By LIZ BUTTON
Challengers Blake Jines-Storey and Jason Mehler demonstrated very different approaches at this year’s Rye City School District Board of Education candidate forum when they faced-off with incumbent Karen Belanger.
At the May 8 question-and-answer showcase sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Rye, Rye Brook and Port Chester, Jines-Storey’s answers positioned him as a keeper of the board’s status quo, while Mehler’s positioned him as a reform candidate.
Jines-Storey, chief technology officer of Zachy’s Wines International, agreed with Belanger, who is running to keep her seat, on a number of questions posed by the league, and the two exchanged several compliments throughout the debate.
Mehler, a real estate agent who has twice run unsuccessfully for a spot on the Rye City Council, took a different point of view, decrying the board’s financial decisions in the face of this year’s $3.8 million budget deficit and what he sees as the district’s poor treatment of teachers.
Mehler is married to fourth grade Osborn School teacher Carin Mehler, one of four teachers who were reassigned after allegations of “improper coaching” on state tests came to light in May 2013.
Mehler said the treatment of the reassigned teachers opened his eyes to problems within the district. He criticized the board’s use of funds to hire temporary leave replacement teachers and mounting legal fees spent on investigating the allegations.
Mehler said, while there are some issues, such as rising pension costs, over which the board has no control except via advocacy on the state level, he will work to stop financial mismanagement where he can.
“What I will do [as a board member] is everything possible to stop the waste, keep our taxes lower, never cut programs, try to never cut services, respect parents, taxpayers, students and respect our teachers; we have the very best in Rye, and we must never forget that,” Mehler said.
Jines-Storey declined to speculate on the issue of the reassigned teachers and other board issues he said would require more data for him to render a fully-informed opinion, but expressed his desire to join the current school board and begin learning as much as he can.
“The more information I have, the better I can be,” he said, touting the “new voice” he could bring to the board’s current composition.
When it comes to solving budget problems, Jines-Storey said while he did not know the current academic or extracurricular programs that have been “cut to the bone,” once he has more information, he will take “a reasonable, thoughtful approach” to any decision he makes, with an eye toward preserving the district’s superior educational programs.
Seeking election to her second term, Belanger, who has a background in management consulting and an MBA and has served on the board’s audit and finance committees, said while she has focused her advocacy efforts on unfunded state mandates and Common Core curriculum testing issues, her every day on the board is consumed with issues specific to Rye schools.
When it comes to one of these issues—testing—Mehler said if elected, he would call for the state to institute a three-year moratorium on Common Core Learning Standards-based testing. All teachers are now just teaching to take the test, he said, and education needs to move away from that model.
Belanger and Jines-Storey praised the essential data-driven basis of the Common Core curriculum, but criticized the implementation of the test’s rollout last year. Both touted increased professional development as a way to help educators adjust to teaching to these new higher standards.
During the debate, Belanger also drew attention to her “very successful relationship” with the current administration under Superintendent Dr. Frank Alvarez, her work on this year’s budget with Assistant Superintendent of Business Gabby O’Connor as a member of the finance committee, and her strong working partnerships with current board members.
“We don’t always agree all the time, but we do believe in our hearts that we are putting the kids first, and we can agree to disagree on that basis and argue things out with that expectation,” Belanger said.
Mehler, who has his differences of opinion with the current board, said he could still work with its members.
“I would look forward to working with all board members. I feel like the qualities I have and the type of person I am will be an asset to this board and I look forward to working on issues,” he said.
While Belanger is finishing up her first three-year term, the other seat up for grabs this year will soon be vacated by Edward Fox, who is a three-term board member.
Carin Mehler and Milton third grade teacher Dana Coppola recently filed a lawsuit against the board and members of the administration in connection with the reassigned teachers issue; Fox is the only current board member not named in the suit.
The public will choose candidates and decide whether or not to pass the board’s $79.3 million tax cap compliant budget on May 20.