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School Board Meeting Focused on Community Spirit

 

The climate outside Schreiber High School was cold and wet on Feb. 23, but indoors, the related themes of volunteer and community spirit carried the night.

The very first announcement of the evening was Board President Karen Sloan’s request that the audience “Please take note of our beautiful podium,” honoring a request made two weeks before by community member Hank Ratner.

Sloan continued with praise for the parent volunteers in the community. “This is the perfect opportunity to recognize parent volunteers, who give of their own time and effort, from before the first day of kindergarten with the bus monitors program, to the Senior Prom, and everything in between. They are a key part of communication between schools and parents, in addition to significant fund-raising accomplishments. On behalf of the entire board, I thank you all for all the public and behind-the-scenes work you do.” Then the entire board stood and applauded the parents and other volunteers in the audience.

“The best evidence of this spirit,” continued Sloan, “is the members of our student population who similarly step forward.” After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, members of the boys’ high school basketball team realized they would soon be playing Uniondale, a school with a large number of students (168) of Haitian descent. They initiated a program, “Hoops for Haiti,” and raised over $2,030, which they donated to the Uniondale school on February 2. The board awarded Certificates of Excellence to the following Schreiber students for coordinating this program: Harrison Remler, Adam Epstein, Ethan Sander, Sara Gil, Leah Feldman, and Rachel Strongin.

Dr. Kathy Mooney gave the enrollment report. As of February 5, total enrollment was essentially unchanged at 5,151 students, and next year’s kindergarten enrollment has reached 57 percent of the expected total of 372. Board Vice President Sandra Ehrlich raised a concern of some parents at Salem Elementary about the size of that school’s incoming kindergarten class and whether it would have an impact on current first and second graders there. Dr. Mooney answered that they were focused mainly on kindergarten numbers, but that “we won’t really know that until later in the year.”

Dr. Gordon reminded all that he has already mentioned possibly having to waive board policies to allow some larger class sizes next year. He added, “We do not anticipate changing any catchments (i.e. the various elementary school districts), although that may still happen. But the truth is, this is a desirable area – great trains; near the water; great schools – so that while across Nassau County the school population has dropped, here we are quite stable. It’s a good problem to have, but it means we have had to learn how to tweak expenses so as to save money and still keep the excellence.”

Dr. Gordon clearly took great pride in announcing still more proof of the positive citizenship and character of Port Washington’s students: Port Washington’s sports teams have now won the Nassau County Sportsmanship award for the second year in a row. He said, “Not only are we the only North Shore district ever to win two sportsmanship awards, but the only one in all Nassau County to win it two consecutive years!”

But Gordon also warned of tough decisions ahead for the district. “You may have seen our New York State Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, when he appeared on CNBC today, talking about how we’re seeing a 17 percent increase in Wall Street bonuses, but unemployment is still a problem.” Gordon emphasized that this is why the contributions of the district’s PTAs and HSAs (Home and School Associations, similar to PTAs) are so important: “They work tirelessly, and we’re honored if they can raise the money for SMARTBoards, computers, and so on for our schools, helping our education to progress without having to put those items in the budget,” he said.

“To the naysayers,” continued Gordon, “I say – on behalf of the board – I support all the Principals and the HSAs and the PTAs for every single thing they do to help our taxpayers and students. They get not one penny for what they do – just like our board, which doesn’t get a penny for all their time here.”

Dr. Gordon then introduced South Salem Elementary’s principal, Mr. Chris Shields, who read a statement regarding an upcoming fundraiser, which that school’s HSA had been planning around the theme of college basketball’s “March Madness.” The fundraiser had then been cancelled, amid concerns that it incorporated betting on sports, thus rendering it ineligible for a permit from the Town of North Hempstead.

With Salem’s parents standing in support, Mr. Shields said, “As many of you are aware from Newsday and other media outlets, the Salem HSA recently attempted a well-intended fund raising activity involving March Madness. It appeared to the HSA leadership and me that this fundraising activity would fall under approval of the town. After communication with the town supervisor, this activity at the social event has been cancelled.

