Three candidates will run for two seats on the Garrison Union Free School (GUFS) Board of Education on May 21 — newcomers Derek DuBois and Julia Wynn and incumbent Charlotte Rowe. They spoke and corresponded with Jeanne Tao in separate interviews. Their responses here may have been condensed.
Why are you running for a seat on the Board of Education?
DuBois: While GUFS is effective at teaching the core requirements, the curriculum and the teaching approach still heavily emphasize teacher-directed learning rather than student-driven inquiry. Good schools effectively teach children facts and formulas. Great schools teach them to think for themselves, to solve ambiguous problems, to successfully navigate an uncertain world and to succeed in a knowledge driven economy that is moving light years faster than state curricular requirements. I believe that should be our aspiration.
Rowe: I’ve always wanted to model community service for my kids, and this is a way to be engaged in my community and to be a part of the decisions the community is making. I view them as shared decisions and shared goals and shared resources. I feel like I’m in midstream in some issues at the school, and I would like to continue responding to community member concerns and parent concerns. I want to continue relaying concerns that I hear from community members or parents in a constructive way, bringing these to the attention of the School Board.
Wynn: I am committed to sending my children through GUFS and knowing that growth does not happen overnight, I feel it is important to become as active as possible in the decisions that will affect Garrison’s education today and into the future. A first-rate education is one of the best gifts you can give a child.
In terms of experience, what makes you a good candidate?
DuBois: I am not an education expert, but my experience in different schools has given me good perspective. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, I was educated as a physician at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and trained in internal medicine at New York University. My professional passion is in applying information systems to improve the cost and quality of U.S. healthcare. I have worked as a management consultant and a partner at McKinsey & Company for the past nine years. In that capacity I have advised the senior leadership and boards of hospitals, health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, investment funds, a university and a medical school on how to improve the performance of their respective institutions. I have extensive experience in that context with budgets and financial management, evaluation of investments and in driving change in all types of organizations. I also have deep familiarity with board and governance processes and with effectively influencing leaders to drive change.
Rowe: I can draw on my experience of the last three years, and I feel like I’ve been able to look at the big picture well and work through some of these different balancing acts that you have to do as a school board member. You want to listen to people’s concerns, and you have to bring it all together. I think now after having had the experience of dealing with these issues on all different levels, I really look forward in a second term to try to pull some of these things together and articulate how our local vision is going to mesh with the state’s vision of how we’re going to educate our children, and how we’re going to pay for that in a way that’s fair and equitable for the community and that also sets fair expectations for our faculty and staff here.
Wynn: While managing segments of a domestic and international licensing business (of the Peanuts characters), among other responsibilities I oversaw territories, budgets and negotiated deal terms with licensees. In addition, I was president of a condo board for several years, and that taught me how to work within the framework of a board, the constraints of budget, and the importance of listening to and managing the expectations of varied interests. Through these experiences, I have learned to work with diverse groups of people, build consensus and implement action.
What personal traits make you a good candidate?
DuBois: I have the balance and perspective to listen to and understand the many stakeholders involved in this school and this community. With three young children I am amply motivated to help make the school great. I have been actively involved in the school as a co-chair of MAD Science week and as an active parent participant in board meetings. I have the drive to push for positive change and the pragmatism to work with the board, the faculty, the administration and other parents to find solutions that work within the real-world constraints of budgets and state mandates.
Rowe: Being able to see the big picture and given my reporting background, I’ve had the strength of listening to people, and I have endeavored to go and talk to parents and members of the community who may not have children in the school or whose children have graduated and find out what is on their mind and what their concerns are. I have gathered that information numerous times. I’ve had uncomfortable and difficult conversations, and I have relayed those concerns in a reportorial, anonymous way back to the board and the administration, and I’ve used that to inform my own views. A trait I want to grow in is consensus-building. It’s the strength of your school to make decisions through consensus.
Wynn: I am a pragmatic thinker but always open and actively looking for innovative thinking and ideas. I am a good listener and a quick study, and I try to evaluate all areas of a situation before reaching a conclusion.
What are the major issues facing the Garrison Union Free School District?
DuBois: Conversations with many parents and members of the Garrison community indicate a school with great strengths but with a substantial opportunity to improve the engagement, the experience, the curriculum, the professional development opportunities, the integration across disciplines, the use of the school forest (an incredible asset; but one school forest day a year is hardly integrating the forest into the curriculum) and the use of technology.
