Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanksgiving Message

Today, Acting Superintendent Eric Byrne sent out a message to the community that said,

Dear Chappaqua School Community,

With the Thanksgiving recess upon us, we take this time to contemplate the things for which we thankful.

We are thankful for our wonderful students who are always eager to learn, for our dedicated staff tasked with educating the whole child, and for your continued support because a school district without strong community support cannot survive.

Poet Wilbur Nesbit once said, "Forever on Thanksgiving Day the heart will find the pathway home." So, whether you are traveling to be with loved ones or are hosting right here at home, during this holiday may your family and friends be the source of great joy and enough cherished memories to last a lifetime.

On behalf of everyone here at Chappaqua schools, we wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving.

Eric Byrne

Due to legal regulations about putting out a statement from the Board without a public discussion, several sentences were left out of that message and the individual members of the Board were not able to sign it as Board Members.  I would like to add a few things to that message here.

First, we are thankful for the opportunity to serve you as members of the Board of Education.  Democracy can be messy as we have seen on both the national and local levels.  We are volunteers as Board Members and truly seek to serve the students and residents of the community.  We are grateful for that opportunity.

Second, we are thankful to the community members that have recognized us in ways both large and small.  From the community member that sent us flowers with a heart-felt note to the many that have thanked us personally, we say thank you.

Thank you to the community for your continued support for the students, the District and the Board.

Have a safe and joyous Thanksgiving holiday.

Friday, September 2, 2016

JSM Statement Intended for the CCSD 09-01-2016 BoE Meeting

Below is the text of a statement I intended to make at the Chappaqua Central School District Board of Education meeting of September 1, 2016.  I was unable to attend the meeting due to a death in my immediate family.  While I intend to make a public statement at our next meeting on September 13th, I post this here as I believe it to be timely.

I have served nine years on the Chappaqua Central School District Board of Education. I was recently re-elected to my fourth term.  In my long service on this Board I have come to appreciate the uniqueness of our board.  It is set apart from other boards by our collaborative and transparent practice, by our collegial nature, and by our single-minded focus on our students and community.

This board has historically been very successful because of our collaborative nature.  We don’t always agree, but we have always discussed issues, courses of action, and strategy openly among us as a group and come to consensus.  I am making this statement today because I am quite concerned that we continue this practice.

A PR firm was recently re-hired by our attorneys at the district’s request.  To be honest, I am not sure exactly to whom I refer when I say “at the district’s request”.  I do know that I was not consulted, and I did not have a say in the decision.  To be clear, my concern is not in the legality of the hiring but in the process or lack thereof.  I think it important that all board members have an opportunity to go on the public record as to their thoughts.

There are certainly good arguments to be made on both sides of the merits of hiring a PR firm.  One, it allows the administration to focus on their task at hand, educating our children in a safe and educationally challenging environment. Two, as we are not commenting on any pending legal matters, it helps the district address what I believe to be some inaccurate, incomplete and biased reporting and posting on social media.  However, I happen to think that hiring a PR firm sends the wrong message, we should be able to do whatever a PR firm can do for us internally, and we should use the money for other direct educational expenses.

But that is not the point.  I strongly believe that we should reach these decisions as an entire Board and in a transparent manner.  I want to be part of a Board that reaches consensus collaboratively and transparently.  Being on the wrong end of many a 4-1 vote in my service, I have come to appreciate our board because we followed a collegial process, and we all have had our opportunity to have our say.

I certainly appreciate that the district, the administration, and the board is in the middle of a legal situation that we have never faced before and have no road map with which to navigate. However, that is the very reason why I believe that a collaborative, transparent process for work on the board, and between the administration and the board is so critical.

The entire board asked to see a draft of any legal filing before it was made.  This has not been the case though. Speaking for myself, I have yet to see a draft of documents prior to them being filed.  That concerns me greatly.  I first found out about the legal filing in the media.

While I know that filing to be legally appropriate and much more nuanced than what was reported, it was inappropriate in its form.  While I am not a lawyer, common sense and good judgement says that it certainly could have been worded differently to both protect our legal position and reflect that our focus always has been and always will be on supporting our students whether that support is academic or emotional.  To be clear, while I am quite confident the administration and my fellow Board Members feel the same way, I can only speak for myself that I do not believe it is appropriate to blame a victim of abuse, alleged or proven.

Finally, let me end by saying that the health and well-being of our students remains our critical mission. The Board, the Administration and our entire staff have made every effort and will continue to make every effort to provide support to all of our students and families.

