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Name: Robert Cox
District where seeking a trustee seat: New Rochelle
Civic and school board experience:
I have attended over 100 school board meetings. Since 2008, I have often been the only person at the school board meetings not on the board or employed by the district.
I have relentlessly pushed for greater transparency of board meetings: airing meetings on TV, publishing agendas and orders of business on the web, as well as school budgets, audited financials, powerpoint presentations and video on the web. I researched and recommended digital recording technology to record meetings and make podcasts of meetings which was later purchased and adopted by the school board.
I not only attend the meetings but publish reports about them on the web. I also publish articles and opinion pieces by other members of the community.
To mark the 49th Anniversary of the Lincoln School desegregation case, I edited and published an 8-part series on the history of the Lincoln School case, one year before the 50th Anniversary of the Kaufman decision. I met with the leadership of the association of black churches in New Rochelle, the President of the N.A.A.C.P. and other leaders in the African-American community. I appeared before the school board to inform them of the upcoming event, of which they were unaware, and urged them to properly mark the occasion of the 50th Anniversary on January 24, 1961. These efforts initiated the year-long celebration of the 50th Anniversary in our schools.
Elsewhere in the community, I have coached soccer and served as the Commissioner for New Rochelle AYSO Soccer. I was the founder of the Al’s Pals Program for developmentally disabled youngsters, working with current school board member and then-SEPTA President Chrisanne Petrone to promote the program and attract players. I have been a head coach for both Little League Girls Softball and Little League Boys Baseball. I have donated my time to develop and manage numerous community web sites and social media platforms including the NAACP New Rochelle Branch, the Chamber of Commerce of New Rochelle, the New Rochelle Save Our Armory Committee, Habitat for Humanity for Westchester, and various political campaign web sites. I have been an instructor at the New Rochelle Public Library teaching a course on social media and web-based publishing.
My wife, Dr. Maria Suarez Cox and I have raised our four children in New Rochelle.
My wife is a special education teacher for the City School District of New Rochelle and a professor at Columbia University’s Teacher College. She has been in the Special Education field for 25 years. Prior to working in New Rochelle she was a special educator at the Mount Pleasant Cottage School and Greenburgh 11 School for children residing at the Children’s Village and has been an adjunct professor of special education at Marymount College, College of New Rochelle, DePaul University and Marymount Manhattan.
My two older children, Elena and Owen, are successful graduates of New Rochelle High School. Elena will graduate this month from SUNY-Binghamton and has already started a full-time job working as a layout editor in Binghamton for Gannett. Owen is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame where he is majoring in Arabic Language and Culture. He will be working this summer for the Brooklyn District Attorney and studying next year at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. He is pursuing a career in government service working in the Intelligence community.
Collins and Micaela are currently enrolled at Albert Leonard Middle School and and Ward Elementary School, respectively. Collins is currently on the High Honor roll at Albert Leonard. Micaela plays Lacrosse and loves her teacher, Dr. G.
The Cox family is a member of Holy Name Parish in New Rochelle.
How long lived in the District:
I lived in the City School District of New Rochelle since 1994, 17 years.
Irvington Public School System (K-8)
High School Diploma, Iona Preparatory School
B.A. University of Notre Dame
M.B.A. University of Chicago
I am an online publisher, journalist and social media strategy consultant.
Why are you running for school board trustee and what qualifies you for the position?
I am running for school board trustee because first and foremost I want to preserve the many excellent programs offered in our school system, to make sure our teachers and staff are fairly compensated and that staff, students and parents are treated with respect. I want to build on the work that has been done over the past two years under current Board President Sara Richmond to increase access to school board meetings and, in particular, the budget process. While I have had my differences with Ms. Richmond, there is no doubt that she has done more in her time on the board than any of her predecessors to make the school board more accessible to the public. I have a well-established track record on advocating for open government and transparency and fully intend to continue what she was begun.
Given increases in unfunded mandates, rising health care and pension contribution costs and declining real estate values I am concerned about the continued financial viability of our school system. After careful review of budget documents and audited financials going back over the past decade, I am convinced that the administration has not done their best to make school spending clear to the board and the public. I intend to take up a suggestion put forward by school board member Jeffrey Hastie during his campaign two years ago, to create a “kitchen cabinet” of New Rochelle residents with strong backgrounds in finance to provide an independent, annual review of the school budget to better equip board members without a strong financial background to sift through the information and focus discussions at the annual budget meetings
Over the past twenty-five years, I have started-up and run businesses, hired and fired employees, negotiated and signed hundreds of contracts, dealt with immigration issues for employees, run a corporate board as Chairman and served on other boards. I have extensive technology and new media experience which will be beneficial to the district as the board is often asked to consider multi-million dollar investments in technology.
