Voters will choose three trustees on May 15
By Michael Turton
The four candidates who will face off in the May 15 election to fill three trustee seats on the Haldane School Board met in an amicable forum hosted by the Haldane PTA on Wednesday, May 9. The mood in the Haldane music room was markedly more relaxed than the sometimes tension-filled debates in local municipal elections in recent times. The four candidates, incumbents Evan Schwartz and Peter Henderson and challengers Evelyn Carr-White and Jon Champlin even received words of praise both from Superintendent of Schools Mark Villanti, prior the start of questions and from outgoing board president Joe Curto, after the forum had concluded.
There were no surprises during the evening. Moderator and PTA President Laura Danilov provided candidates with the questions in advance – centering on fiscal responsibility, governance, student achievement and character education. Danilov chose questions at random with each candidate having to answer one question from each category.
Peter Henderson stressed his thorough approach to addressing issues in his opening statement. “I like to think carefully about an issue before taking a position,” he said. “That’s why I insisted on getting background information before meetings. Many of the issues are not straightforward. I work hard to make fair and sound judgments.”
When asked what options he sees regarding Haldane’s major budget issues Henderson said “there are not too many options,” if the half-million dollar decrease in state aid continues into 2013-14. If it does, he said will seek a voluntary pay freeze from staff in order to avoid layoffs or increased class size.
Asked about choosing a replacement for Villanti who will likely be leaving in two years, Henderson said superintendent is “arguably the most important” position at Haldane because it is the superintendent who sets the tone. “Without a great superintendent a school cannot be great. I didn’t understand that until I joined the board.”
Henderson was also asked what his views are on how to improve the quality of education at Haldane. He called for adopting “performance based goals” for attaining greater student achievement. “We need to support innovation,” and singled out principal Brent Harrington’s eighth-grade math program as an example. “We’re also on the cusp of seeing (greater use) of technology in education and I fully support that expansion,” he said. Henderson said he is also very excited about the “flipped classroom” concept in which students access information online at home and use classroom time for collaboration and problem solving.
Schwartz, a high school principal in New York City, underlined that experience as one of his major strengths. “I bring a unique quality to the board because of my instructional background,” he said. He listed implementation of the common core curriculum and improvements to Haldane’s athletic fields as two key issues in the upcoming year.
Asked to explain his philosophy on budget spending Schwartz said that it, “…must revolve around instruction….and how we’re going to improve it.” He acknowledged that athletics have always been an important part of Haldane’s identity – explaining that students often indicate what team they play on when introducing themselves to trustees. “It’s about instruction, extra-curriculars and bringing the community together,” he said.
Schwartz was also asked about the role of the school board. He said overall, the board has to ensure that the superintendent presents a budget that is both fiscally sound and meets the needs of students and the community. “We’re not here to micromanage or to create curriculum,” which he said is the role of administration. Trustees “must ask questions and pry into what’s being done. If we don’t like what’s being done in the community, it’s our job to change it.”
Regarding the use of technology at Haldane, Schwartz said that high costs and the rapid pace at which technology changes present challenges. “But our district is really moving in the right direction. Kids are doing Prezi presentations and there is the iPad initiative.” He also praised the young teachers being hired as doing “amazing things” with technology in the classroom. Schwartz said that decisions on what technology to employ are not based on what is “cool and fashionable,” but rather what can improve learning.
The only Haldane graduate running in the election Champlin stressed his roots and contacts in the community – including an active role in sports. “I think I’m a team player – and not just in sports,” he said.
“There are a lot of things outside the district’s control – including reduced state and federal aid – coupled with unfunded state mandates,“ he said when asked about the district’s financial challenges. “And we have contractual obligations – those contracts must be honored.” He does not want to see any cuts. “We’re bare bones already. There is no fluff,” he said.
Asked about his qualifications, Champlin said, “I’ve been community minded for a long time. I have a lot of contacts within the community, people who play different roles, and I can work with (people who have) different opinions.” He also emphasized openness. “It’s very important to build trust within the community.“
Champlin, who has sons in fourth hand sixth grade at Haldane, was asked how he thinks state testing is affecting education. “I can understand the need for testing…but I think it has gotten past the point of being productive.” He said that on one state test students were asked about a pineapple that challenges a hare to a race. ”Why would they ask such a stupid question?” He said private companies are making “big money” developing the tests. “I think there is a need for reform.”
Recalling his own school days, Champlin said, “ People learn in different ways. For me it was sports.” He said that knowing he had to keep his grades up in order to play on teams motivated him to be a better student.
In her opening remarks, Carr-White said she is proud to be the product of a public school education but she fears the future of public education is in serious jeopardy due to cuts in state and federal aid.
She was asked how she would prioritize needs at a small school like Haldane that faces many challenges at a time when education dollars are so limited. She said that maintaining a level of excellence has to be earned and that there are many positive things happening at Haldane – including the Atlas curriculum mapping, the iPod pilot project, virtual high school and algebra readiness. One of her priorities would be maintaining small class sizes in the primary grades. “Class size is critical to early student success,” she said. In a time of limited funding, Carr-White stressed the need for thinking “out of the box.” She gave soliciting in kind contributions; leveraging business contacts for favorable pricing and pursuing corporate grants as examples.
Carr-White summed up her views on improving the quality of education at Haldane this way, “We have a great school now. We need to be adaptable. My main concern is preserving what we have now,” she said. “Property taxes make up too large a percentage of the budget.” She said she’d like to see advancements such as an expanded iPad project, creation of a debate team and offering more sports. “But things like a cafeteria at the high school will have to wait.” Carr-White also urged residents to get more involved as a way to improve Haldane. “Step in as an assistant coach – or use your business contacts (for savings on purchases) to help the school.”
Polls are open from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Tuesday, May 15. Voting takes place in Room 105 in the Haldane middle school.
Photo by M.Turton