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As we do every year, we asked the school board candidates to answer some questions we've gleaned from our interactions with the community. This year we posed 11 questions. Unfortunately, in some cases, we are unable to confirm or deny the legitimacy of certain claims.

1.What is your analysis of the current proposed budget? In what areas would you specifically change it?

Bowser:

My analysis of the current budget is that the administration tried to balance fiscal concerns with educational needs. We need more work on securing funding, lowering administrative costs and reprioritizing funds to focus on reading and other academic programs.

Calenda:

The current budget is much too large. I would make reductions of 5 percent across the board.

Cowles:

I support the current budget. Given the current economic climate, it represents an appropriate compromise for students and taxpayers. I understand the burden that rising taxes are placing on all of us and have worked to ease that burden. I feel obligated to justify every dollar asked for and spent. We must improve the budget process. More time must be allotted for an in-depth review of each program to assess its benefits and to determine if it can operate more cost effectively. Greater effort needs to be made to seek and consider meaningful input from all segments of the community before the budget is adopted. Budget communications should enable anyone to understand why each expenditure is necessary and how our money enables the district to reach its goals.

Posner:

The current budget seems to reflect the best efforts of the board and administration. It should be analyzed in two parts- excluding and including debt service (for both school and library). First, consideration should be given to the "true" educational cost associated with programs, staffing, and building maintenance, as stated. The total reported increase in the "Educational Costs" is approximately 5.56 percent. This budget appears to be relatively "tight" and addresses the basic educational needs of the students in the district.

Unfortunately, the total budget that taxpayers are being asked to accept is higher due to the financing costs of improving, expanding and opening a school in this district. The reported total increase is about 8.55 percent, which is slightly above the average for Nassau County.

Sussman:

There are many changes that I believe should be made in the budget, but most importantly we need to know exactly what is in the budget without distorting the facts. This budget is taking $1.3 million from reserve funds, in order to bring the budget under $100 million. This is deceptive accounting. They are not reducing spending, but instead only hiding it. The school district has acknowledged in writing that $1.3 million has been borrowed from reserve funds and will "have to be returned to the budget in the subsequent year." The board has in recent years resorted to another trick of giving back money from prior year's budgets for capital projects that were not done. I can understand this if the work does not need to be done but they gave back the money to replace the Manorhaven roof at the same time they asked the taxpayers to pay for the job again in a roof construction bond. Hence, our real budget is not $99.8 million but at least $101.1 million, which amounts to more than a 10 percent increase from the prior year.

We need to watch how we spend our money. Cutting after school clubs and athletics which are extremely cost effective and vital to our children's education is not in the best interests of the students. There are many areas that have to be looked at such as personnel reduction. There has been much creep in this area of unnecessary personnel such as aides to run copy machines where in the past teachers did it themselves. When I left the board two years ago we had five million dollars left over in the construction bond. This was spent or wasted which caused the board to ask for more money for the roof bond. We have to budget for capital projects instead of relying on bonds to do the work. Not to do so portrays a false description of the fiscal condition of the school district.

(Ed.'s note: When Mr. Sussman left the board two years ago, June 2002, the construction had not begun, nor had any major contracts been awarded. The contract for the major construction for Weber was awarded in October 2002; the high school Nov 2002, Salem-June 2003 and Daly-Oct. 2003. Also monies left over from a bond can't be arbitrarily spent on other projects not articulated in the bond referendum approved by the voters.)

Zausner:

I believe that the budget, which is just under $100,000,000.00, is still too much. The cutbacks that the board made are small, and directly affect our kids. I specifically would change the budget by outsourcing ancillary departments. Additionally, we need to form cooperative purchasing agreements with other school districts, that way we can save money by ordering in bulk. In these tough economic times I would ask the teachers union for reasonable concessions in order to restore cuts made to our after school clubs and sports teams.

2. The teacher's contract expires in June 2005. Within the legal requirements, how would you change it?

Bowser:

I would examine and manage contracts diligently. Locating when and where funds can be returned to the district. I would secure new funding to enhance our programs

Calenda:

The teachers have always had a very nice deal, changes need to be made!

Cowles:

I believe all aspects of any contract need to be analyzed to see if there are components which may interfere with achieving goals. I would look for greater flexibility which would allow administration the opportunity to more effectively manage resources to better meet student needs. I would hope to achieve a new contract which was regarded as fair and appropriate by all constituencies.

Posner:

I would recommend taking a pro-active approach. A comparative analysis of Port's teachers' total compensation structure with that of the industry and similar districts on Long Island should be analyzed providing information as to salary adjustments that might be appropriate to consider.

