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Hewlett-Woodmere School Board Candidate: Melissa Gates

Current Central Council PTA co-president seeks one of three seats.

On May 15, School District 14 residents will vote on a $105 million budget, as well as choose three school board candidates in an at-large election. Melissa Gates is one of four people seeking a seat. The following is the questionnaire put to all candidates by the Hewlett-Woodmere Central Council PTA.

How long have you lived in the district and are/were you a parent of a child in the public schools?

I have lived here 11 years with my husband and children but I grew up here in District 14. I have three children. I have one in college, an eighth grader at WMS, and an 11th grader at HHS. They all attended Ogden, but only my girls attended FECC since we moved here when my son was in third grade.

What particular experiences or skills qualify you to serve as a school board member?

I have been involved in education in one form or another for over twenty years. Although I have a bachelor of science in business administration I had continued on to get my masters in education but then married and moved out of that state I was living in and never completed it. Still, over the years, I have worked at an after school program, taught music, piano, and drama and taught pre-school and Mommy and Me. I have worked as a parent advocate for CPSE and CSE committees in another school district and I have advocated for all children in my various PTA roles for 17 years. 

I already have a good understanding of our district and a good working relationship with everyone here having been on many district committees including Site Based,  Professional Development, and Wellness, to name a few. I am currently in my third year as co-chairperson of the district PTA Curriculum Committee and co-president of Central Council. I believe that I am very approachable and keep an open ear and an open mind while always having the best interests of the children at heart. I work hard for the children and the community without any personal agenda.

What do you see as the major issue(s) facing our school district?

I think that the most important issue facing our district is one that faces all school districts at the moment, which is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to educate children properly because of legislation and mandates passed by politicians whose first priority may not be the education of our children. It is the duty of a board of education to give our children the tools to reach their potential, achieve their goals, and go out into the world confident enough to define their own meaning of success while keeping our taxpayers’ pocketbooks in mind. 

Long Island as a whole is a very high achieving geographical area and the one-size-fits-all demands that are placed on districts now are detrimental to the quality of education here. That is not to say that there isn’t room for improvement or that everything is perfect. Districts should be allowed to build on what they feel works for their students without the intervention of politicians focused on short term perceived “fixes” to problems that may or may not exist in a particular district. At this point, Nassau County has shifted the burden of their financial woes onto the backs of our children without any real savings to the taxpayers and this is not acceptable.

What do you see as the greatest strength of Hewlett-Woodmere schools?

We truly have a caring and supportive community of parents, teachers, administrators and residents who want what’s best for our children. I have seen our community in action first hand when there is an issue that needs to be raised or a family in need that needs our support and kindness.

One particular strength which speaks to the current budget being presented is the current board and administration’s ability to look ahead and do some long range planning in order to preserve the programs for our students that our community values. Due to unfunded mandates and because of the economy many schools have had to get rid of many programs that directly affect their students. There are districts that are closing some of their schools and getting rid of music and sports. Due to long range planning we are in a much better position than a lot of our neighbors in Long Island.

What do you see as the greatest weakness in our district and what would you do to change it?

I believe that our district needs to improve their communication with parents and the community. Rumors often abound. People often feel the need to demand transparency. This year, a board of education page has been added to the district website but I think we can still do more. In this day and age, mostly everyone is connected to the World Wide Web. We need to utilize emails more in an effort to go green and in order to inform the community of anything of note … I’m not talking about PTA e-mails but communications from the teachers, schools, board of education, and superintendency alike.

The district already pays for an automated phone tree message system … we need to use it more. I don’t think there is any such thing as too much information. If someone gets a call or an email they are not interested in they can hang up or delete it. It is as simple as that.

What changes, if any, should be made in the district’s budget?

At the moment, I have not heard of any cuts that should be reversed nor could I make any suggestions for cuts.  There is so much in the district’s budget that the district has no control over due to unfunded mandates, increase of living costs, and previously negotiated contracts. The budget that is being presented includes two administrative positions that are being cut. There are additional staffing cuts that do not translate into loss of programs for the students. 

