CROSS RIVER, N.Y. - In a year that has seen the norms of education upended everywhere, residents of Katonah, Lewisboro and parts of North Salem and Pound Ridge will cast votes in a different way this year to decide the future of their schools.

The Katonah-Lewisboro School District hoped to mail ballots and postage-paid return envelopes last week to some 14,000 residents. Their votes must be in the hands of District Clerk Kimberly A. Monzon by the close of business June 9. 

Decisions made in this first mail-only vote ever will likely be the last word on a proposed $111 million budget that features no property tax increase. Voters also will decide on spending for new school buses using $725,000 already in district coffers and who will fill two school board seats. 

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Today, three candidates—Samantha Holcman, Catharine V. Oestreicher and incumbent William Rifkin—respond to questions from The Katonah-Lewisboro Times, describing themselves and sharing why they are seeking the three-year terms. 
Like school systems nationwide, KLSD has shut down all its facilities in response to the threat of the coronavirus. As this week began, fear of COVID-19, the infectious disease the virus causes, has also forced amended plans for John Jay High School’s graduation ceremony, which will take place next month as a socially distanced drive-in celebration at the Jefferson Valley Mall. 

Citing virus-induced uncertainty by mail, Schools Superintendent Andrew Selesnick has underscored the importance of returning ballots “as soon as possible.” The urgency has been magnified, he said, by the virus’s potential to disrupt postal service deliveries. “It’s not the date that you mail it [back] that’s important,” he emphasized. “It’s the date that we receive it...We must receive all eligible ballots by 5 p.m. on June 9.”

Budget vote could be do-or-die

Voters may not get a second chance in this year’s mail-in balloting to approve the $111.4 million spending plan for the school term beginning July 1. 

With ballots being counted only three weeks before that deadline, time would likely run out before a rejected budget could be presented again. “I can’t rule it out altogether,” Selesnick said of a second voting opportunity, but he called it “highly unlikely.”

The 2020-21 budget would increase spending over this year’s by 1.18 percent, to $111,472,680. But the district property tax levy, the backbone of public school finances, would not rise, staying at the current $97,948,497. School tax rates in three of the district’s four towns would go down.

An online budget public hearing was scheduled for May 28.

“We are not asking the taxpayers for any additional contribution,” Selesnick noted earlier this month. “That increase [in spending] is accounted for entirely by other revenue increases, not by taxpayer increases.”

Last year, district residents overwhelmingly approved the current budget, by 1,182 to 325, and seem likely to do so again this year. Still, vote-by-mail is expected to increase turnout. Coupled with an uncertain economic picture, it makes the outcome tougher to predict. And if the KLSD budget fell in a one-strike-and-you’re-out vote, a distasteful alternative would quickly pop into view.

Statewide, a handful of school budgets is typically rejected on the first vote. But, when resubmitted with some modifications for a second (and even a third) try, most emerge victorious in subsequent voting. In 2019, for example, a dozen budgets around the state failed in their initial test but 10 of them won approval the second time around.  

If, after however many tries, KLSD voters did turn down the proposed budget, the school board would be forced to adopt a contingency budget severely constraining just how much the district could spend and on what. 

Under state law, contingency budgets limit expenditures to such things as teachers’ salaries and other spending deemed “absolutely necessary to operate and maintain schools.” 

While funding for sports and other extracurricular activities is not automatically precluded under this austerity spending, neither is it assured. And some other outlays are expressly forbidden. They include such line items as spending on new capital projects, for example, or purchases of equipment not needed for health and safety reasons.

Beyond the budget itself, voters will cast a verdict on buying new school buses to help retire some of the district’s aging fleet. Appearing as Proposition 2, the ballot question asks approval to spend $725,600 from cash on hand for four 66-passenger buses (at $116,900 each), a 72-passenger bus ($145,000) and two 30-passenger vehicles ($56,500 each). 
School board race

With two seats open, three candidates are vying for three-year terms on the board. We asked them to describe themselves and discuss their reasons for running and to comment on a key issue facing the school district. These are their responses:

Samantha Holcman

Who are you? Provide a brief overview of your background and experience.  
My name is Samantha Holcman and I have lived in Katonah with my husband and two daughters since 2013. I have a kindergartner and a third-grader at Katonah Elementary School. I have spent the last four years serving on the KES PTO Executive Board, the last two years as co-president, an opportunity that has allowed me to connect, listen, strategize and innovate with families, faculty, staff and leadership. These collaborations have inspired me to find solutions to existing problems and create new programs. I have honed my comprehension of the ins and outs of our district, and am able to quickly and effectively identify a need and set meaningful intentions. 

