Lynbrook, East Rockaway Board of Education candidates discuss the issues ahead of Election Day

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The Lynbrook and East Rockaway school districts host their budget and Board of Education votes on Tuesday
The Lynbrook and East Rockaway school districts host their budget and Board of Education votes on Tuesday
Christina Daly/Herald

Lynbrook and East Rockaway residents will go to the polls on Tuesday to vote on district budgets and Board of Education races, in which four candidates in each school district are vying for two seats.

Ahead of the election, the Herald asked the candidates in both races for their opinions on the issues and their goals for the future of the districts.

In Lynbrook

Board of Education President William Belmont and Trustee Heather Hanson are both looking to retain their seats. Dana Franklin and Danielle Longo, co-chairs of the Lynbrook North Middle School PTA Compact Committee, are challenging them.

Herald: What do you think you would bring to the board, or if you are already on the board, what do you think you have contributed?

Belmont: I was born and raised in Lynbrook and am raising my family here. I am an active member in my community because I deeply believe that if you live in a community, you need to spend your time giving the children in that community every opportunity to be successful.

Lynbrook is a great community, and in my 12 years as board member, my last four as president, the Lynbrook School board has accomplished a great deal, all while remaining fiscally responsible by staying under the tax cap. I volunteer as a coach for our varsity football team, assist our Challenger Basketball program and coach a variety of boys’ and girls’ youth teams. Additionally, I have created two networking sites on LinkedIn to help our high school students select colleges and find employment.

Hanson: I’m always eager to pitch in. From enrolling my children in Grace PlaySchool Cooperative and serving on its board, to being a Girl Scout leader, a Sunday school teacher at St. John’s Lutheran Church and a PTA member serving as the Board of Education liaison and Compact Committee co-chair, I want to contribute, especially to organizations that enrich the lives of my family and our community.

Before running for the board, I attended many meetings and advocated for many of what are today the district’s most impactful initiatives, including the extension at North Middle School, for which I am most proud. I have also developed a relationship with community leaders, including members of the Lynbrook Police Department and Long Island Rail Road.

Franklin: I decided to run for the Board of Education because, as an alumna of the Lynbrook School District and a lifelong resident of Lynbrook, I am committed to the future education of our children. Next year, I will have three children in three different schools, and I feel it is imperative to play a role in their educational future and to be a voice for the people of this community. It is essential to stay on top of the dynamic world that we live in and bring in positive messages to help mold our children and raise them to be exceptional role models.

Longo: I am a passionate, dedicated parent who is committed to serving this community. I have served on various PTA committees throughout the years from kindergarten through the high school level. I’ve held executive board member positions, including the kindergarten liaison and the delegate to council and corresponding secretary at West End. My career is in education and research.

I have previous experience as a faculty member for physician assistant programs at several universities and have been an active member of a professional pharmacy organization since 1994. I have served on several committees and the board of directors, including a three-year presidential term. I feel my diverse professional background and PTA involvement combined with my leadership, communication and organizational skills make me an ideal candidate for the board.

Herald: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the district, and how do you plan to address it?

Belmont: The most important issue is the ongoing battle we have with Albany to maintain local control. Albany is trying to dictate how local school districts evaluate their teachers and students, spend their community’s dollars and educate their children. They are even adding unfunded mandates while placing a tax cap on us.

Lynbrook has been graduating successful men and women for more than 100 years. When a school district is as successful as Lynbrook is, we don’t need Albany telling us how to run our district. Our community, through the annual election and budget vote, is able to have an impact by selecting their board members and supporting or rejecting the proposed budget. Lynbrook, like many other school districts, has been doing a great job for decades, and there is no reason for Albany to be instructing us on how to educate our kids or evaluate our teachers.

Hanson: Managing growth. Lynbrook remains a sought-after community for young families, and as more and more of them move into our district, we must stay focused on managing class size. Keeping class sizes small is my top priority.

Franklin: Our children are on the verge of a crisis with social and emotional health, addiction to social media and smartphones and the rampant use of vaping products. This generation has many new challenges that need to be addressed in the form of professional guidance, education on the depth and breadth of these issues, and making the children aware that they are not alone. As a board member, I will advocate for dynamic speakers that students can relate to and for programs that will address these many pressures that our children face.

Longo: Our district is in a great place when it comes to academics, athletics and the arts. One of the biggest issues we continue to face is the unfunded mandates imposed by the state Legislature. It is imperative that we voice our discontent and fight for Albany to share the cost. Another major issue the district faces is the various external and societal factors that can impact the educational experience and well-being of the children in this community, including social media, vaping, school violence and social, emotional and mental health. We need to continue to explore ways to address these issues and to provide resources for those impacted.

Herald: What programs would you like to see expanded or implemented in the district?

Belmont: I am very proud of the dozens of programs we have introduced in the district, and every year we continue to expand our programs that challenge and support our students’ desires to learn. The programs have addressed the needs of our diverse population from kindergarten through 12th grade. I hope we can continue to use new technologies to keep our students engaged and provide enrichment programs that challenge and support all of our learners.

Hanson: I’m looking forward to launching the new Voyager Program in the fall. It will be on the cutting edge of gifted education, and at no additional cost to taxpayers, more students will reap the benefits. Students in the elementary schools are really enjoying the foreign language clubs, which are a fun, meaningful and cost-effective way to introduce our students to foreign languages. This fall, we will complete the implementation of integrated co-teaching at all the grades in our elementary schools. At the high school, we have new electives coming in the fall, including a forensic science class and a creative writing class. 

