School board candidates discuss visions of superintendent, budget and diversity

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The four candidates for two seats on the Port Washington School Board discuss their ideas for the school district. (Photo by Jessica Parks)

The four Port Washington school board candidates answered questions on the budget, the diverse student body at Port Washington schools and the ideal qualities for a new superintendent at a Meet the Candidates night at the Port Washington library on Tuesday.

Incumbent Emily Beys is seeking re-election to the board, and three newcomers, Deborah Abramson-Brooks, Jonathan Geisler and Robert Young, are running. Two seats with three-year terms are up for election and they will go to the two top vote getters.

One of the seats was vacated by outgoing school board President Karen Sloan.

When asked whether they support the 2019-20 tentative school budget of $160.5 million and a tax increase of 2.88 percent, Beys, Abramson-Brooks and Geisler said they do, while Young did not.

Geisler, who is an associate professor and department chair of anatomy at NYIT, said he supports the budget but has an issue with it being posed as being for or against the children. He said the board needs to better engage the community in the budget process.

Young, a business consultant, said that if he were elected to the school board, he would work to produce at least a flat budget if he is unable to reduce it while maintaining the quality of education. He said when elected he would work to cut spending immediately in order to end the year with a surplus.

Abramson-Brooks, a lawyer and prominent advocate of the Common Core opt-out movement,  said she finds the budget process to be transparent. She said if the school board slashed the budget, Port Washington residents “would find ourselves in a district that looks nothing like it does today.”

Beys ensured attendees that the school board tries its hardest to save as much money as possible when producing the budget. She said especially this year, board members went line by line in the budget to see where they could save money.

Port Washington resident Allison White asked candidates’ view on the role of public education and how it relates to the diverse population in Port Washington.  

Abramson-Brooks said, “public education is the cornerstone of democracy.” She said it’s the place where children from diverse religious, cultural and financial backgrounds come together to learn under one roof and sets them on a path to be productive citizens.

She said diversity is “a gift and it’s a challenge” because with diversity comes the need to serve different populations “and in Port Washington, we do that very well.” She pointed to the school’s English language learners, or ELL, program as one that should be emulated by other school districts.

Beys said she agrees wholeheartedly with Abramson-Brooks. She said diversity is one of the factors that draws people to Port Washington and has led to the district continuing to  increase enrollment while surrounding school districts have a decreasing enrollment.

Geisler said public education is about getting children where they need to be so they can be “successful adults, happy people and important contributors to society.” He said he views diversity not as what people look like and where they’ve been but as the unique ideas and experiences that are brought to the table. He said he thinks it is important to have diverse opinions better represented at Board of Education meetings by better engaging the community.

Young said he agreed with Geisler’s view on diversity and thinks that the purpose of education is to provide a basic foundation of skills and capabilities to enable children to go forward and prosper. He said there should be a fundamentally sound base of education in the classical subjects, reading, math and literature.

In regard to the incoming cafeteria expansion at Schreiber High School, Beys and Abramson-Brooks said it was a much-needed addition. Both pointed out that students are overflowing to the hallways during lunch because they are unable to find a seat at a table.

Abramson-Brooks said she thinks the new cafeteria will also be used to accommodate security measures at the high school as its new entry point in the morning which she supports.

Beys said with growing enrollment, the school absolutely needs the expansion.

Young said he isn’t familiar with the need for a cafeteria but any capital improvement within the district needs to be prioritized by what is most essential. He said if the cafeteria expansion moves forward, he hopes that the district gets the most competitive bids on it so there are no issues with giving the projects to a preferred company.

Geisler said he is also unfamiliar with the high school’s cafeteria issue, but he does think that a number of the issues with the school buildings are predictable but are not treated that way. He said it would be better to set aside money every year in a designated reserve fund to prevent the need to take out a bond.

Candidates were asked what they would want to see in a new superintendent if they have the opportunity to be a part of the process.

Geisler said he prefers that the search process be more open to the public. He said he wants a superintendent to be someone that brings the community to the table and is not defensive but engaging.

He said when there are controversial issues in the district, a superintendent should put it on the agenda and invite members of the community to discuss their concerns.

