NORTH SHORE SCHOOL BOARD CANDIDATES INTRODUCE THEMSELVES TO COMMUNITY AT MEET THE CANDIDATES FORUM
April 28, 2014 -- This past Thursday evening, the three candidates vying for the two seats up for grabs on the North Shore School Board, introduced themselves and responded to questions from community members at a Meet the Candidates Forum sponsored by the North Shore Coordinating Council and moderated by the Port Washington chapter of the League of Women Voters.
The three, Joanna Commander, Lara Gonzalez, and Rob Mazzella, offered their personal biographies, and explained their positions on a variety of issues over the course of the hour and a half event.
Mr. Mazzella drew the shortest slip, and therefore spoke first, followed by Ms. Commander, and then Ms. Gonzalez.
Mr. Mazzella, who lives in Glen Head, and has two children -a third and fifth grader attending Glenwood Landing School - explained that in the past few years, he has increasingly become more active in local issues through his involvement in the North Shore Acres Civic Association, which he said he reactivated when the neighborhood needed a new sign, and as a member of the Glen Head - Glenwood Civic Council. Over the past two years he has become more involved in school matters through his service on the Superintendent's Advisory Council this year, and on the District Bond Committee last year.
Professionally, Mr. Mazzella works as a Senior Marketing Director for an international Marketing company. "I believe that my background planning, developing, and executing Marketing plans, and managing extremely large budgets," he said, "and auditing Fortune 500 companies in my days as a C.P.A., all help make me extremely qualified to serve on the Board."
With regard to his goals as a board member, Mr. Mazzella said "as someone who hopes to be a community member for many years to come, I really would like to help the North Shore School District area remain an amazing, affordable place to live for future generations. Therefore, I believe it is imperative that the children of the North Shore School District continue to receive a top quality education with access to first rate extra-curricular activities." He added that he would be "an effective and passionate advocate for all segments of the community - parents, teachers, seniors, local businesses and, most importantly the children."
Ms. Commander, who lives in Glen Head and does not have children in the district, but does have a niece attending district schools, emphasized her 33 years in education, and in particular, her background as a Health and Physical Education Director for many years, as preparing her for service as a school board member.
As an Athletics director in Lynbrook and then later in the Harborfields school district, she said she developed a good understanding of how to "get the full value for every dollar we spend," and embraced and pushed for "innovative, cutting edge, forward thinking" policies. Ms. Commander also currently serves on the North Shore Superintendent's Advisory Council, and is an active member of the North Shore Booster Club.
Emphasizing inclusiveness, Ms. Commander said, "Our goal should always be to have as many different voices be part of the conversation-the decisions we make that will impact every child and every homeowner in our community. I am a firm believer that it is through thoughtful and respectful conversation that we resolve our differences."
Ms. Gonzalez, who has three children attending district schools - a kindergartner and fifth grader at Sea Cliff, and a sophomore at the high school - said that her work as a secondary school educator for many years and in particular her work as a K-12 supervisor for the past five years, currently as the Social Studies and Career & Technical Education Director in the Oyster Bay - East Norwich Schools, has enabled her to develop skills as a consensus builder and school leader.
"On a daily basis," she said, "I interact with students, teachers, parents, other supervisors, building principals, Central Administration, and community members." "One of my strengths," Ms. Gonzalez continued, "is bringing together different groups of people and coming to consensus on what is in the best interest of our students and the community."
In efforts to find other sources of funding for educational programs, she said that she has worked with the PTAs "to bring special programs to students and collaborated on grants to enrich our curriculum." Additionally she said, "I have forged partnerships with organizations including the National Parks Service, and reached out to local businesses to create an internship program for High School students. I have worked with Nassau BOCES to add a new Business course for our students at the High School and more."
Ms. Gonzalez said that as a Trustee she would represent the entire district, and "not just one geographic area or group of people." "My interest in serving on the School Board transcends a single issue," she continued, but rather "is based on a desire to give back to the community in the best way that I can, to share my expertise and create, with your support, a world-class school system that we can afford. Let us together have the courage to engage in difficult conversations and to discuss openly what matters most to us as a North Shore community."
