Residents of the Malverne school district had a second chance to get to know the five candidates running for the two available seats on the Board of Education Monday night. and , who are both running for the seat of retiring Trustee Karen Aker, and the three candidates vying for the position Dr. Patrick Coonan resigned from – , and – all participated in a candidates forum hosted by the PTA’s Central Council.
Serving as the moderator of the timed two-hour debate, Central Council co-president Ellie Verhun read written questions that had been collected from the small crowd that was scattered throughout Howard T. Herber Middle School’s auditorium. The candidates were grilled regarding their stances on several hot-button issues including the downsizing of central administration, restoring program cuts, improving board cooperation and consolidating with other school districts.
However, it was the “loaded questions” - three regarding a specific candidate’s lack of voting history in the district, one focused on and some of their personal relationships with fellow candidates and board members - that seemed to steal the spotlight. Questions like “How would you handle confidential information?” and “What do you think of the ‘I Love Malverne’ Facebook page?” prompted a few residents, including Trustee Gina Genti, to storm out, and incited others to laugh, applaud or scratch their heads as the focus drifted further away from the real challenges the district is facing.
Central Council prohibited Patch from videotaping the event, later stating that the request to do so needed to be made weeks in advance and would have required consent from all five candidates. They also banned the use of all electronic devices, forcing this reporter to stop taking notes on a laptop and creating a tense atmosphere as security guards were instructed to confront anyone with a cell phone in hand. (Not even a child quietly playing with a video game was exempted.)
Below is a list of some of the questions that were asked and the candidates’ responses.
- Do you think it’s appropriate for student services to be cut when we have three superintendents for  schools?
Taylor: “Each superintendent has a responsibility … The income of the administrative building is only 1 percent [of the budget], and as board member, for me to go straight in and focus on 1 percent, I would really be doing a disservice to the community. You have to know everybody’s job description … We do have 4-5 people in the office that we aren’t paying medical benefits for, which is roughly saving us over $1 million, and you have to take things like that into consideration … Are they needed? I’m not sure yet. Until I get there and reevaluate everybody’s positions and what they bring to the district as a whole that’s a decision that can’t be made right now.”
Besson: "During austere times, everyone has to bear the brunt of the burden, share the burden … This administration preferred to cut deeply in the classroom and barely touched the administration. You can see the real impact in cuts. I think we have to consolidate, most companies do ... you have to do with less. This administration has placed it’s values not on children first, but administration first, and that needs to change."
Krudis: "There has to be a shared sacrifice. In these times, it can't just be coming out of the classrooms or the taxpayers padding the bill. In the city, and I'm not saying this is the way to go ... but in my school district, there's one superintendent for 43 schools. Nobody goes into education to become a millionaire so if you’re heart is in it for the right reasons, we can find people who are willing to get paid a justified amount to be administrators in our school district. I would love for them to come and justify their jobs to me … It’s not fair to us that it’s constantly coming out from our kids and not from up top."
Bottitta: "I can’t believe that anybody can make a decision today sitting here right now on what should be cut. It requires a full review from top to bottom, whether it be the superintendent or anybody else, and seeing what they do ... I’m not opposed to cutting anyone. In my career I have cut many people, but it requires the research... You have to look at the entire process, before you can make those decisions."
Nolan Kasal: "We need to look at everything. It's my understanding that in the history of Malverne, that there wasn't always three superintendents... We need to go back and look at what value was added with the third position and whether it's still needed in this time of fiscal trouble. Students come first and looking at where the cuts need to be made ... every stone needs to be turned in every aspect not just administration versus students but looking at the programs and services we provide and how we provide them needs to be addressed as well."
- What do you think is the biggest District 12 problem and what is the solution?
Besson: "We have not be able to transcend our history in that Lakeview, Lynbrook and Malverne is one community. If we keep this divisive politics, it's going to continue to hurt our kids. The demographics in the school system does not reflect the demographics in the actual community and I think it hurts when we don't look at all the children as our children. That is reflected in our values in the budget, our hiring and in our general policies. We have to understand we are all in this together. If Lakeview falls, Malverne will take a hit and so will Lynbrook ... If our public schools become better, that improves the economic viability of our community because people are going to want to come here but if we keep fighting and bickering over issues that are mundane we are going to stay where we are for a long time."
