School board candidate interviews

Lenny Giardino

Mary Davis

Karen Fontana

Jennifer Geiger

Ken Metz

On Tuesday, Rome school district voters will fill three seats on the Board of Education from an unusual field in this year’s election. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The field includes two candidates on the ballot, and three prospective write-in candidates who filed nominating petitions but were not allowed on the ballot because a district mistake in posting the petition deadline caused them to miss the correct cut-off date.

Candidates on the ballot are Lenny P. Giardino and incumbent Mary O. Davis. Candidates whose petitions were rejected and have to run as write-ins include Karen C. Fontana; incumbent Jennifer A. Geiger; and Kenneth H. Metz.

All three seats are for three-year terms that begin July 1 and expire in July 2015. The board has nine seats overall, and members are not paid.

Candidates responded to questions from the Daily Sentinel in separate interviews between May 2-8. Replies are listed in the order that the names of Giardino and Davis will appear on the ballot, and in alphabetical order for the three prospective write-ins.

1. Age, address, current or previous occupation if retired, education and family?

GIARDINO: Age 45, of 1305 Cedarbrook Drive, he is a fatherhood advocate with Early Head Start, Healthy Families America in Madison County. He is a former teacher, in positions including the Camden school district among others. He has a master’s degree in teaching from Concordia University and an advanced graduate studies degree in educational leadership from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He is divorced, with four children in Rome district schools.

DAVIS: The 404 S. George St. resident is a retired educator who previously held various teaching and administrative positions for 34 years with the Department of Defense Dependents School system overseas. She currently is a bed and breakfast owner. She has two master’s degrees in education, from Michigan State University and the University of Maryland. She is single and has no children.

FONTANA: Age 56, of 6451 Emerald Circle, Town of Lee, she retired from the Rome school district last June after 30 years as a special education teacher, primarily at Strough Middle School. She has a bachelor’s degree in special education and elementary education from Buffalo State University; a master’s in reading (now called literacy) from Brockport State College; and a doctorate of education from Nova Southeastern University. She is married, with two grown sons and a daughter at home attending college.

GEIGER: Age 48, of 207 W. Sycamore St., she is a homemaker. She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Delaware, and worked in the banking field for several years, most recently as assistant branch manager at Cornell Federal Credit Union in Ithaca. She is married with four children, including three in Rome district schools.

METZ: Age 64, of 6445 Wager Drive, Town of Lee, he retired from the Air Force as a senior master sergeant after 23 years; among his positions was maintenance superintendent in the wide-band section for the 485th Engineering Installation Group at Griffiss Air Force Base. He has an associate’s degree from Mohawk Valley Community College in electrical service, and an industrial and commercial electricity certificate from MVCC. He is married, with two grown children.

2. Why are you running? What will be your priorities if elected?
GIARDINO: "I can contribute in a positive way to the district," noting his "experience from social work and education." He would like to "bring new fresh ideas" and "get people to come to school board" meetings more, including seeking to "open up the process a little more." He also would "like to see some empowerment of teachers," including more tapping of their input.

DAVIS: Seeking a fourth full term, she cited "peer and community pressure," including persons in the school district and the community who urged her to run. Priorities include "keeping track of budget issues," and "looking at the state and district requirements for improved curriculum to meet the needs of all students." She mentioned training issues, student achievement, reducing the dropout rate, and the board developing a 5-year strategic plan.

FONTANA: "I miss education," and working with students and teachers has been "a big part of my life." Her focus would be on curriculum, particularly English Language Arts, and educational policy. She participated in a district/teachers union educational policy committee, and would like to address the topic "from a different perspective."

GEIGER: Nearing the end of her first full term on the board, she wants the district to "provide the best education possible for every child in the district." The board "is ready to come up with long-term 5-year goals...for providing that each child achieves academic growth every year and their academic potential." Chair of the board’s finance committee, she feels "district finances are going to continue to need very careful management."

METZ: He frequently attends school board meetings, and would "not have to play catch-up." He is "involved enough in the school district to know pretty much what’s going on." He said the next board will set parameters for upcoming employee contract negotiations to replace agreements that expire in June 2013. He also noted challenges to "keep up with continual changes" in state requirements for education.

