Monday, May 20, 2013

Bedford School Board Election Q&A: Gerken, Grant & Solomon

Jennifer Gerken (courtesy photo)
Jennifer Gerken (courtesy photo)
On Tuesday, voters in the Bedford Central School District will go to the polls to vote, with school board seats and the proposed 2013-14 budget on the ballot. Three school board candidates are each running uncontested: incumbents Jennifer Gerken and Suzanne Grant and challenger Michael Solomon. Patch did a question-and-answer segment with each candidates and their answers are place in the same article. A biography, which is below, precedes the questions:
Jennifer Gerken, a 10-year Bedford resident, is running for a second, 3-year term to the board. She has two kids in the district, in Bedford Village Elementary School and Fox Lane Middle School.

Suzanne Grant is a 15-year Mount Kisco resident with two kids enrolled in the district. She is running for her second, 3-year term to the board. Prior to being elected for the first time she was on the Mount Kisco Elementary School Association (MKESA), a member of the district's Budget Advisory Committee and a co-chair of its In Focus community opinion initiative. Her husband, Mark, is a sports marketer and she has about two decades of advertising agency experience.

Michael Solomon, a Bedford resident, works at Ramirez & Co. as a managing director in its public finance department. He has about 25 years of experience working on budgeting, debt management and credit rating strategies with state and local governments. Prior to working at Ramirez, which he joined in 2011, his career included time at Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns. Solomon, who first made a bid for the school board in 2010, also served on the New York State Property Tax Commission and then on the Suffolk County Budget Review Task Force.


Patch: What are the school district's biggest challenges? 

Jennifer Gerken: The biggest challenge is preserving a high quality and unique educational experience for each of our students within the financial and regulatory constraints handed down by Albany.

Suzanne Grant: One of our biggest challenges is balancing Bedford Central’s own rigorous and innovative teaching curriculum with educational directives prescribed by the state and federal government. Teaching is as much art as it is science. While data- and assessment-driven evaluations have a role in student learning, inventive teaching, in-depth understanding and critical thinking are equally as important as standardized test scores. The potential for college and career readiness for our students is enhanced when we are given appropriate local control of our programs and expenditures.

Michael Solomon: Achieving sustainable, structurally balanced budgets while meeting the needs of all District stakeholders.

Patch: State-mandated employee pension contributions have been a significant driver of higher costs for the district in recent years. What changes, if any, would you like to see to the pension system?

Jennifer Gerken:
 The current pension system is unsustainable for most districts, particularly now with the tax levy cap in place. For the past several years, pension contributions alone have used the entire allowable tax levy increase. I strongly support reform that would give districts more local control over their budgets.

Suzanne Grant: It’s true that employee pension contributions eat up a significant portion of our district budget. They are by far BCSD’s most costly NYS legally required expense. Unfortunately, these non-negotiable benefit contributions are also entirely out of our local control. To avoid cutting deeper and deeper into student programs, we need state pension reform or tax cap exclusions to smooth pension spikes.

Michael Solomon: The good news here is that the two pension funds that our District participates in have performed well recently, which should provide real budget relief in a couple of years when annual pension contributions will no longer need to reflect 2008 -2009 market losses. In the interim, both pension funds now offer the ability for participants to defer a portion of their annual pension expenses, providing Districts with the opportunity to realize immediate budget relief.

Patch: Do you support repealing the Triborough Amendment to the state's Taylor Law, which preserves terms of expired union contracts until new deals are in place?
Jennifer Gerken: 
Whether or not the Amendment is repealed, if any district is to successfully navigate all of the challenges in this state, a new level of collaboration and partnership between administration and bargaining units will be essential. We need to reexamine past practices and work towards initiatives that support this effort.

Suzanne Grant: I support any measure that frees school districts to collaborate innovatively with their local units, enhance the professionalism of their staff, and direct resources towards student learning.

Michael Solomon: Yes

Patch: What are your thoughts on tenure for teachers and administrators?

Jennifer Gerken: 
By in large, the majority of teachers and staff are incredibly dedicated- constantly reflecting on and perfecting their practice. For those who do not perform their job ably, continued employment should be at the discretion of the district.

Suzanne Grant: In the many decades since tenure law was established in NY State, the role of teachers has evolved. While I think it makes sense to maintain some of the due process guarantees for teachers and administrators, I welcome making tenure more challenging to secure and to maintain. Currently BCSD’s gateway to tenure is quite rigorous and results in highly skilled and motivated faculty with a vested interest in building their careers here.

Michael Solomon: Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of tenure

Patch: The district is facing academic mandates from the state, such as continued administration of a new teacher and principal evaluation system and a shift to what are called common core standards. How do you think the district is doing in responding to these requirements? What else, if anything, would you like to see done? 

Jennifer Gerken: We are very fortunate that our Superintendent was out in front of the APPR issue and the collaboration between our administrators and teachers on reaching consensus should be a model for other districts. I am equally satisfied with how our administration is navigating the challenges of common core standards.

Suzanne Grant: I believe the district is doing an exceptional job of tailoring the state’s one-size-fits-all academic mandates into beneficial educational initiatives that fit BCSD well. Our district created a model APPR teacher/principal evaluation system and seamlessly integrated the Common Core standards into the curriculum. I would applaud more governmental funding for these costly mandates and less emphasis on standardized testing -- as well as more flexibility to balance state imposed programs with our own “homegrown” creative educational approaches.