Bottitta: "There is nobody in this audience that does not want to rise the bar on the level of education that we provide. It doesn't matter if you use the school or not ... but we have increase costs, some are contractual, and we have reduced funding. We have a responsibility to be the watchdog of what the taxpayers burden is while trying to balance raising the bar in this community ... There is not one solution ... All things need to be considered."
Nolan Kasal: "One of the most pressing issues is the communication or lack there of that seems to be going on, and cooperation between the board and administration, which trickles down into the community ... We need to make sure we are listening to each other, working together and being on the same page with what our common goals are. Being an educator, I can help increase that communication and understanding, having an extensive background in education and knowing what is coming down from the state and government in terms of educational mandates."
Taylor: "A lot of people in District 12 are bullies and we always talk to kids about bullying ... but as adults we are constantly going around bullying, jocking for positions and holding onto old wounds instead of trying to get over things. The bar for what is passing and failing is too low ... We have to get over what might have happened 40-50 years ago and figure out the best way to move on, because in this struggle, we are forgetting about the kids ... they are the ones losing out. Everyone has to hold each other accountable. It's the fault of everyone."
Krudis: "The biggest one would have to be the budget cuts. They are coming from the state but we have to start thinking outside the box. In terms of grant-writing, I was told there is a grant-writing committee but I've yet to see it. That's something we can collaborate with community members that may be strong in certain areas to help us bring in revenue to our schools to alleviate the tax burden. Corporate America, at my school, we partnered up with a company and they have been supplying school supplies and brought in their own people to give our school a little facelift. These are the things we pay for with our taxes but could be alleviated in other ways."
- What would you do to bring back the classes, electives and clubs that have been greatly cut?
Nolan Kasal: We need to look at reaching out to foundations and corporations that have money and are waiting to help support school districts. If we're able to secure these grants or scholarships for extracurricular programs ... through funding that we can reach and find in places other than what comes from our taxes and the state ... and making sure that money is going to clubs that have the most interest among kids."
Taylor: "It's nice to talk about grant writing and seeking money from other places, but before we get to that point we have to understand where we are at ...currently we are spending 60 percent less than in 2006. A lot of schools are spending less money per child, and they have more resources than we do, they are more up-to-date on technology. What that tells me is that we have our money allocated in places where it shouldn't be. Some of the programs we need to look at and maybe it's worth being cut."
Bottitta: "We need to look at neighboring communities' school districts and learn how they do it and compare it against us. See how they can provide differently and maybe more effectively than we do. We are faced with cuts and I think there are more to come and now we have caps on the property tax which will create less funding for our district. We need to look at a collective number of things ... the manpower that exists just in this room .... volunteer programs ... go out to Corporate America .... There should be fundraising. We live on Long Island ... and we have a certain expectation to provide more than what the city schools provide."
Krudis: "Coming from the city schools, I didn't have all the frills and I decided that when I moved out here, that I wanted my children to have the frills ... the programs, the services, sports and the extracurricular activities ... It comes back down to the budget and where money is allocated ... Wantagh just hired a superintendent for $220K and that district is double the size of our district, so there are people out there who are willing to do the job for less. There's another model in Cincinnati right now called community schools ... it's getting everyone involved to bring revenue into the schools and make it a place where kids can get the extra stuff."
Besson: "I'd be willing to explore the idea of district consolidation. Look at central administration cuts, overinvesting in certain departments ... I'd also look at exploring ideas like a pre-college program working through business partnerships to replace BOCES. I'd audit current financial operations for waste and look at the fact that our teachers had to take freezes and cuts in some cases while our administration didn't. That sends the wrong message to our public and our kids."
- Do you think this district would benefit from consolidation and what would that benefit be?
Krudis: "I think we should definitely look into consolidating our district. They already started upstate with transportation ... and saved a whole lot of money. It makes sense, we all go to BJ's to buy in bulk to save money. It's the same idea. You're buying in bulk for supplies, health insurance and transportation. I'm not saying we have to send our kids to different schools, it's more a behind-the-scenes thing."
Nolan Kasal: "I'm definitely open to looking into it. We are a small district. Looking at maybe one of our neighboring district, that we can pool our resources together and get more for our money. There are definitely areas we can double up for the running of our district ... busing, administration, supplies ... and then what money we save goes directly to students services."
Taylor: "I would have to look at consolidation with a magnifying glass. It's very hard to save money and for some areas, consolidation is more expensive ... I don't think consolidation is the way to go for us. I would look into if that's something the community wants me to do but I'm not very big on someone coming into my backyard and telling me what's good for my people and my district."