Franklin: I would be thrilled to oversee the continuing excellence in the music and fine arts programs, athletics, academics and special education. My expertise in special education can bring many new ideas to the district, such as flexible seating and adapting a growth mindset. I would love to expand the laptop program by enabling students to interact with professionals in the fields that they are interested in and to build relationships with other students throughout the world. I would also like to explore the implementation of technology and social media etiquette training.

Longo: I will maintain a fair, balanced, fiscally responsible approach when considering new ideas for academics, athletics and the arts. I will support the expansion of the district’s social and emotional learning initiative and advances to our technology programs. The board recently announced the creation of a Diversity Committee, and it is imperative to identify experts and resources while partnering with the appropriate organizations to support diversity and inclusion in our community.

In East Rockaway

Board of Education Vice President Kristin Ochtera is seeking another term after nine years as a trustee. Trustee Patricia Nicoletti is retiring, leaving her seat vacant. Theresa Devlin is running for a seat for the second straight year, while Kristen O’Hagan and Peter McNally are running on a joint platform.

Herald: What do you think you would bring to the board, or if you are already on the board, what do you think you have contributed?

Ochtera: Over the course of my involvement in the school district, I believe I have clearly demonstrated integrity, leadership, compassion, teamwork and resiliency.

Devlin: I am an independent thinker whose level of involvement in the district and the community is a constant. I have attended every monthly board and budget advisory meeting. I know firsthand what it is like to make a change in district. The voice of a parent who has already achieved change is essential.

McNally: I pride myself in the ability to listen and collaborate, two qualities essential to being an effective member of the East Rockaway board. We are at a crossroads, and the time has come for the board to work for the whole community — children, millennials, parents and seniors. I am prepared to do that work.

O’Hagan: I bring sincere interest in public education in our community and strong family values and tradition. Education matters. It is my passion and a place where I know I make a difference in the lives of students while forming partnerships with parents. I do this on a daily basis at work, and I welcome the opportunity to do the same as a board member. We are raising our young people to be strong-minded leaders, and I would like to be a part of our community’s continued growth.

Herald: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the district, and how do you plan to address it?

Ochtera: Funding is the biggest issue. Being able to provide program growth, maintain our facilities and increase student achievement requires money. Homeowners bear an unreasonable tax burden. As an experienced board trustee, I’m already aware that the 2020 census will be critical to providing accurate data for federal aid and services. It seems like no big deal however, as a community with many rental properties, under-reporting of the population would negatively impact the amount of financial aid received by the district and potentially limit our representation in congress. Federal and state aid for education isn’t a gift. It’s money we’ve had taken from our paychecks and isn’t finding its way back to our schools.  

Devlin: ”We always did it this way,” as a mindset, is counterproductive to the kind of changes that need to continue in order to educate the children of today and tomorrow. We need to take a hard look at what we are doing well and where improvements are needed and get all the stakeholders on board.

McNally: Active in my East Rockaway community, a concern I often hear is the disconnect between our schools and neighbors. I am committed to serving as a bridge, a conduit between the great work our educators do and those who call East Rockaway home. My career has afforded me opportunities to work on countless projects with others, finding resolutions and improving resources. I know that my experience, willingness to compromise and respect of all those we serve will help me bridge the gap we now see, creating a cohesive, unified group that will benefit every taxpayer in East Rockaway.

O’Hagan: This Universal Accelerated Program, in which students complete high school-level course work in math and science, has positive and negative aspects. It is essential that the district has a long-term plan in place for all children. Some students are not academically ready for accelerated programming. Are we, as a district, accounting for all students by making the acceleration mandatory? Middle school is the time to build confidence, self-esteem, and a solid academic foundation. Long-term plans are also necessary to address the mental health of all students, especially those facing the pressure of the accelerated program.

Herald: What programs would you like to see expanded or implemented in the district?

Ochtera: Four years ago, we developed a five-year strategic plan. The district worked with community stakeholders to identify four key areas of growth. It has allowed us to make impressive gains in achievement and reputation. I believe this approach safeguards the district from personal agendas, balances the needs of all our students and guides us to make sound financial decisions. It has enabled us to increase participation in BOCES programs, add more clubs and teams and upgrade our technology. Our initiatives are being duplicated in other districts and our educators are being honored for their achievements.

Devlin: I’d like to see new course offerings in the foreign language department, and even American Sign Language. Now that there will be a six-day cycle at the high school, it would be beneficial to schedule in labs for all math Regents classes. It would also be helpful to look into the most cost-effective options available for the district to receive e-payments from families, for lunch, trips. We also must keep the budget under the tax cap.

McNally: I think there needs to be a greater focus in all school districts on mental health issues. Teen suicide rates are on the rise. There is a need to focus on the emotional needs of all students.

O’Hagan: Recently there have been amendments to education law regarding student mental health. Beginning at the elementary level and continuing through high school, we need effective mental health education instruction. The district has begun to take steps in the right direction by providing health education for sixth-grade students. We need to expand mental health education and curriculum, including mindfulness opportunities that can improve attention and emotional resilience. This is critical to the healthy development of all young people.