Voters to decide Mineola ed board race, $80.1 million budget proposal

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The hotly contested Mineola Board of Education races between establishment candidates and challengers who say it’s time for change has transformed the budget vote on Tuesday into a referendum on the district’s approach to education.

Incumbent Christine Napolitano and her running mate, Brian Widman, have touted the district’s education advancements in recent years with minimal tax increases and its innovative approach to technology.

“When it comes to education, we’ve raised the bar and then some. We’re using nationally recognized technology — other districts come all the time to look and see what we do,” she said. “We did all of this without creating new debt.”

Meanwhile, Joy Renner and Mark Swensen say the district should slow its full-steam-ahead approach to technology, re-evaluate its finances and do more to educate parents about Common Core.  

“This isn’t Legoland, and not everything is awesome,” Swensen said at a candidates debate last week.

Mineola Board of Education President Artie Barnett, who is not seeking re-election, has laid his support firmly behind Napolitano and Widman and said a village official was behind Renner and Swensen’s candidacy. The Board of Education and village officials have repeatedly clashed over the impact of large developments in downtown Mineola, the use of tax breaks to finance them and their effect on the district.

Swensen, who spoke briefly about the election in an interview Tuesday, could not be reached Wednesday before print to respond to Barnett’s claim. Renner was still at work when a phone call was made to her home line shortly before print Wednesday.

The district’s $89.1 million budget proposal, which would increase spending by 2.1 percent and the tax levy by 1.37 percent to $80.1 million, continues to invest heavily in technology and would allow the district to provide an iPad to all students in kindergarten through 12th grade, officials have said. It is the eighth straight year the district’s tax levy will increase by less than 2.5 percent.

“We remain lower than the rest of the county by far,” Superintendent Michael Nagler said at an April board meeting. “We’ve been able to [stay below 2.5 percent] four years prior to the tax cap being implemented — Mineola has flat-lined” its tax levy.

The budget also includes for the hiring of four math teachers, which officials said is meant to assist students with challenging trigonometry coursework, the installation of air conditioning in cafeterias where exams are often administered and create a robotics lab at Mineola High School.

Despite the school board candidates running in pairs, the seats will be awarded at-large to the two highest vote getters. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19.

Throughout their campaign, Napolitano and Widman have criticized Swensen and Renner for their absence at school board meetings.

Widman, who said he has regularly attended school board meetings for the past seven years, charged he does not recall seeing either of his challengers at a meeting prior last month when they declared their candidacy.

“Change happens at the Board of Education meetings. Change happens at the PTA meetings,” Widman said. “How can you advocate for change when it’s not important enough for you to attend” the meetings?

Renner, a teacher with three children in the school district, said at the debate that attending meetings does not make a person the best candidate.

Swensen and Renner have accused the school board of rubber-stamping Nagler’s initiatives without sufficiently vetting them.

“I think the superintendent’s priorities, while they may be well-intentioned, stand to use some review,” said Swensen, a Mineola graduate who runs an IT consulting service.

He referred specifically to a capital improvement project for which construction costs were underestimated.  

A pro-Napolitano and Widman Facebook page run by Barnett criticized Renner and Swensen for saying they would hold the board accountable of its decisions but not speaking up at a subsequent hearing on the budget proposal.

“At meet the candidate night it seems like the challengers called a lot of the district’s finances into question,” the Facebook post said. “Did they…ask those questions to the Board and Dr. Nagler” at the budget hearing?

Postings to the Facebook page have been critical of a number of Swensen and Renner’s statements, including about a proposed turf field, a lack of tax relief from the district’s reorganization and the district no longer having a drug and alcohol counselor.

Renner and Swensen have accused the current school board of doing too little to educate parents about their right to opt out of state tests, saying that although officials cannot legally support opting out, they could provide parents with more information about testing.

“I support parents’ choice for opting kids out [of state exams] or not,” said Renner. “[Parents] felt let down by the lack of communication from our district. Where does it say informing parents will remove you from the board?”

Renner also called the board’s transfers of leftover balances to reserve funds a “backdoor bond,” saying Mineola should recoup the money to taxpayers.

Napolitano, a six-year veteran on the board, noted that voters must approve capital projects funded by reserves and said that reserves allow the district to tackle projects without borrowing and save taxpayers from large interest payments.

“I don’t think there’s a person on the planet that thinks they don’t pay enough in taxes,” she said. “These are not frivolous things we’re spending our money on…to call it a backdoor bond is ridiculous. We have to go out and ask the voters, do you approve that project. A bond would require” interest payments.

When asked about technology at the debate, Renner and Swensen, who both said the district should move forward with technology initiatives, also said training for new programs takes teachers out of classrooms and there is little evidence the technology improve students’ test scores.

“I’d like to see the school district work to ensure the technology students are using is actually improving students’ scores,” Swensen said.

Widman — who said Renner’s position on technology sounded like the “hurry up and wait” philosophy often experienced in the army — added that the many of the new programs the district uses allow parents and teachers to track student growth and adapt lessons to a specific students ability level.  

“The iPad has been doing great for the students. It has been opening up music, drama, art to students who may not have a natural ability for those disciplines,” said Widman, a Roslyn Heights resident with two children enrolled in the Mineola School District. “I really see us being a leader as far as school districts in Nassau County, and I would like to see that continue.”

The issue of corporations constructing large developments in downtown Mineola being granted tax breaks under payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements known as PILOTs has also played a role in the race.

Swensen, who spoke in support of the developments at a public hearing, said school officials “dropped the ball” by not attending Nassau County Industrial Development Agency hearings on the PILOTs.   

Napolitano, who also opposes the tax breaks, responded by saying the district’s Board of Education was unaware of the adverse effects of PILOTs at the time of the hearings.

School officials worry the Mineola developments could lead to an influx of students, but the state tax cap prevents districts from increasing their revenue under the cap for projects using PILOTs.

“Those three buildings are going to cost this school district about $30 million,” Napolitano said. “This affects all taxpayers.”

Swensen said he would lobby legislators to change the law.

Correction: This article has been updated for fairness and clarity. The print edition of this article stated that efforts to reach Joy Renner Wednesday were unavailing. Renner did not answer calls to her home phone shortly before print Wednesday, while Renner said she was still at work.

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