Besson: "I love the idea of economies of scale because it would save us a lot of money ... As soccer coach, we combined with East Rockaway ... so technically, we have consolidated on some fronts already. Also, if we consolidate and maintain our identity, that's the right way to go. We can eliminate duplicate services, [including] administrative positions ... We can find better ways of doing things because maybe East Rockaway ... or West Hempstead have a better way of doing some things."
Bottitta: "Consolidation regarding purchasing or centralizing certain roles, administration is one thing, and certainly that needs to be looked at and is already occurring in our district ... But there are interesting things to explore ... Our teachers are one of the lowest paid across Long Island. They've made concessions already. If we now merge with another district, under bumping rights under a union contract we could ... lose lowerpaid teachers who are as qualified ... and have teachers 'bump' in who are more senior and cost more ... It requires a feasibility study."
- Is everyone a registered voter and have you always been a strong supporter of voting? And if you were not, what made you a voter at this time?
Bottitta: "I registered to vote ... very soon after I moved into this district. I believe you should partake in these elections. Before my children were in this school district I was involved in the community, not only in voting for the budgets, but partaking in the school itself ... and Project Enroll ... I think it's very difficult to go to a senior or someone who doesn't use the school district and explain to them why they should vote now if you haven't registered to vote."
Krudis: "When I moved here 8 years ago, I moved into Lynbrook. I didn't have children right away, my husband is in the Lynbrook truck company and through that is where I established my friendships. I was basically rooted in Lynbrook. When my children came along, I put them in Grace Play School in Lynbrook ... Little League at Lynbrook. When my husband and I decided, Malverne would be the schools we would put our sons into, from that moment on I joined Project Enroll and attended all the board meetings to become an informed voter. This will be my first year voting on the school budget. If that's my biggest sin ... crucify me."
Besson: "I've been registered for 12 years, but I’m baffled by the nature of the question, because that doesn’t have to do with educational value and well-being. Here’s where the pettiness of our community rears its head. It’d like to focus on our students achievement and development. That’s why we are here.”
Nolan Kasal: "I moved here in 2001 and either registered in 2001 or 2002 and voted in every election."
Taylor: "When I moved out here ... If you live in a community and you are not active in that community through voting or getting involved, you are wrong, because there's so much at stake, not just what's going on in your household, but in your neighbor's household and in the schools. If your school district fails ... then everything else around it fails. Voting for me as an African American male is very serious and I will vote until I die."
- As a board member, how would you hand confidential information?
All the candidates stated the same thing - "Confidential is confidential," and agreed it should not be breached.
The candidates also spoke about how they would bring more positive tone and better cooperation to the board. Some also fielded questions addressed specifically to them, and the final question of the night, asked them to reveal their opinions on the notorious Facebook group.
Krudis: "It's got its good points and its bad. You just have to be informed. Look at who is posting and make sure they have all their facts."
Besson: "Any media, if used the right way can be productive. You definitely need to have control so it doesn't become some kind of medium for people to go to vent. Then it's destructive, but if used the right way it can bring us together."
Nolan Kasal: "It has definitely opened up a line of communication, sometimes the communication goes awry, but it's a sharing of ideas, sometimes opinions. I think the people who use it have to think a little bit more before they comment, knowing it's a public forum. It shouldn't be used as a place to attack each other. It can be used as a place to build community. Often there have been some very good questions raised that has build consensus, started to address issues. People have posted some wonderful articles. It has a lot of goods; it also has a dark side to it, but you just have to be an informed reader and writer."
Taylor: "To me, that page can't be justified considering the fact that anything that is read, the writing is always open to your interpretation. We're talking about families, people's personal opinions ... it just doesn't need to be there because everyone interprets things differently."
Bottitta: "People who read that page may not be an informed reader. That page scares me because I'm a taxpayer and my property values could be detrimentally affected by somebody outside of this community who is not an informed reader and reads this and says, 'No way am I moving here.' That Facebook page started as 'I Love Malverne But Hate the Schools' and the name was changed very quickly ... it's also administered by a select few. Friends of ours have been blocked from posting their opinions because it wasn't something that administrators favored. That's not an avenue that we should use to inform anyone outside or in this district. We need other avenues ... without it being administered by a select few."
The Malverne school board and budget election will take place on May 15. Residents can vote from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in Howard T. Herber Middle School. To view an in-depth profile on each candidate and other articles pertaining to the election click here.