BBP BOE RACE: Amy Hope v. Jess Pignataro

One year term

Posted

The Suffolk County News compiled questions from the community on online forums for the Board of Education candidates.

The questions were then emailed to the candidates who had a week to respond.

Here are their answers:

What do you find problematic or lacking in the current Board of Education’s performance in serving the community? How will electing you to the Board specifically address that deficit? 

HOPE: My drive to become a candidate for the Board of Education stems from the desire to advocate for parents in our community. While some feel their needs have been adequately met, others have been displeased with the lack of advocacy for parental choice. I hope to be a voice for our community and to advocate within and outside of our district to ensure each voice is represented.

PIGNATARO: My reason for running is not to address a deficit in the current Board, it is to add a unique perspective based on my counseling & crisis intervention background. Knowing the struggles our community has faced, I felt compelled to step up in this moment to serve.

Please define, in your own words, what Critical Race Theory (CRT) is. Please explain what you believe its role, if any, is appropriate the K-12 curriculum of your school district. If you do not believe it has a role in the K-12 curriculum, please explain why.

HOPE: Critical Race Theory suggests racism is systemic within American institutions. To my knowledge, CRT was not created for, nor designed for students in grades K-12 to study and fully comprehend. The content of CRT requires high level critical thinking skills and analysis beyond the scope of the K-12 learner.

PIGNATARO: Critical race theory approaches race as a social construct, and explores the idea that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. It is widely known that CRT is a graduate-level concept that is over 40 years old, primarily taught in law schools. CRT has not, and will not, be taught in K-12 schools.

Please define, in your own words, what Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) is. Please explain what you believe its role, if any, is appropriate in the K-12 curriculum of your school district. If you do not believe it has a role in the K-12 curriculum, please explain why.

HOPE: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion are the terms used to foster a welcoming, empathic, and equitable school environment. I believe each child is an individual, reflecting diversity in various ways. I believe respecting each other and our differences is integral to a harmonious learning environment. This respect is often learned through modeling and “teachable moments” occurring naturally through the course of each day. Our schools must have the tools for building and/or enhancing character, while meeting state standards and providing rigorous curriculum for each student. 

PIGNATARO: Unfortunately, pundits and politicians have convinced a portion of the population that DEI is somehow intended to be harmful to them. In truth, DEI practices benefit every person in the community, and absolutely belong in K-12 schools. I am a firm believer that the task of public schools is to educate and support the entire learning community. “Diversity” recognizes that students come from varied ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, with unique experiences and learning needs. “Equity” does not mean favoritism, or “one over the other” – it means that all students have an equal opportunity to learn. “Inclusion” means that all are welcome, recognized and supported in our schools.

Please define, in your own words, what Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) is. Please explain what you believe its role, if any, is appropriate in the K-12 curriculum of your school district. If you do not believe it has a role in the K-12 curriculum, please explain why.

HOPE: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is essential to a fruitful school setting. Social/emotional behaviors may be exemplified in the way one moderates emotions and interacts with others. Children learn these skills through implicit and explicit teaching. I believe much SEL is modeled through the actions and/or reactions of others and many children have a foundation of these skills prior to entering school. It is undeniable children have varying social/emotional needs and therefore may require different levels of support.  

PIGNATARO: Similar to DEI, there are those who have become convinced that taking care of children’s social & emotional needs in an educational setting is unnecessary. On the contrary, I would argue that Social & Emotional Learning is essential to student wellness and success, especially in these uncertain times. Essential concepts like respect, honesty, kindness, self-confidence, and more are infused into the curriculum as part of SEL, K-12.

What role do you believe the school district plays in protecting and accommodating LGBTQIA+ students? Do you have any examples where you believe the district overstepped or underplayed their role in serving in LGBTQIA+ students?

HOPE: I believe each child is an individual. As individuals, our children have countless, valuable differences and deserve care and compassion. The school environment should be an inclusive, safe learning space, fostering respect for every student.   

