In an effort to increase the information available publicly regarding candidates’ positions on key issues facing our schools, Wantagh Parents shared a list of questions with the candidates running for the Board of Education. We submitted these questions to Dawn Conlon, Jessica Elmazi, Jennifer Perfetti, Laura Reich and Jennifer S. – all of whom are running for two trustee positions. We communicated our process with the candidates and with our readers as well. Three of the candidates declined to participate. Below please find the unedited responses from Jennifer Perfetti and Laura Reich, shared in alphabetical order.
Table of contents
Select an question to link directly to replies from the candidates on a particular topic.
- Briefly state your experience in the community and qualifications for the school board
- What do you think will be the number one issue facing our school district over the next 3 years?
- Define the success of a school district and what your ideal school would look like.
- What is your platform to improve curriculum and instruction k-12?
- Are there books or a curriculum you believe do not belong in the Wantagh School District? Which ones and why? (please be specific)
- How would you support the needs and the inclusion of students with disabilities?
- What do you think the role and responsibilities of a board member are?
- How would you respond to community members who disagree with decisions you make as a board member?
- The NY State Board of Regents launched an initiative to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in schools across New York State. According to the board, “they expect all school districts will develop policies that advance diversity, equity and inclusion – and that they implement such policies with fidelity and urgency.” How would you address diversity, equity, and inclusion policies as a board member?
- How would you address school security as a board member?
- What is the best way to evaluate teachers?
- How would you engage the community?
- In your view, has the district administration done a good job providing our students with a high-quality educational experience? Please provide details supporting your view.
- What do you think were the most important lessons the district learned from the pandemic?
- What are some of the best ways we can address any student learning loss that occurred as a result of disruptions to in-person instruction from the pandemic?
1. Briefly state your experience in the community and qualifications for the school board
Jennifer Perfetti: I served on the executive board of the Wantagh Elementary School PTA for 5 years. I was Co-President, served as Vice President, Parliamentarian, and Overall 5th Grade Chair. Additionally, I chaired & volunteered on numerous committees. I was also a Wantagh School District Interview Committee Parent Panelist and helped in the selection of Wantagh Elementary’s vice-principal. My volunteering for our students and schools has continued at the secondary level as I am a member of the 6-12 Association and the Booster Club.
Additionally, I was a volunteer and active member of the Junior League of Long Island, a non-profit organization that seeks projects to benefit woman and children on Long Island. I served as an alumni mentor and leadership consultant for collegiate woman for Pi Beta Phi Fraternity in various focus areas – leadership, philanthropy, finance, and academics.
I hold a BS in Management Information Systems from the University of Connecticut and an MBA from Baruch College. Professionally I have a 20+ year career in HR, people management, finance, and operations.
Laura Reich: I am currently the Vice President of the Board of Education finishing up my first 3-year term as a trustee. While a trustee, I have been involved in successful contract negotiations for 7 out of the 8 bargaining units in the district. My education and years practicing law, especially in the area of Labor Law, gave me the understanding and skills needed to work with our attorneys to settle these negotiations swiftly. I have also sat on our Policy Committee where we reviewed new guidelines proposed by the state and incorporated them to update our existing policies. The last three years on the board have been extremely challenging as we were faced with issues which no other board has ever had to tackle. I truly believe that my history of service within the district and the community prepared me to better understand the needs of our students, teachers and staff during the pandemic. As I set forth in my opening statement at Meet the Candidates, I have been volunteering in the schools since 2004 and it is during this time spent where I learned a lot about our district. I have volunteered on and chaired numerous committees at Wantagh Elementary School and served on the executive board of the PTA for 9 years. I held the positions of Co-President, Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary. I was chosen as class parent many times over the 14 years my children attended Wantagh El and I was a 5th Grade Chair. I have also served on the executive board of the Wantagh 6-12 Association and the WHS Bandwagon as Treasurer. Several times, I was a parent panelist on the district’s interview committee when building leaders and administrators were hired. I have rounded out my volunteer work in the community by coaching CYO girls’ volleyball at St. Frances and giving time to the Wantagh Chamber of Commerce. Finally, in 2019, I was honored as a Woman of Wantagh for my community service. All of these positions have taught me leadership skills and how to work well with others. I have also formed strong working relationships and garnered the respect of the teachers, staff and administrators which have and will continue to serve me well as a member of the Board of Education.
