Written by Katie Piacentini Friday, 14 May 2010 00:00
The Port Washington/Manhasset chapter of the League of Women Voters held their annual School Board Candidates Forum on May 6, hosting school board candidates who are vying for the three open seats on the Port Washington Board of Education. League president Jane Thomas hosted the forum and vice president Judy Jacobson was the moderator, since she is a Manhasset resident and is impartial due to living outside of the Port Washington school district.
School board candidates Mr. Robert K. Ryan, Ms. Karen Sloan, Mr. Joseph Mirzoeff, and Mr. William Hohauser supplied Ms. Jacobson with a general background on their experience and qualifications, which she relayed to the attendees. Ms. Jacobson noted that Mr. Hohauser was unable to attend due to trial in Hartford, Connecticut that could not be adjourned. In Mr. Hohauser’s background information, it is listed that he works as a trial attorney and is responsible for litigation of large-scale arbitrations and trials, both as lead counsel and as supervisor of outside counsel. He is presently a member of the Port Washington Board of Education, filling the unexpired term of Susan Sturman. Mr. Hohauser received both a Bachelor of Science in Economics and a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1981. In 1984, he received his Juris Doctor from Columbia University.
He issued the following statement explaining his reasons for running and special insights he believes his experience brings to the Board of Education:
“I truly wish I could be here tonight, however, before this debate was set I was ordered to continue a trial in Hartford, Connecticut. This trial had already been adjourned twice, no further adjournments would be granted.
“For the past approximately one year, I have been privileged to fill the seat occupied by Susan Sturman. To that end, I have sought nothing other than to increase transparency, accessibility while bringing some ‘business sense’ to the budgeting process. Throughout my term, I have been steadfast in my efforts to balance the budgeting process and bring to the forefront community concerns about ever-escalating costs. Given the current economic climate, I hope that I have succeeded in making sure that the Port Washington School District becomes even stronger and more responsive to the needs of our neighbors. I hope to be elected to a full three-year term so that I can help even more.”
Mr. Robert K. Ryan Sr. retired in 2008. He worked as a Wall Street currency trader and sales manager and was with the same institution for 32 years. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in United States Government from Georgetown University and a Masters of business Administration in Finance from St. John’s University. Mr. Ryan is a trustee emeritus and former chairman of the board at the Holy Child Academy in Old Westbury. He was the chairman of the board for eight of his nine years of service. He has also served on the Georgetown University College Board of Advisors.
In his opening statement, Mr. Ryan said that he is a long term resident of Port Washington and has been very active in the community, describing his involvement with the PYA and helping to build Lions Field. He said that he has worked in education for a long time “for the love of the game.” He also said, “I truly believe that if we educate people, no matter who you are, that we’re all going to be better citizens.”
Mr. Ryan added that if elected, he would make sure that every tax dollar is spent wisely. In order to achieve this he said that he always asks a lot of questions. He said, “Don’t ask one question; keep asking questions, and make sure you are comfortable with the answers.”
Mr. Ryan also noted his experience having run a board for eight of nine years, which he said was a very powerful board. He also said that his background is very international and that he believes that students need to become more international, whether it is by learning a foreign language, visiting a foreign country, or having foreign exchange students in the school.
Mr. Joseph Mirzoeff works as a stock market trader. He received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from MIT and then obtained a Master of Business Administration in Finance from Columbia University. Mr. Mirzoeff served on the Port Washington Board of Education from July 1995 until June 1998.
In his opening statement, Mr. Mirzeoff said that the current school board needs help and new perspectives. He listed four areas in which a board member should be working, which were excellence in education, fiscal responsibility, communication, and fair and equitable treatment of employees. He said that he would like to see more time for education, meaning more school days in the year and more time within each day. As for fiscal responsibility, Mr. Mirzoeff said, “The March settlement with the teachers is misguided, giving substantial cost of living increases and negotiating nothing in return for the students and for education. The settlement needs to be reopened and reversed.” While he stated that he would like to retain employment, Mr. Mirzoeff said that means that each employee needs to take less.
