April 28, 2014 -- 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 this past Tuesday April 26.
Educational issues such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and Common Core learning standards dominated the discussion, but the candidates also addressed the opioid epidemic, and governance issues, as well as their respective visions for North Shore.
All three candidates are educators, with Ms. Brown currently working in the Central Islip School District as a first grade teacher. Mr. Galati retired at the end of last year after a 31 year career in the North Shore Schools; and Ms. Commander, also retired, worked as a physical education teacher in Elmont before becoming an Athletic Director in the Lynbrook and Harborfields School Districts. All three touted that experience in their openings as qualifying themselves for the position.
Ms. Brown stated that this is a “critical time in public education” in general, and “one of transition in our schools” with the hiring of the new superintendent Peter Giarrizzo and having to fill the Middle School Principal’s post with Dr. Marc Ferris having announced that he will be leaving to take an Assistant Superintendent’s position in Wantagh.
She said that she has been a “strong advocate for children and public education,” but understands as a property owner and taxpayer that “we cannot overburden our community with higher taxes.”
Ms. Commander, who is seeking a second three year term, spoke of her involvement on many different committees as a school board Trustee and her involvement in organizing the North Shore Coalition Against Substance Abuse which has sought to address the opioid epidemic that has plagued our community over the past several years.
“My passion for protecting children is what drives me,” she said.
Through her work on the board, various committees and North Shore CASA, Ms. Commander said that she has developed the ability to communicate effectively and build consensus, which she said are important qualities in a school board trustee.
Mr. Galati said that a trustee “should have educational experience,” and that his three decades long career in the district as a teacher and serving in a variety of other capacities, including coordinator of extra curricular activities through which he oversaw budgeting and scheduling of the program, has prepared him well for the position of Trustee.
“It is important to know the history and culture of the district,” he explained, and that he could “offer a historical perspective as we move ahead,” during a transitional time with a new superintendent, as well as a new principal at the Middle School and Director of Guidance in the High School.
“What I want for all students is what I wanted for my children, and the students I’ve had,” Mr. Galati said, introducing a theme to which he would return over the course of the evening. “I want them to have expanded opportunities; I want them to be good citizens; I want them to walk out of North Shore with more opportunities.”
Priorities and Vision
Several residents asked questions that sought to gain insight into each candidate’s priorities as well as their vision for the district moving forward.
“What are the three most pressing challenges facing the district,” asked Coordinating Council Co-President Lisa Vizza.
All three candidates agreed that addressing the opioid epidemic in the area is among the most pressing challenges.
Additionally Ms. Brown said that support for the charter school movement nationally and the debate over IB or AP locally were also important issues.
Ms. Commander agreed that the push for charter schools was a serious concern, and added that the tax cap imposed by Albany “limits us in terms of expansion and growth.”
Mr. Galati said that financial pressures have made “providing services that are necessary for children and the community increasingly more difficult.”
“Equity in education,” he continued, is also an issue. While the Common Core learning standards, he explained, were poorly implemented, he believes that it is important “to have some standards to make sure we’re doing the job we’re trying to do” in addressing the needs of all students.
Resident John Beyer asked the three, what priorities would they advance if money were not an issue, while another community member asked what each candidate would like to change in the district.
To the first question, Ms. Brown said that “there is a sense of urgency” with the drug abuse problem in the district, and that it was important “to do anything we can for our kids and keep them safe.”
As for the second question, she responded that she “did not have an agenda” and was not looking to change anything in particular. She said that she was interested in “doing what is best for children.”
Ms. Commander said that if money were no object, she would like the district to administer a program called “Proventure” to every student in 8th through 12th grade. The program assesses one’s propensity for substance abuse by identifying four separate personality traits.
As for the second question, she said she would like to “create mechanisms through which people with opposing positions could come together.”
Mr. Galati said he would like “to expand opportunities for kids in and out of the classroom.”
As for what he would focus on if “money were no object,” he emphasized the importance of arts and athletics as well as other co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities and said that he would work towards enhancing and improving the facilities required for those activities and continuing to improve in the area of technology.
“We’re at the forefront [in technology],” he said, “but we can always do more.”
Educational Issues - IB, standards and testing
Three residents asked the candidates to offer their thoughts on the International Baccalaureate (IB) program that was introduced in the high school last year, and that has continued to generate debate.
Both Ms. Commander and Ms. Brown offered strong support for IB.
“I believe it is the gold standard,” said Ms. Brown. “I know it’s very rigorous, but it focuses on process over product. Students are taught to think.”