PIGNATARO: The school district has an obligation to serve (and protect) all students equally, with fidelity. While there are certainly some concerns unique to students who identify as LGBTQIA+, I am unaware of any times that the district “overstepped” or “underplayed” their role. I believe the phrasing of this question seeks to imply that having a GSA club, or affirming a student’s gender through the use of proper pronouns is “overstepping.” I hope that I am wrong in that assumption.

In June 2019, New York removed the religious exemption for students regarding vaccinations. Do you believe the state was within its scope to mandate vaccinations for students? Please explain your reasoning.

HOPE: As a proponent of parental choice, I believe every parent has the right and responsibility, along with their medical provider, to decide what is best for their child.

PIGNATARO: The NY State Education Department and NY State Department of Health are tasked with making decisions related to vaccine requirements for public schools; this is outside the purview of a Board of Education Trustee.

 Do you believe the COVID-19 vaccine should be mandated for children aged 5 and above? Why or why not?

HOPE: The COVID-19 vaccine is currently under emergency use authorization and therefore not able to be mandated for school attendance. 

PIGNATARO: This question is outside the purview of a Board of Education Trustee, and should be left to medical professionals to answer.

 Do you believe that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccines should be mandatory to attend public school?

HOPE: The current NYS law requires the MMR vaccine for school attendance. This is beyond the jurisdiction of the Board of Education.

PIGNATARO: This vaccine is already required in public schools. Whether it should remain so is a question outside the purview of a Board of Education Trustee, and should be left to medical professionals to answer.

 Do you believe any votes or policies decided by the Board of Education should be kept private or classified from the parents/community? If so, what circumstances would warrant this?

HOPE: The BOE is elected to represent the community. This duty is only able to be carried out through transparent communication; therefore, the BOE votes and potential policies should be made public to all stakeholders, while abiding by the regulations and laws in place.

PIGNATARO: Some discussions in executive session must be kept confidential. More information about the function of executive session can be found on the NYSSBA website. To my knowledge, all other Board votes regarding policy are public, as they should be.

 Do you feel parents’ voices and concerns have been heard by the Board of Education in the past two years? If no, what concerns have not been heard and how would you have approached it differently?

HOPE: I am thankful for the open lines of communication provided by Dr. Hearney and the BOE; however, I do not feel all voices in our community have been adequately represented. In speaking with many members of our district, I do not believe our BOE met their responsibility to advocate to NYS for the community stakeholders.

PIGNATARO: Yes.

What is your definition of Parental Choice? What is included in parental choice and what is beyond its scope? Do you believe Parental Choice applies to curriculum, attendance, homework?

HOPE: Parental choice reflects the fundamental rights of parents to decide what is best for their children. Recently, we have witnessed divide among communities regarding the masking of our children. This is an excellent example of a parent’s right to choose what is best for the child. There have also been surveys disseminated throughout the district for students to complete with questions of a highly sensitive nature. It is my belief, in lieu of “opting out”, parents should, perhaps, be given the option to “opt in” to topics of such sensitive nature. This can be accomplished with a “permission slip”, similar to the form we must sign to allow our elementary aged children to view a PG rated film in school. Clearly, parental choice is not able to dictate classroom lessons, as state standards and educational requirements must be met through curriculum and instruction.

PIGNATARO: “Parental Choice” does not apply to attendance – there are state laws related to compulsory education that must be enforced. With regard to curriculum, the district employs highly trained, certified professionals to develop curricula and deliver instruction in line with NYSED learning standards for each grade level and subject. Parents may have their children “opt out” of some specific lessons and assessments, and they are notified of these opportunities by the District.

Would you support additional investment into the BOCES/trades program at BBP High School so that more students are able to pursue BOCES education in 11th and 12th grade? If yes, where do you think the funding should come from?

