Sunday, May 19, 2013

Patch Candidate Q&A

The Patch asked the candidates for the school board to respond to several questions.  The Patch has not yet published them, but I expect they will sometime before the election.  Below are the questions and my responses. (This was cut and pasted from an email so apologies for any formatting errors.)

What are the school district's biggest challenges? 

The biggest challenge facing the district is creating a sustainable educational model that is both fiscally prudent and sound as well as adaptive to the changes in how education is designed and delivered in the 21st century.  Our students need to learn to be creative risk takers and critical thinkers not just memorizers of content knowledge.  I think we need to adapt to the rapidly changing technology and learn to use technology for actually improving the educational experience. We need to continue to move towards a sustainable budget model including addressing structural (mandates) and contractual issues.  We also need to find alternative ways to engage our students in their learning process. 

Academically, as always, our biggest challenge is reaching the middle of the bell curve.  We need to find a way to challenge and motivate the students that fall in that huge range that is the middle student.  One way to do that is to allow the students to decide how much to challenge themselves rather than have strict numerical cutoffs.  For example, I believe that a student that wishes to take an AP class at the high school should be given that opportunity to challenge themselves rather than there being a bright line cutoff.  In the event the student is not keeping up at the end of the first quarter, then have that student drop into a non AP section.  Reaching the middle students is essential not only at the high school, but more importantly is reaching out to those students at both the elementary and middle school levels.

I also think a major challenge facing the district is expanding community involvement.  We need to find ways to get more of the residents involved in education whether that is through attending Board Meetings, sending emails to the Board, voting in the election, voting on the budget, helping to fight unfunded mandates or simply being more involved in the different buildings. 

Finally, I think that with natural turnover in our administration team especially at the building principal level, we need to ensure that they have and develop the necessary leadership skills to drive their buildings to both academic and social success.  Leadership is critical to having thriving students all striving to reach their potential.  Our central office administration is actively involved in taking a lead role in support of the new school administrators.

State-mandated employee pension contributions have been a significant driver of higher costs for the district in recent years. What changes, if any, would you like to see to the pension system?  

The State mandated pension plans, Teacher's Retirement System (TRS) and Employee Retirement System (ERS) are Defined Benefit Plans.  The State of New York taxpayers are guaranteeing a market rate of return to the plan.  I would support a change from a Defined Benefit Plan to a Defined Contribution Plan whereby districts know their obligation is simply a straight line function of the number of employees.  The plan itself and the members of the plan would be taking the investment risk, not the taxpayers.

Pragmatically, I would accept a transition period as well as protections for staff employed more than a certain number of years.  Without compensation, I think it is wrong to retroactively change the system to someone who is well on their way to retirement and has relied on the expectations of the current plan. This transition could also include the unionized staff having to make contributions to their own defined benefit plan.  I think it is imperative from a fiscal standpoint that benefits and their associated costs are brought in line with the private sector. Or, let the State of New York take over payments to the pension systems that they mandated.

Do you support repealing the Triborough Amendment to the state's Taylor Law, which preserves terms of expired union contracts until new deals are in place? 

First, it is important to understand what is the Taylor Law and the Triborough Amendment to that Law.  In short, in New York State, the Taylor law prohibits policemen, firemen and teachers from striking. Without the ability to strike, the legislature felt that these groups lost all leverage in negotiations, so they amended the law to protect against cities, municipalities, school districts, etc from unilateral cuts to compensation in the event a contract expired without an agreement on a new contract.  What the amendment says is that in the event of a contract expiring without a new contract being agreed to, that the terms of the old contract would continue.  In theory, that is a reasonable right to exchange.  The groups are prohibited from striking, but the employers would have to live under the terms of the existing contract.  

Where I diverge from this thought process is in the interpretation of what should be continued in the event of no agreement.  To actually repeal the entire Triborough Amendment would be a mistake.  But, I believe it should be modified so that so called "step" increases do not continue in the absence of an agreement.  What I think is fair and appropriate is for the actual compensation to stay exactly as it was at the end of the expired contract.  No unilateral cuts by employers and no automatic step raises to employees.  This change will create a more level playing field in contract negotiations.  The real issue for me behind the Triborough Amendment is automatic step increases. 

