Larry Boes, Tara Klein and Emily Rubin Persons are in Pleasantville. Here, they weigh in on district issues.
What are your thoughts about the 2012-13 budget? What about the process? How will you vote on the budget?
Emily Rubin Persons: The BOE opened the budget process by inviting the community to volunteer for PAC committees to evaluate the seven sections of the district (three schools, facilities, special ed, sports and operations). The committees were given ample access to each area to enable careful analysis of expenditures and programs and operations. Each committee was able to identify and suggest places where cuts could be made. The BOE was able to use that information to keep the budget increase as low as possible. The only major cost increase is in teacher benefits—which are required by the state. I will vote for the budget.
Tara Klein: I support and will vote for the 2012-13 budget. I feel that we are fortunate to have a remarkable model for delivering a wide range of academic instruction, programs and services to a diverse population of students. Although the Pleasantville School District will undoubted face challenging times, we are fortunate to have options available to us that other districts do not. With that said, the teachers’ contract will once again come up for renewal in a year. Without the repeal of the Triborough Amendment, which undermines collective bargaining negotiations, the district will face yet another difficult contract negotiation.
Larry Boes: I will vote for the budget being proposed on May 15. I believe the board and the district took a major step forward in creating a system that can make the process more transparent to its residents by introducing the PAC committees this year. I think this will be an ongoing process and I think it should be part of a consistent approach with the district. I believe the PAC committees provided a lot of valuable information and the more they analyze the area of the district in their charge, the deeper their understanding and the communities will become.
What do you think of the current board meeting structure? What would you like to change if about it?
TK: I believe that the BOE and school administration were very wise in engaging the community in the budget process through establishing the PAC committees. Effective communication, both within the community as well as among the BOE members and administration, is critical to ensuring real transparency and confidence in the district.
LB: I believe there should be more flexibility for an open forum if the community calls for it on a specific night. I also think there should be a quarterly meeting or special meeting without an agenda that would be open to the community.
ERP: The community elects board members to manage the school district. It is important for all concerned that the topics and issues be openly discussed. Currently, the agenda is set by the board president and superintendent. The funneling of ideas and issues from other board members to the board president limits the effectiveness of the board as a whole. It would be my suggestion that the board engage in more work sessions to openly discuss important topics of curriculum and budget planning.
The board agenda allows for recognition of the audience which encourages the community to ask questions and provide comment. It is at this time that the board should also share questions/comments they have received by email and provide public answers to those emails.
Do you support the tax cap as it is currently constructed? If staying within the cap requires reducing expenditures or generating additional income what would you recommend as a solution? (Unlike municipal boards that can vote to override the tax cap the district would have to seek a 60 percent vote in favor of doing so from the electorate.) Is there a circumstance under which you would recommend doing this?
LB: I do support the tax cap and I cannot envision recommending a vote to override the cap. We are in a highly taxed county within a highly taxed state. The citizens overwhelmingly in this district and throughout the county applauded this mandate. Because of this, I believe I am in public trust should I be elected to support this legislation. We can also do a better job to capture additional revenue from Pocantico. Reducing expenditures and generating income are not mutually exclusive and the board should always strive to do both.
ERP: The tax cap is a move by the state government to provide homeowners and businesses relief on sky rocketing taxes. Given that Westchester has extremely high taxes, a tax cap is a good thing and I do support it. However, the state has burdened the local districts with a long list of unfunded mandates. To comply with the state regulations, we are forced to locally fund the long list of required mandates. Since the tax base in our district is mainly shouldered by homeowners, staying within the tax cap while still providing great programs and optimum class sizes is extremely challenging. With the help of the PAC committees, the BOE has been able to identify areas to reduce expenses. This alone is not enough.
We must also look for other sources of income if we are to meet the demands of the community in providing a competitive educational environment. Is every home in the district taxed at an up to date tax level? We have too many empty commercial properties in the district. The landlords of those properties should be encouraged to lower rents to allow for new businesses open up.
TK: The NYS Tax Cap was signed by Gov. Cuomo on my front lawn last year. Although I expressed major reservations about the tax cap and how the cap would impact public education, I also recognize that property taxes are out of control and crushing our fixed income and senior members of the community. Statewide, Cuomo has enormous support for the tax cap legislation but there is much work to be done on capping spending, which must start with addressing the unfunded mandates. I am encouraged by the work of the new State Mandate Relief Committee as well as the actions that have been taken by the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association and believe that if we continue to work collaboratively we will see meaningful mandate reform.
If in a given budget year the only significant savings that the District could implement to stay within the Cap and satisfy the community is to increase class size at BRS or return to half-day kindergarten what would you recommend?
ERP: To prepare the children for the demands of a challenging curriculum, going back to a half-day kindergarten would be detrimental. A full day allows the students to acclimate to the full day program so that they are really ready to face the challenges of first grade. Additionally, a full day kindergarten program enables the teaching staff to identify any learning or occupational issues and services can be provided earlier. The earlier interventions are provided, the earlier the positive results can be realized for that student.
Increasing class size in the third or fourth grade will not be as detrimental to the student’s learning process as the return to half-day kindergarten. Students are more mature in third grade and are able to work more independently. It needs to be noted that an increase in class size must be monitored closely to insure the educational goals of the children at still met.
