Q&A with school board candidates from the Auburn Enlarged City School District

Editor’s Note: Candidates’ answers were not edited or modified in any way. They were published, as received, by the newsroom. Candidates were informed prior to answering the questions that all answers would be published unedited.

Why are you running for school board?

JOSEPH SHEPPARD:

I decided to run for re-election to the Auburn school board because I have unfinished work to do. When I first ran, my goal was simple. Work to provide the same great opportunities that I had as a student here. Reflecting upon that however, I am no longer interested in providing the same opportunities, I want them to be better. I intend to continue to fight for the members of this community, to continue to advocate for our students, faculty, and staff. I intend to continue working to protect and improve the music and arts offerings in our district. To continue to work with our faculty, staff and administrators to envision new ways forward for all of our children. Ensuring that every child in Auburn has a pathway forward to success, regardless of whether or not they are a star athlete, the tiniest bass drum player in the marching band, or the shy girl trying to find her place. All of our students deserve to be at the forefront of decisions providing educational opportunities that engage, excite, and inspire. We are entering uncertain times and I want to work to lead the district through them.

ELI HERNANDEZ:

My decision to bid for a fourth term on the school board is based on the fact that the work is not complete. The school board and administration need to do a better job of communicating with the community the challenges the district faces and provide a rationale for the decisions made by having public discussions to better inform our stakeholders of these challenges and successes. The board of education needs to closely examine and verify the work that is being done across the district, set goals, and begin to create a strategic three to five-year plan.

In 2020, we must continue to find innovative ways to be fiscally responsible while holding Albany accountable for their fair and equitable share. The COVID-19 Pandemic has shed more light on the inequities our district faces. With a major decrease in funding while at the same time experiencing an increase in supporting student’s socioemotional needs, we must come together to find innovative ways to ensure all students and staff are equipped with the proper tools to support student learning. As a community leader, parent, educator, and administrator, I provide a diverse perspective that can assist in the growth of our district.

PATRICK MAHUNIK:

As a lifelong resident, educator, a person dedicated to community service and proud graduate of the Auburn Enlarged City School District, I felt now is the right time to make the commitment to be a school board member. My wife, Amy, and I have raised 5 children in this school district and have seen the excellent and innovative opportunities that dedicated professionals can provide.  Our children have been blessed with an excellent education, as two have graduated and moved on to college programs, two are in the high school, and the youngest will be starting at the AJHS in the fall.  I have always been taught that it is our duty to give back to the community who has done so much for us.  After serving 12 years as a Cayuga County Legislator I feel it is the right time to use my talents, knowledge, and educational background to provide the best educational experiences to the students, families, and employees of the Auburn Enlarged City School District.

RHODA OVERSTREET-WILSON:

I decided to run for re-election to the Auburn school board because It has been an honor to serve this community and sit in a position where I can impact immediate change for our children and district employees. I believe my work is not complete and it would be a privilege if I could help the district navigate what is probably one of the biggest crises we have faced. I will continue to advocate for our children, teaching and support staff, ask the tough unpopular questions, and vote with our districts mission and vision in mind.

Related to State & Federal Funding

How should the district approach a possible budget gap of 10-20%?

JOSEPH SHEPPARD:

Unfortunately, Auburn has been in the position where it has been necessary to make cuts for nearly the last decade because of inadequate state funding. We have had to reduce our staff by nearly 18% over the last decade and spend 26% less per pupil than the state average because of the inability of the state to fund the district properly. Now this 10 – 20% further reduction in state aid. Auburn, and many other districts like us, cannot sustain more aid reductions. We must continually ask our faculty, staff and administrators to do more with less and they have risen to the occasion each time, it is enough. Unfortunately, the resulting cuts from the pandemic may be the proverbial straw. When approaching additional cuts of this magnitude, while continuously dealing with the fallout from decades of underfunding, it will be increasingly important to bring all stakeholders to the table to discuss areas of reduction. This includes seeking the input of our teaching faculty, our support professionals, our community members, and our students. A school is a community hub and the community must be allowed to provide their input when drastic changes are going to occur. All of our communities are hurting, and to pull even more out from under our students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community members is going to be devastating. We need their input and involvement to best weather this storm.

ELI HERNANDEZ:

There is no easy way to approach an estimated 10%-20% budget gap. The district spends less than the state average and many other districts around the area per pupil, yet we continue to have to make cuts that affect student learning. The district has worked so hard to be fiscally responsible. As a district we explored ways to save on healthcare expenses while maintaining the best healthcare services for our staff. We have saved money by bringing services back to our district from BOCES, and bargaining units have sacrificed pay raises to safe jobs. These efforts had prepared the district to add several crucial positions to support the socioemotional needs of our students while maximizing on student learning in the 2020-2021 school year. However, COVID-19 has changed all that. Therefore, in order to close such a gap, the district must include all stakeholders in providing their thoughts and ideas in closing the financial gap. When all stakeholders are included in the conversations, it is natural for the community to come together as it has in the past to make the necessary changes.