“I don’t believe it’s hurting students,” she continued, “they’re getting into better schools.”
She conceded that “restrictions are an issue with children’s schedules,” but that “overall it’s a good program” and she would “move forward with it” if elected.
Asked later, if she would support also offering Advanced Placement classes for courses in which only IB is offered, Ms. Brown said that students in the IB classes can still take the AP tests for the comparable subject area, and that AP classes are still offered when there is not a comparable IB class.
Ms. Commander said that the IB program provides a “more holistic approach” to education and that it “integrates different curriculum areas.”
Additionally, she said that the IB program has brought about an improvement in the “culture of learning” in the district.
“With the implementation of any new program,” she explained, “there are going to be issues and problems that arise,” but that administrators have been attending to those problems.
Mr. Galati, who wrote the course description for the IB Physics class, offered more qualified support for the program.
“For a number of students, it’s a good program,” he explained, but he continued that he did not believe it was the right fit for all students.
The rationale for removing the AP course option, he explained later, was to ensure adequate enrollment in the IB classes for the program to take root. While understandable, that reason, he continued, was not appropriate as it limited opportunities for many students to pursue other courses.
IB is “limiting in terms of the electives,” he said and expressed support for the high school offering separate IB and AP classes. “I’m on board with bringing AP back - it gives more opportunities.”
With the same number of students enrolled overall in either AP or IB courses, he said he did not believe offering both options in comparable content areas would impose a financial burden on the district.
As for “co-seating” students which allows a student enrolled in an IB class to take the comparable AP exam, he said that in some classes that practice “has been successful while in others it has not.”
As for the elementary school issues, parents asked the candidates about their thoughts on New York State testing and the Common Core learning standards, as well as the appropriateness of giving homework in the early elementary school grades.
“How do you feel about testing and opting-out,” asked Joanne Yu.
“It’s a personal choice,” responded Mr. Galati.
He continued that he believes the district has done a good job in informing parents of what their options are and how to go about refusing the exam, which he said is not necessarily the case in other districts.
As for the testing in grades 3-8 in general, he explained that those assessments were poorly rolled out.
Later, in response to a question as to what would happen if the common core learning standards were eliminated, he explained that while he knows that North Shore teachers could develop very high standards on their own, that it is important to have set of standards to measure student growth and performance that are recognized more broadly than just by the district itself.
When a resident asked each of the candidates whether it was appropriate to “teach to the test,” Mr. Galati, citing his experience as a high school science teacher, said he doesn’t “believe in teaching to the test,” but that effective instruction would result in students being well prepared for tests. He said that he was completely opposed to tying teacher evaluations to test results.
Ms. Brown agreed that it is “a parent’s right to decide what to do” when it came to opting out. When the state had changed the cut scores a few years ago, she explained, it negatively impacted her daughter creating a good deal of anxiety, and that at that point she decided opting out was in her best interests.
“I don’t believe in teaching to the test,” she said, and continued that she believes the Common Core exams offered in grades 3-8 were not appropriate. She added that she did not have an issue with the Regents exams that are offered later. She said that it is appropriate to teach students testing strategies.
Ms. Commander said that “tying [test results] to teacher evaluations is one of the worst things that State Ed has done.”
“It has put pressure on faculty to teach to the test,” she said, and that it “has created great anxiety for parents and children.”
As for the opt-out movement, Ms. Commander said that it is “a realistic means of bringing about change,” and that she “respects the decisions of parents.”
One resident described his kids’ experience at Sea Cliff School as “magical” and asked the candidates how that magic can continue to be maintained district-wide.
Ms. Commander said that students “get a special experience” in the district due to effective leadership and support from parents. She said that would be furthered under the leadership of the new superintendent.
Mr. Galati emphasized the importance of teachers and collaboration between schools. Each school culture is unique, he said, and that the sharing of ideas between teachers of each building was important to promote innovation and to be continuously moving forward.
Ms. Brown said that the Middle School is an “amazing place,” and that she believed in the teachers and administrators there to continue to maintain and enhance that quality.
School Governance and financial issues
Residents asked the candidates their thoughts on a variety of issues concerning school governance including district transparency, what a trustee’s responsibilities are in relation to those of the Superintendent and district policy committees, how to keep costs in check, and what role a board member could play in ensuring a smooth transition for a new Superintendent and new Middle School Principal.
Each of the three said that they believed the district has done a good job with regard to transparency. Ms. Brown and Mr. Galati cited the videotaping of meetings and posting them on the district website. Ms. Commander said the district website has a good deal of information, and that welcoming two community members onto the district Audit Committee, which had previously been made up of board members alone, promoted more transparency.