2. What do you think will be the number one issue facing our school district over the next 3 years?
Jennifer Perfetti: Increasing costs and lack of funding (budget alignment) is the number one issue our district will have to face over the next three years. Budget constraints have led to increased classroom sizes in grades 1-6. Classroom size is something that should be continuously reevaluated and assessed if large class sizes are having an adverse effect on our student’s ability to learn. We need to provide both academic and emotional support and offer our students the programs and opportunities to learn. Additionally, as a district we have a need for many capital and structural improvements to our facilities over the next few years.
Laura Reich: Unfortunately, due to covid and the limitations put on remote instruction, our students are suffering from learning loss. This has been documented throughout the country. We have to address this in order to continue moving our district and our students forward. We were able to implement a summer support program last summer for many students who struggled to get them back on track before the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. We also provided before and after school programs for some as a way to eradicate learning loss. I truly believe we need to continue to provide the best support we can, within our budgetary constraints. We did just that this year by implementing the Freshman Experience class in the high school. This class helped the students transition to their new environment and provided guidance on topics such as organization and study skills and goal setting, and strategies to achieve success. We need to continue to engage students’ interests, too, by offering diverse electives to satisfy a wide array of interests.
3. Define the success of a school district and what your ideal school would look like.
Jennifer Perfetti: A successful school district is one that welcomes and provides a safe space for all students. Promotes a culture of collaboration, inclusivity, empathy, and acceptance. It offers a framework for students to thrive both inside and outside of the classroom. Schools must offer experiences that focus on the entire child, including their academic learning as well as their social/emotional learning.
I believe that a school district should constantly evaluate its programs, expectations, and support for its students. The ideal school would collaborate between teachers, administrators, and parents – bridging school with home life. My ideal school would have strong educators and staff, who are well trained, prepared, and supported.
Laura Reich: A school district is as successful as the success of its students. Students are successful when they develop a strong sense of self-worth and respect for others while becoming life long learners and independent thinkers. I believe a district is successful when all students achieve what they strive for according to their own interests. It is not about everyone going to college. It is about making sure all students are supported and their educational needs are met so they can make decisions about their future – college, service, vocation or career. We have spent some time discussing what an ideal school would look like and have been able to implement some changes in our buildings. We have a few classrooms with modern 21st century flexible seating and creative arrangement in those classrooms. This non-rigid environment is more welcoming and comfortable and promotes more student engagement. I would love to expand this to more classrooms throughout the buildings in the coming years. Aside from the physical classrooms, an ideal school would have robust extracurriculars in the areas of fine arts, music, athletics and clubs for all interests. I do think Wantagh has a great variety of programs in which all students may participate. My kids have all flourished in high school sports as conference champs, Nassau County champs and Long Island champs. They have participated in our drama program and have had the opportunity go on wonderful trips with the music department and even perform at Carnegie Hall. The elementary STEAM program has also flourished and has allowed our younger students to dive deeper into the areas of science, technology and math.
4. What is your platform to improve curriculum and instruction k-12?
- Smaller classes at the elementary school level affording for more individualized instruction to our children. Smaller classrooms assist all students and gives our children the academic and emotional support they need from their teachers.
- Additional push-in support and expanded reading/writing labs across all levels.
- Provide more vocational opportunities, for our students who choose a future path that isn’t college.
- Enriched programs across all levels, including STEAM:
- Expanded and additional programs such as “Project Lead the Way” (in collaboration with Rochester Institute of Technology).
- Additional college-level courses, not just AP at the high school.
- Advanced technology.
- Enhanced foreign language program at the elementary level.
Laura Reich: Over the last couple of years, we have overseen curriculum mapping which sets forth the progression of the curriculum within a department on the secondary level or elementary grade level. The mapping demonstrates how the curriculum builds on itself each year. We have also seen improved articulation between elementary grade levels and between buildings and I hope this only continues to improve. All teachers across different buildings within the same grade are discussing and planning lessons together while teachers between grades are discussing levels reached from one grade to the next. This allows for all students in the same grade across the district to have been taught the same lessons at relatively the same time during the school year. Our model teaching program continues to grow where we have our best teachers provide guidance and mentoring to other teachers across the district. This also builds morale amongst our staff which I fully support. We have been discussing a “teaming” model of teaching to begin in our 5th grade level where I hope we can increase social studies and humanities lessons. Due to budget cuts last year, we lost 2 elementary curriculum supervisors and we look forward to adding 1 back in with the passing of next year’s budget. This supervisor is essential to continuing to move our elementary team forward. I would also like to see a richer foreign language program developed at the elementary level, writing labs at the secondary level and an expansion of our early bird program to allow for more opportunity for students to take more elective courses.
