The men and women behind the curtain: The Board of Education’s role in the student community

On a Tuesday night in the spring of 2011, several students attended a Board of Education meeting to demand a change to the Senior Experience program.  While the program itself remains a controversial issue today, the initiative of the students was not lost on the onlookers, including Principal Mr. Ira Pernick. This was Mr. Pernick’s first ever Board of Education meeting and the actions of the students made a powerful first impression.

“The night I came with my family to the Board, there was a line of students waiting at the Board meeting to complain about Senior Experience,” said Mr. Pernick.  “It was shocking because here I am, brand new to the community, and I think to myself, ‘Oh my god what am I doing here? I can’t believe what’s happening.’”

In recent years,  student involvement has been the exception at Board meetings rather than the norm.  The vast majority of students have not attended a single Board of Education meeting. Student attendance on a week to week basis is almost nonexistent.

Thus, many have no comprehension of the extent to which the Board of Education controls every aspect of the school.

When asked how much influence they felt the Board has over their student lives, almost half answered either no influence or barely any.

“Could you explain what that is?” said senior Ben Pan.

“Students don’t ever come to a school board meeting unless they’re being honored,” said Mr. Pernick. “It would be a good idea for students to come, just to see the level of interaction, draw some conclusion as to how the Board works. It is an interesting dynamic to watch.”

Many students are not aware that they have the option to voice their opinion at Board of Education meetings.

“If I had an issue with the school, I wouldn’t bring it to the school board because I don’t know how the system works or if at the end of the process it would actually be worth it,” said senior Deirdra Labartino.

“The Board of Education seems pretty distant, and a lot of people don’t know what they do,” said junior Carolyn Suh.

Every Tuesday at 8 p.m., the seven members of the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Mooney convene in the Schreiber auditorium to hold a public meeting.  The Board of Education, made up of seven elected volunteer members, meets to discuss school issues.

The election process  requires a petition from the District Clerk’s office and securing votes from community members who are over the age of eighteen.  Each Board member serves a three year term.

The Board of Education makes decisions regarding financial and administrative policies throughout the district.  While it handles major school-related issues such as the budget and the broader aspects of the curriculum, the Board has little say in the daily affairs of Schreiber students.

“Our overall role is governance, as opposed to day to day administration,” said Board member Ms. Nora Johnson.  “The Board of Education doesn’t really make that many Schreiber specific policies.  While we are in the loop, the day to day policy making at every school, including Schreiber, is the responsibility of the principal with the guidance of Central Administration.”

In fact, the Board must approve almost every policy change in athletics, academics, and arts in every school in the district.

“There are some Board of Education members that are more passionate about athletics, some more about arts, and some more about academics,” said Athletics Director Ms. Stephanie Joannon.

Each of the Board members has a different background and different experiences to draw from.  All of them have had or currently have children enrolled in district schools.  They stay current on school issues by attending community events, keeping up to date on local news, and fielding emails and phone calls from local citizens. Ms. Johnson, for example, was a former HSA co-president.

Fans of the comedic mock documentary Parks and Recreation will see resemblances in a Board of Education meeting to the Pawnee town forum.  It is at these assemblies that onlookers can get an “in the trenches” perspective on Board of Education operations.

Most Board of Education meetings begin with little pomp and circumstance; however, on Oct. 22, members of the board invited Schreiber’s Symphony Orchestra to perform a selection of two tangos and add color to the often dull proceedings.

“Personally, I like the idea of performing before the board,” said senior Symphony Orchestra member Matty Di Giovanni.  “It is a bit of an inconvenience being it’s held so late on a school night, but overall I think it’s worth it.  With the addition of the Symphony Orchestra, the meeting’s atmosphere becomes livelier and less like a Board meeting.”

After applause from the sparse crowd that had gathered in the auditorium, the Board immediately dove into business.  Class size was a major theme of that week’s meeting.  The Board of Education is able to control this aspect of school life by approving the budget designated to hiring and firing teachers.

Prior to this school year, the Board of Education set limits on class sizes throughout the district, however; budgetary restraints and an addition of new students in the district have forced schools to exceed this limit in certain classes.

This has resulted in backlash from community parents, especially those with children in the elementary schools.  Their major concern is that increased class sizes will depersonalize their children’s education.

“Many studies point towards smaller classes as better for learning,” said Schreiber parent Ms. Pam Pacht.  “I hope our district is continuing to work on achieving optimal class sizes for all of our students.”

Concerned parents were able to voice their displeasure during the Oct. 22 meeting using two public forum periods near the beginning and end of the meeting.  While this time can be used to address any issue in the school district, community members exclusively utilized this period to express their negative opinions about the large class sizes at the elementary school level.

Despite the clear displeasure in the community, it is likely that class size issues will not be rectified due to budgetary constraints.

