Two seats, three candidates for Lake Placid school board
LAKE PLACID – Voters here have three choices for two three-year terms on the Lake Placid Central School District Board of Education when they head to the polls May 21.
On Monday, the candidates – John Hopkinson, Richard Preston and Jennifer Tufano – attended a forum sponsored by the Community Alliance for Responsible Excellence in Education. The informal meet-and-greet, held at the Lake Placid Middle-High School Library Media Center, was sparsely attended, but the candidates engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about a variety of topics pertaining to the district’s past, present and future.
The candidates have also responded to questions posed by the Enterprise. Their responses are included in this story.
CAREE’s Kari Fitzsimmons kicked off the forum by asking the candidates what ideas they would bring to the table when addressing anticipated budget shortfalls in the coming years.
“In the future people will look back at 2013 and say, ‘Those were the good old days,'” Hopkinson said. “The only thing one can do is either cut expenses or raise revenue. Both avenues need to be explored. … What we really need to focus on is trying to make sure we still provide a good, solid education for the students.
“What we’ve tended to do is try to focus on those large ticket items that are growing faster than the levy cap rate which are controllable. … As we go forward, we need to get away from doing this thing on a tactical basis. … What one really needs to do is create a vision of where we want to be in five years, 10 years.”
Hopkinson said the district should explore more volunteer programs and third-party funding. One idea, he said, would be to set up a system with an organization like the Adirondack Community Trust, in which parents could make tax-deductible contributions to specific educational programs. Preston and Tufano also expressed support for establishing outside funding sources for school projects.
Tufano said building trust among community members, teachers, staff and the district’s administration will be important as the district prepares to make difficult decisions. She said the district needs to move forward with a “vision that is set and clear to everybody.
“What the intention is, what the mission of our school is and making sure that the decisions and choices that are being made are well founded in that sense of a shared vision, so that the people who are being approached about pushing that tax cap or going above it understand why,” she said, “even if they don’t necessarily agree, there is a clear idea of why it’s happening and what the outcome is for that.
“It’s tricky. I struggle as a parent looking at different needs of different children – how do you possibly choose or reduce services that could benefit any child in this district?”
Preston said the financial burdens the district faces parallel the challenges of the health care industry: reduced revenues and increased expenses. He said he’s confident that the current board is doing an excellent job when it comes to studying every program and weighing their costs and benefits.
“The board and the school can’t work in isolation,” Preston said. “We need to open up, have the complete support of the community, be very transparent as to what our goals are, what are the objectives of the school system, and then work toward those together.”
Preston said he was shocked to learn, at a recent budget hearing, that 76 percent of the district’s proposed budget is fixed due to salaries and benefits.
Fitzsimmons’ next question was simple.
“Why are you running?” she asked.
“I was born and brought up here in Lake Placid, went through this school system,” Preston said. “I’d like to give back in some way, shape or form, and I felt that the Board of Education was that avenue at this point in my life. … My dad was on the board for two or three terms. … Up until months before he passed away, he often spoke of the school board and his experience. That’s always stayed in the back of my mind.”
Tufano, who has worked in higher education, said the main reason she’s running is because her daughters are in the school system.
“There is absolutely nothing more important to me than their education,” she said. “It’s always been a passion of mine to continue in an educational capacity in some way. … The ideas of tradition and longevity are very dear to me. This is a perfect time to get involved with where they are in the educational process.”
Hopkinson said he applied to join the board last year after Gerald Blair stepped down because he wanted to challenge himself. He noted that he doesn’t have any personal connections to the district.
“I think that’s a strength,” Hopkinson said. “What I bring is an independence to the board. I’m not looking out for one particular constituency. I’m trying to find out what’s going to be the optimal solution for everybody – that means the students, the staff and the citizens of this community.”
Linda Wallace of CAREE noted that financial challenges tend to drive the discussion about the district’s future. She asked the candidates about non-budget issues the board will face.
Tufano said consistency in leadership has been a big challenge, but it looks as though the board has been able to overcome that hurdle with the hiring of a new superintendent and two new principals. The board expects to hire a new elementary school principal next month.
As a parent, Tufano said she wants to see the district become more focused and direction oriented.
“I just want to see the district continue and grow,” she said. “I want the community and all the stakeholders to buy into that. … That energy to help build that enthusiasm and expectation of excellence in our district, that’s what I want to see.”
Preston agreed that administrative stability is important. He added that the district needs to rebuild its link to the community following recent administrative turmoil. He said he also wants to strengthen the relationship between students and the community.
“Getting the kids out there – showing the taxpayers, the stakeholders the product of what they’re paying for,” Preston said.
Hopkinson said the board needs to help build trust between the district’s administration, faculty and staff.
“When you go over that hump, then you start to get the community buy-in,” he said. “This is a real cultural change and it’s going to take years to kind of come around. We’ve done a great job of bringing in new people, but now we have to put them in place as a team.”
Consolidation, shared superintendent
The Enterprise asked each candidate whether they would support consolidating with another district or sharing a superintendent with another district.
Hopkinson said he doesn’t support sharing a superintendent, at least for now. He said the immediate goal is to bring together the district’s new administrators and build a cohesive unit. When it comes to merging with another district, Hopkinson said baby steps are needed first.
“Are there areas we can look at to consolidate various tasks, activities, programs? Sharing some teachers, education – that I think does have some merit,” he said. “It’s not so much that we would be looking to necessarily save a lot of costs, but if we can have a better program, a richer program, for the same cost, I think that’s a worthwhile thing.”
Tufano said she wouldn’t support consolidation. Sharing a superintendent?
“Perhaps,” she said. “Our district is just now setting a new administrative team in place to develop what I hope are high and inspiring goals and objectives for the next several years. This will take time and the support of our active and involved community. Until our own district has a clear path to excellence and a solid understanding of what the students in our district need, I think exploring the concept of a shared superintendent should wait.”
Preston said school districts want to maintain their independence. He noted that Lake Placid has merged some of its sports team with other districts and shares services through the Franklin-Hamilton-Essex Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
“Governor Cuomo’s commission on education is putting the pressure on districts to share services with neighboring systems,” Preston said. “However, what needs to be recognized is that the big savings in K-12 education are tied up in comparatively high salaries and benefits. What the commission would be wise to attack would be state mandates – especially in the areas of collective bargaining and special education – that drive up school expenses.”
Preston said he’d support sharing a superintendent as long as it didn’t “diminish supervision or support to the district, it’s students, staff and relationship with the board.”
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.