With school board elections less than a month away and five candidates running in the for three open seats, we will bring our readers a series of question-and-answers to get to know the candidates.
Shawn Cohen is a father of two children in the district and small business owner. His company, Assure Partners, deals in information technology consulting and he has used that base of knowledge to serve on the school district's Technology Committee for five years. He also served on the district's Budget Advisory Committee this past year, and has been the chair of Cub Scout Pack 41 since 2010.
If you want to find Cohen, chances are you can find him at an upcoming school board meeting - he says he's attended all but one over the past couple years.
Port Jefferson Patch: How has your experience prepared you for the school board?
Shawn Cohen: It's given me an understanding and some insight into how the district operates, where a lot of the needs are. What we do well and some of the things we don't do well as a district. I have a pretty good memory of what's been going on and not just what is done, but the process of how things have been done in Port Jefferson.
PJP: Speaking of some of the things the district does well and not so well, what would you say for each of those?
SC: The district has been very good at - despite what some people may believe - very good listening to the community and responding to the community's concerns. This is especially true now that we have a new administration here.
At the same time, one of the things the board and district has not been so good at is setting the expectations of the community and parents. There have been a number of decisions that have been very, how do you say, knee-jerk reactions. And while the decision may have been proper or correct, the process left people with a bad sense of how the decision was made or with the wrong set of expectations as to what would come in the future.
PJP: For example?
SC: An example from this last year was the cancellation of foreign trips. Our high school students used to go to Rome. And there was a cost to the district for that, as well as a significant cost to parents. At – I don’t want to say the last minute – the trip was cancelled by the board. Supposedly cancelled for safety more than budgetary reasons – however it was done after a lot of preparation and expectations of parents were already established. It would’ve been much better to have let this year go on and if they wanted to cancel foreign trips – they also cancelled Washington and Boston – they should've done that for future years.
PJP: On that note, you said you know what the needs are in district. What are the district's biggest needs?
SC: There are three big issues going on in the district right now. The first everyone knows about, and that's impending changes in the tax revenue due to LIPA/National Grid reducing the amount they give to the town. The question there is how do we maintain the quality of programs as well as the breadth of what we deliver to our children in the face of this while at the same being cognizant that this town cannot absorb the supposed doubling of taxes.
We're also in the midst of contract negotiations. What unfortunately happens every few years, whenever there is a contract negotiation, there is a lack of information, because by choice, all contract negotiations are kept secret. What happens is half-information and misinformation rules because there is no other information out there.
PJP: Can you be more specific?
SC: Right now there are ongoing negotiations. But outside of the actual negotiations themselves, no one knows the status of that. Therefore there is a lot of speculation and a lot of - as what happened three years ago when the teachers' contract came out - a lot of suspicion on the deal. Because the deals are so complex, no one sees how you go from point A to point B. It's sort of a transparency issue. When people have to sign their name to something, or speak in public, they tend to be more honest.
PJP: And the third issue you had mentioned?
SC: That would be setting the expectations of the community. Not reversing itself as the board has done several times this year.
PJP: You mentioned the trips. Any other examples?
SC: There was a board vacancy this year, and someone had to resign due to health reasons. So at first the board said they were going to fill it up by having people submit their names. And then at a later meeting, after they had started the process, they reversed themselves. They said they were going to give the seat to whoever lost the last election. I have nothing against Jim Laffey, but that sets an interesting precedent, and the board made a decision, debated it, and put it out to the public - and then reversed themselves without any really thorough explanation to the community.
PJP: To go back to LIPA. Do you have any ideas to deal with the potential loss in revenue?
SC: One of things I've been asking for as part of the budget advisory committee was a better understanding of if cuts are required, what are the things that are going to be cut? Do we really have a plan? Because we may not have the time for a long drawn out discussion. Now is the time for discussion. That is something that should be involving the community now.
PJP: Where would you start to make cuts?
The way to start that conversation is to state what our priorities are. The priorities are, in order, the health and safety of our students. Number two, the academics. To say, the core academics. Our kids are involved in a lot of extra programs and they really take advantage of all the diversity – even for a small district – we provide. But if it comes down to a choice between academics and all that other stuff, it’s a no brainer.
It not bringing in revenue, but has the potential to shift costs - would be that we have a community here that has a lot of professionals, a lot of talented people. Maybe we need a more organized and more concerted effort to use the community and its resources to offset what the district currently is paying for.
I hope we don’t get to point where we need a booster club for math. But I do see where we will get to the point where we will need booster club and outside funding for a lot of the extras that make our district what it is.