5. Are there books or a curriculum you believe do not belong in the Wantagh School District? Which ones and why? (please be specific)
Jennifer Perfetti: There are not any books I would be in favor of banning nor any that I am aware of that do not belong. I fully trust the administrators and teachers’ analysis, evaluation, and thorough review of textbooks and curriculum. I support age-appropriate curriculum.
Laura Reich: I do not believe there are any books or curriculum that do not belong in our district. A public school’s curriculum is dictated by the New York State Education Department. Although standards may change, I believe it is part of their job and I fully trust our educators to carefully choose content and material in a thoughtful way that is age appropriate.
6. How would you support the needs and the inclusion of students with disabilities?
Jennifer Perfetti: Planning and collaboration between parents, teachers and administrators to maximize the support students with disabilities need. Continue to expand offerings like the 6:1:1 program at Mandalay when parents want to keep their children within district. I will support additional push-in support and aides in classrooms as identified. An increase in accountability on our administrators to ensure plans are executed. Encourage additional modifications to make our students feel comfortable, included, and can excel in an environment where their needs are met though accommodations. Furthermore, I feel one of the best ways we can support our students with disabilities is to make sure the appropriate funding is available to meet their needs. Providing our teachers with the right tools and proper training. Additionally, the school must offer support for parents to help identify and work together to determine the best strategic path for the student. Finally, I think it is imperative that we foster a welcoming and open environment and facilitate interactions between all students.
Laura Reich: Last fall, the district elevated the position from “Director” to “Assistant Superintendent” of PPS in order to attract highly qualified individuals to fill this void. We knew how important this position was to the success of our special education department and the achievement of our special education students. We have been lucky to have developed a 6-1-1 program at the elementary level to keep our Wantagh students in the district if it is the right fit. In this case, we don’t have to spend money to send students to another district and we can collect tuition from those coming from a different district. Obviously, if we do not have the right program for a specific student to meet all their educational needs, we will find the best program out of district. I would like to see the development and expansion of the life skills program to provide for a continuum of services to those students in the secondary level. I think we need some professional development for guidance counselors focusing on college programs for special education students. I also think it would be extremely beneficial to provide professional development to support staff and club advisors so that they may better understand their needs.
7. What do you think the role and responsibilities of a board member are?
Jennifer Perfetti: I believe the role of the Board of Education trustees are to set the vision and goals for the district. Responsibilities include:
- Advocating for students
- Establish and maintain governance – including rules and policies
- Hire and evaluate district administration (superintendent)
- Provide representation and voice for parents and community members
- Oversee the annual budget. Provide priorities on spending and funding.
- Evaluate effectiveness of school’s programs, instructional plans, and goals.
Laura Reich: Board members are state officials who set goals and policy for the district. We do not micromanage the district or run the buildings. A board member must make decisions based on what he or she believes to be in the best interests of all the students. No board member has individual authority to speak on behalf of the board without having discussed an issue. The trustees work as a unit within the parameters given to them by New York State. We are responsible for setting goals for the district annually and evaluating that progress.
8. How would you respond to community members who disagree with decisions you make as a board member?
Jennifer Perfetti: There will always be different opinions, but the board must make decisions with the best interest of all children in mind. I will be respectful and considerate of all perspectives. It is critical to take the time to listen and understand diverging opinions through mutual respect and trust. If elected to the BOE I will make decisions with empathy, transparency and in good conscious. I will represent what is best for ALL students. As a board member if decisions are made that all do not agree with, I will continue to listen and provide clarity and openness.
Laura Reich: It is the board’s responsibility to balance the interests and the needs of everyone in the district and to do what is in the best interests of all children. We know that community members have disagreed and will continue to disagree with decisions made by the board, but it is the board’s responsibility to respect and acknowledge there are different views and perspectives throughout the community. We need to and I will do better to try to make our community members understand why some decisions are made whether it be for budgetary reasons, safety reasons or popular view. I agree that surveys should be used in the future when we have the ability to make a change.
9. The NY State Board of Regents launched an initiative to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in schools across New York State. According to the board, “they expect all school districts will develop policies that advance diversity, equity and inclusion – and that they implement such policies with fidelity and urgency.” How would you address diversity, equity, and inclusion policies as a board member?
Jennifer Perfetti: All students must feel that they belong and are part of our community. We can foster this through trust, communication, inclusion, engagement, and respect. As a board member we must support our principals and teachers in promoting a culture within our buildings that make all our students feel welcome. Programs promoting kindness, empathy, diversity, and inclusion are key components to our children’s learning and development. As a board I would like to support additional efforts with creating committees including our students at each school building. Building together a bottom-up approach that involves teachers and students can provide a great foundation.
