Election Day for the New Paltz Central School District will bring a lot of choices. Voters will have to decide if they’ll support a tax-cap-busting $50.31 million budget, if they’d like the schools to buy $339,000 worth of buses and they’ll have to pick from a crowded field of hopefuls looking for a school board seat.
New Paltz voters will have to choose three among six Board of Education candidates this year — and none of them will have an incumbent advantage. A few, like Dominick Profaci and Brian Courneyer have run for school board before. However, most candidates are new.
For the sake of consistency, all six candidates were asked the same questions. Their answers are presented here in a Q-and-A format.
Candidates are listed here in alphabetical order.
Marvin Birnbaum is a father of two who grew up in New Paltz, went to Duzine Elementary School, moved out of town as a fifth-grader — only to find himself returning to town in 2004 to help his mother when his step-father was admitted to a nursing home.
His children aren’t yet in school, but they’ll be at Duzine soon. Birnbaum, 46, makes his living as a family law attorney, representing both parents and children in anything from custody disputes, juvenile delinquency to child abuse cases. He’s also worked as a tax attorney and as an accountant.
Birnbaum has not held an elected position before.
Q: Why are you running for school board?
MB: The landslide defeat of the latest proposal by our school board has convinced me that there is a severe disconnect between what the taxpayers of the district want and what the school board is providing. I believe that the mission of our schools is to provide the highest quality education possible within a reasonable budget. I think the reason for this defeat was a combination of poor communication on the part of the school board and political miscalculation.
I will seek to ensure that as taxpayers our money is being spent wisely so we receive the maximum value of each dollar spent. I want to know why a school budget that is a slight reduction in total dollars from one year to the next requires a 4.4 percent increase in taxes — as well as drastic cuts in services.
Furthermore, I want to see communication between the school board and various civic and political groups in advance of all proposals. In order to properly represent the diverse interests of all residents of the New Paltz Central School District it is necessary to listen to their concerns. We are all taxpayers, some of us are parents of children in the district, some of us work for the district, some of us are property owners within the district. Any proposal crafted by the school board must strike a fair compromise for all constituents.
I think the board needs to set achievable long-term goals given the current mood which seeks to dismantle government. The board needs to come up with a variety of alternatives for accomplishing them and present a well-reasoned set of alternatives to the voters. If the voters do not trust the honesty and competency of the school board, they will reject every measure. If we continue down this path, we might as well not have a school board. Good schools are vital to the health of New Paltz. They attract better residents, produce better citizens and enhance property values.
I also believe the board needs to explore the possibility of finding alternative funding sources for certain activities that used to be part of public school funding.
Q: What are the top three issues facing the New Paltz schools, and if you got elected how would you address them?
MB: The top three issues facing New Paltz schools are funding, funding and funding. Albany is the main culprit in a way against our school system. Cuts to state aid without cuts to state mandates have placed a greater burden on school taxes. Then in a misguided, ineffective and poorly thought out plan of taxpayer relief have hamstrung school districts with 2 percent (not really) cap combined with the need for super majority passage in a vain attempt to preserve some level of educational consistency year to year.
The position of the Legislature is morally repugnant and will either result in less public education for all or the creation of a two-tiered public education system. At a minimum Albany must fund its mandates or make them voluntary.
As far as the funding issues within our control, I will focus on increased efficiency in the provision of services. In order to maintain programs it will be necessary to tap non-traditional funding streams.
As to the specific areas where costs are going up year to year the collective bargaining agreement is the key. Retirement benefits must be funded on a pay-as-you-go basis and therefore need to be less generous than in the past. The services provided by our teachers and employees are provided currently. Since all the benefits are current all the expenses associated with personnel should be paid on a current basis.
Capital expenditures for renovation, construction, land acquisition, etc. unlike personnel service expenses, should not be paid with operating funds. These expenditures create long-term benefits and therefore should be bonded so that future payments roughly correspond to future benefits.
If elected, I will get a complete accounting of all necessary repairs, a time line for these repairs, an expected life expectancy for these repairs and alternative projects to address these problems. Once this is accomplished I will attempt to get the board to present these alternatives to the public to allow them to make an informed decision on which way to proceed.
Q: This year school board members settled on a $50.31 million budget that would raise the tax levy by 4.4 percent. Would you have voted yes for that budget too? Why or why not?
MB: It is impossible to say whether I would have voted for this proposed budget as a member of the school board. The members of the current board who are intimately involved with this complex issue have presented this to the taxpayers as the best proposal. An opinion on a complex issue not based on fact is simply ignorance in action.
The current proposal requires a super majority to pass, increases the taxes by 4.4 percent and contains major service cuts. I would like to have seen how much our taxes would have increased if we simply kept services the same. No doubt it would require a much higher tax increase. I also would like to see how drastic the cuts to services would be in a budget that respected the 2 percent cap. Only when faced with both the cost and consequences can the public make an educated decision.
As a taxpayer, I will vote for the current proposal. Education is an investment. In general, I believe investment leads to big benefits in the future. Despite the current hard times, there will be a bright future for our town, state and country if we are willing to invest in it. The budget appears the best way of preserving our schools and property values for only a small difference between a 4.4 percent increase and a 2 percent increase.
Q: After briefly promoting $12.3 million in fixes to the four school buildings – known as the “Health & Safety Bond” project — the board took it off May’s ballot. Do you support those repairs? Would you have approached the decision to remove that bond project differently?
MB: Again it is impossible to say whether I would support the proposed repairs if I were a member of the board. The school board has expended an extraordinary amount of time in producing the proposal and then for reasons known only to them pulled the proposal.
I support necessary repairs and renovations. I support the bonding of long-term repairs and renovations so as to match future benefits to future costs.
Q: New Paltz school board members are currently developing a long-term facilities plan that could call for the closure of two schools and a consolidation down to two campuses. It could also call for the closure of one school and a consolidation to three campuses. Do you support that consolidation? If not, how else should the district move forward?
MB: I support consolidation in principle but have my doubts about it in practice. The current structure of four campuses has distinct advantages to the students in that they are only grouped with students of similar age. However, it has a cost disadvantage in requiring the maintenance of four separate campuses. The cost and benefits of this structure versus either the two or three campus alternatives need to be laid out in detail.
The middle school is in need of serious work and New Paltz town supervisor Susan Zimet’s proposal is intriguing. However, condensing to three or two campuses may create problems of its own. New Paltz used to have a three-campus system with fifth through eighth grade in the same building. That was not so hot for the fifth graders. Moving the middle school in close proximity to the high school will force a greater number of middle school students to face high school problems while still in middle school. Do we really want to expose kids this young to increase chance of drug and alcohol use as well as sexual relations? I don’t.
Some of the supposed benefits of consolidation have not been realized in surrounding districts. Old schools are a hard sell in the private market and once closed there are still significant costs incurred in their mothballed state. Every single dollar spent on closed schools is money spent with no benefit to the students. Of course if the town and village will actually purchase the middle school, this objection disappears.
Q: How will your previous experiences help you if you got elected, and how would they be an asset for those who vote for you? In other words, why should people vote for you?
MB: My experience as an attorney has brought me into contact with all sorts of people. I have had cases and clients involving people from every social and economic strata and from many religions and ethnicities. I have also had to absorb the unique facts of every situation and goals of my clients to create a viable strategy in every case.
However, the most basic lesson I have learned is that you must be honest or you lose all credibility. The reason you should vote for me is that I have the ability to sift through data, sniff out falsehood, condense it into a manageable presentation and give you the straight facts. In the end it is your choice.