BOARD NOTES - North Shore School Board Meeting, October 24, 2013. - UPDATE ON EFFORTS TO MITIGATE LIPA TAX SHIFT - FACULTY STANDS UP IN SUPPORT OF CLEARED PHYSICAL EDUCATION TEACHER AND COACH - DISCUSSION - IB AND DISTRICT EDUCATIONAL DECISION-MAKING
Present - Board President Herman Berliner, Vice President Tom Knierim, Trustee Amy Beyer, Trustee Sara Jones, Trustee Toni Labbate, Trustee Michael Nightingale, Trustee Marianne Russo, Superintendent Ed Melnick, Assistant Superintendent Rob Cheblicki, Assistant Superintendent for Business Olivia Buatsi, District Clerk Betty Ciampi.
Board Counsel Keri-Ann Condo and attorney Jeff Pearlman gave an update on the Glenwood Power Plant and actions taken by the district to minimize the impact on residential taxpayers of a likely tax shift resulting from the decommissioning of the Plant and efforts by National Grid to reduce the assessment on its property.
Mr. Pearlman stated that after the ramp down of the plant was announced in July 2011, the district initially lobbied for a glide-path measure that would phase in the tax shift over a period of several years. That path looked promising until Hurricane Sandy, after which Governor Cuomo and the state legislature focused on completely restructuring LIPA.
Mr. Pearlman said in the spring of 2013 the district was able to get $2.5 million dollars in aid from the state legislature through the efforts of Assemblyman Lavine and Senator Marcellino, to offset the impact of any tax shift.
In June, the LIPA restructuring legislation passed, but without the tax assessment issue being addressed. Soon after, LIPA sent to taxing jurisdictions a letter that offered to settle tax certiorari suits by having its tax assessment reduced by what would amount to 10% per year over a 10 year period. The reduction would affect most greatly school districts that are home to the Port Jefferson, Northport, Island Park, and Glenwood Landing Power Plants. Currently the more than $22,600,000 amount paid this year to the district would be reduced to 12,432,000 in year 14-15 and then the utility’s tax payments would remain flat for three years, and then an annual reduction of more than 600,000 for a six year period would kick in. Over the ten year period it amounts to a more than $14,000,000 reduction. LIPA’s unilaterally imposed 4 month deadline for agreeing to the offer passed on October 20.
Ms. Condo explained that under Nassau county real property tax law, residents are protected from shifts from one tax class (utilities) to another (residential) by limiting the shift to a 1% increase. This is a law that has been renewed annually.
Because the school district is technically not the taxing jurisdiction (Nassau County is), the district does not have legal standing in court, despite the fact that it would be hit hardest by LIPA winning a tax challenge. As a result the district does not legally have “a seat at the table.” And so, at this point the district is seeking to get that legal standing. The Northport School District won such a case to be designated as a third party beneficiary this past July.
Ms. Condo said that there is a provision in the LIPA’s power 1997 power supply agreement that it would not challenge its tax assessment. She said under the current lawsuit , the School District is arguing that it ought to be designated as a third party beneficiary, and that LIPA has breached its 1997 Power Supply Agreement, and therefore should be prevented from filing any tax certiorari lawsuits. She said the Northport School District and Town of Huntington have been pursuing a similar course.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION –
Teacher’s Union President Bruce Fichtman read a statement calling on the Board to reinstate Middle School Physical Education teacher and Varsity Lacrosse Coach Aaron Kozlowski, who recently was cleared of charges stemming from accusations brought against him by four middle school students last winter. (see article). Mr. Fichtman submitted a petition with the signatures of 300 faculty members requesting Mr. Kozlowski’s reinstatement.
A Glen Head Resident requested that the board suspend the IB application process and form a citizen’s group to look into program. Dr. Melnick replied that it has been studied over the last few years, and that teachers and administrators were greatly involved in the process, and that there was parent involvement through the high school PTO.
Parent Roz Johnson spoke of Aaron Kozlowski’s positive impact on his players and the assistance he offered in helping players get scholarships and into colleges. She concluded saying that Mr. Kozlowski “is a first-rate teacher, a wonderful leader, a fantastic role model and person who cares. . . . If Kathleen Rice can’t find a reason, why are you postponing this?”
APPROVAL OF MINUTES - When a motion was made with regard to the approval of the minutes from the October 10 meeting, Trustee Maryanne Russo requested that they be amended to remove a statement that said there was board "consensus" to move forward with the IB program application process, and asserted that sufficient discussion of the program had not taken place at that meeting. The seven trustees agreed to discuss the issue and the process of educational decision-making during the "old business" section of the meeting. The minutes were approved with the statement stricken.
