From advocacy to numbers crunching, Pelham school board candidates outlined their goals and reasons for running during Thursday’s forum at Pelham High School.
Candidates , , and took questions from an audience of about four dozen people during the event, which was hosted by the Pelham PTA Council and moderated by Nicole Benjamin, a member of the League of Women Voters.
All of the candidates said they supported the district’s budget proposal for 2012-2013, even if though they each suggested slight changes that could have been made. Other themes that popped up throughout the forum included budget planning for future years and the possibility of reconfiguring the district’s elementary schools. Let Patch save you time. Get great local stories just like this delivered right to your inbox or smartphone everyday with our free newsletter. Fast signup here.
Prencis, a math teacher in Eastchester schools who has lived in Pelham for 13 years, said his experiences as a district parent, a taxpayer who's lived in the town 11 years without children in the school district and as a teacher gives him the ability to see issues from many points of view.
“I know what’s it’s like to be in the classroom, having taught for 20 year and in administration as well—I’m able to see things from a perspective that people may not,” Prencis said.
Prencis named the state tax cap, the district’s transition to common core state learning standards, the state’s new teacher and administrator evaluation mandates as some of the issues Pelham schools will have to face in the future.
“All of these, put together, brings so many challenges to us that we really have to look at all the problems in a variety of ways,” Prencis said. “I can lend a set of eyes and ears to help us solve these problems.”
Michael Recca, a lifelong Pelham resident who graduated from the school system in 2006, believes he can bring a unique and fresh perspective to the board.
During the 2003-2004 school year, Recca led a student team that made recommendation to the district superintendent for a new high school principal. At the time of the principal said the district held a nationwide search that relied on input from all of the community’s stakeholders. Recca said the district needs to use a similar process when it finds a replacements for schools Superintendent Dennis Lauro after
“This model ensures that we find the absolute best candidate, something we need to do to protect our students and our taxpayers,” said Recca, who currently works in financial administration for the Westchester County Department of Social Services.
Recca doesn’t have any children in the school system and he believes this will help make decisions without having a bias to particular constituency.
“Because I don’t have children in the system, I will be able to dedicate a significant amount of time to the board of education and our schools,” Recca said. “Next year, the board of education is going to be tasked with finding solutions to many issues. I believe that all the major issues—the Princeton plan, Investigations, the high school schedule change—we need community input and careful consideration. My goal is to provide the students with best education possible by maintaining fiscally responsible budgets.”
Rosskopf, who has two children in Siwanoy Elementary School, started attending school board meetings last year to find answers to her questions regarding aspects of the elementary school curriculum. She was surprised to discover that none of the current board members have children in the district’s elementary schools.
“That was a perspective that was sorely needed and missing from the board,” Rosskopf said. “I felt it was important after attending all of these board meetings and speaking out about certain issues that at some point, someone step up and say ‘OK, let me participate’.”
Rosskopf said that she hoped to improve transparency and communication in the district.
“There are a lot of important issues coming up in Pelham,” said Rosskopf, who worked as a regulatory attorney before becoming a stay at home mom. “We have a new superintendent that we need to hire, we have a tax cap that’s impacting our decision making. We need to have new priorities and I think that’s something that we all as a community need to come together and participate in.”
Smith, who has daughter who graduated from the school district and a son who currently attends Colonial Elementary School, said she has a vested interest in all three levels of education in the district.
She said her four priorities for the school district are preserving school programs; finding more creative solutions for financing the budget; advocating for more education reforms on the state level; and continuing efforts to improve communication between the board and the district’s stakeholders.
“We face many budget challenges and we’re looking at a budget deficit in the years to come,” said Smith, who worked at the finance desk of for Bear Stearns and was a founding partner of Meigher Communications LP, a start-up magazine publisher. “We also need to hire a superintendent and I’m very interested in helping to tackle these issues and I think that I have the background to help.”
Smith said she has a lot of experience creating long and short term budget plans, hiring senior executives and dealing with a slew personnel issues.
“I am well aware of the enormous workload,” Smith said. “Fortunately, I’m at a moment of my life where I have the time to devote to this.”
Candidates share their views on superintendent search
Audience member Jennifer Slattery asked the candidates what qualities they are looking for in a new superintendent and their plans for involving the community in the discussion. All of the candidates said they wanted as much input from the community's stakeholders as possible before making a decision.
“Maybe we will have to consider having an interim superintendent if it takes us a while to find the right one...we will have to take a lot of time to make sure we find the right one,” Smith said. “Once we’ve narrowed it down, I think the community should get involved with meeting those final candidates in helping us decide what’s right for the community.”