Mr. Mirzoeff made it clear that a vote for him is a vote against the school budget and against the teacher’s contract. He said that he is against the teacher’s contract because he believes it has a lack of consideration of the economics of this community and does harm to the students and education. Mr. Mirzoeff is encouraging everyone to vote down the budget, because he believes that if it is voted down and he is elected, the teacher’s contract will be reopened for negotiation. While there is no guarantee that this would happen if the budget was voted down, it is his hope and one of the main reasons for running for the school board.
Karen Sloan is presently a member of the Port Washington Board of Education and is the current president. Ms. Sloan graduated from Great Neck North High School in 1982. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1985. She has two daughters, one who attends Schreiber High School and another who is a recent graduate of Schreiber. Ms. Sloan believes that the most important issue facing the Port Washington School District is the financial pressure placed on everyone in these trying economic times.
Ms. Sloan said that as a board member, she has had to learn to do more with less, keeping in mind that the children are the future and excellence must be maintained. She believes that her experience on the board gives her insight into creative solutions to our financial problems. Additionally, she has served on every committee that the board holds, which is Policy and Personnel, Curriculum, Budget and Facilities, and Community Relations. She is also the co-chair of the SAFE and Substance Abuse task force and serves on the middle states committee in the high school, which is an accreditation and evaluation process of Schreiber High School.
“I am very proud of work I have done on the board so far,” Ms. Sloan said. “I really would very much like to continue – I think our current board is very strong and works hard to listen to the community.” She added that she listens to everyone in the community, regardless of whether or not she agrees with their point of view, and weighs in all of this information in all of her decisions. Ms. Sloan also said that she supports the budget and feels proud of the contract that was reached with the teachers.
The first question was directed to Mr. Mirzoeff, and asked what he felt was harmful to the students in the teacher’s contract.
Mr. Mirzoeff said that he is upset that it is a five year contract and that it claims funds for the next few years. Also, he said that there would be no need to cut back programs if there was not a cost of living raise. “These are very well compensated employees who have job security and when the rest of our community has suffered, there is really no cause to give these raises,” he said.
Mr. Ryan said that since he is not currently on the school board, he does not have significant comments in terms of how the budget was arrived at. “I am for the budget – I am not for raising anybody’s taxes,” he said, and added, “It must have been a difficult process.”
Ms. Sloan answered that it is important to have the very best teachers in order to deliver the best programs. “For this year, the teachers took a zero increase, voluntarily, and next year, they are basically funding their increase, so that is important to remember,” she said. “One of the most important parts of this contract, aside from the financial aspects, is that we are reviewing the units, which is how the teachers are compensated for the clubs and the sports,” she added. “That is going to change how many clubs and sports we can give to our children, we can provide to the students. I don’t see how that is hurting the students; I see how the teachers came forward to help them.”
One person said that high property taxes are a problem for many people in the community, and asked if the candidates had given thought to alternative methods of financing public schools.
Mr. Ryan said that he does not want to raise taxes. “My taxes from 1995 to now have gone up 170 percent. I feel the sting – I feel the pain. I don’t want to see anybody’s taxes go up.” Mr. Ryan added that his methods would be more about budgeting every tax dollar wisely. He noted his experience at another school where there were significant financial problems. “It went from a significant deficit where we were given a three-year life expectancy to a position where there was a significant surplus. Tuition didn’t go up, teacher’s salaries were kept in check, and at the end of the day, every dollar was meant to go to education we spent wisely,” he said.
Ms. Sloan said that she is on the Board of the Port Washington Education Foundation, and that she works with many other people to try to raise funds creatively and obtain grants to try to help other areas in the school district that cannot be provided in the school budget. She added, “I was approached by a group that is trying to do some creative things with corporate sponsorships, which would bring a great deal of money to the school district. That previously has not been allowed, so I am reaching out to local politicians to find new ways that we can receive these corporate grants.”
Mr. Mirzoeff said that we do get money from income tax, and that this district gets about 6 percent of its revenue from state funds. “ I think that we are lucky in Port Washington – I think it’s why a lot of people live here, because we do take care of ourselves, and we’ve done a good job so far.”
Another forum attendee said that there are groups of people in the community who feel left out and asked how communication could be improved.
