20 Questions with New Rochelle Board of Education Candidate Peter Cantone

Written By: Robert Cox

1. The budget was approved by the board unanimously on April 23rd. If you had been on the board on that day, how would you have voted and why?

I would have voted “yes”. This past year has been a transitional year with many interim positions. The BOE lost its Assistant SI Business who was replaced by a retired Assistant SI Business, Tom Ryan. I do not believe this is a permanent position for Tom Ryan. I think he has done his best to help our school district in a tough situation. That said, I do like the fact that we are investing in state mandated positions and adding more personnel in addition to the mandated position. I like the fact that the BOE listened to the requests that were made by our Principals, asked for the input of our community and then approved a budget that reflected this collaborative process.

I do not believe the budget is not anywhere where it needs to be regarding clarity/accuracy/transparency. Yes – we are a very big school district. People can argue that smaller schools with smaller budgets have an easier time creating a more transparent budget. My feeling is we can break our budget down by schools and offer more clarity and more empowerment to our Principals with policies in place that incorporates measurables with investments and something our new Superintendent could use to help provide reporting to BOE.

2. Currently, most of the top administrative positions in the District are held on an interim basis; come July 1st, four board members will have been replaced in 12 months, 7 of 9 board members will be in their first term in office and 6 of those 7 will have just two years on the board. Speak to the issue of stability as it applies to the administration and the board the impact on recruiting senior-level administrators.

My feeling is that we have a good mix of seasoned BOE members along with BOE members, like myself, that can help create an even more collaborative atmosphere. The school district certainly needs stability regarding all of the Interim positions.

From an Administrative view: I believe that a new Superintendent has been found which is the most critical piece of our school district. As a new BOE member and as a BOE in general, I would like us to focus our efforts on making sure we offer the most support to this new Superintendent with regards to the hiring of new potential Assistant Superintendents and potentially new Principals or Assistant Principals. My feeling at the NRHS is that Principal Starvaggi is doing a very good job but I will always defer those decisions to the new Superintendent, gather his/her thoughts and offer any input I may have so that he/she ultimately makes the best decision for our school district with NRHS or any of our other schools.

3. The Superintendent Search was run by the current school board President who will no longer be on the board after June 30th. As a new board member you will inherit his recommendation for a new Superintendent along with a new School Business Official and NRHS Principal. Would you support the board postponing a decision on these critical hires until after a new board is seated even if that meant filling key positions on an interim basis for another year?

I would respect the decisions of the current BOE members if I were to be elected. I do not feel it is necessary nor healthy for our school district to postpone the hiring decisions for a new Superintendent. I have to trust that the fact that our BOE has already understood the importance of this position and did everything it could possibly do to make sure we will hire the best candidate. It would be my responsibility as a BOE member to then get to know him/her well, find out what we as a BOE can do to help, and do whatever we can to make sure that person succeeds.

My feeling is that we need to re-evaluate our Strategic Roadmap with the new Superintendent’s input.

4. There was a recent board discussion about the demands placed on board members in the context of reducing board terms from 5 years to 3 years. Would you support shorter terms? Would you support term limits? Would you support a $10,000 annual stipend for board members?

Yes, I would support a 3 year term. I think a 5 year term in a voluntary position that requires 20-30 hours per week is asking a lot from anyone interested. I believe it would help increase community participation with more high quality candidates.

Term limits are legally not possible and I’m not about to fight for that legal change because we have way too much other more important things we need to stay focused on.

Yes I would support a monetary stipend, but, so that we are clear, it’s not something that I’m going to advocate or fight for either. Once again – we have more important things to focus on.

5. There has been a great deal of discussion over the past 16 months regarding School Resource Officers. What is your position on school security generally and SROs in particular?

I am in favor of SROs in all of our schools as part of a comprehensive security plan that would be implemented by Altaris, who I was very impressed with. Our children’s safety should not be a question. We should not have to wait for a “Newtown shooting” to occur in our school district to make a decision.

6. 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? Why?

My feeling is that Seniors at NRHS should be allowed to leave the campus. We are preparing them for the next level – whatever that is. Allowing seniors to leave the campus shows our confidence that they are becoming young adults and we are trusting their judgement. That said – students must act responsibly, or the privilege should be taken away.

7. The demands on school board members have increased exponentially over the past decade or so starting with moving meetings out of City Hall to the school buildings, then adding principal presentations, then adding student performances, then adding various board sub-committees like a Policy Committee, then adding a School Buddy program, then adding ad hoc committees like Culture & Climate which meet during the school day. Is this a concern and, if so, how would you address it?