Sussman:

For one, I think we should enforce all provisions of the contract. We are constantly hampered by clauses in the contract yet we do not enforce provisions that favor the district. The amount of hours teaching being one glaring example. Other provisions that I have fought for and will continue to fight for are clauses that other districts have such as one that requires all teachers to teach at least one after or before school class per week as part of their salary. We need to restructure chairpeople to the model used in most school districts that do not have chairpeople but instead of directors subjects from kindergarten through 12th grade. This will mean for example one person is responsible for the math curriculum for the child's complete experience in our district instead of each school having differences in curriculum and the middle school not knowing what the high school is doing.

Zausner:

As the teachers' contract comes up for renewal, we need to ask ourselves what we need to do in order to save money and improve education. First, we should require extended afternoon hours, and weekend hours, if we keep the schools open longer our children will be able to seek the extra help they need in order to meet new testing standards. Second, Healthcare costs amount to 18 percent of our total school budget, we need to have the teachers pay a bigger percentage of the premiums, comparative to a private sector business employee. We also need to examine the exact health plan the district subscribes to, and see if there is one that is more cost effective. Third, the Port schools need to opt out of the New York State Retirement Fund for all new teacher hires. In its place the district will set up a 401k type system were we match the teachers contributions. This could easily save $5 million a year. Lastly, the district should negotiate future raises with teachers on an overall district wide performance incentive.

3. In the adoption of the 2004-5 budget the board has reversed the trend in lowering class size and adding to staff. What are your thoughts?

Bowser:

My thoughts are the board needs to maximize service and costs without adding to the administrative portions of our school budget.

Calenda:

These moves should have been made years ago!

Cowles:

This year the board spent several months developing and discussing a new class size policy. While budget cuts will increase class size the Board has been assured that the number of students in each will still fall within the policy limits. The policy does allow some latitude for exceptions to be made when deemed in the best interest for instructional purposes. Given that, I would expect there to be minimal, if any, negative impact.

Posner:

The budget reductions will results in increasing class sizes. Hopefully, as economic conditions improve and property taxes begin to stabilize, the issue of class size can be re-examined

Sussman:

Lowering class size and staff should have a basis in what is best overall for the district. I certainly support lower class size in the lower grades since research shows that is where it is a large benefit. I have not seen any studies or research to support the same thing in the higher grades. We have to look at everything in the overall context of what is the best way to spend our resources where it will be the most effective.

Zausner:

It is unfortunate that the school board has decided to increase class size; however, this is the economic times we live in. Even with the increased class size Port Washington still falls far below the national average of 28.

4. What educational area needs the most attention in our district?

Bowser:

The educational areas that need the most attention in our district are reading and technology.

Calenda:

All areas require equal attention.

Cowles:

To me every student needs to have the opportunity to succeed in line with potential. We have students at all levels of learning who for various reasons are not achieving this. I see a need for systematic collection and in depth analysis of data from a variety of assessment instruments, as well as continued refinements in our curriculum and its delivery to help spark children's' interest, increase motivation and expand critical thinking skills.

Posner:

Overall, it is important that we begin to "close the learning gap" for those students at-risk and others in the middle.

Sussman:

The current board has reversed the trend to improve reading scores in the lower grades. We need to go back to basics and have more contact time with the elementary school teacher in the classroom, especially in reading instruction. In my prior service on the board I succeeded in helping to reverse the trend towards whole language, restoring a phonics based approach and bringing more structure to the district. We obtained a written curriculum that had been missing. I also spearheaded a campaign to improve our math program by accelerating the Math A program which has had the effect of strengthening the entire math curriculum. This area needs more work, but the foundations were laid with much favorable acclaim by Newsday and other school districts that called to compliment the program.

Zausner:

Our test scores for the fourth and eighth grade reading and math exams, High School Regents exams are just merely adequate. Additionally, when other surrounding school districts are doing it better than we are for less money something has to be changed.

5. How would you address it?

Bowser:

I would address these areas of concern by finding corporate funding for technical support and equipment. Develop mandatory reading assessments for all children, so that a viable individual educational plan can be implemented.

Calenda:

Answered in #4.

Cowles:

I believe addressing this would be a multifaceted, multiyear project. Because it has the potential to tie up many resources, first it would need to be established by the board and administration that this is a priority. Then I would ask administration to gather evidence about the extent of the problem and to map out strategic plans to effectively resolve them. I would expect such a plan to account for individual differences in learning style and rate, and detail exactly what modalities and methods might best be used with individual, or groups of, children. I would ask administration to delineate and provide a rationale for any budgetary impacts. I would want to know what criteria would be used for judging the success or failure of any interventions and establish a timetable for implementation, follow up evaluations and subsequent reports to the board.

