May 7, 2015 -- School Board trustee candidates Herman Berliner and Toni Labbate spoke about their respective philosophies regarding school governance and education at a Meet the Candidates forum at North Shore High School last Tuesday evening. Dr. Berliner who has been the board’s President for the past two years is seeking re-election to a third three year term. Ms. Labbate, who was chosen by her colleagues to serve as the Board’s Vice President last July, was first elected in May 2012. The two are running unopposed. The forum, conducted by the Nassau County League of Women Voters, was lightly attended, with only administrators, candidate spouses, current and former board members, and a few board meeting regulars there for the 45 minute duration.
In their opening statements, the candidates touched on similar themes. Dr. Berliner, going first, said that he is running for re-election “to be a part of the team to lead the district through challenging times.” He said that his platform focuses on five important issues confronting the district. They include – testing; teacher evaluations; the demolition of the Glenwood Landing Power Plant and its potential impact on the district; fiscal responsibility; and, searching for a new Superintendent to replace Dr. Melnick when his contract expires two years from now - in the summer of 2017.
“Evaluating teachers on standardized tests,” he said, “is an invalid measure of teacher performance“ and called on the state to give districts “the local control they need” to effectively evaluate teachers. With regard to the power plant, he said that the district was still working towards mitigating the impact of its demolition on taxpayers with “glide path” legislation.
Ms. Labbate stated that there are significant challenges facing public education and that the North Shore district must “work collaboratively with other districts to continue to provide quality education.” As far as her educational philosophy Trustee Labbate said “our goal is to educate and inspire the full student and every student.” North Shore, she continued, “imparts critical thinking, innovative perspectives, creative problem solving and collaboration in our students.” She praised both the district’s decision to adopt the International Baccalaureate Program, that will be fully implemented this coming September, as well as the Columbia Teacher’s College program that was introduced about two years ago. She said that she had co-authored the district’s resolution on high stakes testing “to ensure that North Shore stays committed to quality education even under the pressure of state mandated testing.” The School Board she says has a responsibility to reflect the values of the community – balancing quality education, civic responsibility, maintaining property values, and keeping the tax levy affordable.”
During the question and answer period, Sea Cliff resident Deborah McDermott asked a three part question – what do you see as the role of a BOE trustee; what have you accomplished on the board that you are most proud of; and, what is your vision for the future.
Both responded that they believed that the Board’s job was to set policy and direction, while allowing administrators and teachers to do their jobs and to “not micromanage.” Dr. Berliner said his proudest accomplishment was changing the tone of the board so that it is “more collaborative and collegial, and a listening board.” “There’s nothing to be gained by shouting at each other,” he added. One goal, he said, was to “provide an excellent education at a reasonable cost.”
Ms. Labbate said that she is most proud that the district has “focused on continuously providing quality education despite the current educational environment” state-wide. She added that she was also proud of her co-authorship last year of the district’s “High Stakes Testing Resolution.” She said it was important to foster in students “a natural delight in learning” and to ensure that “authentic learning experiences” are an important part of schooling.
Sea Cliff resident Tim Madden asked a question regarding teacher evaluations. “Let’s assume that the State Education Department followed Governor Cuomo’s lead and decided that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation would by based on student test scores and that 35% be based on an outside evaluator’s observation, in order to receive a state increase of $400,000 over last year,” he said. “Would you adopt the new rules and take the money or would you stick with the current system and reject the increase in aid.”
Trustee Labbate said that it would be discussed among the board with the guidance of the administration to figure out how to “do what the governor wishes and still maintain the quality of our teachers.”
She continued that she did not see how it would be possible for this district or other districts to evaluate its teachers with those particular regulations in place.
Dr. Berliner said that the district needs to fight against the implementation of such a system “as hard as it can.” “What the state is talking about is an absolutely ridiculous way of evaluating teachers,” he continued. “You have this flawed system that is overwhelmingly based on test results, which are a totally invalid measure. We have to fight to make sure such a system does not go into effect.” If such regulations were ultimately adopted, he said he would be inclined to “pass on the $400,000.”
