Vying for two seats on the Board of Education, five candidates fielded questions from the public about issues affecting the district at a candidates forum on Monday at Lindell Elementary School, hosted by the Parent Teacher Association.
About 80 people sparsely populated the auditorium, where incumbent board President Stewart Mininsky shared the stage with challengers Lori Montgomery, Sam Pinto, Ronald McHenry and Tina Posterli.
Mininsky, a former employee of the district’s maintenance department who has served on the board for six years, is seeking re-election to a third term. He lauded the accomplishments of his fellow trustees and administrators, including adding business training to the high school curriculum, hiring a new high school principal and a full-time psychologist for the Nike work-based learning center, developing more vocational opportunities and planning for a culinary arts center in the high school. He is also working with trustees and administrators to incorporate more recess time, or “brain breaks,” into the school day for young students.
“[The board and I] have reduced budgets that have been under the imposed tax cap each year while meeting the needs of our students,” Mininsky said. “We have maintained programs while being fiscally responsible.”
Asked about his qualifications, Mininsky said they speak for themselves, and did not offer specifics. He took what the forum moderator, Kimberly Bell, called “personal jabs” at candidate Sam Pinto, accusing Pinto of not knowing how the library budget operates despite being a library board trustee. The audience booed Mininsky, and he slammed the microphone on the table.
Montgomery, a nurse at East Elementary School for 32 years who is now retired, has five grandchildren attending Long Beach schools. She said she would prioritize students’ needs, including expand-ing mental-health services and scheduling more recess and free play time to allow for proper social development.
“As a school nurse for 32 years, I’ve felt the pulse of the school community, literally,” Montgomery said, adding that she thought students’ anxiety is caused by preparation for standardized exams, cyberbullying and substance abuse.
She said her goals were aligned with the district’s newly hired superintendent, Dr. Jennifer Gallagher, and that the district was working toward those goals, including increasing psychological services at Nike and the middle school, planning the construction of the culinary arts center, enhancing security measures and hiring an internship director.
Montgomery said she was qualified for the position because she had the “fiscal responsibility” of balancing a health budget when she worked as a nurse and faced the challenge of making cuts each year. She said that while she has had “real, hands-on experience,” she is cognizant of the experts in the district who handle the budget, including Chief Operating Officer Michael DeVito, who, Montgomery said, does a “wonderful job” of presenting the budget to the public with specific presentations that are “interesting and informative.”
Montgomery said that as a retiree, she has a fixed income, and therefore would work hard to keep taxes affordable. She also said she supported incorporating more vocational courses for students into the curriculum — a point that other candidates agreed with — and commended the district for planning the culinary arts center.
“It’s a big savings to educate our kids right here in our backyard instead of spending X amount of dollars at BOCES, which is a very costly program,” she said.
Pinto, a career firefighter and a Long Beach Public Library board trustee whose three children will attend Long Beach schools, said he was vying for a seat to represent the parents of young children in the district. He said that having a parent’s perspective on the board would be “critical” in the planning of district children’s success.
“I believe my experience and involvement as the president of the Long Beach Professional Firefighters Labor Organization, as well as being on the board of the library, offer a good balance of labor and management and will offer benefits in policy creation, labor relations and budget,” said Pinto, who is also president of the Eastholme Civic Association.
He said he would work to keep taxes low, and emphasized a need for teachers to teach the “whole child” rather than focusing on standardized state tests, a point that Montgomery agreed with.
“There are better options to test their ability and achievement than high-risk standardized assessments,” Pinto said.
McHenry, a biologist and an educator in the New York City public schools, said he believed the district should hire more male teachers to help male students “connect” with them as role models. He also encouraged more diversity in the district, and suggested that more training be available to teachers and parents of special-needs children.
“Being in the educational system, as I work in the city, the problem of lack of males is huge,” McHenry said. “And so when male students enter an environment where they don’t have someone they can relate to, it’s a problem.”
He and Pinto brought up the district’s 14-month-long disciplinary hearing against a Long Beach Middle School special-education teacher accused of abusing five of her students, and McHenry — as well as the other candidates — recommended increasing communication with special-needs’ students’ parents to head off potentially problematic situations.
Posterli, a public relations professional who has a daughter in the high school, said she would prioritize ensuring that every student receives a quality education. She emphasized a need to focus on the “middle,” or average, student, who falls outside the parameters of the International Baccalaureate program and the special-education program. Posterli suggested implementing action plans for these students to help them overcome struggles and succeed.
“We need to bring balance to our ever-increasing budget and tax levy while keeping our schools competitive and helping all our children reach higher levels of achievement,” she said.
She said she gained budget experience when she assembled and balanced budgets for more than 35 chapters of the Tourette Association of America. Posterli also recommended that the district reinstate the budget advisory committee that was formed in the past.
All of the candidates supported the idea of promoting vocational courses and programs, citing the high school’s video lab as a good example, as well as the creation of the culinary arts center. McHenry, however, said he disagreed with the idea of spending up to $600,000 on the center, and suggested that local restaurants and businesses partner with students for potential internship opportunities instead to try to save money.