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Long Beach school board candidates field questions

Incumbent and challenger discuss issues at PTA forum

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Ahead of next week’s budget and school board election, more than 50 people gathered in the auditorium at Lindell Elementary School on Tuesday to ask candidates questions at a public forum.

Hosted by the Central Council PTA, community members submitted questions on index cards to the candidates about their views on various issues affecting the district.

Newcomer Anne Conway, a teacher in Lynbrook, shared the stage with incumbent Perry Bodnar, a retired Long Beach High School teacher, who is finishing a three-year term on the board. Bodnar was elected in 2016.

Residents are set to vote on their preferred candidates as well as the adopted $142 million budget on May 21. The spending plan for the 2019-20 school year includes a $2.5 million increase over the current year and a $104 million tax levy that is under the state’s 2 percent tax-levy cap.

The questions covered a variety of topics, ranging from the candidates’ main goals for the district, school safety and special education to “green” energy consumption and food services.

Conway said her main goals would be to increase transparency between the district and the public to help residents be more informed, and to encourage teachers to devote more time to developing better relationships with students. Bodnar said he would prioritize ensuring that the district’s hiring practices aim to diversify the staff, and that administrators and board members work harder on community outreach.

“That is a goal of the board and the superintendent for next year, to improve that and make sure we have better communication from top to bottom so that the staff and families know what to expect and what we’re trying to achieve,” Bodnar said.

The moderator, Kate Kelly, also asked the candidates what they would do to ensure that every parent, student and teacher knows all of the district’s emergency procedures. Bodnar said the district works to make sure it is on top of current best practices, teaches students what to do, and that local law enforcement members are involved and debrief administrators after each drill. Conway said the procedures should be diversified for different age groups and explained to parents in detail.

When asked about their plans for the special-education department and how they could help students grow, Conway said she would like to see special-education students more involved with the rest of the students and teachers receiving continuous training. Bodnar said the district has implemented more training for special education staff, and has been adapting IEPs, or Individualized Educational Plans, accordingly, and working to integrate students into mainstream academic programs where possible.

PTA members announced at a recent board meeting that the Special Education Parent Teachers Association would “disband,” but continue to operate under the Central Council PTA.

“One way we could help build support for our parents of our special education students is we can call and reach out to them,” Conway said, adding that school officials could hold special meetings with parents and have the parents visit the classrooms and see what is happening. “It’s very important that we keep parents aware of what’s going on in their child’s classrooms,” she said. “We’re all together. Even though our children may have separate needs, we’re all one Long Beach community.”

When the public inquired about the food services program — which runs a deficit of hundreds of thousands of dollars every year — Conway acknowledged the district’s consistent struggles, but said she would like to see the continuation of in-house improvements — such as the frozen yogurt program — rather than outsourcing or intervening significantly. Bodnar said he does not believe in privatizing “our jobs.”

“By keeping our staff in-house, keeping people that our students and their families are familiar with on the job, we’ve been able to actually reduce the deficit,” Bodnar said, “and the projection is eventually the department should be breaking even.” Both candidates recommended the district find new menu items that the students would enjoy.

“I’m asking for your support to continue the growth of our district as it’s showing,” Bodnar said. “I’m looking to work with the Board of Education to produce fiscally prudent budgets that provide the best education for our students while being mindful of our taxpayers and helping to keep Long Beach proud.”

Conway said she would put the community’s best interests first, rather than the interests of developers, though she did not elaborate.

“My only priority has been and will be to continue to advocate for our students and our community,” she said. “I am not indebted to any party, any union, or any developer. My only vested interest is in the public education and our children.”

Outside the forum, some residents criticized Bodnar and two former trustees for what they called a hastily arranged school board special meeting in July 2016 to vote on an agreement in which the district would show its support for the developer iStar’s request for a 20-year tax break from the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency to build luxury apartment towers on the Superblock.

The meeting was arranged by former trustees and former Schools Superintendent David Weiss while two other trustees — current school board President Dr. Dennis Ryan and Maureen Vrona — were out of town. Ryan returned in time for the meeting and criticized the agreement, which the board ultimately voted to reject.

Bodnar told the Herald after the forum that he voted against the deal and that he does not support tax breaks.

Community members will also vote on the Long Beach Public Library’s $3.6 million budget as well as two candidates running for an open seat on the board, MaryEllen Guarini and Joe Sinnona.