Two of the three candidates running for school board this year attended the annual BOE Candidates' Night hosted annually by the League of Women Voters. The two women who are running, Laura Mogul and Nancy Cowles, were present and shared their views and answered any questions posed to them from members of the community. Michael Meehan, while expected by many to attend, did not. He also failed to notify officials as to why he was unable to be there, or to find some way to get word over to Weber Middle School Auditorium explaining his absence.
Both Ms. Cowles and Ms. Mogul had the opportunity for brief statements summing up some of their ideas.
Ms. Cowles began stating that she is concerned about the board's focus, cohesion and leadership. "To me, the board's role is one of oversight and appraisal, not day-to-day management." She added, "The primary board function is to institute policies that are in line with laws, reflect educational vision and provide direction for district operations."
Cognizant of the financial impact educational decisions have on our community, Ms. Cowles said, "The board has an obligation to seek increased value from every dollar spent. I know the budgetary process can be improved. I will advocate for more time to be allotted to in-depth review and community input.
Ms. Cowles pointed out that this year the school board will be making crucial decisions that have significant, long-range educational and financial implications for our community and its children. Since a majority of remaining board members will have served less than one full year (Sussman and Zimmerman will be the senior members of the board), she thinks it is vitally important to elect people who demonstrate understanding of the complexity of the issues confronting the board. Having already served a three-term, she said, "I believe I have the knowledge and experience required to help make tough, but appropriate choices."
Ms. Mogul agreed with her opponent that the next few years will be a time of significant change in our school district.
She notes, "The new board will make decisions that will have far-reaching implications for our schools. Implementation of the facilities plan for our schools. Redistricting. Teacher contract negotiations. Hiring of senior administrative staff, including assistant superintendents for curriculum and personnel, and possibly the next superintendent as well."
Continuing to list other important challenges, she adds the restructuring of the enrichment program and new initiatives in core curriculum subjects.
"None of these are simple issues," said Ms. Mogul, noting that Superintendent Dr. Al Inserra is fond of saying, "there are no easy answers here."
Summing up, she says, "I have the passion, the management skills and the experience and knowledge of the system to help make our schools the best they can be for all of our children."
Q- Redistricting, or as it's been called the "R" word?
Ms. Cowles says, "It's really a very complex issue. It will raise a lot of issues," adding, "mostly for adults. Young children will adjust." She mentioned that she is currently pushing the board to form a committee to prepare and formulate a process for how this will run and what to consider (i.e. dual language, socio-economics, balancing schools of different sizes.) "There are lots of questions to be answered," she said, "and we need input from staff, administrators, parents and students."
Ms. Mogul also said that much has to be considered before any determinations are made. "What programs are to be offered in various schools, given the diverse population in enrollment? Do we create neighborhood schools? What about bussing considerations?" She noted that she has confidence that it will work out well because "we have good schools with strong principals who make whatever school they head a community."
Q- Feelings about the upcoming budget?
Ms. Cowles said that she would support the budget, even though it may not be the budget she would have voted for. "The budget process has to be reviewed. Sufficient time has to be given to the budget, with more community input, especially from the hard pressed taxpayers in town." She suggests forming a citizens review committee to "get the most out of the tax dollar, so that the district does not have to ask for more."
Ms. Mogul basically agreed with Ms. Cowles that the budget process has to start earlier and needs to be reevaluated.
Q- How do you feel about censorship?
Ms. Cowles stated, "This is not the board's job. We should review and ask questions." Censorship, she added, "takes us down a very bad path."
Ms. Mogul said that she was "horrified" when the school board debated banning two books this past year. "It's not the board's job," she said, noting that by the time the books come up for board approval they have already undergone "rigorous analysis."
Q- Why should the budget be approved?
Ms. Cowles pointed out that if the upcoming budget is defeated, "the district will lose some of its current good bond rating, and will also continue the rift in the community."
Ms. Mogul seconded her opponent's words, adding that the alternative to a failed budget---austerity---is not "palatable...The impact of the cuts on the school community is harsh."
Mindful of maintaining an attractive bond rating to lessen the cost of borrowing money over the next few years, Ms. Mogul is concerned over the fact that for the last two years, Port has had two defeated budgets, which has a negative effect on the rating.