After graduation from Notre Dame, and prior to and during my time at the University of Chicago, I worked as a foreign exchange and bond trader where I developed significant experience with complex financial structures. After graduation, I worked as a management consultant for major financial services companies and governments in Europe, Asia and North America which ultimately led me into the world of technology, especially Internet technology.
As a social media strategy consultant, I have advised major corporations and lectured at major universities, prestigious media conferences and media institutes. Perhaps my two most interesting experiences are having done consulting work for Tony Snow who was Press Secretary under President George W. Bush and working on Sandra Day O’Connor’s Conference for a Fair and Independent Judiciary where I had the opportunity to meet with most of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
What do you see as the top three challenges facing your school district?
First, unfunded mandates and pension and health care costs continue to soar. An optimistic projection, out over the next five years, shows school expenses in 2016 will be over $270 million while revenues will be $255 million with a cumulative deficit of $35 million. This assumes an average tax increase of 5% and no decrease in state aid. The average tax increase over the past decade has been 7%. In short, unless property values listed on our tax rolls jump dramatically, the current financial structure of the district is unsustainable without massive tax increases or draconian cuts in services.
Second, declining graduation rates and academic performance for minority students at a time when the minority population has been increasing dramatically, especially Latinos, is a significant drag on overall performance, negatively impacting the perception of the quality of our school district. We have a lot of work to do to turn this around with new and expanded programs to support at-risk minority students.
Third, changing a “circle the wagons” culture which treats parents with a legitimate concern about services or treatment of their children in the schools as the enemy. In too many cases, the knee-jerk response of school officials to a parent with a grievance is to treat that parent as a likely litigant rather than a customer to be served. The result has been a self-fulfilling prophecy, a series of costly lawsuits that might otherwise have been avoided by showing proper respect and concern to the parent.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed a 2 percent cap on annual property tax increases. Do you think this is a good idea or bad idea?
I fully support the efforts of both Governor Cuomo and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino to “rightsize” government by consolidating agencies and functions, cutting unnecessary or duplicative programs and reducing headcount in bloated areas of our government. I understand the appeal of a property tax cap, especially as a way to force state and local government to curb spending. Certainly, the Governor’s proposal is worth careful consideration but a property tax cap by itself is a poor substitute for responsible governance. Too many times we have seen how legislators can pass restrictions on themselves and then ignore those restrictions.
I would like to see the Governor combine his tax cap proposal with relief to local governments and school districts from unfunded mandates and pension reform. Without this, I see a real risk that Albany will shift more of a burden on already strapped homeowners at the local level. So, while I would be cautious, a property tax cap as part of a broader plan that included relief from unfunded mandates, pension reform and protection for seniors would be worth serious consideration.
With respect to school district finances, are there any specific initiatives you would pursue to save money or reduce expenses?
I have been dismayed to see the district bring forward a budget in which we are firing staff and raising taxes at a time when they cannot guarantee that they are only paying employees for hours worked or overtime after having worked a sufficient number of hours to qualify for overtime. Over the past several years I have identified to the board and the public numerous examples of workers taking school district vehicles for personal use, working no-show jobs and otherwise stealing money that could be going to provide pedagogical services.
I have made specific recommendations to the board over the past several years; some of them include:
1. Improve Fleet Management – Install GPS locators on all district vehicles that link back to software which can provide alerts if a vehicle is leaving the boundaries of New Rochelle, is moving or out of position when it should be parked or that is parked in a location where it should not be located. Westchester County has installed such a system on its fleet and the results have been transformative.
2. Install Biometric Time Clocks – Currently staff are required, in various ways, to check-in and check-out, but there is no unified system and what little system exists is widely abused. Companies like ADP can install a district-wide system for as little as $10,000. The savings in reduced pay, especially for hourly workers and for overtime, would be immediate and save the district significant sums of money. In other environments such as hospitals and government agencies where these systems are in widespread use, the system improves morale among the best employees because the hardest workers feel more confident that “time cheats” are being held accountable and thus their efforts are more respected.
