The Port Washington Education Assembly (PWEA) held a public forum at the Port Library a few weeks ago to discuss, in their words, "key issues that will affect next year's school budget." Leading the discussion were three PWEA officers, Ray Keenan, Peter Wezenaar and Frank Russo. Msrs. Wezenaar and Russo ran unsuccessfully last year for the school board, readers will recall. The Lapham Meeting Room, where the forum was held, was filled with both those who support PWEA's budget cutting ideas and those opposed to them. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Geoff Gordon, School Board President Rob Seiden and School Board Member Dean Nardone also attended.
A large part of the forum was a rehash of campaign issues that have been debated for a long time now, most of which center around the escalating tax bills many people are having trouble paying or are just up in arms about.
Russo, PWEA's president, lamented the fact that Nassau County is losing many of the young adults, ages 18-34, because they cannot afford to live here due to the ever-increasing taxes.
Wezenaar, PWEA's vice president and a former BOE member himself, noted that the organization sees its role as an advocate for the taxpayers, adding that many special interest groups in town "lobby" the board for the needs and desires of their children. He says his group wants educational excellence and fiscal responsibility.
Russo, as he has stated on many occasions, primarily blames the teachers' contract for the high taxes. He sees the salaries and benefits paid to teachers and administrators as excessive, believing that market conditions, which he says are 133 job applicants for one position, put the district in a strong bargaining position for paying lower salaries.
He also reiterated his belief that by requiring teachers in the high school to actually teach the full 20 hours a week mandated in their contract, approximately $2 million could be saved each year. Opponents of this idea say that this would result in less individual tutoring time, which the teachers are required to put in, and also means that instead of teaching five classes a week, they would teach six.
During the public commentary period, Dr. Gordon once again pointed out that the schedule at a high performing high school should be student-driven and not teacher-driven, which PWEA's 20-hour direct teaching time results in. He noted that students today are in a highly competitive environment and need flexibility in course selection to keep pace with their peers when applying to colleges.
Dr. Gordon also pointed out that the tutoring provided by the school is essential to many students, several of whom are disadvantaged and need the extra one-to-one learning time.
Frank Russo suggested that teachers be required to stay until 4 p.m. two days a week to provide extra help.
School Board Member Dean Nardone then went on to ask the panel on the dais if they knew of any high-achieving high school that required teachers to teach six classes. They did not respond. Nardone then continued that if Port went to teachers being required to teach six classes, they would not attract the better teachers because of the increased work load.
Naturally a robust discussion took place about the teachers contract, which is currently in negotiations. PWEA is pushing for salary freezes because they say, in part, the teachers already receive step increases based on their length of service and educational advancement. Russo also said that one in three teachers in Port makes over $100,000, noting that the top salary in New York City is $93,400. "We're in the top one third of Nassau County districts," he said.
Russo would also like to see school staff and employees contribute more to their health insurance plans. "An employee pays 5 percent for an individual and 13 percent for a family plan." In addition, he spoke of the fact that the district pays lifetime health benefits after only five years of service, which he stressed must be changed.
Russo also restated his suggestion that the district use merit pay to reward good performance, which he feels can be measured by test results.
Another incentive, Russo suggested, would be paying teachers a bonus for not being absent as the district must pay substitutes to cover classes when teachers are out.
Commenting on the teachers' contract in general, one Manhasset gentleman in the audience said that the school districts use the same lawyers for contract negotiations. He suggested, "getting rid of them."
Former School Board Member Robert Ferro said that the negotiators just give the same percentage increase as the other districts they represent.
While there is typically a gag order on the contract negotiations, Rob Seiden characterized the board's approach to the negotiations as "fair but firm."
Anti-teacher sentiment was voiced by some in the audience, who feel that teachers are adequately, if not over, paid. But the teachers were also championed by some, like Jeff Goldman, who believes that teachers do a great job and provide a very valuable service. He said he is appalled by the suggestion that they should get nothing.
Larry Schulman, a member of a recently formed umbrella group, Long Island for Educational Reform (LIFER) organization, said that the process is "corrupt." He maintains, like Frank Russo, that there is a marketplace and noted that the education system hasn't changed in 100 years.
Schreiber English teacher Ann Pellet disagreed and feels that the marketplace doesn't always work because there are some bad teachers. She also noted that tenure is not always granted and that it is a procedure that involves professional review. "It's not absolute and it can be revoked," she said.
Dean Nardone responded to the marketplace notion by saying that even if there were 133 applicants for a position, it doesn't mean that they're all necessarily well-qualified.
On the tenure issue, Nardone also mentioned that in California's recent referendum the proposal to extend the amount of time it took for tenure to be granted was voted down.
Another LIFER member thinks the unions organize the budget vote and feels that the taxpayers have to outwit the unions.
The great divide that emerged from the meeting caused Port resident Robert Remler who, upset by the divisiveness (which at times became rancorous and hostile), tried to restore accord by asking the audience to focus on why the tax rate is so high rather than causing so much division in the community.
Frank Russo replied that the salaries and benefits are the main cause of the high taxes, though he did also concede that part of the recent problems are connected to the Nassau County reassessment.
Another approach to lessen the tax burden mentioned by Dr. Gordon is to have taxpayers appeal to state representatives for more aid, which has been steadily dwindling over the years. This, despite the fact that the federal government's No Child Left Behind and state government keep heaping more and more mandates onto the individual districts.
Overall, the debate was between those who feel their tax dollars are being spent wisely and for a good cause, and those who feel there is still waste in the system that can be cut. One woman from the latter group said that her taxes have gone up 30 percent over the past several years. She thinks for that money her kids "should be going to school in a limo." Joel Katz, a PWEA officer, likened the district to a Rolls Royce, which people cannot afford.
However, Dr. Gordon and Rob Seiden emphasized that the students deserve and are getting an excellent education and feel that more cuts in spending would compromise the quality of education in Port, and diminish the district's reputation, which contributes to the ever increasing property values.
Some new points and information provided included:
* PWEA's promise that they would support a school budget for 2006 if it is the same as or below the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
* An educational tax incentive bill is being formulated in the legislature which would give tax credits to those who donate to educational foundations, like the Port Washington Educational Foundation.
* Tensions are definitely increasing between the two factions, to the point where Hank Ratner said that if he were 20 years younger, he'd take Jeff Goldman "outside."