee, including its commitment to a five-year strategic plan to increase academic opportunities for students, emphasize professional development for faculty members and foster community involvement. Throughout her tenure as a trustee, including as board president, East Rockaway introduced a greater number of Advanced Placement courses and other programs while staying within the state tax-levy cap.

“I’m very proud of the fact that the board members I have worked with have been very dedicated people,” Nicoletti said. “It’s a time-consuming job, and they have been incredibly dedicated and focused on what’s best for students.”

She added that she was grateful to the community for putting its faith in her for three terms. Nicoletti did not seek re-election to the board in May, opting to retire in order to spend more time with her husband, Jim, and their three children. She said that walking away from her role was a difficult decision, but she hoped to keep up with district news and events from afar.

Nicoletti said she planned to work part-time as a speech supervisor, making her own hours, which will give her plenty of time to spend with her family, in her garden and in the water on her paddleboard, she said.

In the May election, Vice President Kristin Ochtera was not re-elected after nine years, and Kristen O’Hagan and Peter McNally were elected trustees after running for their seats on a joint platform. Nicoletti said she had faith that the board would continue to improve the district with the best interests of the students in mind, and lauded Superintendent Lisa Ruiz for her efforts since she accepted the position shortly after Hurricane Sandy.

“I have seen more changes in the past six years under her leadership — all for the good,” she said of Ruiz. “She is dedicated and truly has the best interest of the students in every decision she makes.”

Nicoletti said that hearing kind words about her from her fellow board members at the June 18 meeting justified the hard work and late hours that she put in as a board member. At the meeting, the board also acknowledged Ochtera for her nine years of service and dedication ahead of its reorganizational meeting on July 2.

Before their election, O’Hagan and McNally said they planned to use their backgrounds as educators to help foster growth in the school district. “It’s essential that, as a district, we increase opportunity for all students, embracing a collaborative culture between students, parents and teachers,” O’Hagan said in May.

McNally said the pair was “committed to building the future for our community while protecting the taxpayers.”

Ochtera said it was bittersweet to leave the board, but added that being acknowledged at her final meeting was a “wonderful and really overwhelming experience.” She added that she is uncertain what the next chapter holds. “I have a very nice summer to look forward to,” she said, “and then, we’ll see. I don’t worry too much about the future.”