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League of Women Voter’s ‘Meet the Candidates Night’

About 50 people came to the League of Women Voters’ Meet the Candidates night at the Port Washington Library, last Thursday evening, to hear the three incumbent School Board candidates (Larry Greenstein, Dr. Roy Nelson and Sandra Ehrlich and one challenger Bill Hohauser) discuss this year’s proposed budget; the challenges of the Port Washington School District; and why each is hoping for voter support on May 19th. The top three finishers will win 3-year seats on the board. Moderating for the League was Judy Jacobson, a Manhasset resident.

Hank Ratner asked the first question, noting that the board has put a line item of $800,000 for substitute teachers in this year’s proposed budget. The good news, he said, is that it’s a decrease from last year; but why, he asked the incumbents, did they not address “the serious issue of teacher sick days?”

Sandra Ehrlich responded that she believes there is too much absenteeism by teachers, but that there are already procedures in place to address it. She added, however, that she is more concerned when substitutes are not hired, at the high school, because then classes are simply cancelled, which she sees as a big problem. Dr. Nelson said he thinks the district’s absentee rate is in line with other districts, and that the district must “drill down” to the numbers, and see that the budget figure represents maternity leaves; mandated test grading; and some serious health issues, as well as ordinary sick days. Larry Greenstein, the current board president, stated that every day teachers are not in the classroom is a loss for students, and the board is working with the Teachers’ Association to improve the absentee rate. Sandy Ehrlich and Larry Greenstein both pointed out that the amount of leave is a contractual issue, and therefore cannot be discussed publicly, or changed unilaterally.

Bill Hohauser, the challenger, responded, “I will answer you more directly. Yes, it is a contractual issue…but when my colleagues here say ‘contractual,’ they are hiding behind an issue that needs to be addressed. No other industry does this. I’ve been with the same firm for 22 years; I get 6 days. It has to be changed, and it should be. They’ve been on the board, I haven’t. I’d like to change it.”

David Sturman asked each candidate, “What is your most critical issue?”

Larry Greenstein said he’d like to maintain the budget, while creating opportunities within it for children to succeed. Bill Hohauser said that for him, the most important issue was getting the board to plan ahead for where money will come from. Sandra Ehrlich agreed that working within their means while maintaining educational quality was the most urgent priority. Roy Nelson said it was essential to remember that the function of a school district is educating kids. He also lamented that the district must pay a $150,000 surcharge to the MTA: “Now the state is putting its hand in the school district’s pocket – a tax on a tax! Where’s the money for that?” (Ed.’s note: At press time, it looks as if the school districts will be reimbursed for the MTA payroll tax.)

Marilyn Gilbert commented that the great diversity of the district’s population makes it difficult to compare Port’s numbers with those of other, more homogeneous, districts, because it makes our system more expensive. “How do you defend that to our community?” she asked.

Dr. Nelson said he measures the district by looking at results: higher graduation rates, and yet lower per-pupil costs, than many of Port’s neighbors. Ms. Ehrlich said it does take resources to get those outcomes, but they don’t need defending. “The diversity of this community is why many of us came here,” she said. She added, when her oldest child entered kindergarten at Manorhaven Elementary, his class of 19 children spoke eight languages; now they’ve all graduated, with great achievements. Larry Greenstein insisted that Port’s diversity is its strength. Bill Hohauser said that he and his wife also moved here, 15 years ago, for the diverse community here. He added that his interest in this issue – sparked by mentor Robert L. Carter, one of the attorneys in the historic case of Brown v Board of Education – resulted in his serving on the board of SUNY – Old Westbury, the most diverse school in the SUNY system.

Susan Hoffman asked the candidates to comment on “large disparities” between the four houses at Weber Middle School, and their goals for dealing with them.

Larry Greenstein admitted that there are differences between houses. He said it would be “problematic” to have 1,200 students in one building with no sub-grouping, but the board is working with Weber because it isn’t happy with the situation there. Bill Hohauser has a problem with the house system because in their three years there, children don’t mix enough between houses; he thinks it should have been fixed already. Dr. Nelson agreed that there are issues, but “we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Sandy Ehrlich agreed with all the above points, adding that some problems could be solved with better coordination and more staff development: “I’m a big believer in staff development.” She added that the Curriculum Committee has been working hard on the issues at Weber, but they’ll “continue to work on it until it does what we want it to.”

Elaine Berman provoked thought, asking what the candidates would do “if money were no object.”