While we will continue to protect student privacy and will not comment while litigation is ongoing, I believe that the community is smart enough to know that we do put our students first and that what they read in the media and on social networks may be incomplete, inaccurate and said with an undisclosed agenda.

Thank you to the entire community for your help and support.

Jeffrey Mester

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Former CCSD Board Member Gregg Bresner Letter to the Community Re: $42.5 million Bond

Here is a clean copy of former CCSD Board Member Gregg Bresner's letter to the community regarding the CCSD bond:

The CCSD $42.5 million Bond

First, the usual disclaimer.  I am writing as an individual and as an individual school board member with his own ideas and opinions.  I do not speak for the Chappaqua Central School District nor do I speak for the entire Board.  I speak for myself only.

The tl;dr is that I support the proposed bond and I am asking you to support it to.  I ask that you go to Horace Greeley High School on Tuesday June 14th and vote yes.  Vote yes for the students, vote yes for the community, vote yes for youth sports, vote yes for education.

Having said that, while I support the bond, I am not ignorant to the fact that this is not a perfect bond. Know that the initial "wish list", the list of all the projects both infrastructure and educational started at around $55 million.  However, the Board of Ed, in its charge to the administration, was very clear that any bond proposal would have to be tax neutral.  That is, using various offsets, the maturing of existing debt and cost savings would have to pay for the bond.  The board was adamant that it would only put a bond before the voters if it was not going to increase taxes in and of itself.  It won't.

What doing the bond now does for the district is it gives us financial flexibility and improves our facilities.  The district has spent years driving the curriculum towards this point and years working with our teachers through professional development including during the summers to train them so that we can take advantage of collaborative education.  Now, we need the facilities to catch up with the research and training.

What this bond does is support education and support the youth in our community.  As it turns out, by supporting education, by working to remain at the forefront of education and the latest research and thoughts on successful education, we help support property values in the district.  Maintaining our infrastructure and improving our fields to be on par with virtually every other district in Westchester also helps property values.

I could go on for a while, but my former fellow Board Member, Gregg Bresner wrote a letter to his friends and neighbors and to the community that I think sums it up much better than I could.  I support the bond.  Vote yes on June 14th.

I copy his letter here.  (Any formatting errors are mine.  My knowledge of html and embedding documents is limited, but I try.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Thank You to the Residents of the Chappaqua Central School District

Thank you to all the residents of the Chappaqua Central School District for once again putting your trust in me.  I am humbled by being re-elected to the CCSD Board of Education for a fourth term.  I very much appreciate the faith you have shown in me.  I pledge to once again work tirelessly on behalf of the students, the parents, and those without children in the district.

Congratulations to Warren Messner for also being re-elected. I consider the re-election of two incumbents to be confirmation of and a mandate for the past and future direction of the district.

Also, thank you to Rhonda Kaufman for her willingness to volunteer.  It is not easy and not something that comes naturally to run for public office.  Hopefully, she will start attending Board meetings and contribute her time and effort to helping the district.

Thank you,


Sunday, May 15, 2016

CCSD Board of Education Election 2016 Follow-Up

The Examiner article, linked here, resulting from the questions posed to the candidates  has been published.

For my complete answers, see my previous post here.  In the Examiner article, my opponent, new comer Rhonda Kaufman, seemingly endorses the school board, the direction in which the district is heading, the budget, the bond and everything else about the CCSD.  I can only take it as a ringing endorsement of the sitting board.  Thank you Rhonda for your endorsement.  Thank you for the good things you had to say about the district.

Here is a copy of the full text of my opening and closing statements from the League of Women Voters Candidate Night:

Opening Statement:
I would like to thank the League of Women Voters for sponsoring and arranging this debate, everyone in the audience for participating and my fellow candidates.
It has been said that one definition of a volunteer is someone who didn’t understand the question. This is my fourth time running for the Board of Ed and I know what it takes.

When I first ran for the Board, I was warned about the time commitment and the incredible learning curve.  I was warned about the volumes of reading, the additional committee work and the public scrutiny.  I can safely say that no amount of warning prepared me for the reality of being a board member.

Being a Chappaqua school board member is not a ceremonial position.  It is not something that you can show up to when it is convenient.   There are only five of us and we are all expected to be prepared and to participate.

For the past nine years I have worked tirelessly on behalf of the members of this community.  The role demands a person with a passion for education.  It requires a person with an extensive and detailed knowledge of the district, a complete understanding of the budget and the structural budget issues the district faces, a person who can make practical and reasoned decisions, a person who is flexible and can build consensus, a person who can balance competing community interests, and a person with vision and conviction.  It is recognizing we have a fiduciary obligation to all the tax payers, not just the ones with students in the schools.

