2012-10-25 / Front Page

School board candidates go head-to-head at forum

Four hopefuls agree that funding is biggest hurdle
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

Money is the biggest challenge facing the Jamestown schools, the four people running for School Committee said during a public forum Oct. 17.

The Jamestown Shores Association sponsored the event. Candidates are Democrats Ryan Conlon, Cathy Kaiser and Julia Held, and Republican Lowell Thomas. The half-hour discussion focused on the school budget and education priorities.

The top three vote getters win three-year terms. Conlon, 21, and Thomas, 52, are the challengers. Kaiser, 61, and Held, 55, are the incumbents.

The forum was moderated by Jamestowner Marisa Quinn. Jamestown Shores Association President Nancy Ventrone said Quinn is “very political,” with a background as a former aide to the late Sen. Claiborne Pell and a policy advisor to former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio.

Before the forum started, Quinn explained the format and added that the candidates had not seen the questions in advance. Each School Committee hopeful was allotted 90 seconds for a personal introduction, and then given two minutes to respond to questions. An additional 30 seconds was available for rebuttal, if requested, but there was not sufficient time for ongoing rebuttals.

During introductions, Thomas told the audience he was a businessman who had become involved with education 15 years ago as a board member of an alternative school in Maine. Based on his work there, he concluded that middle-school children have been dealing with essentially the same issues for the past 25 years. The children need programs that build self-confidence and decision-making skills, and also help combat bullying.

Kaiser, the School Committee chairwoman since 2001, summed up her accomplishments since being elected to the board. Under her leadership, she said, the panel has reined in the costs for local taxpayers by reducing the town’s share of annual budget increases from “double digits to single digits,” and in some years to fractional digit increases. Meanwhile, the panel has supported “increased rigor of programming without a corresponding increase in costs,” and opposed binding arbitration deals being brokered at the State House. Kaiser has testified at the State House about binding arbitration and other issues.

“I still have something to contribute,” she said.

Held said she has served on the committee since 2005, but her involvement with the district started in 1989 when her oldest child began kindergarten. The public schools today are better than when her youngsters attended, she said, and the improvement is due to the capable administrative team. She is running to “continue to be a part of that work.”

Among the school board’s top accomplishments, she listed the savings due to zero-based budgeting, and an administrative reorganization that gave the district a part-time superintendent and put principals in both schools. She also cited successful collective bargaining agreements with employees.

Conlon, a college student, said he attended both Jamestown schools and North Kingstown High. As a recent graduate, he said he has a “unique perspective” on local education. Conlon said if he is elected, he will bring knowledge to the committee useful in making decisions.

Conlon fielded the first question, which asked the candidates to identify the biggest challenge or opportunity facing the Jamestown schools.

“Maintaining the quality of the schools with ever-dwindling resources,” he said.

Held said she agreed with Conlon’s assessment. Specifically, she mentioned financing issues related to the federal government’s Race to the Top program, and to other initiatives including the Common Core State Standards and a new curriculum. Held said the committee will have to find “creative ways to maximize resources.”

Kaiser also focused on funding and said she is aware that residents “shoulder 96 percent” of the school budget.

“Funding will remain the biggest challenge we have,” she said. She pointed out that the schools are seeing costs rise in areas that can’t be controlled, such as health care and contract obligations.

Kaiser said the schools have a rocky road ahead. “I can’t soften it.”

Thomas said the schools are forced to comply with federal and state mandates.

“Schools around the country are facing the same issues,” he said. Thomas is against communities losing local control of schools. The state and federal government now have “much more influence,” he said.

But Thomas disagreed with the other candidates about the biggest non-fiscal issues facing the schools.

“One of my concerns is the fact we’re losing students to private schools,” he said. Thomas said the reason may be due to the misperception that the public schools aren’t as good as private schools, but he added the loss is “damaging to the entire school system” because “engaged parents” are going elsewhere.

Kaiser said the transition to the Common Core State Standards is the biggest non-fiscal issue the schools face.

“Our teachers are being hit hard,” she said, referring to the new curriculum they have to learn, as well as new teacher evaluations. She said the School Committee’s role should be to provide “support, resources, morale boosting and professional development.”

She also refuted comments about the migration to private schools. She said the school board has studied the question and concluded the parents who attended private schools themselves are sending their children to private schools.

“It’s demographic,” she said. Thomas asked for an opportunity to rebut. He said the parents who transferred their youngsters to private schools were not private school graduates themselves.

Held said she was concerned about giving children tools they need to be competitive. She would like the schools to look into starting foreign languages earlier, following the practice of other nations. “I think this is important,” she said, “and I’d like to see it in this community.”

Conlon said the panel will have to support the teachers “while they align themselves with this brand new curriculum.” He said the new standards are “entirely different” than anything teachers have followed before, and the School Committee members must ensure the teachers have the tools to succeed.

On the future of Jamestown’s agreement with North Kingstown, all the candidates said they would like to continue the arrangement, as long as feasible.

Conlon said he attended North Kingstown High and could attest to the quality of education.

“They have excellent programs,” he said, but added that friction between the North Kingstown municipal government and the North Kingstown School Committee could erode support among Jamestowners.

Held, who is the liaison to the North Kingstown school board, said the clash between the N.K. School Committee and the town has not impacted programs yet, but the Jamestown school board would have to monitor the situation. Meanwhile, she said, North Kingstown “does offer a really excellent program.”

“It is the best choice for our students at this point,” said Kaiser. She went on to explain the Jamestown school board will take a detailed look at the arrangement with North Kingstown every five years, but in the meantime will “informally monitor what’s going on in the system” to assess any impact on the Jamestown students.

