Commacks' two Board of Education candidate went head-to-head, answering tough questions on the hottest issues from budget cuts to Marion Carll Farm on Thursday night.
More than 100 residents attended Commack PTA Council's Meet the Candidate night on Thursday at Mandracchia-Sawmill Elementary School. Incumbent trustee Deborah Guber took the stage with challenger Dan Fusco to answer the public's questions on the hottest topics in the Commack community.
Guber, of Dix Hills, serves as the Board of Education's vice president and has been a member of the board for six years. She has two children within the Commack School District and works as a practicing attorney, also with a degree in accounting from Baruch College, according to the budget issue of the Commack Courrier.
Fusco, of East Northport, is a lifelong Commack resident who graduated from the school district in 1983. He has two children within the school district, students of Commack Middle School and Commack High School. As a surety consultant and project manager, Fusco feels he has many skills he can bring to the table for the Commack School district.
Here are a select transcript of a few of the many questions answered by candidates on Thursday night:
Q: "If the adopted budget doesn't pass on the first go around, what areas would be the first to be cut?
Guber: "That is not something one individual makes a decision on. We are a board and operate as a unit. If it didn't pass, we consider by what degree it didn't pass. Sometimes, there are circumstances not related to the budget itself. For example, bad weather doesn't bring people out to vote. We would have to see if the budget, as it stood, was really the budget we felt the community would support. We would have to go back to the table as a unit, not one individual."
Fusco: "If the budget would fail, we would have to look to contractual employees to think of asking them for give backs, not to take contractual raises they've enjoyed for the past several years.
I'm not anti-teachers. I think a school is made up of two things - teachers and students. Teachers should be paid fairly and equitably, fair to the teacher and fair to the community. In this economic atmosphere, our teachers are paid very well and they should look to give back some of the benefits they have built up over the past few years. There has to be some give and take."
Q: "What top three areas of savings would you concentrate on for next year?
Guber: "Savings is a two-way street. We can shrink our expenses or increase our revenues. There are several areas to increase revenues. We are instituting a special education summer program which will take in 80 students from other districts and generate revenue for us, costing less than to have our children go out to other districts.... (I lost my train of thought)."
"The energy efficiency program we have coming in will bring in $18 million worth of high-tech renovations to the school district and generate $700,000 of income. [I would] combine this with 0-based budgeting and looking to squeeze the bottom line."
Fusco: "We need to renegotiate some of the contracts. There are three that are up this year: secretaries, teachers' aides - the only ones who have take a cut in pay - and the administrative contracts.
We have a community affairs division, or personnel, that costs us $250,000 a year. If you look at what they do, it's to interact and coordinate with volunteer organizations. It doesn't seem right spending $250,000 to have a person interact with volunteer services. Maybe we can get a volunteer... "
Q: "Do you believe transparency should be part of the budget process?
Fusco: "I believe the budget should be more transparent than it is today. I have attended all of the budget meeting. I consider myself a fairly intelligent guy. I work on multi-million dollar projects every day, spread sheets, and budget. I do all the things I would think someone on this board should understand and I could not follow the budget presentations.
Many of the people I've spoken to, and I've spoken to hundreds through my campaign, the consensus is that it's not easy to follow. They get confused and consider it a waste of time because they don't understand. I want everyone to come to school board meetings and understand what happens."
Guber: "The budget process has become more transparent than every. We have worked with the current administration to crystallized what our expenditures are, how we decide what they are, what revenue sources we have and what we have done to increase and bring in more revenue sources.
Our structures are in line with New York State Department of Education requires. We offer more than New York State requires and with that, our administrators are all open, residents can reach out to them with questions and concerns."
Q: "Will you support this year's school budget?"
Guber: "Indeed, I will."
Fusco: "I honestly don't think I can support a budget that offer raises to the staff and cuts program to kids. I can't support something like that. I would say... I can't support it, but if the other voters say that is the will of the voters - it is what it is.
I think we need to negotiate more on this budget. We need to have people come to the table to give back, and maybe not take some raises this year or the next couple of years. Let's get back on our feet. Restore the programs to all the kids. I want to see music, arts, and I want to see after-school programs restored for the kids.
No, I can't support the budget as it stands right now."
Q: "Do you think the school board acted responsibly with preservation of Marion Carll Farm and how do you suggest we move forward?
Fusco: "I don't think the board acted responsibly with Marion Carll Farm. This is a property that was owned by one of the founding matriarchs of this community from the 1600s this family lived in this community. Ms. Carll was instrumental in starting the school district, she felt so strongly about the school district when she passed she willed a 10-acre farm to this school district. This school district basically let it sit there and rot for the last 15 years. I don't think that was responsible.
You ask yourself, who would give your house to you pass? Would you give to your heirs or would you give to the community? Most of you would say you would give it to your children before you give it to the community.
This woman felt so strongly about this community, the education system of this community, she gave 10 acres of historical property to this school district.
Guber: "We had the property. Ms. Carl, yes indeed was a phenomenal woman and a founding member of the school district. Her gifting us her estate, that was a wonderful thing. We are a school district. We are mandated to spend our money to educate the students. Had Ms. Carl made a provision where she provided an income string to the Board of Ed, that would have certainly enabled the boards of ed who sat well before any of us to maintain and make repairs to that house.
As far back as the 70s, PTAs and the community was resistant to any money being spent on that property. They felt money should be spent on children. While we are grateful for her bequest, it became a large albatross and one we tried to seek remedies to and preserve in some way."
Q: "Our district's allowable tax cap levy is 4.1 percent. Our Board of Ed chose to present 2.6 percent, do you feel decreasing it by 1.5 percent is fiscally responsible?"
Guber: "Yes. We decided as part of our process, realizing we could go up to 4.1 and still only require a 50 percent majority. We took into consideration financial burden and strain on this community, and it is fiscally prudent to put up a number - 2.6 - that maintain the quality program we have, still maintain class size that is very important to this community.
Everyone still has music, art, gym all of those things are still in place. We have not programs. We restructured some of the classes and all of tha tis there, and 2.6 does that for us and still considers the needs of the community."
Fusco: "I think the question you are asking is should we have raised the levy to 4.1 percent instead of 2.6. My position is we didn't need to raise it to 2.6. If you look at the budgets of the last few years, this community, or school district is continuously runs on a surplus. Last year's budget was $160 million, they only spent in this school district $154 million. The next year they came back and asked us for $166 million. They saved $6 million, but they asked us for more. They came back and said we need $6 million more than we budgeted last year. That's a $12 million spread.
What we're seeing in this district , we are being taxed the year before for the purposes of using that money the following year for the purpose of keeping these numbers artificially low."
For more information on the candidates and questions answer, see pages 7 and 8 of the budget issue of the Commack Courier.
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