There are some changes to the special ed programs which will allow for some students to return to the district which can be a positive thing. A new co-teaching model for one team in every grade at the Woodmere Middle School is a change for next year. The elementary level special ed students are being moved from Ogden to Hewlett Elementary. These can all be positive changes if the district is able to service these students properly and can provide a solid transition plan. There needs to be a watchful eye on all of these changes but I would not necessarily say they shouldn’t be done.

The bottom line is that this is a responsible budget. We must always be mindful of what our taxpayers can bare while always continuing to look for ways to improve the education of ALL of our students.

Is there any other information you would like to share about yourself or your goals?  What would you like the community to know about you?

I have been an advocate for children for many years. I have always hoped that people saw me that way as opposed to a party platter toting PTA mom or as the president of that organization that is constantly fundraising and asking for money because I have done so much more than that! I am not afraid to ask questions and I am certainly not afraid to speak my mind.

I have several goals. The most important one being preserving what is good here but always looking to improving the quality of education that our students receive to restore our reputation as a high performing school district. I also would like to help foster a better relationship between our community and the board. I would like the community to feel that their input is welcome and desired and would like for everyone to feel that their concerns are being heard.

I believe the board needs to take more responsibility for what goes on in the district and although a board of education does not get in to the minutiae of the everyday I plan to be involved and well informed. The board needs to do some leading instead of following at both the local and state level. I believe I can do that. 

Note: One of Central Council Presidents’ responsibilities is to help publicize information on the board of education candidates either through a Candidate’s Night or a questionnaire. All information coming out of Central Council this year regarding the candidates and budget has been handled by Central Council Co-President, Mitchell A. Greebel only. There will be no Candidate’s Night due to scheduling restraints. The questionnaire used this year is the same one that was used in the last two (2) contested elections with a few minor changes developed in consultation with all the unit presidents. The responses were written by the candidates first hand with no editing or changes other than to consolidate and format the information here. The answers are provided here in the order that the candidates will be on the ballot. The order was chosen by lottery pick, which was conducted by the district clerk and witnessed by a district security guard. By law, the lottery is held the day after the petitions are submitted.

