- Would you support a more involved public process to review and discuss the annual audited financials, perhaps incorporating a review of actual spending into projected spending? Explain.
The public does not need to be more involved in a review or discussion of the annual audited financials. Audits are conducted by outside professionals AFTER the budgeted money has been spent. Audits show whether or not the school district spent the money where it said it would spend the money. I have no reason to doubt the auditors’ results.
The district’s problem is in budget formulation. No one is looking at the benefits of the expenditures or whether they are effective. If the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent for Business are unable to make such analyses, then they either need to be replaced or the school district needs to hire financial consultants to conduct cost-benefit studies of what the district is spending on what.
The school district’s budget and its budget process have been a complete failure for years. The Board just rolls over core expenditures from year to year without question and then adds a few new bells and whistles to appease parents. This process is not acceptable. It lacks accountability, transparency, and prudent fiscal management. No one knows why we are spending what we are spending or whether what we are spending on specific resources and programs are actually beneficial. Audit of expenditures is not the problem. The budget needs to be revisited from ground up.
- Would you support hiring an in-house legal staff to handle routine matters to reduce District legal expenses? Explain.
Here again, the answer lies in the data and the results of a cost-benefit analysis. What kinds of legal expenses does the district have? Review basic contracts? Simple legal advice on bids? Yes, one in-house counsel, or maybe one attorney part-time or on retainer for these basic continuing legal issues. Litigation? No, the district needs outside counsel with expertise to help.
- What are the skills and experiences you will bring to the school board, if elected?
The roles of a Board of Ed member are narrowly proscribed: (1) to review and approve the budget, (2) to hire and oversee the Superintendent, and (3) to make policies to help administrators and teachers to achieve the district’s mission. I bring sorely needed business, 26 years, and Board experience, 9 years, to the table.
- Under Dr. Feijóo, since January, the District has refused to fill Freedom of Information requests and, since March, disallowed public comments at regular school board meetings. What is your position on the Board’s role in enforcing transparency?
Failure to fill legitimate FOIL requests is not only unacceptable, it is illegal. It violates the Freedom of Information Act. If the Superintendent or a member of the Administration is at fault, the Board needs to correct this problem ASAP. If the Board is at fault, it needs to correct its own problem. If it fails after request, we need to recall all of the members ASAP.
Speaking at public meetings presents a different issue. While a government has no right to restrict public speech, except in very limited circumstances, it is not obligated to give the public a forum to speak. While having public comment periods at open meetings is important, the failure to provide a public comments period at each meeting is not necessarily a violation of any law or the First Amendment.
- What do you see is the first immediate priority of the school board? Looking out to the end of what would be your term in office, list three outcomes not currently under consideration by the board, that you would like to see accomplished by 2025.
The first immediate priority of the Board is to ensure a smooth COVID-19 landing. While the Administrators are responsible for planning for reopening, the Board is accountable for its success. While it should not be intimately involved in the micro-details, it must be privy to administrative strategies to ensure that they fall within the parameters of district policies.
If elected, my term would end in June 2025. I would hope to see and expect to achieve the following priorities: (1) Comprehensive review and, where necessary, revision of Board policies or guidelines for hiring non-instructional employees and to see that the policies are enforced. The district cannot afford to repeat its hiring mistakes of the last 5 years. (2) Systematization of the budget process so that the budget is continually evaluated for effectiveness and to make it more transparent. The district needs to engage in cost-benefit analyses of programs and then in line-item expenditures for programs to see if they are still current, relevant, and effective. Accrued expenses (AYTD) must be published when a new budget is proposed. (3) Ensure that Board policies contribute to a safe and secure environment for learning, whether that learning is on campus or online. Unfortunately, what is safe and secure is a moving target. Last year we were talking about metal detectors, pat downs, and SROs. This year, we are talking about masks, social distancing, and distance learning. Has anyone thought to install any kind of safeguards to prevent our kids from being preyed upon by pedophiles online? As a Board we have to try to stay vigilant – one step ahead of the next possible catastrophe.
- Do you support retaining or removing Superintendent Dr. Laura Feijóo?