Posner:

It is important to prioritize educational goals and objectives for students at all levels. No child should ever be left behind. I recommend providing programs that not only challenge children to reach their full potential but also enrich their educational experiences.

Sussman:

I would address the reading needs by having more contact time with the elementary teacher and pushing for a peer tutoring program, which research indicates is the most effective type of help, as well as being the most cost effective. We need to change the culture of the district where academic excellence is something prized and students can be proud of.

Zausner:

For increased test scores students need to have better access to their teachers during the day, after school, and on weekends. If elected one of the first programs I would put in place is to set up extended hours, the purpose of this is twofold; first, it allows our kids to garner improved test scores, because they will have increased access to teachers and thus be better prepared. Second, it affords our kids safe environments were they can be supervised, while their parents are working.

6. What do you think of the proposed cuts in after school clubs and teams?

Bowser:

I feel the proposed cuts are harsh. There should be better management of finances and we need to secure additional funding.

Calenda:

It is my understanding that the teams would not be affected.

Cowles:

After school clubs and sports are a valuable adjunct to the educational program and this cut may impact children. I would hope all parties will work together to find solutions that will allow these offerings to be maintained. Options to explore might include paying for some services through grants, using volunteers, reducing the number of units assigned to a given activity or the value of the units themselves. These latter two items are contractual issues.

Posner:

Many children participate in the after-school clubs and athletic programs. At the elementary level, I hope that clubs such as-homework, reading, computers- that offer a component that encourages learning will be offered. At the middle and high schools, I hope that most, if not all, the clubs and teams would continue to be offered, even if on a scaled-down basis.

Sussman:

I fought hard to expand the after school programs in the district at all grade levels. It is hard to believe that when I first got on the board we had almost no clubs at the elementary school level. I was the only vote on the board to make expanding that a goal for our board, which we did accomplish. I helped institute the "no cut policy" for our teams at Weber since we should try to encourage all students to participate, and not only those who excel. I would not support a budget that takes these cost effective programs away from our students. The trend throughout the nation is to increase them. We were ahead of other districts and are now falling behind.

Zausner:

I think the school board making cuts to after school sports and clubs is nothing more than the board being draconian. These clubs and sports allow the kids to develop self-esteem, teamwork, communication skills, and a sense of self. I believe that these programs are essential to a well-rounded education. However, due to budget constraints we need to find alternate sources of revenue to fund these worthwhile programs. The school must start seeking private dollars, many private sector companies have community outreach programs. If we don't lobby these companies for money, we won't be able to keep these clubs and sports. What does it matter if our kids have to wear a small patch on their jersey that says 'footlocker' if we can keep JV2 sports. We also need to ask local groups like the League of Women Voters to sponsor and possibly run the debate club. This way we get to keep our clubs and sports and at the same time get local business and the community once again involved with the kids.

7. What do you think of the athletic programs in the district?

Bowser:

I think the athletic programs in the district need our support. We must locate funds and work within our resources to develop playing fields that will service the diversity of our teams and town. We must support the athletic programs by providing training for our staff in areas of cultural sensitivity.

Calenda

The athletic department needs to be re-evaluated, the facilities need a complete overhaul.

Cowles:

Basically, we have good programs. Many improvements have been made in our in-school athletic program the last few years. There are more varied offerings. There has been a shift in emphasis to developing skills and attitudes that will result in increased well-being throughout life. Our after school programs have been upgraded. There are more sports offerings, assistant coaches have been added to many teams and, as a result of the no cut policy, even less skilled youngsters have been able to take advantage of offerings. Port Washington has made a concerted effort to achieve parity for girls. Acquiring skills, team building and good sportsmanship are a focus. New and renovated gymnasiums are a major asset for our schools and community. However, our outdoor facilities are inadequate and insufficient to handle demands. The board is continuing to explore all options in trying to achieve appropriate solutions to this problem.

Posner:

There is no shortage of students interested in playing sports and parents willing to coach. We do have a shortage of athletic fields and related-facilities. If elected, I will explore ways to maximize and expand use of the fields, and work to find the funding required, while respecting the environment.

Sussman:

Athletic programs in this district are very important both to those that excel as well as those we want to encourage participating more in sports. I believe we should support our teams to excel and win, and not merely field teams for the sake of it.

Zausner:

I believe that Port's athletic program is second to none; sports provide many things for our kids, and should be preserved. Sports allow our kids to develop self-esteem, teamwork, and a sense of self. Sports provide exercise for the kids as well as giving them something safe to do after school as opposed to hanging out on Main Street. After school sports must be preserved.

