Five out of the six candidates who are running for school board attended the League of Women Voters Annual School Board Candidates Night on May 7. They were incumbents Robert Seiden and Mark Marcellus and challengers Dean Nardone, Sue Sturman and Sandy Ehrlich. Reverend Alfred Burt did not attend. As the Port News published the candidates' bios and mission statements, in addition to some general questions posed to the candidates, in last week's edition, this piece will focus on some of the questions that helped to refine the candidates' positions on various topics.
Joan Kent asked the candidates how they would control expenses to reduce the tax burden.
Sue Sturman replied that it is the board's responsibility to oversee the community's resources. As a "watchdog," she believes in a line-by-line analysis of the budget, taking into consideration the curriculum components. She wants to make sure that goals are evaluated and met. She also wants to look at other models that can be applied, including working with task forces and our leaders in Albany.
Sandy Ehrlich believes the budget should be "mission driven." She too wants to look at the budget in a line-by-line fashion to see if the expenditures serve the district's mission. She does not like the fact that we "export" a lot of tax money that does not come back to the district. She wants to see Port work with other communities on Long Island and laments the fact that Port is no longer a member of the Nassau/Suffolk School Board Association.
Mark Marcellus is concerned that Port taxpayers cannot continue to support the tax load. He thinks the district should apply "corporate best practices," in formulating the budget, like having the board set strict limits on spending when giving direction to the administration. He does not really support a line-by-line approach. He also thinks that Port should appeal to the state for some relief, however, he notes, the state is not fast and "we have to act fast."
Dean Nardone feels strongly that the board should set goals and periodically measure their progress. He applauds the most recent teacher negotiations, which yielded more of an employee contribution for health care. Port is now the 2nd highest district in the county in terms of the percentage rate it requires for these contributions. He mentioned that when on the board in the past, he chaired the facilities committee and was instrumental in designing the cost effective energy performance contract. He is upset that the new budget has zero money in it for construction projects. He feels this is short-sighted and that this type of budgeting, or lack thereof, leads to heavier debt later on, and cited the fact that the district now must pay $6.5 million a year to pay for the construction bond.
Rob Seiden noted that he is a private business owner and president of a company. He feels that during the budget process, goals were set and achieved. He stated negotiations for the teachers contract were "hard fought," but that the contract was fair to the teachers and the community. He noted that Port's per pupil cost is much better than the surrounding North Shore schools. He touted the fact that he set up the Fraud and Waste Task Force, and has helped get the district involved with shared services with other districts, so that now the tax dollars can be used in the classroom.
Michael Ehrlich, husband of Sandy, asked the incumbents to comment on his perception that the current board is known for its lack of parent and community involvement.
Rob Seiden replied that parents have not made that statement to him. He mentioned the Read-Aloud program in the elementary schools, when community members read to the students. He also noted the town hall meetings that have been held under his watch, and the establishment of the Community Action Network which has brought constituents together.
Mark Marcellus said, "we have gotten better," noting that there's still some residual distrust in the district from previous boards. He said that the AAPW, an active athletic program, is thriving. He also informed the attendees that Rob has instituted meetings with the public on Friday mornings at the Mediterranean Market. He also advised that the Curriculum Committee meetings are well attended by the public.
While not directed at the challengers, they responded to this question.
Sandy Ehrlich applauded the PWEF and its compiling of a directory which lists Port residents with various skills and talents who are willing to make a presentation to students and "enrich their lives with their expertise."
Dean Nardone wants to see emails from the district, either monthly or bi-monthly, with useful information, especially a list of the board's goals. He thinks the district's annual audit report should be on the website. He said that he was unaware about the Fridays with board members.
Sue Sturman spoke of the many deeply committed parents in Port, whose voices should be heard "loud and clear." She feels that in terms of communication, there's "room for improvement." She believes in improving the district by using other models, and noted a parent group from another district that organized an after school program. She wants to see the board "tap into the rich resources in Port."
Lisa Calenda asked why last year's budget was overspent by $950,000, and where did the additional funds come from.
Rob Seiden said that several special education, IDEA mandated, children were added to the district this year, after the budget was adopted in April of 2007. He said, "We cannot budget for things we don't know about." He explained that the additional money came from the reserve fund and noted that all districts have to do this when they have unanticipated expenses.
Sue Sturman replied, "planning, planning, planning."
Dean Nardone said that the budget was too low to begin with. He thinks it showed poor planning when the board added 10 teachers in August.
Judy Epstein, co-president of AGATE, asked the candidates to comment on their thoughts about formulating a five-year curriculum plan.