Gil Seidman May 09, 2012 at 01:17 PM
I am unable to sell my house because of the taxes which are over $18,000. Prospective buyers who like my house are unwilling to pay those taxes and look in other districts with less taxes and whose students do just as well on standarized tests. The mentality of superintendents, school board members, teachers and parents who have students in the school is, that by spending more, we get a better product. That is not the case. We get educators with higher salaries and pensions, bigger buildings and fields and homeowners who are being forced out of their houses. Someday , parents with kids im school who vote up the budgert will want to sell their house and will see how shortsighted their actions are. We need to clean house and find people who run our schools with a different mentality.
melissa gates May 09, 2012 at 03:19 PM
We certainly do pay too much in taxes. Unfortunately, our district does not see all of that money. Because of various tax formulas we actually get only a percentage of what we pay in...this is a problem. I believe that the Board has a tremendous fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers in the community. Especially in this economy, we need to look for cost effective ways to educate our students, and educating them means more than just having them perform well on standardized tests. Over 20 test questions were thrown out AFTER the students took the math tests this year because there was either more than one correct answer, a correct answer was not given as a choice, OR the question was invalid because there was no possible answer at all. And don't even get me started on the Pineapple debacle (also another question that was thrown out after the test was administered) on the ELA test. Spending more will not fix this...and there is no intent to spend more. We have to always look for ways to educate better, keep taxes to a minimum, but fight to get what is our fair share. There is so much to be done on so many levels...
Mark Cohen May 10, 2012 at 02:29 AM
Can you explain in detail what you mean when you say "our district does not see all of that money [collected from taxes]" ? Each of us get a School Tax bill. We pay taxes to the Receiver of Taxes who is the only individual empowered by New York State law to collect 100% of the money owed - the Receiver's office then transferers 100% of what was due for each property to the school district. I do not understand how you can claim that Hewlett-Woodmere residents "certainly do pay too much in taxes" and then erroneously claim that the district "does not see all of that money" when you know quite well that it does.
Bojames May 10, 2012 at 10:41 AM
Also ask why we pay the taxes not paid by "clergy" under NYS Real Property Law 460. 34 UFSD #14 homeowners paid no school taxes this year. Over 40 get this exemption with average over $12,000 when the law states it should be $1,500.
Bojames May 10, 2012 at 10:45 AM
Part of your "fiduciary responsibility" should be to press our State and County reps to fix the flaw in the application of NYS Real Property Law 460, Clergy exemption, here in Nassau County which gives a minority of homeowners inflated exemptions as high as $14,963. Want more specifics write to clergyexemption@gmail.com
Bojames May 10, 2012 at 10:50 AM
Anyone concerned about high taxes should know that all exempted taxes are passed along to the rest of us. One exemption , NYS Real Property Law 460, is applied in a flawed manner in Nassau County ,resulting in a huge giveaway to a minority of homeowners. In UFSD #14 over 30 paid no school tax this year and others had huge ,undeserved exemptions ( the average is over $12,000). This has been going on for years. ask your BOE,State and County reps to fix it. More info? clergyexemption@gmail.com
melissa gates May 10, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Mark, thank you for the opportunity to clarify... I was referring to the amount of money that Hewlett-Woodmere gets from New York State, not how much of our local school taxes goes to our schools. Essentially, our income taxes go to fund the rest of the State's education systems...a very small amount comes back to us locally. If we got our fair share in state aid, we would not have to pay so much in our property taxes. What adds insult to injury are the things that the state requires us to pay for but then offers no provision on how to pay for them. Long Island schools make up 17% of the student population of New York and yet as a whole receives back less than 12% in aid. For the 2012-2013 School year, Hewlett-Woodemere alone will only receive 6.02% of it's total budget in State aid. There is another 2% in other revenues, but 92% of the district's total budget comes from us, the tax payers, in the way of property taxes. My point was that that if we could get the state to increase the amount of money they give us (out of our state income taxes), then the amount of money that would have to be paid in the way of local property tax levy would go down.
melissa gates May 10, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Bojames, to be honest, your question falls outside or my current purview and I am not aware of the specifics but I can comfortably say that the district only has influence over the total tax levy number for the district, not how it gets collected. The responsibility of assessment, and deciding how that levy gets distributed among the taxpayers falls to the county. It is correct to say that when one person pays too little another pays more...there is a finite amount of money that needs to be collected and when one person gets an abatement...that means another person's bill just went up! Now that having been said, the Board's fiduciary responsibility is to ALL taxpayers. I am really not sure it is appropriate to advocate for or against one particular group...just as it would not be appropriate to advocate for against any one particular homeowner.
Fred Usherson May 10, 2012 at 03:36 PM
I invite our district residents to visit my website FRED4HW.COM to see my ideas for improving the schools in our district.