3. The 2011-12 District initiatives were unveiled at the beginning of the year, such as meeting the state’s New Common Core Learning Standards and the district’s Race to the Top goals such as higher graduation rates and improvements on state test scores. Are you familiar with them? What do you think of them? What do you think District Initiatives should be?

GIARDINO: Gov. Andrew Cuomo is "doing a good job" in seeking to improve districts including school aid incentives. But Giardino wants a closer look at such issues as the impact of poverty including the effect on "kids wanting to come to school," for instance "kids hungry...unprepared to come." He would like more collaboration with the city and county to measure the effectiveness of programs for such families.

DAVIS: District initiatives are closely tied to the state requirements, and it "becomes somewhat difficult" when the district tries to move forward based on state mandates, but "then we’re zapped with changes...over which we have no control." It "raises the level of anxiety" among district staffers and admininistrators, and "makes it appear as if we don’t know what we’re doing."
FONTANA: State standards previously had limited depth to allow for more specific teaching approaches, but Common Core standards are headed in a "positive direction." Regarding an "emphasis on high-stakes testing," she is "not a big fan" because it places "too much pressure on the kids" and the results also will affect teachers’ performance; she called for more focus on students’ overall improvement throughout the school year. She also called for more emphasis on helping 9th and 10th graders at academic risk, which can improve graduation rates.

GEIGER: They are "requirements from the state essentially," and "we need to think about how to do these in the context of a long-term strategy and plan for the district." The strategy "focuses on fueling growth for each child" so they can "reach full academic potential at each grade level."

METZ: The assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction has "worked very diligently on improvement of the core" and academic intervention measures. District efforts focus on "continued improvement," but also "keeping up with the changes" of state mandates, including ongoing needs to "go back and revisit" such categories as "updated training requirements." The state "needs to give it a break," and hold off on further changes "at least two years to let schools catch up."

4. Do you think it is important for board members to spend time in schools? Why or why not? How about superintendents?

GIARDINO: It is "absolutely true" regarding the importance of such a presence in school buildings, for such factors as enhancing security. He would expect their visibility in schools "to be a key component," adding "you need to have presence....Kids always observe their environment."

DAVIS: It’s "very important that school board members visit schools...not with an eye to check up on people but to be knowledgeable" on the effectiveness of staff training that the district provides. The superintendent, meanwhile, "absolutely" has to be in schools, including "shadowing their principals" to observe various procedures and note "what they saw" or "didn’t see" along with asking "why didn’t they see it."

FONTANA: It is important for board members to "see where the curriculum is," including efforts for each school to be on "the same page;" talking with teachers and students in schools "would help" in seeing "if priorities are being addressed." This also would apply to the superintendent. Such visits should be "not in a threatening way" but in a "collaborative and cooperative way."

GEIGER: The district "ideally should have a more open-door policy in every school and classroom," and it is a "culture shift for our district¿.One that should occur." There are "certainly opportunities" for board members, parents and guardians "to be in school." She would "like to see more opportunities¿on a more regular a less formal way."

METZ: Board members "should occasionally...observe teachers instructing," and should also be familiar with upcoming new guidelines for teacher evaluations. But regarding evaluations, "I don’t think it’s been defined yet" what board members’ responsibilities will be if a teacher does not meet new evaluation standards, along with "what part the superintendent will have."

5. What is your opinion of the district’s proposed 2012-13 budget, and what will be your vote on it?

GIARDINO: He "would vote ‘yes,’" based on what he has read about it. But more community feedback is important. He cited "lightly attended meetings," and "some confusion over semantics of the school budget" by the public.

DAVIS: Her "vote is ‘yes,’ no doubt." She thinks "we’ve done a...good job with the budget," noting it includes no layoff notices while retaining all programs. The board has looked at all "curricular and co-curricular" components including categories like sports, music and drama in compiling the budget.