Laura Reich: In May 2021, NYS adopted a policy to advance diversity, equity and inclusion and remove inequities for all students in school. I am surprised that we needed a “policy” in 2021 to address this. I can’t imagine that we all wouldn’t want to include all students. Public schools educate every student – no one is turned away because of any disability, race, language, religion, etc. In order to support such thinking, we should develop a committee within our district comprised of administrators, teachers, staff and community members to research great professional development programs and student support services. Our schools have promoted DEI for many years. We have programs in the elementary schools, such as Kindness Awareness Day and the Buddy Bench, and in the middle school we have our No Place for Hate Campaign which is supported by our teachers and Mr. Ciuffo. Students in the high school recognize World Kindness Day and participate in Autism Awareness Month featuring a theme of acceptance. These programs embrace the underlying values of DEI and teach our children about inclusion, kindness, tolerance and respect for all. I believe that exposing students to different viewpoints allows them to understand others’ perspectives.
10. How would you address school security as a board member?
Jennifer Perfetti: A few years ago, security was one of the major concerns and priorities of not only our district but across the country. I participated in multiple round tables, forums, and board meetings on this topic and while it is no longer front-page news it is still a large concern. We need to partner closely with the NCPD on threats and security issues. Additionally, we should be working with security experts on areas of worry and breaches to our children’s safety. Funding should be earmarked as necessary to ensure all of our student’s and staff’s safety.
Laura Reich: All children coming into our buildings should feel safe. Although our safety and response plans are private, we look forward to increasing security support this coming year. We have held safety forums to learn the community’s views and are always looking to re-evaluate and enhance our safety policy. We have utilized a multi-prong approach by upgrading infrastructure through our interior safety plan, we have provided training to the teachers and students through drills and we have security guards at our buildings.
11. What is the best way to evaluate teachers?
Jennifer Perfetti: In my opinion I would think through peer review, evaluation, and demonstration. I would work closely with the WUT if any improvements or changes needed to be made. I do not believe our teachers should be evaluated solely on test scores including regents.
Laura Reich: To be clear, it is not the role of a board member to evaluate teachers. I am happy and proud, though, that we have finally come to the conclusion that teachers should not be evaluated based on test scores. Instead, through observations, multiple measures are used to determine a teacher’s ability and effectiveness in the classroom. Is the teacher engaging all of the students in the class? Is the teacher supportive of all of the needs of the students? Has the teacher developed creative lessons? Is the teacher allowing the students to collaborate and develop interpersonal skills? Does the teacher encourage hands-on learning to best allow the students to experience the material that is being taught? Teachers should be applauded for engaging and well thought out lessons and that is the basis of an authentic assessment.
12. How would you engage the community?
Jennifer Perfetti: If I was honored to be elected to the Board of Education I would provide increased accessibility to our community through an open-door policy: providing my contact information and establishing office hours. I think it is crucial for the Board to set clear expectations with the community. I would like to institute community round tables or town halls for informal conversations. Increased collaboration and meetings with teachers including the WUT to understand their needs as stakeholders. Furthermore, I would recommend reinstatement of the budget advisory committee to gather ongoing community input and feedback. Finally, I would like to create push communications from the board directly to the community, maybe a quarterly newsletter of BOE focuses, priorities, and discussions.
Laura Reich: After the last couple of years, it is apparent and imperative that we work to open lines of communication with the community. In addition to our BOE email address, I would like our individual school email addresses to be available to the community to reach out to us individually. It is important to understand that no one board member may answer on behalf of the board but instead can reassure a community member that his or her concerns have been received and heard and will be addressed by the board at our next meeting. It has been a long-standing past practice for the superintendent to respond to emails on behalf of the board after members acknowledge and discuss the content as he is the district leader with the most knowledge. I suggest, going forward, that he include the BOE’s president name in the salutation to avoid the question of whether the board responded to the email. I have also proposed the idea of a BOE Message Board to be added to our district website where important dates, events, initiatives, etc. will be posted and where community members may submit questions to which the board will present answers openly at the next business meeting. We also have a planning session every month that is open to the public. It is at these meetings where we openly present discussions on new initiatives, discuss the development of curriculum and have presentations by supervisors and staff members. And even though we sometimes have limited resources and time, we have continued to invite community members to be more involved on issues over which the Wantagh school district has the power to control through committees, forums and focus groups.
13. In your view, has the district administration done a good job providing our students with a high-quality educational experience? Please provide details supporting your view.
