OB-EN School Board Meets, Greets, Listens and Responds
Roosevelt Elementary School Principal Gina Faust hosted the Feb. 2 board of education meeting in the school’s cafeteria. The room does double duty as its auditorium. Parents, teachers and members of the community were treated to a SmartBOARD presentation on how the school teaches social/emotional learning, and spelling and grammar that are taught using the newest technologies. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Phyllis Harrington said, at the conclusion of that portion of the meeting, “We have districts from all over Long Island and Westchester asking to come tour the school.” The district has partnered with the Columbia College School of Education to bring the latest tools for teaching to enhance learning.
Dr. Harrington told the audience that the Nassau Suffolk School Board Association for Long Island is encouraging a handwritten letter campaign to Albany on the state budget on the issue of aid to education in a more equitable and appropriate manner that is consistent with the true cost of education on Long Island. Their slogan is One Island – One Voice, from Oyster Ponds to Oyster Bay. The board agreed to the idea which they will share with the PTA to get parents and community members to write the letters.
The idea is to compile as many letters as possible to deliver in a coordinated approach to lawmakers.
Dr. Harrington said the budget documents are being worked on. She presented board members with a preliminary look at what will be available to the community at the Saturday, Feb. 6 budget forum. [Because of the concern about a storm that day, the budget forum was postponed to Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m.] She said by then there would be more fine-tuning of the document, as she, Mr. Christopher Van Cott, the assistant for business; and Ms. Laura Seinfeld, the assistant for curriculum review it.
She told board members that some lines were highlighted in yellow to indicate they needed explanations because of additions or reductions.
Ms. Harrington said they are getting an early start on the budget process, they have two months to complete it. She said on Saturday she expected that a number of community members wanted to be heard. “Let’s use Saturday as an information session to give people the opportunity to express their thoughts and concerns; for board comments; and for community comments,” she said.
She added, “Not that we have to respond to all community comments then.” [That has been a sticking point to some questioners at previous meetings when an answer has been deferred to a later date after it can be checked and researched – so in this case it is being stated before the fact.]
The board members were given a supplementary package to see budget adjustments already there. Included is a “consideration list.” She said the proposed budget is higher than she would have liked, but it is based on community comments on what they want to keep intact. It is always negotiable; there will be corrections and adjustments, she said.
Dr. Harrington stressed that the budget meeting was a forum or town meeting and suggested that as a result Mr. Van Cott and Ms. Seinfeld – her team in preparing the budget – would be seated next to her to facilitate the process. [She is usually seated in the midst of board members.]
She said she hoped a great many community members would attend the meeting and said, “Let us do our best work for a fair, fiscally responsible budget and one that is as much as the community can bear.”
Dr. Harrington also announced that the district will be joining the plan of the Locust Valley Central School District, the Glen Cove City School District, the Oyster Bay-East Norwich School District and the Port Washington Union Free School District to bid for ancillary and related special education services for joint bidding. Locust Valley will be the lead agency for the bidding, she said.
OB-EN Board President James Robinson welcomed Alexa Ritacco and Christine Drexler to speak to the board. The two young ladies had taken part in Oyster Bay High School Principal Dennis O’Hara’s bus trip to inspect colleges. Ms. Drexler, a sophomore, said the trip helped her decide whether she wanted to be six hours away from home or two hours; and whether to attend a big university or a little one where you would get a lot of attention. Alexa Ritacco said it was amazing. She said she had no idea of going to college; and it opened up the admission process; learned the variety of choices available and added, “Every student should have this opportunity.”
Christine said the trip focused the students on where they are heading in their work at high school.
Parents pay for the trip, and there are fundraisers associated with it. The school does have classes on preparing the college essay, said Ms. Harrington. “This is exactly the kind of feedback we were hoping for,” said Mr. Robinson.
Salary Vote Timing
Local resident Grace Searby sent letters to the editor of local newspapers questioning the process in which Dr. Harrington was given a raise for the 2009-2010 school year. She accused the board of giving the raise in 2008 and not in 2009. She pointed to a line on the budget status report in the 2008 budget with the figure $230,000 on a salary line for the superintendent, and asked why it was voted on in 2009 although listed in the 2008 budget.
Ms. Searby questioned that the school board meeting agenda of July 7, 2009 did not include information about the raise negotiations. She held up a copy of the budget status report and questioned it saying it listed the new salary for the superintendent earlier than the date it was voted upon.
Mr. Van Cott explained that a $6,000 stipend was written on a line under the salary line for $224,000 but that it was included with the salary in a further column as $230,000. “The total did not exceed the salary line,” he said. [That figure coincidentally is the same as the raise she did receive in the July 7 vote.]
