Along with the 2015-2016 budget and two propositions (one to purchase school buses and another to establish a capital reserve fund), Highland voters on May 19 will be asked to approve three candidates on the ballot for three seats opening up on the Highland Central School District Board of Education. Incumbents Debbie Pagano and Michael Bakatsias will run for second terms and newcomer Edward Meisel will run for the trustee seat being vacated by Mike Reid. The trustee positions carry three-year terms to begin July 1.
New Paltz Times recently asked the candidates for the Highland School Board what they feel the biggest challenges facing the school district are and what their priorities will be as trustees.
Currently finishing her first three-year term on the Highland Central School District BOE, this is the first elected position held by Debbie Pagano. A lifelong area resident, she graduated from the Marlboro Central School District, which currently employs her part-time as deputy treasurer. Pagano has resided in the Highland Central School District for more than 36 years, and has served as both its district treasurer and district clerk. Both of her sons have graduated from the Highland district.
Why did you decide to run again for the Highland School Board?
The past three years serving on the board has been a very positive experience for me. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished; we are a great team. It’s not to say that we always see eye-to-eye on every issue, but we respect each other and agree to disagree. We settled two major contracts, HTA (teaching staff) and HELPA (non-teaching staff), and with the support of the community we were able to get a much-needed capital project approved. I want to continue to be a part of the success of the Highland School District working side-by-side with the administration and staff.
What skills/experience/qualifications do you have that make you a competent member of the board?
I have over 30 years experience working in a school district and a BOCES business office. During those years I’ve held the positions of secretary, district clerk, district treasurer, bookkeeper and purchasing agent. Having held these positions I understand the difficult decisions that have to be made when adopting a budget.
What do you see as the top three challenges facing the Highland district at this time?
Keeping the balance of maintaining programs for our students, supporting our staff and keeping taxes down during a time when state aid is not stable. We are continuously facing unfunded mandates. Our lack of state aid impacts our ability to provide what we believe our students need. The gap elimination adjustment (GEA) — deduction — is hurting all districts. If our GEA had been eliminated, we would have many more options, including reducing our dependence on fund balance to offset the tax levy. Hopefully in the near future the government will realize that these reductions are hurting our students. They are entitled to a valuable education and [the government has] a responsibility to help fund it.
State mandated testing is a challenge that we are facing now. Many parents are choosing to allow their students to opt out, and it’s still unknown how this will affect the district; the federal regulations require 95 percent participation. Failure to comply with these requirements can subject schools to lose their Title I monies and funding under other federal programs.
Social media and cyber-bullying have also become an issue for school districts. Bullying is not a new problem, and being a victim of this myself when growing up, I am very much aware of the impact it has on our students. It not only hurts and reduces one’s self-esteem, it also has an impact on the learning aptitude of the student. Now technology has given bullies even more avenues to torment their victims. Highland has implemented many programs to educate our students and reinforce positive behavior. A PBIS program (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) is implemented in each building. The middle school held Diversity Day in February, the high school held an anti-bullying assembly for students last month and the elementary school PTA does several programs: Bully Busters in grade three, Puppet People in kindergarten and new for this year will be a BMX assembly [a professional bicycle stunt show combined with an anti-bullying message] in June for grade five. We have also reached out to our parents and community to help educate them on this topic; the high school hosted a parent night in March to provide them with resources and information.
What will be your top three priorities in your next term on the board?
My first priority is to continue to educate myself so I can make the best possible decisions, so Highland CSD can continue to be successful. My second priority is to work with administration to develop a long-term financial plan to keep the district in good financial standing. My third priority is to listen to the students, members of the staff and community, hear what their questions and concerns are, and work with both the board and administration to come up with the best possible solutions acceptable to all.
Michael Bakatsias is finishing his first three-year term on the Highland Central School District Board of Education; his first elected position. A lifelong area resident originally from Marlboro, he’s lived in Highland since 1996. The father of three sons is employed as an assistant superintendent for personnel and technology in the Marlboro Central School District.
“When I initially ran for the Board of Education, full of my goals and ideals, and knowing how overwhelming the time demands can sometimes be, I thought to myself, ‘I will pace myself and only get involved in high-stakes decisions,'” Bakatsias says. “How foolish I was, because as time went on, I realized that just about all the decisions made at that level are high-stakes decisions. I respect all those community members who volunteer their time, whether it be on school boards, town boards, parish councils, etc. Without these leaders, our communities would not move forward. Therefore, with a much deeper understanding of the board’s role and a deep respect for the work, I ask the Highland community to support me as a Board of Education trustee for three more years.”