E. Rollins May 10, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Fred - That is PATHETIC! The patch was gracious enough to give each individual candidate a forum to express their views and have a place for comments, but you have to come on and advertise your self-aggrandizing website on the other candidate's pages? You won't even answer questions in a public forum (or, from what I read, go to a board meeting) but you can come make these childish posts on another candidates profile? Shameful! I hope the voters take your behavior and lack of attendance at the district's meetings into account when they cast their votes. We need trustees with a real interest in serving our students and participating in the process, not someone who just wants to direct them to a self-aggrandizing website.
Fred Usherson May 11, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Milissa, Please stop the personal attackswe- might both get elected and we will be working together. People want to hear about your issues and ideas. For example, I have made my position clear that I think offering early retirement incentives is both wrong and a waste of money. If elected, I would never approve this. Your partner Mr. Witt and our school board thinks it's a great idea and would do it again if elected. They feel it's ok to waste money if they can save more. That fuzzy math doesn't fly with me. If elected, would you approve another early retirement incentive for administrators? The public has a right to know your ideas.
melissa gates May 11, 2012 at 06:58 PM
Fred? What "personal attacks" are you referring to? I have spent a lot of time helping you to correct a lot of your statements regarding how things work in the district, such as your statement that the tablet pc's are kept on carts for the students at the High School and your statement that we do not offer support in free tutoring to the students in the district etc...I can understand why you don't know about what goes on in the district because you have not been present at Board or Budget meetings since the last time you ran. This is fact...not an attack. To directly answer the question you have posed: If I thought another retirement incentive was wise for the taxpayers and the students of our district then yes I would definitely approve it after reviewing all the details. As for the one that was approved this year...you say "They feel it's ok to waste money if they can save more." How is it a "waste" of money if in the end you save MORE? The math is not fuzzy...it is quite clear...and we mustn't be so myopic as to be penny wise and pound foolish.
E. Rollins May 11, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Fred - I have repeatedly asked you why you think that spending $160,000 ONCE, to save $350,000 annually is a bad idea. You have never responded, yet are demanding answers from Melissa on the issue? Once again, how was it a "waste" to spend $160,000 to get administrators to retire early, and then be able to more others and cut the administrative payroll by more than twice the one time cost of the incentive? You claim to have an MBA, please explain why that wasn't a good business decision.
Chris Albanese May 11, 2012 at 07:52 PM
Well said Melissa. You have my vote!! That being said, how can the board guard (against themselves really) to not allow what many feel are outrageous compensation packages for administrators? Are there safeguards in place to interview candidates and weigh their qualifications AND their salary requirements? i am a firm believer in you're worth whatever the highest bidder is willing to pay, but in the current climate, are we really in a position to be the highest bidder? I know in our community especially, it's hard to choose a toyota when everyone else is driving a lexus but the school board has to be the one to make the tough decisions. Our school district should be an honor to oversee and we should not have to overpay to get the right candidate.
Fred Usherson May 11, 2012 at 09:33 PM
Melissa, When I think about the money our district wasted giving administrators their final farewell, I think about; a) the teachers teacher we could have hired to introduce new programs and reduce class sizes b) the schools aides we could kept and hired to provide support in our schools c) the computers and resources that could have been added to the classrooms d) the free after school tutoring we could have offered our elementary and middle school children e) the possible tax reduction we could have done to alleviate the tax burden everyone is paying in our community Instead, we’re wasting it on administrators who are retiring. There you have it folks. I said my statement, Melissa and Steve have said theirs, and I’m sure Dr. Jon agrees with them. We have clear divergent opinions about how our money should be spent. I thank you for your response to my question Melissa and I and I’m sure the rest of the public would love to hear more of your ideas.
Fred Usherson May 11, 2012 at 10:34 PM
Melissa, your accusation that I did not attend board meetings since the last time I ran is false. I stand by what I said previously. Please don't make false accusations without knowing the facts. More importantly, I think the voters want to know your ideas for improving our schools. They can see mine on my website, FRED4HW.COM.
E. Rollins May 12, 2012 at 12:39 AM
And when they go to Fred's website, they can see that by his own account, the last time he was there (an making recommendations) was 2009. Here's a direct link: http://fred4hw.com/Board_Meetings.html
E. Rollins May 12, 2012 at 12:47 AM
Fred - The administrators are retiring BECAUSE of the incentive. And as a result of the $160,000 INVESTMENT in the incentive they were able to cut two administrators and SAVE $350,000. That was a NET SAVINGS (AFTER the incentive) of $190,000 THIS YEAR for things like those on your list, and frees up $350,000 next year and each year thereafter for the kids as well. Again, you claim to have an MBA, why is that such a hard concept for you to understand? I haven't seen any of the candidates speak out in support of the high administrative salaries at the top. Melissa and Jon are running newcomers, just like you are, yet you attack them as if they were incumbents? The difference is that they have been going to board meetings and know what is really going on in the district.
melissa gates May 12, 2012 at 01:01 AM