"OLD BUSINESS" When the discussion picked up a few minutes later, Dr. Melnick stated he needed direction on what to do with regard to IB because a lot of time and effort had been invested in the exploratory phase, and that high school principal Albert Cousins needed to know whether to move forward. He stated that if this was a matter of funding, that monies could be re-allocated from other areas of the budget, but if it was a matter of the board not trusting the judgment of the district's educational leaders, then "that was fine," but that he needed guidance from the board.
Trustee Nightingale said that he was concerned about "losing local control over our children" and questioned whether the district should be spending money at this time on something that is exploratory "until we decide that it is in fact past exploratory." He stated that if money is being re-allocated, that is funding that could be used for purposes other than IB.
Trustee Amy Beyer said that before anything is voted on, that the board "needs to be reminded that Superintendent is charged with making the educational decisions for the district, whereas the board's responsibility is in deciding whether those decisions are consistent with the policies and mission statement of the district, or if it is outside of the budget that the board and community approved. She added that as far as she understood, no additional funds were being used other than those that had been appropriated for this purpose in the budget approved by the community.
Dr. Melnick replied that that was the case.
Trustee Russo stated that the priorities for the district ought to be passage of the bond referendum and preparing for what happens with the LIPA issue. She also said that she had asked for the IB program to be put up for a discussion, but that that is not what took place at the last meeting when Mr. Cousins had presented on the issue - that it was an opportunity to ask questions of the principal but there was no discussion among board members. She said that when the district "needs to cut $2.5 million out of the budget" the discussion needs to be had.
Dr. Berliner interjected that Dr. Melnick and Mr. Cousins are the educational leaders and that he has enormous respect for the work that they do. He agreed that there are going to be "incredibly tough budget decisions that will have to be made but the way the process works is for the board to give direction to the Superintendent to make the cuts, and then he will come back with "recommendations on how this can be best done with the least adverse educational impact on the first rate education we provide." Speaking in support of the IB program, he stated that as an educator at the college level, he recognizes the "greatest weaknesses in the skill set that students have in entering college is in writing and in critical thinking - and, if you look at what IB stresses - it stresses writing and critical thinking." "We are going to make those tough budget decisions but we're not going to stop moving forward in terms of educational initiatives," he continued.
Trustee Beyer pointed out that the budget that was passed in May included allocations for all expenditures that were being made towards IB this year, and that "this is the board that will determine the budget for next year and that is where these discussions need to take place as far as what we will continue and where the monies will come from."
Trustee Russo responded that she believes that Mr. Cousins feels strongly about the program and that she understands that there are benefits to IB, but thinks that "AP was not given its fair shake and that there are advantages of AP over IB." She said that "AP is a good curriculum that is working for us."
Assistant Superintendent Rob Cheblicki stated that he believed the role of the board was to be fiduciary stewards, looking at budgets and making policy decisions, and that since spending had already been approved in the budget for continuing with the IB application this year, it should go forward at this point, until a decision is made otherwise in future budgets. He also said that he believed educators were most qualified to make educational decisions, just as people in other professions were best qualified to make decisions in their fields.
Trustee Knierim stated that although community input is greatly valued, ultimately the decision is in the hands of educational administrators. He continued that the board had voted on this budget and that the application to IB should go forward as planned. He continued that he was supportive of the educational philosophy expressed by Mr. Cousins and how the IB program fits in with that in preparing students for the future, and that the IB program encourages the writing and thinking that standardized testing often does not assess.
Dr. Melnick said he needs clear direction from the board - whether it is consensus or it is a majority. He said even with the fiscal outlook of the district and the need to make cuts, to "tread water" and simply keep what we have without making any changes is not good for our students." "What I can accept," he continued, is the direction "'we've got to cut the budget by X percent. As professional educators, give us your very best recommendations you have that will move this district forward and tell us why and justify those decisions.’" The superintendent then expressed support for Mr. Cousins saying that he is not the sort of principal who is "going to tread water." He added that when he wanted to move the district forward, he did not mean raising our rankings according to magazines. He stated that that could easily be done by "eliminating the senior programs, . . . forcing students to take AP courses in their senior year, and encouraging families below the poverty level to move into the district. "We will shoot right up on that list - I guarantee you," he said. I need clear direction from this board whether or not you still believe in the mission statement of this school district and whether or not you still want the professional educators in this district making those decisions in the best interests of the children.” “Because everyone went to school,” he continued, “everyone believes they know what should go on in schooling - it was good enough for me, it's good enough for my kids. I am not going to sell kids in this district short, if there is something better we can do for them."
