Four candidates are vying for two seats on the Mount Pleasant Board of Education next Tuesday. Incumbents Theresa Fowler and Christopher Pinchiaroli are being opposed by Celia Cannata and Vincent Graci.
Voting on the 2016-17 budget and the school board election will take place from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Westlake High School gymnasium.
Cannata said she decided to run for school board for the first time because she has always considered serving the community and wants to make sure everything is being done by all stakeholders to promote greater dialogue and collaboration.
Although the 2016-17 $58.9 million budget is within the tax cap, Cannata doesn’t support it. She said special needs students are being shortchanged.
“While I support the new education initiatives such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, I feel it is unjust to marginalize the special needs population of children who have the most to gain from an appropriate public education,” said Cannata, a nursing home billing manager with two children in the district. “A school district should represent the values of the whole community it represents.”
Cannata said she is confident a high growth factor can be maintained, which allowed the district greater budgetary leeway. She pointed to the proposed development of the Legionnaire’s property and the North 60 project and the recent expansion of the Landmark Regeneron campus as projects that can help generate more revenue.
Confident the school district can remain competitive despite serious challenges facing public education, Cannata said the district can take advantage of significant community resources, such as Pace University and its GreenPace program, Westchester Community College’s green initiatives and native plant center and the Jacob Burns Film Center.
Cannata said teachers are doing well implementing the IB program and the district should continue to develop that model. The next Strategic Plan should include several goals for students, including developing them into thinkers and communicators who are principled, open minded and caring.
She disapproved of the district’s handling of the rat incidents at the middle school/high school campus in recent years, citing it as an example of administrative disconnect and highlighting the lack of transparency and communication.
“The district’s Health and Safety Committee ignored the rat problem until it was publicized in the media and then the proper steps were taken by the district,” Cannata said.
She said capital projects should have been addressed in previous budgets. Funding for the projects, whether in a bond or through budgets, ought to be spread over several years to reduce impact on taxpayers.
Fowler is completing her sixth year on the board and is running for re-election because she enjoys working with her fellow trustees to provide the best possible education and maintain fiscal responsibility.
“We collaboratively developed a budget that supports and maintains the integrity of programs and services needed for all students and meets New York State education mandates,” said Fowler, a bus driver for Royal Coach who had two children graduate from the district. “The spending plan is also fiscally responsible and meets the state tax cap.”
Saying that Common Core is here to stay, Fowler believes that students should be challenged and standardized tests is one way to achieve that goal.
“I think the hardest thing facing all school districts now are the financial difficulties while maintaining a high standing school district,” Fowler said. “It is important for the school district to hire excellent staff and administration that will dedicate themselves to ensuring that students grow academically and reach their highest goal.”
She wants a new Strategic Plan to address the aging facilities and maintain safe and effective learning environments.
“Our curriculum is of utmost importance to see our students advance in any capacity,” Fowler said, adding the IB program should continue at the middle school and be added to the high school.
Fowler said special education needed “much attention” and classified students deserve the same attention as other students. She would not comment on the elimination of special education programs, citing confidentiality. However, enrollment is one factor in determining which programs are eliminated, she said.
Fowler supported the administration and the staff’s handling of the rat incidents at the Westlake campus.
Mount Pleasant has infrastructure needs such as flooring, HVAC systems and the aging facilities that must be resolved, particularly at the middle school and high schools. However, Fowler did not address how that work would be paid for.
Graci, another first-time candidate, is running for school board to help improve communication with residents.
“For a school to be successful it needs to have open dialogue with the community, as well as be able to build support and understanding for its actions,” Graci said. “My strength, gained over the many years I have worked as an attorney, is to listen and communicate effectively with diverse groups of people. The school board needs members to build trust with the community, while advocating for the education that all our children deserve. I am willing to put in the time and effort to help make this excellent school district even better.”
Graci, 49, a criminal defense attorney with two children in the district, supports the proposed budget that maintains academic programs and addresses some infrastructure needs while within the cap. He called on the district to have a plan in place if the growth factor – the highest in the county this year – declines.
Hesitant to comment on Common Core, Graci said he recognizes standardized testing does have a role in education; however, it should be used to assess the district’s performance, not evaluate teachers. It also shouldn’t cause excessive stress to students.
The district’s next Strategic Plan should stress academics as well as infrastructure needs “to provide the proper environment for our children to grow and flourish,” Graci said.
He was optimistic about the future of Mount Pleasant’s special education programs.
“Hopefully the hiring of the new director of pupil personnel will help bring stability and consistency to special education,” he said.
Graci declined to comment on the elimination of a popular special education program at two schools next year because he wasn’t part of the decision-making process and was not privy to information the board used in reaching its decision.
Graci said “the administration responded promptly and effectively” to the rat sightings at the middle school/high school campus.
Despite two capital projects bond defeats Graci said he supported another referendum to fund infrastructure projects because it would be the most prudent way to finance the work.
Pinchiaroli is seeking his fourth term on the board of education and wants to continue to help providing the resources for a top-notch education while exercising fiscal responsibility, including staying within the tax cap.
“I want to continue this work,” he said. “As a community of taxpayers, educators and learners, we have improved our district in many respects, but we still have progress to make – we need to update our facilities and continue to challenge our students inside and outside the classroom.”
Pinchiaroli, 52, an attorney with four children in the district, supports next year’s budget, calling it cap compliant while reaching the maximum of what the community would support. Mount Pleasant has managed to find ways to support high-quality education, he said.
Pinchiaroli said a common national standard is typically a good idea, but it can become easily politicized. Common Core is a reality in some form and testing is part of every student’s life, he said. A well-designed test is a useful tool to measure student progress; however, Pinchiaroli gives Albany a D+ on implementation. At least state legislators and education officials are listening now, he said.
“If the high-stakes testing we have in New York inspired confidence and good communication, we would not have the opt-out movement,” Pinchiaroli said.
His priorities for the district’s next Strategic Plan is to make sure administrators are recruiting, retaining and developing outstanding teachers while providing adequate funding but maintaining fiscal responsibility. District officials must also continue to engage the community in all important decisions.
“For me, two of the more important areas are facilities and curriculum,” Pinchiaroli. “Our aging physical facilities need to be updated. We need to keep moving toward adoption of the International Baccalaureate program.” Pinchiaroli said special education is no different from any other education provided in Mount Pleasant. He maintained the district is being responsive.
“We can always do better. I have supported building up the administrative frameworks for classroom teachers so that they can do what they are best at – teaching the students who need it most,” he said.
Pinchiaroli would not comment on the move by the district to eliminate a popular program for students on the Autism spectrum at two schools next year citing confidentiality.
The district has done a sufficient job addressing rats at the Westlake campus, and to prevent wildlife from entering the buildings, he said. However, students and staff need to store as little food as possible and exterior doors must be kept closed.