Finally, I think it is only fair to point out that locally, in the CCSD, so far, 3 of our 4 bargaining units have agreed to new contracts that give them lower raises than they would have gotten under the Triborough Amendment.  That is, they accepted raises that were less than their natural step increases.  I believe that is a strong show of good faith and an indication that our staff recognizes and appreciates that we are partners whose primary focus is on the students.

What are your thoughts on tenure for teachers and administrators? 

First, tenure is a state mandate.  The concept of tenure is not something we can control locally.  What we do control is the granting of tenure.  In general, with a few exceptions, if a teacher or administrator is to be employed in the district beyond their three year probationary period, then they need to have been granted tenure.  That is a State law, not a locally negotiated provision to our contracts.  The history of tenure was to provide for academic freedom and teaching without the fear of reprisals.  It also protects against arbitrary firings.  However, the system as it is designed limits performance based hirings and firings.  The 3020-a process is so expensive, time consuming and fraught with peril as to make it almost irrelevant.  (See NYC and "rubber rooms"). The system severely limits the district's ability to make personnel decisions based strictly on current work product or merit. 
So, if I were king, I would change the system.  I do believe there needs to be material protections for the staff.  What I would do would be to give staff 5 year contracts.  In the event the district fired a teacher for anything other than enrollment reasons, the balance of the contract would be paid or one month severance pay for every year worked, whichever is greater.  This would give protections to teachers and allow the district to make decisions on hiring based on merit.

The district is facing academic mandates from the state, such as continued administration of a new teacher and principal evaluation system and a shift to what are called common core standards. How do you think the district is doing in responding to these requirements? What else, if anything, would you like to see done?

I believe in local control of public education.  I think the core standards are a knee jerk reaction to outdated data and a misguided attempt by the federal government to create minimal standards that will, in effect, bring the top performing schools down to the core standards when our local expectations are much much higher than theirs.  Essentially, we are forced to waste time and money being in compliance with standards that are below our own.  Similar things could be said about the APPR.  

I believe we as a district do a much better job of evaluating our staff than does the APPR which is 25% mandated to rely on standardized test scores.  So, I think the federal and state government should stay out of local education or at the least provide for exemptions for high performing districts such as ours. 
As to how the district is responding to the requirements, we are making the best of what I think is a bad situation.  The district, in partnership with the CCT and the administrators, has created APPR criteria and measurements that are far and above what the State is suggesting.  We will continue to evaluate personnel with more than checked off boxes and standardized test scores.  Evaluating a teacher's effectiveness is part art and part science.  We need to use both quantifiable measures as well as observation.  In fact, we as a district have had our APPR held up as a model for other districts around the state to emulate.

Most of the district's budget revenue comes from property taxes. Would you support creating new revenue streams for the district? If so, what would you propose? 

Of course I support creating new revenue streams for the district.  Who wouldn't?  I have made some specific proposals at Board meetings.  For example, if our biggest asset is our teachers and our rigorous academic program, with technology advances and districts throughout the New York facing financial pressures, why not sell our classes to other districts?  Through technology, we could easily package our classes, use Skype, etc to deliver first class learning to other districts that cannot afford to offer certain classes.  Another possible revenue source is selling physical district assets.  The Facilities Committee on which I sit is currently exploring the sale of several parcels of district property we deem to be not needed for future use.  In general, I think it is incumbent upon the district to find its own sources of revenue.  However, know that the district is restricted by NY State law from many types of revenue sources including taking any kind of financial risk, using taxpayer assets such as facilities to profit or to rent them to for profit groups.  Any ideas along those lines are restricted. 

I also support continuing and expanding the public-private partnership between the district and such groups as the Chappaqua School Foundation, the Sports Boosters and the Turf Committee.

Currently, Chappaqua Crossing developer Summit/Greenfield has a proposal for the site, which is across the street from Horace Greeley High School, before the New Castle Town Board to rezone the property to allow for 120,000 square feet of retail, including a supermarket of 36,000 to 66,000. Summit/Greenfield has also stated that it could create more tax revenue for the school district. Do you support the plan, oppose it, or are you undecided? What are your concerns, if any, with the proposal as it currently stands?