Board President Robinson answered Ms. Searby’s other question, about the timing of the vote. Mr. Robinson said, with two newly elected board members, Jim Mattel, and Michael Castellano, the decision was to have them be in on the salary negotiations. The two men had replaced Judith Wasilchuk and Dolores Greico, two seasoned board members.
The two new board members hadn’t been sworn in until that meeting. After being sworn in, the executive session began to discuss several items including the superintendent’s salary. The board went back into public session to hold the vote, although by that time the public had left. They printed another added agenda sheet with the information about the raises on it. The information was available as part of the minutes of that meeting, said Mr. Robinson.
“I personally felt there was much fairness to have two new board members there for the vote rather than vote beforehand and then they would have to live with that decision.” The vote was unanimous, said Mr. Robinson.
He said the challenge is how to get the word out to the community on what their decisions are. He said, “The best way to get the word out is for open meetings like this one.”
That is the whole purpose of the public meeting, he said. He gave a business example saying “If you missed the company Monday morning informational meeting, it’s up to the individual to get the information. The forum on Saturday is a perfect example. It is held on Saturday to allow more people to attend to get more feedback from the community. We are totally open to feedback – both positive and negative. To suggest that something is secret is improper [as the letter suggested].”
Mr. Robinson said, “That is as simple as it gets. It is not a debate or argument although you personally may disagree, Ms. Searby.”
Board member Donald Zoeller added that the minutes of the meetings are available on the school website: obenschools.org. Ms. Searby questioned how timely they are posted. “As quick as we can,” said Mr. Robinson.
Ms. Searby said, “In two months.” Mr. Robinson said, “That’s an attack. I wish as a community we could get by that. We are trying to provide the best education we can.”
He added, “You are entitled to your opinion but enough is enough. We are working for the best interests of the students. I love working here. I see where the district was and where it is today.”
Robin Dando added to the discussion of the vote saying that after the July 7 meeting the board didn’t get together until the end of August. [Minutes must be approved and any changes made before they are sent out to the public.] She added that the board all agreed it was better to hold the salary negotiations with the two new board members in attendance.
As to Ms. Searby’s comments on the fund balance being secretive, Mr. Robinson said at meetings in 2009 on Jan. 20; Feb. 7; Feb. 24; March 17 and May 5 the capital reserves and fund balance were mentioned. “Starting in January, at every meeting, there were talks of the fund balance. It changes every day. It is discussed all the way along the budget process. How can you say it is secret?” She started to comment and he added,
“This is not a debate.”
Ms. Searby said, “You have a very nice way to make me sound wrong.” She held up the status report and said, “People here have to know where my information comes from.” She asked for an explanation of the information.
That was unnecessary, said Mr. Robinson, saying that they had answered her conjectures. He added, [in what appeared to be a restrained yet frustrated manner] “You were a board member. Why don’t you understand [about the fund balance]?”
A community member spoke up saying, “Can’t you guys find another time to clear this up.” Another person added that it was a poor addition to a meeting that had been very uplifting and informational. The audience in general was grumbling at the digression.
As the evening ended Dr. Harrington invited Ms. Searby to hear Mr. Van Cott explain the notations on the budget status report. The Enterprise Pilot requested a comment from the district and the administration replied via email, “Ms. Searby questioned the budget status report saying that it listed the new salary for the superintendent earlier than the date it was voted upon. Mr. Van Cott explained that was not the case and provided clarifying information.”
There was no actual discussion as to why the board gave the raises in spite of the economy, although it was later stated that she is the third lowest paid superintendent in the area and has been approached by recruiters. A local resident commented that when the budget was being cut last year, they talked of slashing money for intramurals; but after the budget passed they gave a raise to the superintendent.
The board had started its workshop session at 7 p.m. in executive session discussing negotiations and personnel. The math and science workshops on the work of the Roosevelt School began at about 9 p.m. and included visits to the math and science rooms for special presentations that the board and many listeners attended.
Kevin and Lauren Brady said they are delighted with their sons Michael in second grade; and Bryan in kindergarten, who love science and love coming to the Roosevelt School. “Even the crossing guard knows their names, as does Principal Gina Faust,” they said.
Ms. Brady said, “The crossing guard says good morning to them; the boys know the names of the custodians; the staff knows all the kids; there is a sense of community in the school. I come in and people know my name. It really is an open-door school. And as for Ms. Faust, she really, really knows the kids, personally. The board and the administration are superlative.”