I am quite sure that all three candidates will agree tonight that the major challenge facing the district and the Board in the next 3 years is finding a way to maintain academic excellence while continuing to exhibiting fiscal discipline and responsibility.

With respect to that, I point to the previous 8 year’s budgets.  For the fifth year in a row we will not exceed the tax cap.  In fact, this year there is ZERO increase to the tax levy, yet we have maintained or expanded our core programs at all three levels of the district.  We continue to be highly ranked both within the state and nationally by countless publications.  Going forward, I will continue to work for ALL members of the community to reach responsible budgets.  I will continue to support openness and transparency. 

I also believe that experience plays an important role in being a successful Board Member. Intimately knowing the district, its policies and practices, having a good working relationship with both your fellow Board members and the administration, understanding NY State Ed law, NYS rules and regulations is a material positive attribute to bring to the table.  I have experience and a track record.  I proudly stand behind it.

As a candidate, I uniquely offer the community my experience, knowledge, district expertise, and time. I offer consensus building skills, concrete suggestions and practical solutions.

I offer common sense with an uncommon commitment.

Closing Statement:
Again, I would like to thank the League of Women Voters, the community and my fellow candidates. 

I’m glad that I had the opportunity to talk about my experience as a Board member, my years of service and all of our accomplishments. Even Rhonda has publicly acknowledged that the Board has produced a good budget, that the bond makes sense from both what is in it and how to pay for it, she supports turf, and she thinks the district is on the right path academically.  For that I thank her.

Our school district serves our children, but we cannot ignore our role in the community. I never have. The strength of our schools is a direct function of our property values.  

The community needs to have the proper balance between fiscal austerity and maintaining our academic excellence in order to support the premise on which our community rests.  I continue to be unwavering in my belief that the community we serve is the broader community of not just parents with children in the schools, but residents without school children too. 

I applaud Rhonda for running, but I believe that any candidate should not run on a platform of change for change’s sake. Rhonda said she brings new ideas, yet she has presented none of that.

And if Rhonda believes that the board is homogeneous in thinking, she clearly hasn’t been to very many meetings. As anyone who had attended our meetings or even watched them on TV knows, I am on more sides of a 4-1 vote than I care to remember. 

I offer not just rhetoric but actionable suggestions.   I offer nine years of direct experience and a deep knowledge of district programs and personnel.  I offer leadership and consensus building skills. 

I offer common sense with an uncommon commitment.

Thank you.

Experience matters.

Common Sense with an Uncommon Commitment.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Running for a 4th Term, FAQ

After much thought and consideration, I have decided to run for a 4th term on the CCSD Board of Education.  I think the best way to explain this decision is to post my responses to both the League of Women Voters (LWV) and to Martin Wilbur editor of the Northern Westchester edition of the Examiner.  Both posed a few questions to all the candidates.  I have co-mingled the questions below for continuity. In parenthesis after each question, I indicate who asked it.  I note that the LWV imposed a 100 word limit to our answers to each of their questions.

I have been advised by the district’s counsel that I can comment on both the budget and the bond if I make it very clear that I am speaking as an individual, as a resident and that I DO NOT speak for the district or the board when answering these sorts of questions.  So, any answer I give here is my own opinion.  While these opinions may or may not be consistent with district or board opinions, I do not speak for the board or the district.  I am speaking only as an individual.  

Why did you decide to run for another term on the Chappaqua Board of Education? (Examiner)
The first time I ran for the CCSD Board of Education, I said I chose to run for four fundamental reasons.  Those reasons remain true today. I wrote then and I repeat now, I am passionate about education and its importance to our future.  I believe in the obligation to serve or contribute to your community.  I believe my life experience, professional experience and education give me a unique but fundamentally important viewpoint needed on the Board.  I (continue to) want to give voice to the silent majority; to those who live in the community but are not part of the 1,200 who typically vote for the budget and the Board.  I want to represent the interests of the students, the parents and as important, those without children in the schools.

I also believe that experience plays an important role in being a successful Board Member. New York Education Law says that the only qualifications to being a school board member is to be able to read and write, you must be a resident of the district for one year prior to the election and you cannot be employed by the board on which they serve.  Not a very high bar.  Intimately knowing the district, its policies and practices, having a good working relationship with both your fellow Board members and the administration, understanding NY State Ed law, NYS rules and regulations is a material positive attribute to bring to the table.  I have experience and a track record.  I proudly stand behind it.