FONTANA: Considering "all the obstacles" faced by the district, keeping the tax levy increase under 2 percent while basically maintaining programs "is commendable" and "not an easy thing to do." Her "vote will be ‘yes.’"

GEIGER: She "will vote ‘yes,’" calling it a "very responsible budget." She noted it has "no cuts in academic programs or extracurricular activities," and "no layoffs of personnel." It also includes "careful use" of the district’s fund balance and reserves, including a "lower use" compared to the current 2011-12 year.

METZ: He "will vote ‘no.’" He feels "you can’t pay today’s bills with next year’s savings," and "I still believe there’s extra money" that could be applied to current expenses, such as an estimated $300,000 gas and electric contract savings that the district intends to place in reserves. The district does "not look at the small things" in controlling spending, and "5,000 here, $10,000 there" can add up to "serious money."

6. Discuss your views about district educational programs. How would you revise them, if at all?

GIARDINO: He would like to ensure that sports, arts and other extra-curricular programs maintain a solid status, and he would "hate to see them stripped away." Children’s experiences in such programs are "sometimes why kids come to school," and can "bring success academically."

DAVIS: All programs need to be monitored, including whether students are meeting "Adequate Yearly Progress" requirements and steps needed if they are not. She does "not have a finite" revision plan, adding that it "comes with putting everything under a microscope" and then stepping back to "look at it objectively, rather than subjectively." She focused on how to make programs better for "kids...future learners," and answers will not come "until you actually dig in" to review them.

FONTANA: The K-12 curriculum especially English Language Arts "needs to be outined, shared, communicated," including input from teachers to help it "get in line with Common Core standards." She cited Strough’s ELA performance issues that have prompted state intervention, noting that future results will be affected by current progress at lower grade levels and "unless they’re all will be difficult to keep scores in line with what the state expects." She also mentioned the need to implement mandated "Response to Intervention" programs to assist K-4 students.

GEIGER: The district has "some very good programs and teachers," but needs to "find better make sure all students at every grade level achieve a year’s worth of academic progress each year." The district also needs to "make sure staff has opportunities to share . . . methods with each other." She would like "more communication at all grade levels" between parents, teachers and students regarding progress toward academic goals so that parents and guardians are able to help their child achieve them. She emphasized "collaboration and common goals."

METZ: The district is "on the right track for the lower grades," and "if you can get kids started in the right direction, that’s where they’ll go." But he cited "problems" at Strough Middle School, where a report from a state team is awaited. He would like to continue Advanced Placement courses now available, "if we can continue to afford them." He also wants more district recognition of achievements by Rome Free Academy students who are enrolled in BOCES programs.

7. Where do you think Strough Middle School students should be relocated while their building is undergoing a 2-year renovation?

GIARDINO: The New York State School for the Deaf would be a good option including being "centrally located," and he would like to see if the district "can work something out" on its feasibility for usage. He feels the NYSSD campus also has resources such as a track that could offer further benefits for Strough students.

DAVIS: She will not discuss her preferences until first hearing the recommendations, due in June, of an advisory committee of staffers, parents and residents. The board told them it wanted their feedback, and as a board member, "I need to...take as much of their can be...and put them into a plan for setting up that change."

FONTANA: Her preference was that it could have been "planned out before," and "a little bit of prior planning would have helped." Placing Strough’s 7th and 8th graders at Staley Upper Elementary School, which at one time hosted grades 7-9, is "probably the most viable option."

GEIGER: She will wait for recommendations from an advisory committee, due in June, before offering an opinion. She wants to "let the advisory committee process go forward," and feels it "will be successful¿.a solution will be found that has widespread support."

METZ: It is a "very complicated question." One widely considered plan calls for placing Strough’s students at Staley Upper Elementary School, while spreading Staley’s 5th graders among K-4 schools and placing its 6th graders at the former Fort Stanwix school. But he feels it would "hold up" the previously approved renovation of Joy Elementary School, by delaying Fort Stanwix’s availability for Joy students; that "shouldn’t happen," and "why are we superseding what we originally planned?" He is "still listening to ideas."

