Five candidates for two seats on the East Hampton School Board introduced themselves to voters and answered questions at a Group for Good Government forum at the high school on Saturday.
The five hopefuls — Paul Fiondella, Patricia Hope, Marie Klarman, Jacqueline Lowey, and Liz Pucci — want to fill the seats that will be vacated by James Amaden, the school board’s president, and John Ryan, a longstanding board member.
With Arthur Malman serving as moderator, the candidates answered questions on a range of topics from the educational program to mainstreaming special education and English language learners.
Candidates’ answers ranged from the passionately involved to the admittedly uninformed.
Mr. Fiondella, who attends most school board meetings and is vocal about finding ways to save money in the budget, stuck mostly to his concern regarding the governor’s proposed 2-percent tax cap and its potential effect on next year’s numbers.
Ms. Hope, who taught in the district for 33 years, focused on bringing transparency and “full and fair disclosure to the public.” Ms. Klarman, a mother of three elementary school children and a former attorney, expressed her “desire to elicit huge participation from the parents, to get them far more involved” in the district’s goings-on.
Ms. Lowey pointed out that with two kids in elementary school she would be part of the district for the next 11 years. “My children, and all children, deserve an excellent education in a safe and healthy environment,” she said. “Taxpayer dollars need to be spent wisely, and the way the budget is come up with needs to be reformed.”
Ms. Pucci, a graduate of East Hampton High School and a lunch monitor at John Marshall Elementary School for the past decade, kept it simple. “I’m here to work,” she said. She admitted that she was not up to speed on all the issues but offered an “open-minded, honest, and common-sense approach” if she is voted onto the board.
Mr. Malman asked the candidates if they had ideas about how East Hampton schools might help their students and community to leverage the schools’ diversity “as an educational asset.”
Mr. Fiondella, whose wife has a master’s degree in English as a second language, said the board should be held accountable for assuring that “middle school students will graduate as strong English speakers,” and recommended immersion programs for students starting in the district at a high school level.
“It’s so important,” he said. “Hopefully their children will be going to this school 20 years from now.”
Ms. Hope’s answer included reaching out to the Spanish-speaking community of parents with potluck dinners and other school events. “We need to ask the parents to ask us for help,” she said.
Ms. Klarman’s tactic was different. “I’d like to see some of the wonderful Spanish-speaking families out here share their culture with us.”
Ms. Lowey felt strongly that the E.S.L. students in the elementary school “are some of the brightest, most excited children in the school. The board needs to reach out to the families to advise them on things like how to register their children. . . . It’s easier to prepare ahead that way,” she said, pointing to the fact that at John Marshall last year, 40 children were registered the week before class.
“We all thrive because of the diversity,” Ms. Lowey said.
“I feel we are doing a great job,” said Ms. Pucci. “I think the students are progressing well.” She would like to see Spanish classes started earlier for English-speaking kids, so they would be able to converse with the E.S.L. students faster.
The candidates had differing ideas for how to better integrate technology into the curriculum.
“I don’t think we need to teach children how to use computers,” answered Ms. Hope. “They have to know how to pick up a pencil and put it to paper,” she continued, stressing the importance of “one-to-one contact.”
Ms. Klarman agreed. “I think our children need to pick up books and pencils,” she said. “We’re so focussed on technology. We need to focus more on community. I don’t think we need more of it.”
Although Ms. Lowey expressed her viewpoint that “critical thinking can be taught without technology,” she also said that “technology has a place. We should have a top program in place for future professional development.”
Ms. Pucci commended the current technology programs, mentioning the high school’s online Mandarin Chinese program. “Technology is our future, so we have to be smart about it.”
Mr. Fiondella, who was president of a software company, said, “Technology is a tool, like a hammer. You have to know how to use it.” He said that the current programs had plenty of room for improvement, and brought up the Google Apps program for schools, which is online, and is free.
Regarding the district’s educational programming, Mr. Fiondella expressed his preference that “the students get to the high school already computer-literate” with a focus on “results-oriented education.” Ms. Hope felt “the district can go further to help motivate teachers,” but “in the end, it’s about outreach to every single student. . . .”
“I have nothing negative to say,” Ms. Klarman said. “Our teachers are fantastic.”
“The biggest concern is a national one,” offered Ms. Lowey. “It’s teaching to standardized tests, passing students at minimum levels of knowledge.” She referred to several pilot programs that other schools are using to improve students’ critical thinking and writing performance.
On the importance of walking the line to continue the district’s support programs versus the reduction in state aid and a possible tax hike to keep them, the candidates were unanimously in favor of retaining programs like Project MOST, an after-school program for younger children.
“There can’t be a single cut to our support programs,” said Ms. Klarman. “Project MOST is a necessity for working parents.”
“At the end of the day, we are a small community,” said Ms. Lowey. “These children will most likely stay here, become taxpayers and upstanding citizens as a result of the school’s support programs.” She added that athletic programs were equally important to the development of “the whole child.”
“I don’t think we do enough,” said Ms. Pucci. She pointed to her experience as a lunch monitor and her constant contact with students. “Sometimes they just need a hug,” she said.
“After-school programs have to be run cost-effectively,” said Mr. Fiondella, who organized a run to raise funds for Project MOST in a prior year. He again referred to the possibility of a tax cap next year and said, “As funds are cut off, what are we going to do?”
Ms. Hope felt that the teachers were aware of those students most in need of support, and also put in a plug for the theater class as being “very instructive” to help kids access their emotions and find creative ways of dealing with stress.
Ms. Pucci, who has a son with special needs, was too emotionally overwrought to answer the question on integrating special education and E.S.L. kids into the mainstream curriculum.
On the question of what goals would be set by an incoming board member for the district superintendent, Raymond Gualtieri, who was in the audience, Mr. Fiondella responded, “My second day on the board I would let him know that his contract will not be renewed.”
In closing, Ms. Lowey let the small group gathered to hear the candidates know that she believed in public education. “We all have a responsibility to put up or shut up,” she added. Part of the final question involved how to get more of the community to the voting booths on May 17. “Voting is a privilege and people are abdicating their privilege across the country,” she said.
“I’ve been asking myself, ‘Why am I up here?’ “ said Ms. Pucci, smiling. “Because I care. I really do. I believe I can put my heart and soul into this.”
“We’re in the same situation as East Hampton Town is, when they found they were $30 million in the red,” said Mr. Fiondella. “We need to take a good look at how we can intelligently cut down the budget. Vote for me and that’s what you’ll be voting for,” he said. “Vote for other people, and you take your chances.”
Rather than summing up her stance, Ms. Hope spent her final minute offering suggestions on how more people could be convinced to vote. “Papers should go home with all the students,” she said. “They should be signed by the parents. High school students can do a phone-out and get credit for it.”
Ms. Klarman had the last word. “It is not so difficult to disseminate information,” she said. “You can e-mail it, Facebook it, Tweet it. We have to let people know the importance of speaking out,” she said.