Dr. Melnick continued that at the last board meeting during the presentation and the discussion that followed, that the board had the opportunity to raise any questions they had and that Mr. Cousins would be back in the spring as the board goes through the budget process. "If the board is going to move into the situation of making educational decisions - that is fine - we just need to know. The board can also take the stance it has in the past - here's the budget we need to work with, how can each of these dollars be spent most effectively for our students."
Dr. Melnick continued that IB actually allows for more local control than AP which provides more of an explicit curriculum framework than IB does. While the IB provides desired outcomes, developing the curriculum is up to the local school districts." The phase he said the district is in now is the continued development of curriculum and the continued training of teachers. Then the course that is developed is audited for rigor by IB just as is done with the AP courses. He stated that “the district has the absolute responsibility to represent the values of the community and that's why you elect trustees to create policy, but the community, as much as I have respect for the parents of this community, the community does not make the educational decisions that go into the day to day operations of our schools.” He continued, “I would ask the board to revisit the mission statement and give your chief administrators a clear signal as to whether or not the majority still supports going ahead” with the IB application.
Trustee Nightingale stated that just as when you have a change in presidents the new president can change what programs are in the budget so too can school board trustees. He continued that it is incorrect to say that the "reallocation of funds" is not spending new funds since those monies can be spent somewhere else. "My concern is that the IB program effects very few children and there are costs involved. There is a reallocation of costs that is going to be applied to a very small group of children.” He continued, “if you look at some of the other districts who have used the IB Diploma, the numbers are small.” This is something that the community and the board is going to have to consider. Just because it was something that was voted on last year does not mean it has to be continued this year. He addressed Mr. Chebicki’s comments. He said, “we are not teachers but we are board members who are given a ton of background materials” and thus can make decisions regarding educational programs.
Trustee Beyer responded that the board does not approve the program – "the board approves the budget and how those budget funds are spent is in the hands of the Superintendent for the educational programs. We did not approve the program and it’s not our responsibility – I just wanted to clarify that."
Trustee Beyer then asked about how the money for the IB program has been allocated. Dr. Melnick replied that it is for training, materials, and .6 of a teacher’s salary, which would have been allocated even without the IB program. Most of it, he said, went to teacher training. To which Trustee Beyer said that even if we decide to continue the program next year, it is not a waste of funds because of the high value of the staff development that the teachers have been receiving through the IB workshops.
Ms. Beyer asked how the budget process will work. Dr. Melnick responded that in January the Board will give direction on what sort of a budget it wants to put before the public, and then he will come back with a proposal identifying programs, positions, etc. that would be included or eliminated. “The board has never talked in terms of ‘we want this program but not that one.’ It’s never been under the purview of the board nor is it the purview of the board.” The school budget is the purview of the board, he said.
“We have to be able to work together and to trust each other and we are going to go on retreat this weekend to work on that,” Trustee Beyer said.
Trustee Russo stated that she was speaking earlier about the AP program as a parent and that her child has had a very positive experience with it. She stated that she believes she is an educated parent who follows closely what happens in school and I think it’s appropriate for me to offer my opinion as a parent and that she has received many requests from the community to have further discussion on IB. She asked if IB is a done deal, and said she believes it needs to be discussed further. Dr. Melnick said that Mr. Cousins would be discussing the issue at a Curriculum night at the high school in January and would be having a similar meeting in the spring. Dr. Melnick said that nothing is a done deal unless it is in the budget.
Trustee Russo asked that another meeting be held with the community, Mr. Cousins, and the Board to discuss IB. She continued that the administration has to make its case to the community so that we don’t have a reaction from the community when it comes to budget time.
Dr. Melnick then stated, “There have been issues in our community recently that have been very problematic in terms of understanding roles and responsibilities. The role and responsibility of the community is to elect their board trustees and to let their board trustees understand what their feelings are; the role of the board is to set policy; and the role of the administrators that the board hires is to select implement, evaluate and bring back to the board the educational program of the schools.” He said that he is willing to accept as much community input as anyone is willing to offer and that’s why he created the Superintendent’s Community Advisory Council. The charge to group, he said, was to offer recommendations on how to increase the revenue stream and recommendations as to how we can lower expenses.”
Dr. Melnick then added, “We are committed to continuing the application process this year - It is a decision that was made.” He continued, "Would it be wise for me to push a program that does not have the majority of the board’s support? Absolutely not – nor have I ever done so. We should have that conversation about this and other issues.”