Enrollment is down 18 percent in just the last three years. Some of this may be due to fluctuations in demographics, but if you take the 6:31 a.m. train south any weekday morning, you will see a pack of middle schoolers on the way to The Masters School. They represent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year that is being spent by parents with the means to send their children to private schools. Not only is this a loss of attendance, participation and state revenue to GUFS; it is also a loss of the very parents who have the financial means to contribute the most to the PTA, Garrison Children’s Education Fund and other programs that enrich our curriculum and offerings for all students without further burdening all taxpayers.
Rowe: I think a lot of the challenges facing the district are those facing public education as a whole, especially in New York, with the new curriculum mandates, the new budgetary tax constraints — although we have tried to make that a priority anyway without the cap, to keep taxes relatively low. How do we work and be faithful to our local vision? I feel that the key value in a public school is that it reflects your immediate community. How do we arrive at a framework that interweaves the local vision with your mandates? Those are big challenges in resources and in the meat-and-potatoes of your curriculum.
Wynn: The largest issue is mandates dictated by New York state without funds to implement them.
What aspects of education at Garrison School interest you most? What aspects could be improved?
DuBois: In 2012, a group of parents proposed to the current board a task force that I am happy to report recently launched in order to study, learn from and adapt best practices in education. I suggest that we rapidly build on these lessons to adapt our current approaches and augment the professional development for our faculty to include the latest and most effective methodologies.
We need to define and implement a clear vision for how to integrate technology more effectively into learning — and ideally how to integrate other resources such as the school forest into the day-to-day learning and not as a one-day event during the year. Science classes, for example, could easily incorporate biology and ecosystem lessons in the forest without substantial planning, logistics or expense.
Formal changes to the curriculum require explicit decisions and need to be thoughtfully considered. In the meantime we must empower and encourage the faculty to embrace a more creative and integrated approach in their conveyance of the required core curriculum.
Rowe: I’m particularly interested in extending our foreign language program, and I think that reflects our local vision, and also replicating the School Forest Day experiences in the school forest throughout the year. I’m interested in looking at the details of that. We’ve been talking about some of those things for years. Signature projects — that’s another area that I continue to be interested in. What can we only do here? Historical projects like living history.
Wynn: I am interested in a well-rounded education for our children. A student body that leaves GUFS with an exceptional education, a strong sense of stewardship of its community and environment as well as knowledge and appreciation of the arts is the best legacy we can provide.
In our increasingly global and technology-driven world, knowledge of a second language as well as computer programming are must-have skills. If elected, I will actively work to bring Spanish into all grades from kindergarten as well as work to bring coding into our technology offerings. Knowing our budget constraints, I would search for grant funding to help achieve these goals.
What do you believe the district should do about the situation of decreased government aid along with increased government mandates?
DuBois: We can emphasize learning and problem-solving without a lot of investment in books in equipment or in facilities. These changes are more about learning from and applying what works well elsewhere. The current budget per student is approximately 33 percent higher than the New York state average. This reflects necessary investment and the higher proportional fixed costs of a small school. I don’t think we need more investment. I do think we can continue to actively raise funds through the PTA and GCEF to augment the core budget and enrich our students’ experience.
We do need to prudently manage investment and expenditure and to stem the slide in enrollment. While we all cherish the small school and small class size, we need sufficient enrollment in order to maximize state funding and maintain a sustainable school. A review of the school budget suggests that few of the key drivers of the budget (facility costs, administrative and faculty compensation, benefits, transportation, debt service) vary meaningfully with a change in enrollment. Therefore decreased enrollment will impact state funding levels but will have little impact on the budgetary requirements, necessitating painful cuts or higher taxes to compensate.
Rowe: The district should continue its involvement in the Regional Educational Advocacy Districts coalition. The coalition was formed in 2004 and has grown to include Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery, Haldane, Garrison, Lakeland, Brewster, Hendrick Hudson, Croton-Harmon and Ossining. The coalition has been working to pass legislative relief from unfunded mandates and standardized testing. Other groups like the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association have also been advocating for similar relief. While it is important for Garrison to articulate its own unique position on these issues, it is also important for lobbying results to join with others to make the strongest case for change.
Wynn: It is a complicated issue with no easy solutions. Thankfully we have an administration that has done their best to look forward, and as a result we are not in as bad of a position as some other school districts. As aid decreases, it becomes up to us, the community, to find creative ways to fund new initiatives that we feel are beneficial to our children.
To learn more about Derek DuBois, click here for his complete statement. To find out more about Julia Wynn, visit her website, juliawynn.com. To read more about Charlotte Rowe, see her website, charlotterowe.info.