Michael Solomon: I would like to defer my response to this question until I have had a chance to assess our District’s response to these mandates.

Patch: The school district faced a challenge this year when initial versions of the proposed 2013-14 budget included more cuts than those slated to go into effect. Examples included reducing the number of modified sports teams, music rotational time, a TV job and librarian jobs. Several of the original proposed cuts have since been recouped, with private funding playing some of the role in doing so. However, as Superintendent Jere Hochman has noted, the district could be in the same position in the future. In the long term, and assuming no major legislative changes to mandated costs, what measures would you support to help the district sustain services that have been eyed for cuts?

Jennifer Gerken: We have to assume Albany will be of little help in providing relief from State-imposed spending. Changes, which we have already begun, will have to come on several fronts. First, we have to identify new non-tax revenue streams, such as partnering with the community to preserve certain programs. We also need to reevaluate how we deliver some of our programs, which we will be doing in the coming year. And, we need to continue to work collaboratively with our bargaining units as we negotiate future contracts.

Suzanne Grant: When state mandated spending collides with the tax levy cap, it is inevitable that school districts like ours will have to make cuts to student programs and staff year after year. For the coming 2013-2014 school year, we bridged the budget gap by reevaluating or reducing some programs, sharing particular costs with the community, and through judicious use of district reserves. Looking ahead, I expect that we will need to become even more efficient in our program delivery and seek creative means of gaining additional outside funding for non-core programs that we consider valuable.
Michael Solomon: I’d shift the dialogue around the school budget to center on what’s best for the long- term. Ensuring our schools flourish and are affordable will, over time, be to everyone’s advantage and differentiate us from those Districts that continue to perpetuate the annual cycle of downsizing and tax hiking. Utilizing multi- year budgeting would be helpful in this regard.

Patch: The school board is slated to vote later this year to approve a capital plan of more than $30 million for a voter referendum, with bonding as the primary way to pay for it. The capital plan includes major structural changes to West Patent Elementary School, a cafeteria/multi-use space addition and renovations for the houses at Fox Lane Middle School, along with replacement of the track and turf at the Fox Lane campus. Do you support the current proposed scope of the capital plan or do you feel that it should be adjusted? If you would like to see the scope changed, should more items be included or should fewer items be included?

Jennifer Gerken:
 I do support the Capital Plan as it is proposed. As it stands, it includes what is necessary to meet health and safety standards and to maintain our physical plant. If the bond is approved, and should we realize any savings during the course of construction, I would be in favor of earmarking the funds for the semi-completed air-conditioning project in the three-story addition at the high school. In addition to completing an unfinished project from the last bond, having access to an air-conditioned space over the summer months could lead to additional revenue from rental of the space.

Suzanne Grant: After years of research and many months of opinion gathering and planning, the scope of the capital plan has been honed to the essentials that we need to keep our district facilities in good shape and safe for students. A centerpiece of our Fox Lane campus, I also support the renovation of our athletic field and track through a combination of district monies and community fundraising.

Michael Solomon: In general, I’m not going to support anything that we can’t afford or that impedes our financial flexibility. That is why we are in this fiscal conundrum. That being said, if we can find offsetting cuts in other areas, I would be supportive.

Patch: The state-mandated cap on annual tax levy increases will expire in June 2016 unless if it is renewed. If elected, this would happen near the end of your term. Do you support allowing the cap to expire or should it be extended? 

Jennifer Gerken: I support local control for school districts. Years before the tax cap was imposed, our community made it clear that taxes were too high and our district responded by lowering the annual budget-to-budget and tax levy increases. Over the last five years, the average annual tax levy increase has been less than 1.6%

Suzanne Grant: Years before the Governor’s legal tax cap, Bedford Central responded to taxpayer concerns with a self-imposed cap of sorts, resulting in average tax levy increases of less than 1.5% over the last five years. Because our district’s ultimate goal is a community partnership in support of school excellence, I expect that our local practice of fiscal prudence and community dialog will continue regardless of taxation mandates from the Albany.

Michael Solomon: I’d support its extension.

Patch:  The issue of personnel status disclosure has been in the news in the past year for the neighboring school districts of Chappaqua and Briarcliff. In Chappaqua's case it involved a longtime football coach and physical education teacher who was suspended and then resigned.In Briarcliff it involved the planned resignation of its current superintendent and quick selection of new superintendent. In both cases, school boards did not disclose the reasons for why the status changes were made, with limitations on being able to do so cited by board members. Is it appropriate for districts to not disclose personnel status when an individual is facing discipline or leaving, and would you support repealing limitation of school officials disclosing details of employee suspensions, terminations or resignations?
Jennifer Gerken: Barring illegal activity, an employees’ performance should be a private personnel matter. That being said, on all fronts, I believe districts should be as transparent as they can be under the law.

Suzanne Grant: I value Bedford Central’s robust dialog with the community, support maximum transparency as allowed by law, and personally endeavor to engage the community in all that we do.

Michael Solomon: I'm in favor of full disclosure on these matters as long as it doesn't inadvertently impact a student.

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