UPDATE: Q & A with school board candidates from LWV Forum on May 15

Monday, May 19, 2008
by Susie Pender

Editor’s note: The League of Women Voters of New Castle conducted their Candidates’ Forum on Thursday evening, May 15. To the extent possible, the questions posed and answers provided by the school board candidates are reproduced here. It is important to recognize that the candidates were given limited time in which to reply, so they may not have been able to address all components of a question in the allotted time.

The tape of the Candidates’ Forum is available for viewing on NCCTV on Monday, May 19 at 8:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on Channel 75 and available at 10:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. on Channel 77. Check the NCCTV website www.ncctv.org for additional replay times on Tuesday. It is also available video-on-demand on NCCTV’s website.


Question from the League of Women Voters’ moderator, Polly Kuhn, from the LWV of Somers: 

What criteria do you think the school board should use to assess the success of strategic decisions, such as moving the fifth grade into the middle school, and more recently, the schedule change to be implemented at the high school? How would you assess the success of these decisions and how should the results be communicated to the community?

Robert Gursha response: Measuring the success of change is obviously important, and we want to make sure we can measure it for the two changes that you mentioned. 

We are making preparations, and have already done so this year and will continue through this summer as well as through next year, in making sure that we provide enough support for the administrators and the teachers to make sure this is a successful transition at the high school. 

The measurement, of course, is obviously the success in learning for the students, and also the success is also in making sure the teachers have all the necessary tools, technology, training, development, to achieve what our vision is in terms of the strategic question.

The fifth grade moving to middle school was before my time on the board, but I think it is a success. I’m sure there have been adjustments for parents as well as students, teachers and administrators. That’s a couple of years behind us now. It’s working well both at Seven Bridges and at Bell. 

To communicate with the community, which I think is very important, I would continue emails, coffees, PTA meetings, board discussions.

Gregg Bresner response: I’m going to suggest a set of measurement objectives for both even though they’re two very different situations with two very different dynamics. I think the key is really putting out a series of measurable metrics to judge just how these changes have gone. So you need specific qualitative measures, you need specific quantitative measures and you need to evaluate those measures to see if they’re the right measure and continually improve them. It’s really a best practices methodology.

I would want direct and timely feedback from all constituencies involved in this strategic change. Direct feedback from the teachers who are on the ground implements; direct feedback from the students, they can give you a pretty good idea how the change is going since they will have experienced how it was and how it is to be.

The ability and frequency of direct feedback is really going to determine how it’s going and will give us the tools to make changes, if necessary. I would also seek feedback from the administration, but not at the same time as the teachers and students. That way you will be getting unfiltered responses. 

Janet Benton response: It would be hard to come up with a quantitative measurement of students solving complex problems, actively participating in their learning and supporting their thinking.  Success would be measured by a different feel in the classroom, a different activity level. Brain research indicates that learning by doing and using information, not just hearing it or having it delivered to you, helps you retain the knowledge. Debates and research projects, those kinds of activities are what we expect to see in the classrooms.

How to measure: Our administrators are walking through our buildings all the time. Our teachers are an important source of feedback both individually and in their departments. The students will be very vocal in helping us understand how things are going. Parents as well will help us understand. We hope this will lower students stress level since they won’t have so many classes to prepare for every day. I’m not sure how we can measure a reduced stress level.

Question from Betty Weitz

What do you each have to say to the parents at Greeley, the teachers at Greeley and the students at Greeley who have spoken out against and are opposed to the schedule change?

Janet Benton response: I am a parent of a high school student, so I get feedback directly from the students’ perspective. To those who are not happy I would say, the schedule change is consistent with the strategic direction the board wants, where the board sees the district going and the kind of activity we want to see in our classrooms. The longer class periods will allow for hands-on deeper learning, rich discussions, and problem-solving skills that we see as critical to developing 21st century learning skills. Strategically we think it’s the right thing to do. 

The process was a good process, a long process, starting with structure study group in 2004. There was much study done looking at different schools and options. They worked to ensure that all courses offered will fit within the new schedule. We’re not changing the curriculum, we’re just repackaging it in different chunks of time.