After the moderator cajoled the audience a bit to ask more questions, the time keeper from the League of Woman Voters jumped in. “I’m concerned about parents opting their children out of testing,” she said. “What are your thoughts on that?”
Dr. Berliner replied, “Opting out sent a very strong signal to Albany. The stress we put our kids under as early as third grade takes away the joy of learning and replaces it with anxiety.” Testing, he said, is a valid way of measuring student learning. He said that using the tests to evaluate teachers, is a “flawed system.”
Ms. Labbate responded that she and her husband had chosen to opt their children out of this year’s tests, after having had them take them last year. Following the passage of the Governor’s education agenda, she said that she believed that “this was the year to say that this is unacceptable.” “We need to find a different way to evaluate our teachers,” she said.
Sea Cliff Resident, Julia Brennan asked the candidates thoughts about teacher tenure. She said that there have been some who have proposed changes in teacher tenure and wondered if there were any changes that they would advocate for, and if there is anything the board has looked at to modify tenure.
Ms. Labbate replied that it was a state issue, and that the board did not have the authority to change tenure rules. “We can’t negotiate the number of years for tenure,” she said. “We can only work out teacher evaluations of teachers through negotiations. The state legislature, she noted had just passed a law extending the probationary period for new teachers from three to four years. “We have not discussed the issue as a board, she said.
Dr. Berliner said that even if the district could change tenure rules unilaterally, it would not be desirable. “We’re in a competitive marketplace,” he said. “We would not want to increase tenure requirements while other similar districts keep them as they are” as it would undermine the ability of the district to attract top teachers. He added that tenure serves an important function which “is to protect academic freedom.”
Ms. Jacobs asked what the candidates would look for in a new superintendent when that search begins. Dr. Berliner responded by praising Dr. Melnick, and said that he has helped strike a “wonderful balance between arts, athletics, and academics.” He continued that he would look for someone who is “approachable and a good listener,” and who will “build on the enormous progress that this district has made.”
“We will do an exhaustive search,” replied Ms. Labbate. “We have the right balance for students here,” she continued. “There’s something for everyone and we want to maintain that.” She added that she would look for a candidate “who thinks progressively, thinks about the future, and who thinks about what our students will need in the future.”
The timekeeper asked the last question of the night, calling upon the candidates to offer their thoughts of the Common Core Learning Standards.
Trustee Labbate replied that people need to recognize that the Common Core and the testing are two separate things. “There are some excellent principles in the common core” that are consistent with the district’s principles, she said. “The roll-out has damaged it but it is not damaged to the point where we need to stop implementing its principles.” The Trustee explained, however, that she believed some parts of the standards are developmentally inappropriate and that that needed to be addressed.
Dr. Berliner responded similarly saying that he did not oppose the learning standards, but that the “state has done everything wrong in terms of testing and the common core. The common core makes sense, but it needs more discussion, “ he continued. “It can’t be pushed down people’s throats and be tied to this incredible amount of testing. . . . Go back to the drawing board and get people to buy in.” The standards are designed to ensure that students have the necessary skill set when they leave high school, he said.
The Trustees election and budget vote will be held on May 19. The budget for 2015-16 represents a 1.83% increase over the current year’s spending plan, with a tax levy increase of 1.9% - $139,900 below the tax levy limit. Residents will also have the opportunity to vote on whether or not to grant permission to the School Board to utilize existing funds not to exceed $3,146,154 in the capital reserve for the following projects - boiler replacement at the Sea Cliff Elementary School; heating and ventilation work at the Glen Head Elementary School, North Shore Middle School, and North Shore High School; and, duct work at the North Shore High School including all labor, materials, equipment, apparatus, and incidental costs.
The Capital Reserve is a fund set aside to use for specific projects that are long-term investments. Since this money is already in the Capital Reserve Fund, it will not increase taxes for residents.