As you know, on May 20 the Carmel Central School District is holding an election to fill two seats on the Board of Education and a referendum on the proposed budget. Last night, the CCSD held its "meet the candidates" forum. On May 12 it will hold its budget presentation at 7pm in the CHS library.
I went to last night's forum to hear what the three candidates for the two school board seats had to say about why we should elect them. The event was moderated by the Putnam County League of Women Voters. The format was the standard one for LoWV forums -- opening statements, questions from the public read by the moderator, and then closing statements. Timekeepers made sure all the candidates got an equal opportunity. Some of the questions were submitted by members of PTAs and PTOs, others were submitted by audience members.
Here are my impressions about what happened at the meeting.
The candidates clearly wanted to talk about what they could do and had done to make the schools happier, prettier, safer places. They talked about their children and their their experience with the school system, all of which were pretty uniformly positive. They talked about technology in the schools, which they all agreed is a good idea. One of them, Tara DeTurris, was especially enthusiastic about increasing use of technology in the schools.
They were willing to talk about the so called "common core standards" and about standardized testing, but didn't seem too well versed on the details. For example, not one of them was articulate about the common core standards, the curricula the District uses for teaching, and the standardized tests the State uses to measure achievement and, instead, simply lumped it all into "the common core." They were of the opinion that the common core was a Good Thing that had been poorly rolled out by the State Department of Education. All of them thought that, while testing is necessary, the State's tests were poorly done and not useful as diagnostics. They all also said that they thought children who found the tests too stressful should be able to "opt out." And they were clear that they thought teachers should not be measured on how their students do on the tests.
This kind of confusion about what the common core standards are, how they fit (or don't fit) with the curricula and how all of that meshes (or doesn't mesh) with the standardized testing is understandable for the general public, but rather disappointing for candidates for the school board.
All the candidates were willing to talk about collecting and sharing personal data about students. They are all firmly against it and want the data that is collected to remain at the school district level. None of them answered a question about whether the District's current policies and practices for collecting and sharing personal data about students and families is adequate and proper. None of them mentioned the turmoil the State is in now that InBloom, the contractor the State planned to use to manage the data it requires districts to collect, has gone out of business.
It's admirable, in my view, that they think the District should collect and hold only data it needs about kids, but it's disappointing that they seem to have no view about the propriety of what's actually happening or where things are going on this topic.
They clearly did not want to talk about contract negotiations, the Triborough Amendment, taxes, or other fiscal stuff. One of the questions was a direct, "Do you favor repealing the Triboro amendment." The unlucky candidate who got to answer it first, Michelle Yorio, called it "the big elephant in the room," but didn't take a position other than to observe it didn't look like the Triborough Amendment was going away any time soon. She went on to explain that if everyone talked honestly during negotiations it would surely all work out. The other candidates basically agreed, and similarly took no position. The incumbent, Heyam Nesheiwat, pointed out that the Board had done a good job on contract negotiations a few years ago. The agreement has resulted in substantial cost savings and everyone seemed okay with the compromise.
The final question of the night was about whether year-to-year budget increases of about the size proposed for this year -- 2.41% -- would be enough to let the District maintain the quality of our schools while at the same time remaining affordable for taxpayers in the long run. One candidate, Tara DeTurris, said she understood the question but couldn't answer it. Another, Heyam Nesheiwat, said the school funding model in NY is broken. The size of the increase in this year's budget was neither sufficient to maintain our school system nor affordable for the taxpayer in the long run. That means somebody out there at the State or Federal level needs to fix school funding in NY. The third candidate, Michelle Yorio, basically said that ever-increasing taxes were an unfortunate fact of life here in NY. She didn't take a clear stand on whether the increase in this year's budget was a sufficient or sustainable level of unfortunate fact.
It seems to me that the long-term funding of our schools is the single most important item the District faces. In my estimation, Ms Nesheiwat is correct in her diagnosis. On current course, increasing the budget by something like 2.5% on average each year will not sustain the schools at their current quality level. It won't because costs are rising faster than that. You can already see the program being chipped slowly away in the budgets from the last few years. At the same time, adding 2.5% in real, inflation-adjusted dollars year after year isn't a burden taxpayers can bear. At that rate in less than a generation school taxes would double the share they take from each family's income.
I found all three candidates' answers to this crucial question disturbingly weak. I hope Ms Nesheiwat is correct that They will fix it, but betting on Them to do so seems foolish. The community needs leadership on the issue from our Board, but none of the candidates gives any sign that electing her will help.