That train (Dr. Feijoo’s employment status) has left the station. Maybe the process by which Dr. Feijoo was hired was flawed. BOE Candidate Katie Castellano Minaya is challenging the process in court and the court will make ultimately decide whether the breach of BOE hiring policy was material and we have to replay the hiring. In the mean time, the District has a contract with Dr. Feijoo. I think the Dr. Feijoo has tried very hard in some hard and trying times. The board would be completely and irrevocably financially irresponsible to terminate yet another Superintendent’s contract and pay 5 years’ salary to but it out. Unless a court rules otherwise, I think that New Rochelle does best to put the past behind it and move forward.
- There has been significant “Black Flight” from the New Rochelle public schools since 2010, with about 650 Black students now “missing”, how would you propose the Board address Black Flight?
“Black Flight” from our community is like the many-headed hydra. Without more information, the question asks for too much conjecture and speculation. A lot of back flight from New Rochelle is because of upward mobility of black families and that is good flight for the blacks who leave. We should not try to retain a specific ethnic or racial group just for the sake of retention.
- Would you support commissioning a study to evaluate the feasibility of Universal Pre-‐K to 5 busing?
As a Board member, one of the key roles is to make policy. More information is always better than less, especially, for making policies. Decisions should never be made on conjecture and speculation. Therefore, I will always support studies. What is more important, however, than supporting a study is acting on the results of the study. The current Board spent money on three different consultants regarding safety and security issues in our schools. The consultants conducted their own studies, drew their own conclusions, and made their own recommendations. The final reports were very similar, yet the Board has failed to follow through on these recommendations. What a waste of taxpayer money! I will not waste taxpayer money.
- There was a great deal of controversy earlier this school year regarding former head football Coach Lou DeRienzo. What are your thoughts on the matter?
As a Board member, two of the roles are to hire and oversee the Superintendent and to set policy, not to investigate allegations of errant employees or to discipline them. Investigation and discipline belong to someone in Administration. My role would be to question: Did the Board have a policy which would have covered the handling of Coach DeRienzo’s situation? If yes, then we must ask whether the policy was followed. If not, then the Board must develop a policy to fill the void or revise a flawed policy. If investigation and discipline fall to the Superintendent, then my role is to question: Did the Superintendent follow school policies? If yes, then the results may be unfortunate, but they were justified. If not, then the Board must deal with the Superintendent.
- The District recently announced the hiring of Adofo Muhammad as the new NRHS Principal who then subsequently withdrew. What are your thoughts on that situation?
As a Board member, two of the roles are to hire and oversee the Superintendent, not to hire employees. My role is to question: Did the Board have a policy which would have covered this hiring situation? If yes, then we must ask whether the policy was followed. If not, then the Board must develop a policy to fill the void or revise a flawed policy. In this case, the hiring of a school principal fell to the Superintendent. My role is to question: Did the Superintendent follow school policies? Did she properly vet the candidate? In a case such as hiring a high school principal, I would be curious about the candidate and would conduct my own independent investigation. In the case of Adofo Muhammad, I would not have had to look very far before I uncovered his controversial background. At that point, I would have been prepared to vote NO on his nomination. If all Board members had done some due diligence, maybe his candidacy never would have reached a vote. The fact is Mr. Muhammad was unanimously approved by the Board.
- The District plans on moving the Alternative High School from St Gabriel’s Church to Bethesda Baptist Church of New Rochelle. What are your thoughts on that?
My decision of whether or not to move Campus (Alternative or “A”) School from St. Gabriel’s School to Bethesda Baptist Church would be data driven. We know the many benefits that Campus students receive from small class size and personalized attention, and we would expect these benefits to be the same at each location. What I do not know are the costs. We know that St. Gabriel’s needs some capital improvements. We know that Bethesda Baptist Church lacks certain basic facilities like a cafeteria, a gym, and bathrooms, and that it needs to be retrofitted to make sound-proof classrooms. As an outsider, I am not privy to the costs. As a Board member I would decide based on which location could offer the same benefits at the lowest cost.