What experiences and skills do you have that will enable you to be an effective member of the School Board? (LWV)
For the last nine years as a Board Member, I have worked tirelessly on behalf of the community.  It requires an extensive knowledge of the district, a passion for education, a complete understanding of the budget and its structural issues, a person who can make practical and reasoned decisions, who can build consensus, who can balance competing community interests, and vision and conviction.  It is recognizing we have a fiduciary obligation to all the tax payers, not just ones with students in the schools.  There is no experience like direct experience and a proven track record.  I stand on mine.

What do you consider the main issue(s) facing Chappaqua and how would you address it (them)? (LWV)
We must ensure the quality of the education remains at a superior level while maintaining fiscal discipline and responsibility, we must continue to challenge unfunded mandates and non-productive state testing, as well as ensuring that we continue to invest in our operating plant through maintenance, repair, and upgrade.  We need to continue to invest in teacher professional development.  We need to facilitate student challenges, not limit them.  We need to continue to have fiscally responsible budgets such as this year’s zero tax levy increase while expanding educational and extracurricular programs. We need to be transparent and responsive to the community.

Chappaqua has a well-earned reputation for education excellence, but are there any areas in the curriculum or educational experience that you would like to see added or changed in the next few years? (Examiner)
By almost any measure, Chappaqua schools are continuously ranked among the top districts in the county, the state and the country.  Without question, overall, we provide a top notch education to our students.  That, however, does not mean we cannot improve or change.

In general, I think we have to always be evaluating our educational offerings to ensure that we are at the forefront of both curriculum and methods of teaching that curriculum.  The major asset of any district, and certainly here in Chappaqua, is the teachers.  What I appreciate about our staff is that as a whole they all are lifelong learners themselves.  The teacher’s contract addresses professional development.  It is a mutual, two way section.  They want us to guarantee opportunities for professional development and we want to require it.  I think we are on the right path with that, but we need to continue to provide opportunities such as with our Innovation Fellows and the other summer programs where all the teachers in the district have an opportunity to explore and incorporate the latest ideas and methodologies in teaching.

More specifically, I think we need to look at the barriers we impose on student course selection.  For example, we have a combined objective and subjective hurdle to a student signing up for AP American History (AHAP). We say that we only want students to be in a position to succeed, yet we do not give a definition of success nor do we consider other factors.  Structurally, because of what I believe to be artificial criteria, rather than asking students to challenge themselves, we are doing the opposite and telling them they should not strive to reach for higher goals.  It seems to me that the goal of the schools should be to challenge the students to learn, not quash that desire.  To me, we should be encouraging our students to try, to challenge themselves, even if that means they ultimately fail.  If we are about holistic learning, there are many lessons learned in trying and failing, maybe more than in unchallenged success.

Finally, as always, we need to constantly be reminded of our mission to educate all the district’s students whether that means students with special needs, students who need extraordinary additional challenges, or that majority in the middle that risks getting lost as we focus on the two distributed tails.

I'm not certain if you would care to share your thoughts on the upcoming June 14 referendum, or even if it would be appropriate to do that. However, what was the rationale for presenting the bond to the voters and do you believe this is the best way to realize the improvements the district believes is necessary to make sure the schools are equipped to handle how education is evolving? (Examiner)
First, let me state up front that I support the bond.  I do think it is the best way to realize the improvements the district thinks necessary to be able to be at the forefront of education for years to come, and I also think it is necessary to be able to make the appropriate repairs, perform needed maintenance, and to upgrade various parts of our operating plant. It will help us comply with the State mandated Building Condition Survey (BCS).

The rationale for and the timing of the bond is clear and simple.  One, unlike the town or county, we are required by law to present it to the voters for approval.  Two, the timing is right based on both need and ability to pay for it within the constraints of a tax capped budget.

Is the bond perfect? No.  The decision by the board to limit the bond to one that creates no marginal increase in taxes is a fiscally responsible decision but one that necessitates tradeoffs.  As a community, we need to appreciate that we are neighbors and that while we may not approve of every item in the bond or may wish there were something else included that is not, overall, the bond does a very good job of addressing the needs of so many of your friends and neighbors.

While taking advantage of historically low interest rates coupled with the district’s AAA credit rating, NY State 30% capital cost reimbursements, maturing debt, and the sale of district property, the district is able to address infrastructure and educational needs while also addressing the needs of the library, youth sports teams, the downtown merchants, and the tax concerns of the community.