Why do you want to be a school board trustee?
My KES PTO leadership experience has been concentrated on enriching the lives of the KES students and families. As a school board trustee, I want to build on that mission, focusing on the growth, wellness, safety, progress and success of all KLSD students. I believe in the whole-child experience and fostering an educational environment where all students are treated with respect, empathy and compassion. We need to support and augment the strong academic and extracurricular programming that KLSD is renowned for while adopting an annual budget that is fiscally responsible and does not exceed the tax cap.

What is a top priority for the school board as KLSD adjusts to academic life during and/or after the coronavirus emergency?  
We need to ensure that all students are equipped with their own device for distant learning while streamlining the use of technology. There needs to be an emphasis on teacher training on a variety of topics from social-emotional learning and effectively connecting with our students to technology and other educational tools so our teachers and students can work smarter, not harder. We need to ensure that academic, emotional and curriculum benchmarks are met. Providing special services to support and enrich our young learners will give them the confidence to lead in the future.

Catharine Oestreicher 

Who are you? Provide a brief overview of your background and experience.  
My name is Catharine Oestreicher and my husband and I have lived in Katonah for 18 years. All five of our children have attended the KL school system—three are in college, one is at the high school and one at the middle school. I graduated from St. Lawrence University with a B.A. in psychology and a B.A. in sociology. I continued my post-graduate education at Manhattanville College where I received a master’s in elementary education. I worked as a teacher for three years before starting my family. I began volunteering in our schools 15 years ago and have served multiple years as class parent and team parent, supervised staff appreciation luncheons and directed KES fifth-grade variety shows. I joined the JJHS PTO five years ago where I served one term as its treasurer before becoming PTO president where I am now completing my second term. I have also been a member of the Parent Council for the past three years.

Why do you want to be a school board trustee?
I believe in the importance of maintaining an engaged, relevant and active learning environment for our students. I also believe it is imperative that we focus on the physical and mental health of our students. If elected, I will strive to advance our students’ academic experience, athletic programs, arts programs and extracurricular clubs. I believe the school board should support, lead and inspire our faculty and administration while remaining fiscally responsible. 

What is a top priority for the school board as KLSD adjusts to academic life during and/or after the coronavirus emergency?  
We are living through unprecedented times and our education system will experience a massive transformation as a result of COVID-19. Distance learning and social distancing are among the most pressing issues the board needs to solve in the coming months. We need to work toward opening our schools safely in September but must explore and prepare for multiple contingency plans. Our top priority must be the health, well-being and education of our students. 

William Rifkin

Who are you? Provide a brief overview of your background and experience. As an incumbent, how long have you served in this role?
My name is Bill Rifkin. I have been a trustee on the KLSD Board of Education for the past six years. During this time, I chaired the performance-metrics and policy committees and served on Parent Council and the audit committee. I am a physician whose work involves data analysis and writing guidelines to improve health care. My wife and I moved to the district in 2003, just in time for our oldest son to start kindergarten. Both our sons have graduated from John Jay (2016 and 2019) and gone on to college.

Why do you want to be a school board trustee?
The principal reason I would like to continue to serve on the Board of Education is to provide some continuity in a year when at least one seat will be filled by a newly elected trustee (the other incumbent is not running). This infusion of “new blood” is a good thing; however, my belief is that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the significant challenges the district will face, one of the seats up for election should be filled by someone with significant “institutional memory.” Overall, the Board of Education is “relatively young” in that several trustees are in their first term. My goal, if so honored again by the voters, is to provide experienced service over the next three potentially challenging years.

What is a top priority for the school board as KLSD adjusts to academic life during and/or after the coronavirus emergency?
I think the top priority for the Board of Education will be to provide insight, budgetary support and oversight for the district as we face the pandemic. Remote teaching and learning may be necessary for some time. We as a district (including the board) have to continuously monitor, assess and improve the remote learning experience for students and teachers. Remote learning is hard; it’s new for us and it isn’t one size fits all. The board is an important part of this endeavor. 


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