Mr. Hohauser’s reply was simple: “One on one teaching.” Dr. Nelson mentioned literacy coaches, which are just not possible this year, and — with any leftover money — foreign language in the elementary schools. Larry Greenstein agreed he’d start foreign languages in kindergarten, adding Asian languages by high school “to address the 21st Century business world.” Ms. Ehrlich agreed with all three but especially Mr. Hohauser. She is concerned when only some children have access to private tutoring. If one-half hour of a teacher’s time could make the difference in a child’s understanding something, she wishes they could have it.

Steven Nash, a senior at Schreiber, mentioned access to accelerated classes at Weber, and asked whether it is better for teachers or the board to be managing it.

Ms. Ehrlich said, “I always think issues are best solved by educators, but sometimes the board must bring them up – especially when we aren’t serving the community the best we can.” She is concerned that more children at Weber could, and should, be included by acceleration criteria. Mr. Greenstein agreed, saying “When educators drop the ball, it must be taken up by someone else.” Dr. Nelson said he is a “long-term process person,” with the same goals as Sandy, but he prefers for the board to hold the district accountable through the administration. Mr. Hohauser said he wasn’t sure that open enrollment to acceleration is appropriate, especially in sixth and seventh grades, because it can result in too much pressure on kids.

Skip Stern asked the candidates’ views on tenure: is it still valid in the 21st century? And is our current three-year evaluation period appropriate?

Mr. Greenstein said that tenure does serve a purpose; otherwise, there might be pressure just to get rid of whichever teachers are the most “expensive.” However, he said three years is a little short, and he wishes students and other stakeholders could all have some say. Dr. Nelson said, “I don’t see myself as Don Quixote; it’s the law of the land,” but decried the fact that, in essence, the three-year period really means deciding by the end of year two. Mr. Hohauser said, “This is a hot topic. There are many different viewpoints. Last week I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times written by Professor Mark Taylor, Chairman of the Religion Department at Columbia University, in which he advocated seven-year, renewable contracts. That said, I am for granting tenure." He thinks giving students a voice would be “inappropriate…a drastic mistake.” Ms. Ehrlich agreed that three years is very short, but thinks “we really need to do a better job with the three years we have.” She also pointed out that tenure only guarantees that a teacher will get due process; it does not say they can’t be replaced.

Tenure came up again later, when Mr. Peter Tarpinian asked, “Is the three years written in stone?”

Ms. Ehrlich replied, “It’s state law.” Mr. Tarpinian continued, “If there’s something wrong with it, why don’t we adjust it?”

Ms. Ehrlich said that tenure can be changed, but only with a groundswell of public opinion, which our “(state) legislators need to hear.” She said there are other issues she’d like to fix at the state level, too, such as “those empty buses. Anybody who read this week’s Port Washington News knows I hate them.” Mr. Greenstein agreed that many such issues “tie our hands,” including standardized testing. Dr. Nelson pointed out that “leave replacement” can be used, in effect, to evaluate a teacher. He stated, “The only ones we bring back are the successes.” Mr. Hohauser pointed out that he has very close contacts with legislators in the district, having served in the campaigns of Senator Craig Johnson and Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel. He warned against knee-jerk reactions: “We can’t just say ‘Tenure is bad, or good’ — the question is if the teacher is good.”

Joshua Hoffman, parent of two children in the district, wanted to know: what can be cut, specifically, and keep the quality?

Dr. Nelson said they’ve done the best they could without cutting programs, because “we’re here to educate kids.” Losing elementary after-school programs saddened him, but was necessary. Strict adherence to class-size policy enabled them to save five positions purely by attrition. Mr. Hohauser agreed that we need better adherence to class sizes, and said classes with minimal enrollment should be dropped: “That’s how colleges do it.” He said some things are over-emphasized just because they keep kids busy after school, but they’re not essential. Ms. Ehrlich said some things should be cut if there’s not enough interest, but students need sports and the arts. Mr. Greenstein said, “We don’t have to throw out a class for being undersubscribed, we can try distance learning, and partnering with other districts.”

Mike Ehrlich (Sandy’s husband) asked, How do we take advantage of the community’s resources?

Mr. Hohauser recommended looking at partnerships, at the high school level, with local businesses; community service for students in repair-work or clean-ups for community members, a sort of Peace Corps for kids; more mentoring within the community, and studying Port Washington’s history.

