LWV Questionnaire Responses
Qualifications. Please state your name and district. How would you best describe the current state of your district and why should voters elect you to lead its future?
I’m John Leonard, running for the Board of Education in the Rye City School District. To start off, I’d like to thank the League of Women Voters for making this forum available, and I’d like to thank you for your interest in the District and the election. I’ve been asked to address five questions today. The first is ‘How would you best describe the current state of your district, and why should voters elect you to lead its future?’
I bought my first house in Rye in 1978, and now own my third. Our son attended Midland School, as did our tenants’ children after we moved to London. Rye and its schools mean a lot to me, and I know they’re important to the entire community. Disciplined financial management also matters, however, especially today. I have the right background to add missing perspectives to the Board’s balancing of program strategies, financial realities and fairness to taxpayers. In short, that’s why I’m running. Three points:
First, I bring sorely needed diversity to the current Board. There are two vacancies. Otherwise, all five continuing members are current parents, and all five have lived in Rye less than 15 years. No member is over 65, or even close. Their commitment to the schools is unquestionable, but broader taxpayer and community interests have simply not been properly represented by the Board in the past few years.
Second, I add deep financial expertise. My 42-year career as a banking officer, an equity analyst, and a portfolio manager included six prior periods of financial distress, the first in 1970. I have seen corporations and governments respond to downturns, and evaluated their actions. Some succeeded, some did not. The better responses recognized that adjustments needed to be quick, significant, and fairly spread across all constituencies. They separated ‘essential’ outlays from ‘desirable’ and ‘nice’ ones, and only spent on essentials. I am able to ask the necessary questions, evaluate the responses, consult with colleagues, and establish the right priorities.
Finally, I would like to strengthen the District’s governance structure. A corporate board dominated by major customers would simply not meet independence requirements. Although the District does prohibit employee Board membership, more needs to be done to broaden its independence. As a possible option, Rye City has a strong and independent Finance Committee. Why not the District?
The second question is ‘Student issues: How have or would you improve the quality of teachers, the curriculum, and school facilities in your district?’
Fortunately, we start with high quality education. I’d cite student outcomes, the teachers and administrators I’ve met, and the timely development of STEM programs. Until I know the system a lot better, the old adage of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it’ probably should apply. No doubt, we’ll need some adjustments after the current involuntary remote education period ends. There will be new expenses, some problems to fix, and one hopes, some chances to blend central and remote learning strategies. I’m prepared to make these changes and pay for them as the situation evolves.
This brings me to the second point. Good education costs good money, and money is now desperately scarce. My top priority will be to preserve core educational strengths, and to keep them moving forward, including STEM and, if still relevant post-COVID, experiments with new learning structures. Direct education costs can’t and shouldn’t be exempt from review to identify nonessential costs and user-fee candidates. However, the main focus needs to be elsewhere -- facilities costs, optional services, outside consultants, and administrative overhead, all of which have fewer direct educational implications.
Let’s focus on facilities. In the $80-million 2019 Capital Bond, which projects were really ‘essential’, which just ‘desirable’, and which only ‘nice’ or overdesigned for purpose? Almost half the voters in 2019 weren’t convinced this package was all justifiable, despite two high-pressure marketing campaigns. Three examples. First, eight new classrooms aren’t needed with today’s enrollment trends. If growth returns, there’s a lower-cost option. Second, a prison-style central electronic locking system? Why not simply blast-phone the teachers to turn their keys. Third, air conditioning gymnasiums? With five days a year of possible need, users or donors should pay for this luxury, not the taxpayers. These three alone would save more than $10m.
As a third topic, Financial issues: Property taxes remain the most important issue to voters. How can you provide relief to the taxpayers and ensure a balance between property values and the quality of education?
To be frank, I’m not sure I can offer ‘relief’ to anyone. All I can promise is that I will work to find the right level of educational outlays, and to spread the necessary burden as broadly and fairly as possible. Property taxes are only one element. All governments face severe revenue strains, creating pressure to raise taxes and fees across the board. I’m not optimistic at all about assistance from higher levels of government – we’ll be lucky if it isn’t cut.
I’d hope that cooperation with nearby governments can be expanded. For example, Rye City and the District collect taxes separately. Both the City and District have separate buildings and grounds maintenance teams. Two neighboring districts currently send groups of tuition-paying students to Rye – can we coordinate capacity expansion with them? We already share swimming teams with two neighboring school districts. Might this also work for meritorious but low-volume academic subjects? And, while I understand the concept of separating schools from partisan politics, let’s ask the State for a single election date and unified polling locations.
Fourth, I’m asked about ’Challenges: What do you feel are the major decisions the Board has made in the past year and will make in the coming year, and what is your position on these decisions?’
The watchword has to be flexibility, and I don’t expect this to change. Realistically, pre-March decisions are ancient history. I am impressed with the District’s quick and thorough preparation for the sudden mid-March shutdown. I was less impressed by the 2020-21 initial budget. With declining enrollment, almost the full tax cap latitude shouldn’t have been needed. Trimming has started, probably enough to win my vote, but we need more.
I earnestly hope that a new Board can rebuild the broad public consensus in support of the public schools that historically has existed in Rye, regardless of whether individual voters are school parents or not. The 2019 Capital Bond campaign clearly left some scars. To be blunt, 49% and 51% affirmative votes are not broad public consensus. We need to demonstrate to the public that the Board protects all interests in the community, not just those of current parents. It can be done – a 2012 bond issue also lost its first vote, but after changes addressing community concerns, a smaller proposal achieved a large majority. In 2019, when the Board made no meaningful revisions, there was no broadening of support.
Finally, ‘What do you propose the District should do to address the new normal in delivering quality education post the COVID-19 crisis? This includes lost schooling, new learning alternatives, and a healthy and safe environment.’
It’s hard for me to define a ‘new normal’ for education until we have more clarity on the medical aspects, and relief from broad political proscriptions that may not sufficiently consider varying local conditions.
Assuming reopening of schools does become feasible, I support returning to a central education environment as quickly as possible, consistent with reasonable safety. I firmly believe that many educational benefits (similar to business insights) arise from face-to-face interaction in groups – skills in working together, informal interchange of ideas, and negotiated solutions, even six feet apart. I would be concerned if an overly risk-averse approach is taken. Some risk is inherent in all activities, and with reasonable care by participants, should be accepted .
Thanks for your attention. I’d welcome your support, and hope you’ll pass my message along to your neighbors. Please be sure to complete and return your absentee ballot promptly – it must be received by the District by June 9 to count, not just placed in the mail that day.