Rockville Centre School District parents heading to the polls next Tuesday will find two names on the Board of Education trustee ballot. Current board President John O’Shea, who has served on the board for 12 years, will be challenged by Donna Downing to represent the residents of a divided district.
The election and budget vote will take place on May 17, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., at South Side High School.
For more information on the candidates, go to liherald.com/rockvillecentre/.
The Herald recently interviewed both candidates. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Herald: Reintroduce yourself to the district. What is your career, and what relevant skills would you utilize on the board?
O’Shea: In 2019 I lost my son Ryan, to suicide. Ryan was a smart, athletic, outgoing young man who died after completing his first semester at college. He had so much love around him, but somehow didn’t know how to ask for the help he needed. As you may imagine, his loss was devastating, and changed my life forever. My focus became trying to understand mental health and how it affects all of us. I came to understand that the lack of conversation about suicide and other mental health issues creates a stigma for those who suffer.
“End the stigma and open the dialogue,” “Talk saves lives” and “It’s OK to ask for help” are phrases that are now part of my everyday vocabulary. I advocated for our district to embrace the Sources of Strength program, an evidenced-based suicide-prevention program. I’m a member of the RVC Youth Council, whose goals are to help our youth understand and fight addictions and other bad habits that challenge them. I want everyone to understand what “tools” are available for them to overcome the challenges they may face in life, so they can live long, healthy, productive and, most important, happy lives.
Downing: I’m a working mom of four public-school children, and like all busy moms, I get things done. My twins are 2020 graduates of South Side, where my two younger children currently attend. My own parents worked hard so that my six siblings and I could get the college education they could only dream of, and they instilled in me the value of learning.
After having kids, I went back for a Ph.D. at St. John’s University. From my vantage point as an English instructor at Molloy, I see that our schools must do more to develop student writing. I can use my experience to work with administrators and re-evaluate key academic programs.
Over the past 15 years, I led PTAs at Wilson and SSHS, and the PTA Council. I worked to improve communications and involve more parents. I created Parent University workshops to increase transparency by providing a venue where teachers could explain programs available to our students. I wrote grant applications and won funding to support a local food pantry and address underage drinking. I have built productive relationships in our district, and I’m confident I have the skills and experience to move our schools into a better future together.
Herald: What is your vision for the district — curriculum, athletics, budget, etc.?
O’Shea: Our path forward began when we started the search for our new superintendent. We have hired an excellent leader who is well versed in the development of goals and deliverables. I will collaborate with the board, the administration and the public to develop those goals and benchmarks to review our processes.
This year I supported the implementation of major changes to our K-12 curriculum in the 2022-23 school year. We will be adding full day co-teaching in our elementary schools — a model that will support our special education and general education students. That being said, we need to review the K-12 curriculum to ensure we are providing the best evidence-based programs for all our students. I am advocating for the implementation of a similar co-teaching model in the middle and high schools in 2023-24.
Furthermore, we need to carefully evaluate our students who are on a Regents diploma path, but cannot and possibly should not participate in the mandatory advanced-curriculum, eighth-grade “Regents-for-all model.” We must re-evaluate our High School IB co-seated class model to ensure that all our learners have the ability to reach their fullest potential. With feedback from our students, parents, teachers and guidance counselors, we need to make the appropriate decisions based on individual students’ needs.
Downing: Our schools need to prepare our students to be problem-solvers who can tackle the challenges of our complicated world. Students must have robust opportunities to participate in arts, athletics, clubs and extracurriculars that enrich and round out their education, improve their sense of teamwork and build their social-interaction skills. We must have a well-considered budget that provides funding for programs that we know are successful, that leaves room to test new and innovative ideas and, above all, is mindful of the impact on taxpayers.
Residents of our district have come to expect great schools, and our schools are a big part of why our community is a wonderful place to live and raise a family. My vision is collaborative: students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators working together to drive student success. The last two years have been turbulent, and we’ve felt disconnected. We need to come together and work in support of our new superintendent. We can’t afford to lose another instructional leader because of growing divisions in our district. The board must lead by example and bring everyone together, so we can come up with the best ideas to address the challenges that lie ahead.
Herald: How can the district better balance transparency and residents' privacy?
O’Shea: The district can only become more transparent if we continue the procedures that have been implemented this year. All discussions of the board, with the exception of personnel and individual student matters, should take place in a public session. The practice of school district business being conducted behind closed doors, with a few invited guests, has become a problem for members of the community and members of the board. Residents have expressed frustration about not being represented on committees, and this year, board members have complained about not getting enough information from the committees of the board. Our solution to the issue of small-group board committees is to move the discussion to a public forum. That will provide all community members the opportunity to participate in the complete discussion and participate in the district’s decision-making procedures.
Students’ and community members’ privacy is always of the utmost concern to me. At the board level, we strive to assure privacy, but any other information that is released to the public by the school district is vetted by our legal counsel. Our attorneys redact any private information when responding to Freedom of Information requests.
Downing: Finding a balance between transparency and residents’ privacy is critical right now. Residents lose faith in a system that seems to be hiding things. Actions and decisions by our current board have led to a breakdown in communications, where parents and teachers feel attacked and are not comfortable speaking up or emailing. It’s a sad and disappointing commentary on the communication in our district that residents feel that the only way to get information is to file a Freedom of Information request.
Open, two-way interactions are so important to support children’s learning. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to a teacher or principal for fear that their emails will end up on social media; personal emails should not be weaponized.
Transparency means information. Our board has much work to do toward operating in a transparent manner and providing clear information to parents and families. The board must lead by example so that we can all have trust in our schools.
Expanding our successful Parent University workshops, creating representative parent advisory groups, and hosting town hall discussions are some ways I’ve proposed to improve communications, transparency and participation in our district. We can choose a better way forward.