What are your opinions on the Bond being proposed? (LWV)
I support the bond.  I think it addresses our infrastructure needs as well as helps us stay at the forefront of education, all in a fiscally responsible manner.  Is it a perfect bond? No. The decision by the board to limit the bond to one that creates no marginal increase in taxes is a fiscally responsible decision but one that necessitates tradeoffs.   As a community, I think it important we appreciate that while we may not approve of every item in the bond, the bond does a very good job of addressing the needs of so many in this community. 

What are your impressions of the 2016-17 district budget that is going before voters on May 17? Anything that you would have liked to see added or taken out from the budget? (Examiner)
I think this year’s budget is a terrific budget. It both supports education and the taxpayer.  The district continues to expand and enhance our offerings while maintaining fiscal responsibility.  This year’s budget includes ZERO increase in the tax levy.  In the aggregate, the taxes collected from our residents will not increase.  In this budget we were able to include everything the administration thought appropriate while not only remaining below the tax cap, but also having no increase to the tax levy. 

For the sixth year in a row, for every year the tax cap has been in effect, the district’s budgets and tax levies have come in under the tax cap constraints. This compliance has given our taxpayers, those who qualify for the STAR exemption, NY State rebates on any increase.

Given the tight fiscal constraints that the tax cap and other factors place on school districts, what, if anything, could the board or the district can do to lend its voice and lobby for greater mandate relief for public education? (Examiner)
 First, the district is very active in lobbying for mandate relief.  We work on many levels to effect change or mandate relief.  We lobby to address both educational mandates such as state testing and financial mandates such as unreimbursed aid.

One, the administration has a very good working relationship with our local state representatives. Second, the administration has met with and continues to discuss with members of the board of regents and the NYS Commissioner of Education various issues that affect us negatively here in Chappaqua. 

Two, the Board itself has written letters, passed resolutions and spoken directly to our representatives regarding the various mandates. We have teamed up with other local Boards, with the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association (WestPut) and are a member of the NY State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) which itself seeks to use our collective influence to lobby state legislators, the NY State Education Department and the Governor himself.  We have also worked with the Town’s mandate relief committee.

Three, Victoria Tipp, a sitting Board Member is the Board’s Legislative Advocate.  She sits on the Board of the WestPut which is very active in lobbying for mandate relief.  She is a member of the NY Suburban Consortium for Public Education.  She also coordinates with the PTA which is itself very active in lobbying for mandate relief.

Finally, I think the Board and the district need to continue our lobbying efforts, but know that our most effective voice would be one whereby the residents also participated directly by writing letters, calling and contacting our legislators.  We will continue to fight, but we need your help.

Again, speaking toward fiscal issues, is there anything Chappaqua could do to work with other school districts and/or the Town of New Castle to share services that is not being done now? (Examiner)
Let’s start with the premise that anywhere we can legally save money while maintaining services, we will explore.  To be clear, we currently do work with other districts and the town to save money.  For example, as a member of the Putnam/Norther Westchester BOCES, we work with BOCES and the other 17 component districts to aggregate our buying power for goods and services. The list of items we purchase through BOCES that reduces our costs are too extensive to list here, but know that the very premise of a BOCES is for districts to join together to aggregate purchasing power whether that is for goods, services or even teaching.

Also, for the past several years, the district has worked closely with the Town of New Castle Administrator with the cooperation and support of both the CCSD Board of Education and the New Castle Town Board to increase our cooperation in areas in which we can support each other. We have jointly bid on paving contracts and other similar types of contracts.  Both Boards have publicly stated and proven through action that we will continue to seek ways to join together to both cut costs and to provide services to all members of the community.

Just some brief biographical information: age, occupation and the number of years that you've served on the board? (LWV, Examiner)

From what I submitted to the League of Women Voters, Voting Guide:

Current Office: 
School Board Member, Chappaqua Central School District.
Parent, 3 children.

Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University:  MBA, Finance and Real Estate.
University of Virginia: BA, Economics

Residence: New Castle

Self-Employed equities and derivatives trader

Prior Civic and Volunteer Service: 
·         9-year School Board Member, Chappaqua Central School District.
·         Volunteer Coached over 20 teams, Chappaqua AYSO, CYSC, NCYBBA, NCBSA.
·         Participant in New Castle Roundtable Forum regarding Empty Nesters.
·         CCSD representative to the PNW BOCES.
·         Member of the CCSD Facilities Committee
·         Past Board of Ed representative to Horace Greeley Scholarship Fund
·         SHARE Midnight Run participant/chaperone.
·         Father of two Chappaqua Fire Department Firefighter/Volunteers
·         Commissioner, Billy’s Basement Boys.