Mark Marcellus would like to see more special education students being brought back to the district. He feels that it's a better school experience for those kids and can also save the district some money. He always wants to improve the differentiation type of teaching in the district.
Sue Sturman wants to set goals first and ask, "what should our students be equipped to do." She likes differentiation in the classroom and feels the district needs more professional development to "teach the teachers." She noted that 50 percent of the professional development budget went unspent. She supports foreign language in the elementary schools.
Sandy Ehrlich would like to see a consensus of the educators with careful input from the community. She said the arts program needs rebounding. She feels that differentiating is mostly a staff development issue, in addition to a class size issue, noting that if the classes are too big, it can't be done.
Dean Nardone advised that when he was on the board in '04-'05 a full curriculum review was started. He wants to see more board meetings on educational topics and feels the current board has not had enough of these work sessions. "A lot of great ideas came out of these sessions when I was on the board," he said. He added that advance notice to the community would be beneficial, so that they can gather their thoughts and ask questions and voice concerns.
Rob Seiden said that he's been on a five-year plan. Noting the accomplishments of the district, he mentioned the 100 percent graduation rate, with 95 percent of the students earning Regents diplomas, and 70 percent of the special education students also being awarded Regents diplomas. He informed the group that the elementary foreign language committee is working towards starting an immersion program in the schools and that there is now a lunchtime enrichment program with volunteers, in addition to more advanced placement courses, all of which have happened since he's been on the board.
Alison Ehrlich asked the candidates to state their main priority and what they wanted to change.
Rob Seiden wants to focus on the challenges presented to the students for the 21st century, both academically and emotionally.
Dean Nardone wants to make sure that each child gets developed to be the best they can be. He wants to "shine the light" on education. He wants an emphasis on education, with a good plan, which he believes yields results that are quantifiable.
Mark Marcellus wants to do a better job with the differentiated instruction methods being taught to teachers. He also feels that education in today's world is very different from when it was first formulated. He supports a reformulation of the district and feels that the state laws are one of the obstacles to improving education today. "Mindsets have to change."
Sandy Ehrlich wants to see students creative, curious and interested and engaged in the world. "They should feel that they can lead and make contributions." She noted that she wants to stress cooperativeness over competitiveness in the schools.
Sue Sturman responded that boards have been reactionary and wants to get ahead of the curve with better planning and research. "Look into the future," she said, adding that this can be accomplished through good organization.
Tessa Jordon asked "How much priority do each of you give to testing in the elementary schools and the scores on these tests?"
Dean Nardone feels that these tests have been a "miserable failure." He thinks that "Port has lost way too much of PW's flavor with regimentation." He supports reporting the results to each and every parent to see where the students need help.
Rob Seiden said that there is too much stress on young elementary school students. "There's a toll taken, and children don't learn critical thinking" from this test taking. The emphasis should not be on the grade, he said, "it should measure strengths and weaknesses."
Sue Sturman feels that the No Child Left Behind act imposed too much on the students because so much time is spent preparing for tests. The students lose an opportunity for "real academic rigor."
Mark Marcellus feels we shouldn't put much pressure on the kids. However, he was glad to report that the district now has a professional data analyst on staff who should be able to measure what the kids are learning, and how Port is matching up with the state curriculum.
Jean Weinstein asked the incumbents what they thought their strengths were in the past three years.
Mark Marcellus said that he's a good consensus builder and that he gets "facts" and operates in a "civilized" way. He feels that he empowers people in the district to do their jobs and has helped get rid of the distractions and micromanaging of previous boards. "We've also built a good solid program," he added.
Rob Seiden is proud of the fact that he was able to bring the focus back to the kids; "What's best for them." The board is no longer focusing on infighting and the board is running much more efficiently, he stated. In response to criticism from his opponents that this year the board canceled three meetings he said, "they were not cancelled, but consolidated because we're very effective in getting our work done. We're not getting log jammed any more."
The challengers were then asked what their three educational priorities are:
1-Take a hard look at the middle school, especially its atmosphere. She said, "Is this the best we can do?"
2. Broaden the curriculum at the high school, without making it more difficult
3- Return some of the luster to the creative arts program. "We've stepped backwards in this area. It used to be a source of enormous pride."
More differentiation so students can work towards highest potential. "We should nurture our students...let the cream rise to the top."
She agreed with Sandy Ehrlich about the creative arts program.
Strengthen the science curriculum in the elementary schools.
Look at core extension in the middle school.
Do more in the high school, and again he said, shine the light on education.
Ask where are other districts going, and how can we get there? "We don't have to reinvent the wheel in Port Washington."