At the June 1 Districtwide Celebration, Interim Superintendent Ileana Eckert and SOCSD Board of Education recognized outgoing BOE Vice President Leon (Lonnie) Jacobs, who has dedicated himself to serving the South Orangetown Central School District in a volunteer capacity for the past 17 years.
“On behalf of the entire South Orangetown Central School District, I thank Lonnie Jacobs for his tireless dedication and commitment to supporting our district in maintaining a high standard of excellence in public education,” Eckert said. “For nearly two decades, his leadership and advocacy efforts have focused on meeting the needs of our students and staff and considering the best interests of our school district community. Lonnie is a strong proponent of real world, hands-on learning connected to students’ interests and has personally served as a resource and mentor for those exploring careers in engineering.”
A licensed professional engineer and certified safety professional, Jacobs manages regional operations and large public works projects for an international construction company. As a longtime member of the Board of Education, Audit Committee, Finance Council, Facilities Planning Team and District-Wide Safety Committee, he has provided critical expertise regarding budget development, safety and capital project planning, management and construction.
Jacobs began his first of six consecutive terms on the Board of Education in July 2006, after he was elected to serve the remaining two years of a term vacated by a Board member who relocated.
“My wife, who is a teacher in the District, was home on maternity leave and asked me to attend a Board meeting to keep up with what was happening,” recalled Jacobs. “They were discussing the Building Condition Survey (BCS) and quotes for carpeting in the modular units at Tappan Zee Elementary School. I started asking questions. Afterwards, the then-superintendent shared the entire BCS and asked me to review. I began attending meetings regularly and, when Board member Roger DeBonis moved, I was asked to run for his seat.”
Over the course of his tenure, Jacobs was elected by fellow Board members to serve as president and vice president and helped to lead the District through challenging times.
“A lot has been achieved over the past 17 years. Faced with decreasing enrollment, we successfully consolidated our elementary schools and closed Tappan Zee Elementary School. We were able to increase revenue by converting TZE to a rental property,” he explained. The District reduced transportation costs by decreasing from three-tier to two-tier busing and spent a great deal of time reevaluating bus routes, stops and utilization to improve safety. Moving to a two-tier system also allowed us to follow the research on adolescent sleep and shift our secondary start times later.”
Student health and wellbeing has been the focus of the District’s transition from a special education to a pupil personnel services model starting in 2018 to better serve the academic, behavioral and mental health needs of all students. This restructuring has led to the development of robust School Support Teams composed of school counselors, school psychologists and social workers at each building, construction of school-based wellness centers and the creation of the Family Engagement Center, which serves families from pre-K through graduation.
“I grew up in a special education household; my mother was a special education teacher in East Ramapo. Expanding our mental health, counseling and social emotional learning programs enables us to have a team of caring professionals connecting with our students when they need help. It’s a tremendous benefit that sets our District apart.”
As the District made strategic shifts to better meet the changing and growing needs of students, it was also navigating fiscal challenges facing public schools across New York State.
“By carefully managing District finances, we were able to maintain small class sizes, a full academic program and quality student services despite the chronic underfunding of Foundation Aid and while remaining within the tax cap every year since it went into effect in 2012. The creation of reserve funds has been very important in terms of the District’s overall financial strategy and stability,” Jacobs said. “Our Capital Reserve Fund started at $5 million and was used for debt service to save taxpayers’ money. With voter support, we’ve been able to increase the funding cap and use these reserves to fund needed improvements to our buildings and grounds. More than one-third of the $49.9 million Capital Improvements Bond project that was approved by voters last year will be paid for with reserve funds.”
During Jacobs’ tenure, the District has replaced the roofs of all buildings and performed renovations of large, community spaces, including all four school libraries; the South Orangetown Middle School auditorium, art and technology classrooms; the Tappan Zee High School cafeteria; the TZHS multipurpose fields, track, bleachers and scoreboard; the TZHS main gym and bleachers; and, the SOMS and Cottage Lane Elementary School playgrounds. Projects have also included district-wide replacement of fluorescent lights with energy-efficient LED lighting to enhance the learning environment, construction of safety vestibules, redesigned school entrances and the installation and upgrade of security cameras.
Ensuring that long-range financial and capital planning are in sync is important for maximizing resources and construction time in a district with buildings that are 60-plus years old.
“A goal has been to schedule minor capital work each summer in alignment with major construction projects in order to maintain the facilities for our students, staff and community,” noted Jacobs. “In the 2023-24 budget, we were able to transfer $1.7 million saved during the course of our current school year to renovate the eight remaining classrooms at William O. Schaefer Elementary School, which was not included in the Capital Improvements Bond project, and fold that work in Phase I construction to achieve savings.”
“Never walking into a meeting unprepared” translated into spending upwards of 25 hours per week on Board-related reading and meetings. “As a Board member, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some truly great professionals, including three superintendents and an interim superintendent. We have a phenomenal staff here and they put their hearts into their work. I do believe that the South Orangetown Central School District is the best in the county,” reflected Jacobs. “Most of all, I have to thank my family for their support because they made the most sacrifices; there were many nights when I wasn’t able to be at home because of my Board responsibilities.”
“Looking forward, I hope that the $49.9M Capital Improvements Bond project is a success and appreciated by all and that the District continues to maintain its financial strength and high-quality staff. I hope that South Orangetown continues to offer an education that is challenging and accessible for all students and prepares them for their post-graduation careers, whatever they may be.”
Thank you, Mr. Jacobs, for your many years of dedicated volunteer service to the South Orangetown Central School District!