Young said the recruitment process and qualifications of the candidate should be more transparent, and he doesn’t think he’s heard anything about the candidates, which he said he doesn’t find acceptable.

A good superintendent would be someone with a proven track record of achieving educational excellence for students but also someone who has sound fiscal ideas about running the district on a cost-effective basis, he said.

Abramson-Brooks reminded the audience that the search firm hired by the district to recruit a new superintendent held a community forum at the library about a month or two ago. The search firm explained that it could not reveal the identities of the candidates to protect them from losing their current positions, she said.

Beys said hiring a superintendent is the single most important task of a school board, and it is the only person the board hires or fires. She said that besides the community forums, an online survey was opened for all community members to fill out. Furthermore, the search firm met with all of the district’s stakeholders separately, such as administrators, teachers, parent groups and custodians, to discuss what they would like to see as the leader of the school district.

She said visions and values, teaching and learning, community engagement and management were the areas covered in the search firm’s questions. Five candidates were then identified by the firm and interviewed by the board, which is now interviewing the three finalists, Beys said.

Port Washington resident Hank Ratner questioned the candidates on how they would raise the level of educational excellence for diverse populations to better the school’s educational rankings.

Beys said that many publications publish educational rankings and some have Port Washington ranked higher than others. She said the methodology is not always consistent between rankings.

She said sometimes the district gets students who enter the high school not speaking any English and are required to take exams in a language they are not capable of.

While board members share everyone’s concerns about rankings, they understand that “a ranking is really not who we are in Port Washington and we do our best to educate everyone,” Beys said.  

Young said he was “shocked to hear that we have students in high school who really aren’t fluent in English.” He said the district should implement a program that gets these children up to speed as quickly as possible because if “you are not going to be speaking English and you are going to be living in the United States you are not going to be very successful in life.”

He suggested that the student’s first semester be fully concentrated on learning English.

Abramson-Brooks said that 20 percent of Port Washington’s students are economically disadvantaged, which is more than double the rate of the Jericho School District. She said that some of the children “start at birth with disadvantages and never quite catch up despite their best efforts.”

She said she sees students thriving at Schreiber High School and does not put much credence in U.S. News and World Report and does not plan to move to Jericho because of the publication rating it better than Port Washington.

She said many of the children who enter high school not speaking English have not received any prior formal education in their home countries. The students are then required to take an ELA Regents exam in the 11th grade and are expected to succeed when all it does is punish the children and punish the school, she said.

Geisler said he had a problem with the whole discussion because diverse students should not be looked at as problems or challenges but as “kids with amazing abilities and potential.”

He said the conversation is missing the problem because it is not a problem with certain children in the school, but all of the children in all of the schools. When the nation’s students are compared with students in other countries, it is found that they are sliding behind, Geisler said.

He said teachers should be given the tools for more professional development and be able to unleash their creativity and not be as focused on compliance.

A resident asked candidates how they envision the world in 2040 and what are they preparing children to be when they enter the workforce.

Beys said this is a discussion often heard at meetings and the board is looking to include technology more frequently in the curriculum. As far as her overall vision, the board hopes to be doing a community-wide vision discussion so it is not about her vision but the vision of the community.

Geisler said when planning for the future it is about making students adaptable where they feel comfortable tackling whatever life throws at them. Students should be taught to decipher quality information from fake information on the internet and have the ability to apply their knowledge and critical thinking skills, he said.

Young said he thinks every generation has the ideas that things are going to be so different going forward, but he would make sure the children are emotionally sound and secure to go out in the world. He said he would remind them that every previous generation has felt the same feelings when entering the workforce.

Abramson-Brooks said her philosophy is ”times will change and professions will change but childhood development will pretty much remain the same.” She said she wants children to be innovators, leaders and creative thinkers and “not cogs in the workplace.” She said the students need to be provided a “whole child education” to prepare them to be healthy, physically sound, emotionally sound, socially sound and academically sound human beings.

Port Washington residents will have the opportunity to vote for candidates and on the 2019-20 school budget on Tuesday, May 21, at Weber Middle School.

Another Meet the Candidates night, hosted by AGATE at Weber Middle School’s library, is planned for May 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Due to a candidate dropping out of the race, the filing deadline for potential candidates has been extended to Tuesday at 5 p.m.

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