MERRITT ISLAND, Florida - Three candidates have currently filed to run for the Brevard School Board, District 2 (which encompasses Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island and portions of Cocoa). Brevard Times submitted the same four questions to each candidate – with a 150-word limit for each answer. The election will be held on August 26, 2014.
1 - Do you support the referendum for a ½ penny sales surtax to fund the capital budget? Why or why not?
John W. Craig - I support a sales surtax for a four to six year period with stringent oversight by a committee of non-partisan community members. Since the administration has not provided the language for the ballot initiative or a defined plan for oversight, I do not know if I will support the actual proposal come November.The current BPS financial situation is tenuous, with long-term debt service requirements creating a shortfall in the capital budget. We cannot compromise the health and safety of our children and teachers. We must provide a proper learning environment or we are failing our primary mission. A sales surtax will provide revenue required to repair our infrastructure and give us some breathing room while a new School Board creates a long-term strategic plan for fiscal solvency.
Robert A. Mentillo - Financially our school district seems to be in dire straights. But the current leadership has shown a lack of ability to properly spend the money they have. So giving them more does not seem like a good idea, unless the money is allocated to a specific need for a specific time. Or the leadership is changed. Or both. We have a huge debt and our needs are growing faster than the money provided by the state. We need to work on getting the state to better fund our schools, and they are not willing to do that at this point. We need to work on that too. I believe the school district should specify that this money be spent on debt reduction and matched by district level cuts, not school level cuts.So, I support the ½ penny sales tax if certain stipulations are met.
Keith Yarbrough - Whether or not the surtax passes is totally dependent on the level of trust that Brevard citizens have in its school board. At present, that level is extremely low and the superintendent and board have no one to blame but themselves.
2 - The latest budget cut list for FY 2014-15 has 25 items and saves almost $18 million dollars. Would you change any priorities on that list?
Craig - The potential cut list is focused entirely on areas that directly affect children and teachers in the classroom. I’d like to see a more balanced approach with District level cuts leading the list before any classroom items. We need to reevaluate how BPS operates and look for efficiencies using sound business practices. An example is a needed reevaluation of the employment relationship with the BPS attorney. This individual works as a consultant and is paid hourly for his services. Negotiating a service contract or hiring a full-time staff attorney could save several hundred thousand dollars.As for the current list, I would remove number 18 (Increase Class Sizes to Move Toward School Wide Average – Eliminate 10 Annual Contract Teachers). We cannot afford to eliminate teachers and we cannot ignore the state class-size law. I also would move number 12 (Elementary Strings elimination) to at or near the bottom of the list.
Mentillo - Several. I think we need to look at what programs we had 7 years ago when we were one of the top 5 school districts in the state and then take a hard look at everything we have added since then. That should be the starting point of this list.The biggest missing item I see on this list is that not a single high-level administrator is on it. The district leadership has mandated that secondary teachers work an additional 15% without pay. That means that at the district level you should reorganize with two less departments. Our current leadership has not been willing to do this. We have added several “teachers” to the district payroll. In our current situation is this really necessary?
Once you take these steps it is more palatable to address school level issues.Yarbrough - Our current board believes that it is philosophically and ethically correct to eliminate teaching positions and as a result, increase class size. I disagree because not only is such an approach wrong educationally, but it is in clear and deliberate violation of the Class Size Amendment.
3 - The current budget cut list for FY 2015-16 contains school closures, outsourcing custodial services and pay-to-play for sports. If this had to be implanted, do you agree with those priorities? Do you believe that a list of potential specific school closures should be made public as part of budget negotiations?
Craig - I believe school closures are an absolute last resort. BPS still owns and maintains the facilities that were closed last year. And there is no report of the real savings achieved nearly a year later. Closing a school for self-inflicted budgetary issues sends a clear signal to individuals and companies looking to relocate – that BPS can’t properly manage its’ money. As the Brevard economy evolves with new jobs and strong economic development, a strong and financially sound public school system is critical. And those closed schools may very well be needed in the near future.Outsourcing custodial services needs further examination using a projected services model and savings analysis compared with potential negatives. On the face, I believe a well-constructed request for proposals will produce competing bids for evaluation and a determination of suitability for BPS can come from that process. In addition, BPS needs to consult with other districts of similar size that outsource and study their lessons learned.
I am a huge fan of and proponent of scholastic athletics. I played organized sports through college and recognize the importance of these activities with regard to leadership, discipline and teamwork. These are not required activities though and I believe a participation charge used to offset program costs is appropriate in today’s environment. I also believe we need to foster more partnerships with the business community to offset these costs. A small participation charge combined with business and community support allows BPS to offer these important programs while not impacting the classroom.There needs to be complete transparency in all School Board dealings. If the Board is going to perform a closure analysis, then it is their responsibility to inform the public of those findings immediately.
Mentillo - I do not. Based on the list presented to the public, it is difficult to believe that this list was based on what is best for students. Closing schools should be based on student needs, not on arbitrary discussions. Closing schools that continue to be owned by the school district will not save enough money to offset the affect it has on students in those schools. Schools should be closed when student populations decrease dramatically or the school is no longer fit for students to use and renovating it is not cost effective. We have other areas we can address to save money before we close schools that are serving our students with excellence. There are several buildings being used to house district personnel, outside of the Educational Services Facility in Viera. We should look to close those down, move the personnel into existing and empty classrooms in the under-capacity schools instead of closing the schools. Look at the Psychological Services offices in Cocoa Beach, most of the people with offices there are only there for one day a week, they spend most of their time out in the school’s they service. Why can’t they have an office in an unused classroom, it has AC, Internet, phone and space? Makes more sense to relocate adults and close an office building than to move students and then fill that school with offices (Clearlake MS).In the last part of your question: if you need to close a school it should be made public – when and why.
Yarbrough - Our current school board has demonstrated that it will use school closures as an initial option in dealing with budget disarray. I disagree with this philosophy. This board has unfortunately developed a reputation for questionable and closed-door decision making. To hide specifics concerning future plans for closing schools is unacceptable.
4 - What is your opinion of the new Florida Standards?
Craig - Florida Standards are the law and the School Board is bound to uphold that law regardless of personal opinions on the subject. Much like the class size amendment, we cannot choose to ignore the law.I believe in the absolute best education for my children. I believe teachers are most effective when they are allowed some leeway in how they translate their subjects to students and that strict guidelines are often detrimental to the overall learning process. If Florida Standards offer teaching methods and resources that improve the educational experience for my children, then I don’t really care what it is called or the politics behind it. My concern is that the state has built the testing model before outlining the actual curriculum process and doing due diligence on the product. And the state has not provided the appropriate funding for implementation at the local level.
Mentillo - I support having a standard that teachers teach to. Sadly, that is not what the implementation of the Florida Standards is about. Some company is going to make lots of money selling standardized test, study material and remediation. Based on past experience with the state in these matters, the test will not be scrutinized by anyone outside of the company. What makes this so disconcerting is that the College Board has proven a method, over time, of how to give standardized tests, how to grade them and how to make sure they are truly assessing what you want them to. FCAT did none of these things, and from what I have heard, neither will this new set. The new standards themselves are just that, standards, a guide for teachers. These standards want the students to think, to go deeper into concepts, that is what teachers want for their students also.Yarbrough - I am a firm and relentless believer in local control of our public schools.