“We want to make clear our continued support for all our HSA’s. These volunteer organizations are an invaluable part of our school community. I cannot thank enough the individuals who volunteer their time to support our school. Their efforts have helped purchase, among other things, computers, SMARTBoards and playground equipment, all to the betterment of our children. Given the current economic climate, we will now need, more than ever, the help from our volunteer organizations.

“From our perspective, the issue surrounding the March Madness fund raiser has detracted from more pressing issues facing our schools and has forced individuals with undoubtedly noble-hearted intentions to be on the defensive.

“We hope that this issue can finally be closed. As we face daunting fiscal challenges, we will need our community to stand together. If there are individuals who have a concern about a particular fundraising event, consistent with board policy, they should raise those concerns with the HSA and the building principal… along with constructive suggestions for alternative activities. Now is the time for all in our community to become more involved, bringing forward creative and constructive ideas.”

Dr. Gordon added, “I would like to stress that our PTAs and HSAs are Parent-and-Teacher Associations, Home-and-School Associations. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised by them, for the oval in front of Schreiber High School, for playgrounds, environmental gardens, and outdoor classrooms – all donated to our schools. I will never apologize for our parent volunteer organizations.”


Community Comments

President Sloan announced that the three-minute limit on comments would be observed, reminding audience members that there is a second chance to speak later in the evening.

Mr. Frank Russo began by saying, first, “I would like to say that I fully agree with and support the remarks of Mr. Shields.” Russo continued with his budget analysis: “I am begging you to come up with a zero percent increase, even one tenth of 1 percent negative.” Much of his statement was directed at the teachers’ contract, which is still in negotiation with the district. “The contract should freeze COLAs (Cost of Living Adjustments) not just for one year, but for three years.” He explained that, “since it is in the state constitution that you cannot touch the pension payments (of any but the newest-hired tier of teachers), the only way to get them to pay more is by not doing any increases.” Russo added, “I’m getting emails of support in the community. I know the union leaders have to do their job – they have to request more money without adding to the workload. But you’re in a position to do something.”

He then repeated his staffing recommendations: cut five guidance counselors across the district and cut 48 paraprofessionals. At the middle and high school, cut two assistant principals each, and eight or even 16 teachers, claiming, “You could save 16 teachers by putting 24 or 25 kids in every class. Everyone would look good if you did that – it would be a morale boost for all Long Island. You have the ball in your hand – I’m begging you. I’ve seen the numbers. You have 5,000 people begging for these teaching jobs.”

Arthur Cooke, Latin teacher at Weber, was next to speak. He challenged Mr. Russo’s numbers. “5,000 applicants? I find that very interesting. I have been on several interview committees and whenever we have an opening, we find that at best there are only three or four candidates, sometimes only one, who are highly qualified. When you hire in the private sector, are all applicants equally qualified? That’s the implication of Mr. Russo’s remark. But are all 5,000 equally qualified? I don’t think so.”

Judith Schutzman, an English teacher at Schreiber High School, said, “I am 100 percent behind my union leaders, and every teacher I talk to is, too.”

In regards to the last budget meeting, which outlined a $1.5 million cut to the 2010-2011 operating budget, Joel Katz said, “Next time you speak, could you please make a presentation – instead of talking about Driver Ed and copy paper, please tell the community why, with no inflation, you are still talking about a $5 million increase? Ask Mrs. Callahan to identify where it is coming from, and what to do about it. Otherwise, it is not a path this community can sustain.”

Dr. Gordon said that at the next budget meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Business Mary Callahan would make those items clear. He then emphasized, “Our commitment is to not lose jobs for our staff. The reason for that $1.5 million cut is to reduce costs without ‘excessing’ (laying off) teachers or reducing programs…. I believe we are the only district in the area that didn’t excess staff last year – and we need to keep jobs here, to help the local economy recover. I will not (make cuts) with blood in the street that will hurt our staff, hurt our children, or hurt our district.”

Mr. Hank Ratner came to the podium again and said, “No disrespect to the teachers – my wife and daughter are teachers, in fact my daughter was teacher of the year in Rockland County, but she wasn’t hired here. (But) Why would you draw a line in the sand like that? You’re from the private sector, you know they have no conscience where laying people off is concerned.”