If you are asking me as a current School Board member and hopefully future School Board member, I neither support nor oppose the retail plan directly.  It is not the role of a School Board member to support or oppose the plan any more than it is the role of a Town Council member to tell us whether or not we should have an SRO in our schools. 

I do have some serious concerns about the plan that, for the most part, mimic the District's submission to the DSEIS.  Mainly, first and foremost, the safety of our students and staff.  Second, I am very concerned about traffic.  Third, I am concerned about the intersection of the first two.  That is, I am concerned that emergency first responders have the ability to respond to any emergency in the district, particularly at the high school in a timely and appropriate manner.  Will the addition of a retail zone and the ensuing increased traffic negatively affect first responders ability to respond to the high school? Fourth,, I am concerned about other general matters such as underclass students parking across the street, non-authorized students leaving the campus, and especially the accuracy of the tax projections.
I think that both the developer and the Town, before proceeding need to clearly outline for the district how the traffic and safety concerns will be addressed.  I also remain concerned about the residential student enrollment versus the residential taxes paid.  To the extent that a market rate dwelling is not taxed as at a fee simple rate, there is concern that the other taxpayers in the district will need to absorb the costs.  I would also like to better understand the tax projections from the retail zone.  What are the assumptions that underlie those projections and could the Town and the developer, as part of a tax certerori settlement on the current outstanding grievances agree to a set tax number going forward for a period of years that will allow the district to make long term revenue plans and assumptions. 

As a resident and School Board member I would hope and expect that our Town representatives clearly detail for New Castle residents the logic and reasoning behind their proposed changes to the zoning code and how they think the benefits of such a change out weigh the negatives before they approve of the plan if they do. 

In fairness, I would add that Summit Greenfield has reached out to the district and expressed a willingness to both address these issues and be a good neighbor.  I hope actions speak louder than words.

The issue of personnel status disclosure came up last year when longtime Greeley football coach and physical education teacher William Tribou was suspended and then resigned with a settlement with the district. The school board did not disclose details because it was a personnel matter, with a reason given that disclosure was not allowed. Is it appropriate for districts to not disclose personnel status when an individual is facing discipline or leaving, and would you support repealing limitation of school officials disclosing details of employee suspensions, terminations or resignations?

If you are asking if the exception to the open meeting law statutes of NY State should be revoked legislatively to allow for public discussion of personnel matters, my short answer would be, no.  I think that in personnel cases there are competing and often conflicting interests.  Mainly, the interest of the employee and their privacy versus both the public's right to know and the potential safety and welfare of students in the district.  That includes educational, physical and social welfare. 
The presumption made by both the exception to the open meeting law and by the rules and regulations governing a 3020-a hearing is that a staff member has the right to privacy at least until any allegations are proven, AND that the Board members through their sworn oaths and fiduciary obligations as Board Members are protecting the public's interest in personnel cases.  In the cases where the personnel issue is performance and not conduct, I think that the APPR process and the fact that those records are publicly reviewable, at least by the parents of children in the teacher's class, makes that part both public and accountable. 

Ethically, I am uncomfortable making what are allegations public until they are proven or stipulated to or agreed upon.  I ask a simple question, how does the employee get their good name back if the allegations are not true?  

The state-mandated cap on annual tax levy increases will expire in June 2016 unless if it is renewed. If elected, this would happen near the end of your term. Do you support allowing the cap to expire or should it be extended?

Again, this is a simplified question to a complex issue.  The June 2016 renewal is tied to rent control laws.  As per your link to a power point presentation, page 2 slide 6 last bullet point, "Expires June 15, 2016 unless rent control extended"  If rent control is extended, the tax cap will be as well.  While I would never rely on a political outcome, I would be very surprised if a deal to extend rent control did not happen. 

However, in short, without the benefit of seeing how it continues to work in the next 3 years, I support extending the tax cap.  I think the best case for the district would be for the tax cap to be extended while at the same time the state starts funding many of its own mandates such as pension plans.  But, even if the State were to continue to ignore the burden they shift from themselves to the local taxpayer and not address mandates, I would still support extending the tax cap.

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