Thank you, Chris. In retiring Administrators that have been in the District for many years there is now the ability to hire new ones and start at a lower salary. That is another point of offering the incentive. I am glad to hear that you value our educators and I agree that there is no reason to overpay. I know the long hours the administrators put in because I have seen it. But it is clear that the cost of education has exceeded what the State and its taxpayers are willing to support. Just as there was a "new" Board this year...there will be a "new" Board next year...neither of which approved the contracts that came before. Although a School Board is responsible for all contracts I believe that no one from the Board has been present at contract negotiations in the past even though they are able to be part of the negotiating team. This is definitely something that needs to change. I would not be able to make any promises on what a future contract will look like. A contract negotiation is just that...a negotiation. There is give and take until an agreement is settled on. As far as the interview process goes, I have been on many Interview Committees in this District since I have been here. Credentials are absolutely reviewed, salary requirements are not discussed at this time, and the goal is to hire the best candidate for the position.
melissa gates May 12, 2012 at 01:30 AM
Fred. When looking at your ideas that you enumerated above in a bubble, they all seem like really nice things a district could have. When dealing with the realities of unfunded mandates, APPR, the state and county trying to pass off their costs onto the school district, and a host of so many other things...it is much simpler said than done. The cuts in administration were done to MAINTAIN what we have now. To implement the things that you would like to see in the district would be an ADDITIONAL cost to the taxpayers. You keep yelling about salaries but this year's budget to budget increase in salaries is only .09%. I have not shared ideas regarding specific programs I think that district needs because it would be like the kid that is running for class president promising everyone that they are going to get a soda machine installed in every classroom. There is a much broader picture out there. I will not make promises I cannot keep. That having been said, I feel very comfortable promising our community that I will work very hard to make sure that we are providing all the students with a quality education and always keep an eye to improvement with careful consideration to the taxpayers and the needs of our community.
Fred Usherson May 12, 2012 at 07:34 PM
I'd like to thank both the South Shore Standard and South Shore Record for their endorsement. The South Shore Standard endorsed me as the preferred candidate over Stephen Witt and his running mates. I invite the public to see my ideas at FRED4HW.COM.
E. Rollins May 12, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Fred - Why are you lying? The South Shore Standard Closed their piece on the vote by saying "Just as voters brought in newcomers Cheryl May and Scott McInnes last year, we recommend that voters continue that trend and put three more fresh faces on the board." How does that make you the preferred candidate over Steve Witt's running mates? Anyone who wants to see the truth can go look at the Standard piece here: http://standardli.com/2012/05/school-board-elections/ As to the Herald, they clearly endorsed Steve Witt and Melissa Gates and when it came to the third candidate they said "We like them both, but give the edge to Usherson because of his education background...." Hardly the glowing endorsement they gave Melissa and Steve.
melissa gates May 13, 2012 at 01:17 AM
I too would like to thank the Herald and the South Shore Standard for their endorsement and I won't do so on Fred's questionnaire page...I believe that would be in very poor taste. I have not seen the South Shore Record to know whether or not they have endorsed me as well. Whether they did or not is not as relevant to me as they never contacted me for any type of interview. And Rollins, in Fred's defense, I am not sure that he is intentionally lying...it is possible that this is his interpretation of what he read...certainly concerning as well...but it helps to ignore the fact that he was mentioned first and separately as a "fresh new face" because the publication had no idea who he was even though they are almost always at the district Board and Budget meetings. Jon and I were mentioned after because we are not fresh NEW faces to them but we would be fresh to the Board having never been Board members before which was the crux of their endorsement...new people on the Board. As an FYI to all, according to the New York State School Boards Association, people with the following attributes make good school board members: *Effective Communicator *Consensus Builder *Community Participant *Decision Maker *Information Processor *Leader *Team Player
Fred Usherson May 13, 2012 at 10:47 AM
Melissa, That list sounds very good. But who ever wrote the book forgot one. *Creative problem solvers with new ideas and can think outside the box. Let's re-write the book so other school boards can follow our lead! See my ideas at FRED4HW.COM
E. Rollins May 13, 2012 at 12:25 PM
Fred - Again with your website? If you are going to give people the site over & over again, at least give them a usable link. Here: http://fred4hw.com/ . All of your self-promotion about technology and you can't even give readers a link? You claim to be a "creative problem solver" yet challenge their idea of offering a retirement incentive that had a net savings of over $190,000 this year and will save $350,000 + each year thereafter. When you said they shouldn't have done that but instead should have just "stopped giving them raises" as a way to get them to leave, was that a "creative idea" or "thinking outside the box"? You STILL haven't explained why you think saving all of that money and cutting two administrative positions wasn't a good idea. Will you finally explain yourself now? You claim to "think outside the box", but when it came to the district doing exactly that, pulling together a group of local districts and hosting a meeting with legislators to try and get them to restore the state aid they cut from our students (over $1,000,000) and to stop the flood of unfunded mandates (over $2,300,000 this year alone), you said they shouldn't have done it. You still haven't explained yourself on that either. Would you prefer to leave that money up in Albany and pass the costs of the unfunded mandates along to the taxpayers? If you have creative solutions to those problems, please express them here, for everyone to see.

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