 HOPE: I believe BOCES/trade programs are invaluable to our 11th and 12th grade participants and should be available to eager students. Vocational training is an exceptional resource, as it often prepares our youth to hone skills for a desired career. The district should maKe it a priority to find the funding needed for these programs for any and all interested students.

 PIGNATARO: As a High School Counselor, I see immeasurable value in Career & Technical Education. I do support the recent addition to the budget, which added 13 more seats to accommodate all eligible juniors & seniors who have applied to attend BOCES programs.

 Anti-bullying is a strong component of the Bayport Blue Point School District curriculum. How have you personally conducted yourself to minimize or admonish bullying? How have you influenced other parents to remain respectful? How do you demonstrate to your children (if any)/students proper decorum?

HOPE: I have zero tolerance for bullying, harassment, and/or intimidation of any kind. My children have been raised to respect others. As a parent and educator, my care and compassion for others is evident through my words and actions. I celebrate diversity and acknowledge people do not have to agree to be kind to one another. My children have made me proud in their efforts to include others and spread joy. Perhaps the greatest testament to my character, is the character of my children.

PIGNATARO: The Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) provides a framework by which all public schools in New York are required to address reports of bullying and harassment. I am certified as a Dignity Act Coordinator, and in that capacity I have personally handled investigation and resolution of DASA reports. I am also an in-service instructor for school staff, and I am proud to have written my 30-hour Bullying Prevention course. I have seen firsthand the devastating effects of bullying, not only on the people directly involved, but on the school community as a whole. In both my personal and professional life, I try to model the behavior that I hope to see from others: to listen with empathy, to consider my words carefully before responding, and to be accountable when I may have unintentionally caused harm. Our children are always watching and listening – if we want kind children, we should be modeling kindness. If we want inclusive, non-judgmental children, we should be modeling inclusion. If we want respectful children, we should be modeling respect and decorum.

What endorsements have you received from organizations, elected officials, or other community leaders?

HOPE: At the time of this writing, I have not received endorsements. 

PIGNATARO: I am proud to be endorsed by the Bayport-Blue Point Teachers' Association.

Do you believe only someone who is a parent can themselves can serve on the Board of Education?

HOPE: The public school system is a fundamental component of the community. I believe each community member has a stake in the school and therefore the right to serve on the BOE, if elected by the constituents.

PIGNATARO: I believe that any community member who has an interest in the position, and who is willing to volunteer their time, should be able to run for the Board.

 Do you think more informal meetings should be held with Board of Education members to communicate ideas with the community? (e.g. a meeting in the public library)

HOPE: I believe meetings conducted using an informal format can encourage trust through transparency and communication, while providing the opportunity for more community input.

 PIGNATARO: Currently, the BOE meets at least twice per month in public session, and in each meeting there are two opportunities for public comment. In addition, the BOE is accessible via email. I believe that this is adequate, but would be willing to hear from other Trustees if they have a differing view

Do you feel Dr. Hearney and the Board carried out appropriate actions in enforcing the mask mandate? If not, how you feel it should have been addressed?

HOPE: I believe Dr. Hearney and the Board enforced the mandates put forth by New York State

PIGNATARO: Absolutely. Dr. Hearney and the Board did their duty to adhere to NYSED mandates and shield the District from penalties, including loss of State funding.

Do you believe COVID-19 was a serious threat to the community and specifically our students?

HOPE: COVID-19 is a clear health threat and while the impact it has on individuals may vary greatly, there is no doubt this virus has had devastating effects on many people. Thankfully, according to the latest available data, COVID-19 does not pose a serious threat to the vast majority of young children.  

 PIGNATARO: Yes.

Do you support the redistricting plans presented by Dr. Hearney, commonly known as the Princeton Plan?

HOPE: I am not a proponent of this plan, as I believe siblings at the elementary age level should enjoy the opportunity to attend the same school.