Ms. Ehrlich suggested adding adult volunteers, reading to elementary students, or teaching needlework or cooking; adults mentoring or teaching in the high school, and as ESL volunteers, one-on-one with ESL students. “I know that coordinating volunteers can be difficult, I do it all day long (as Executive Director at the Parent Resource Center); but it’s worth it,” said.

Mr. Greenstein said, “We have under-utilized resources here. Why put kids on a bus, and send them to BOCES to learn plumbing, or electricity, when they could learn it all from people right here?” Mr. Nelson listed much being done already, including: the PWEF (Port Washington Education Foundation) Resource Guide of community members who’ve signed up to be resources to teachers in the schools; PWEF-funded internships and a library program one afternoon a week for children with language needs.

Tessa Jordan asked about: building and grounds, and each candidate’s highest priority.

Larry Greenstein stressed temperature extremes in classrooms, both day to day, and across the buildings; the Weber locker rooms; the track which is almost “unsafe,” and looking into solar energy. Dr. Nelson said: “Start right at the top: make ‘em dry!” There are leaks in many buildings, creating a poor environment for teaching and perhaps even health risks. Bill Hohauser agreed with Dr. Nelson that priorities must be the roofs, and the Weber locker rooms: “I wouldn’t let my child use them…and they don’t.” Sandy Ehrlich agreed: “We must make the buildings dry, and with $650,000 in the budget for capital expenditures, they will be.” She is troubled that some of the worst problems with heating and ventilation are in the newest construction, and wants to get the contractors to address that.

Susan Hoffman brought up the problem of expensive state mandates such as buses and testing, but wanted to know how to keep the focus on education and the kids?

Dr. Nelson said, “That assumes we ever took our focus off the kids. We didn’t.” When Regent Roger Tilles spoke to a board meeting, he was optimistic that a new Commissioner of Education would be more understanding about mandates, and that with a new administration in Washington, NCLB (No Child Left Behind) testing might be relaxed.

Bill Hohauser said, “I abhor the testing. It is a disgrace. NCLB is another disgrace.” He said two very conservative states have sued to have NCLB lifted, and one – Utah – has partly succeeded. Returning to the question about diversity, and its adverse impact on test scores, he said some groups may not test as well as others, perhaps for economic reasons, that this needs to be recognized as well as the focus on education.

Ms. Ehrlich deplored “creeping testing” and hopes it might ease — another reason to speak with one voice to New York State and federal officials. Mr. Greenstein said that the only thing test scores correlate with is family wealth. He said he has fought for years to be allowed “to do our own testing in the district, because what we have now produces a false accountability that only helps politicians, not students.”

Having opened the evening, Mr. Hank Ratner also had one final question: “The Open Meetings law of New York State gives flexibility to allow taxpayers to speak or not, and have questions answered, or not. Are you comfortable with allowing us to speak for only three minutes, where you don’t have to answer our questions? Or do you think you need to change?”

Mr. Hohauser said, “I’m not on the board right now, but a proper question, on a proper topic, is deserving of a proper, respectful answer. I would provide such an answer.”

Ms. Ehrlich said that board procedure is not to answer questions unless they are simple matters of fact; anything lengthy, or requiring research, is answered by e-mail or letter.

Mr. Greenstein said, “I was on the other side of the microphone, and I didn’t like it, so I got on this side. We have a lot of business to do. When the questions stretch out and take a lot of time, we can’t get our business done.”

Dr. Nelson pointed out that “We tried community access two months ago, and it was an absolute disaster for the business of the board. If we ran so late all the time, there would be no public at the meetings. There are many ways of communication other than at a board meeting.”

On that note, final statements were given. All three incumbents asked for support for themselves and the budget. In addition, Mr. Greenstein said, “As a child, I was a disaffected student. I hope we can do better – not by spending more money, but by spending more wisely.”

Dr. Nelson reviewed some of the many policies he’s had a hand in shaping, and would like to continue, saying he stands for leadership, experience, and results.

Ms. Ehrlich said that her experience on the Audit Advisory Committee and Budget Committee have put her in a position to know that the district’s financial house is indeed in order. She said, “We deserve this little (budget) increase we’re asking for, and we’re going to use every penny on the children.” In future she wants to do more for the “middle” child.

Mr. Hohauser said he will help the board make decisions, and quickly. He said it took the Ad Hoc Parking Committee 18 months to decide to paint diagonal stripes at the Pit, a decision that should have been done in 6 weeks. “It boils down to this: Do you want the same board? I hope not,” he said.