Upward s to the vanguard

Six new paltz school board candidates explain reasons for running

by Mike Townshend
April 29, 2010 03:16 PM | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
May 18’s New Paltz Board of Education race has shaped up to be one of the most crowded in recent memory. With incumbent David Dukler having bowed out, a full six candidates will run for two empty seats.

Here’s a little more about each person:

Michael Swigart

Michael Swigart, 53, never got to serve more than his first term on the school board, having been defeated by Steve Greenfield in a surprise upset. He sat on the board from 2005 to 2008, during the lead up to the current middle school renovation vote.

The one-term board member paid the price at the polls for his criticism of the probable expense of renovating the 1930s-era building.

“What I kept telling anybody who would listen was that renovation -- you never know what you’re getting into until you open up the walls,” Swigart said. Although he eventually voted to move forward and explore renovation, he did so begrudgingly and to make sure the school board cast a unanimous vote.

The master in finance said he’d like to see a little more common sense and fiscal restraint on the school board. Putting up a nearly $50 million construction bond during a severe recession is proof enough. “You’ve got to be a little out of touch to do this. The school board took for granted this community’s generosity.”

Swigart has more than 21 years of experience in construction lending, and currently works as a parking manager for Stewart International Airport. He’s heading back to SUNY to become certified in school district business management.

Outside of his work, and his studies, Swigart is an active volunteer with the Boy Scouts and has been a Scout master. He also volunteers as a donation counter for St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in New Paltz.

The top issue he thinks the schools face is balancing the needs of students with tough finances. But Swigart hopes to find out-of-the-box ways to overcome that challenge, such as bringing in SUNY New Paltz education majors to help in the classroom for experience in student teaching. Switching to larger, lecture-sized classes for high school juniors and seniors would save money and prepare kids for college.

He’d also like to see the school board dig into a renewed look at the middle school, albeit one that considers what to do with all the rest of the school buildings, and ultimately find a plan “that the community can live with.”

Communication is also a big issue for Swigart, who feels like the school board sometimes gets misled when a wave of self-motivated stakeholders take the microphone en masse and call for change. For instance, 800 people signed a petition calling for renovating the middle school back in 2008, but in the end more than 2,500 voted against the project. The voice that the school board heard at that time was that of the people who wanted a green renovation, Swigart added.

“I think one thing I would change is how we put information out to the public,” he said. Swigart would push to get the school board to fully communicate their plans so nobody is taken by surprise by a middle school-type project.

Swigart has three children, and all of them went through New Paltz’s public schools. His youngest son is about to graduate from SUNY New Paltz.

Julliet Coxum

Julliet Coxum, 39, feels like she has a duty to make sure that school administrators retain quality in the New Paltz schools.

“I decided to run because I feel it’s my civic duty, with everything that’s going on,” she said. She also wants to make sure that everyone gets a quality education, but she wants to make sure “we do that responsibly.”

While she hasn’t run for elected office before, Coxum has been an active volunteer, working on the SUNY New Paltz alumni board, and sitting on the Mid-Hudson Multicultural Committee. She’s also a member of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, a service organization started with an aim of furthering black women’s progress in America.

Coxum is also a member of the Concerned Parents of New Paltz, a group which strives to make sure minority students and their families are treated with respect.

New Paltz Central High School “is pretty good and it’s top on the list.” Coxum feels like her candidacy is a mission to make sure that the high school -- and all the other schools -- continue to top just about every list there is and remain a source of quality education.

“We certainly want the best for our students,” she explained. “But we also have a community and we need to create a balance.”

She thinks that the school board can create that balance between what’s good for taxpayers and what causes students to excel.

As an employee of the New York State Center of School Safety, Coxum works specifically with youth development. One of her interests and jobs has been in promoting afterschool activities in districts. Extracurricular activities keep kids out of trouble and off the street and they should be preserved.

While the school does have a problem in that it gets most of its money from local property taxes, Coxum said she’d push for the board looking for grants and other sources of revenue. “We need to take a look at what are the other opportunities out there for funding.”

With a strenuous budget cycle fresh off the defeat of the New Paltz Middle School renovation project, Coxum said she felt it was a passionate time of the year. “I think that New Paltz is in an uproar.”

Coxum feels that she could bring a personal history of proven leadership to the board if she were elected. Previously, she’s been an adjunct professor at SUNY and has also worked as a mediator. Right now, she’s the co-chair of the First World Alumni at the college.

Coxum has two children, one at the high school and one at the middle school.

