What school programs would they protect from budget cuts? Where do they stand on health and safety issues? What role does mandated state testing play in a child's education?
These were some of the more than a dozen questions residents asked three candidates vying for two seats on the Long Beach Board of Education — incumbents Gina Guma and Darlene Tangney and challenger Stewart Mininsky — at the Candidates Forum at City Hall on Monday. The forum was organized by Gerri Maquet and Jackie Miller, co-presidents of Long Beach Central Council PTA, and moderated by Sarah Henris of Nassau Region PTA.
Guma and Tangney are campaigning as a team, running primarily on the district’s proposed $122.1 million budget that maintains all programs for students and represents a 3.7 tax levy increase only to reduce the principal on a $98 million bond to fund a district-wide preservation plan to upgrade facilities that voters approved in 2009. Both incumbents cited maintaining and enhancing educational programs as their top priorities.
“Always advocating for the child first, overseeing the preservation plan and continuing to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers,” Tangney said about her top issues.
Mininsky, who works in the school district’s maintenance department and will retire in June, is campaigning on limiting spending, particularly on administrative costs and salaries. “Frivolous spending in the district is a major issue,” said Mininsky, who also cited raising test scores as another priority.
When asked about efficiency, Guma stuck to a theme, pointing to the board producing a budget with a zero percent increase to the operational budget for the second year in a row. “I don’t know how we can get better than that,” she added.
Mininsky said that, as an insider, he sees “tremendous waste” and a “lack of oversight,” and used as an example the state comptroller’s audit of the district that was released last year that revealed lack of controls in paying health retirement benefits. Tangney noted that when she and Guma were elected in 2009, they called an independent auditor to find out what went wrong in this area.
When asked about protecting programs from cuts, Mininsky said that he would save anything the impacts the education of student, but he believes each department could make 10 percent cuts. “It can be done in a heartbeat,” he said.
Tangney vowed not to propose cuts without first hearing from students, faculty and the community at large about what they think should be nixed. “I will never say that one program is more important than the other,” she said.
Echoing Tangney, Guma called cuts an issue for “the whole village.” “Cutting programs, that’s probably the last thing I would ever, ever look to do,” she said.
When asked where they stand on raises for district employees, Guma and Tangney said the board has always been fair in contract negotiations and, when budgeting, plans five years ahead.
Mininsky, a former union vice president, charged his opponents with giving an outgoing superintendent a $20,000 increase last year. “And they signed a new contract with the other administrators, giving them a 2.5 percent increase for the next few years, even though they knew the tax cap was coming,” he said.
Countering, Tangney said that the $20,000 perk was given in 2007, two years before she and Guma were elected to the board, and that she voted “no” on the administrative contract. During her closing statement, she underscored that Mininsky is a member of a union who would be asked to vote on contracts and settlements that could affect his retirement package.
When the candidates received a question about the district’s facilities in relation to the health and safety of students, Mininsky called the Preservation plan a good vision but its constrution work was “shoddy.” “Someone has to answer to the [poor] workmanship that’s been going on,” he said.
Tangney, who served on the health and safety committee, called the contractors that the district hired “outstanding.” “I would not allow my child to be in a building if I thought it was compromised,” she said. “And that’s how I look at all of the students in this district.
Guma said that the district’s administrators have taken “extreme measures” to ensure safety in the district.
Asked if they thought that state testing improved the education of Long Beach students, Mininsky suggested he didn’t think so, simply saying that when he was in high school he was taught to the test and was “lost” when he started college.
Both Guma and Tangney indicated that they thought mandated tests have limits and negatively impact students and teachers. “The tests that are given to our students are not only unfair at times, but our teachers are being forced to teach to the test, and that eliminates a lot of the wonderful creativity that teachers hold,” Guma said.
Tangney agreed and added that the district is working to develop the “social and emotional learning” of the student, which she believes is key.
“We are working collaboratively with the teaching staff and administrators to provide and teach to the whole child,” she said.
Residents will vote on the candidates and the budget on May 15.