By Andrea Paldy
This spring, voting on the school budget and school board faced the notable challenge of taking place during a pandemic, but other than record levels of voter participation, the final results were anything but unprecedented.
With the absentee ballots counted, Three Village residents voted overwhelmingly in favor — 6,096 for and 3,135 against — to approve the $218.84 million budget for the 2020-21 school year.
Residents also chose to return incumbents Inger Germano (4,727 votes), Irene Gische (4,506) and Dr. Jeffrey Kerman (4,479) to the school board, over challengers Shaorui Li (3,722), David McKinnon (3,799) and Vinny Menten (2,810).
During a phone interview this week, Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich expressed gratitude to the community for its support and confidence in the budget. But not everyone was satisfied with the election process.
Three Village parent David Tracy expressed his dissatisfaction in a letter that was read during the board’s June 24 meeting. He was “extremely disappointed,” Tracy said, with the teachers union’s ability to “enforce their will on a board of education election.”
The Three Village Teachers Association and New York State Union of Teachers endorsed Germano, Gische and Kerman and paid for the candidates’ campaign signs.
“Having independent candidates is absolutely paramount in ensuring the best interest of all parties involved, mainly the students and the taxpayers,” he said.
Tracy compared the unions’ public and financial support of candidates to “Congress or other political bodies voting for their own raises.” In his letter, he also spoke of what he said is a trend of budget increases despite declining enrollment and voiced his concerns about nepotism, favoritism and conflicts of interest.
While Barbara Rosati, president of the Three Village Parents Alliance, congratulated the newly reelected board members, she too questioned the election process, asking how independent, community-backed candidates could compete against the efforts of the TVTA and NYSUT.
Rosati is married to McKinnon, one of this year’s independent candidates. She said that with the union president having “regular access” to administrators and board members “in private settings,” that such access can sometimes mean that the board as a whole is bypassed in some decisions — something she believed happened with the launch of this spring’s remote learning.
“I love and support our teachers, and they deserve to have a strong union, but I am concerned about our district’s governance in the current situation,” Rosati added.
Board members and administrators did not respond to Rosati’s request for “comments, insight and solutions” during the meeting.
However, board president Bill Connors did address the issue in a phone interview.
“We represent the community on the board of education, and we work with the teachers union because we have an awful lot in common,” he said. “We are working in the interest of the children, and I see them as a real partner.”
Though Connors sees the goals of the board and the union as aligned, he said there have been times when the two have not agreed. In 1997, for instance, the district narrowly avoided a strike over a provision in the teachers’ contract requiring them to contribute to their health insurance. The issue was resolved in time for the new school year.
Connors, who announced at the June 24 meeting that he is stepping down as board president, also clarified a statement Rosati made about the union president being on the district payroll. Her salary, Connors said, is reimbursed by the TVTA.
Pedisich declined to comment on the parent letters, but said she appreciates the community feedback.
Remote Learning and School Reopening Task Force
During the board’s June 29 meeting, the discussion centered on remote instruction and the reopening of schools in September.
Rosati was critical of the district’s handling of remote learning during the pandemic, calling it “chaotic.” She made comparisons to what she saw as more successful implementations of synchronous instruction in the nearby Half Hollow Hills District and the free summer bridge program offered by Smithtown to students in grades kindergarten through eighth. She also posed questions about how the district will move forward with instruction and reopening in the fall.
“We recognize that there were aspects of our program that did not go as smoothly as we had wanted, or may not have been as effective,” Pedisich said of the implementation of distance learning in March, during the meeting.
She added that the district has more insight now.
“We are looking at what worked well and what did not work well,” she said.
The district is preparing a survey that will go out to parents and staff in the coming days, Pedisich said. Though officials have received many comments from parents, she said they are difficult to quantify. A survey “can grab information we need and synthesize it quickly,” she added.
The superintendent also said that the district is waiting for guidance from the state, but that its school reopening task force is considering three models — one in which everyone returns, a hybrid model of some in-person classes and some remote, or an entirely remote model.
The district is also preparing for the possibility that the year could begin in-person but revert to entirely remote instruction as it did in March. For this reason, she said, the district will provide kindergarten through sixth grade students with Chromebooks that they will be able to use at home.
The reopening task force is made up of subcommittees for transportation, instruction, scheduling, childcare, athletics, mental health, health needs, facility needs and professional development and technology. Task force members include staff, administrators, parents and board members. Pedisich said parents were selected by the PTA council, while staff and administrators were chosen by their union leadership.
The instructional subcommittee, which has been further divided into elementary and secondary subgroups, is looking at guidelines for minimum standards of instruction and synchronous learning across the district. Pedisich said that the elementary level and secondary levels will probably look different. She foresees more structure for the more independent secondary students and more flexibility for younger children who might need assistance from parents.
She said that teachers are continuing to train over the summer to use Google Meets and Hangouts — conferencing software similar to Zoom — that are part of the Google platform the district already uses.
“We as educators feel that it’s so critical for us to be back in September,” Pedisich said, adding that teachers who will be working with new groups of students need to be able to assess their students’ learning styles and needs.
“That’s why we’re looking at following all of the recommendations from the CDC and the DOH, so that we can come back at least for a period of time so that we can get to know our students,” she said.
In other news, the board approved the contracts for the superintendent and the assistant superintendents.