School Board Candidates Differ on Budget, Fields & Kemper
Budget/Board Election is Tuesday, May 17
by Judy Silberstein
(May 12, 2005) Three candidates seeking the two open seats on the Mamaroneck School Board faced off at a forum run by the Larchmont & Mamaroneck League of Women Voters on Monday, May 9. Incumbent Amy Levere and newcomer Richard Marsico, both endorsed by the Committee for the Selection of School Board Nominees, expressed support for the current board on the budget, on their responsiveness to the community and assessment of need for more sports fields, and on their attention to issues of gatekeeping, closing the minority achievement gap and curriculum coherence. Mr. Stohrer, who is running as an independent candidate, said “excellence in education can be achieved under quite leaner conditions than we know;” suggested the board is out of touch with the community, disagreed that more sports fields are needed, and would focus on the “bigger issues” and leave specific educational questions (such as curriculum coherence) to the professional educators.
Background: 2 Attorneys and a Chemist
Ms. Levere, who retired from practicing law and has been an active school volunteer since the birth of her third child, is seeking a second term on the board. Stressing that the next years “are critical for our district," with a new superintendent coming in "it's important to have continuity as we set direction.” She added, “as a board member you really do become more effective over time – there really is a steep learning curve.”
Mr. Stohrer is a retired chemist who volunteers on the Village of Larchmont Budget Committee. His two adult children were educated in the Mamaroneck Schools during a time when “things were running smoothly and I felt no need for myself to get involved.“ Since then, he said the “school system started creaking under a series of doubtful spending decisions,” including investment in safety glass windows that clouded and had to be replaced, and more recently, the proposal to move the Kemper war memorial that “offended citizens.”
Mr. Marsico is a law professor at New York Law School and is involved in a number of community activities, including leadership positions in Babe Ruth and Little League baseball and the Washingtonville Housing Alliance. Among the reasons he gave for seeking a seat on the board was an appreciation for all the efforts to deliver a quality education at Mamaroneck Avenue School, which has lacked a board representative from its neighborhood for the past five years. He said he would hope to “continue the tradition of excellent public education this district stands for” and focus on important academic issues, primarily addressing the requirements of students with diverse needs.
Budget & Class Size
In an evening of polite exchanges, the candidates differed most sharply on two questions about the budget and class size and on two others about sports fields and the Kemper Memorial Park.
For the opening question from the League of Women Voters, candidates were asked if they saw room to rein in the budget, given the many state and federal mandates and the high level of educational services the community expects.
“It’s a constant struggle to maintain excellence in education,” responded Ms. Levere, “but this year’s budget really does this in a very responsible manner.” According to Ms. Levere, the board addressed the problem this year by holding a series of budget meetings to obtain community input. Feedback from those meetings led to later decisions to reduce kindergarten class size and add teachers at the high school while cutting costs for teacher development and technology.
Mr. Marsico added other areas where savings were being achieved, primarily special education, where in-house services were being added to provide less expensive programs that he thought might be even more effective than those found out of district. He was also appreciative of the board’s work to get the tax rate increase down to 7.5% for this year (where it has been above 9% in recent years.)
Mr. Stohrer suggested that assessing how much of the budget is mandated depends on various assumptions. “I feel there is room to look at all non-teaching programs, particularly those that have grown in the past 15 years and see if there is room for saving,” he said. At the same time he favored “absolutely” protecting the portion of the budget for teaching.
On a question asking for the candidates’ opinions on optimal class sizes at the elementary schools level, no one settled on an exact number.
Mr. Stohrer cited 20 to 25 as a good range, but indicated that there should be flexibility. In the face of new student enrollment, “I think the first step should be to absorb the numbers with existing” classes. Class size “has to be kept in perspective,” he stressed, and cited his own experience growing up in Heidelberg, Germany. “People in my generation started in classes of 40,” he said.
Mr. Marsico, who as a law professor teaches classes with as many as 135 and as few as 8 students, noted “Eight is more effective,” and “I would be in favor of smaller.” He applauded the board for reducing class size in Kindergarten next year.
Ms. Levere indicated that people move to Mamaroneck, in part because of the small class sizes in the district. She pointed out that the smaller classes allow teachers to differentiate instruction and meet the needs of each child and also conference with students over their writing assignments. The exact class size should be keyed to the particular grade level, she suggested.
Kemper and Sports Fields
Related questions on legal fees and sports fields touched on the controversy over moving the Kemper Memorial, which is currently off the table due to a court ruling that prohibited the school board from making changes at the park.
Mr. Stohrer’s view is that there are sufficient fields in the larger community to accommodate the schools needs. “To my knowledge, there are a large number of playing fields – I’ve counted 10 in addition to those the schools own.” He recommended asking for use of community fields.
He was emphatically against the moving of the Kemper Memorial Park to make way for an additional field. “The whole issue has been tremendously damaging,” he said. “A mistake has been made here and we should loudly say so and get over it as quickly as possible,” he concluded.
He was also critical of the $500K in legal fees incurred this year by the board. “A clear statement that we want to keep litigation as low as possible is important.” Noting that litigation over special education placement accounts for a large portion of the costs, he recommended that the board meet with parents and see if their needs can be met.
For Ms. Levere, “my view is somewhat different,“ on the fields question, she said. She noted that the schools do have good relationship with the towns and do share use of municipal fields, but there are numerous scheduling conflicts. Also, the municipalities do not have the staff needed to quickly rehabilitate the fields after bad weather. She mentioned the possibilities of installing artificial turf – which she called expensive but worthy of potential study. She also mentioned that Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe is looking into adding a field at Saxon Woods.
She voiced belief that the board plan for the Kemper Park would have met the twin goals of adding fields and honoring the war dead. She did not rule out further legal action to preserve a future board’s ability to plan for future district needs.
On the cost of litigation, she noted that as soon as the Kemper issue is resolved, those legal fees will drop out. It was important that the district not be viewed as one that "rolls over" when parents raise the possibility of suing over special education services.
“Being a lawyer myself, I intend to scrutinize legal bills very carefully,” said Mr. Marsico. "I‘d also want to be involved with decisions to litigate or not,” he added. Sometimes a legal bill of $20K could save the district $100K, he noted.
In the Kemper case, he originally supported the board’s proposal, in his role as head of the Babe Ruth baseball league. At this point, “I have not yet made a decision on whether to go forward.” He would wait to speak with the district’s legal advisors and other board members to learn about the chances of prevailing in court.
There were additional questions that allowed the candidates to discuss their backgrounds, their views on particular district initiatives, and their general goals for the future. LMC-TV will be running tapes of the entire debate on a regular schedule up until the election, and residents can call the studio to request additional viewing times. For information: contact lmc-tv.org or call 381-2002.
How'd You Do?
How did the candidates judge the debates? "It went very well – a civil level of discourse," opined Ms. Levere when asked for comment after the forum concluded. Mr. Marsico concurred, “Very well, nice exchange of ideas with questions on major topics.” Mr. Stohrer was less upbeat about his own performance. “I am low on the learning curve,” he commented, adding, “I’ll do the best I can.”