The Northport-East Northport School District’s annual budget vote and election of trustees will take place this Tuesday, May 16, from 6am to 9pm. Earlier this week, the PTA Council held a Meet the Candidates forum, giving each candidate for trustee the opportunity to introduce themselves to a live (and virtual) audience and answer questions submitted by voters. There are three candidates running for two trustee seats this year. They are, in the order they will be listed on the ballot, Ocean Avenue parent Amanda Cascio, who is running for the first time, as well as incumbents David Badanes and Donna McNaughton.
Amanda Cascio is a homemaker and mother to four children (two currently in elementary school and two joining the district in 2024). She first started coming to meetings in June 2022, when she had safety concerns and, unlike the two other candidates, is in favor of armed guards inside of schools. She is also opposed to the current budget.
Dave Badanes moved to Northport 26 years ago and has been a board member for 11 years; his two daughters graduated from the high school. Badanes decided to run again this year because of what’s at stake: the hiring of a new superintendent, the possible selling/leasing of three district buildings, and the “LIPA cliff,” which has been reducing the amount of revenue the district receives during the seven-year glidepath. “I have and will continue to be an independent voice on the board,” he said in his opening statement.
Donna McNaughton grew up in Northport and is a district graduate. She’s mother to four children who also went to school here. A current trustee, McNaughton has missed only two board meetings since 2004; she too wants to be part of hiring a new superintendent and hopes to help guide the community and district through times of challenge. Like Badanes, she supports the school budget.
Tuesday’s forum lasted two hours and addressed issues from fiscal responsibility to book banning, curriculum and armed guards. An overview of some of the candidates’ responses are below. You can request a link to view the forum in its entirety by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The candidates were asked to address what ways the district can show greater fiscal responsibility, especially in the current financial environment with inflation impacting so many residents. Cascio said that she’d like to look into the district’s staffing needs versus student enrollment. She also noted in a question about continuing to fund unique learning opportunities, both curricular and extracurricular, that the district needs to consider making some difficult decisions. “I don’t know if that means we have to slash what’s available, but maybe get creative in how we offer those classes,” she said, noting combining class sections.
Badanes said that the district has had a 0% tax levy increase for the last three years, not counting this year, which holds a proposed 1.99% tax levy increase. Although it’s controversial, he said, he reiterated his belief that the district can eliminate a high school assistant principal position from the payroll. With the district’s declining enrollment, he said, there could be reductions in some administrative staff. The district should keep all programs, he added, because students benefit from them greatly, citing his two daughters as examples. McNaughton said that she approaches the budget as if it's her money: “I don’t want us to spend one penny more than we need to,” she said. The district should see an increase in state aid when the LIPA glidepath is complete, she added, and considered the possibility of benefiting from corporate donations. Regarding funding unique learning opportunities, McNaughton said that the NEN district is special because it has programs that can get every student excited about learning. She said that kids learn what they want to do as adults when they are offered such an array of programs and it’s something the district needs to hold on to in the years ahead.
Long-Range Financial Committee: $100 Million in Capital Projects
When asked to explain how the district would acquire enough money to address the $100 million in necessary capital projects projected by the Long-Range Financial Committee in November 2022, Cascio said that the district can look into utilizing bonds like it has done in the past. She also said that the repair projects would have to be prioritized to determine what needed to be addressed first. “Obviously $100 million in repairs would be almost our entire budget for this year, so that’s something that would be spread across a good chunk of time,” she said.
Badanes said that he wants to look into every item on the list of recommended projects and agrees that it needs to be prioritized. He said some projects, like roof repairs, are non-negotiable and will have to be dealt with.
McNaughton, who was a BOE liaison on the Long-Range Financial Committee, said that there are several ways to address acquiring funds for these projects. One option is a capital improvement plan where the district puts money from underspending into a fund meant for capital projects, another is to use funds from a budget transfer, which is what the district did in this year’s proposed budget to cover the costs of projects such as elementary school playgrounds.
Selling or Leasing School Buildings
When asked about their thoughts on selling or leasing the three vacant or underused district buildings, Bellerose Avenue and Dickinson Avenue elementary schools, and the Brosnan building, Cascio said that it may not be wise to sell all three buildings. She said doing so would offer a one-time lump sum, whereas leasing the buildings gives the district long-term income. She also noted that if the district experiences an unexpected uptick in enrollment, the building can be used again for students.