Ms. Sloan said that this was the first that she had heard of communication problems, and was dismayed to hear this. “It’s certainly something we can work on through the community relations committee,” she said, and added, “We do try to reach out to the community at large, but if people feel that we are not reaching them, it is something we would have to address.”
Mr. Mirzoeff said that when he was previously on the school board, there were people who were very troubled by some of the things that were going on and he represented their cause. He said, “If a person has a just cause on a way to improve the district, I will be a pest. I am persistent, and I will keep representing an issue.”
Mr. Ryan said that he believes in transparency to the degree that it is legally allowed. “You keep people informed because they are the people who put us here,” he said.
One person asked all of the school board candidates, “What is the single educational discipline that you see is lacking in this district that you would like to have instituted, and why?”
In response, Mr. Mirzoeff said that three years of foreign language in middle school is the lacking educational discipline that should be instituted and he said that it would not cost the school district anything.
Mr. Ryan said that students should be internationalized in some way. “What can you offer them that will make them think beyond our borders? Languages, having foreign exchange students come visit our high school, maybe an exchange program with a foreign school. It should not cost that much money – you could probably do it with the current budget,” he said.
Ms. Sloan said that she also believes that foreign language is the educational discipline that should be improved. She agreed that the foreign language program in the middle school warrants looking at and also said that foreign language in the elementary school should be examined. Additionally, she said that there should be more offerings of different languages in the high school. She mentioned a “natural selection” of classes occurring at Schreiber, in that a new class in a new area is offered if other classes are not being selected anymore for an elective. “There are classes that are more useful,” she said. “It’s not just another English class, but ‘Writing for Publication’ or ‘Engineering for College Credit.’ These are the kinds of things that bring us into the new times and the new world and I think it’s something we should be looking at more all over the district.”
Another issue that was discussed was how to meet the needs of all students: those who are gifted and talented, those in the middle, and those who are challenged. Mr. Ryan said, “Education is for everyone. Poor, rich, capable, not capable, it makes people better citizens. I would not be where I am today if I did not have an education.”
Mr. Mirzoeff said that Port Washington serves the talented kids very well. Additionally, he said that students from underprivileged backgrounds need more time at school, because they often do not have the supportive environment at home. “There are a number of programs that tutor kids,” he said. “We do help them but we could do more.”
Ms. Sloan noted that there are a lot of programs for the kids who are gifted and talented, and that their parents are very involved in finding these programs for their kids. For students who are more challenged, she said that they have tried to open up more programs for them. “We tried to open it up to all kids, whose parents may not speak English as their first language, so they don’t even know about these programs to even try to get their kids into these programs.” She said that although there have been much higher rates of participation in those programs, it is an area that could be improved.
In her closing statement, Ms. Sloan reiterated that she would like to remain on the school board, because she would like to continue the work that she is currently involved in and continue to work with the community and all of the members of the school district. “I think I am a positive influence on the board. I think I am a positive influence with the administration. I think that we’ve done good things and I would like to continue to do good things,” she said.
Mr. Mirzoeff said in his closing statement that school employee pay should be decreased to match the current economic environment. He said that New York State is in financial trouble and that “we may be heading into a deflationary environment when funds will dry up…. This is no time to be passing out raises to already well-paid employees.” He added, “Teachers should be giving more time per day, and more days per year to justify the current level of pay they receive. And we should be addressing our teacher absenteeism problem.” In conclusion, Mr. Mirzoeff said, “Vote no on the budget to put us back on the right track, a track which puts the students first. Vote for the students and the health of your community, just say no. The way out of our current economic mess is that each of us gives more and takes less.”
In his closing statement, Mr. Ryan said that he could add much to the school board, due to his experience with other school boards and the college board of advisors. He added that he would like to see more of an international background added to education and that he is very vigilant about taxes. “As a business person and a person who has run a school that was in difficulty, I learned how to look for truffles. They have a saying that even a blind pig can find truffles sometimes, so you got to keep looking. I know that we can do more with what we have and I think I bring a broad based experience and broad direction to the board,” he said.
The budget and trustees vote is on Tuesday, May 18. The four polling places will be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.