PATRICK MAHUNIK:

As an High School Principal in a small district, we were approached with the similar scenario.  We met as an administrative team and outlined our goals.  The main goals being no cuts to student program and no employee layoffs.  After numerous work sessions we were able to eliminate 1.4 million of a 21 million dollar budget. This was done through attrition, creative thinking, and the reorganization of the administrative team resulting in the elimination of 2 administrators.  No teachers, support or facilities staff were impacted through this process.  Most importantly student programs remained and intact, and if fact, they were enhanced.  We were able to capitalize on BOCES reimbursement and eliminate significant expenditures on laptop carts.  We moved to become a Google school and are in the process of establishing a 1:1 student to chrome book ratio for our students at the high school.  

Through this creative thinking along with numerous meetings to discuss anticipated federal stimulus funds with Congressman Thomas Reed’s office and political advisors in the Governor’s office, we anticipate that we will be in a good financial position as we move through these uncharted waters.  Political advocacy is a very important part of the Board of Education’s role and I feel I bring a unique opportunity and resource to the position. 

RHODA OVERSTREET-WILSON:

Prior to the Covid-19 crisis we were in a position in our district to add social worker’s to help address the growing social and emotional needs of our children however, that is not a plan we can put in place and the our children are the ones who suffer. Our children continue to receive the short end of the stick. Every year Auburn has been in a position where cuts were center stage due to the lack of adequate funding from the State. Every year we ask our teachers to take on more responsibilities as their resources decline. And every year our teachers bend add a little more to add to the plate of what is already an insurmountable “ask”. Our teachers do this almost reflexively because they believe in and love our children. Now we are facing an uphill battle where we need to look and plan for a 10%-20% reduction. That is unacceptable. I believe the strategy to approach this potential reduction is one where the mindset is most important. As a board member we need to be cognizant of where these reductions have historically been taken from and work towards those groups not taking it on the “chin” again. As a board member it is our duty to have a fully informed understand of the total impact certain cuts have on our children and the districts ability to effectively teach and meet the social emotional needs. I believe we attain this understanding by listening to our teachers, support staff, community members, and assessing the cost to our children.

Are there any areas you can vow not to cut if elected? 

JOSEPH SHEPPARD:

All throughout my educational career, I was involved with Music, and the Performing Arts. My experiences in High School led me to a career in theatre that afforded me the opportunity to work in cities throughout the country, meet some amazing individuals, and have many wonderful experiences. Therefore, I will continually fight for our arts and music programming in the district. I feel very strongly that every child needs to have an outlet that is not purely academic and many students are not a star athlete. These children need to be afforded the same opportunities to express themselves that our athletes do and for many Music and the Performing or Visual Arts are that outlet. Too often, they are the first cuts to be made and I will fight hard to maintain that programming. Additionally, not all students are college bound. Some do not wish to go to college, others may not have the financial ability, and others just may not have the ability. These children should never be shuffled aside. I will always fight to maintain and improve upon our vocational and technology training programs. There is a massive shortage of vocational workers nationwide and we need to make these good paying, skilled jobs, seem worthwhile to our students and provide them with more opportunities to pursue the learning needed to pursue these jobs in the future.

ELI HERNANDEZ:

To say that one would prefer one area over the other is not the best way to run any organization. Like many other organization, the district is guided by its mission and goals to provide every student with a rich and equitable education. With that said, preserving strong instructional programs must be a priority. As an educator, community leader and administrator I understand the importance of educating the whole child. Cutting any specific programs that interfere with our students ability to be competitive in the real world is not an option. Therefore, taking a closer and intentional look at how we deliver instructional program can provide some assistance.

PATRICK MAHUNIK:

The New York Education Law defines a school board’s general powers and duties. Generally, a school board oversees the district’s affairs (students’ education), personnel and properties. The Board of Education has specific responsibilities to approve curriculum, employ a Superintendent and submit a proposed budget to the district voters for their approval.

As a former Board of Trustee at Cayuga Community College, I held a similar role.  We worked closely with the faculty and staff when it came to program decisions.  We listened to their input and asked thoughtful questions and then approved or disapproved their recommendations.  It is not the role of the Board of Education to make programming decisions, rather the role of the Board is to listen to the recommendations of the administrative team and make financially responsible decisions of what can be cut.  However, as I tell my faculty and staff, the final question I will always ask before any cuts or suggested cuts are made is, “Is this what is best for kids?”