During the question and answer period, candidates addressed a variety of topics including their respective philosophies of governance; national, state and local educational issues; and the challenge of balancing the delivery of an excellent education with many residents' financial concerns.
With regard to school governance, audience members asked the candidates to offer their respective views on the role of the school board in relation to the Superintendent in the district decision-making process; what characteristics they would look for in individuals applying for the position of Schools Superintendent should Dr. Melnick retire in the next three years; and, the characteristics or qualities that would enable a trustee to enter the hypothetical "School Board Hall of Fame."
Ms. Commander said that she believed the Superintendent, as educational leader of the district, has the responsibility to recommend educational policy and that "it is up to the Board of Education to investigate, research, and study those recommendations, and to challenge the superintendent." Ultimately she said, the Board decides whether to approve those policies.
In considering applicants for the Superintendency, she said she would want an individual who was a proven and experienced educational leader; someone who has worked with a diverse student population and who recognizes differences among students; and, someone who has demonstrated sophistication in fiscal management." An effective trustee, she said, is someone "with courage and who honors their personal convictions," and "who values what education is all about."
Ms. Gonzalez said that when it came to the Board-Superintendent relationship, it was important to recognize that the Superintendent is the instructional leader, and that he is the one with the most expertise in that area, and often the one with the most institutional memory. The Board she said, is "directly responsible to the community and therefore must ask the right questions," and have that "sometimes difficult dialogue."
The selection of a superintendent, Ms. Gonzalez later explained, is the single most important decision that a school board makes. She said she would look for someone with deep expertise in education and someone who has excellent communication skills and is a good listener. He has to "be able to inspire teachers so that he can effectively lead the faculty and the system." He needs to be able to "bridge people." He "should be someone who encourages kids and faculty to take risks, and to lead by example." A "hall of fame" trustee she said is someone "who is approachable, transparent, and able to bridge people together." Describing board members as "stewards of the democratic process," she said that an effective Trustee is one who places an emphasis on "fairness" and who understands the importance of "process" and having meaningful dialogue in reaching decisions.
Mr. Mazzella said that with regard to the board's role in district's decision-making, he agreed with Ms. Gonzalez that it was important for board members to "ask and ask until you understand," when the Superintendent makes policy recommendations.
He said an effective superintendent is "someone who likes to question things and who "rejects the idea of 'that's the way we've always done it." He would look for someone who as the "wherewithal to try new ways of doing things."
An effective trustee, he said, is someone who is "open-minded and who can embrace change, and is courageous."
Residents also questioned the candidates on the Common Core Learning Standards, and the value of offering foreign language instruction in the elementary schools.
With regard to the Common Core Learning Standards, Ms. Gonzalez explained that having high standards is not the problem, but rather the way in which they have been implemented. She said at Supervisors' meetings she has attended on the new learning standards, the roll out of the Common Core had been often compared to building an airplane while in flight. "We should be setting the bar high," she said, "but their implementation was so rushed - they were not implemented in a cohesive way."
Ms. Gonzalez said that she strongly supported the elementary school FLES program. "I think it is innovative, and I would not look to make cuts. What we are doing is forward thinking."
Ms. Commander said that it was important to separate the Common Core from the testing. The testing material, she continued, was not age appropriate, and characterized third graders taking three hour exams as "ridiculous." The tests she said, "do not reflect age-appropriate curricula." With regard to the FLES program, she said that maintaining foreign language instruction in the elementary school was "non-negotiable" to her. "Foreign language instruction is a critical learning experience in today's world," she explained.
Mr. Mazzella said that roll out of the Common Core has been horrible, and quoting Dr. Melnick said that "it borders on abuse." With the adjustment to the new standards, he was concerned that current 5th graders have had three different math programs in their six years of schooling. He added that there has been too much time spent on test preparation and that "pre-testing is a waste of time." With regard to foreign language program in the elementary school, he said maintaining or eliminating the program is indeed negotiable. "If the goal is exposure to a foreign language, the FLES program is great. What we're doing is not sufficient for fluency," he continued. "If you want to make kids fluent, it needs to be every day."
Balancing Educational Excellence with Financial Concerns
The three candidates responded to a few questions getting at the challenge of providing a high quality education while maintaining financial discipline. One resident asked what the three most significant challenges facing the district were.
