Three of the five candidates running for the Port Washington Board of Education -- incumbents Sandy Ehrlich, Dr. Roy Nelson, and Nancy Cowles -- turned out to meet the public in a League-sponsored forum on the evening of May 3, with just a few dozen people in attendance. The two challengers, however, were absent. Candidate Julie Meyer was unable to attend because of kindergarden orientation for her daughter, and candidate Robert Ferro was not present due to a family emergency. Voters will decide who will fill the three positions on May 16.
In his opening statement, the current BOE President, Dr.Nelson,who is seeking re-election, recalled that three years ago, the development of a long-range plan was a top priority. Now, "I am happy to have been part of a Board who, along with parents, teachers, administrators, and education professionals developed the long-range plan that was adopted on Jan. 4 ... I think that the time has been well spent and the plan rests on a sound educational footing," Dr. Nelson said. He pointed out that over the past three years, "a significant education agenda has been implemented," including programs, like summer school, for students to meet the state requirements leading to an all-Regents graduation standard. He cited an increase in availability of more challenging courses, expanded after school programs, and a start to improvements for children with special needs as other accomplishments. Even though he is a candidate for a master's degree in public administration, "nothing tops the experience we all get as board members," he said.
The current vice president of the BOE, Sandy Ehrlich, who is also seeking another term, mentioned, in her opening, that "for the first time in many years, we have given our community a long-range plan which includes both educational and financial objectives. We have worked to advance our firmly held belief that excellence in education means giving each of our students the programs, the tools, and the support needed to reach his or her full potential." She also expressed gratitude to "our Port Washington community ... it is full of intelligent, caring, public spirited people who act from the most honorable motives of civic pride and personal responsibility ... with people like you, our town cannot help but continue to be a wonderful place to live."
Echoing many of the themes of her BOE colleagues, Nancy Cowles said three years ago her major concern was that "the district provide an equitable and appropriate education for each student and that we make the best use of our resources to accomplish this." Moreover, she recognized that changes in educational programs were needed to challenge students and meet new state requirements. "The large numbers of students having to be educated out of district was of concern too," she added. Over the past three years, Cowles found, " we have worked diligently to effect positive changes. Some of our objectives have been accomplished, but others require continued oversight and ongoing efforts. The experience and knowledge we have gained working together should prove an invaluable asset."
The three incumbents/candidates were asked by an audience member whether grade six belongs in the middle school or elementary schools. Dr. Nelson supported the 6-7-8 middle school configuration, citing research findings demonstrating that the lower 2/3 of the students will perform better when given a longer period in one school.
Mrs. Ehrlich agreed. "... Throughout the state, schools are moving toward the 6-7-8 configuration," she added. "In some ways, this is a moot point," responded Mrs. Cowles. "This district has already decided to move the sixth grade to the middle school. To go back, it would have to be rehashed all over again, with all the relevant parties ... when it was decided a few years ago, I was one of the proponents. I have worked in a 6-7-8 middle school, and 6th graders are developmentally, intellectually, physically, and socially, more like 7th and 8th graders than they are like the younger children. I believe the grouping is very appropriate."
But the subject of the placement of 6th graders was returned to later in the meeting. The candidates were asked to expand on why costs would be prohibitive if the 6th grade was returned to the elementary schools. The answer focused primarily on the logistical difficulty in providing foreign language instruction to sixth graders who are in different schools. It would necessitate teachers moving from school to school; in addition, it is apparently difficult to find foreign language teachers with elementary education certification.
Another question from the audience addressed appropriate class size at different grade levels. Mrs. Cowles replied that 16-20 was stated by law for pre-K, and depended on staff; she preferred 20 students or less in K to 3rd, but felt by 4th grade, classes can comfortably go to 24 students, "because children can be more independent at this age." Dr. Nelson commented that the average from K-5 has been approximately 20 students per class, and "it works." In the middle school, he said he preferred not to see class size rise to the mid- to high 20s. At the high school level, he said size depends on the courses, but he favors keeping specialized courses available to students and not dependent on the enrollment size. Mrs. Ehrlich expressed her view that up to 3rd grade, the classes should not exceed 20 children, but in 3rd, when children start leaving the classroom for specialized programs like PEP and music, classes should not exceed 22. She agreed with her colleagues on the size of middle and high school classes.
The candidates were asked what other educational programs or goals they would like to foster or support. Mrs. Ehrlich answered, " I'd like to see expanded training in differentiated curriculum in heterogeneous classes, more technology in the high school, foreign language in elementary schools, and improvements in special education and gifted education programs, and focus on the average learner too." Similarly, Mrs. Cowles said, "I'd like to [encourage] heterogeneous groups with individualized education... and more staff development, working together with teachers to strengthen the instructional environment."
A number of questions were concerned with the upcoming bond referendum for school facilities, and the aftermath if the bond were defeated. All three incumbents expressed full support for the bond. "The plan suits the needs we set out to correct," said Mrs. Cowles. "There will be five elementary schools with equal opportunity to participate in the same programs...We can bring back special education students, and save us money in doing so; it also makes it handicapped accessible." Dr. Nelson added that the plan "corrects past deficiencies, meets present needs, and future ones. Space is getting in the way of education programs." He continued, "I don't want to see children having lunch at 10 a.m. or students being educated in the hallways." While acknowledging that it was not an ideal plan but was the "best possible plan," Mrs. Ehrlich said "it will serve the community for years to come."
Dr. Nelson expressed confidence that the bond would pass, but "if it does not, the BOE would have to go back, modify the programmatic approach ... and present a new plan to the community." Mrs. Cowles was mindful that a number of the items are mandated, so they would have to be done anyway. And Mrs. Ehrlich said, "What we do next will depend on the composition of the school board. We believe in the work done by so many to make this plan ... But we'll lose $9 million by June 30th [if the bond is defeated]."
"Is it true that no alternative plan could be passed without a BOE majority?" asked another member of the public. "Any plan is passed by the majority," Dr. Nelson answered. "Certainly if this bond doesn't pass, there will be an alternative plan that will be passed by a majority of the board ... If the questioner is asking whether we will be able to turn around another plan by June 30th, the answer is no," said Mrs. Ehrlich.
The candidates were asked to reflect on the traffic and safety issues when Weber is converted to an elementary school. Mrs. Ehrlich remarked that "There was an elementary school on the site in the past: Flower Hill." The movement of traffic, she felt, will actually be improved somewhat with Weber as an elementary school, because the parking needs of an elementary school are not as great as those of secondary schools, and the hours of operation are different as well. Regarding safety, Mrs. Ehrlich said the site will be screened with fencing and landscaping. Residents for a More Beautiful PW offered to donate the services of their landscape architect, she said, to help. "It is the responsibility of the staff, of that building, to provide supervision of the children at all times," she maintained. Mrs. Cowles concurred, adding that the safety plan should be discussed with the parents and nearby residents. "We have looked at schools like Munsey Park and Hewlett, also on busy intersections ... it can work fine; we just need to work together," she said. Dr.Nelson, too, was in agreement, contending that traffic will improve because we will "stop busing kids from one end of town to another."
In their closing comments, all three candidates urged the public to vote "Yes" on the bond, the budget, and their re-election. "This election is about children, and how to serve children," said Dr. Nelson, in his final statement.