We ask the parents to try to be open-minded and give it a chance. Change is hard. It will get much evaluation and assessment. People who have concerns, there will still be an opportunity to bring those concerns forward. I think it will be highly successful.

Rob Gursha response: I support pretty much all that Janet said there. Feedback will continue. The ultimate objective is to have children come out as better, long-term productive members of society, as lifelong learners. Learning problem solving skills, taking an active role in their learning, these deliver on our strategic question. 

Lots of folks are scared of change. If you’re patient, this will work for all affected constituencies of the change. There are many folks who have supported this along the way. 

The decision has been made. Let’s go forward with it. I’m convinced this is going to work.

Gregg Bresner response: I am very concerned about the schedule change. It’s hard to make a judgment on the merits; time will tell. What I haven’t seen is an empirical case for it: why strategically this was a move the district wanted to make; what strategically created the catalyst for this event? What are the reward expectations and what are the risks? 

There is an enormous execution risk in a strategy like this. You’re going from a traditional classroom to a 90-minute interactive model involving case studies, projects and teamwork. You’re talking about a major shift in the direction of the classroom. I don’t know enough internally to know whether our teachers have had the training and prepared for that kind of move.

From my business experience, I can say, when you underestimate the resources and communication needed to execute these types of projects, that’s when they run into trouble. 

I am worried about the relationship among the teachers, the parents and the administration. To me what makes Chappaqua an outstanding district is the unique partnership among the parents, the teachers and the administrators. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this change. It is very controversial. I feel that unique partnership has been fractured. And that concerns me, especially as budgets become more difficult. 

Question from Mark Mutkoski:

How would you represent the elementary school interests, the children and the parents? There are lots of representatives on the board with older children.

Gregg Bresner response: Well, that is one of the primary reasons I am a candidate for the school board. The K-4 years are incredibly formative years, when you have the most impact in forming the character and learning capability of each student. I have two children at Grafflin and I want to say, we are having a fantastic experience at Grafflin.

Maintaining our teacher/student ratio in the elementary grades will be a challenge. With special education, and I absolutely support inclusion, but as a parent of two elementary students at Grafflin, I can see the stresses in the classroom. Getting to the kids early, who need special services, is so critical. I believe we need to make investments in technology and take longer term initiatives in setting up education for the future.

Janet Benton response: Well, when I was first elected to the board nine years ago, I was the elementary school board member. One of my children was still in pre-school. We have incredible elementary schools. During my tenure on the board we have accomplished the move to full day kindergarten. It is an activity-based non-academic program; the students are learning to read and write in a play-based format. It’s really remarkable.

We will continue our profession development work with Columbia Teachers’ College on literacy – reading, writing and speech.  In the future we may need to consider a longer school day. It’s very complicated, but our elementary teachers tell us there is just not enough time in the day to do all the things we want to do with the children.

Rob Gursha response: As a current board member, I don’t think of myself as someone who just has an interest in one school versus another. We visit the schools quite often throughout the year, for many different reasons, we go on learning walks. We are invested in technology at all our schools. We are adding SMART boards to the elementary schools, which is a very important initiative. We look at the infrastructure, make sure our buildings are safe and provide the right environment for learning, and support that with our budget for all students.

Question from Jackie Rider:

What will you do to improve communications with the residents? And for the incumbents, do you think you could have done a better job this past year communicating? and how will you do things differently? 

Rob Gursha response:

Communication is obviously very important. We take it very seriously to make sure it is continuous and strong and reaches everyone in the community, not just people with kids in the schools, on all the issues we address, especially the major ones.

Could we have done a better job? Yes, we can always do a better job. I will say we have done a terrific job on communication through the PTA, the mail, the district web site, and technology will help us improve on that. 

But this is not a one-way street; this is a two-way street. The community needs to reach out to us and stay involved in and up-to-date on all the issues. We welcome that. So we can hear feedback and respond to it. We get information at budget coffees, PTA meetings and reach out to students through the student council.

I believe technology will be an enabler in the future. But I don’t want to just rely on that, we will continue with traditional means of communication also.

Gregg Bresner response

Since I was not on the school board this past year, I can only speak to how I would improve communication with the residents going forward. In my experience, the best conversations I’ve had were when the conversations were very informal. I don’t find the school board meetings to be user friendly; the format is too formal and rigid. To gather feedback and act on it, you need to have people in an informal setting. So I would propose more informal gatherings.