RHODA OVERSTREET-WILSON:

As a Board member I will continue to fight for those social and emotional resources for our children. I understand the importance those programs, interventions, and interactions have on their young lives. I would venture to say that I am the “after school” programs #1 cheerleader. I currently serve as the Board Present for Booker T Washington Community Center (BTW). I am gifted with monthly updates on the profound impact it has on our children and families. The school district partners with BTW to provide an effective after school enrichment experience, dinner and snack, access to local resources, and a safe environment free from exploitation to one of our most vulnerable community populations. I will not vote to cute school counselors, behavior specialist, or social works. I was a benefactor of the social emotional services resources in our district. My high school guidance counselor helped to secure employment for me as a senior. This additional income to my family made a world of difference. My mother did not have to work so hard because I could help. Additionally, our vocational programs I will not vote to cut because they provide pathways to graduation, thus success for many of our children. Not every child will go to college, that does not mean they will not be successful. I know many people who have done well for themselves because of the vocational options our district provides. Without them we would be ignoring a large segment of our student body and that would be irresponsible.

What type of programs or services would you be willing to cut in order to balance the budget? 

JOSEPH SHEPPARD:

Over the last decade the Auburn school district has been cut so much that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find places to cut. Our staff has been reduced by more than 18%, we have shuttered a building, our students have had to go without the social and emotional supports that those in surrounding districts are able to utilize, our class sizes are increasing and we are lacking in technology access that students in surrounding districts are able to take for granted. Finding more places to cut is becoming a near impossibility. Yet, the cuts will need to keep coming as the state government continues to underfund districts like Auburn and the fallout from the pandemic worsens. To overcome this I will work tirelessly with our administration, faculty, staff, and fellow Board members to find places of redundancy and inefficiencies within our budget. We will work to reorganize and restructure policies and programs to make them run more efficiently and be less costly. We will look for new cost saving measures through our insurance programs and consultant contracts that reduce costs to our employees and to the district. As a district we need to stop looking first to cutting teachers and programs that directly impact the educational opportunities for our students. We need to start looking more towards inefficiencies, redundancies, and implement various cost savings measures that will not directly impact the success of our children.

ELI HERNANDEZ:

There are no specific services that I am willing to cut to close the financial gap caused by this pandemic. However, examining all current contracts with outside agencies and individual consultants would be a starting point. I would continue to explore different ways to save on healthcare costs, freeze all current spending to support a bigger rollover, and since the pandemic I would work with current service providers and reduce spending during this current school year. However, this wouldn’t be enough. Therefore, meeting with all stakeholders will provide a better way to equitably reduce spending without impacting the educational programs and programs that contribute to shaping the whole child such as music, arts, and extracurricular activities.

PATRICK MAHUNIK:

As I noted above, programming recommendations should come from our administrative team after they do their due diligence.  The Board’s job is to listen to the plan and make a decision if it is in the best interest of students and the best interest of the district.  Obviously, I would never cut any state mandated program.  However, after many years in alternative education programs, I know not all students learn the same way. These programs, as well as special education programs, serve some of are most vulnerable population and I will always support them in order to provide a comprehensive education program to all students of the Auburn Enlarged City School District.

RHODA OVERSTREET-WILSON:

Editor’s Note: Rhonda Overstreet-Wilson did not submit an answer to this question.

The AFT issued guidelines indicating that class sizes should be 12-15 students. While making class sizes that small might not be possible in every district – where does shrinking class size rank in your priorities given the importance of social distancing?

JOSEPH SHEPPARD:

Class sizes of 12 – 15 is unfortunately an impossibility for the Auburn School District as a result of the nearly 18% in staffing reductions over the last decade due to inadequate state funding and a refusal by the state to fully fund their own foundation aid formula. In many of our elementary schools, we are approaching class sizes of 24 – 30 in some sections, and at the secondary levels, the 20% potential aid reductions could result in unmanageable class sizes. Class sizes always have been, and always will be a great concern of mine. We need to look at creative ways to reorganize and align our district so that we do not have class sizes of 16 – 18 in one building and 25 – 30 in another. We need to fight for adequate funding to allow us to hire more teachers at the secondary level to reduce our class sizes to manageable levels that will allow our children to receive the individualized attention that they need and will help them to be most successful.

ELI HERNANDEZ:

The pandemic has caused a shift for school districts to consider a different way of educating our students. Social distancing mandates will need to be observed and specific plans will need to be developed to ensure the safety of students, faculty and the community. Research suggests that smaller class sizes provide more opportunities for students to learn. Smaller class sizes have been a priority for the school board for many years nonetheless the equitable allocation to our district has made it difficult. Moving forward we will need to find a solution to ensure the safety of all students and staff. With distance learning forced upon us, we can take a closer look at how we deliver instruction to our students while still maintaining the classroom environment.