Jennifer Perfetti: I think the district has provided many excellent opportunities for our students:
- The addition of the science LEAPES program.
- Block scheduling in the middle school for expanded instructional time in core classes.
- Advanced science & math regent level classes being offered in 8th grade to allow additional opportunities.
- Research & Debate class in the middle school.
- STEAM programs offered in our elementary schools.
- Access to Chrome books for all our students intended to minimize disruptions in instruction.
- AP Capstone offering a challenging program focusing on critical thinking and preparing our students for college.
- Additional push-in support.
- Project Lead the Way curriculum at the high school.
- The Freshman Experience class
- Universal Pre-K.
Laura Reich: I truly believe Wantagh has some of the top administrators in the county. They are continuously working to bring our programs to the highest level by hiring bright and forward-thinking staff. The last few years has been proof that they have the ability to adapt and still provide a high-quality education to our students. Mr. McNamara and his team developed an excellent plan with very little guidance from the state in 2020 to bring all kids in grades k-6 back to school full time. The hybrid remote learning plan brought our secondary level students back to the classrooms in the safest way possible to decrease the spread of covid and reduce quarantines so that students would not miss school. And, by January 2021, he gave the green light for sports and clubs to resume as best they could for the students to be involved. Mr. McNamara put other initiatives on hold in 2020 so that we could provide chromebooks for all k-6 students and he hired invaluable technology staff to guide us through online learning and resources. Through his leadership over the last few years, we have expanded AP and college level courses across disciplines and approved almost 2 dozen new electives on the secondary level. He also saw the need to rebuild the business department curriculum to attract more students and provide them with more flexibility in their business studies. Finally, our BOCES program has been extended under his direction to provide more career, tech and education programs to our students.
14. What do you think were the most important lessons the district learned from the pandemic?
Jennifer Perfetti: During the pandemic I feel the most import lesson the district learned was that our children needed to be in school. As a result, the priority was to have them return safely for in-person instruction. Hybrid and remote learning might have been necessary tools at the time but nothing can truly replace in-person instruction by our educators in school. Additionally mental health support is not an optional luxury, but a necessity to truly assist our students.
Laura Reich: The biggest lesson we learned from the pandemic is that our children and our community are strong and know how to persevere through adversity. But we truly did have some positives come out of the last few years – some changes that were for the best and some new practices that may be here to stay. Our students and teachers were extremely flexible and learned to adapt to a new way of learning. They toggled back and forth between in person and remote learning and came out strong. We learned we had the most caring teachers who would never give up on our students. We were able to accelerate the roll-out of the full 1:1 chromebook initiative because of the pandemic to allow all students access to online remote learning. We became creative in hosting concerts, award ceremonies and graduation ceremonies because we had to continue to recognized the achievements and success of all of our students. Outdoor end-of-year events may be here to stay!
15. What are some of the best ways we can address any student learning loss that occurred as a result of disruptions to in-person instruction from the pandemic?
Jennifer Perfetti: Mentally, socially, and academically many children have fallen behind. We need to address all these issues to bridge the gap where these kids are and where they need to be. As a parent I would want to see additional instructional support, extra help, smaller class sizes. Expand the additional push-in support. If elected to the board, I would engage with and collaborate with the teachers. They are the ones who see it on a day-to-day basis. They know best what our children need to be brought up to speed and make sure they have the necessary support. Earlier this year I was speaking to my child’s Spanish teacher, and he said foreign language is seeing a huge gap in knowledge and ability due to the pandemic. He was trying to overcome the learning loss with extra before/after school help, slower pace, as well as reteaching curriculum that should have been learned the previous year.
Laura Reich: As I stated earlier, learning loss caused by the interruption of full-time, in-person instruction is not just a concern in Wantagh, it is problem across the country and we need to do all we can to get our students back on track. We implemented a summer program last year to assist those students we identified as struggling to give them the support and additional instruction they needed to move ahead and not fall further behind their classmates. We also put in place a before and after school program for those who needed extra support. Our administrators have worked directly with our department supervisors and teachers to adapt lessons to address this issue. We have seen great strides in reading this year at the elementary level in the early grades with the help of our RTI (“Response to Intervention”) program and WIN (“What I Need”) times. I am hoping to expand this program through the 5th grade over the next couple of years. We had adopted a “Do No Harm” policy at the end of the 2020-21 school year so as to not jeopardize our students’ grades during a difficult year of instruction and learning. Finally, our Freshman Experience class was developed to support our incoming 9th graders and we will continue to run this program to give them the tools and skills to achieve.