The candidates: James Mattel; incumbent Dolores Greico; Dr. Michael Castellano; and Rodney Olivero are running for two seats on the OB-EN Board of Education.
The East Norwich Civic Association hosted an informal Meet the Candidates night at its April 23 meeting, at Community Methodist Church. President Matthew Meng said he called the school, Monday night, when he knew all the petitions were due and got the names of the candidates. He then invited Michael Castellano, Dolores Greico, James Mattel and Rodney Olivero to come and speak to the members.
Dolores Grieco and Judy Wasilchuk are the current board members whose terms are up. Ms. Wasilchuk decided not to run again when she saw that there were other people willing to step up to serve.
The official Meet the Candidates night will take place on May 11 at 7 p.m. in the OBHS auditorium. It is being arranged by the PTA but the League of Women Voters will actually run the evening's program. They usually ask the audience for written questions and ask the candidates to answer them.
Meet the Candidates:
Dr. Michael Castellano, a general surgeon at St. Vincent Hospital in NYC, was the first speaker. He has lived in Oyster Bay since 2000 and has been interested in serving on the school board since he has three children in the district who are 6, 4 and 3; therefore, he has a long-term investment in community education. The six year old is in a private kindergarten; the others are in private pre-kindergarten and pre-nursery. Dr. Castellano said he hasn't decided to send his children to public or private school as yet. He said, "I want to see how the schools are and make a choice. Having a choice is important. My goal is to make sure the public schools are good enough that you don't have to ask yourself."
He said good local schools generate community pride, help real estate values. He added, "I am also sensitive to the taxpayers in the community. People want to see what they are getting for their money. We don't want to err when taking things away from children, but some people are at the tipping point when it comes to taxes to the extent that some people have to move away. There are a lot of decisions to make."
Incumbent Dolores Greico said she has been on the board for two terms (eight years) and is running for a third term because of her involvement with education. "I was very involved in the school district when my children were young. I was appalled by the double sessions and I tried to get involved with the schools but I got a full-time job and couldn't do both. [During the 1970s, the district was faced with overcrowding and solved the problem by having students use the schools in two sessions a day. School started earlier and ended later. Students in grades 10, 11 and 12 started school at 7 a.m. and ended at noon. The students in grades 7, 8 and 9 started at 12:30 and ended at 5:30 p.m. It was especially hard for families with several children in the district.] Ms. Greico recalled the time in a telephone interview. She said her older daughter Susan graduated from OBHS when it was on double sessions. She sent her two younger daughters to St. Dominic. The two boys were in the Fox School in East Norwich and as a working mother, it was easier to have the boys also go to St. Dominic so they were all on the same vacation schedules. Her children also attended East Woods, Chaminade and Friends Academy. She said when she retired from teaching she had been watching the district for 30 years. She said, "People used to say - when you said you lived in Oyster Bay - 'You poor thing!' I noticed things were changing and in spite of the fact that I had children in private school I was always an advocate for public school. If you have an excellent public school system, the private schools have to compete. So I got involved. Our Regents diplomas were at 67 percent when I joined. Now it is 98 percent; 97 percent, 92 percent, 98 percent. I want excellence in our schools," she said.
"As far as finances, we have to be careful. We have to come to a consensus. I think we have been as frugal as we can. We've done wonderful things. I was at a program at the Roosevelt School with 52 teachers who came from other districts, because Oyster Bay is 'on the map' educationally speaking. There were people there from Great Neck coming to observe and they were always a strong school district."
She added that a recent real estate ad for a local house noted "Oyster Bay is a strong school district." She said it was a good designation, that means it will remain that way, something that is important to Ms. Grieco since she has grandchildren in the district schools.
James Mattel said he has been a teacher for the emotionally disturbed at hospitals for 34 years. He is semi retired and has two children in the district schools, at Vernon in fourth grade and in seventh at the high school.
He said his strongest point for serving on the board is his 34 years of experience with schools and being on financial committees. His wife has been a PTA Council president for several years, and he coaches every sport in town.