Ratner added that a friend of his, a former superintendent, had advised him that one key issue was always class size. “He said, class size in a high school – you can increase that by 10 percent across the board, with no diminution in academic excellence.” According to Ratner, this is supported by the findings of an NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) study in 1998. Mrs. Callahan then warned Mr. Ratner that he had reached his 3-minute limit. When he attempted to continue, the microphone was turned off.

Christine Vasilev, representative for the Teachers’ Association, spoke next of “A little history. Port Washington didn’t just become an excellent, creative district (overnight). The people who built this district faced the same arguments we hear today: ‘It’s too expensive!’ ‘We can’t afford it!’ For more than a quarter of a century, for 50 years, people here have worked to invest in their schools, whether they had children in the school system or not. We all benefit from excellent public education. And now we should throw it all away? Courageous people heard all the same rhetoric, but they knew they had to be ahead of the curve to be fiscally responsible. They built an incredible library when other towns didn’t, and a system that addressed the needs of children from pre-K on.

“Recently, there was a magazine cover about counselors, librarians, psychologists, and social workers, called “The Unsung Heroes” – but this is not news to Port Washington. I urge you to think proactively, not like those who’ve been saying the same thing for 35 years!” At this point, Ms. Vasilev was given the three-minute warning, and after she, like Mr. Ratner, attempted to continue, her microphone was also cut off. She received lengthy applause from an audience full of both teachers and parents.


Committee Reports

The Policy and Personnel Committee is working on a policy on student conduct; its next meeting will be on March 5. The Budget and Facilities Committee did not meet before the break, will have to reschedule (Committee Chair Jean-Marie Posner was absent this evening).

The chair of the Planning and Community Relations Committee, Vice President Sandy Ehrlich, announced that results of the new Polling Place survey were in, and would be discussed at the March 9 meeting. They received 425 responses in all, including 80 on paper. All comments are welcome via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Mrs. Ehrlich added that many people ask her how to bring up issues or complaints that don’t pertain to a specific school building. She asked whether the school’s anonymous tipline for waste, fraud and abuse, reportit.net, might lend itself to more comprehensive use in such cases, and whether Technology Director David Baylen might speak to that issue. President Sloan agreed it was a good idea, and put it on the agenda.

Rob Seiden announced that the Curriculum Committee would be meeting Friday morning (subsequently cancelled for snow and rescheduled for 8:45 a.m., March 12.) “I also want to say something else, in response to something brought up in community comments. There was an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times today on the subject of teachers. Bob Herbert wrote about Deborah Kenny, a nationally known, passionate, and successful educator with three charter schools in Harlem. In the piece, she says there is an overemphasis on ‘the program elements,’ which are not nearly as important as the quality of teaching in the schools. ‘If you had an amazing teacher who was talented and passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well,’ she said, ‘that was just 100 times more important than anything else.’

“We are blessed to have high quality teachers in this district,” said Seiden. “The reason we are so successful is high quality teachers – not just any of 5,000 applicants. And we have to pay them accordingly. But that doesn’t mean we have to blow the budget.

“In another New York Times piece (“The Fat Lady Has Sung,” 2/20/10), Thomas L. Friedman talks about how we have entered ‘the lean years.’ He says the last 70 years were ‘fat years,’ thanks to the Greatest Generation … But our government’s newest task is taking things away from people: ‘We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks; from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.’

“Friedman continues, ‘Let’s hope we can rise to this challenge. Our parents truly were the Greatest Generation. We, alas, have not been.’

“We need to be the Re-Generation,” agreed Seiden, “working with our kids to build back. We need solutions that are economically feasible. With the history we have, and the situation we face, we need to work together, to find new paradigms, to recognize the problems of the community as well as the value of our teachers.”

