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Plainview-Old Bethpage School District Holds Board of Education Candidates Night

As three candidates vied for two seats on the Plainview-Old Bethpage School District Board of Education, incumbents Debbie Bernstein and Ginger Lieberman attempted to leverage their experience, while challenger Charles Mazzocchi said he could offer the board a fresh perspective. While the hour-and-a-half long forum was cordial, with candidates rarely talking out of turn, the challenger did disagree with the incumbents on several issues; the two incumbents mostly agreed. The candidates are presented here in the order that they read their opening statements.

Charles Mazzocchi

Challenger Charles Mazzocchi stated that he and his wife had chosen the Plainview-Old Bethpage community a decade ago because of the quality of the schools. However, from his vantage point, things have changed. “I’m here today because I’ve seen things deteriorate rather than improve over the past ten years,” said Mazzochi.

He also noted that unlike his opponents, three of his four children currently attend district schools. “I have a vested interest,” he said.

While he stated that the three main issues he would focus on if elected were fiscal responsibility, accountability and accessibility, another issue that was clearly important to him- and that he has spoken about at school board meetings during this academic year- was the condition of the district’s facilities.

“The buildings and grounds are an eyesore, and are not at the level one would expect from a district with a $130 million budget,” he said. “Proper upkeep is lacking, yet our taxes continue to rise.” He returned to this issue throughout the evening.

Mazzocchi is currently an athletic coach in the community, as well as a board member of the newly-formed Plainview-Old Bethpage Youth Sports Association. He cited fundraising experience, and noted that his fifteen years of working for Scholastic, Inc.- the largest children’s book publisher in the world, he said- also comprised relevant experience.

Ginger Lieberman

Incumbent Ginger Lieberman explained during her opening statement why, after 24 years on the board of education, she had chosen to run yet again.

“Many of you may be asking yourself: Why would anybody want to subject themselves to a job that seems just thankless?” said Lieberman. “It’s certainly not the salary, since we don’t get paid.” She explained that she was running to continue to make a difference in the lives of the children of the district.

Lieberman disagreed with Mazzochi’s contention that having children in the district made the challenger a better candidate for the board. “It is my passion that every child belongs to each and every one of us. Whether you have children or not in the schools really is not an issue; it’s what we want to offer our kids in the future,” she said.

The incumbent named some of the votes she has taken part in since being elected to the board of education: full-day kindergarten, keeping two middle schools open, moving the Jamaica Avenue school to Stratford Road, opening the K-Center, founding the senior citizen club, and many others.

Lieberman is a former commissioner of childcare for Nassau County, author of the anti-bullying “BullyFrog” children’s book series. She is also a national commentator on the subject of bullying for MSNBC, NBC, CNN and News 12.

Debbie Bernstein

Debbie Bernstein, a thirty-year resident who has served on the board for seven years, could not cite decades of experience on the board as Lieberman could. However, she instead detailed her extensive PTA experience: She started out in the Old Bethpage Elementary School PTA, and was later elected president of that organization. Later, she was elected president of both the JFK High School PTA, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage PTA Council. She has also served as assistant director of the Nassau Region PTA.

Bernstein spoke of the difficulty of creating school budgets during “The Great Recession,” and noted that the district had prepared for these times successfully by saving money during better economic times.

“Such times require strong and experienced leadership, team-building and collaboration among all of our stakeholders,” said Bernstein.

Bernstein is the LI Regional Director for ORT America, an educational fundraising organization; a PTA National Honorary Lifetime Award recipient, and a recipient of the New York State PTA Distinguished Service Award. She was also honored in 2009 as a Town of Oyster Bay Woman of Distinction in Education; however, she noted that her greatest accomplishments were those of her children.

Keeping the Budget Lean

On the subject of how to reduce spending with a possible tax cap on the horizon, the incumbents and the challenger offered different opinions; while Lieberman and Bernstein discussed making cuts while maintaining as much of the current program as possible, Mazzochi specifically cited staffing levels, and the possibility of raising the student/teacher ratio.

“Our district cannot afford to continue down the road that we’re on,” said Mazzochi. “We need to evaluate our current staffing and really figure out if the staff level we have currently in place is truly justified.”

Without going into specifics, Lieberman implied that cuts would have to be made: “What we started to do in the last two years is to cut on the periphery, and start to work in,” said Lieberman, saying the board will continue to do the same thing in the future. Bernstein agreed, going on to say that it was important that the board find ways to offer the same programs at a lower cost.

Another question in a similar vein asked how the candidates would be able to maintain programs if the economy continued to stagnate rather than improve.

“Unfortunately, if the economy continues the way it has been, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to put a budget together without cutting certain things, to be perfectly honest with you,” said Bernstein. “I think it’s a matter of prioritizing.”

On the subject of cost-savings, the incumbents spoke of saving money by purchasing supplies through consortiums, however, Mazzocchi thought that more could be done, stating that he would look into the contracts if elected to the board. “There may be greater opportunities for savings,” he said.

Facilities and Grounds

“Our schools are falling apart; they’re deteriorating; they’re very old,” said Mazzochi. “This is a huge issue; how can we spend money on programs if we can’t even put them in a building that’s a safe environment for learning?” He also noted that there was mold and mildew in some buildings, which Lieberman disagreed with, stating the buildings were inspected and safe.

While acknowledging that a lot of repairs needed to be done- $70 million worth, at last count- Lieberman had a very different view of the facilities. “I’m proud of our facilities: I go to many school districts throughout the state, and I can tell you some of the best school districts don’t look the way ours do,” she said.

Both Lieberman and Bernstein discussed the need to prioritize, since there was always more work to be done on the facilities, and both mentioned the five-year plan, which is meant to address the district’s most pressing repair and infrastructure needs.

“A good plan is not a band-aid, but approaches a problem in its entirety, and that is what we’ve been doing with our five-year plan,” said Bernstein.

Other Issues

In response to a question about equalizing the two middle school programs- currently, POB Middle School has a “zero” period available that Mattlin students do not have- Lieberman stated that the cost, which was between $600,000 and $700,000, was prohibitive.

“We understand that there are inequities. The next best thing we can do is try to bring as many programs as we can so that both schools have the opportunity to share within those programs,” said Lieberman.

“The POB Middle School zero period provides a distinct cultural advantage,” said Mazzocchi, saying that transportation policies would have to be looked at to see if this inequity could be resolved. He also noted that the lunchtimes at the middle schools were “totally out of whack,” with students eating lunch as early as 10 a.m.

There was also a challenger/incumbent split over No Child Left Behind, which Mazzocchi supported, but the two incumbents criticized severely; Lieberman said that she thought the program had “left every child behind,” and called it a waste of taxpayers money, while Bernstein stated that NCLB demonstrated “a country gone mad” with high-stakes testing.

On the other side of the coin, both incumbents said that they supported collaborative classes, while Mazzocchi did not. “I feel that that brings down the students in the classroom who really need to be challenged,” he said.

On the subject of changing the elementary school schedule from quarters to thirds, all of the candidates tentatively said that they preferred quarters, but would need more information on how the proposed “thirds” would be implemented.

The election and budget vote will be held on Tuesday, May 17.