Since James Mariano was elected to the West Hempstead school board in 1994, he has ran unopposed every time his seat has come up for re-election.
"I've never been challenged in 18 years," he recently told Patch. "I always felt like I was doing a good job."
But as he seeks a seventh term in the May 15 election, Mariano, 58, will have some competition as he goes up against , a retired NYC firefighter and a father of two like himself, who is vying for his seat.
"I know I can still give a lot to this district," says Mariano, a 34-year West Hempstead resident who owns two auto repair shops in Franklin Square. He touts his leadership, experience and the knowledge he has gained on school governance as his strong points.
Mariano believes that there is something to be said for knowing the history of the district - why certain things were done in negotiations, what worked and didn't for the district regarding bond issues and what mistakes have been made, for instance. He predicts that in the near future, West Hempstead may need another bond project, and he says the board could benefit from the wisdom he gained working on three successful bonds in the past.
Mariano says that his knowledge of education matters is not based solely on his experience, but also on the more than 350 hours of learning he has accumulated by attending close to 40 board seminars. Each time, he says, he has brought back what he has learned to the district, sharing it with the board and PTA groups. The New York School Boards Association even awarded him a certificate of merit, achievement and distinction for his commitment to learning about school governance.
"It's easy to talk the talk, but you have to be able to produce and I feel like I've done that for the past 18 years," he says.
During his tenure on the board thus far, Mariano has been influential in bringing forth a self-sustaining summer recreation program for the district, opening the Kindergarten center, moving to full-day Kindergarten and a nine period school day and hiring Superintendent John Hogan. He's also pushed for implementing a "closed campus" policy at the high school. (In the past all high school students could leave the school campus for lunch, but now only seniors have this privilege.)
"I felt the kids were more safe inside the school under supervision," he said, adding that safety continues to be a major concern of his. He's worked on updating the district's weapons, anti-smoking and other policies aimed at protecting students, and has spoke to the PTA about ways to detect whether kids are involved with gangs.
He also played a part in revamping the sports eligibility policy so that rather than simply kicking students off school sports teams, the athletes are placed on probation and have incentives to improve their grades. Outside of the school board, Mariano also served as a Police Athletic League commissioner and started PAL's track program for kids ages 3-14, which he says continues to be a success.
Mariano says that when he believes strongly in something he "aggressively pushes" for it. This attitude has also enabled him to successfully campaign for more Advanced Placement and SAT prep courses, Sports and Academic Halls of Fame, a videoconference room, and an EMT program, which was a success in the high school for five years until it had to be cut due to budget constraints. Through the Sports Council, of which Mariano was one of the first members, he says he accomplished many great things for the district and the community, including expanding the athletics program and bringing back the homecoming parade.
Mariano admits he's been "quiet" in recent years, but says that is only because "there's been no money available" so he hasn't pushed for any extra programs. "You have to keep the school taxes affordable," he adds.
Speaking of money matters, Mariano also considers it an accomplishment that the annual budget has passed year after year and he describes the currently proposed 2012-2013 budget as "excellent," pointing out that it has no program or staff cuts and yet the budget-to-budget increase is only 1.46 percent.
If elected to a seventh term, Mariano plans to focus on academic excellence by challenging students more and finding innovative ways to increase parental involvement.
"We have the programs, a teaching staff that is second to none and excellent administrators," he says. "What we need is involvement of parents."
Another goal he has is to increase the number for college level courses offered. He says his daughter, now 27, was able to earn 23 college credits when she graduated from West Hempstead High School and wants to see other students have the same opportunities.
Despite what some critics say, Mariano contends the board has made great efforts to reach out and engage the community, and he says, he's always been open to comments and suggestions from residents."The more input you get, the better you'll do," he adds.
After 18 years on the board, Mariano is convinced that he has the experience and skills to lead the district through the challenges it faces. "I still have the passion," he adds "It never died."
The school board and budget elections will take place May 15, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in West Hempstead Middle School.