- The COVID-‐19 pandemic has raised many issues but two of the prominent for the District are Food Distribution and Distance Learning. Address those two points specifically and your thoughts on the District’s pandemic response generally.
The response to the pandemic with regard to food service is to be compliant with State mandates to provide nutrition to the District’s children in need. This has little to do with the Board of Education other than to ensure that the Administration is doing the best job to ensure compliance and provision of meals to this demographic.
All school districts were charged with the responsibility of developing distance learning plans in very short order. New Rochelle started off slowly using Google classroom and YouTube to deliver content and assignments to keep the students moving forward but this was not sustainable in keeping the students engaged. Students lacked structure in their day, no class periods and no scheduled class times were a detriment. The teachers did a wonderful job of researching relevant content at that time and I truly believe did they best they could with the tools they had. Given some time, the District administrators and teachers have heroically come together to enhance the learning experience by having the children attend class every day on a schedule, to see and hear their teachers, to ask questions in real time, and to have a more “normal” school day. This can only get better if, God forbid, this goes on for an extended period of time. The District Administrators in collaborative effort with our very capable and resourceful teaching staff should continue to research ways to keep the children engaged and to make sure that every student has the tools to succeed.
- The demands on school board members have increased exponentially over the past decade. Is this a concern for you and, if so, how would you address it? Would you support shorter terms, shorter board meetings, less “required” non-‐boarding meeting activities, annual stipends?
I am prepared to put in the time and energy to be a Board member. The length of a Board meeting is determined by the agenda and public comment period. Over the years, the number of agenda items and their complexity have increased. I do not see them getting shorter or any less complex any time soon. I support the current 5-year term. The job is complex, one needs many skills, and they are not all learned overnight. A 3-year term is too short to be truly effective. Where I think that Board members waste time is in visiting schools during the day. An outside board member of a public company often has no idea of how the company makes its products and s/he does not need to do so to be an effective Board member. Several years ago, the public had unlimited time to speak during Board meetings and that was a drag on meeting length. When Lianne Merchant became Board president, she imposed the 3-minute rule. Many people complained, but one has only 3 minutes to speak at Citizens to be Heard before the City Council, and the limit keeps people from unnecessary rambling and forces them to make their points. No, the Board members should not get stipends. That would be taking taxpayer money away from its intended purpose, namely, education of the children
- Since the law changed from appointed to elected school board members, over 90% of school board members have resided within North End elementary school districts. What are your thoughts on this?
I think this may be attributed to the fact the most people residing in the North End are homeowners where there is a large population of renters in all other areas of New Rochelle. A homeowner may have more interest in the District operating efficiently as it directly effects their tax dollars and property values.
- COVID-‐19 is scary, and with good reason, but many people have learned quite a bit about their own minor weaknesses or idiosyncrasies during the crisis. What is something the pandemic caused you to realize about yourself that in hindsight you took for granted and have now changed? (try to have a little “fun” with this question)
While I always thought my wife and I were splitting the responsibility of the children’s school work, I’ve learned I was in no way carrying my own weight in this department. This became crystal clear during a family dinner conservation where my kids said Mom was the teacher and I was more of the security guard. Now that my wife is required to return to work at least part-time, I have had to ramp up helping out with meals and school work. I am now the security guard and lunch lady….no stipend for these by the way!
- To what degree have you been involved with the New Rochelle School District over the past 10 years? Prior to 2019-‐20, how often have you attended New Rochelle Board of Education meetings?
My family is interested in the general health of the District as we have and had children in the schools and the need for fiscal responsibility and oversight has always been lacking. For a while it looked like there was some progress to that end and then with all of the turnover in key Administrative positions, that progress stalled. The District needs a strong Board that will follow their own policy’s. I usually watch the meetings after the fact so I can digest all the information going on and not be distracted. Even though I’ve not been a physical presence at the meetings, I am informed and understand the need for change.
- What are your thoughts on Apex Grade Inflation Investigations?