I think we have moved to far away from the actual responsibility of the BOE which is to put forth a Budget that’s meets our goals while making sure we are being financial prudent, create policies, and hire / hold the Superintendent accountable. While I really like the optics of the School Buddies and could see myself enjoying it, the real reason we created the School Buddy program IMO is because there was serious disconnect between NRHS faculty and the BOE. We had a broken system in between. We need to look for more effective/tie productive ways of insuring that we never have a broken system again. A major first step should be to get some kind of reporting from the Superintendent that shows that he/she has his/her finger on the pulse of what is going on and that our Superintendent is communicating and collaborating with the entire school district.

8. There is an ongoing residency verification program. Do you support residency verification?

100%. I don’t think our Admin office handling this is doing a good enough job and I would like to discuss this topic with our next Superintendent as a BOE member if I get the opportunity.

9. 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 elections by districts so that every elementary school district has one representative on the school board?

Yes. I would support some kind of election formula that could help elect people from a wider geographic area than the North End.

10. You wake up late. There is no time to go through your typical morning routine. What do you do about breakfast? Where do you eat it? What do you eat?

Grab a coffee and one of my daughters’ school snacks and may be a yogurt from home.

11. The board typically spends months holding entire meetings solely on the budget. 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 actual spending (audited financials). The audited financials are not released well in advance of the meeting. There are no public hearings. 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?

Incorporating Actual spending into the Budget is critically important. This would make budget meetings more productive and it would encourage our Superintendent to utilize our funds more effectively. Breaking the budget by school would provide even more clarity.

12. 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?

It really depends on the situation. There are times where our counsel may not specialize in a specific area or may need input. At the end of the day, we want the best legal advice we can get to make sure we are always making the most sound decisions from a legal perspective for our schools.

13. 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, I would be ok with commissioning a study.

14. 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.

I think we are doing a good job, but I think we can do even better. We should be able to hold the meeting using Facetime or something similar where the viewer can express an opinion on a subject (likes, not likes) and also ask questions live that can be processed and given to the BOE at end of the meetings and we can pick a handful of questions to answer. Why would we complicate this? Because we are trying to engage more community members. We want more people to pay attention to important topics and if we can engage people without asking them to physically show up, we are going to begin engaging more people… and that is a good thing. People have families and jobs and time is precious. Creating a more time effective way to engage the community would help our school district.

15. 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 2019, how often have you attended board of education meetings? Other?

Prior to the death of Valaree Schwab, my wife was the one who was a class parent many times and Co-President of the Ward PTA. She is a former school teacher (Bronx PS 41) and so she is in charge of managing our daughters’ schooling.

Since the tragic incident, I have been very involved spending many hours per week growing a Facebook group, NewRo Parents for a Better Future, from nothing to over 1,000 members today. The focus is to have open and civil dialogue about important topics that can help make our schools better.

I created smaller teams to help break down the egregious budget last year and I was able to explain it in a certain way that resonated with many people and brought clarity to what we were being proposed. This explanation influenced the successful No Vote.

A second team was created focused on what happened at NRHS. After meeting with many faculty, former faculty, former Chair people, and other affiliated people we concluded that the faculty’s voices were not being heard and we were the key instrumental people who orchestrated the meeting at NRHS where 100+ faculty showed up to meet with BOE members. The school was at a tipping point. Great faculty were leaving or about to leave. This meeting at NRHS turned it around. Morale at NRHS hasn’t been this good in many years. This meeting at NRHS is unprecedented – it was never done before in the history of NRHS.

16. What are your thoughts on the T&M investigation related to Apex Online Learning?

It was a joke. They were hired to find the leakers. They were not hired to find who was actually committing the wrongful acts. All they did was create a sense of fear with teachers and guidance counselors – both groups that had nothing to do with Apex. It was Administrators that were managing the entire Apex process.

17. The New York State School Board Association identifies three primary responsibilities of school boards (financial oversight, policy, hiring and firing of senior level staff) with the budget being the biggest responsibility. 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?

My background includes becoming a stock broker at age 21, starting several small to medium size business that included creating budgets from scratch on new ideas.

More specifically- I was the person who broke down last year’s budget after I analyzed the last few years of Audited financial statements to get a better understanding of where our funds were really going. I even went as far as putting a Facetime Live presentation where I walked everyone through the budget.

