By Alison Rooney
At Monday night’s (May 13) Haldane PTA Board of Education (BOE) Candidates’ Forum, Superintendent Mark Villanti gave his opinion on the three most critical characteristics of a good board member:
- Able to maintain high integrity and engender public trust
- Committed to the work
- Balance: When you’re new you want to do everything; you learn balance.
Questions, posed by moderator Evelyn Carr-White, were then asked of each of the three candidates vying for two available seats, on three topics: fiscal responsibility, governance and student achievement. The answers of the three, Jennifer Daly, Julisa Rincon-Tomizawa and incumbent Gillian Thorpe, largely restated the views they had shared in Philipstown.info’s candidate Q-and-A last week. Each candidate was asked a unique but similar question. Reported here are aspects of their replies which were not stated in the earlier forum.
Daly on background & budget
Daly emphasized her combined background in education and business. “I started it, grew it, sold it. That experience was really important in learning hiring/firing/mentoring staff, making the hard financial decisions.” Later, she grew more specific: “I have an honest interest in serving our community. Our schools are a reason I moved to this community. My business background: I’ve ushered my business through the recession — we came out stronger, which I consider an accomplishment and an experience I’d like to share.”
Asked what options there were in dealing with budget problems, she said: “Creativity comes into play. Being asked to do more with less — a place where we need to look at every line item, deconstructing the budget, look at contracts, have real conversations while still valuing our staff. Advocacy is a priority: Tell our elected officials their decisions are hurting us. It’s the responsibility of the BOE to lead that charge.”
A later question concerned balancing school with community. “They go hand in hand,” Daly said. “You can judge a community by its school and a school by its community. The BOE’s job is to communicate with the public, not just on the budget but on good things, create an environment where people feel their voice can be heard — a dialogue — not just with educational jargon.”
Rincon-Tomizawa on experience, budget
Rincon-Tomizawa spoke of how her experience as a classroom teacher has helped her “understanding of how the financial decisions of a board can influence staff and students.” She mentioned that she has “spent the past three years finding solutions to the challenges of unfunded mandates.”
In response to “What are major budget challenges?” Rincon-Tomizawa stated: “Keeping the budget under the tax cap, finding creative responses to unfunded mandates, negotiating contracts, which is not easy. At the core there are people who are tremendous assets to the community. We need to be prepared as a board with our negotiating points. The board is the face of the community, but negotiating is not easy. Make sure you stay within needs, and people of value shouldn’t feel slighted. We definitely need the input of the community — what they value in leaders — Dr. Villanti has hard shoes to follow. The new superintendent must be prepared to use teachers as educational leaders.” As a Haldane parent, Rincon-Tomizawa said, she appreciated “the importance of shared stories — this is an exceptionally caring community.”
Thorpe on board presidency
Thorpe began by reminding the audience of the three years she spent serving under three BOE presidents: Dave Merandy, Joe Curto and Mike Junjulas; now she would like to serve as president. She continued, “There’s a lot on the horizon — the search for a new superintendent is huge.” Thorpe told of her experience being on other boards, including those of the Haldane School Foundation and the Cold Spring Chamber of Commerce, and working for a board, as she has in her 13 years as the director of Butterfield Library. “I understand the role of the trustee as one of five, bringing my perspective,” she said, before mentioning that she grew up in Cold Spring, left, lived in Virginia, Chicago, and then chose to move back here to raise her family.
Asked “How do you prioritize needs?” Thorpe stated: “Our hands are often tied, so we need to find how much legal room we have. We’ve managed to get so much done by thinking outside the box. We have to do more advocacy; we need to hire and maintain a good administration; do due diligence find out all facts, talk to the community.” Thorpe said she didn’t believe in micromanaging and was all for working with other local organizations jointly for advocacy purposes.
Testing and preparedness
The final round of questions concerned student achievement. Daly was asked what she would do to improve the quality of education. “First recognize that what we have is great — be proud. What I’m concerned about is our need to manage our ‘teaching the test’ preparation. We need to continue to create a well-rounded program with sports, the arts and extracurriculars elevated — things like teaching being interdisciplinary, teaching across grade levels, collaborating with group learning, well-rounded, enriched, balanced.”
Rincon-Tomizawa was asked specifically how she felt state testing was affecting education. “Testing has a role,” she replied, “but we need to assess how teachers are using their skills. Every district deals with these issues. Teach them the state test [material], but also collaborate, problem-solve.” Rincon-Tomizawa gave Haldane’s nature trail as “an excellent example.”
Thorpe was asked, “Do you feel Haldane students are definitely prepared for the challenges of tomorrow?” “I do,” she immediately stated. “That being said, this is where you rely on your educators and administrators to tell you. For example with technology, SMART boards, we need to be staying on top of these things.”
Safety after Sandy Hook
A final question was posed by the PTA to all candidates: “The terrible event at Sandy Hook forced schools to reevaluate safety measures. How would you prioritize?”
Rincon-Tomizawa: “The tragic events hit close to home. This is not an easy question to answer. I don’t think adding more guns will solve the problem. We need to be looking at the Code of Conduct, see that our students’ mental health is secure — that when our kids are here they are emotionally stable. Bullying, cyberbullying strategies are important — we as a community are invested in their well-being. The Second Step Character Education program is important.”
Thorpe: “What happened at Sandy Hook can happen here. Short of enclosing the campus in barbed wire nothing can be truly safe. When Sandy Hook happened, immediately the school met with parents and talked to law enforcement agencies. There are new security measures on the ballot. Educate your community, teachers and students. Know how to react — that saved lives in Sandy Hook. Our campus is near the woods, so it’s misleading to say that it’s completely safe.”
Daly: “First and foremost applaud what our board put in place. If we get our bond placed we’ll be in a better place. Continue to think about safety and security in a proactive way rather than a reactive way. Review protocols constantly, so our teachers are trained, in the way that one has CPR at your fingertips because you have to renew training every year — adopt that thought process — it’s as important as anything else. If we make it part of our culture it won’t feel like a police state, just safer.”