The Apex Grade Inflation scandal was unfortunate and it came at a very weak time in the district’s administrative history. I do not know all of the intimate details, but I do know that oversight of grading is not a Board function. The Board hires a Superintendent who hires other administrators who hire subordinates. In this case, the Superintendent dropped the ball in failing to maintain supervisory control over the high school principal who hired the two persons responsible for inflating the student grades. The Board had to hold the Superintendent accountable. It did. It failed to renew Dr. Osborne’s contract. The year 2018 was one of calamity after another that I hope we never see repeated.
- Do you think Board Members should be allowed to take jobs with the District or its’ vendors upon leaving the school board?
- If you win a seat, you will be responsible for spending about $1.5 billion dollars of other people’s money over the next 5 years. What is your level of financial literacy and how does it apply to this responsibility?
My educational and professional experience fill this void on the current Board. In my 26-year career, I served on the Boards of Directors for two key industry organizations: The Specialty Advertising Association of Greater New York (“SAAGNY”), the industry trade association (8 years), and the SAAGNY Foundation, a charitable organization that raises money to support charitable events for children (one year). As a SAAGNY Board member, I sat on numerous committees, chairing most, was elected to the executive committee, and served as Treasurer, Vice President, and President of the Board. When I took office as President, the association was in the red. It had a disorganized and disjointed business model with little or no fiscal oversight. While serving as Board President, one of my main goals was to restore the financial health of the organization. Collaboratively, working with SAAGNY Board members and staff, the business model was reconstructed with defined fiscal oversight and sound fiscal initiatives. Today, the association has a healthy seven-figure fund balance.
- The board operates under a “strategic road map”. 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)?
I believe that the core beliefs of the strategic road map to be on point. The beliefs look to make sure that everyone involved with the schools, should become a better person because of it. It is inclusive. It understands that the school, its students, its teachers, and its parents/guardians are all part of the equations to “educate the whole child”.
What I feel they got right:
The reserve fund: This is currently at the State-mandated maximum.
The staff: I believe the teachers to be the District’s best assets. Our map allows for the staff to continue to grow and flourish academically to become better teachers and better role models for our children.
Engagement and outreach: It is better than it was, but there is always room for improvement.
What they got wrong:
I believe the Board needs to take the ethnicity out of the equation. We should always strive to hire the best and the brightest to serve our children and our community and this should not be driven by the color of the person’s skin or where they were born. It should be driven by quality of their education and experience only.
BONUS QUESTION: Anything else you feel voters should know about you when they go to the polls on June 9th?
All of us candidates care about the kids. That is a non-issue. I think that all of us are drawn to the Board because of recent tragedies that have negatively impacted our kids. Each of us believes that we can make a difference. I am running for the Board of Education, especially, because I see a big gap in the financial knowledge and managerial ability of the current Board.
In the last 5-10 years, the school budget has grown without rhyme nor reason and we do not know if the additional expenditures have even been worth it. We are under a 2-year old mandate from New York State to break out expenditures per pupil per school and it has not been done. The Title I and Title III monies are listed by use, not by school or program, and we do not know if these monies are getting to where they are supposed to go. This year, the Superintendent carved out $2 million for what she calls an Equity Budget, where all schools receive a weighted increase in building budget, but I am still unclear what these weights mean or how they were calculated. Yes, I am happy to hear that the tax levy is not increasing, but the budget and the budget process need more transparency and fiscal oversight. The Board must be more accountable to the taxpayers.
Also, in the last 5-10 years, the Board has made some very questionable hiring and firing decisions. It has approved candidates for administrative positions without thorough vetting. With such high turnover in key administrative positions in recent years, New Rochelle needs a strong Board that will call into question decisions of the Administration and examine the District policies to see where the shortfalls are. The Board needs members who will exercise more oversight of the Superintendent and his/her hiring and firing decisions. The school district needs more accountability for managerial decisions and more transparency, accountability and fiscal oversight for financial decisions. Vote Leone!
SUPER BONUS QUESTION: BUDGET AND BALLOTS
Will you vote for the budget?
Do you have anything to say about the mail-in ballot distribution snafu?
Being New Rochelle, it’s no surprise that there is some sort of issue with the voting process. While we are not the only district experiencing this delay issue, the administration should have been more on top of it.