As for how to best support the new superintendent, Ms. Commander said that the process the board used in selecting him, “will almost ensure his success.” She said the Superintendent search firm hired by the district had developed a profile based on community input.
“In hiring that person, we were mindful that he would reflect the community," she said. "That process was the foundation for success.” The Board, she added, can be an important resource for offering historical perspective.”
When it comes to board’s role relative to the Superintendent’s in the district decision making process, Ms. Commander said that it was important to “let the professionals, since they are trained in education to make the appropriate decisions.” She said it’s unlikely that the Superintendent “would be there anymore if the board felt it had to overrule his expertise” on a major issue.
“That’s not to say that things should not be questioned, and asked to defend the programs they are putting forth.” she said. "Things work best when you let the educators educate."
Ms. Brown said that she trusts administrators and the teacher to make educational decision. “It is their job to determine what is appropriate,” she explained.
As for helping the new Administrators with their transition, Ms. Brown again said that she “trusts the professionals - the people that are interviewing and the teaching staff to work alongside the new administrator.” The Board’s job, she said, “is to support the new administrator and provide resources and encouragement.”
“You hire the Superintendent to be the chief educational expert,” said Mr. Galati, “and you want the Superintendent to make informed decisions and you have faith in that happening.”
"Sometimes people have different views on educational issues, and different experts will tell you different things and you have to make a choice," he continued. "We should not be anarchists and overrule the superintendent on a whim. But on major decisions it’s real important for the board to ask what’s going on and to make sure that this is just not what we’re going to try for the time being." Many stakeholders, including the teaching staff, he said, "are going to have a vested interest."
Mr. Galati said that in helping the new superintendent, offering historical perspective is important and that having worked in the district for 31 years in a variety of capacities, he “knows what worked and what didn’t work here.” He said he has spoken to Dr. Giarrizzo a number of times, and that the new district leader has an "open door policy." He said that the board can help foster that communication.
As for the Middle School principal, he said it will be a difficult transition for whomever was hired since they would be following a popular principal who had been there for a long time. The Board, he said, can help smooth that transition by helping the community to get to know her or him.
Another resident asked whether the Board has a responsibility to vote on the educational decisions of district administration, if there is “a large price tag.”
“To fund the program?” asked Ms. Commander. “Yes.”
“Yes,” replied Mr. Galati.
“Yes,” agreed Ms. Brown.
The same resident had asked earlier what the candidates had done, in the case of Ms. Commander, or could do for Ms. Brown and Ms. Galati, to keep costs in check.
Ms. Commander replied that having been through the budget process over each of the past three years has helped her better understand how to maintain programs within budgetary constraints, and that her experience as a retired person has taught her how to do more with less.
Mr. Galati said that one way that the district could cut costs would be by making better use of the talent within the district for teacher workshops and staff development rather than relying on outside consultants to come in and work with teachers.
“We have a lot of bright talented people working here that we can tap into,” he said. He said that as director of extra-curricular programs in the district, he was able to maintain programs when funds had been cut. “We made better use of the money we had,” he said, “rather than just spending without a good outcome for it.”
Ms. Brown said that she has travelled to Albany and met with legislators for the past five years on behalf of the Islip School district to urge legislators to give Long Island its fair share in state aid and to fund unfunded mandates. This year, she said, she met with local state senator Carl Marcellino, “to make sure North Shore gets its fair share of funding” and to address the issue of “unfunded mandates.”
In closing, Ms Brown said that she is committed to representing children and doing what is best for the community. Aware of financial pressures on residents, she said she would “have a fair and balanced approach” and that she would be “measured and thoughtful” in making decisions regarding the budget and taxes.” "If elected, I would be a reasoned voice on the board listening to all constituents and being respectful of everyone’s views,” she said.
Ms. Commander emphasized her committment to service to both the school district and other work within the the community.
“One of the most important things to me is community service,” she said,“and I am deeply committed to that concept. I am thoughtful and I am doer and I can get things done.”
Mr. Galati concluded saying that that if elected he would be “committed to ensuring that the things we value in our district remain as a solid foundation" and that "we will continue to provide a sound foundation for all of our students regardless of ability working within a fiscally sound budget.”
He also stressed the importance of critically assessing whether the district has achieved its goals and emphasized the importance of “including all stakeholders in discussions regarding significant changes and the implementation of new ideas.”
Residents in the district will have the opportunity to express their opinions when they cast their ballots on May 16 when the budget vote and trustees election will take place.
BACK TO WEEKLY