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POB BOE Grapples With Tough Issues As School Year Winds Down

At the Monday, June 7 meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage School District Board of Education, there were a lot of weighty issues on the table and plenty of strong opinions to be heard, both from the board and members of the community. Items of discussion included Race to the Top (the controversial educational incentive program introduced by the Obama administration), the use of new technology by the district to improve communication with parents, the questionable value of overseas field trips in difficult economic times, and the usual slate of resolutions. In addition, while it wasn’t on the written agenda, the subject of the departure of several coaches from the high school was broached by several members of the community, who came to speak on their coaches’ behalf.

First, the board thanked the community for voting to pass the budget last month. During Board Announcements, it was reported that the board did walk-throughs of several district schools, including John F. Kennedy High School and Mattlin Middle School. While members of the board were impressed by what they saw students accomplish during the walk-throughs, trustee Debbi Bernstein suggested doing the walk-throughs earlier in the year to give board members access to more of the academic classes; some classes were off-limits to the board due to preparation for upcoming Regents and final exams.

The English Language Arts program for the entire district was discussed in some depth, including the plan to place a larger emphasis on personal narrative writing across several grade levels- a boon for high school students who will soon be faced with writing challenging college admissions essays. Trustee Angel Cepeda commented that aiming to meet national standards in language arts should not be sufficient for the district, which has the capacity to achieve more. “We should expect more than that,” said Cepeda, commenting on national language standards. English Chairman Jeffrey Yagaloff responded that the proposed changes to the curriculum will take into account the needs of Plainview Old-Bethpage students.

Assistant Superintendent for Personnel, Administration and Professional Development Arthur Jonas and Director of Technology Guy Lodico presented plans for the new district parent portal, which will be in development over the summer and operational in September. The new portal will be easier to navigate, and include many parent-friendly features like customizable school calendars, e-mail alerts about important school events, and multiple language options. While only a small percentage of district parents use the current Infinite Campus system, members of the board were cautiously optimistic that more parents would take advantage of the system as the district continues to add content.  

While the new system will have greatly increased functionality, limitations were discussed as well; for example, despite the district’s large Korean population, a Korean translation will not be available for any district websites at this time. Furthermore, some potentially exciting features, like offering live video streams of graduations for the benefit of out-of-state relatives and grandparents, will be difficult to implement for security reasons; the district website currently does not feature photos or videos in order to protect students’ privacy.

However, Superintendent Gerard Dempsey noted that the security issues do not present insurmountable problems, and may be dealt with in other ways while allowing the addition of other media to the website. “We were going to have to address this issue at some point,” confirmed Dempsey. Lodico noted that the technical aspects of offering video streams would not pose a problem.

The district’s participation in the second round of the national Race to the Top program produced emotional and candid discussions from the board. “I’m really fed up with this ‘Race to the Top’- I think it’s a race for money...It’s a sham,” commented trustee Gary Bettan frankly. Bettan went on to criticize the current state of New York State tests (“We are failing if we are only meeting New York State standards”), and noted that he would not vote in favor of applying for Race to the Top.

While other board members did not criticize Race to the Top as harshly as Bettan (who received applause from the community for his impassioned stance), several board members noted their agreement with several of Bettan’s points, including President Ginger Lieberman and Amy Pierno. Many members of the board expressed dissatisfaction with the way that Race to the Top allegedly benefits charter schools disproportionately. Cepeda noted that while Race to the Top may leave a lot to be desired, it does offer some potential to accomplish much-needed educational reforms. Both Dempsey and Vice President Lori Weinstein commented that many of the things that the district would need to do in order to become eligible for funds from Race to the Top were in fact slated to become state-mandated, whether the district received the additional funding or not. “The fact of the matter is we’re going to have to do this anyway,” said Dempsey.

The board debated the pros and cons of discontinuing the hiatus on overseas field trips, which had been instituted in 2008 due to the financial difficulties faced by many parents in the district. It was agreed that the financial situation was still too precarious to re-institute the costly overseas trips.

During Public Participation, 2006 POBJFKHS graduate Joe Henney spoke on behalf of varsity lacrosse coach Chris Rogler, who is slated to be moved back to the middle school level next year. While Dempsey clarified that it is policy to refrain from using individuals’ names during board meetings, half a dozen other former students and athletes came up to the microphone to speak highly of Rogler as a teacher and coach, and request that he be kept at the high school, albeit not by name. Members of the current Lacrosse team attended the meeting and stood when their fellow lacrosse players spoke on Rogler’s behalf as a show of respect and solidarity.

Several people also came to speak in favor of the varsity tennis coach, Fred Sperber, who has not been offered a new contract, including current varsity tennis player Cory Glassberg and resident Ken Young. Young implored the board to “look at the process that makes it so easy for us to lose these influential people.”

On a lighter note, the board recognized the Plainview-Old Bethpage Senior Citizen’s Club for their twenty years of service to the seniors of Plainview-Old Bethpage. Weinstein presented club president Rachel Staiano a plaque, saying “I look forward to joining your club.” Staiano took a moment to reminisce about the beginnings of the club in 1990, when she only contributed a few hours a week to what has since become a demanding, if highly rewarding, full-time job.