“Our kids have been there 30 years,” Kaiser said. “We’re not looking to change arbitrarily.”

Thomas said the relationship between the North Kingstown Town Council and the schools has become “dysfunctional,” but as long as the problems do not compromise the school’s programs, he also would like to continue the arrangement between Jamestown and North Kingstown.

Asked for ideas about the school budget, Thomas said he was doubtful much could be done to cut spending in the current economic climate. Jamestown, like other Rhode Island communities, is losing state aid, but that impact may be minor because the island has never “gotten a lot of money from the state,” he said.

Thomas said the School Committee should anticipate increased future expenses and “try to absorb costs down the road.” He also said Jamestown’s per-pupil cost is the highest statewide. He calculates the price per pupil at $19,200.

Kaiser said Jamestown pays a high per-pupil cost because “we have a small enrollment” and cannot benefit from economy of scale. She said the School Committee has adopted zero-based budgeting to save money. The method starts with inserting zero in every line item instead of automatically increasing every line item annually. The board then decides whether to continue funding the line item and determines the amount. Kaiser said the method has resulted in savings: The school panel has not been required to cut any programs to make ends meet.

Held said School Committee members “have tried to find savings in a variety of ways and have completely avoided cuts.” She cited the energy-efficiency initiatives as one area where the schools have generated savings.

Conlon said he agreed that zero- based budgeting was the right approach and said the method builds the budget “starting from bottom up.”

Quinn honed in on a specific budget item and asked about an anomaly in Jamestown’s budget – specifically the noninstructional spending. Jamestown, she said, spends 32.2 percent of the overall budget on noninstructional spending. By comparison, East Greenwich and Barrington spent 6.5 and 8.6 percent, respectively.

“What does this suggest and what would you do?” she asked.

Conlon said he was not sure and would have to investigate.

Held said the noninstructional spending looks high because that category includes the tuitions for North Kingstown.

“That’s one of the reasons our per-pupil costs are high,” she said. Otherwise, Jamestown pays “low overhead” for the school buildings and also pays administrative costs which are “in line” with the other communities and in some cases are lower, Held added.

Kaiser concurred and said that tuitions and transportation to North Kingstown were included under noninstructional spending.

Thomas also agreed. “That’s pretty much the answer,” he said. But, Thomas added, after the tuition money is subtracted from per-pupil costs, expenses for the children in the Melrose Avenue and Lawn Avenue schools remain high.

Quinn asked another budget question about the new three-year teachers’ contract, which, she said, included a tuition reimbursement.

Thomas said the “number looked big,” but added that he did not have the information and could not address the question.

“I have to pass,” he said.

Kaiser corrected the question to say the teachers’ contract does not include a tuition reimbursement. The administrators’ contract does allow $2,500 for tuition reimbursements. However, she pointed out the impact on the budget was minimal because the district employs only five administrators.

“They had not asked for an increase in a couple of years,” she said. But, Kaiser added, the administrators did ask for tuition assistance. She said that some are pursuing their Ph.D. According to Kaiser, the School Committee decided the request was reasonable, because the courses in data analysis, for example, “directly benefit the district.”

Held and Conlon agreed. “She’s right,” Held said.

Conlon fielded the next question, which asked if the schools are doing enough to keep 12- to 16-year-old youngsters occupied after dismissal.

Quinn used the term “corner culture” to describe the habit of teenagers “hanging on the corners” downtown.

Conlon said the Jamestown Teen Center and the Jamestown Education Foundation provide after-school programs.

Held said other than assigning “lots of homework,” she doesn’t know what the schools can do to keep the teens busy after school ends for the day. The school budget does not fund after-school programs, she said. Funding for the teen center comes out of the municipal government’s budget, and the Jamestown Education Foundation pays for after-school programs. “Our after-school programs are terrific,” Held said. “We’re doing what we can, but it’s an issue for the town.”

Kaiser said the district does provide a late bus from North Kingstown for Jamestown students who participate in clubs and sports at the high school.

“It’s not really a school issue,” she said.

Thomas said the education foundation “is doing a good job.” He suggested the community should support the fund.

Quinn followed up with a question about whether the private schools do a better job with afterschool activities.

Conlon said he would be willing to review the issue. “We do have effective after-school programs now,” he said.

Held said island youngsters have after-school opportunities in “sports leagues and a number of things.” She mentioned classes at the Jamestown Arts Center as another example of programs geared toward youngsters. She also disputed comments Thomas made about the number of parents sending their children to private schools. “The rate is not higher here than in other communities with similar income levels,” she said.

Kaiser said the Jamestown after-school programs serve the children’s needs “very well” and includes a variety of offerings from Chinese to violin lessons to cooking. In addition, school clubs like the drama club meet after dismissal.

“It’s not as if the school doors close at 3 o’clock,” she said, but acknowledged that private schools provide more after-school activities.

Thomas said the other candidates had covered the topic.

“There’s not a lot to add there,” he said.

The closing statements were brief.

Conlon said he would love to serve the community and believes his background as a lifelong resident and graduate of the local schools has given him a unique perspective. As a member of the School Committee, he will try to balance the “interests of teachers, students and the community as a whole,” he said.

Held said her scientific training cultivated “good observational skills,” and put her in the habit of using logic and reason to solve problems. She is a parent whose children attended the local schools. “And I really care about it,” she said.

Kaiser said the community has four able candidates to choose from. “The town is very lucky in the types of people who are running,” she said. “You have a hard choice here.”

Thomas reaffirmed he is interested in the school system and stressed he has a financial background.

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