Port Washington ed board candidates talk budget and finances

Port Washington ed board candidates talk budget and finances
Paul D. Schreiber High School. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Challengers running for the Port Washington Board of Education offered ideas and solutions to aid in the district’s stressed financial climate, some criticizing the board’s prior actions, during a candidate forum Wednesday.

But incumbent responses were mixed, with some acknowledging the financial history and a need to promote funding advocacy and others defending the district’s financial planning and decision.

Seven of the eight candidates running for the three seats on the Port Washington Board of Education joined via Zoom a candidate forum hosted by AGATE – a district Home School Association that advocates for advanced learners.

The full forum can be watched on AGATE’s Facebook page.

Participating were challengers Sandra Alvarez, Michael Bitalvo, Teodora Choolfaian and Joe Delerme, and incumbents Trustee Adam Block, Trustee Nanette Melkonian and President Adam Smith.

Challenger Elizabeth Weisburd, a former trustee, was unable to attend due to a conflicting commitment.

A cause for concern cited by many of the challengers was the school district’s finances and budgeting.

The Board of Education adopted a $194.5M budget with a 4.55% tax increase that exceeds the tax cap by 1.16%. This requires a 60% approval vote to pass.

“I believe that good education costs money and I’m OK with that,” Block said.

All the candidates said they supported the school budget, except Choolfaian who did not say explicitly whether she did or did not.

Choolfaian said the current Board of Education and administration have failed the community through a lack of advocacy for greater state aid.

“It appears that the current board and administration found themselves at a $5.3 million deficit as a surprise,” Choolfaian said. “Well, many other districts on Long Island – Herricks, Great Neck, Manhasset, Roslyn – had already predicted that and were preparing for it for a good year.”

But blame for the school budget problem should not land on the board, Alvarez said,  because it is a product of the financial climate.

Alvarez said the alternative to supporting the current budget – a contingency budget – would encompass cuts that negatively affect all students and employees.

Bitalvo said he supports the budget as it is the best option for all the students in the district, but said alternative funds need to be sought in the future and expenditures tightened.

Block described the last few years as “living under a halo” due to the influx of funds in response to the pandemic. Now that those are drying up and state aid funds are threatened to drop, Block said advocacy for additional funds and seeking alternative revenues needs to be expanded.

Delerme described the past years’ funds as a “sugar rush” that aided in expanding district programs, but now that rush is fading and he said approaching a cliff.

“It’s like driving a Porsche potentially into a wall,” Delerme said.

Delerme said advocacy for additional state aid needs to be sought to prevent this.

But Smith disagreed that the funds were a sugar rush and said there were no surprises in aid due to prolonged discussions and plans.

“Many school districts are facing the same fiscal cliff that we are, but Port Washington has gone with a responsible budget that has a combination of raising revenue, significantly reducing expenses and very targeted and responsible use of reserves,” Smith said. “So we have done the trifecta of balancing this budget.”

As well as commenting on the budget, candidates also discussed the successes of the board and the ideas they bring.

Smith said that upon joining the board with Block and Melkonian, a positive shift occurred in the school district’s operations.

“We really have re-oriented this district away from a philosophy of adequacy and towards a philosophy of excellence,” Smith said.

Upon joining the board, Smith said he and his other two board members running for re-election called for initiatives to bolster graduation rates. He said graduation rates have since increased by 3% and risen by about 10% for disabled students.

“That is because excellence means excellence for everybody,” Smith said.

Smith said that collaboration among the board members and with school administrators and employees has led to growth across the district.

“I am confident that what we’ve created and what we’ve started is just the beginning because the foundations are laid and I know over the next three years we can deliver a lot more,” Smith said.

Successes Block pointed to were consolidating conference days, establishing a vision and mission statement with a strategic plan, creating after-school programs and bolstering transparency. Looking forward, he said he is seeking greater consistency across classrooms.

For Melkonian, this included professional development, creating consistency across classrooms, implementing proposed initiatives in the pupil personnel audit for students with disabilities and furthering mental health support.

“We’ve only just begun and we’ve got much more to go,” Melkonian said.

Board improvements Alvarez noted included board representation for special needs and marginalized students. She said advocacy for these student groups has been a pursuit of hers.

“Representation has to change because there have been times where I’m the first one to speak up at a board meeting when I would hope that one of the trustees would have spoken up first for me,” Alvarez said. “What if I missed a meeting?”

Choolfaian said she has observed lower academic results in reading, writing and math for younger students, something she attributed to educational losses during the pandemic. She said this inspired her bid for school board trustee.

“I have saved all the work of my current seventh grader and I compare it to what my current third grader and what my current first grader are doing, and I see a very noticeable drop in first of all the level the kids are expected to know at their age in terms of what is presented to them,” Choolfaian.

Delerme said a main focus of his campaign is to provide all students with the resources they need to succeed and flourish in the school district and beyond, with a focus on students in need.

“Being a community builder, I want to be able to provide those opportunities to our community,” Delerme said.

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