Mineola ed board candidates square off in debate

James Galloway

At a heated debate Monday for two Mineola Board of Education seats, the four candidates seemed to fall along two ideological lines: one that wants to keep Mineola on its current path and another that feels its time for change.

Incumbent Christine Napolitano, a six-year veteran on the board, and her running mate, Brian Widman, said Mineola is on the right track, touting the district’s ability to improve educational offerings while keeping tax increases low. They said Mineola’s pay-as-you-go policy allows the district to avoid borrowing and the interest costs associated with it.

“Did you hear anything tonight that would make you think we are not on a successful path?” Napolitano asked in her closing statement.

Meanwhile Joy Renner and Mark Swensen, who are also running together, called on the district to rethink its full-steam-ahead commitment to technology, re-evaluate its finances and do more to educate parents about Common Core testing.

“This isn’t Legoland, and not everything is awesome,” Swensen said.

Despite the candidates running in pairs, the seats will be offered at-large to the two highest overall vote getters on May 19.

The candidates each answered questions on turf fields, proposed tax breaks for large housing developments in Downtown Mineola and Common Core testing, as well as some broader inquiries.

Renner and Swensen accused the board of rubber-stamping administrators’ initiatives, including a capital improvement project for which construction costs were underestimated, without proper vetting.

Renner, a teacher with three children in Mineola schools, called the board’s transfers of leftover balances to reserve funds a “backdoor bond,” saying Mineola should recoup the money to taxpayers.

Napolitano, who noted that voters must approve capital projects funded by reserves, said that reserves allow the district to tackle projects without borrowing and save taxpayers from large interest payments. She added that the district has kept tax levy increases below 2.5 percent for eight-consecutive years, four years before the tax cap.

“I don’t think there’s a person on the planet that thinks they don’t pay enough in taxes,” Napolitano said. “These are not frivolous things we’re spending our money on…to call it a backdoor bond is ridiculous. We have to go out and ask the voters, do you approve that project. A bond would require interest” payments.

Swensen, a Mineola graduate and Mineola resident, said the school board should reduce the proposed 1.37 percent tax levy increase by capitalizing on a prior increase in state aid.

At a PTA meeting held just prior to the debate, Superintendent Michael Nagler said the district decided against including the increase in its budget proposal because the aid is contingent on the district meeting a teacher evaluation deadline most consider unrealistic.

Renner and Swensen accused the current school board of doing too little to educate parents about their right to opt out of state tests, saying that although officials cannot legally support opting out, they could provide parents with more information about testing.

“I support parents’ choice for opting kids out or not,” said Renner, a teacher who lives Albertson and has three children in Mineola schools. “[Parents] felt let down by the lack of communication from our district. Where does it say informing parents will remove you from the board?”

Swensen added that the parents he spoke to “were upset” and wanted more information to make an informed decision, calling on the board to “answer for this.” And both Swensen and Renner said the district did not develop a policy to accommodate children opting out far enough in advance.

Widman, a Roslyn Heights resident with two children in Mineola schools, said standardized texting is “unfortunately” a benchmark of achievement, and insisted that students should not be teased regardless of their parents’ decision to opt them out or not.

Napolitano said the opt-out movement “hit Mineola very late in the game” and caused some chaos in the schools. About 20 percent of Mineola students eligible to take the exams opted out.

In reference to PILOTs, a form of tax break, granted to large apartment under construction and consideration in Mineola, Renner and Swensen said the school board “dropped the ball” by not attending hearings on the PILTOTs to vocalize the district’s position.

“Why was our school board not there?” Renner asked.  

Napolitano, who like the rest of the current Mineola board adamantly opposes the tax breaks, responded by saying the School Board Association was unaware of the adverse effects of PILOTs at the time of the hearings.

School officials worry the Mineola developments could lead to an influx of students, but the state tax cap prevents districts from increasing their revenue under the cap for PILOTed projects.

“Those three buildings are going to cost this school district about $30 million,” Napolitano said. “This affects all taxpayers.”

Widman mentioned that Swensen spoke in support of a proposed eight-story apartment building at a public hearing. The developer, Kevin Lalezarian, said he would move forward only if the project were granted PILOTs.

When asked about technology, Renner and Swensen, who both said the districts should move forward with technology initiatives, also said training for new programs takes teachers out of classrooms and there is little evidence the technology improve students’ test scores.

“I’d like to see the school district work to ensure the technology students are using is actually improving students’ scores,” Swensen said.

Napolitano responded that students are “more than test scores” and Mineola has received considerable recognition for its use of technology, including a visit by a top Google executive.

Widman — who said Renner’s position on technology sounded contradictory like the army, “hurry up and wait” — added that the many of the new programs the district uses allow parents and teachers to track student growth and adapt lessons to a specific students ability level.  

“The iPad has been doing great for the students. It has been opening up music, drama, art to students who may not have a natural ability for those disciplines,” Widman said. “I really see us being a leader as far as school districts in Nassau County, and I would like to see that continue.”

Both Napolitano and Widman, who has regularly attended school board meetings for eight years, said multiple times that they had not seen Renner nor Swensen attend a board meeting prior to the most frequent one earlier this month.

“Change happens at the Board of Education meetings. Change happens at the PTA meetings, Widman said. “How can you advocate for change when it’s not important enough for you to attend” the meetings?

Renner said attending Board of Education meetings alone does not make a person the best candidate.   

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