Mr. Cheblicki said that he would like the question not to be - IB or not IB. Rather he said, “I would love the question to be about learning and how kids grow best, and what makes you feel in your professional opinion that this is the best way to go about it.” “At the end of the day what we want is an educational program that helps our kids develop as thinkers, as citizens, as people who constantly are on a quest for knowledge.” “How we go about doing that, is what the training of a teacher is all about.” He addressed Mr. Nightingale and said that while the IB Diploma is pursued by a relatively small group of students, the effect of IB is on the entire building. He said that individual IB courses and the Diploma program are open to all students. As a result the 9th and 10th grade programs of study are geared toward preparing all students for the Diploma program and even those who choose not to go that route, and take individual IB classes, or other courses, will still have benefitted greatly from the preparation.
Trustee Toni Labbate said that she has had conversations with Mr. Cousins about how the IB program will have a positive impact on all students and that she trusts his judgment in moving the high school forward in the district’s efforts to create the most prepared college-bound students.
Larry Ruisi, Glen Head, said that his opinion on IB is not fully formed but said that he gets a lot of information through his involvement on LAC, the Superintendent’s Advisory Council and the social media. He said he received a text from a mom concerning IB and pointed her to some sites. She e-mailed him and said she heard at Locust Valley that only three students received passing grades on their essays and were awarded IB diplomas. He said that the actual cost of testing for IB at LV was over $120,000. He also said according to the e-mail he received, significantly more students at Locust Valley failed the A.P. this year than last year. He said this district should not only take into consideration the financial impact of the program but the potential impact on AP scores.
Dr. Melnick responded that the statistics neglected to include the many students at Locust Valley who took individual IB tests and that the IB program has an overall positive impact on the school. He said a Locust Valley guidance counselor reported to him at a public meeting last year that the numbers of students getting into selective colleges improved. He said the reason for the decline is that most of the students are choosing to take the IB class and test as opposed to the AP exam. He said that AP courses at North Shore would continue to be offered where there wasn’t a comparable IB course. With regard to the statistics regarding the essays, he was going to check with the Locust Valley Superintendent on that, and if it is the case, then the students are not being mentored properly, he said. He explained that the essay is a college level thesis, and the problem, if the statistics are accurate, is with the mentoring. Dr. Melnick said that the $120,000 figure includes AP test fees. At North Shore, the fee is paid for by the parents of the student - not the district - except in the case where the student is eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Denise Reiner of Glen Head, said the financial environment has caused the political climate to become difficult - “we’re not embracing each other’s differences of opinion in the way that we can. She said we need to see you share your differences in a more trusting way.
Anthony Losquadro said that it is hard to be in an atmosphere of trust when we have a computer program that tracks voters and telephone banks are created to get parents to the polls. “When this sort of chicannary goes on, it’s hard for me as a voter to have trust.” He said it’s difficult to develop trust, when the board talks about things that only accentuate the positives and never talk about the negatives. He asked if IB textbooks are available in the library for review. Dr. Melnick replied that there are no IB textbooks – each district creates its own curriculum and selects its own textbooks.
Noah Blumenthal of Sea Cliff said he doesn’t know how he feels about IB. He encouraged the board to be more positive in how it listens and responds to each other’s opinions and to offer more positive affirmation of each other’s contributions and talents. He said that if a board member wants to have a discussion of a topic, then that discussion should be had. He said the fact that decisions and discussions have to be made in public makes it extremely difficult for government institutions like school boards. He commented on the discussion of the roles and responsibilities of the community, school board, and the administration and said that while the depiction presented may be true, it also discourages community members from being vocal and causes board members to think their job is being dismissed. He said he greatly appreciates what the school board trustees do. He encouraged members to be careful of their choice of words – that when there is talk about what may happen at budget vote time, that influences the public and those expressions become “talking points.”
A Sea Cliff resident spoke in support of the IB program because she said it encourages people to think outside of the box. She said that she works in the healthcare field in which often times opinions are offered and decisions are made by those who are not healthcare professionals and many times those opinions are incorrect or the decisions are not in the best interests of the patients. She said that she prefers that educators make the decisions because they have spent the most time studying the issues and programs. Often, she said, especially in medicine, the internet is often not the best place to get information. She said she agreed with the point made at the last meeting that IB creates job creators, not job seekers and that the program will give students a more worldly view that will benefit them greatly in the future.
OLD BUSINESS (return to)
Toni Labbate suggested that when people send e-mails they should receive some sort of response that a reply will be forthcoming.
Trustee Russo requested that a meeting be held in a question and answer forum format to discuss the IB program. The Board agreed to schedule a town meeting for that purpose in January.
Trustee Nightingale stated that he believed that background documentation that is FOILable ought to be distributed to the public and that he would like to have a discussion about that issue.
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