PATRICK MAHUNIK:

Obviously, smaller class sizes would be wonderful, but they come at a cost. This should be a discussion for the Board of Education as they create their goals for the year.  This would allow every member to research and understand the academic and financial impacts of such a decision.  The Governor and NYSED have not released any information about regulations for the upcoming school year.  Once they are released the administrative team will develop a plan for BoE review, suggestions, and approval.

RHODA OVERSTREET-WILSON:

Having class sizes at 12-15 would be probably one of the best things that could happen in this district and it would be possible if we received adequate funding from the safe. Unfortunately, that is not our reality and in fact the sizes of our classrooms have increased in size due to the foundation aid formula being used to dispense funds to school districts. We are approaching class sizes (in most of our building) with a range from 24-30. This should be unacceptable to every parent and taxpayer in this community. The district oversees educating our communities “next” generation of leaders and we are expecting them to do this in overcrowded classrooms, limited resources, and fear of employment loss every budget season. This is high on my personal priority list. I had the benefit of completing all my higher education in “small” group settings and that design is one of the reasons I found completing my education an investment that I could be successful at. If positive, individual attention has such a profound in pact on adults, image what it would be for our children. It is imperative that we continue to advocate, push, and demand for our districts fair share of State Aide.

How do you propose making the district more inclusive for all students amid potential budget cuts and a global pandemic?

JOSEPH SHEPPARD:

One thing that the pandemic has brought to the forefront is the inequalities of the educational system with regard to technology access at home, and an inability to support our students properly when they are not with us. As a teacher, I had many students who were thriving on March 13th. Some of them are continuing to thrive. Others are not. I have not heard from them since the last day we were together. They either do not have the support at home to allow for a disciplined enough approach to self-learning, do not have the technological capabilities to access online learning, or have learning deficiencies that make it impossible for them to be successful without the supports that the school environment can offer. We must focus our efforts on equaling the playing field for these students. We must work with community partners to provide technological infrastructure to those who do not have it. We must work to increase our ability to provide supports for those students who are not disciplined enough to self-learn by offering alternative scheduling options or nontraditional curricular opportunities that excite them into learning. We must bolster our social and emotional supports for those students who are feeling lost and unsupported in their home environments and we must increase our ability to provide special education services in the home environment to assist students in overcoming the deficiencies they may have.

ELI HERNANDEZ:

The disproportionality of students without electronic devices is a concern that needs immediate attention. All across the nation we see this disparity. While Auburn provided Chromebooks to many families, there is still a need for proper training on the use of technology. This pandemic has also brought to light the disparity in engaging students and families in the educational process. There are many lessons the district can learn from this pandemic to ensure a more inclusive approach to educating all students. Currently, our special education students who need the academic and socioemotional supports have gone for weeks without having the needed interactions despite the teachers’ and parents’ efforts to stay connected. The district engaging with community agencies and organizations have proven to support all families with food distribution. Involving the community, taking the time to educate families on how to support student learning is the next step to ensure all students have the access they need to be successful.

PATRICK MAHUNIK:

A co-teaching model where special and general education teachers receive effective and continual training will allow all students to receive an equitable education in an inclusive setting. This will also allow the school district to reallocate staff and meet the requirements of higher needs students.  

Regional BOCES services are also a cost effective way to meet the needs of student who need additional support, as the tuition is reimbursable, through New York State Aid.

RHODA OVERSTREET-WILSON:

The district needs to develop a strategic plan to address inclusivity period. One sure way to predict success for youth is if they feel wanted, heard, and valued. If we do not address the social “gaps” between our socio-economic classes within our district we will fail, and the global pandemic just creates the urgency in which we need to move. I am thrilled to share that our district has been in strategic conversations with the Harriet Tubman for Centers’ Justice and Peace Board or Directors (HTCJP) to address this very topic. The district has already held workshops to address Human Dignity and Childhood and held further discussions on how to weave this philosophy throughout our district. Here is what the district is focusing on:

a)  How people experience human dignity in childhood shapes how they confront and experience differences throughout their lives.

b)  How a school system can apply human dignity to its mission, curriculum, student organizations, student retention and graduation and teacher recruitment and faculty development efforts?

c)  How can a human dignity perspective can make differences a source of pride rather than a reason to marginalize those who are different, reflected in bullying, harassment, microaggressions and stereotypes?

Just because we are in a pandemic means we stop the work. It is more important now than probably before due to the pandemics ravishing effects on Black, Brown, and poor people. As a board member of both entities not only do, I fully support this initiative I will work to ensure its implementation.


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