Although technology can act as an enabler, person to person contact is most valuable for seeing what a person is passionate about and what they’re concerns are. 

I would propose for the district web site a section that is a little more strategic in nature that would explain why we’re doing something and here’s what we’re trying to achieve.  Especially on a key initiative, this would make people feel more empowered to get involved and really have a better understanding of what is going on.

Janet Benton response: I think there are two kinds of communication we are talking about here: from the district to the community and from the community to the district.

Of course we can always do a better job of communicating. Traditionally the board has communicated through our “News & Views” newspaper, distributed four times a year. Recently we instituted email blasts to announce meetings, activities and presentations. We have the district web site. The school web sites have been made more user friendly from the school’s perspective in terms of inputting and updating information.

There is a lot more we can do. We are trying to put the tools in place for streaming video and pod casts. 

The question has been raised: Do we need a full time public relations person to help put information out there. It is not always at the top of the educator’s mind to put information out there.

Question by Anne Caywood:

What should be done at Greeley to alleviate some of the stress the students feel that seems commiserate with attending a competitive public school in a society where a high school education is high stakes?

Gregg Bresner response: I’ve lived that life-style, grew up in a high-performing district. It’s very difficult and very challenging. When I was a student, I got the best advice from my guidance counselors. They helped me understand what I should be thinking about in each grade, define my goals and figure out what I wanted to accomplish. I focused too much on grades, I’ll be the first to admit that, and I could have gotten more out of my high school experience. I think it would better if the classroom were more directed towards qualitative learning than test scores. 

Janet Benton response: A lot of stress comes from home, which is why we have parent education programs to help parents understand what their expectations are and their impact on their children. Moving beyond test scores, learning is not your grade on the paper, it’s your engagement in the project; this helps to build students self-esteem. As a counterpoint to the intensity of the classroom, Greeley offers a rich extra-curricular program, which can act as a stress reliever.

Rob Gursha response: I support everything that Janet said, and Gregg has good points as well. The student council has some ideas, like creating more of a student lounge area where students could release some of that stress. We had several discussions on the board this year about what we could do to address the emotional needs of students.

The “No Child Left Behind” law requires testing that can put pressure on students. There’s not much we can do about that. We provide outlets for students to release that stress.  We do understand it and are focusing on it.

Question by Kathy Rothschild:

Should the district consider switching school start times so that young students who naturally get up early would go to school first and older students who naturally get up later would go to school second?

Janet Benton response: There is no dispute with the research that suggests that older students are more effective in the classroom with later start times. Before my tenure on the board, this question was raised. Talk about community controversy. There was a huge community divide. 

The biggest concern was that if the younger students got out earlier, their older siblings would not be at home to receive them where both parents worked out of the home. In a perfect world, we would say switch them, although there are all kinds of accommodations that would need to be make. We would need to consider the impact on after school activities, jobs and sports. I think it would be an interesting conversation; I’m not sure how it would come out.

Rob Gursha response: It’s a great question. Some folks would like it, others would not, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at it. There would be lots of things to consider like transportation, working parents and extra-curricular activities. In the winter when it gets dark very early there would be very little opportunity to do after school sports.. It would not be easy. I would like the change on a personal level. If we’re hearing from the community that this is something that’s very important, we would consider it. If there’s a groundswell, you bet we’ll look at it and see if it makes sense. 

Gregg Bresner response: I agree with Janet and Rob. It’s a great idea. Practically, there would need to be an enormous consensus in the community. It’s very difficult regarding athletics because it gets dark so early. You could find 100 practical considerations. It’s up to the community, if the community really wants it.

Question from Vicky Tipp

Address to Gregg Bresner: Since you are a new candidate and have expressed an interest tackling budget questions, what would you have done differently regarding this year’s budget? The incumbents used the opportunity to defend this year’s budget increase of 5.25%.

Gregg Bresner response: I supportive of this budget, I think it’s a fair budget. But I wouldn’t describe it as a moderate increase. A 5.2% increase in an environment of 3% inflation and no enrollment growth when people are earning ½ percent on their checking accounts and their property values are probably down 15% is not a moderate budget. It is a significant increase, but it is an increase I support and I’ll tell you why.