"I've been here 15 years and plan to be here another 40. My best contribution to the community will be on the board of education," concluded Mr. Mattel.
Rod Olivero has been in the community for about 10 years. He and his wife moved to New York City for a time but returned here to raise their two children. He said he wanted to be involved in the community and can best do that by serving on the school board. "I come from a finance background and have six years working in Wall Street. I want a happy medium for getting the best for the kids while maximizing the funds. That is where I can be of benefit the most, on the school board," he said.
He said his goal is to have an excellent school district. He said at the last school board meeting a young lady was given tenure. She went to Oyster Bay High School, went to college and came back here to teach. "That is something I look forward to for my children," he said, to be able to live here, and to return here after college, to live as adults.
Matt Meng opened the discussion. He asked Ms. Grieco about the term of office. She said, "Four years." She added that she taught in Syosset, starting one day a week, and when the district coordinator for Elementary Physical Education retired, she took on that job. Later she became an adaptive physical education teacher working with handicapped children and their parents. "It was a wonderful experience," she said.
Lianne Gunther said when Dr. Harrington spoke to the East Norwich Civic Association she explained the budget is a 3.65 percent increase. "If it doesn't pass it will not be the contingency budget of 4 percent but will be 3.52 percent increase. With the stock market down, and people losing their jobs, how can we justify our school taxes going up in this economy?"
If the budget goes down, [there are two votes allowed] the contingency percentage will be 3.52 percent. The proposed budget includes all contingency and necessary expenses to operate the school district. When the proposed budget is below the contingency budget cap, the contingency budget is calculated by removing all non-contingency appropriations from the proposed budget. Items which are statutorily considered non-contingency expenses are, for example, student supplies, community use of buildings and grounds, certain equipment purchases and certain salary increases.
Ms. Greico said the budget figure also includes the bond issue - and without that there was just about a 2 percent increase. "We have contracts that have to be filled every year. Everything goes up. We don't know if gas and oil will go up."
She said, "I understand we too are on a fixed income. I know it is tough times. I take it to heart. I understand what you are saying."
Anita MacDougall suggested those union contracts be re-negotiated and told of an upstate district that is taking no Step increases, that automatically raises teacher's salaries by length of service. "We here on Long Island should take lessons from them," she said.
Trustee Greico said she looked up that district and said it is a depressed area. "Where that is done it comes from the unions themselves. There is a district in Westchester where every administrator in that consortium, 10 in all, said they would take no increase. It has to come from them or we will be in court." She added that the William Floyd School District, was another district that cut expenses. "But when I looked into it they are not taking the increase for the first part of the contract but for the next they are - and it comes from the union."
"So what can we do?" asked Ms. MacDougall. "The average Oyster Bay salary is extremely high." Ms. Greico said they are high all over Long Island. The problem, Ms. Grieco explained, is that the union negotiations are influenced by what happens in this whole north shore area. "Nobody pulls back. It is always this community has this much - and that has so much," she said.
Bill Burke, an educator himself, said, "I think teachers deserve the money they make. Your most important possession is in their hands." But, as a taxpayer he said, "I am under the impression that the board is a rubber stamp with very little opposition. The most recent example is the retroactive raise for the superintendent of schools. He said the district has a very large staff and told the candidates, "If you are elected you have to aggressively attack waste." He said he was the representative for all the school principals in Queens; he evaluated schools; and worked on the budget. He suggested the district have an independent task force to look at where the money is being spent. [The district currently has an internal, external and a community audit committee that includes the BOE and two community members. He suggested a line-by-line budget [which the district has] and consolidation of services. [The district participates in a number of cooperative bids including fuel oil, maintenance services, and athletic supplies among others. They also utilize BOCES for printing services, special education related services, and other smaller items.]
Ms. Grieco asked Mr. Burke if he attended the budget meetings, and he said he hadn't.
He said, "It can't be business as usual. It has to be 'we are going to aggressively attack any waste we have.' I think that will make the citizens happy."