Badanes said first that district residents would be the ones to decide on selling or leasing the buildings with a public vote. He also noted that leasing has pros and cons, “as anybody who has been a landlord knows.” He said that if the public decided to sell the Brosnan building to Northport Village, the funds would go to all Northport-East Northport district residents, not just to those who live within the Village.
McNaughton is not in favor of selling all three buildings either. She reiterated that the decision to sell or lease will not come from the BOE, but from district residents. If she could imagine what she’d want, she said, she could see selling Bellerose to a type of business that would have hours similar to a school, such as a medical office, get a tenant at Dickinson, and rent Brosnan to Northport Village.
When answering a question regarding book banning and whether or not parents should be able to flag books based on personal opinion, the candidates had varying answers. Cascio said that it’s a no-brainer that school books should be age-appropriate: “I think parents should be able to voice their opinions about whether or not they feel a book selected for class reading is appropriate for their child. They should have some say in that.” She said that reading is personal and what individuals enjoy for themselves is not necessarily something that’s going to be widely accepted in the classroom.
Badanes disagreed, stating that he is a fierce first amendment advocate who does not believe in banning any books. “You don’t want to read a book, don’t read it. Simple as that,” he said. He also noted that books should be age-appropriate.
McNaughton did not advocate for banning books. “You pick books that are age-appropriate and it’s a learning opportunity,” she said; reading books is a team approach between both teachers and parents, with lessons to be learned. “Parents should be aware of what their kids are reading, and have an opportunity to have those conversations with their children,” she said.
When asked if parents should be able to withhold their children from specific curriculum subjects or topics, Cascio said that parents should have a hand in understanding the curriculum and the option to say that their children aren't ready for certain subjects. “We know our children. They are our children to guide and bring up, and we work in partnership with the school, and that’s important to remember,” she said.
Badanes said that public school is for the public, and both New York State and local school districts decide on classroom curriculums. He said that in some ways, the parents should have input, but they should not have veto power. He said it’s called “general education” because every student is exposed to the same topics in order to be a valuable person in society.
McNaughton said parents should be able to see class curriculums on the district website. If parents feel that something isn’t appropriate, that’s a decision that parents should be able to make.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
All three candidates shared similar beliefs on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Each expressed the importance of offering equal educational opportunities to every student. “Looking around our district, we definitely have a melting pot,” Cascio said. “Working to understand the different communities and cultures opens up more understanding.”
“I am a big supporter of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Badanes said – the district needs to ensure that everybody is getting the same opportunities and is included in the district offerings.
McNaughton said DEI means that every student counts, and everybody’s needs are different and should be addressed uniquely.
When asked how the district can better support students with disabilities and English Language Learners, Cascio said that the district needs to work with parents and school staff to get the proper diagnosis for students so that their needs can be addressed.
Badanes believes the district “can absolutely do better,” especially with English Language Learners. “We really need to reach out to that community,” he said.
McNaughton believes it’s important that the district really knows its students and understands their needs so that they can accommodate them. “It’s finding the obstacle and correcting that obstacle so that we can give them the direct services they need,” she said.
Security and Armed Guards
When asked to discuss their beliefs and ideas on school security and armed guards, Cascio expressed her interest in hiring armed guards. So far, the district has taken all the security measures that it could, she said, and should require additional active shooter training and hire armed security, which can look “a lot of different ways.” She said that during an active shooter situation, “shutting down the situation as quickly as possible” is critical.
Badanes is opposed to hiring armed guards because, he stated, the research does not suggest that armed guards and SROs (School Resource Officers) act as a deterrent. “Now, if some new research came out tomorrow and showed something else, of course I’d be open to it,” he said – the district needs to look at facts as they come along, he said, adding that some research suggests that having armed guards can have a negative effect.
McNaughton said that in 2018, she voted against arming district security guards, noting that the board can’t be responsible for whether or not someone would use their weapon appropriately. “To me, it’s a law enforcement issue. I’m willing to harden everything that we can, but the idea of putting somebody inside the building, I would never agree to that. If there was an SRO (School Resource Officer) specially trained that never went inside the building, I’m open to exploring that, but I want to do everything else to make [the buildings] less attractive.”
For additional information on each candidate, the candidate mailer sent out by the district can be viewed here. The budget vote and election of trustees will take place on Tuesday, May 16, from 6am to 9pm. For links to the proposed budget and useful voter information, including where to vote, click here. The Northport Journal’s last article on the proposed budget can be found here.