We continue our series about the upcoming school board election and budget vote on May 17. Check back with Patch on Monday for our voter's guide, summarizing the issues, the candidates and how and when to vote. to read Janet Harckham's Q&A and to read our Q&A with Charles Day.
Mark Dembo is 47 and has lived in Northern Westchester since 1998 and in Katonah since 2003. He lives with his wife and two daughters. His elder daughter attends John Jay Middle and her younger sister is in third grade at Katonah Elementary School. Dembo is a strategic accounts manager for a global human resources consulting and leadership development firm, where he works with organizations to help them improve and grow their leadership capabilities. He said much of that work involves helping people enhance their interaction, leadership and collaboration skills toward beneficial outcomes for all parties. Dembo graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in Industrial and Labor Relations/Organization Behavior. His civic involvement includes a range of school activities and he said it is "vitally important to be a visible presence" for his children and that "the role that parents play in ensuring the healthy raising of our kids can’t be underestimated."
Patch: Why are you seeking a seat on the board?
Dembo: We need to get some new perspectives and work in a more collaborative and transparent way. Our current board has not had a new member in four years; any single group working together for an extended period of time is bound to become insular.
Given the divides that have formed in our community I believe that I can add a perspective that will help the board get back on track toward a productive discourse that takes into account all the stakeholders in our community: parents, teachers, support staff, senior citizens, and students.
I have a number of ideas, based on my professional experience in both business operations and human/leadership development, which have direct relevance to help move us forward in a positive direction.
Patch: What accomplishments or experience do you have that make you a good candidate?
Dembo: In my “day job,” I work with organizations to help them improve the quality and depth of leadership talent. Much of my experience is focused on enhancing the skills that lead to improved dialogue and understanding between people. For example, earlier in my career I was the Chief Operating Officer of an organization where we were facing some very significant challenges in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; working with my team, we were able to turn things around by deploying an approach to transparency where we brought groups of people together to hear their concerns, elicit their ideas, and even incent them to help find ways to save money.
In my current work, I have the privilege to work with a number of organizations and as such can draw upon a wealth of knowledge and best practices that can be translated into fostering the right environment we need here in the KLSD.
Patch: What are the top issues facing the board during the 2011-12 school year?
Dembo: There are a number of issues that need to be addressed, but job one for the board is to heal the current rifts that have formed in the community. Without that, it will be very difficult to address any of the other issues is a substantive, meaningful, and collaborative way. The board must focus on ways to rebuild trust with ALL constituents, or they will continually find themselves battling for support on important policy issues.
Simultaneously, the board must address the long-range plan and take a close look at how we are going to reshape our curriculum to remain a vibrant and high performing school district. While we continue to perform well today, we are in grave danger of losing our edge if we do not become more innovative in our approach. And, in order to do that, we need to be able to attract and retain the best teachers—that means being able to enhance our reputation as a desirable district and it means ensuring that we have a strong and mutually respectful relationship with the teachers. We all need to feel that we are on the same side of the table, working toward common goals.
Rising costs must also be dealt with, but we need to recognize that much of the budget is things that are beyond our immediate, local control. So, we need to focus on the things that are within our control and accelerate the exploration of areas like shared services, administrative overhead, and seek out cost efficiencies.
Patch: Given the controversial hiring of Paul Kreutzer as the next superintendent of the district are there specific measures you would take to improve board relations with the community?
Dembo: Yes, I would like to see an increase in the number of smaller community forums where community members have a chance to share their ideas; not just around budgeting, but throughout the year. I, as a board member would expect to be active in the community, seeking out opportunities to hear the concerns from all stakeholders. I would also want to hear from the teachers throughout the year as to how they feel they are being supported by the administration, what they feel they are lacking, and what is working well.
The community needs to see an ongoing and sincere effort from the board.
Patch: Given the talk of a proposed annual cap on property tax increases, in relation to state mandates such as employee pension contributions, would you be willing to go with a cap that does not address the mandates, or do you believe tackling both at once are needed?
Dembo: I think we really need to bring the focus back to the issues that are within our control. If we can foster better collaboration with all parties and re-focus our energies, then I truly believe we can tap the creative brainpower to solve our own problems without needing to worry about what comes down from Albany.
Spending our energy and time on areas that we can’t immediately control does not really get us anywhere closer to where we want to go.
While I admire Governor Cuomo’s efforts to address the financial issues through his proposed tax cap, we need to be realistic about how that will play out. If the state is going to require tax caps, than we as a school district can’t continue to shoulder the burden of state mandates. This fact does not call into judgment any opinion as to how our teachers should be compensated, or how pensions should be structured – it’s a simple financial reality. If the state is going to limit the funds that can be raised through taxes, then they can’t simultaneously mandate increased costs to be borne by the locale. That is a lose-lose proposition.
So, if we can improve the nature of the dialogue with the teachers than we can all look at this from much more rational perspective and work together to come up with solutions – REGARDLESS of whichever way the winds blow in Albany.
Patch: Do you support repealing the Triborough Amendment that keeps terms of expired union contracts in place until new agreements are reached? Would you support changing the state's pension systems for teachers and other public employees? If so, what type of changes would you want to see?
Dembo: Again, I don’t think our energy is productively spent focusing on legislation that is the current law of the land. Any discussion of the Triborough Amendment needs to start with the Taylor Law, the Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act. This is a complex issue but it is the current law in New York State, and any repeal or modification of the Triborough Amendment would need to involve a major change to the Taylor Law.
So, bottom line, while these legislative debates occur in Albany, it would behoove us to focus on the elements that are within our immediate control; and that is to work to create an environment where we can have discussions where all parties can be heard, common goals can be agreed upon even in the wake of disagreement on some of the issues. If we can establish the ground for mutually agreed upon goals, then, despite differences, we can find the ways to create win-win solutions.
Look, the reality is that all parties know that the world has changed and that the status quo arrangements are unsustainable. I believe that if we stop trying to prove the other side wrong, we can collectively solve our challenges.
Patch: What is your position on the current "last in, first out" system in place that gives priority to retaining teachers with more seniority, in situations of job cuts?
Dembo: I would like us to work with union to identify mutually agreed upon success criteria for our teachers – things that will help teachers become better at what they do, things that will keep teachers more motivated and engaged, and things that will benefit our students through an improved and energized school environment.
Patch: Is there anything we haven’t asked that you would like the public to know about you or your candidacy?
Dembo: It is important to have multiple perspectives on school boards—that is why there are seven people, and that is why each year some of the folks are up for election/re-election. Our current board has not had any new people in four years. I would offer a new fresh perspective, which certainly doesn’t take away from the experience of the current board members – but could help to reshape the way some issues are addressed. Additionally, I would offer the only voice from a board member with children in the elementary schools – again, providing perhaps another viewpoint and perspective that the others would not have. A well-functioning board needs to have voices from all parts of the community, and I would be able to provide a voice that is currently missing.
Editor's note: Dembo provided an in-depth explanation of the background on the development of the Triborough Amendment and the Taylor Law, which has been edited for length.