20 Questions with New Rochelle Board of Education Candidate Julia Muggia Ochs

Written By: Robert Cox

Julia Muggia Ochs – 2018 Candidate for New Rochelle Board of Education

1. The budget was approved by the board 5-2 on April 17 (5 board members voted for it, 2 voted against it, 1 effectively abstained by not attending the meeting, 1 member resigned months prior to the vote). If you had been on the board on April 17, how would you have voted (YES or NO only; please explain why) 

If I had been a member of the BOE during the current budget process, I would have voted yes on the budget.

The current budget provides our students with much-needed additional guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers– positions that were the first to be eliminated during the recession. Without these crucial resources we do not have the capacity to serve our students’ needs.

While I agree with the desire to have per pupil and school-specific allocations outlined this issue is addressed by a new mandate from NY State that goes into effect next year and requires very specific reporting. The mandate is not tied to the budget calendar but instead to the start of the school year. This may be due to unknown factors related to late student registrations and special education needs. 

We should always seek improvements to the budget process, and ways to save our taxpayers money.  At this moment in time, however, I believe the needs of our students are best served by this current proposed budget.

2. Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne’s current contract expires June 30, 2019. Under the contract, the school board is required to notify Dr. Osborne if they are extending his contract by June 30, 2018. This is not an academic question as one of you will be the second highest vote getter and thus seated immediately and actually face this issue for real on May 16th when you are sworn in. So, if you were on the board now would you vote to offer Dr. Osborne a contract extension? (YES or NO only; please explain why; if YES would you change anything about Dr. Osborne’s contract and what would that be?)  

Without having access to Dr. Osborne’s performance evaluations, I am unprepared to answer this question. I believe in process, and think any decision needs to be made with full knowledge and access to the pertinent information. Going forward, if I am elected, I would like to review our superintendent evaluation process and determine if the metrics being used are sufficient.  

3. What would you do about NRHS Principal Reggie Richardson? Under Dr. Osborne’s contract, he alone makes decisions on hiring/firing all employees (other than himself). Further, Reggie Richardson is tenured so you cannot fire him except for cause. So, given these constraints, how would you advise Dr. Osborne on the matter of whether or not to retain Reggie Richardson as Principal of New Rochelle High School? 

I believe that Principal Richardson is an inspirational and passionate educator.  I am concerned, however, about management at the high school, and would want to look at the workflow between the Principal, Assistant Principal, and house principals. It is clear that teacher morale is low and we need to examine why. I would like to see a thorough and timely assessment to improve day-to-day management at the high school.

4. There has been some consideration given to outsourcing school security to a private firm which would result in firing all security guards (general school aides) and security officers (4 administrators). They could then apply for a job with the security company. Would you support outsourcing school security to a private security contractor? (YES or NO only; please explain why) 

No.I don’t believe we should outsource security to a firm.  I think there is a benefit from having community members working in our schools.  However, I believe we need to look at the classification of our security staff as general school aides and overhaul the hiring, training, and evaluation process for all security staff.

5. It has been a long-standing board policy (and practice) that New Rochelle High School is a “closed campus”? Although the policy has never changed, the practice was changed two years ago to a de facto open campus policy. This became a major issue after the death of Valaree Schwab. Would you vote to rescind this policy or not? (YES or NO only; please explain why)

If I understand the question correctly, do I support an open campus? No and Yes. I would like to examine the feasibility of having a closed campus for 9th and 10th graders, and potentially having an earned open campus for 11th and 12th graders. Any change in policy needs to be explicitly outlined and faithfully implemented.

6. There has been recent discussions about breaking out the Special Education budget by school rather than a single district-wide line item as has been past practice. Would you support breaking out the Special Education budget by school? (YES or NO only; please explain why) 

Yes. Special education is a district wide program for students classified with a disability.  The Committee on Preschool Education (CPSE) and the Committee on Special Education (CSE) determine programming.  When creating an individualized education plan (IEP) the student will be placed in the most appropriate program wherever that program is housed.  I support deepening the community’s understanding of how special education works and how funds are allocated. As a former co-president of the special education PTA I hope to bring understanding of New Rochelle’s special education programming and increase outreach and education regarding the IEP process to all communities in New Rochelle. I believe my special education experience as a parent, CSE/CPSE parent member, and former SEPTA leader will be of value on the board.

7. There was a good deal of controversy after the arrest of the student alleged to have stabbed and killed another student in January because she was residing in Yonkers while attending New Rochelle High School. Although it appears she had a legal right to attend NRHS (she was previously designated as “homeless”), there was a surge in interest for a residency audit where every student in the City School District of New Rochelle would be required to prove they are legally entitled to attend New Rochelle public school. There has been some question whether to do staggered audits by grades, over several years, or all at once, eventually or over this coming summer. Do you support a residency audit and, if so, which approach would you prefer? (YES or NO only on whether you support a residency audit; if YES please explain your preferred method). 

I support the district-wide residency audit that was announced last week. I think there should be ongoing reregistration for all students entering 6th and 9th grades. There should also be a review of our residency verification procedures, and I would like to see that we conduct the process in a culturally sensitive way.