Dominick Profaci

Dominick Profaci, 42, has never run for elected office before, but he’s running to try to strike a balance between taxpayers’ needs and academic programs. “I think there’s a lot of great people on the board, but with my personality I think I’ll bring a levelheaded approach to the board,” he said.

Profaci said he never really wanted to get involved in politics. “I’m not political,” he explained.

He’s one of the community members lured in by New Paltz’s massive public debate over the future of the middle school, but Profaci just never stopped attending the meetings. When board President David Dukler urged members of the public to run for school board, the financial advisor heard the call and decided to put his name into the hat.

“I really took that to heart,” he said of Dukler’s message.

Previously, Profaci has worked as an engineer, but right now he works as a financial advisor with Edward Jones.

“I’ve been in roles where I’ve been a problem solver,” he said. “We’ve got a real problem with how we’re funding our school systems.”

While the buck ultimately rests in Albany for how the state’s schools receive money, Profaci thinks that the school board should take a more active role in lobbying lawmakers for progressive changes. He also thinks that the board can and should get the public interested in helping with that goal.

Outside of the ever-present question of financing, the integrity of classroom learning is at stake. Profaci wants to find a way to keep New Paltz’s top-rated schools running efficiently and effectively -- without dismantling education. “All I’ve heard about is cuts from the school board.”

But in with tightening down, making sure that resources are well used and protecting education, the candidate wants to see New Paltz stay competitive globally.

With five opponents to face, Profaci said he thought the interest in a school board seat was a sign of the times. “We’ve come into a real difficult situation financially. Nobody wants to see our school system dismantled.”

Like Swigart, Profaci has also worked as a volunteer with the Boy Scouts, where he served as a regional committee chairman for four years. “That was a great experience,” he said.

When asked what the administration should change, Profaci said he didn’t know offhand, thought that the schools seemed to be running smoothly now, but he’d like the chance to get into the system and get an insider’s perspective.

He has three children -- all of whom are currently attending schools in New Paltz. Two of his children are attending the middle school and one is at the high school.

MaryAnn Tozzi

MaryAnn Tozzi, 42, has never before run for public office. But with everything going on in New Paltz, including a middle school needing repair and taxes hitting their peak, Tozzi decided to get involved.

She ran because she worried that nobody might step up and go for a school board seat, and Tozzi also didn’t want people to have more of the same. “Last time I read the paper, there was two spots and nobody was running,” she said.

Tozzi, a lunch lady in a local school district, said she felt like the working class has an especially muted voice on the school board.

“I don’t think that the people in the community are represented,” she said. “I don’t think they’re in touch with the actual people in this community.”

Nobody who has well-established roots spanning generations in New Paltz should feel like they’re on the verge of being run out by sky-high taxes. Homeowners shouldn’t be living in fear of tax day. Tozzi said she’d like to fight for people in that situation.

One goal that the district has had is to bring disenfranchised students back into the fold. That’s something that Tozzi doesn’t think schools do well enough. She has one son who’s already graduated from the high school and a daughter in sixth grade. But with what she hears from her own kids and the students she sees at work, schools are definitely letting some children drop through the cracks.

“I talk to the students daily,” she said. “I know what they go through. I know what I see.”

The school district also has a responsibility to find ways to work within its own means -- even if their purse is shrinking. “They’re not looking at it realistically. This is what you have to work with,” she said.

Tozzi would like the administration to be more realistic about how it spends money. However, she did praise the job of the superintendent and her staff. “Maria Rice makes good money, and she’s worth every penny of it.”

When asked why she thought so many people were running, the school employee said that it was people’s desire to be a part of the process and offer choice to voters. In 2008, the race was a shoo-in after then-President Rod Dressel dropped out of a bid to run for re-election. That cemented Don Kerr, KT Tobin Flusser and Daniel Torres’ wins.

Bob Rich

Bob Rich, 48, might have a familiar name. That’s because he served on the school board from 1997 until 2002, spending one year as the vice president and one as the president. He might not have been behind the board table for the middle school, but Rich served during the high school renovation project.

Voter choice is one of Rich’s big motivations to run. Last year, a three-seat election only saw three candidates running. “I didn’t want there to be no choice. That’s just not healthy.”

But the middle school renovation, and the $50 million project’s ultimate failure at the polls, also got the ex-president out there gathering signatures for a run. “I became really uneasy with the reaction to the middle school,” he explained.

With his previous experience on the high school renovation, Rich said the failed middle school proposal was the victim of wishful thinking. “It may have been unrealistic to think that the middle school project was fully vetted.”