3. Terminate Contract with ServiceMaster – The district currently pays a company called ServiceMaster $850,000 a year for four people to “manage” the buildings and grounds department. This is a department where an HVAC engineer, Vito Costa, was arrested for working a no-show job in 2009. Despite investigators for the Westchester County District Attorney following him for a month in which he did not report to work at the school district and where he was found to have been routinely stealing supplies to use in his private HVAC business, no supervisor was held accountable for signing his time cards or supply orders. This is the department in which Frank DeMasi was found to be one of many employees converting district vehicles and equipment to personal use. And this is the same department that has hired Jimmy Bonano, Jr., Len Ricci and Rasool Hassan Williams, among others, despite extensive arrest records. ServiceMaster recently sold a contract to provide similar services to the Mount Vernon School District where the four employees are now splitting their time; despite this the district continues to pay the full $850,000 a year.
There are numerous additional opportunities to cut spending without impacting pedagogical services which I have identified to the board over the past several years. As a school board member, it is my intention to root out waste, fraud and abuse to save the district money that can be put back into the classroom and/or returned to the taxpayers.
Of late, a lot of attention has been paid to school district spending, particularly with respect to employee salaries and benefits. To what extent are you satisfied or dissatisfied with these arrangements? Are there any changes you would make?
My wife is a teacher in New Rochelle so it may not be a surprise that I believe that teachers should be fairly compensated. I have had my children in the New Rochelle schools for a long time — Davis, Barnard, Ward, Albert Leonard and the high school. They have had many excellent teachers over all those years. That said, there are, as in any school district, teachers who would be better of in another line of work. While there are some bad teachers, and the union makes it very difficult to remove them, there are also bad administrators who play favorites and engage in retaliation having nothing to do with performance in the classroom.
The problem is that there is not an effective “free agency” market for teachers. If good teachers knew there was a competitive market for their services they would be less concerned with obtaining tenure to gain job security and more concerned with finding the best career opportunity as they define it – best school, best administration, best pay, best benefits, best location, etc. The changes required to accomplish this are “global” not local but I believe that competition is good and that students, parents and teachers would be the biggest winners in moving to a more open job-market for educators in New York.
Financially, the most important change that can be made is to move state pensions from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Unfortunately, this must happen at the state level as part of a pension reform deal. The pernicious effect of having unrealistic, fixed investment return requirements for the current plans is draining local governments and school districts which in turn drives up taxes. The higher cost of living in New York has created an exodus in our state; two million fewer people report living in New York since the 2000 census.
I have publicly stated my support for the F.U.S.E. contract amendment in 2009 and for the recently approved contract in 2011. In 2009, the contract called for an effective 1.25% across-the-board increase. The 2011 contract is an effective 1.57% increase. In the current economy, the increases have been in line with inflation and, if the U.S. treasury market is correctly pricing inflation out of the next three years, the new contract is in line and reasonable.
What is your assessment of the school district’s academic offerings? What do you see as the school district’s strengths and weaknesses? How would you, if at all, reorder priorities?
There are many excellent programs in New Rochelle and I would certainly want to preserve excellent programs that deliver results. That said, at a time when the entire country is going through an extremely difficult period financially, the district has continued to add new programs and incur new costs such as Full-Day kindergarten and Mandarin language programs. While all such programs are wonderful, there is a question of affordability. The justification from the administration for adding these and other programs is invariably tied to some form of short-term grant or state or federal aid available. Yet, these sources of funding do not fully cover the costs of the new program and expire within one to three years with the net result of layering on new costs to programs that the district cannot afford to support over time. Given the projected cumulative deficit projected out over the next five years and a fiscal reality where residents own homes worth less than their mortgage, the decision to pile millions of dollars of new liabilities on the backs of taxpayers, no matter how wonderful the new program might be, strikes me as a misplaced priority at this time.
There is one weakness so glaring in the New Rochelle school system that it blocks out all others and needs to be addressed immediately. The Isaac E. Young Middle School is sinking. Youngsters, for the most part, are entering that school well-prepared for middle school. They are leaving poorly prepared for high school. This has manifest itself over time in declining minority graduation rates at the high school as these youngsters age up in the school system. Although I live in the North End and my children do, have and will attend Albert Leonard Middle School, I recognize that the future excellence of our school system depends on turning around our South End middle school.
I have serious doubts about the effectiveness of the current leadership at Isaac E. Young Middle School which has stumbled from one crisis to another over the past five years ranging from a despicable racial incident involving a plush-toy monkey hung on a noose to an alleged case of ongoing sexual molestation in a school office. My number one priority would be to focus the board and administration on the need to do what it takes to restore a once-Blue Ribbon School of Excellence to its former stature. This will not only benefit students, parents and staff at the building but reduce a significant drag on South End home values. The result will be not only a better school with better outcomes for children but reduced expenses as more students graduate on time and increased revenue for the City School District of New Rochelle and the City of New Rochelle as home values increase thus shoring up our tax base.