School board candidates debate taxes, security, overcrowding
Board of Education members act as the conduit between residents and the school district. They serve as the education policy makers, oversee the budget and reflect the values of the community. Lifelong Port Chester resident James A. Carriere is challenging current Port Chester school board member Carolee Brakewood for the privilege of taking on this important role starting July 1.
The two candidates spent a morning in the Westmore News offices debating taxes, school security, mental health services and overcrowding. While they agreed on some points, they had, of course, differing suggestions to solve the problems the school district is currently facing and those the district will have to deal with in coming years.
After campaigning, visits to PTAs and a League of Women Voters moderated forum, only one candidate will be chosen to be on the Port Chester Board of Education next year. School district residents will have the chance to cast their ballots for one of the two on Tuesday, May 21, as well as voting in support of or against the proposed $85.2 million 2013-14 school budget.
Staying below the tax cap
Both Carriere, 43, and Brakewood, 44, support the proposed budget and the decision not to exceed the New York State Tax Levy Cap.
If there ever came a time when multiple important programs would need to be cut to stay below the tax cap, Brakewood said she would not be inherently opposed to trying to override it. First, though, she and the board would explain the situation to the community and if they agreed it was the best move, only then would she support exceeding the cap, she said.
Under no circumstances does Carriere think the district should seek to override the cap. The district can always pursue donations from the private sector to close budget gaps, he said.
"I do not want to cut anything educational or anything that has to do with students," Carriere said on Saturday, May 11 during the discussion. "I'm not going to be the person up there saying, 'I want to get rid of the band,' or 'no glee club this year' or 'let's get rid of baseball.'"
Rather, Carriere, who lives at 7 Cottage St., wants to add things back that have been cut in past years such as the science lab at John F. Kennedy Magnet School and elementary school librarians. He said he would focus on non-instructional programs and specifically the central office in order to find the necessary funds.
The district's central administration is one of the leanest in the county, countered Brakewood, a resident of 32 Indian Rd. Furthermore, only 19% of the district's budget is non-instructional. Something major would have to be eliminated, such as all the custodians, she added, in order to get significant savings.
"This notion that there are wasteful things that we should cut that don't have to do with kids," she said, "I feel like we have such a sparse, reduced budget already, that anything that you cut will somehow impact kids."
By forming a volunteer financial advisory committee, the community could identify areas that could be cut, Carriere suggested.
"You get enough people in the room you can figure out anything," said Carriere, who has a kindergartener and a 4th grader at Corpus Christi-Holy Rosary School. "I'll do my damnedest to get the job done and utilize every resource and every connection I've made in the past 25 years."
Carriere said he would not cut whole sections but take a little from a bunch of people and places. The best way to do this would be by bringing back the line-by-line reading of the budget as was done in the past.
Reinstating the line-by-line may help to educate and get the public more involved, which is a good thing, but in the past it only garnered minimal funds and those easy trims have already been made, Brakewood riposted.
"You don't think we've already made these cuts?" she asked. "We've cut for seven years. There's nothing left to cut."
One place the district still has money is the fund balance. This could be a place the board could look, said Carriere, a 1987 graduate of Port Chester High School.
While there is money there, it is rainy day funds the district sets aside to use in case of emergencies, said Brakewood, who has a daughter in 5th grade at King Street School and a son in 7th grade at Port Chester Middle School.
The district could use the money in the fund balance and then if there is some type of catastrophe, petition the state for emergency funding and then use a bond to raise the money to pay it back, replied Carriere, who works as a driver at James Carriere & Sons, Inc., a family trucking company. If the district uses the fund balance to lower taxes and fund the operating budget, it would only be a one-time fix, Brakewood argued, and next year there would be a massive tax increase.
School security measures and mental health services
In the wake of the Newtown shootings, the Port Chester School District has instigated a number of new policies.
"We implemented a lot of changes and we got a lot of information from a lot of stakeholders," said Brakewood, who became a trustee in 2010. The district consulted with the Port Chester and Rye Brook police departments, security consultants and experts to tighten security at each school.
