School candidates talk budget, standardized testing and curriculum

School candidates talk budget, standardized testing and curriculum
Four candidates seek election to two seats on the school board. (Photo by Jessica Parks)

Four candidates are vying for two seats on the Port Washington Board of Education, and they shared their views on the budget, standardized testing and whole-child education last Thursday at a meet the candidates night.  

Incumbent Emily Beys seeks re-election and three newcomers – Jonathan Geisler, Deborah Abramson-Brooks and Robert Young – join her on the ballot. The top two vote-getters will be elected to the board.

AGATE, a community organization that advocates for gifted and talented education, hosted the event in Weber Middle School’s library.

Questions opened with the candidates being asked their position on Common Core and related testing and how best to assess student learning.

Abramson-Brooks, who is an attorney and well-known leader of the opt-out movement, said Common Core and standardized testing were the “antithesis of the whole-child education.”

She said Common Core curriculum was written by college professors and business people without one single K-12 educator on either the standard writing or the validation committee.

Due to this, “a large number of the standards, especially at the young levels, were developmentally inappropriate.”

Geisler, who is an associate professor and department chair of anatomy at NYIT, said Common Core is incomplete because of its primary focus on mathematics and language arts.

“I would be very happy if my child could reach all those objectives,” he said. “We need to be ambitious, we need to make sure our kids are on a trajectory to succeed.”

He said the big problem with standardized tests is implementation. He said one way to solve the issue with testing would be to offer each grade’s tests when students enter the next grade.

“Have the third-grade tests at the beginning of fourth year,” he said. Teachers from the year prior would be able to see what their students retained and the fourth-grade teacher would be able to evaluate a starting point of incoming students.

Young, a business consultant, said he supports standardized testing and after meeting with teachers at Weber Middle School he thinks most of them agree that it’s “not a bad way to assess both the learning of students as well as teacher performance” but it “has to be testing for the right things.”

Beys said she doesn’t “support excessive testing that is punitive and is not developmentally appropriate.”

In her personal vision, she said she supports whole-child learning and socially, emotionally and academically appropriate learning. Although the board’s job is to support the visions of Port’s educators, she said.

When school board President Karen Sloan asked Young if he understood what happens to the school if the $160.5 million proposed budget fails, Young held up a school district mailer that outlined the proposed budget.

“When I read this it sounds like hell freezes over if the budget fails,” he said. “Yet, we are going to spend a million dollars more this year than we did last year.”

“I don’t see a justification of such a fear mongering type of mailing to all the constituents in the school district,” Young added.

He said he finds it disrespectful to send out a mailer that says if the budget doesn’t pass the district is going to have to shut schools, children won’t be educated and staff will have to be fired.

The mailer Young was referring to is one state law requires each school district to mail to all of its constituents. The information included on the budget notice is mandated by the state.

Beys reminded the audience that if the budget doesn’t pass the board will have to cut $4 million from the budget. With 80 to 90 percent of the budget concentrated in district staff and contractual obligations, cutting $4 million would mean firing “teachers and teachers means programming.”

She said, therefore, the mailer is not fear mongering but based in facts. “So we are not going to close schools, but it will affect the programming at schools.”

Geisler said he thinks there is a middle ground and suggested that if the budget fails the board could propose a modified budget that does not include the items that stir the most controversy.

Abramson-Brooks said the money in the budget is capital toward children’s future and she doesn’t understand why people would not be in support of such an investment.

She said she knows the budget was meticulously reviewed and that the district needed additional administration and staff.

The budget is within the tax cap that legislators saw fit to enact, she said, and the district did its due diligence to provide the best education while staying within the tax cap.

When asked what he thinks the biggest issue in the district is, Geisler said the most pressing problem is the lack of engagement in the community.

“I think in many ways what that means is that the whole budget discussion can become very limited,” he said. “What’s the money we can get with the least amount of effort.”

“In other words, what can be passed with basically just over 50 percent” of votes.

He said the district also needs to enhance its programming to set up children to succeed when entering the workforce.

Personalized programming should be enhanced and a diverse range of enrichment programs need to be created, but the district is unable to right now because it is not in position to get 60 percent on a budget vote, Geisler said.

“So we are limited, we are pretty much stuck with the status quo,” he said.

Young said he doesn’t understand why everyone talks about having to cut teachers and programming if the budget failed to pass.

If he were on the board, he said he would first try to cut costs by optimizing efficiency in the facilities staff, a department of 80 employees, and shifting administrative processes from individual schools to central administration.

He said he would also consider increasing class sizes to better prepare students for college.

Beys said in the next three or five years, the district is going to have to tackle a lack of space in school buildings to accommodate growing enrollment.

Another problem the district has is the recruiting of staff due to the shortage of teachers, she said.

Lastly, Beys said the implementation of the foundation aid formula creates a problem for the district, which only receives 6 percent of its budget from state aid.

She said the board is also planning to have a visioning meeting where members can hear the concerns of the community and their visions for the future.

Abramson-Brooks said she agreed with Beys and added that the district needs to better embrace diversity in the community.

She said she thinks the district needs to understand its different types of learners and revamp how to assess the gifted population of students.

“The test that may be appropriate for one subgroup may not translate well for another subgroup,” she said.

Abramson-Brooks said students who are learning English need more of an opportunity to develop their gifts instead of being penalized with tests.

When asked how she would support the whole-child education of each child as a board member, Beys said she sees her role as supporting the staff and administrators to implement a whole-child education.

“I know that our new superintendent does believe very strongly in the whole-child learning experience, as does Dr. Mooney,” she said. “Which is why we were continuing with that same mission going forward.”

Last Thursday, the Port Washington school district announced its selection of Michael J. Hynes as the new school chief. He will begin on July 15, succeeding Kathleen Mooney.

Geisler said there is so much more to schooling than just academics. He said he thinks the challenge is finding the balance between what should be taught at school as opposed to at home.

He said he would like to see the new superintendent facilitate a discussion to find the home-school balance of whole-child learning. Young said education does not stop at the classroom and he does not see extracurricular activities as discretionary spending but an invaluable part of child learning.

“I see it as a very essential part of the spending we need to do to create the complete student,” he said.

Abramson-Brooks said Hynes is one of the leaders in whol- child learning, which the “one size fits all” curriculum of Common Core is the antithesis of.

She said she would wholeheartedly support the superintendent’s vision if elected to the board. She said the most important thing he emphasizes in his philosophy is the need to separate the standardized tests.

“You need to make sure that the teachers put those tests aside and teach to the children the way they need to be taught as whole human beings,” she said.

Port Washington residents can vote for school board candidates and the budget on Tuesday at Weber Middle School.

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