The board then moved rapidly through agenda items, approving them unanimously (6-0 in absence of Jean-Marie Posner). They included accepting donations from the Schreiber Key club to a student scholarship fund, as well as furniture from a Mr. Ripullone and gifts totaling more than $5,000 from Manorhaven Elementary HSA to Cultural Arts programs, and $17,000 of technology from Sousa Elementary’s HSA. There was also an agreement to contract for transportation services cooperatively, at significant cost savings to the district, said Dr. Gordon.

Dr. Nelson led discussion of two policies that were then adopted by the board: one regarding evaluation and depreciation of fixed assets, and another on exclusive use of “green” cleaning products throughout the district. There was consensus that the latter puts Port Washington in the forefront of environmental concern and practices. Rob Seiden said, “This is an unequivocal statement that health and safety of our staff and students comes first. Hats off to the committee and staff.”

Mrs. Ehrlich also praised another public-spirited group of students, Schreiber High School’s representatives to the School Board: Jai Sajnani, Tommy Doyle, and Debbie Oyarzun, as well as the Board Notes student reporters, Andrew Seo, Sophia Jaffe, and Laura Werle. “The good news is, none of them are seniors, so we hope they’ll be around a long time.”

Larry Greenstein asked Dr. Gordon to look into creating a ballot initiative that would “take the next step” so that student(s) could be elected to serve on the board.

Rob Seiden brought up a safety issue. He said, “We recently had a very unfortunate incident, where an eighth grader was hit by a car, crossing the street at Main Street and Port Washington Boulevard.” Dr. Gordon explained that it happened after school hours and off school property, where the district has no jurisdiction and there were no crossing guards, but still “they’re our students 24/7.” (Note: The accident happened Friday, Feb. 12; the student in question was still in the hospital at the time of the meeting.) Various suggestions were made for working with the town council, the police department, and board committees to improve safety for the student, staff, and driving populations.

In the second round of community comments, Elaine Berman, retired teacher and community member, praised the students who do Academic Support volunteering at the public library. She also said, re: the charter schools, that they use public funds.

Jamie Troise, community member, said, “I am asking for a 0 percent increase. Keep the step raises, but keep a zero increase until fiscal matters in the United States are a little better.”

Mr. Russo returned to the microphone to say, “Don’t cut sports, don’t cut ATLAST, don’t cut clubs.” He claimed to have statistics showing that in 80 percent of cases, there is no correlation of small class size with academic achievement, after second grade, and said he’d like to see merit pay instituted for teachers. He said, “Why should the worst teacher in the district make the same as the best? Let’s encourage the poor ones to retire.”

Rick Smith said, “When the chips are down, in this country, I’ve noticed that people divide. In the real world, people’s pay is reduced – for example, the Peter Duchin orchestra took a pay cut. But people in the ‘unreal’ world of education separate themselves from the community, and expect more. Why should one group have more and one group less? We should all come together.”

Hank Ratner said, “It’s not ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – we’re not against teachers, and we appreciate quality. That’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is that there’s a lot of pain going on. They don’t participate in the pain; it’s not quite fair.” He also asked if the board would be answering his email with their thoughts on increasing class size at the high school. Board President Sloan replied that, yes, he could expect an answer.

Tommy Doyle, one of the new student representatives, said, “Regarding class sizes, my opinion is that increasing them would really be a detriment to the students,” and observed that, sometimes, extra sections have to be created to accommodate students who have schedule conflicts with another key subject.

Jeanne Zeh said, “I have three children – next year, I will have one at each level. I’m also a member of the community, and I’m a teacher. I’ve taught here for 16 years. Before teaching, I worked in the business world. I had to pay to educate myself to become a teacher; and when I was done, I had to take a large pay cut to become a teacher. I am here because I love what I do. But it is only fair to keep my earnings, and increases, the same way my colleagues in business do who make far more money than I am.”

Mark Sandino said he grew up in Port, and is now the parent of a child in the pre-K program, and while he feels there are too many teachers who don’t care about teaching and only want the summers and holidays off, his daughter loves her pre-K teachers and he thinks they are terrific. “I think you are making a grave mistake, cutting the pre-K program; please re-consider,” he said.

The next board meeting will be Tuesday, March 9 at Schreiber High School.