It’s a budget that makes investments that directly impact the classrooms. It makes the right investments. It is requiring sacrifices by the taxpayer, but I think it’s the right sacrifice. But to say people won’t feel the pain of it, the budget is up 70% since I moved here six years ago.

Rob Gursha response: We have higher enrollment from six years ago. We want to deliver on our programs. 75% of the budget is salary, benefits and unfunded state and federal mandates. We are investing in our infrastructure so it is safe and conducive to learning. Transportations costs are up because energy costs are up. Yes, 5.25% is a little bit of pain, it hurts people. But I believe it is a terrific budget.

Janet Benton response: Every year I am incredibly grateful to our community for supporting the high cost of our education. We are well aware it is not an inexpensive system to uphold. Anything new in the budget involved a lot of discussion. We try to shift resources instead of adding costs to the budget.

Question from Nancy Lyman

What are the assessment criteria for tenure for determining whether to give an administrator or teacher tenure? How can the community be involved and aware so that the decision-making process can be as transparent as possible? 

Rob Gursha response: Every year we go through the tenure process. We take recommendations from the administration. There is a formal process. When it comes before the board, we seek input, listen to the feedback received from the administration and take it under advisement. I think it is a good system. Receive recommendation from the administration. It is a forma process; I think it is a good system. 

As for notification to the community, the administration is looking for and takes input from many different constituencies including department chairs and fellow teachers. The administration visits the classrooms to actually see how teachers are performing. 

Janet Benton response: The board takes the tenure process incredibly seriously. It is a huge commitment on behalf of the district to the employee. The board makes no personnel decisions on our own. By state law, we act based on the recommendation of the superintendent. The criteria for teacher evaluation are very specific in our teacher contract. It lists requirements for how many observations, teacher conferences, feedback before and after the conferences, feedback on the observations to help the teacher improve.   

Parent input is important. I suggest that you get those to your building administrators. The board discusses each probationary teacher with the building administrator once a year. The superintendent keeps the board apprised, and we relay concerns from the community.

Editor’s note: Not being on the board and thus unfamiliar with assessment criteria for tenure, Gregg Bresner was asked by this questioner to instead explain why he is running for the school board.

Gregg Bresner response: Four or five years ago I formed a budget advisory group with 30 other financial professionals in the community to because we were concerned about unfunded state and federal mandates. I believe we need to be active in Albany against unfunded state mandates. If we’re not careful, we can go from a cutting edge district to a bleeding edge one very quickly

I am a techno-junkie. I believe it is important to integrate technology into the classroom. There has been a huge leap in multimedia in the last 20 years. We need to have a very focused technology strategy, the key is how you implement, train and utilize it.

Question from Mary Fox

What would you do to foster increased cooperation between the school board and the town board?

Janet Benton response: I actually think we have a good relationship with the town board. Maybe that’s an unpopular opinion and not everyone shares it. We meet two times a year. Our business administrator is working with the town administrator on sharing services and expertise. We cooperate on field usage, which is a major intersection between the town and the schools. We have a lot of opportunity to serve many of the same interest. We communicate well; we’re a phone call a way. I don’t think we’re doing such a bad job.

Rob Gursha response: I echo what Janet said. I would like to meet three times a year if it could be worked out. Intersecting areas of interest include the fields; opening up a pathway through the Greeley Woods to Bell;  looking into sharing blacktop contractors; Readers’ Digest development and the Bell fields. There are lots of reasons why we need to continue our open and honest dialogue.

Gregg Bresner response: The relationship between the school board and the town board is a critical partnership. The Readers’ Digest proposal requires that we work in greater partnership. That proposal is a train wreck for our school district. Everyone I have spoken to the real estate industry has told me that the 55 and over restriction is not enforceable. That will result in massive enrollment and massive tax increases on current taxpayers. In my 20 years of financial transactions, I have never seen a transaction where one side got not one benefit, not a thing. The school board is going to be an incredible source of information for analyzing the potential impact of that development.

To read NewCastleNOW.org’s May 16, 2008 Q & A with the candidates for school board, click: