The three newly elected school board members shared their thoughts on the challenges ahead at a get acquainted meeting with the General Council of Homeowner Associations.
The consensus was that Port has a very good school system in place but must fashion a solution to its space problems in a way that works for the entire community.
"Yes, there certainly is a demographic problem," offered Robert Ferro. "Kids are moving into this town. But spending a lot of money is not necessarily the answer. We are a diverse community and there are many who cannot afford excessive increases in their taxes."
Julie Meyer recounted that she has been touring the schools ¬ "at least three times" - to try to identify where space is needed and "if classrooms are being used efficiently. We are looking at September 2001. This year is already set." She expressed her skepticism, though, of those who have been "painting worst case scenarios."
Peter Wezenaar said that the board will be faced with many choices: Do we open up Salem? What renovations do we make at the other elementary schools? Do we change the grade configurations? He noted that he grew up in Port and "knows all the school buildings." He promises to seek "common sense solutions."
The three indicated that they would ideally seek to reach agreement on a plan to meet the needs of the district over the next seven - eight years. Failing that, consideration would have to be given this fall to a minibond to address short term needs. A minibond would likely fund two - four additional classrooms at Manorhaven, Guggenheim and Weber, in addition to the three - four classrooms that will result from the renovations in the Weber basement this summer.
School board member John Zimmerman, also in attendance, appeared to speak for all them when he described the school district as a "community treasure" and insisted that he was determined to "invite our skeptics into the discussion." He added, "We want our critics to participate in our working committees."
Jeff Oring of Port Washington Estates and chair of the General Council's School District Committee stressed the need for long-range financial planning. He reminded the new school board members of the homeowner umbrella group's long-standing position in favor of a five-year plan for the operating and capital budgets with ongoing update and review. Planning ahead, pointed out Roger Lifson of Morewood Oaks, will "obviate the necessity of expensive stopgap measures to meet crises."
Sam Bogen of Beachway Estates and a former school board member advised the new members "not to expect to know everything on Day One." Frank Russo of Baxter Estates suggested that they "not be overly swayed by the inevitable pressures you will be subjected to." He added, "Don't lose your common sense approach."
Joel Katz of Harbor Hills recommended that "the budget be scrutinized under a microscope" in search of possible savings. Added Wayne Wink of Port North: "Budgets have tendencies sometimes to become wish lists for projects that may or may not be needed."
General Council President Larry Rose of Manorhaven warned them not to rely solely on the experts. "Ask questions. Read the blueprints." Barry Loeb of Eastern Crest rejoined that one need not be an expert, except to be "expert in finding the right expert."
Scott Winter of Beacon Hill would apply a jaundiced eye to demographic trendlines. "Where is the bubble?" he asked. Mr. Bogen agreed and noted that when he served on the board in the 1970s, consideration was given to building an expensive, brand new high school until a board member was able to demonstrate that the "bubble" or population bulge would be over the very day the new school would open.
There was a discussion of optimal class size. Mr. Russo stressed that class size was far less important than teacher quality. Jim Ansel of the Park section countered that it did matter, that there is more personal attention in smaller classes. Mr. Zimmerman stated that he believes we have a duty to be on a par with neighboring school districts with respect to class size.
Ms. Meyer observed that the looming teacher union negotiations will be "difficult and challenging." Mr. Russo would like to see the board negotiate a contract that better reflects the supply-demand market for new teachers in this area. He also favors incentives that motivate and reward better teachers.
The meeting adjourned well before 11 p.m. and Ms. Meyer, to general approval, suggested that it should be the standard for school board meetings.