Port hosts crowded field for BOE trustee election

Port hosts crowded field for BOE trustee election
(Clockwise from top left) Trustee Adam Block, Trustee Nanette Melkonian, President Adam Smith, Joe Delerme, Michael Bitalvo and Sandra Alvarez. No headshot provided by Teodora Choolfaian. (Photos courtesy of the candidates)

Eight candidates, including five challengers and three incumbents, are all vying for the Port Washington Board of Education’s three seats up for election this May, all contributing ideas to progress the district further,

President Adam Smith is running for re-election to the Port Washington Board of Education to continue the growth he said it has achieved since he joined.

Challengers Sandra Alvarez, Michael Bitalvo, Teodora Choolfaian and Joe Delerme have identified areas of growth that they say they can foster.

Smith, Trustee Adam Block and Trustee Nanette Melkonian are all running to be re-elected for another three-year term.

Challenging the three incumbents are Alvarez, Bitalvo, Choolfaian, Delerme and Elizabeth Weisburd.

Efforts to reach Weisburd were unavailing.

Smith, who has lived in Port for the past 12 years, works for a New York-based real estate investment and development firm. He also served on the board of Temple Beth Israel in Port Washington

He and his wife have three children who attend district schools.

Smith was elected to the board in 2021, alongside Block and Melkonian.

Smith said he is running for another term to continue his contributions to the board and its efficacy as a unit.

Highlights of the board actions that Smith singled out included balancing the needs of all stakeholders, developing new programming, new staff professional developments, creating a capital reserve fund and district modernizations.

Achievements Smith said he was proud of during his tenure include the establishment of the CTE and Twilight programs, which he said has aided in increasing graduation rates, as well as the establishment of after-school programs and the full funding of the integrated co-teaching program for special education.

“I think that we’ve just been moving in the general direction of excellence that I campaigned on, and I think with another three years we can take it to the next level,” Smith said.

Looking forward, Smith said if re-elected he wants to continue the school district’s offerings in antisemitism education, develop consistency between classrooms and schools, modernize transportation and upgrade facilities.

Block, a professor of public health at New York Medical College, and Melkonian, a former special education educator, also touted the district’s accomplishments as trustees in a previous interview with Blank Slate Media.

Many of these included those Smith identified, like its new programs and bolstering communication.

Going forward, Melkonian said she is looking to expand professional development and foster a more positive school culture and climate. Block said he wants to increase consistency across classrooms and schools.

Alvarez is a lifelong resident of Port Washington who runs a private youth athletics company on Long Island. She is also the co-president of the school district’s Special Education Parent Teacher Association, treasurer for Parents Council and has served on various school committees.

She said she began attending board of education meetings three years ago after struggling to find adequate after-school programs for her child. In attending these meetings, she said she was introduced to a diverse array of concerns from other parents.

Alvarez said she is running for the board of education to increase community representation on the board and stress the importance of inclusivity.

“The Board of Education is responsible for setting the district’s direction with performance-based goals,” Alvarez wrote in an email to Blank Slate Media. “However, performance-based goals vary significantly among students. I firmly believe that the Board of Education should be a true reflection of our entire community, consistently prioritizing the needs of every student, responsibly.”

She said while programs the incumbent candidates highlighted have been beneficial, they are at stake amid cuts. Alvarez said she is running to preserve those programs, which she said are not adequately funded under the adopted budget.

“Discussions around budget cuts are difficult, needed this year, the important part is how are those discussions being conducted,” Alvarez wrote in an email.

Challenger Bitalvo, who moved to Port Washington in 2016, is a writer and stay-at-home dad of two children in the school district.

He previously served on the Parent Resource Center’s board, is a current member of Residents Forward’s board of directors and is the co-president of the South Salem Home School Association.

Already working within the school district, Bitalvo highlighted his efforts in aiding the district’s transition to in-person learning after the pandemic. He said many parents and students had not even set foot inside the buildings and worked with administrators, staff and parent volunteers to aid in that transition.

Being present in the district’s operations, Bitalvo said he has the perspective of seeing what the board of education implements and its impacts at its schools. Taking these perspectives, he said he can see where actions can be taken even further.

Bitalvo said he opted to run for the board of education after being encouraged by people around him to expand his admiration for service to another level in the district.

Despite the external validation, Bitalvo said he filed to run after seriously considering the decision and finding himself ready to take on the responsibility.

Bitalvo said the district is at a tipping point, facing financial hardships, and believes that he is equipped to aid the district in moving forward and addressing these challenges.

To achieve this, Bitalvo said he aims to work as a collective with the board and “leave no stone unturned” when seeking solutions to problems.

“It’s about making this district as good as any other district anywhere,” Bitalvo said.

Choolfaian, a nine-year resident of Port Washington, was born and raised in Bulgaria. She has three children enrolled in the Port Washington School District.

