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Meet The Westbury Board Of Education Candidates

Dickerson, Lanzilotta seek re-election; Bonaparte, Simpkins challenge

Two trustee seats are up for grabs in the Tuesday, May 15 election as Dr. Pless Dickerson and Rocco Lanzilotta look to retain their spots on the Westbury Board of Education against challengers Cosmas Bonaparte and John Simpkins, Jr.

The budget and trustee vote will be conducted from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the following schools: Dryden Street, Park Avenue, Drexel Avenue and Westbury Middle. For more information, visit www.westburyschools.org.

The Westbury Times recently caught up with the candidates and posed the following questions.

(Editor’s note: Each candidate submitted his own biography.)

Rocco Lanzilotta

Over the past three years, Rocco Lanzilotta’s service to the Westbury School District has been exemplary. He has served on the audit committee, the textbook committee and has been an advocate for the students in the district as well as being a fiscal watchdog for taxpayers’ money.

The past three years have seen a dramatic reduction in administrative overhead while maintaining programs and striving for improvement in academic achievement; however, there is still more work to be done. We must continue to recognize our student’s past achievements, but we must also recognize the challenges that we have yet to overcome.

Extra emphasis and resources must be allocated in helping our student population increase their test scores while giving our teachers the tools that are needed in the new Common Core Standards just recently handed down by the state. This can be achieved while keeping in mind the tremendous burden that taxpayers are asked to share. The greatest hurdle we face is to do more with less, especially with the 2 percent tax cap while being sensitive to the taxpayers and making sure that cuts do not impede forward movement in academic achievement for our students.

Our district needs more resources, more tools, more instructors, more support, with smaller class sizes while showing marked improvement in test scores. How? By being a part of the process in searching, finding and hiring the new superintendent that will bring our district to higher standards and fiscal soundness.

Mr. Lanzilotta knows the district, recognizes its unique demographics and what is needed to enable our students to achieve and realize their potentials. He is a team player and offers stability to the board. Even though Mr. Lanzilotta has no children, he did attend Westbury Schools and is a product of public education. This is why he chose to become part of the board, to give back to the district that gave to him. He is currently employed by Liberty Travel and is the team leader of their Jericho, N.Y. location.

John Simpkins, Jr.

My name is John Simpkins, Jr. and I am a 47-year-old, 18-year Westbury resident. I am married to my college sweetheart, Cerrone, and have three children, ages 14, 12 and 8. I have one child in the district and two in private school. I am a graduate of St. John’s University where I earned two degrees: communication and liberal arts. I am currently director of Team Schein Member Relations and Diversity. Henry Schein Inc., is a global Fortune 500 Company and one of Fortune’s “World’s Most Admired Companies” with 15,000-plus employees. Henry Schein is the world’s largest provider of health care products and services to office-based practitioners. I am also a member of SHRM and am currently a SEPTA Westbury member. I am also a “Westbury School Volunteer of Year” winner for the work I did mentoring students about leadership and “developing their brand.”

As a product of a progressive public school system, I fully understand the value and opportunities that a public school education can and should offer. As an 18-year resident of Westbury, I have watched our schools continue to struggle with poor scores, mounting taxes, failed budgets and a fair amount of public dissent on the board. For many in the community, the board is responsible for “leading by example” and by doing so, it should represent the best Westbury has to offer. At this critical time, I believe (as do my family, friends and neighbors) that we can and must do better for our children and Westbury taxpayers. 

My campaign is focused on giving a voice to three key groups: public school parents, private school parents and the taxpayers of Westbury, especially those who are retired or on a fixed income. Our district spends as much as $24,000 per student per year, and yet many don’t see the return on investment in our academic records. The April 6 edition of Newsday showed disappointing scores for our district, which further exacerbated an already sensitive issue. Yet we demand more tax dollars from our residents each year. At this time, the board must take bold steps to bring about academic and financial reforms to secure the future for students who will be entering a very competitive and complex workplace. Additionally, there is a need for more transparency and accountability on the board. We work for the parents and taxpayers and must be ever mindful that an active and accessible board is a successful one. As an executive for a large corporation, I fully understand and embrace the importance of creating an open and collaborative environment as well as being accountable for one’s actions. These values define success in any organization.

The residents of Westbury are in this together and we need to create better communication channels between the public, the faculty and the board. We must ensure that meetings serve the public’s good and not our own. Use technology and social media, wherever available, to give access to working parents and homebound residents. Finally, your next school board will have the monumental task and responsibility of recruiting our next superintendent of schools. The leader that steps into this role will have the opportunity to bring real academic vision to our district. I have experience in my professional life with identifying, recruiting and retaining senior executive-level talent, and I will bring that experience with me, if elected.