Rosskopf said there is divide in education between those who favor a constructivist learning theory and those who favor a more teacher driven approach. She believes the district can look to the that was conducted to find out which direction the board shoudl go.
“I think at this point, we are at a great crossroads and good point for the community to decide where we want to go,” Rosskopf said. “We need to decide which way we want to go. Do we want to continue in a constructivist model...are we committed to that. If so, we move forward that way. If not, then we move our search to candidates with more traditional ideologies.”
Recca said community, parent, teacher, administrative and student input is vital to the search process.
“Everyone who has a stake in this community should be a part of it, part of developing the profile of the candidate, they should be part of the final interview process and they should be part of making a recommendation to the board,” Recca said. “Once all that is considered, the board can make the best judgement.”
Prencis said he wanted to avoid a superintendent who comes in with an agenda.
“I’d like to have someone that looks to see what we’re doing in Pelham, how we’re doing it, doesn’t look to change the way we’re doing things,” Prencis said. “But looks to see what our weaknesses are and helps us a community, as a school system improve it.”
Elementary school reconfiguration discussed
Another audience member asked the candidates their thoughts on the Princeton Plan, a proposal that would shift elementary school students to based on their grade level. Students are currently assigned to their elementary school building based on the neighborhood they live in.
The candidates agreed that there are potential benefits to the plan, but that it needed to be studied before the district decides to move forward with it.
“The thought of having the entire community at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m in the afternoon, driving children back and forth and many young children, especially in fourth and fifth grade who tend walk home across Boston Post Road, to me sounds like a frightening prospect,” Prencis said.
Prencis should trying something on smaller scale first, like renting a small bus that would transport children who are in larger class sizes to school with smaller class sizes. He said that the Princeton shouldn’t be viewed strictly as a cost saving plan.
Recca agreed with Prencis and said the Princeton Plan should be studied for 18 to 24 months before a decision is made.
“This isn’t a change that can be made one year and you can say ‘well, we didn’t really like it, lets go back and change it next year’,” Recca said. “It’s a major change to the district and I think all of the details of the plan need to be fleshed out and understood.”
Rosskopf said the results from a community forum and phone survey that were held earlier this school year showed that the majority of people were against the plan.
“It was loud and clear people do not want a Princeton plan, we value our neighborhood schools,” Rosskopf said. “It’s what makes Pelham, Pelham and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. If someone were to miraculously come with a plan that was so amazing, with such great educational opportunities, obviously I’d be open to look at it. But it would have to be a pretty amazing outcome.”
Smith agreed that the plan needed to be studied more to determine its educational benefits, before a decision is made.
“I don’t think the plan that was presented to us made us feel like there were real tangible benefits,” Smith said. “If that were to be the case, then ,of course, we should consider it.”
Candidates share views on preserving staff while staying within the property tax cap
Audience member Tom Imperato asked the candidates what steps they would take to cut costs, short of eliminating teachers and programs, in light of the state’s mandated property tax cap.
Rosskopf said there were areas in the budget that she believed could be cut before teachers.
“Many community members have brought them up this year, in this budget cycle and often times things just sort of drifted off...you don’t want to see anyone cut, but there are issues raised about the custodians,” Rosskopf said. “There were issues raised about the administration, the curriculum chairs that were hired and are quite expensive. Looking, again, at the AP courses, AP courses are extremely expensive to offer. That could be a source of savings.”
Smith said the district needed to look at efficiencies and ways to do things better at the schools.
“Some ideas might be too centralize attendance at the schools,” Smith said. “We might want to maximize the schedules to make the best use of our clerical staff and technology...We really need to think outside of the box. Re-bidding external contracts for things like our HVAC and our electrical maintenance inside the building and outside the building. I know we’ve done some of this before, but I think it’s a continuous process.”
Prencis said said he would like to lessen the district’s reliance on printing and use more digital means to give homework assignments and other material. He also said the district should consider offering classes with low enrollment to students in other districts who are interested in the course.
“One of the things we know about the AP classes is a lot of times, they tend to run a little small,” Prencis said. “Well, we can look district to district to see if there are certain ways to see if we can streamline some of these processes. Having 24 kids in an elementary school classroom? Maybe not a good idea. But having 24 or 30 kid in an AP classroom? That’s fine. Those kids are motivated.”
Recca said agreed with all of the suggestions offered Smith, Rosskopf and Prencis that efficiencies needed to be found in the budget.
“The last choice is cutting teacher and having large class sizes,” Recca said.
Correction: Paul Prencis is a math teacher at Eastchester Schools. An earlier version of this story said otherwise.