The Elmont School Board is a seven-member board but has been divided this past year as the board majority is made up of Pamela Byer, Elsy Mecklembourg-Guibert, Aubrey Phillips and Carol Parker-Duncanson, while Lorraine Ferrigno, Frank Ragona and Michael Jaime make up the minority of the board. The election Tuesday, May 20, could shift the balance of the board as Phillips and Mecklembourg-Guibert are both running for re-election and are being challenged by Anthony Maffea and Deniece Walker.
Phillips and Mecklembourg-Guibert point to the achievement of the students of the Elmont School District and fiscal responsibility as strengths of the district and the current board. They point out that the increase on the tax levy, which is the amount to be raised by taxes for the 2008-2009 proposed budget, is zero percent, as proof that the board is responsive to the residents' need for being fiscally responsible.
Going forward, Phillips, who has the longest tenure of any Elmont board member, having been elected in 1999, and Mecklembourg-Guibert, who was elected to the board in 2005, would like to turn the remaining portion of the old Elmont Library, which the school district owns and houses part of the administration offices, into a science and math center for the children of the district for an advanced math and science program into the district.
Phillips and Mecklembourg-Guibert, who are running their campaigns together, would also like to see a comprehensive program to address the health and wellness of the student body and deal with issues such as childhood obesity. "I think the health and wellness committee can be helpful in molding and designing programs that will begin to address some of these issues," said Phillips.
Phillips and Mecklembourg-Guibert also believe that the way public education is funded should be looked at. "We have to continue to reshape the way education is funded," said Phillips, who added that the zero percent tax levy increase, as proposed for the 2008-2009 budget, represented a gradual, systematic approach to getting the tax levy that low. In 2002-2003, the tax levy increase was 23.64 percent. It went to 1.74 percent in 2007-2008 before going to zero percent.
Mecklembourg-Guibert said that she understands the concerns about property taxes but feels it is important to have a strong educational program for the community. "It takes a whole village to raise a child. We are benefiting from a lot of services in the district. We are truly concerned about children. This is what I am volunteering my time for, ensuring that children are well-educated," she said.
Phillips believes the board took the district back to sound fiscal footing and looks forward to what the board can accomplish in the future. "What you're seeing this board do is that we really want to focus in on academics and academics that is not really based on testing scores, just academics from a higher level learning. You want to raise the level of learning for the entire district by turning the rest of the old public library into a math and science learning center," he said.
Phillips said he also wants to continue working with state and local elected officials to push for education funding reform. However, he said he is not favor of giving up local control of school districts. "Who knows best what a community aspirations are for education [better than] the people who live there," he said.
The Elmont School District has had to deal with challenges of having a diversified population in a district in which many languages are spoken. The board of education will have to continue to meet the challenges of educating children with special needs and children whose secondary language is English. Mecklembourg-Guibert feels it is important to gain the trust of the residents who may not yet be in tune with the education system. "We need to let them know that we are working for their best interest. The zero percent tax levy increase [as reflected by the proposed 2008-2009 budget that will be voted on May 20] is a good indication that people are going to be seeing us definitively as those who are there to safeguard the public's interest," she said.
While Phillips and Mecklembourg-Guibert hope to continue on the board of education, their challengers, Maffea and Walker, feel the board is in need of a change.
Maffea, however, believes the board can work as a more cohesive unit and be more responsive to the residents. "The focus isn't on the kids, which is where it needs to be. It seems there are more personal agendas and egos at work. The community isn't getting answers to the questions that are being asked. Someone needs to take a stand and get involved," he said.
Maffea, who is a member of the Covert Avenue School PTA and a member of the Elmont East Civic Association, feels the divisiveness hasn't necessarily taken away from the children's education. But, he said, "I want to help put an end to it before it becomes an issue and the kids start losing out."
Maffea, who is challenging Phillips, feels that having a cohesive board will help the board get things done and he points to a discussion that took place at a public meeting on March 18. At this meeting, one of the board members, Jaime, questioned why only four of the seven board members appeared on a playbill for a recent high school production of Les Miserables, congratulating the students on the job they did.
Maffea feels the current board majority needs to be more open. He referenced a decision by the board majority to redact the Elmont Herald as an official newspaper of the school district. Although the board majority referenced personal attacks, Maffea feels the board hasn't adequately expressed the reason behind its decision. On his website, he vows to reinstate the Elmont Herald as an official newspaper of the district.
Maffea feels the district is doing well in the area of student achievement. "We need to make sure we're continuing to give the kids all the tools they need," he said.
With two children attending the Covert Avenue School, Maffea said he wants to make sure children are properly trained once they finish their schooling. "The way things are going now, I would like to think they are getting all the tools," he said.
Like Maffea, Walker, who is challenging Mecklembourg-Guibert, feels that the board could use fresh ideas. Walker, a member of many school-based organizations such as SEPTA and community-based organizations such as the Elmont Community Coalition Council, the Jamaica Square Improvement League and the Locustwood/Gotham Civic Association, feels the past and present school board and the administration have done a good job thus far. "Our children have been able get a quality education and, for the most part, been able to compete in our economy. However, there's programs and certain things I would like to see possibly enhanced," she said. "As far as the education they are receiving currently, I think the job is being done very well."
However, she feels the communication between the board and the community needs improving. "I would make sure I would be able to answer all questions that were put forth to me," she said. "I'm an individual that stands behind my decisions. If I make a decision, I can say why I made that decision. That's not happening now and it's causing some havoc between the community and the board. The community is very frustrated. The school board is supposed to be working as one entity on behalf of our children as well as the community when it comes to the tax levy. If there's bickering going back and forth, then I'm wondering how much is getting done. Are all the topics being covered that need to be covered?"
The four-member board majority and three-member board minority would disagree on who has been the divisive force. Phillips and Mecklembourg-Guibert point to how the district is being run and plans for the future as the central part of their campaign while Maffea and Walker feel that a change is needed so that the board can work as a more cohesive unit to be responsive to all community needs. On election day, district residents will decided if the current district leadership or new trustees would be the most beneficial to the students and taxpayers.
On May 20, residents will also be asked to vote on proposed budgets for the 2008-2009 school year. Residents of the Elmont School District will be voting on a $68,950,211 spending plan, a 5.14 percent increase from last year (2007-2008). Of that money, 40,020,833 would be funded by taxes, which has not increased from last year.
In the Franklin Square School District, residents will be voting on a $31,597,081 budget, a 3.87 percent increase from last year. Of the proposed budget, $21,606,499 is the amount to be raised by taxes, a 6.89 percent increase from last year.
In the Sewanhaka Central High School District, residents will be voting on a $147,944,346 budget, a 4.84 percent increase from last year. Of the proposed budget, $111,799,439 is the amount to be raised by taxes, a 2.82 percent increase from last year.
In the West Hempstead School District, residents will be voting on a $52,607,660 budget, a 3.63 percent increase from last year. Of the proposed budget, $35,460,058 is the amount to be raised by taxes, a 0.77 percent increase from last year.