The district is enforcing single-point entry so students and visitors can only enter and exit the school through the main door, she detailed. There are also trained security guards at the entrances of the elementary schools to request identification from visitors, require them to sign in and facilitate meetings between guests and people in the schools.
"This decreased the amount of guests wandering throughout the halls," said Brakewood, a kindergarten music teacher for the Port Chester Council for the Arts who also gives private music lessons.
Furthermore, the district has another measure in place now that has to do with "if something drastic happens and how to contact the police," Brakewood said, declining to describe it further for safety reasons.
"I think the school board is doing a good job with the security officers," Carriere said. He emphasized, however, that keeping the community in the loop is important so rumors do not spread. Recently, a story about a gun at Port Chester Middle School came to his attention and prompted parents to reach out to him with questions, he said.
In April, a student brought a clear plastic, spring-action toy gun that can fire small plastic beads to the middle school, Superintendent Dr. Edward Kliszus, Jr. told Westmore News. Several students played with the toy during school before the administration got a tip about it and started a locker search to locate it, added Middle School Principal Pat Swift. School and district administration determined it was a toy that could not harm students, which a Rye Brook police officer agreed with after he was given a detailed description. The students involved were all suspended.
A robo call should have been made to parents to tell them an incident happened and how the district handled it rather than allowing the community to hear about it secondhand, Carriere said.
"The students in all our schools, not just the middle school, should at least feel that they're protected by us as best we can," he said. If students are afraid to go to school, that impacts their mental health. He suggested getting volunteers from nearby hospitals, such as St. Vincent's Hospital Westchester, to speak with students.
Brakewood agreed that the district needs to grow its mental health services.
The school district already has a relationship with Open Door Family Medical Centers, which has school-based health centers at all the schools save King Street. In addition to providing free healthcare, Brakewood suggested they could expand their services and provide psychological services at no cost to the district. "I would promote as a board member using them for those services as well," she said.
Increased enrollment and overcrowding in the schools
Overcrowding remains a problem in the district with the number of students continuing to increase every year.
Not all the students who attend actually live in the school district, Carriere said. If they were eliminated, that would help with overcrowding.
"I've seen 100 times out-ofstate cars dropping off kids," he said. "Are they coming into our community and hence into our schools? Who pays for that? The taxpayer. Really, I do not want to deny kids an education, but in the same breath, you have to live here."
The district should better investigate reports of out-of-state students and verify that all students live in the school district, he said.
This is something the district is already pursuing, Brakewood added.
Currently the administration and the board are considering conducting a census of who is in the schools. They are also looking into more comprehensive measures such as reregistering students, but that could be costly and lengthy time wise. Finally, they could hire a domicile investigator who, when there are reports of out-ofstate plates, for example, would investigate the matter thoroughly. If a student were found not to live in the school district, the village could take him to court and the district would receive some sort of compensation, she explained.
The district has to educate all the students who live within its boundaries, and if there is not enough space in the current classrooms, the district has to create more.
"A lot of the schools have enough property that you could put a trailer," Carriere said. At Park Avenue School and King Street School there is also enough room to add onto the schools.
When it comes to building, either by adding on or constructing a freestanding building, the district should wait until the right financial moment, Brakewood said. She recommended 2017 when one of the district's current bonds ends to do that so as not to overburden taxpayers.
Another way to conserve space would be to switch to the Princeton Plan which creates grade-level schools, she explained. Benefits of this are that all the teachers in one grade are together for planning purposes and it is easier to even out class sizes. The district would have to reexamine busing, but that sometimes happens due to overcrowding now anyway. One reason not to make the switch is that many parents like having neighborhood schools.
"As a district we have to look at every possibility and what's best for the future of the students and the district," Brakewood said.
Polls will be open in the Port Chester Middle School gymnasium at 113 Bowman Ave. between 7:00 a. m. and 9:00 p. m.