I have also analyzed this year’s budget and analyzed our most recent years Audited financial statements (June 30 2018) to find:

• An employee Benefits account that is budgeted for $62 million when our actual expenditures last year were only $52 million and the prior 4 years average around $54 million

• $3.2 million in uncollectable receivables for 2018 and another $1.6 million or 2017

• A revenue line item that we have labeled in our budget at “non-Tuition” which is actually us trying to collect on the Uncollectable amounts. The amount shows our “revenue” going from $1 million to $2 million. I’m not sure why it doesn’t show us going to the $3.2 million that our auditors advised to be deemed “Uncollectable”

• A surplus last year of $5.5 million (even without the tax cap getting pierced)

• A reserve fund balance of $29 million which the auditor deems as favorable and puts us in good standing with bond ratings

18. 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?

This was a tough question because there were more than three elements in the strategic road map that I feel the board got right but I’ll take the first three in their “Strategic Directions” that I agree with : Student Learning, Safe and Supportive Schools and Superb Staff. WHY? The primary purpose of our schools is to safely educate all students and the best way to do it is with a Superb Staff. Developing students on a wide spectrum includes having the ability to bring out the best in every student. This includes addressing the social, emotional needs of some, while at the same time, providing forward thinking programs and curriculums – all with the common goal of preparing all of our students with the best education for the next stage in their lives.

• Three things I would change or drop? “have a pedagogical staff that is ethnically more reflective of the students we serve and knowledgeable of cultural differences and learning styles in our diverse school population”. This should be changed to “ have a pedagogical staff that is knowledgeable of cultural differences and learning styles in our diverse school population” I do believe an ethnically diverse pedagogical staff would be ideal, but I also believe hiring decisions should be focused on one thing only: Hiring the best person for the position. Whether the person is Chinese, Italian, African American, Columbian, gay or straight, none of that matters other than that person should be knowledgeable of cultural differences and learning styles in our diverse school population.

19. 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?

Growing up in Brooklyn I went to Xaverian HS and then attended Pace University. The one thing I remembered most is the relationships I had with my teachers and professors. There was a respect and admiration that I always had for them because they were there to help me prepare for life.

I continue to work to expand my understanding of the world by listening to many people older than me. Intelligent people who I admire because of how they conduct themselves, how they live their life, why they do things the way they do things. I did that from an early age with my mom and dad. Any time I’ve tried something new, I made sure I was asking good questions and listening. I also like reading books on topics that I feel could help me be a better person or understand a subject more in depth. We can never stop learning.

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

I’m a solutions-oriented person. I’ve started companies selling forward thinking products and it was only because I listened and understood challenges that an industry was facing and creating solutions that had value- that I sold and continue to sell. In doing this I’ve had to create budget from scratch. How does this translate to the school board? We always have challenges and sometimes the greatest challenge is figuring out what challenge to tackle. Whatever our challenges are, I plan on listening, asking questions, making sure I have a solid understanding and then coming up with creative solutions that will work in the system we are provided. I also feel very confident in my abilities to work with the board and new Superintendent on a future budget that is much more transparent than what we have seen. I’m a big believer in short-term, mid-term and long-range strategic planning – and creating these plans in a truly collaborative way so that everyone buys in and real progress is possible.

BONUS QUESTION: Anything else you feel voters should know about you when they go to the polls on May 21st?

When you go to the polls next Tuesday, ask yourself this: which candidate helped influence positive change in our school district last year, led a good part of our engaged community with humility, demanded civil dialogue, acted with fiduciary responsibility, allowed our teachers’ of NRHS voices to be heard, found $7-8 million over-budgeted in Employee Benefits in THIS year’s budget, met with the Marty Daly, Head of Teachers Union, met with several Board Members, met with every Principal in our school district, met with Mayor Bramson and former Mayor Tim Idoni, met with Chuck Strome, our City Manager, and also attended the Funds for Excellence Dinner, the SEPTA Dinner, The Police Foundation Dinner, several BOE meetings, a radio interview and two PTA meetings, and endorsed by Bill O’Shaughnessy WVOX.

I did this to listen, to learn, to focus on challenges we have and the great ideas that some may have that are being held back, and to discuss some ideas I have that may help our school district become the best school district in the state… this was all done while being a father of four girls, a husband and working on my business.

… and we haven’t even gotten started on the millions we will work together to get from State Aid…

At the end of the day, I believe in New Rochelle, so I am asking you on May 21st to believe in me. Peter J Cantone for Board of Education.

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