Fear also seems to have guided the school board during the budget process -- the fear of another middle school-esque failure. “It was a lean, frugal budget. And the first one was scrapped out of hand.”

Rich praised the work of administrators, saying that “the school district definitely isn’t spending money like water.”

The issue of most importance to the former Board of Education trustee was money and how the district is using it. “You have a justifiable concern out there with the cost,” he explained.

School board members will have to do what they can, but they face stiff uncontrollable circumstances -- a system that requires many, many staff members -- which makes up the bulk of the budget. All those people get raises and year after year it adds up. “It’s been a problem everywhere for awhile. New Paltz has been generous.”

People who voted against the middle school didn’t just do so for one reason. People wanted it greener, people didn’t want to pay for taxes, people wanted a comprehensive look at all the buildings and some wanted a brand new building.

“I think a lot of the people who voted no are traditionally people who vote yes for the budget,” Rich said. Taken all together, that has given the current board a misconception about what people want from the school budget.

One way to address the big picture is to create a full-scale plan for how to deal with all the structural failings of each building -- some of which has been done, but people need to know that. “Some of the people who voted no had a point.”

An attorney by trade, Rich originally set out to be a teacher and feels that his knowledge of education and previous board service make him a good candidate. “Just bringing that is helpful. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

When he isn’t defending doctors who have been accused of malpractice, he has also volunteered as a member of Kingston Medical Board, and serves on his church council. He also helped in both the Hasbrouck Park playground project and the playground project at Duzine Elementary School.

Rich has two children -- one is in college now, but the other is in seventh grade at New Paltz Middle School.

Edgar Rodriguez

Edgar Rodriguez, 62, will make his third run of the school board this May. Previously, he ran in 2006, but lost and ran again in 2007 -- ultimately winning with 780 votes.

In the lead-in to the middle school vote, Rodriguez was the one board member to vote against putting the renovation question on the ballot for a special vote in February. He felt then that the project would have created too great a strain on the pocketbooks of local voters.

But the move also made him somewhat of a lone wolf, and gained him some critics from the Board of Education itself and got him flak from former allies KT Tobin Flusser and Steve Greenfield.

“I did and continue to experience verbal abuse because of my outspoken positions on important matters of public educational policies,” he said. “However, I am committed to completing my campaign platform from 2007 when I was first elected to the school board. My work on the board is a continuation of my life work, and I do not see it as a problem, but as an opportunity to make change and to always be learning something new about education and the political process.”

Admitted to New York University in 1968 on a special scholarship, months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Rodriguez feels he has a personal mission to make sure that minority students receive the same opportunities as their white counterparts.

“I will continue addressing issues of racial, social and economic justice in our local school district for years to come with the support of the community,” he said.

Local and state school tax reform is something Rodriguez feels passionately about, and he’d like to see the district get more involved in lobbying Albany for change. “At the local level, I will promote responsible school spending and school tax levy increases, which find a balance between the needs of the students and taxpayers while maintaining excellent academic programs.”

He’d also like to see the schools fully maintain all of their buildings, thereby ensuring the health and safety of workers, teachers and students. But any building work needs to keep taxpayers in mind, and appreciate their limits.

“The school district needs to respect the overwhelming decision of the voters not to rebuild the middle school at a time of financial instability,” he said.

Rodriguez, who has been a steady advocate of shared decision-making committees, said he’d still push for the schools to include more meaningful public input -- especially through committees that bring in parents and community members.

Another issue at the schools is drugs and alcohol abuse, something he thinks should be addressed right away. He urged the district to “stop the denial.”

The retired college professor has also been an active volunteer in the community. Rodriguez had served on the Elting Library Board, and he’s been active in the PTAs from the elementary schools, as well as the high school’s scholarship committee.

Rodriguez has been an advocate of fiscal restraint on the Board of Education.

His three children all went through the public schools in New Paltz, but prior to that in the 1970s, he helped raise three of his extended family members and helped them through the school system too.

If re-elected, Rodriguez said he thought his past as an education professor, with his specialization in teaching English as a second language, would continue to bring knowledge and experience to the Board of Education.

The vote

Besides their ability to select new board members, voters will also get to approve or disapprove the proposed $48.8 million budget for 2010-2011.

Also on the May 18 ballot is the question of whether or not buses will be replaced this year. New buses would run approximately $300,000.

The two people lucky enough to win the Board of Education seats will serve a term lasting until 2013.

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