PIGNATARO: This is a difficult question to answer. While I am concerned about the potential social-emotional impact on students adjusting to new buildings more frequently, there are also many potential benefits to a “grade band” model. The Enrollment Committee has worked hard to collect and analyze all of the relevant data. I’d like an opportunity to review input that has been collected from elementary parents, as well as elementary school staff, before making a decision. In addition, I would like to learn more about the potential fiscal and staffing impacts of the Princeton Plan.

 Do you support bringing back the 5th grade Washington D.C. trip?

HOPE: Absolutely. I believe the opportunity to visit Washington DC and explore the history of our nation is of great value to our students.

PIGNATARO: There are many considerations that must be made in order to run a successful out-of-state trip with a large group of students. I would like to hear from parents of rising fifth graders, as well as the fifth grade teachers and elementary principals, before making a decision about this.

 Would you renew Dr. Hearney’s contract if the Board was in a position to do so? Why or why not?

HOPE: It would be my hope to work collaboratively with Dr. Hearney and my fellow BOE trustees to ensure the greatest outcome for the students of Bayport Blue-Point school district.

PIGNATARO: Yes. Dr. Hearney and his administrative team have conducted themselves with professionalism and compassion through incredibly difficult times. Any time that I have reached out to Dr. Hearney with a question or concern, big or small, he has responded with a personal phone call. This is NOT standard operating procedure in all districts! We are fortunate to have a respected leader like Dr. Hearney as our Superintendent.

 We’ve sadly met with great tragedy in our school district this year with multiple suicides. What programs would you support to implement to help parents, guardians, caregivers identify at-risk students? Why initiatives or programs would you support to help students seek and receive help for mental illness?

HOPE: These recent tragedies have brought tremendous grief to our community. I believe the school should be a safe, supportive environment that strives to create and maintain open communication with students and their families. The mental health of our children is of utmost importance. The school can offer parent workshops and staff trainings to recognize, address, and support the social/emotional needs of the children and signs of “at-risk” youth. This can be accomplished utilizing the many skilled professionals within the district and employ outside resources as needed. Studies have shown “screen-time” may have significant negative impacts on the mental health of our adolescents. Decreasing time spent on the Chromebook and increasing opportunities for outdoor activities and/or social engagement may be of additional benefit to our students.

PIGNATARO: Throughout my career, I have counseled many students, families and colleagues through devastating loss. I have also been a crisis hotline trainer, educating new counselors about identification of risk factors & assessment of people in crisis. The District’s partnership with Family Service League is extremely valuable. FSL is a wealth of knowledge and support, and the Community Forums they’ve provided have been wonderful. I’d like to see those continue, so that even more parents can experience their workshops. I have heard Dr. Hearney talk about making sure that every student has a “go-to person” in their schools – this can help to create connections for students in a new, non-stressful way. In addition, I was thrilled to see that the current budget calls for the addition of two more Social Workers, as well as more funding for clubs and extracurricular activities, a 6th grade SEL course, and a “wellness room” at the HS. In terms of connecting students with resources for the diagnosis & treatment of mental illness, our schools have access to a referral database through BOCES EAP, and we are able to have students assessed at the Suffolk Diagnostic, Assessment & Stabilization Hub (DASH) if they are in acute crisis.

 Do you feel parents should be able to insist that a book they find objectionable be removed from the school library?

HOPE: I am not a proponent of “book banning”. I believe educators have a responsibility to vet the subject matter of reading materials and the content must be age appropriate and relevant to the curriculum.  

PIGNATARO: I trust that our district’s Library Media Specialists are well-trained to maintain collections in their respective libraries that are appropriate to the age level of the students that they serve. I do not believe that parents should be able to have books removed. Parents certainly could, however, have conversations with their own children about what they consider to be appropriate reading material. I am saddened to know that as books are removed from libraries, and librarians and authors are vilified by parent groups, students are watching. Our kids are internalizing the message that some topics are too uncomfortable or too shameful to the adults, so the adults want them removed. In a time where more students than ever are reporting high levels of disengagement, anxiety, and depression, this message is incredibly harmful.

 

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