Lastly, I love Westbury. Westbury is a culturally diverse hamlet that provides an enriching quality of life, with some of the best restaurants and shops on Long Island and a thriving and hip downtown. We also have an active and responsive village government that continues to look for opportunities to improve our town for its residents. Westbury recently received a designation from CNN Money as one of the nation’s “Best places to live for the rich and single.” I want our schools to earn equivalent designations. Our schools can be a “best of” again, but it starts with new leadership that has a clear vision for the future and the passion and business experience to fulfill that vision. 

I am prepared to make the tough decisions to bring about change and to take our schools and overall student experience to the next level. Westbury taxpayers have a right to demand more from a board that is responsible for the education of our children and the stewardship of our limited financial resources. In me, the students, the parents and the taxpayers of Westbury will have a board member ready to be their advocate.

Dr. Pless M. Dickerson

Similar to all districts in New York State, Westbury is faced with the arduous task of maintaining an instructional program while adhering to a state mandate of a 2 percent tax cap. This has become an exercise in balancing a budget, which will provide the educational services for the diverse population that resides within the district.

As a current member of the board of education, I have continued to work with the administration and my colleagues to make certain that there was an examination of the district’s resources for accountability and to make necessary eliminations where there was a need to consolidate. In addition, there is a reallocation of existing personnel to adequately address staffing needs in various areas.

Currently, there is a need to maintain a comprehensive instructional program so that students can meet the requirement for graduation with academic proficiency. Maintaining the current level of services is paramount; however, since there is a scarcity in district funds, any additional services will need to be procured through outside funding sources, such as grants. In addition, I would like to see more attitudinal changes from our community at large in support of our educational system and the children who attend our schools.

I earned a bachelor of science from Clark-Atlanta University, a master of science from C.W. Post College in school administration, a master of science from Long Island University in counseling, an education doctorate from Columbia University in educational leadership, am a former trustee at Briarcliff College, former trustee at the Legal Aid Society, current superintendent of schools for Wyandanch UFSD, board president for Westbury UFSD (previously served two three-year terms from 2006 to present).

My educational background and experiential background have prepared me to serve in this capacity in that I know the inner workings of schools and the challenges educational institutions are faced with.

Professionally I am an educator. I am currently the superintendent of schools in Wyandanch. However, for 28 years, I have served the Westbury School District as a social studies teacher, guidance counselor and, for 18 years, as principal of Westbury High School.

I have been a resident of Westbury since 1975; I have lived in this community for 37 years. I have no children; however, I consider the thousands of students whom I have come in contact with educationally my children.

Cosmas Bonaparte

Achievement levels in the district remain low, with over 40 percent of students in grades three through eight failing to meet proficiency levels on New York State English Language Arts and Mathematics tests. Regents scores remain below peer levels, SAT scores remain below the New York State average and the percentage of students attending community college, primarily due to poor preparation, remains unacceptably high, at over 40 percent. Board members and key members of the administration, despite being in positions of power for many years, appear to have few solutions to address these issues, and seem unable to hold anyone accountable.  Furthermore, fiscal management at the board level needs improvement, with funds often wasted on consultants, miscellaneous personnel and programs that, based on the current state of the district, have not been effective.  Lastly, the board and administration have issues with transparency, and quite often are not responsive to community member queries and requests for information. The entire culture of the district needs to change, from one of low expectations and often indifference, to one of engagement, high achievement and academic rigor. I would like to see district leaders and personnel do a better job of engaging the parents in the community and stressing the importance of parental involvement. Also, given the vast differences in student abilities and backgrounds, I would like to see better after-school and tutoring programs throughout the district, as many children simply require more attention. The district should also focus on strengthening the science and mathematics curriculum (STEM programming), including the addition of new programs and courses, given the improved career prospects for those that are highly proficient in these areas. I stress that much of this can be paid for with existing budget funds or grants, with no need for new taxes.  Lastly, the board needs to do a better job of scrutinizing and questioning expenditures, and ensuring that there will be a clear benefit to students from items deemed “necessary” by the administration.

I am currently the vice president of the board of the Westbury Memorial Public Library, as well as the treasurer and a board member of the McCoy Center Family and Youth Services, a social services organization in New Cassel. Both institutions have significant interactions with students in the community and school district, and I am very familiar with the educational and social issues that most impact our children. More importantly, I have a variety of recommendations to address some of the deficiencies that I have seen in the district. To date, I have not seen comprehensive, workable solutions from the administration or incumbent board members.  Additionally, I have a strong finance and business background, with a bachelor of science in economics, a master’s of business administration in economics and a master’s in statistics. For the past 15 years, I have worked in the financial services field, analyzing the finances, business models and operations of various institutions with which my employers have done business. My business acumen and ability to analyze issues and think critically would be assets to a board that is lacking in fiscal discipline and management.

I currently work as a manager in the credit risk management division of AIG. Prior to this, I was a vice president in the U.S. Corporate Banking Department of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Ltd.

I have lived in the Wheatley Villas section of Westbury since 2005, with my wife and two children. My children do not attend Westbury schools.