Left to right school board candidates: Rob Seiden, Mark Marcellus, Joel Katz, Frank Russo, Larry Greenstein and Peter Wezenaar.
The League of Women Voters held its annual School Board Candidates' Night on May 4. Approximately 75 people attended. For two and a half-hours, the six candidates answered questions on the budget, their views on educational issues and miscellaneous other subjects.
As the Port News asked the candidates to answer many of the same or similar questions in its April 28 issue, we will report only the candidates' answers to questions posed by the audience on topics other than those in that article.
The six candidates vying for the three seats (two/three-year terms and one/one-year term to fill the unexpired term of David Strom), are the two incumbents Rob Seiden, Mark Marcellus, and Joel Katz, Larry Greenstein, Frank Russo and former school board member Peter Wezenaar.
(Note: Wezenaar arrived late because of a business trip and was not present for some of the questions.)
One audience member commented that he thought the school traffic is horrendous and asked how the candidates felt about charging the staff and students to pay for their parking.
Marcellus: Contractually, we do have to provide parking for the teachers. Should also continue to urge carpooling.
Seiden, Katz and Russo would look at it.
Greenstein: His understanding is that the state will not allow it.
Question to Katz and Russo: Why haven't they been attending board meetings? (Mentioned was the fact that at a previous candidates' night, Katz had said that he had attended two board meetings and found them "boring," noting that's he's only interested in the financial aspects of the district. The question was further refined into what motivated them to run now.)
Katz: The increasing size of the budget motivated him to get involved. He said he's not interested in the educational aspect of the board, "just the financial part."
Russo: The increasingly larger budgets and the alarming results of the Pride survey, which reported on drug and alcohol use and violence in the schools, motivated him. He noted that he maintains an active dialogue with the district.
Seiden and Marcellus questioned the authenticity of the Pride survey, as it is based on students' responses (perhaps the youngsters kid around) and given to them for one hour on one day. Seiden noted that the high school now has a retired professional police officer on staff. Marcellus pointed out that Russo failed to mention that drug and alcohol usage and cigarette smoking has gone down since the 2001 survey was made.
Marcellus also took issue with Russo's concerns over the Pride survey but does not see how the district could eliminate the assistant principals, as Russo suggests, who are in large part responsible for discipline. He likened it to a mayor who wants to fight street crime yet fires the police.
Russo replied that he did not consider the assistant principals "police."
Marcellus also noted that all year the board has been discussing ways to address the problems outlined in the Pride survey.
Pam Goldman asked how each candidate would uphold the mission of the Port school district, which is to educate all children, including the economically disadvantaged, those with emotional issues and behavior problems.
Katz: We can't be all things to all people. Spend more on gifted and talented because they are the hope of this country. He advocates homogenous classrooms because slow learners need more of the teachers' time and therefore take learning time away from the other students.
Russo: We should focus on middle 70 percent. He noted that he always thought that the needs of special education and gifted students came before the average student in Port. However, he's been made aware recently that they are under served also.
Marcellus: Knows that many diverse groups in the school population need to be served. Does not understand his opponents' promise to make major reductions to the budgets. He claims that they're not facing the real choices that have to be made in the district.
Wezenaar: Believes that gifted population should only include five to 10 percent of the top students, not 20 percent as it is now. Thinks the current PEP program is watered down. Advocates for the truly gifted. He also feels that the district should keep the current PEP program that is available to all students who wish to do advanced work.
Seiden: Feels it's unfair to compare the educational needs and expenses of Port's diverse student community to homogenous areas like Manhasset, Jericho, Great Neck, which are made up largely of high-net-worth families.
Greenstein: Believes that it is better for the children and the taxpayers to give the faculty the tools that they need to handle as many students in the district as possible. The problem is that sometimes we ask teachers to deal with student who have serious issues without giving them the proper supports to make them and the child successful. Sending children who have behavior problems to "special" schools is costly and all too often ineffective.
Ellen Fox asked Wezenaar, who had been a board member from July 2000 to June 2003, how he could campaign on a platform of a $35 million construction bond, and then approve a $68 million one. She noted that at the time, he was a member of that board's majority. He responded that the $35 million bond was Richard Sussman and John Zimmerman's proposal, not his. He argued instead that he worked to reduce the first $87 million bond, which the voters rejected, to the $68 million voter-approved one, a savings of 25 percent. He contends it was a much better plan.
To another remark by Ms. Fox that the bond he approved did not include roofs, a problem subsequent boards have to deal with, Wezenaar said that the architect did not include that in the plan.
Mr. Seiden responded to this remark saying that subsequent boards have had to add $750,000 for roofs because of years and years of neglect and patch jobs. He referred to it as an inherited mess. He also criticized Wezenaar for not asking the architect the tough questions about the condition of the roofs in the district when the architect presented the plan.
Schreiber HSA co-President Peggy Silbert asked the candidates to give their view on comprehensive sex and health education, including discussions of "at risk" behavior.
Katz: Is in favor.
Russo: Wants education to stress abstinence. Feels that parents are the best ones to educate children in this area.
Seiden: Feels that teaching youngsters tolerance of individual differences is important to them becoming well-rounded, productive members of society.
Wezenaar: Feels it's peripheral to core education. Should focus more on core mission and arts and athletics.
Marcellus: Believes youngsters need to be educated about drugs, alcohol and sex from responsible adults.
Greenstein: Important to keep a comprehensive program in this area. Keeps kids safe and informed so that they can make good choices.
Unfortunately, confusion, interruptions and disruptions ran throughout the debate. Some candidates did not answer the questions, at times responding on a totally different topic, However, some statements made out of context to the questions asked did yield some interesting thoughts/suggestions/statements from the candidates. These included:
Russo suggested that the school superintendents meet and determine which are the three worst state and federal mandates and work to have them eliminated by the appropriate authority.
Greenstein suggested there be co-teachers in the middle school. He said it's a cost effective way to decrease the number of teacher aids. Russo concurred with this idea.
Greenstein also questioned the value of the state tests. "Are kids just parroting back facts, or actually learning to think," he asked rhetorically.
Seiden would like to see foreign language taught in the elementary schools by community members. In the same vein, Greenstein thinks that new programs could be introduced into the curriculum that wouldn't have to add to the tax burden.
Katz reported that in a recent study of academic excellence, the United States placed 19th out of the 22 industrialized nations.
Wezenaar feels the argument of spending less on education will hurt property values or the children is emotional blackmail.
Russo corrected misinformation that was circulating about him. It was rumored that his 18 grandchildren were all being home schooled. In point of fact, he stated that only the one who lives in Virginia, is.
He also clarified that while his seven children did attend parochial school for the most part, some did attend public school for a few years.
The budget vote and school board election will be held on Tuesday, May 17, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the All-Purpose Room at Weber Middle School/Flower Hill on Campus Drive.