Rod Olivero said the community is saying they don't want to take anything from the kids and want to have the board maximize the dollar to get the most for it. He said as an investment banker he was qualified to help in that area. But his priority was not to hurt the children, "You can do that without hurting your most important asset, your child," he said.
Joe Boorstein said the whole system is rigged to prevent the community from controlling the budget. "The contingency budget budget says selective things are cut and others not. It is hard for voters to influence things," he said.
"Let's get a fresh start," said Mr. Olivero, "then we can figure out what is going on and do better next year. Even in regards to unions."
From his educational experience, Mr. Mattel said his district asked teachers to volunteer for after-school clubs rather than be paid, and they did, when the district couldn't afford to pay. The teachers also went on field trips without pay for supervision, but with their rooms paid for. He suggested this district ask people to volunteer to teach clubs; volunteer to be coaches. "You never want to cut kids' programs." Mr. Mattel said he has volunteered at the Vernon School teaching a nutrition class.
He suggested charging rent for the use of fields. [The district does charge a fee to sports clubs for the use of fields.]
Mr. Burke returned to the topic of superintendent's raise. "What others say to me is, to pay a superintendent retroactively is a huge mistake and a slap in the face to the community."
Ms. Greico expanded her comments on the raise in a telephone interview, "It was discussed before the economy failed, although things were starting to look grim. The raise is $13,000 and if we put an ad into The New York Times [where education jobs are publicized] it would cost $6,000 and you have to do it at least twice so there is the $12,000, and to go into a search it's $25,000 to $50,000. We have probably the best superintendent and assistant superintendent in Nassau County. They are fabulous and they are the lowest paid. To me, I know that 7 percent sounds a lot but it makes sense to give a raise like that when you know how much it will cost to do otherwise, for cuts.
"I lay awake thinking where this district has come in the last eight years. No one follows a leader and they do follow Dr. Harrington. They have to perform, that is the mandate they have been given. They are doing that," said Ms. Grieco, who as the only incumbent at the meeting, the task of defending the current board fell on her shoulders.
Dr. Castellano said, "Every area of the private sector is contracting except the public sector. They are getting raises. When your friend has lost a job and your house is being foreclosed - saying you can't ask someone to give back; and to not ask for volunteers - no one is untouchable now to the point where you can't say 'give back.' We have a contracting society. People are taking vacations at home. People are spending more time in the community. Everyone wants something done and it can be done if the right people are speaking for you."
Caroline DuBois commended the group for working to help the children. She suggested that credit could be given for community service, and asked what the focus of the candidates was.
Dr. Castellano agreed that more public service would be good, including that it would show the results of the young people's education and lead to a better community appreciation of their education.
Mr. Olivero said his focus was fiscal accountability. "That is what I do for a living. The best thing I can do is try to figure out where to get savings. Volunteering and community service are all good ideas."
Mr. Mattel said a lot of people are willing to volunteer and donate things like books and computers to the district. He said the kids need to know what is available for them to do. "I did a nutrition class at Vernon. Maybe kids could get credit there and not pay a teacher but use a volunteer. There are a lot of retired teachers in the area who could take over a club. Like someone who is fabulous at chess. If you don't ask people they are not going to run up to you to volunteer," he added.
Ms. Grieco said they have used volunteers in the high school and in some programs. Many of the parents participate in voluntary activities to support the instructional program; and the district continues to collaborate with PTA leadership in order to enrich the student's educational experiences. [Note the recent PTSA Taste of the Gold Coast gala that raises money for scholarships and enrichment classes.]
Ms. Grieco said she too has volunteered at a private school one morning a week. "But as far as finances," she said. "We have three sets of auditors and they audit and check everything - especially since what happened in Roslyn."
She added at the mention of consolidating jobs that that had been a problem for the district recently. "We were told there was too much consolidation. The auditors don't want too many duties in one person's hands. There needs to be separation of duties. We are doing as much as we possibly can to save money.
"And when asking to cut administration - they have so much paper work to send to Albany constantly. It is on-going and changing all the time."
"It doesn't take a superintendent to do the paperwork, does it," someone asked.