8. What steps do you feel should be taken to help offset further district funding concerns that are expected in the next 2-3 years?

GIARDINO: Upcoming employee contracts that expire next year and will be up for negotiation will be "critical for...long-term financial" issues. He suggested the district look further at possible "consolidation of services" with other districts. He also would like to review data on costs and aid for BOCES services; the district might be able to share some services "with districts close to Rome," and perhaps "pull back from BOCES" in certain categories or "in-house it ourselves" depending on the service and costs.

DAVIS: She mentioned the importance of the superintendent working with political officials locally and at the state level regarding school aid, including correcting discrepancies between upstate and downstate funding. The board must strive to "keep taxpayers from hurting," and be vigilant of local tax levy impacts.

FONTANA: Given the local tax levy limitations and ongoing expenses ahead, "something’s got to give." She suggested talking to other school boards to "see what creative ideas they’ve come up with" to help relieve the situation. She speculated that the statewide School Boards Association may organize a "consortium" for districts to explore issues. If cuts are necessary, programs that affect students need to "be at the bottom of the list," she said of expense categories that also include capital/buildings and administration.

GEIGER: She wants to make sure state elected officials "understand...and continue to be reminded" of Rome’s heavy reliance on state aid because it is a low-wealth district, and of the vital importance to receive a "reasonable increase in state aid every year;" otherwise the district will be harmed economically and educationally. She also wants to continue using the district’s fund balance carefully, and trimming expenses without harming education; for example, she cited savings from recent new gas and electric contracts, and from refinancing energy performance contracts.

METZ: He wants a breakdown of benefits paid to all employees, which "will be beneficial in all the contract negotiations;" it would be "more informative for...not only the school district but the union." He said "I don’t know for a fact, but I believe the benefits are probably the best in the county" among school districts, although emphasizing "I don’t have a list of all benefits."

9. In what ways could the community partner with the school district to further the academic achievement and success of our students?

GIARDINO: He would seek collaboration with community and municipal organizations on early development of children from "pre-natal to age 3," and if "you catch them early" in education-related exercises it could lead to "gains long-term." He suggested involvement with such groups as city parks and recreation, or Head Start. He also would like to expand character education efforts including parnterships with the city and county.

DAVIS: To "become more involved," people can "visit their schools" and visit classrooms, as well as "talk to the board." Taxpayers "need to realize we are open and available to them....We will certainly hear them." Parents should "come in and discuss their child’s progress...become more visible in schools" while going through appropriate channels; she also cited looking at "more ways to help children at home" educationally through parental involvement.

FONTANA: Community involvement especially with 9th and 10th graders will be "critical for working on...higher graduation rates." She suggested seeking local employers who might appear at school to help mentor at-risk students about jobs and help them improve academically, or businesses that might accommodate small student groups for a six-week program for instance. Other volunteers like retirees also might help students "work on literacy skills."

GEIGER: The "most basic way" is to vote in elections for the budget and school board members. In "more specific ways," as part of a long-term plan, she wants "opportunities for parents and community members to be more involved" in children’s education, but "not necessarily directly in the classroom." As an example of an "excellent program" that perhaps could be expanded, she mentioned a Rome Rotary reading program that involves volunteers coming into schools and reading with children.

METZ: Parents need to monitor their child’s progress in school and work closely with "or contact the teacher" regarding shortfalls in achievement. Parents need to accept responsibility in such areas as checking homework, and "if parents don’t get involved...I don’t see children succeeding." He also called for the public to "attend board meetings and identify any shortcomings they feel, to the board."

10. Do you have any relatives working for the district? How does that affect your judgment on board matters?

GIARDINO: He has a first cousin, Donna Guiliano, teacher aide at Joy Elementary School; second cousin, Lisa Guiliano, social studies teacher at Strough; and first cousin, Carol Meiss, teacher assistant at Denti Elementary School. He does "not see them regularly," and does not feel it would be a distraction for his board efforts.





11. Have you ever been charged with a crime, or ever declared bankruptcy?
GIARDINO: He declared a personal bankruptcy within the past two years, and said the case has concluded.