Port Washington heads to the polls to vote for school trustees, tax cap override, capital reserve expense

Port Washington heads to the polls to vote for school trustees, tax cap override, capital reserve expense
(In clockwise order, starting from the top left corner) Trustee Adam Block, Trustee Nanette Melkonian, President Adam Smith, Joe Delerme, Michael Bitalvo, Sandra Alvarez, Teodora Choolfaian, Beth Weisburd. (Photos courtesy of the candidates)

Port Washington residents will head to the polls May 21 to vote in the school district’s election, with a ballot featuring three Board of Education incumbents facing off against five challengers vying for their seats.

Board of Education President Adam 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 Sandra Alvarez, Michael Bitalvo, Teodora Choolfaian, Joseph Delerme and Beth Weisburd.

The three positions are for a three-year term on the school district’s board that will expire on June 30, 2027.

Voters can vote for any of the three candidates.

The ballot also features the district’s 2024-2025 school budget of $194.5M with a 4.55% tax increase that exceeds the tax cap by 1.16%. This requires a 60% approval vote to pass.

If the budget does not capture a 60% vote of approval May 21, a second vote will be held on June 18.

For the second vote, three budget options can be presented: the original budget with the 4.55% tax increase, a budget with a 3.39% tax increase that doesn’t exceed the tax cap or a budget with a zero % tax increase.

While nearly all candidates have expressed their support for the budget, excluding Choolfaian who did not say whether she did, all the challengers have criticized the board and the district for poor financial planning and not advocating strongly enough for additional aid.

The ballot also includes a proposition that would authorize the district to use $4,055,000 from its capital reserve fund for district-wide improvements to its incoming electrical service.

Community members can vote for three trustees, the budget and the use of the capital reserve funds from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on May 21 in the Weber Middle School All Purpose Room.

Adam Smith

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.

Achievements Smith said he was proud of during his tenure include the establishment of the CTE and Twilight programs, which he said have 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.

Adam Block

Block is a professor of public health at New York Medical College. Block has a Ph.D in health economics from Harvard University and worked for five years on ObamaCare and five years in private practice for health plans and hospital systems.

He also operates his business, Charm Economics, which builds financial models for digital health startups.

Block and his wife are both graduates of Schreiber High School and moved back to Port Washington in 2016. They have three children attending district schools.

He said he is “action-oriented” and has pushed the district to make strides and developments quickly.

“I think one of the things that I do well on the board is provide some urgency,” Block said in an interview with Blank Slate Media. “Which basically means, we’re not going to do this in three years, we’re going to do it soon – within the next year or so.”

The accomplishments Block highlighted included the establishment of the Twilight Program and after-school programs at the elementary schools.

Block has been working on changing the homework policy for the recommended number of minutes of work for the first time in more than 20 years and is seeking to bring that policy to implementation if elected to another term.

Nanette Melkonian

Melkonian and her husband Matt moved to the area in 2000, with all three of their children passing through the Port Washington school district. She has spent time as an elementary, secondary and post-secondary special education teacher.

Melkonian said the philosophy that drives her actions on the board stems from two questions: What are we doing well and where can we grow?

An accomplishment Melkonian noted was the pupil personnel services audit to analyze services for students with disabilities and identify areas where further development is needed. She said she wants to work to implement those initiatives now identified if re-elected.

Priorities that Melkonian identified are the further growth in professional development for teachers and fostering safe and supportive climates on campus for students. She said strides have been made in these areas but looks to continue their progress if re-elected.

“These initiatives have all begun and they’re in their infancy in a lot of ways, and I’d like to really help bring that progress along as an educator myself and as a person who has had three children go through the entire K-12 system,” Melkonian said. “I really understand the long view of our students’ experience here and can really bring some insights to the conversation.”

Sandra Alvarez

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 vulnerable to 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.

Michael Bitalvo

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.

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

He 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.

Teodora Choolfaian

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 because the district is in a “fiscal crisis” as it 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.

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

Joseph Delerme

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

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.

Beth Weisburd

Weisburd, a 27-year resident of Port Washington, was a behavioral therapist for children with autism and is the captain lieutenant of the Port Washington Fire Medic Co. #1. Her children all graduated from Schreiber High School, with her youngest graduating in 2020.

Weisburd served on the Port Washington Board of Education from 2015 until 2021 when she and her fellow two board members were ousted by Block, Melkonian and Smith.

While on the board, Weisburd said she worked to inform the Port Washington community on how state funding was impacting their school district and engaged the community in its campaign “Port’s Fair Share of the Pie” to advocate for greater state funds, and was an advocate for funds at the state and federal level.

She criticized the board’s financial planning and lack of funding advocacy, saying many members did not foresee the upcoming financial issues through aspects like the continuation of programs established on one-time grant funding.

“But they should have been saying that there was a potential for [a tax cap override] back in July,” Weisburd said. “And we should have been educating the community as to the fact that all of these programs, which are incredibly beneficial to students…and particularly important due to the learning losses for some of these students during COVID, that we provide these extra services so we really do need to continue them because those learning losses have not yet been made up.”

If elected to the board once again, Weisburd said she would want to combat the issue of changing state aid by bolstering the board’s advocacy at the state level, holding conversations with the community so they are informed more wholly and beginning the budgeting process in July.

“I believe I need to come back to this school board because I do believe my knowledge of the budget, the financial processes from the district level right on to the federal level is just a critical piece that none of the people who ran against us three years ago have picked up and the work isn’t getting done and despite some other board members trying to do the work I just think it’s just been a lot of roadblocks from people who see the job differently,” Weisburd said. “And lots of people do see the job differently.”

No posts to display


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here