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Stephen Waldenburg Jr.

Group files petition, board size reduction up for vote next year

Armand D’Accordo, a member of the United Taxpayers of Northport-East Northport who presented the petition, speaks at a meeting last week. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Next year, Northport-East Northport school district voters will weigh in on whether to downsize its school board from nine trustees to seven.

On Monday, June 15, the United Taxpayers of Northport-East Northport presented a petition at a school board meeting with nearly 300 signatures in support of the reduction. Beth Nystrom, the district clerk of the Northport-East Northport school district, confirmed in a phone interview that the petition is legitimate and a proposition to downsize the board should be up for a vote in next year’s election.

Armand D’Accordo, a member of the United Taxpayers of Northport-East Northport who presented the petition, said he’s seen a number of issues with the current size of the nine-member board and the length of time board members are in office.

“I have gotten the sense at board meetings, both through watching and interacting, that it seems a bit dysfunctional, due to the makeup of how many members and how long they’ve been around,” D’Accordo said.

Nine members is the largest number permitted on a school board, and three the fewest, according to New York State education law.

“If such a petition is brought forward to the district it will be included in the annual budget vote and decided by the community,” board President Julia Binger said in a statement.

D’Accordo said the group got interested in pursuing this issue after Nina Dorata’s research in “School District Boards, Audit Committees, and Budget Oversight: Seeking a Formula for Good Governance,” published in the March 2013 issue of the CPA Journal, exposed the correlation between school district budget increases and tenure of board members.

In the article, Dorata surveyed Long Island school districts, and 83 percent responded that the average number of members on a school board is approximately six, with the average tenure of five and a half years.

In Northport-East Northport, with the exception of outgoing Trustee Stephen Waldenburg, Jr., who has served for 15 years on the board, all other members each tout tenures of five years or fewer.

The members of the United Taxpayers of Northport-East Northport believe that “statistical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that school districts operate in a more effective and efficient manner when the composition of the board is limited to no more than seven board members.”

Dorata is a member of the United Taxpayers of Northport-East Northport and a previous member of the school board’s audit committee, along with D’Accordo. She is a professor at St. Johns University, as well as the assistant chairperson of the school’s department of accounting and taxation.

She discovered in her data that “the bigger the board, the bigger the budget,” and that “after years of reading corporate literature, I found that the entrenchment theory was due to longevity.”

Objectivity becomes lost with board members who have been on the board for many years, Dorata said.

But that’s not a view with which some school board members agree. Waldenburg said he believes the opposite —  the longer a board member stays on the board, the better the budget is. He said the knowledge he has gained over the years is more beneficial to the community. In his 15 years, the budget is much better now then when he started, he said.

“I don’t know why it’s necessary, I think that there is a good symmetry on the board with nine members, there is an even amount up for re-election every year,” he said.

Waldenburg also believes that a smaller board would be less representational, and that with a larger board, there’s room for more diversity in opinions. “It always leads to a better decision.”

Recently re-elected Trustee David Badanes echoed those sentiments. Badanes is currently not in favor of a reduction to the size of the board, “the statistics are speculative and so far the arguments do not convince me,” he said in a statement.

“We have a large and diverse community, with a lot of different areas to represent. The more people that participate gives you more eyes for each issue,” he said.

If the school board fails to give notice at the annual board meeting that a proposition vote on this matter will take place, then the notice will be given by Mary Ellen Elia, the education commissioner of New York.

D’Accordo believes that the public will be in favor of the reduction.

“I do feel confident, in the public there is a general sense I have been getting while collecting signatures for this petition that the public wants a smaller school board.”

Northport High School. File photo

Seven candidates vying for three seats on the Northport-East Northport school board in next week’s election got together to talk about pressing issues and field questions from the PTA Council and district residents in a forum on Tuesday evening.

Hot topics included dealing with declining enrollment, maintaining the district’s facilities and grounds, deciding what kind of relationship should exist between a school board and its superintendent, and determining the level of programs the district should offer.

It was a packed room at the Northport High School library, where the lineup of candidates included incumbents Stephen Waldenburg Jr. and David Badanes; newcomers Peter Mainetti, Josh Muno, David Stein and Michael Brunone; and former school board member Tammie Topel.

Declining enrollment is an issue facing not only Northport-East Northport; districts across Long Island are also facing the trend. Candidates had differing opinions on how to address declining enrollment, particularly when it came to consolidating programs.

Topel said it wouldn’t be necessary to cut any programs that have enough students in them. Waldenburg said the numbers “bode for scary times” and the district may need to consider closing schools. Badanes said he wanted to approach the issue from the mind-set of maintaining instead of cutting and said that the enrollment numbers projecting declines could be wrong. Brunone said the district needs to look at its fixed costs.

Mainetti, Muno and Stein said they were in favor of keeping the current programming level intact. Stein said the district needs to stop cutting its programs.

“We have to make ourselves the most competitive,” he said.

Most candidates said they’d be in favor of floating a bond to pay for maintenance and repairs to the district’s buildings and grounds. Mainetti said he’s not a huge fan of bond issues, but it would be good to involve the community if one goes forward. Topel, however, said she wouldn’t support a bond because she’s “not sure the community would go for it.”

The candidates also weighed in on what to do about pending litigation by the Long Island Power Authority, challenging the value of the Northport power plant. The utility has maintained that it’s grossly over-assessed and pays more than it should in taxes, and if successful in court, Northport-East Northport school district residents could see huge spikes in their taxes.

Candidates were asked how they would plan financially if the school district and Huntington Town lose the lawsuit. Badanes, who said he couldn’t comment in detail about the litigation, said the district’s attorneys are working on the issue, and that a loss of revenue, if it happens, would be planned over time. Brunone offered similar thoughts and said he wouldn’t be surprised if the lawsuit continued for five more years. Topel said there should be a crackdown on illegal accessory apartments in the district, many of which house families with school-aged children who aren’t paying taxes. Muno said he was optimistic about a positive resolution to the litigation.

“I really believe justice will prevail in this situation and we won’t have to resort to that type of thing,” Muno said.

Waldenburg said there’s a chance the plant could be upgraded and repowered, which would increase its value and potentially take the issue off the table.

Candidates were also asked whether it’s better to retain programs to attract people to the district or make some of the district’s programs the best around, even if the district is offering fewer overall. Most candidates said it’s important to offer a variety of programs.

“Variety of programs is what keeps a well-rounded, well-educated individual,” Mainetti said. “It’s not just STEM, it’s not just athletics, it’s not just the arts — it’s balance. We need those programs.”

Brunone said it’s important to keep the taxpayer, or the “shareholder,” in mind.

“Of course I think [we should] offer as much as we can through the budget,” he said.

Next week’s school board election and budget vote is on Tuesday, May 19, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.