8. In New York State, City School District’s typically have 5 year terms for school board members. School boards do not typically have term limits. School board elections in New Rochelle are city wide elections. Since the law changed from appointed to elected school board members, over 90% of school board members have resided within elementary school districts that feed into Albert Leonard Middle School (i.e., North End). Would you support any change to any of this? Would you support term limits or elections by districts so that every elementary school district has one representative on the school board, term limits, three year terms, other?

I would most likely support term limits of no more that two consecutive 5-year terms. In regards to the creation of election districts for BOE elections, I think it is worth researching. It is critical, however, that the entire community be involved in this discussion.

9. It is Friday evening. You had a long week. You arrive home too tired to think about preparing a meal. You decide to order “take out”. Where do you order from? What do your order for yourself? Where in your home do you sit while you eat?

I love this question!  I would order take out from Mr. Taco on North Avenue and sit at my kitchen table with my kids and husband.  We may light Shabbat candles and drink juice from the Kiddush cup.

10. The board spends months holding entire meetings solely on the budget including multiple hearings from February to May. These are discussions on where the District plans to spend money. The board spends only a fraction of one meeting each fall on the auditor’s report which covers only actual spending (audited financials). There are no hearings and the audited financials are not released well in advance of the meeting. Would you support a more involved public process to review and discuss the audited financials, perhaps incorporating a review of actual spending into projected spending (i.e., the budget)? (YES or NO only; please explain why)

Yes. In PTA we begin the start of the year with a review of the audit report.  I think it’s a good practice, and increases depth of understanding about how money is spent.  Along with the new state mandate regarding per school and per pupil reporting on funding sources and allocations it should do a lot to create more trust in the budget process.

11. The City School District of New Rochelle spends large sums of money on outside counsel for legal services, in the neighborhood of $1,000,000 a year. Some of the legal services are highly specialized so hiring specialists may make sense for certain work but much of the work is routine. Would you support hiring an in-house legal staff (like the City of New Rochelle has done for many years) to handle routine matters to reduce District legal expenses? (YES or NO only; please explain why)

Yes.  I would support hiring an in-house legal staff, but would want clarification on oversight.

12. Under New York State law, in-district busing of elementary school students in New Rochelle is partially reimbursable for distances over 1.5 miles. Still, there are benefits to busing students under 1.5 miles despite the lack of reimbursement (student safety, lifestyle benefit to parents, traffic reduction especially around the schools, lower greenhouse gas emissions, etc.). Also, not every student eligible for busing under 1.5 miles would take the bus as they may live close enough where walking is a preferred option and of those who do accept there be existing empty seats on currently scheduled routes. To understand the economics and various pros and cons, would you support commissioning a study to evaluate the feasibility of Universal Pre-K to 5 busing? (YES or NO only; please explain why).

Yes. However, I think we need to look at in-district bussing comprehensively K to 12. I do not have preconceived ideas regarding what is feasible/affordable, but bussing is a frustration for many working families. 

13. With the prevalence of social media and online discussion, and a growing interest and awareness of issues regarding our schools, would you support more frequent and accessible communication? Are you satisfied with the methods, frequency and transparency of communication employed by the district. Suggest three ways it could be improved.

My professional experience is in the communications field, and I feel I could help with board and district communications. Building connections and relationships creates effective communications, and it is very clear that the district has a lot to do in this area.

Three ways we could enhance communications in addition to improving the current newsletter and emergency email/text/call system:

1) Change the structure of the BOE public meetings to encourage engagement between the public and board members.

2) Increase parent/guardian education at each school using a small workshop model. Topics could range from “understanding benchmarking and progress monitoring”, ”How to increase student independence with homework”, “A review of the codes of conduct and restorative practices”, “How to prepare for your student’s parent/teacher conference” and many more!  These workshops could be lead by teachers, administrators and clinical staff. PTAs can assist with advertising and sign up.

3) When the district calendar is being drafted, each board member and the superintendent should sign up for each listed PTA meeting.  By the end of the year they should have attended one morning and one evening meeting at each of the schools in the district.  Since the information would be listed on the district calendar families will know when they can meet with the BOE members and superintendent.

14. To what degree have you been involved with the New Rochelle School District over the past 10 years? As a parent? As a PTA member? Volunteer? Vendor? Prior to 2018, how often have you attended board of education meetings? Other?

I lived in New Rochelle as a child and moved back in 2010 with my then 4 year old and 2 year old boys.  I became a member of the special education PTA and quickly began volunteering for SEPTA as the website administrator. The following year I became the co-chair for organizing the SEPTA general meetings.  I helped select meeting topics and invited guest speakers to present at our monthly meetings.  I became the co-president of SEPTA in 2013 and served 3 years in the position.  My dedication to education is central to who I am, and I’ve always sought out ways to help others.  I am a trained parent member for the Committee on Special Education (CSE) serving as a facilitator to parents navigating their way through the process.

I am currently president of the PTA Council (currently recused for the election), and have had the honor to work closely with our PTAs throughout the district.  I have spent time in all our district’s school, and have worked with families, administrators, and staff. 