Choolfaian said in an email to Blank Slate that she chose to run as the district is in a “fiscal crisis” as the district opts to increase taxes by 4.55%.

“Administrative bloat and questionable decisions have gotten us here,” Choolfaian wrote in an email to Blank Slate Media. “This is unsustainable and it is also possibly dishonest to the parents and taxpayers of the district. It is also unfair. Not everyone can afford this tax hike.”

If elected, Choolfaian said her priority would be restoring educational excellence while maintaining “financial wholesomeness.” She said this would be achieved through better contractual negotiations, securing multiple project bids and closely analyzing expenses.

“I will plan for the future in a way that helps our community thrive and not the opposite,” Choolfaian wrote in the email.

Choolfaian identified multiple issues in the district, including failure to educate younger students in reading and writing, a drop in the state standard ranking for academic excellence, administrative bloat, inefficient administrative restructuring, a lack of accountability, expensive programming, and a complete disregard for sustainable financial planning.

She said the district also lacks transparency with the public in sharing its budget, saying that the actual expenditures of the district have not been made available to the public and said it is required under the law.

Assistant Superintendent of Business Kathleen Manuel told Blank Slate Media that publishing the district’s actuals is not a requirement under the law, but that the district’s budget actuals are always audited at the end of every fiscal year and the report is published on the district’s website.

Manuel said actual budget figures will be made public going forward, with the prior couple of years made available.

Challenger Delerme is a practicing lawyer of more than 12 years who works as a business affairs executive and in-house attorney for Tombras, a marketing and advertising agency. He and his wife have three children, with two in district schools and the third still an infant.

He is also a board member at the Parent Resource Center in Port Washington, a trustee at the Science Museum of Long Island and co-founder of the Port Washington Hispanic Heritage Celebration: Fiesta in the Park.

Delerme said his involvement has been fueled by a desire to advocate for youth enrichment, something that inspired his bid for the Port Washington Board of Education as well.

“By virtue of that, the school board is a natural evolution for me to bring the collaborative work ethic and opportunities that I’ve fostered here in the community to a larger goal, which is across our entire school district,” Delerme said.

He described himself as a pragmatic collaborator and empathetic listener with an ability to separate the “noise” from the core issue.

While Delerme was not raised in Port and did not attend its schools, he said he has a different experience that makes him a “fair arbiter” in making objective decisions for the district. He said this is beneficial in balancing the desires of all the stakeholders.

“I want to see children succeed in the same way that I succeeded and they deserve that, they deserve to be successful,” Delerme said. “If you empower them regardless of their background, religion, socioeconomic status … they can achieve full potential.”

Three issues Delerme’s campaign is advocating for are smaller class sizes, safe buildings and transportation, and stronger advocacy for more state funding.

Delerme said he would also like to expand transparency, accountability and accessibility of the district, which he said has improved recently but could be developed further.

“The parents of our community deserve to know what’s going on and shouldn’t have to dig deep down or only when there is a budget vote [to] have that information,” Delerme said.

Ideas he suggested included developing a newsletter to reach out to the district’s constituency directly.

Also featured on the ballot is a vote to adopt the school district’s budget with a 4.55% tax increase that exceeds the tax cap by 1.16%. This requires a 60% approval vote to pass.

Smith said the district had two choices – to increase taxes or make budget cuts. He said while neither was ideal, a combination of the two was the best option to diminish impacts on the district.

In creating the budget, Smith said three things were balanced: tolerable cuts that didn’t greatly impact the district, use of reserves and a tax increase.

“It’s not perfect, but I really feel that this was the most balanced approach that meets the needs of all of our stakeholders,” Smith said.

Choolfaian criticized the district’s tax increase, saying if elected she would advocate for the taxpayer and greater transparency.

“This year the budget deficit is a whopping $5.3 million,” Choolfaian wrote. “That should alarm every single parent and taxpayer here. It is a sign of a significant problem, one that will not be solved but only made worse by going to the taxpayers’ wallets for a solution. Why should the community subsidize inefficiency?”

The district’s initial budget report identified a gap of $5.3 million, which was reduced to a gap of $1,782,800 that would be made up through the tax increase.

Delerme called the tax increase a short-term solution that diminishes the harm greater budget cuts would bring. But he said he is looking for medium-term solutions, which include greater state funding he said he would aggressively advocate for.

Bitalvo acknowledged that the decision was difficult for the district and said he respects the board’s decision, but said he doesn’t have the specific information to make a firm decision on the matter.

He said the community is scared and greater transparency is needed for stakeholders to make sound decisions when voting on the budget. He said the solution to these financial issues can not always be increasing taxes.

“The current budget crisis is concerning, and as someone regularly in the school buildings I fear for the repercussions the budget shortfall will have on teachers and students,” Bitalvo wrote in an email to Blank Slate Media.

Community members can vote for three trustees from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on May 21 in the Weber Middle School All Purpose Room.

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