8. What is the biggest strength and weakness of the current board?

Bowser:

The biggest strength of the current board is they are leading our district to meet state mandated requirements. The weakness of the current board is they lack the expertise in diversity, and the knowledge of funding that will support our district.

Calenda:

The biggest weakness of the board is that they are not in touch with the people of Port Washington.

Cowles:

The greatest strength of the current board is the mutual respect and collegiality among its members. A viable committee structure has been established This board has made a strong commitment to move the district forward, but remains cognizant of the financial impact of its decisions on the community. Board members have sought input from and made themselves available to the community. However, there is still a need for increased, more timely, informative communication. The greatest weakness has been the failure to spend time developing and coming to consensus on goals to provide direction for administration.

Posner:

The current board of trustees is a group of fair-minded individuals. Their strength lies in their ability to evaluate issues and action items fairly. They do not appear to have special interests as a personal agenda. Their weakness appears to be their inability to arrive at a consensus in a timely manner.

Sussman:

The current board has decided to do much in secret and behind closed doors. Redistricting is an example of this. The only public vote I'm aware of dealing with the issue was the one where Laura Mogul made a motion seconded by Nancy Cowles not to have a committee dealing with the redistricting subject to the open meetings law. As recently as March 31 the board held a secret, illegal, meeting dealing with the budget and roof bond. The NYS Committee on Open Government is preparing a written opinion citing the district for this same incident.

(Ed.s note: The meeting Mr. Sussman is referencing was a meeting of the Superintendent's Task Force, which requested and received press coverage, and to which many community leaders were invited in an effort for the board to obtain input. Also, the school district has not been contacted by the Open Government Committee.)

As we go through a time of construction the lack of oversight of the board is apparent. Our schools do not meet the minimum NYS safety requirements.

Another weakness is there is no opposition on the board. We have seven board members who apparently will approve anything put before them without asking the proper questions which would serve to facilitate a true public discussion.

Zausner:

The current board's biggest strength is that their heart is in the right place, and they try to act accordingly. Their biggest weakness is that they are not united in the fact that they do not speak with one voice; and, they don't seem to understand how to improve education and hold the line on taxes at the same time.

9. If elected, what could you add to it? For Ms. Cowles and Mr. Sussman, what did you do for the district to recommend you for re-election?

Bowser:

If elected I bring my expertise of fiscal budgeting. I have 15 years of experience in program funding for diverse community service activities.

Calenda:

Answered in #8.

Cowles:

Among accomplishments during my tenure were hiring a new superintendent, assistant superintendents, SHS, WMS & Elementary principals, redistricting, monitoring construction throughout the district, providing increased opportunities for more students to take advanced courses; establishing a program to return special education students to district schools, before compelled by mandates; expanding after school programs; increasing instructional time at the elementary school; providing support for struggling and average students; providing after school tutorial help at the secondary levels; amicably settling labor contracts with all district employees.

Personally, I try to be an effective, responsible board member. I do my homework and ask for detailed explanations. I thoroughly scrutinize expenditures. I bring a historical perspective to deliberations. I do not duck unpopular decisions. I make efforts to keep the community informed, and solicit input.

Posner:

I will add my professionalism and 20-years of finance and banking experience. My knowledge of accounting, the school system and community affairs can be brought to all levels of decision-making. I will focus on timely consensus building that could better serve and benefit the community while add value to the existing mix of school board trustees.

Sussman:

During my six years on the board I worked hard to bring fiscal responsibility and educational excellence to the district. I can easily point to at least $10-15 million dollars in savings that I achieved during those years sometimes with help from other board members, and sometimes without. I helped raise the standard of excellence through strengthening the math program and adding reading recovery for those students in need of the help. I was a friend to those students with special problems. I also introduced advance programs in computers at Schreiber.

Besides the $20 million in savings that I helped achieve over the failed $90 million bond, I worked hard on other matters. In addition to achieving at least an additional $10-15 million dollars in savings by such actions as insisting that vendors who did shoddy work not be paid, and, when appropriate, I brought successful litigation against them. In one case I personally appeared in court twice for the district and negotiated a $100,000 settlement in favor of the district. I also brought successful litigation against consultants hired by the district. When the bus companies were not performing under their contract, I did not choose the easy path recommended by our administration to hire more buses at a cost of over $100,000. Instead, I successfully fought the bus companies and got them to perform under their contract. When the school board tried to incur several million dollars in architectural fees for the failed $90 million dollar bond, I went to Albany and obtained a legal opinion that it was illegal thereby saving the district that considerable expense.