TK: Neither full day nor half day kindergarten is mandated in NYS. Class size is defined in/limited by the teacher contract. Either recommendation by the BOE would need to be based on feedback from the community and put up for a vote. The voters would have the option of overriding the tax cap by a 60 percent margin if they felt strongly about maintaining the current programs. Either way, it would be up to the voters, not the BOE.
LB: I would recommend increasing class sizes. I feel for the district to continue to be attractive for young homebuyers and families it’s a necessity for full day kindergarten. The children are usually ready for that experience and it would delay some of the teaching that the children need especially in light of the mandatory testing by NYS.
What are your thoughts about the APPR? What is your view of the current tenure system?
TK: It’s impossible to address either APPR or the teacher tenure system without discussing “Last in-First out.” Until the NYS teachers union recognizes that LIFO damages relationships with the community, school administrators and all students, incremental changes in tenure or the process by which we evaluate teachers are all pointless. Tell Gov. Cuomo that LIFO must go: visit the Pleasantville District website and send your letters to Albany.
LB: The state has given little flexibility to the districts in terms of teaching content and teacher review by this implementation. The 20 percent local factor as well mandates the inclusion of specific testing scores within a classroom really removing the local factor also.
Tenure does provide benefits in terms of consistency within a teaching program. Also, unless there are major legislative changes within NYS, the current system will be in place.
ERP: APPR is another state mandate that we must implement for teacher evaluation. We must implement APPR according to the strict guidelines or we face losing much needed state aid. Pleasantville already holds its teachers to strict guidelines. APPR may facilitate the District in pushing the few underperformers to improve. The true impact of APPR will only be realized over time. Is it just going to be an administrative and cost burden? Or will be it be a great working tool to keep our teachers performing at their best? Time will tell.
Tenure is a system to protect teachers. However, times have changed and the rules of tenure need to change. This is not easy since the District has not direct control over the state tenure system. Three years is not long enough for a new teacher to prove their long term teaching ability. Once tenure is received, the grounds and process for removal are so laborious that it almost impossible to fire a teacher. The new APPR evaluation system may make this process easier. But, the feeling of taxpayers in NY as well as in many states around the country is that tenure needs to be removed or at least revamped to provide levers to push and raise the bar for teacher achievement. The feeling is that once tenured, a teacher may not continue to perform at their optimal best. Renewable contracts are one option favored by many.
How should the District’s capital improvements be funded?
LB: We need to implement a long range financial plan for the district that includes capital improvement projects every year. This needs to be made public so the community can make appropriate value judgments on what is needed year to year and what may not be.
ERP: The district has a responsibility to maintain the facilities and to plan for the upkeep. The funds for repair and upkeep of fields, air conditioning, roofs, landscaping, etc. will come from income, grants, fundraising or excess revenue realized in each budget year.
TK: This process has been discussed at several BOE meetings and is already well underway. I support the BOE's plan for funding capital improvements but also hope that the village will be engaged in a dialog about shared responsibility.
Do you believe that the open enrollment process for AP courses has been positive or negative?
ERP: Every student has the right to the best education we can provide and the right to push themselves to the next level. Advanced Placement classes offer students the opportunity of a higher learning experience. To deny students access to these classes because they may not have an A average is inhibiting their opportunities. Denying students access to AP classes may also discourage them from pushing themselves and reaching higher potentials. The Pleasantville community values great education and enabling students to enroll in AP classes shows our commitment to achieving the best education possible.
TK: I think the teachers are the only ones who can answer the question of open enrollment: is it working? Why aren't we asking them for their input/experience/feedback?
LB: I believe the open enrollment should be available for some of the AP classes (social studies, language for instance), but in others it should be restricted to those students that have demonstrated an enhanced aptitude.
What is your long term vision for the District?
TK: My sense is that the Pleasantville School District excels in meeting the NYS graduation requirements, but sadly that is only half the battle. My concern is that post-secondary institutions and employers are finding that students are graduating without the basic skills they need to be successful in college or competitive employment. If we recognize that the jobs of the future are in the fields of math, science and technology how are we educating our children/laying the foundation for these jobs in our schools? Are our children integrating technology into their lives in responsible and meaningful ways? Are there rich learning opportunities available for students to explore the fields of math and science through differentiated instruction and internships in the field? These should be the priorities of the school board.
LB: One that is actively supportive of its students and teachers in a way that makes us a beacon for all surrounding school districts even those that may have more financing. Consistently selling our community and students as part of a vibrant and challenging place that understands how intertwined all of the things that make up a community can be while at the same time being fiscally prudent.
ERP: The Pleasantville School District provides a very competitive and enriching learning environment in all three schools. This is due to the demands from the community, the administration and the desires of the teachers. It is important that we continue stay ahead of the curve through teacher training. We are constrained by the budget and are not able to offer every elective some may want. Sharing information with other school districts can help us to provide as much as we can on the limited budget we have.
The district needs to continue on its current path and improve the transparency and communication. The board needs to revise its operating procedure so that it can do its job more efficiently. The board needs to continue to seek community involvement on the budget process and do a better job at clarifying constraints we face due to the state mandates. The board needs to do a better job at directing the community to address these issues at the state level. There needs to be an avenue for the students and parents to provide feedback on teacher performance. Our teachers are well educated and intelligent. But, they need to be constantly working on their classroom management skills to ensure the students are receiving top quality instruction.
Editor's Note: Sol Skolnick is a 23-year resident of Pleasantville and former member and president of the board of education.