Valeree Schwab’s tragic killing was a trauma for the entire district, and navigating PTA leadership during this time has been challenging.  We are so divided as a community, and every one of us is grieving.  We are afraid of what the future holds for our district and our children.  As PTA Council president I felt we needed outside guidance to help our group begin a dialogue.  I invited the NY State PTA Juvenile Protections Specialist and the Urban Education Specialist to open up conversation and answer questions from Council. As a volunteer and a leader it is important to know when to seek outside assistance, and I am grateful that State PTA is there to support us.

As SEPTA co-president and PTA Council president I attend as many BOE meetings as possible.  I’ve been attending BOE meetings since 2013.

15. Would you support requiring regular reports to the board (in open session) on how they are implementing the Code of Conduct (PBIS/Restorative Justice) adopted in 2016 and providing meaningful data with which to evaluate progress? (YES or NO only; please explain why).

Yes and Yes. I am a member of the solutions to suspensions task force and was part of the subcommittee that rewrote the codes of conduct.  Each school has a database called SWIS that is used to track student behavior. Keeping accurate data should be a priority, so we know how interventions are working. 

Important steps however need to be taken to educate families on restorative practices and the code of conduct. The district administration also needs to examine our capacity to faithfully and consistently implement Restorative Practices and the code of conduct. Trinity is the only elementary school that has a dedicated guidance counselor implementing PBIS and Response To Intervention (the general education academic safety net). I would be interested in seeing the SWIS data for Trinity to see how effective the program is there and if it is to see if we can replicate the model.

16. The New York State School Board Association identifies three primary responsibilities of school boards (financial oversight, policy, hiring and firing of senior level staff). Policy comes almost entirely from BOCES, New York State and the Federal government. Dr. Osborne’s contract gives him control over all hiring. That leaves financial oversight as the only real role left to the board. Given this, and that if you win a full term, you will be responsible for spending over $1.5 billion dollars of other people’s money, describe your level of financial literacy. What about your background has prepared you to evaluate and adopt (or not) a budget with hundreds of millions in expenses?

In my career I managed departmental budgets, negotiated prices with vendors, and had to assemble and track video production budgets.  Additionally, as a PTA leader I am responsible for making sure our PTAs stay compliant with PTA and IRS requirements to maintain their non profit status and stay in good standing. I am also a small business owner and manage the finances of my company. I am comfortable reading budgets and audit reports.

17. The board adopted a strategic road before your term would begin. You had no say in it but would operate under it. Identify three elements of the strategic road map that you feel the board got right (and why). Identify up to three (if any) elements that you would change or drop altogether (and why)? In your answer, address your experience in developing, implementing and measuring progress towards long range plans and objectives?

The strategic roadmap is an aspirational plan, but very general in nature.  I agree with the core beliefs and objectives, but want concrete examples of what the district is doing to get us there.

For example, what is the plan to decrease the achievement gap? I believe Response to Intervention (RTI) is profoundly weak in this district.  If a student is receiving a tier 3 intervention such as working with a reading specialist everyday, how are they changing the curriculum being used if the student isn’t showing progress? Too many children get referred to special education because RTI isn’t being implemented effectively. This can lead to an unnecessary over-classification of students. Also, we do not currently have a math RTI in place.  Without an extensive RTI toolbox for ELA and MATH we will continue to have students fall farther behind.

I would also like to see a program like Handwriting Without Tears in every pre-K to 3 class in the district. 15 minutes a day for every student would most likely decrease referrals for Occupational Therapy and would increase the sound symbol relationship for children therefore increasing decoding and reading. In the long run this could be cost saving in the district and help with the achievement gap.

18. Having by now completed many years of your own education, describe your various learning experiences over the course of your lifetime (in school but not exclusively), which had the most meaning to you? How do you continue to work to expand your understanding of the world around you as part of your personal learning experience?

My dedication and passion for education comes from my personal experience. I was born with a communication impairment and didn’t speak until I was 4.  I know what it feels like to be lost in the classroom and to struggle academically. High school was a turning point for me, and I was fortunate to have a guidance counselor who let me challenge myself and gave me access to accelerated classes.

I attended Kenyon College in Ohio where I doubled majored in English and Political Science.  My advisor and mentor is a neoconservative from the University of Chicago school of thought. Although I am sure we are politically pretty opposite, he had the most profound impact on my life. He taught me how to listen, how to ask questions, and how to see different perspectives.  It is a gift I carry with me every day. We are still in touch and he is still teaching a new generation of deep thinkers.

19. What are the skills and experiences you will bring to the school board, if elected?

I will bring a depth of knowledge of our school district and a commitment to every child in every school. My experience with perspective taking and being open to various points of view I think would be an asset to the board at this challenging time.  In my PTA work, I mediate disputes between PTA leadership and am an effective consensus builder. Additionally, I would bring my professional background in communications to the board.  I have many ideas to improve communications and community outreach and feel I could make a difference.

20. Anything else you feel voters should know about you when they go to the polls on May 15th?

20. Anything else you feel voters should know about you when they go to the polls on May 15th?

I want voters to know that regardless of whether or not I am elected, that I will always stay engaged in our district. I promise to remain accessible and will continue to advocate on behalf of New Rochelle’s children.