This year, the Mamaroneck School Board Selection Committee chose one candidate for each of the three vacancies on the School Board. No news there. Uncontested elections are the norm to help shield the elections from political excess. The committee chose current board president Robin Nichinsky, along with Melany Gray and Roger Martin, who have volunteered in the schools but who have never been on the board.
But a fourth candidate has emerged—in the first contested school board election since 2006—after gathering the 49 signatures it took to get his name on the ballot. It’s the “right thing to do,” said Gatti, of his unsanctioned run. “What the committee might decide is best for the village is not necessarily right; you have 30 to 40 people at most making the decision.”
Though the committee, “felt that the other three had more experience in the community…but experience in the private sector is not a disadvantage to serving the public.”
During an hour-long forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and broadcast live on live on Monday evening, moderator Alice Bloom asked the group a series of questions, starting with Nichinsky, sitting on the far left, then rotating among the other candidates.
Bloom asked how candidates would respond to and prioritize the desires of constituent groups like Fields for Kids, a local organization that raises money for safe and updated playing fields.
Gatti responded that the job requirement of being on the board requires members to juggle various special interests, however, financial restraints will make decisions more difficult, he said, predicting sobering times in the next five to ten years unless flexibility can be built into the budget.
Although, “one of the hardest things about being on the board is understanding what the community wants," said Gray, she believes that the board has done a good job providing a forum for minority voices.
Next, the moderator noted the recent flap over outsourcing the district’s transportation department, and asked if there were other ways to tighten up expenditures without compromising the quality of education.
Although all the seemingly obvious cuts have already been made, said Gray, one additional area for reevaluation could be teacher’s contracts, with the district already seeking more flexibility from faculty members.
Also responding, Martin said that the only good thing about a financial crisis is that it forces people to, “think creatively how to deliver education more effective and efficiently.”
Nichinsky replied that although the board had saved $2 million by eliminating 56 positions and installing new energy efficient heating systems that saved $80,000 in the last few years, Albany’s tax cap mandate, declining state aid, unfunded mandates and soaring pension and health care costs would remain significant challenges to any savings achieved by cost-cutting measures.
Acknowledging that a lot of the “low hanging fruit” had already been plucked, Gatti said that the non-discretionary portion of the budget that goes to infrastructure and personnel would be the force that would drive up taxes, pointing to the importance of negotiations with the teacher’s union.
A lively discussion ensued regarding teacher assessments and the role of student test scores.
Martin said that “most reasonable teachers would say they should be evaluated” but that just doing it through test scores is untenable and that the degree of public disclosure of teacher ratings is an important issue, since teachers would be the sole profession in the nation that would have their job performance reviews made public.
Nichinsky agreed that teachers expect to be held accountable and the district has instituted a new evaluation system that has to be revised under state statute. She also raised the issue of tenure, claiming that there’s too little time under the process to fully evaluate teachers up for tenure.
Taking a middle of the road approach, Gatti urged a compromise between test scores and the superintendent, staff and students’ knowledge of what goes on in the schools.
Gray urged that evaluations not be used in a punitive way, but to help teachers improve, though she acknowledged the difficulty of measuring classroom effectiveness through objective measures.
Bloom, the moderator, raised the issue of attempts on a national level to revise the core curriculum.
Arguing for a limited federal role in the schools, Gatti said that the, “community is best served by having the flexibility to decide our own curriculum.”
Gray said that the common core is close to what already exists in Mamaroneck and that no matter what the lesson plan, success in the classroom is predicated on excellent teaching.
Martin spoke about the active learning trend on college campuses, which get away from the “sage on a stage” model of education that seeks to get students involved in their own learning. He saw little evidence of the new approach on the secondary level.
Nichinsky said that teachers seemed to like the common core since it delves into more detail and avoids superficialities.
Voting for the Mamaroneck School Board, the school budget and an infrastructure bond issue will take place on May 15.