THREE CANDIDATES FOR NORTH SHORE BOE DISCUSS SCHOOL ISSUES AT MEET THE CANDIDATES FORUM
April 27, 2016 -- On Wednesday April 20, the three candidates whose names will appear on the ballot for next month’s uncontested North Shore School Board election shared their thoughts on a variety of issues confronting public education and the district, responding 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.
Incumbent trustees Sara Jones and Marianne Russo are each seeking a second three year term, and Glenwood Landing Resident David Ludmar his first.
In her introduction, Trustee Russo said that she is an advocate for all students in the community and that being a trustee has not at all been a thankless job but one from which she has derived a great deal of satisfaction, serving a district that has worked to “provide extraordinary opportunities for students.” She highlighted some of her contributions as a board member since her 2013 election. They include lobbying for a writing center at the high school, initiating and participating in this past year’s review of the guidance department, requesting reviews of other programs, and providing oversight of billing practices “to save the district money on legal fees.” She said her background as an attorney, has proven invaluable for examining the complex legal issues that face the district.
Trustee Jones focused her opening remarks on the challenges facing school districts - in particular the tax cap, uncertainty regarding LIPA PILOTS (Payments In Lieu Of Taxes) that districts across Long Island are facing, and the New York State assessments and teacher evaluation system which, although currently under a moratorium for the next two years, bases 50% of a teacher’s rating on state standardized test scores. She said that her experience as an owner and CEO of a business with more than 100,000 customers has been useful in helping her to understand and address the many fiscal matters that school board trustees must deal with.
Among her contributions as a board member, Trustee Jones highlighted her co-authorship with Trustee Toni Labatte of the district’s “high stakes testing resolution” that challenges the appropriateness and validity of the New York State assessments in grades 3 through 8 and that embraces an educational philosophy emphasizing a broader and more authentic educational experience. “Having kids in the schools, helped me see the impact of the testing and test prep,” she said.
Outside of her work as a school board trustee, Trustee Jones helped found the Sea Cliff Makeshop, a not for profit educational organization that runs Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math workshops for elementary, Middle and pre-school aged children.
Mr. Ludmar, who has two elementary school aged children, is the owner of a small business and has served on many district-wide groups including the Legislative Action Committee, to which he was appointed by the School Board this past September, this year’s Guidance Review committee, and the Superintendent’s Advisory Council two years ago.
Mr. Ludmar said that his business experience, growing a company from 6 to 40 employees and increasing sales sixfold has enabled him to develop skills and an understanding of process that would help him be an effective trustee.
He described himself as a “consensus builder” who “will bring reason and judgment to the school board.”
“Success only comes when stakeholders work together,” he said.
When the forum was opened to the audience, the first questioner asked the candidates to explain what they believed to be the top three challenges facing the district.
Trustee Russo responded first. She said “keeping all programs and our rich curriculum” intact while staying within the tax cap is a difficult balancing act. She emphasized that the district has to be sensitive to the needs and financial pressures facing the district’s senior citizens. Additionally she agreed with Trustee Jones’ earlier remarks that APPR, the new teacher evaluation system, by basing a 50% of a teacher’s rating on test scores, was not an appropriate measure of a teacher’s effectiveness, and that a better system needed to be developed.
Trustee Jones, in addition to the issues she had cited in her opening remarks, said that she was concerned about the “very negative conversation that is going on today” among politicians and others concerning public education that “lumps all teachers and all schools into the same basket.”
“We have a terrific high performing school district and faculty,” she said.
Segueing off of Trustee Jones’s remark, Mr. Ludmar said that when you look at American education in general, “one of the problems we face is that we are not the leaders of education in this world anymore.” The United States, he said is number 22 or 23 according to the tests that compare student performance in different countries. “Those are big issues that American education has to face,” he said. This district, however, he continued, has done a good job of facing those issues by developing “a student body of thinkers with the ability to synthesize information and who are able to apply that information.” He cited as evidence, presentations offered at a recent board of education meeting by students who went on overseas trips this past February. Challenges facing this district, he said, include the lack of local control and unfunded mandates imposed by New York State.
Superintendent and School Governance
With Dr. Melnick’s decision to retire at the end of next school year, the candidates were asked what they would look for in a new superintendent, and later what they believe the role of a school board member is in relation to the Superintendent when it comes to curriculum and educational program decision-making.