Q- Former School Board President Amy Bass asked the candidates to respond to the recently held, highly successful Drug and Alcohol April 23 presentation.
A member of the committee for two years, Ms. Cowles commented on the fact that the meeting addressed the important role of parent participation in substance abuse prevention for teenagers. "I was delighted at the turnout," she noted. "The district has to build on the momentum created from the meeting."
One of her suggestions was to have the school psychologist run parenting groups to help parents set more limits on children.
Ms. Mogul was also pleased at the large community-wide turnout of concerned parents. Again, agreeing with Ms. Cowles, Ms. Mogul said, "The school can lead, but they need the parents."
Q- Larry Greenstein commented that the school board is currently dysfunctional and needs leadership that will bring a degree of respectability back to it. He asked how the candidates hoped to achieve this.
Ms. Cowles thinks the board is not following board policies, some of which need updating. "We should try to make situations less contentious...the board needs to respect varying opinions."
Ms. Mogul would like to see more communication between the board and community. "Questions are being asked, and no answers are given," she notes, which makes it appear as if information is being withheld.
The board itself should agree on common goals, reduce personal animosity and attacks and try to hold calm, rational discussions, in her view.
Q- Board President Richard Sussman commented that the district has been in terrible financial shape as a result of the actions of previous boards. He asked Ms. Cowles if, in his opinion, she would decimate the fund balance again.
Ms. Cowles replied that she found his statement quite interesting because Assistant Superintendent for Business Mary Callahan had just informed her that the district is in good financial shape, and, as an example, pointed to the AA2 bond rating, which the district's bond counsel says is a "stellar" rating.
Ms. Cowles explained her decision in 1998 to return more money from the fund balance than boards had in prior years as an effort to offset the tax levy that year. Ms. Cowles said the action was taken as a result of an error made by Nassau County in computing the final assessment for Class I Homeowners tax base for that year. It affected all districts in the same way in Nassau. The voters had already approved a budget with the expectation of a particular tax rate that had been provided to them as an estimate. When the assessment and adjusted base proportion had been finalized, the numbers were less advantageous to the class one homeowners and would have therefore driven up the tax rate to a number beyond the expectations of the community. Therefore the actual dollar amount increase would have been much higher than what the taxpayers had anticipated in May, when they approved the budget.
In terms of future fund balances and budgets, she said that the amount of money taken from the fund balance would depend on the individual circumstances of each new budget.
"We should also be investigating putting some money in the capital reserve funds," she added.
Q- Which school and community groups are you involved with? Do you feel it's important for a board member to be involved in other groups in town?
Having grandchildren currently in the school system, Ms. Cowles said that she goes to Guggenheim's PTA meetings, in addition to other events at the school. She's also a big fan of productions at Schreiber High School and attends most of them. Additionally she is a board member of the Community Scholarship Fund and active on the PW Student Loan Fund Association, along with being involved in several other local organizations. "As a board member, it's important to be involved," she believes. "You give back what you get."
With three children, in Sousa, Weber and Schreiber, and being actively involved in the PTAs and HSAs at these schools, Ms. Mogul is clearly part of school activities. She commented, "I have also been president of the Port Summer Show and involved with PYA and PAL sports, and also the Brownies."
She believes in the importance of a school board member being out in the community and being part of the day-to-day life in the classroom.
Q- How should we deal with the average student?
Ms. Cowles replied that she is not sure which initiatives to take. "We should evaluate the programs to see if they're doing their job and how they can be run more effectively and cheaply for greater benefit." She notes that the schools should be looking at the child who may be capable, but is alienated, potentially suicidal, considering dropping-out or on drugs. "The child who needs attention and is not getting it," she remarked.
Ms. Mogul feels that programs should be implemented to bring children who do not adhere to the minimal standard up to par. She also expressed concern for the students on the other end who may become bored if not stimulated. "We should enrich the PEP programs and Advanced Placement courses," she suggests.
Q- A Schreiber student asked both candidates how they felt about having a student representative on the board.
Both candidates thought it was an interesting idea that should be discussed.