Having faced an $8.8 million budget deficit and hiring a new superintendent, the Bedford Central School District is facing serious changes and challenges in the coming months. Three incumbent trustees are being challenged by newcomers looking to change the way the district does business.
The six candidates met May 2 for a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of North East Westchester at Fox Lane Middle School. The three incumbents – current board President Jennifer Gerken and trustees Suzanne Grant and Michael Solomon – are being challenged by Michelle Brooks, Pam Harney and Beth Staropoli, respectively.
Candidates in the district can only run for one particular seat. Each seat carries a three-year term.
Gerkin, a two-term trustee, touted her experience and knowledge of school board procedure. She said experienced, stable leadership is more important than ever given the recent turbulence.
“This year has been challenging,” Gerkin said. “To assume the role of president in a good year is daunting. This year took steel-clear vision and a steady hand.”
Gerkin said she was proud of the civility she brought to meetings and her work bridging the gap between a divided board to get things done. Collaborative relationships with administrators and the hiring of the district’s interim and future superintendent also were crucial decisions.
In April, the board hired Christopher Manno as its new superintendent. He will begin his tenure on July 1. Interim Superintendent John Chambers was hired earlier in the year to replace the departing Dr. Jere Hochman, who was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as the state’s deputy secretary of education.
Brooks has four children in the district and is a current vice president of the Fox Lane Middle School Association and treasurer of the Bedford Village Elementary School Association. She is also a former co-president of the Bedford Hills Elementary School Association. She is employed by a financial services firm in New York City.
“I see a history of short-sighted decisions that served as only temporary solutions when long-term vision and planning is sorely needed,” Brooks said. “Yes, we need better communication and transparency between the residents and the district, but we need better decision-making, too.”
Grant has served on the board for six years. She said her background in corporate communications has helped the board, particularly in its search for a new superintendent. She said she has served on the board’s policy, finance and communication committees. She was also a prior member of the district’s budget advisory committee and co-chair of the Mount Kisco Elementary School Association.
“I believe the balance and experience that I bring during this time of transition in the district is crucial,” Grant said. “I listen carefully to different viewpoints and facilitate workable solutions. I take a measured pragmatic approach to controlling costs, assuring that essential student programs and educational supports remain funded. And I’m in tune with the community’s desire to keep the Bedford Central School District strong, both academically and physically.”
Harney is a Pound Ridge resident and Bedford graduate who has four children in the district. As an involved parent, Harney said she is well-equipped to serve on the board. She has sat on the Pound Ridge Elementary School PTA executive committee and on several districtwide committees, including space and enrollment. She said strong, new leadership and a fresh outlook are needed.
“My top priorities are bringing the community back together, to ensure academic excellence and rigor for all of our students, fiscal prudence in creating a sustainable budget, transparency and improved two-way communications and accountability,” Harney said.
Solomon is finishing his first term on the board. His background is in public finance, and he served on the governor’s state Property Tax Commission. Solomon said he didn’t always take popular positions or make popular decisions, but instead looked for the best interests of the district in the long term. He said the district’s educators and students were on the right path, but needed new leadership.
“In this election, the stakes are very high and we have a budget to consider,” Solomon said. “Sometimes strong leadership means you have to compromise for the greater good. In that spirit, I’m throwing my support behind the proposed budget. In my mind, what’s most important is having a budget in place for next year and great leadership for years to come. Our best days are ahead of us, and new leadership is the way to get there.”
Staropoli is a familiar face to many recent district graduates as the longtime director of the department of health, physical education and interscholastic athletics. She will retire at the end of the year, and hopes to bring her experience to the board. A lifelong district resident, Staropoli said she hopes to help the board regain civility.
“In my position as teacher, coach and administrator for the district, I have served and advocated for the needs of all of our students,” she said. “As I move into the next chapter of my life – retirement – running for the school board would allow me to continue in my role as an advocate for all of the students in our school community, and allow me to give back to the district that supported me both as a student and as an educator.”
Incumbents grilled on budget woes
The district is proposing a $124.6 million school budget for 2016-17 that would cut 18 teachers districtwide, including librarians in each of the five elementary schools. In addition to $2.8 million in reductions, district officials have proposed a tax cap levy of 3.82 percent, nearly three times Bedford’s tax cap ceiling of 1.32 percent for next year. That higher tax levy would raise more than $4.3 million, but since it exceeds the tax cap it would need the approval of at least 60 percent of participating voters next Tuesday.
All six candidates said they supported the proposed budget, despite all of them acknowledging it wasn’t ideal. Solomon, who voted against the adopted budget, said he was now supporting it. He said the tax cap override would continue to drive costs up and give the impression that the board was not mindful of those on fixed incomes. He said he wanted to see more cuts to expenditures.
“While it does get us through next year and limits the amount of cuts we’ll have to make this year, it doesn’t do anything to find a long-term solution,” Solomon said.
Harney said she believed the tax increase was replacing the use of fund balance and was not sustainable.
Gerken said the board had little or no control over many of the district’s costs, such as contracts, health care and pension costs.
“We understand the gravity of what we asked for this year,” she said. “We understood that cuts were necessary and we are working to control costs in other ways in collaboration with our units in bringing down labor cost drivers. And then we have the override, which we felt we needed to ask for this year. It was our best attempt to preserve what our community feels (is) most precious in our district.”
Incumbents were grilled about when they learned of the budget shortfalls and what they did to address it. Gerken said the shortfall started with the board’s policy of limiting spending below 2 percent, even before the tax cap was implemented. Dropping revenue and increasing pension and contract costs during the recession led to tighter budgets and an annual loss of state aid made the situation worse, she said.
The district has endured more than 80 layoffs and renegotiated contracts to cut costs with a new pay scale, but it wasn’t enough, she said.
Grant said the district saw the problems coming, but some trustees rejected a multiyear strategy to address deficits and get the district on track by 2017. Instead, some colleagues attempted to fix the district’s financial woes in one year.
“We left money on the table last year and we didn’t go to the tax cap, we further defunded our health insurance line and took money out of reserves,” she said. “And all that did was add fuel to the fire and now we have our house on fire.”
Solomon accused other incumbents of voting for five consecutive unbalanced budgets that drained reserves. He said the board should have taken action earlier to curb costs.
“Just imagine back in 2011 if we had made the same changes then that we made to the healthcare plan this year,” he said. “Today we would have $16 million in our reserves and no crisis.”
A video of the complete forum can be viewed on the district’s website at www.bedfordcsdtv.pegcentral.com.
Voting on the budget and trustee elections will be held next Tuesday, May 17 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in each of the district’s five elementary schools.