Trustee Jones said it is a tremendous challenge to replace Dr. Melnick and to find someone who is right for this district and would want someone who is “going to be involved with the community.” She continued that it was especially important that the Superintendent recognize the accomplishments and strengths of the district while having a real vision for where the school district can go in the future. Additionally, she said that the Superintendent should have good budgeting and fiscal management skills.
As for the board’s role in curriculum decisions, Trustee Jones said that ultimately the Superintendent and other administrators are hired for their expertise in that area, but that board members should be knowledgeable in education issues and "offer their concerns and their thoughts"on educational programs and to take input from the community. But, she concluded, "I think it is much more the role of the administration."
“Vision is incredibly important” in a Superintendent, Mr. Ludmar agreed, and added that he has learned from business that a “leader sets the tone for how everyone functions.” He said that the district needs to have a forward looking leader who sets long term goals. Additionally, he said he would want someone with a strong work ethic, who would “work tirelessly for our district and rally the community around its goals.”
With regard to a board member’s responsibility in making educational program decisions, Mr. Ludmar said that the role of a board member is to hire a superintendent who puts in place a good staff and to "come to the Superintendent with ideas both for maintaining programs and improving programs."
"It's important to review decisions" of the Superintendent, he continued. "If educators believe something is right for the community and we hear all the evidence and all sides and we give our approval," it is the role of board members to explain to the community why the decisions are being made. If a trustee disagrees with a decision, he said that while that view ought to be expressed during discussions, “it is not our responsibility to sow discord. It is to explain why we are making the choices we've made." He said that he has learned from business, that while you are always reviewing and evaluating decisions, "you work incredibly hard to make your decision successful.”
Trustee Russo said that a Superintendent’s most important role is to be a “leader in curriculum,” and that it would be desireable to hire someone from a district that has implemented the International Baccalaureate Program, since this district has committed to that course of study. She added that communication was also very important and to having an understanding of the community - “to communicate goals and visions and take from the community its goals and visions.” She said she would want a district leader who recognizes the importance of “balance” between the many opportunities the North Shore Schools offer - whether it is the fine and performing arts, athletics, or robotics. “It’s important to develop the whole person,” she said, “not just someone who is good at taking a test.”
As for the role of a school board trustee in the adoption of educational programs, Trustee Russo said that the board “is legally allowed to make curriculum decisions” and that boards have a responsibility to evaluate programs. Additionally, she said board members can be an effective conduit through which community members express their concerns about school and district matters.
“If we’re hearing from the community, we have an obligation to go to the superintendent or the building leadership with their concerns,” she said.
A parent said that he believed there has been some controversy surrounding the International Baccalaureate Program that was recently introduced in the high school, and asked if the candidates would have voted to bring IB into the district, or have chosen to allocate the funding designated for that program to something else like decreasing class sizes at the elementary schools.
Mr. Ludmar said that based on his experience as a college admissions officer at Randolph Macon College in Virginia, he believes that “IB is a rigorous and well respected program.”
“It teaches students to think in a particular way,” he continued, and “that it is good preparation for college work.” He added that he believed the program should be done in concert with AP, honors and Regents programs.
Trustee Russo responded that there never was a school board vote on the IB program and that there is no connection between implementation of the IB program and class size in the elementary schools. “One has nothing to do with the other in terms of the money,” she said. She explained that her child is taking five IB courses and that “they are extremely rigorous.” She said would like to see a “dual track” in which both IB and AP were offered. IB, she continued, “is not a curriculum that is suited to every student” and that that this has been and should be a district “where for every student there is a place and a program.”
Trustee Jones said that district administrators had spent an enormous amount of time looking at the program and offering their professional expertise on what is the right curriculum for our students. She said the ongoing cost of IB would not cover the substantial ongoing cost of lowering class sizes.
A parent asked the three candidates to comment on what they believed to be a board member’s responsibility towards the district’s special education students and what they would expect in that area from the next superintendent.
“We have a superb special education program,” said Trustee Russo, “and we should work towards mainstreaming students and making them part of our community and not to feel different.”
She continued that it’s important for the next Superintendent to have a strong commitment to special education and to make sure every child gets what is needed.
“A significant part of what we do as trustees is to make sure that Special Education gets the financial support that it needs,” said Trustee Jones. “We need a Superintendent with a real vision on how we can value and treat these students.”
Mr. Ludmar responded that "it is incredibly important that we provide the top education for all students in this district."
“It is incumbent on the board to foster an environment where those parents and students are going to have access to the information and to the resources that they need," he said.