I personally together with Dr. Inserra on occasions spent over two hundred hours drafting our construction contracts and negotiated our contracts with the architect and construction manager. I succeeded in negotiating reduction of their fees by several million dollars.

Zausner:

As a former member of the executive board of my civic association, I feel it is imperative that we re-establish community advisory panels, the public needs greater input into the educational process. If elected I would encourage resident participation. I also feel I could add to the board as someone who attended the schools not that long ago, I understand the day to day operations. Lastly, I feel because of my political background, I personally know our state senator, and members of the State Assembly, I would be in a better position to lobby these elected officials to bring additional state aid into the district, this will enable the tax burden placed on local homeowners to be lessened.

10. Two years ago, the district paid for the then Board President Richard Sussman's legal fees of almost $40,000 due to conflicts he had with a fellow board member. What are your thoughts on that?

Bowser:

I feel all board members must at all times conduct themselves in a professional, responsible and mature manner. Board members need to remember they are public servants and must set examples for our children. As a board member one is entitled to legal representation on all Board related matters.

Calenda:

That whole matter was crazy! To think of what $40,000 could have bought for the district.

Cowles:

Legally, actions brought against board members must be defended by the district. It is extremely disturbing that the situation disintegrated to a level where continued poor judgment prevailed with the result being, as Commissioner Mills stated, " ... the respondent engaged in conduct inappropriate for a board member...". It is unconscionable that money which could have been better spent on student needs had to be utilized in this manner.

Posner:

It is unfortunate that the taxpayers' money has been used in this way.

Sussman:

Unfortunately this question is based on half truths. While serving on the board for six years, the district, in fact, paid legal fees for at least eleven school board members for various reasons. The fellow board member you referred to filed questionable petitions against four board members not only myself as the Port News erroneously reported. In fact affidavits were filed by the superintendent, Dr. Inserra, our district lawyer and several other board members testifying that the petitions were not truthful or were meaningless. As an example, one petition claimed we were giving Dr. Inserra too much of a benefit by agreeing to pay his health insurance after retirement. The fact is that this is mandated by NYS law, which this board member failed to check out before filing his baseless petition. Another fact erroneously reported in the Port Washington News is that the decision to pay such legal bills is up to the school board. In fact, the decision is made by the NYS Commissioner of Education who decides if the board member acted in "good faith" as he so decided in my case. I have offered the Port News the papers dealing with the petitions numerous times but they have refused to receive them and instead have written stories using as a source the board member who filed these baseless petitions.

(Ed.'s note: We do not recall reporting the "erroneous" information Mr. Sussman claims we did. When asked that he back up his statements with the article(s) he's referencing, he did not. He also did not offer us the petitions.)

Zausner:

I feel that was outrageous that the taxpayers had to pay the bill for a personal vendetta between members of the board. In these tough fiscal times $40,000 could go a long way in helping the kids. The board needs people of integrity to fight for less taxes and better education. Having to pay $40,000 is just plain wrong the parties involved should have paid the bill, not the hard working taxpayer. It simply made Port Washington look bad.

11. Contrast and compare the leadership of the current board under Laura Mogul for the last two years, to the previous leadership of the board under Richard Sussman.

Bowser:

As a community member, I recognize the care, concern and effort of both individuals. I think the current board under the leadership of Laura Mogul reflects our friendly community and demonstrates our professionalism

Calenda:

No response.

Cowles:

No rancor and contentiousness. An atmosphere of respect and civility prevails in meetings. Acknowledgment of the differing roles of board members and administration. Efforts are made to adhere to the planned agenda and to let each person, whether a board, staff or community member, state his or her position uninterrupted.

Posner:

Anyone who serves on the board of education should be commended for doing public service.

Sussman:

Many of the things I instituted have been carried through by the current board. As board president we led the district to advances in education, especially in the math program. We restored fund balances that were decimated by prior boards, and which is, unfortunately, being done again in this current budget. Change orders were examined so that numerous times we found the work had to be done as part of the contract instead of a change order, thereby saving the district considerable expense.

Yes, there was much arguing at the school board meetings but I fought for what was the good of the community. I took an active role in protecting the finances of the district and the educational excellence of our programs.

Zausner:

I feel that both Ms. Mogul and Mr. Sussman had very distinctive styles. Ms. Mogul's board was more reserved and unified. The ongoing feud Mr. Sussman had with another board member which continually made the papers hindered a cohesive united board. While the two presidents had very different leadership styles, the result of both of their administrations is the same. We are worse off today than when either of them originally took office, our test scores are merely average, and our tax bill is astronomical. We are ending up paying more for less. In the end it's the community, especially our kids who were, and continue to be hurt. This must end now, and if elected I know I can do better. Our community deserves it.


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