Mr. Mazzella said that is was important to balance the needs of kids with fiscal responsibility, and that the long-term impact of the tax cap and the potential shift in tax burden from the decommissioning of the Glenwood Landing Power Plant presented challenges. He said that he did not think "fiscal responsibility and a good education are mutually exclusive."
Ms. Gonzalez responded that the financial challenges facing residents are real - in particular for both seniors and working moms and dads. She said that with regard to the Power Plant decommissioning, she was thankful that the district had so far received $5.4 million to help offset any tax shift that occurs, and expressed hope that legislation could be passed to exempt those funds, when they are used, from affecting future years' levy limits. She stated that the district must continue to provide the best quality education and that it is important for residents to recognize that there is a strong connection between the quality of a community's schools and its property values.
Ms. Commander said that it was important to maintain programs and their excellence - especially in the arts and athletics, but to pay for these programs in a fiscally responsible way, which she said sometimes requires "taking from one place to give to another."
Another resident stated that he believed long term reasonable financial planning was important and would rather see his taxes go up than see programs cut. "Please speak to making children the priority," he said.
Ms. Gonzalez said that education is not a typical business, in that in education, "the bottom line is children," and that in educating a child the "trajectory is long term." She agreed with Mr. Mazzella that fiscal responsibility and a high quality education are not mutually exclusive. When another resident took issue with the candidate's comparison of education to a business, Ms. Gonzalez said she was not talking about a school as a factory model, but on the contrary believes that "we need to look at every child as an individual." What she did mean, she continued, is that providing public education is "a multi-million dollar endeavor in which the community invests so much," and that it is important to consider the long-term impact of that investment, and to "value fiscal discipline."
Mr. Mazzella stated that "kids are number one in all of this." He explained that "If you are looking for $50,000 you can find it in the budget without cutting programs" and that the "kids would not be disadvantaged." When pressed by a resident, where specifically he would find $50,000 to cut, he replied that as a former auditor, he was sure he could find it in administrative costs. He said that "managing a budget is kind of like a business," but that "providing education is more of an art."
Ms. Commander said that it is important to "challenge everything we do to make it better" and to "support the health of every program to make it better." She said that that is what she had done in her career. With regard to having to cut $50,000, she said that she would want to "make sure the pain was spread across the board," with different departments having to make cuts of $5,000 or $10,000 to different budget lines.
When a resident noted that the tax levy was significantly below the limit imposed by New York State, he asked, if given the choice of lowering the levy by another $500,000 or raising it $500,000 to improve educational opportunities - assuming that that was still below the levy limit, what would each do.
Mr. Mazzella said that he would not support a budget over the tax cap and that increasing the levy by another $500,000 should only be done if absolutely necessary.
Ms. Commander said because of the potential tax shift from the power plant decommissioning, she would not support increasing the levy.
Ms. Gonazelz agreed, saying she would not urge raising the limit by an additional $500,000.
Another resident asked whether any of the candidates would consider closing one of the three elementary schools, if enrollment continued to decline.
Ms. Commander expressed concern about the impact that such an action would have on the local community, and that only if the "numbers became so extreme," would she consider that.
Ms. Gonzalez stated she believed the speaker may have been referring specifically to Sea Cliff Elementary School, and said that she would not support the closing of that or any of the other two elementary schools. She said the "demographics ebb and flow" - that school populations rise and fall over periods of time.
Mr. Mazzella replied that "nothing should not never be considered." "Everyone has a fondness for their elementary school," he continued, "and populations do shift." He said closing an elementary school is an avenue of last resort.
In closing, Mr. Mazzella went first. He said that as a district it is important to accept change, because it will happen anyway, and that the educational system needs to evolve. He continued that he believes he possesses the skill set that will enable him to be an excellent trustee.
Ms. Commander said that she is concerned that often times "too many issues are framed as us against them." She continued that she is a consensus builder and that she would "thoughtfully and respectfully face our challenges - both educational and fiscal."
Ms. Gonzalez said that she has "been accustomed to teaching to all constituencies," and "would serve the entire district." She emphasized the importance of moving forward to continue to build a world class educational system.