Holidays and Inclusiveness
One resident asked why the district did not include “holy days," “holidays,” and “days of remembrance” on the school calendar, when those days are indicated in the Superintendent’s contract. “In my opinion, It is un-American we don’t do so,” he said.
It was Trustee Russo’s turn to respond first.
“Who do you include and who do you exclude?” she asked. She explained that she had gone to Catholic school as a child and Christian holidays were designated on the calendar, but that her parents had made the choice to send her to that school. Public schools are different, and have an obligation to not be exclusive, she asserted. “We do not determine whose holidays we do and do not celebrate.”
“I see your point, but we made the decision that the school calendar would just be for school events and to not make the mistake of excluding students,” said Trustee Jones.
Mr. Ludmar agreed and added that he believed that the North Shore Schools do help to instill patriotism and respect for the country’s traditions. “There is a fine line between recognizing people’s beliefs and recognizing that there are a wide diversity of beliefs,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better to refrain from doing certain things, than to pick and choose.”
Threats to Student Health and Wellness
Two in the audience raised the issue of drug use, with one asking what the schools could do to address the sharp increase in opioid use among teenagers and the other whether drug education should be integrated into the early elementary grade health curriculum.
Trustee Jones replied that it is important to support the efforts of the Coalition for a Drug Free North Shore, and that the district should continue to survey students concerning drug use as it has in the past. She said that it was a very difficult problem to confront and did not have a good answer to addressing the problem.
“This has become a national conversation,” replied Mr. Ludmar and like Trustee Jones said finding a solution would be difficult. “I wish I had some answers,” he said. “Providing information [to students] and not demonizing people” are important steps towards that end.
Trustee Russo said the school has made efforts through health education, and that a “robust extra curricular program” was essential to supporting those efforts, “to provide kids with a place to go to keep them safe and to keep them engaged.”
As for raising issues concerning drug use with younger students, she replied, “I don’t think it is appropriate to talk about drug use at that age [early elementary school].” She said that the focus should be on issues like nutrition, but added that by grades 4 and 5, more attention could be given to drug education.
Mr. Ludmar said that he did not believe that “schools are surrogates for parents” and that it was important to talk about the issue of drug use in an appropriate way at home. He continued that he was "not fundamentally opposed to the idea" of introducing the issue in the schools at a younger age, but believed it would be a good idea to get community input before deciding whether or not to do so.
A parent, asked what the district could do to prepare students to act responsibly and wisely when they go off to college, especially as it relates to sexual assaults on college campuses.
Mr. Ludmar, who served as an assistant Admissions Director at Randolph Macon College in Virginia, said that he believed awareness programs at the high school level would definitely help.
Trustee Russo, agreed adding that it was important for schools and parents to “instill respect for different sexes and how you as a woman should expect to be treated.”
Trustee Jones said that the issue should be included within the health curriculum.
Two residents, in different ways sought to elicit from the candidates, what aspects of schooling are especially important to them. “What makes North Shore stand out and what would like to see improved” asked one. And, assuming the district had received a windfall of funds, “what would you like to see done with that money? What would be your wish list?”
Trustee Jones, said that the district has a rigorous arts program, but that there is “always more we can do with STEM related fields. As for her wish list, returning to her looking into the future theme, she said she had visits a “21st century classroom” and would like to see the district move in that direction should it receive such a windfall.
Mr. Ludmar said that education is “not just about outcomes, but about process,” and that North Shore does a good job in that regard - “asking students to think about what they are learning,” and by helping kids identify their strengths and weaknesses. As for the windfall of funds, he said he would like to see it used toward “giving kids the opportunity to do things they wouldn’t otherwise try” - to get kids out of their comfort zones.
Ms. Russo said “as we move forward, we do need to look at Math and STEM,” but “I hope that we don’t lose those aspects that have made us special” such as the overseas exchange trips and the programs such as the Viking Explorers in the Middle School. “Those are the sorts of things I hope in the future we keep and develop.”
She said her wish list would include rebuilding the fine and performing arts wing with a new auditorium, orchestra and band rooms, as well as new shop to provide a great space for robotics and engineering.
The trustees election and budget vote will take place at North Shore High School on May 17 from 7 am to 10 pm. Additionally, residents will be asked to grant approval for the establishment of a capital reserve fund.
CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO CANDIDATE BIOGRAPHIES AND STATEMENTS PROVIDED TO THE NORTH SHORE SCHOOLS