A voter's guide to the North Salem Board of Education candidates
By Sarah Gayden and Fran Havard
The North Salem Central School District will hold its Annual Budget Vote/Trustee Election on Tuesday, May 18. In addition to the 2021-2022 budget (Proposition 1) and the Athletic Fields Improvement Project (Proposition 2), three candidates are running for two available seats on the Board of Education: Paul Giamundo, Brian Lange and Jaime Roche. Each of the three candidates brings a unique perspective: one is a 16-year Board of Education veteran and grandparent to two PQ students; one is a parent to two children in the District, and one is a North Salem alumnus who graduated in 2017.
The North Salem Post met with each candidate to learn a little bit more about who they are and what they see as the issues and opportunities facing North Salem schools.
NS Post: Tell us about your history in the town of North Salem and with North Salem schools.
Giamundo: I’m a former full-time school teacher, a current part-time teacher and a 16-year member of the North Salem Board of Education. My two children graduated from North Salem schools, and my wife and I are currently raising our two grandchildren, who attend PQ Elementary. In the community, I was a basketball and softball coach and also belonged to the Lions Club.
Lange: My parents moved here because of the quality of the schools. I grew up in North Salem and my entire schooling was within the District. I am also an Eagle Scout and I was a leader in Troop 1 North Salem. From 2015 - 2017 I served as a student liaison to the Board of Education. I was on sports teams, was in clubs and did extracurricular activities. I got the full experience.
Roche: I’ve lived here since 2005. My son Jack, a sixth grader, has been enrolled in the district since Kindergarten. My daughter, Sedona, attends Kindergarten at PQ. My husband Mike is an alumni.
NS Post: How would you describe a meaningful education?
Giamundo: A meaningful education means preparing a student for the world community. It doesn’t mean just high grades or extensive participation in sports or clubs. It means what our profile of a graduate really is: that they are able to identify a problem and through critical thinking they are able to come up with solutions to the problem in a collaborative way.
The world is full of problem creators. What I think we want to see in a student is a problem identifier and a problem solver. That to me is a positive addition to our world community.
Lange: Meaningful education is when you find a passion. A good outcome is when you have coursework and instruction that applies toward student interests. Coursework that's interesting and applicable, and instructors who are looking for student interests more than just assigning rote memory tasks.
Roche: Meaningful education encompasses the whole child. Educating them not just academically, but also socially and emotionally. I love these social-emotional learning programs. We are going to need more of that moving forward because of what’s been going on the last year. We have lots of kids who are stressed out. Mental health issues in children have increased dramatically this past year. Nutrition is important as well when looking at the whole child approach.
NS Post: How do you think North Salem schools are doing in terms of delivering a meaningful education?
Giamundo: North Salem has all the amenities and capabilities to deal with the needs of every student. This district provides the whole gamut of services, but within a very small district. It is like a private school setting - it’s personal, it’s easy to speak with an administrator, and the teachers are wonderfully dedicated. Some of them live in the community and have a vested interest. We celebrate the success of every student, not just the overachievers. We celebrate the achievements of every child who just tries. Think of what our mission is, which I helped develop: for every graduate to be a person who can identify a problem and solve the problem as a creative problem solver. And, I like that we emphasize kindness.
Lange: North Salem is facing a facilities crisis within a communications crisis. At the high school it's been like this forever. It’s not only just facilities in the school, its sports facilities. So many games have to be cancelled. We have to make sure these are necessary investments. We can’t let our infrastructure decay. This kind of long-term investment is what prepares the district for the future. Besides that, I’m scared about declining enrollment. It destroys the character of the town and impacts property values. Declining enrollment means we can go off quietly in the night.
Roche: I don’t think we’re too far from what I consider meaningful education. I think the relationships our staff has with the children are extremely valuable and I think if we continue on that path we are doing a pretty good job. There’s more we can do with health and wellness, and cafeteria stuff. I feel like we’re going in that direction. The tower gardens in the PQ cafeteria are examples of that. I want to see us stay on that path.
NS Post: What is the primary role of a Board of Education?
Giamundo: The Board of Education has three legally defined roles: hire the superintendent; develop and approve the budget for taxpayers; make policy, and ensure that policy is being carried out. With respect to the superintendent, I think Ken Freeston has done an outstanding job. With the budget, the superintendent comes up with the budget, and then we as Board members can ask questions, and tweak it. Board members, through Scorecard Night, can also say they want money taken out of certain areas. We have the opportunity to modify the budget. Regarding policy, we are watchdogs to make sure policy is being carried out. If there’s a problem, we go to our employee--the Superintendent.
Lange: To improve the quality of a school district. That’s a broad message, but I think there’s two main points to that: improving the lives and educational outcomes of students and maintaining a vibrant and desirable school community. That means increased enrollment, good educational outcomes, making sure that we have a vibrant sports culture, and kids going to a broad array of schools after graduating. Encompassing all of that is constant communication that steers the mission and the culture of the school. The board makes decisions on budgets and allocation of funds and steers the mission and the culture. Because the community has given them that prerogative it’s the board’s responsibility to communicate and to be very transparent. Then the community can see if the board is representing their interests or not.
Roche: They are responsible fiscally for taxpayers. I see this as more of a role of community service, listening to the needs of the community, and trying to meet those needs. I would like to see our role as being a liaison between the community and the superintendent - actively listening and actively responding to faculty, staff, and the student body.
NS Post: Why are you interested in being a North Salem Board of Education member?
Giamundo: I always felt that a Board of Education should have at least one person with a background as a teacher and experience being in a classroom. When I first ran, I felt that I had that to contribute. Even after 16 years, I want to continue running. I take this job as a school board member seriously. With every job there is a responsibility. I do my research, I do my homework. I come prepared to every meeting. I told my wife, if you ever see me saying ‘another board meeting tonight…” that's the time to tell me not to run.