In addition to discussing class sizes, at the Oct. 22 meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Dr. Wafa Westervelt gave a presentation designed to inform the community on the implementation and success of the Common Core.  The Common Core is a nationwide initiative designed to standardize and elevate the education of public school students.

While the Board does not deal with the day-to-day curriculum for students, it is are responsible for the implementation of such state policies.

In recent years, the Board has integrated the Common Core into the district.

While the decisions of the Board of Education in part govern the structure of school academics, they also apply to student extracurricular involvement.  Athletics in particular are a big focus of Board activities.  Communication between the Board of Education and the athletic department determines student extracurricular life.

“If there is an athletics issue, it goes to the athletics director first. If it’s policy, not just a guideline, then I would work with a few people on a recommendation,” said Ms. Joannon.  “The superintendent would take my recommendation and take it to the Board to represent me.  If there are questions from the Board, they would come around and I would be involved in a dialogue as to why.”

One such example of the “dialogue” between the Board and Schreiber administrators was the implementation of the ImPact concussion testing several years ago. The idea was initially generated by Ms. Joannon and Athletic Trainer Mr. Rick Zappala. It was then moved along the chain of command until  Board members could approve the funds for the test.

“The concussion testing was an example of the dialogue that happens between me, members of school administration and the Board,” said Ms. Joannon. “For me, the ultimate endgame is what’s best for the students and what’s best for athletes. The Board is always receptive to new ideas because they also want what’s best for the students.”

The Board of Education also plays a role in determining policy in not only academics and sports, but also in the art and music departments.

The Board has supported several music department events, including the “Night of a Thousand Strings” concert.  The Board has also lent its support to the “Bridging the Gap” program, which, with the help of Dallas Brass, gives band students the opportunity to play at different community venues like nursing homes.

“We have not had anything but success, cooperation, and cohesive understanding between the Board of Education and what the music department tries to do, in how it works for us,” said orchestra teacher Mr. Anthony Pinelli.  “They do, obviously, make budgetary decisions for the entire district, whether they go through building or district administration, when cuts or increases in funding come around.”

Creative Arts Director Ms. Sherri Suzzan acts as a liaison between the music department and the Board of Education, and she suggested the addition of Board meeting performances by district music students.  The performances are meant to showcase district music achievement and learning.

“At each Board meeting, a music group from a school in the district begins the meeting with five minutes of music,” said Mr. Pinelli.  “The board accepted that offer from Ms. Suzzan and has been pleasantly responsive to that situation.”

The art department also has a good relationship with the Board of Education.

“In my experience, I have found the Board to always step up and support the art department here at Schreiber,” said art teacher Ms. Miranda Best.

The Board of Education has expressed support for new art-related projects.  Mr. Pernick has expressed interest in having members of the Art Honor Society speak at a meeting about recent projects, particularly the Memory Project, which has club members paint portraits of orphans in third-world countries.

Furthermore, the responsibilities and decisions of the Board of Education have community-wide implications that stretch beyond Schreiber’s halls.  Consequently, parents and other community members have the opportunity to attend Board of Education meetings.  District officials allow for community comments at certain designated times on the agenda.

A number of community members who do not have children in the Port Washington school system find the time to attend meetings, mainly due to the educational system’s importance to the community.

“They’re the liaison between the town and the Superintendent,” said Schreiber parent Ms. Julie Appel.

Most of the parents surveyed have been to at least one meeting.

Many Schreiber parents acknowledge the importance of these meetings, and of the Board of Education’s role in their children’s educational lives, financially or otherwise.

“The Board of Education plays an important role in my child’s education because they hold the purse strings,” said Ms. Appel.

Still others are generally in the know about the Board of Education’s appointed duties.

“I know a fair amount about what the Board of Education does,” said Schreiber parent Rita Sethi.

However, others feel that the Board of Education’s presence is distant.  Many students and their parents know little about what the Board of Education does or what the organization actually is.

Ultimately, the Board’s hands are tied by how much money is in the budget. When outstretched hands pull the money in different directions they are the ones who have to say no.

“I would like to have more teams. I would love to improve our facilities, but everyone is caught in the same budget crunch and we need to be efficient,” said Ms. Joannon. “My job is to advocate and maintain our programs. The Board has been very consistent with not adding to other places at the expense of athletics. ”

Whether or not students acknowledge the potential for relationship between themselves and the Board, it exists.  The Board of Education plays a role in the community seldom filled in other neighborhoods.

“I came from New York City where there was no board.  The people who govern in New York City are faceless people, you don’t know who they are, you don’t maintain personal relationships,” said Mr. Pernick.  “You come here and there’s a bit of formality to it, but there is also this informality that you can build into it and I like that.  There is something to say for the informal nature of relationships and I think it helps them stay positive.  It’s a really unique sort of governance approach, but I do feel that when I talk to the board I feel like we are absolutely on the same level.”