Lange: It is scary to me that there’s this existential threat of declining enrollment. Everything is compounded and exacerbated by that. Water is still a problem. It is unacceptable that there hasn’t been more messaging and communication. We should make a Facebook page for the Board and we should have a weekly update. It keeps people in the know or makes them comfortable. Also, there isn’t a lot of grant writing going on. It’s always better to get a grant than to raise taxes. And, the pandemic made me want to run. I have some friends who have siblings in the school. I sense there is an epidemic of student disengagement. I would also like to work on that.
Roche: I ran two years ago. I really want to make positive changes and I really love the district. I have worked as a school social worker in other districts. We’re really unique due to our size and our staff is just very unique. I have had good experiences with my son and my daughter. I want to be more a part of that. I decided to run again this year because I felt the need to do more and to get more involved. I felt so out of the loop this past year and I just want to become part of the community again through the rebuilding process. There will be a rebuilding process moving forward.
NS Post: What do you hope to achieve by being a member of the Board of Education?
Giamundo: Mental health is the main thing facing us (and every other district) right now. The stress and anxiety of the last 14 months. I read recently that over 50% of parents said their children have shown an increase in stress and anxiety. That has shown itself in a lack of socialization. We need to evaluate the degree to which each student has been emotionally challenged. And academics - how do you assess how much these students have lost? Communication is another piece. We’ve had a lot of issues with that. We need to provide full, open communication in a timely manner.
Lange: A big centerpiece of what I want to do is to create a dialogue between the community and the BOE because I don’t really see that right now. I’d like to see more input from the community.I think there is a lot of apathy. The voter turnout is very low. It’s not about the trustees, it's about the budget. At least take a look at it. At least have your voice be heard. Please, please vote. Go and look at the budget and give some input.
Moving forward, we need clear and constant communication about what’s going on with investments in facilities, sports, water, changing curriculum. I have been running a poll on issues; there are two parts to it: 1) what is the greatest issue you see facing NS? and 2) a comments section. That’s been really eye opening and something I want to continue to do. I think it’s really easy to get into this echo chamber and think we know what’s best for the community. Elected officials have to be accountable to their constituents.
Roche: I would like to be part of helping the challenges that the community faces with communication, and with water issues at the MSHS. I’d like to be part of helping to remedy that. I think the communications specialist means we’re moving in the right direction but I think we can go even further. I would like to see the Board become more a part of the community. I feel like few people know who is on the Board outside of Brandy Keenan, who is the only one communicating through social media. I think it’s important to have parents of students on the Board; we’re invested because our children are in the school. I was part of the Farm to School committee which connected kids to local farmers and people in the community. I would like to continue to do that, bringing in people from around us who are doing really great things and have our kids get to know them.
NS Post: What sets you apart from the other candidates?
Giamundo: After 16 years on the Board, I have the history. It’s good for me to be able to say that we discussed a particular issue in the past, and here’s how it turned out. All of that makes me still very relevant. Many of the issues confronting the Board now I’ve been through over the past 16 years.
Lange: I think I’m well suited for this position because I was recently a student. I have a fresh memory of what it's like. And I share a lot of the beliefs of current students. For example, the students are very into and supportive of North Salem 4 Racial Justice. I don’t know how supportive of that the Board is, and the Board is supposed to represent the interests of the students. I’m equipped to represent the interests of the students because I was one, and I still vividly remember being one.
Roche: I have a solid background in mental health and social development. I have worked in schools as a social worker. I have worked with teachers, support staff, students. I am a parent of two children in the district--one at PQ and one at the MS/HS--so I am immersed in the district. I kind of know what is going on in both schools.
NS Post: How do you feel about Proposition 2, the proposed Athletic Fields Improvement project?
Giamundo: I’m glad that it’s back on the ballot. There are only three districts in Westchester that don’t have a turf field and we’re one of them. That’s not a good thing. We’re at a disadvantage. A new turf field will be for everybody, not just for athletes. It can be used for physical education classes. In researching this project, I went to eight different school districts. One principal said that putting in a turf field, with the lights, having night games, has really increased school spirit. When grandparents at night can come with their pom poms under the lights and cheer their kids on and watch a marching band march onto the field, think what that would do for school spirit?
Lange: I think we’re finally coming up with a plan. While it’s very expensive, it’s something that almost every District in the region has. The current state of our sports facilities means that so many games have to be canceled. We have to make sure we are investing in necessary investments. We can't just let facilities and infrastructure decay. Facilities are only built to last so long.
Roche: I’m for Prop 2. I think it’s really important for the athletes because we’re not being able to play on our own fields and are spending a lot of money to play on other people’s fields which is not good for our district. For the community in general, having a turf field is a big thing. I would love to see people be able to go to games. I think it’s an important part of your Middle School / High School experience. It gives kids healthy things to do.
NS Post: Any final thoughts?
Giamundo: I’m very proud to say that I set a record in 16 years being on the School Board. Over 300 consecutive Board meetings, I have never missed a meeting. That shows my dedication. I’m working hard, and I’m raring to go for another three years.
Lange: Right now it’s so difficult to figure out what’s going on in the District. Anyone my age has no idea. I think there’s a lot more that can be done. A young guy like me with a lot of energy and a lot of wherewithal...I think that’s a strong point to be elected. My number one goal is to make sure that declining enrollment doesn’t continue. Things have to change. I can’t make things change with a snap. It is about keeping people informed every step of the way.
Roche: I definitely have concerns moving forward in terms of kids not being in school. It is so different for every grade. That was one of the reasons to run for the Board for me; I would really like to identify more of those needs and be able to address them. This last year was a huge disruption for so many kids and we have a lot of repair work to do.
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