Three candidates are vying for two seats on the Katonah-Lewisboro School District Board of Education. They are Samantha Holcman and Catharine Oestreicher, both running for the first time, and William Rifkin, an incumbent.

The Record-Review asked candidates to share their views via email on a variety of issues facing the district, as well as their reasons for running. Responses have been edited for space and clarity.

The Record-Review: Why are you running for the school board, and what makes you uniquely qualified?

Samantha Holcman: I have spent the last four years serving on the Katonah Elementary School PTO Executive Board, the last two years as co-president, and the last year as co-president of the KLSD Parent Council, an opportunity that has allowed me to connect, listen, strategize and innovate with families, faculty, staff and leadership throughout the district. My 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 have a kindergartener and a third-grader at KES. I have 12 years with students in our school district ahead of me, and am deeply invested in making it the best it can be for a very long time. I have a pulse on the issues facing our students and direct access to families that are in the thick of navigating the school system. I want to advocate for a whole-child experience and foster an educational environment where all students are treated with respect, empathy and compassion. I believe in supporting and augmenting the strong academic and extracurricular programming that KLSD is renowned for while adopting an annual budget that is fiscally responsible.

Catharine Oestreicher: I am running for the KLSD Board of Education because I believe in the importance of an engaged, relevant, and active learning environment for our students. I believe the school board should support, lead and inspire our faculty and administration while remaining fiscally responsible. 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 experiences, athletic programs, arts programs and extracurricular clubs. 

The onset of remote learning has been completely disruptive for our entire education system. I think our faculty and teachers have worked quickly to implement remote learning, but it has been challenging.

I believe that my extensive volunteer experience, educational background and life experiences accumulated through our five children’s elementary, middle school and high school careers give me a unique perspective and makes me a strong candidate for the school board.

William Rifkin: I am running for another term because I believe it will be important to retain some continuity and institutional memory on the board. With the other incumbent not running, there will be at least one new trustee, resulting in a majority of the board being in their first term. If two new trustees are elected, a majority of the board will either be new or have only one year of experience. New blood is important, but I believe the coming years will be challenging, educationally (distance learning) and financially (reduced state aid and higher required contributions to employee retirement funds). With this in mind, I envision a need for a balance of newer and more experienced trustees.

There is a learning curve to being on the board. How things work, who does what when, what is the proper scope and oversight role of the Board are some of the aspects a new trustee will absorb over time.

The Record-Review: How would you deal with anticipated cuts in state aid and reduced district revenue?

Catharine Oestreicher: Even with anticipated cuts in state aid and reduced district revenue, my priorities will continue to be to strive for the highest quality of education and the health and mental well-being of our students. There will be difficult decisions that must be made. The board must communicate effectively with our community and work together to remain fiscally responsible while achieving our goals. I am optimistic that we can get through this with the least amount of detriment to our students and the best use of our taxpayers’ dollars.

William Rifkin: This is the reality the district will have to deal with, and for which Board experience will be important. Budgetary pressure will come from many sources, more than those included in the question. At the same time, the changed economic reality for many district residents will severely limit the degree to which these financial insults can be ameliorated by the taxpayers.

Over the six years I have been on the board, we have been able to achieve the twin goals of preserving and expanding educational opportunities and being fiscally responsible to the taxpayers. Over these six years, the budget has increased by only 2.5% (average 0.42% per year), the tax levy by only 2.1% (average 0.35% per year). At the same time, we have been able to maintain our high standards academically and assure sufficient offerings for all students to find their niche, pursue their passion.

Samantha Holcman: Our board needs to set an attainable vision and prioritize spending. Our taxpayers are not in favor of voting on an annual budget that exceeds the tax cap, but with 40% of our annual funding coming from the state, the administration will be forced to be creative, prioritize, and make really tough decisions. If elected, I plan to do what is best for the long-term future of our district. I can’t imagine having to reduce staff because of proposed budget cuts, especially if we potentially need new hires to help execute a redesigned school day due to the pandemic. Every district in our state will be in the same boat as KLSD, so there is an opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other. If we have to fundamentally redesign the traditional school day with the main priorities of health and safety, we will also be faced with redesigning our spending. We must maintain as high a level of education, programming and services as possible.

The Record-Review: Are you satisfied with how the district has handled distance learning? 

William Rifkin: I think an honest assessment for any district would be “no.” This is not to imply wrongdoing or mistakes, but simply that due to the emergent necessity of distance learning, no district can say that their initial foray was perfect. Distance learning is hard to do, and very few individual educators, let alone entire districts have much experience with it.

I think considering the time frame, our inexperience and the scope of the problem, our initial steps were good. To simply get things started and “cover all bases” took herculean effort by many. I think, as one could expect, there have been pluses and minuses.

The key will be to learn from our experiences, make adjustments, and be willing to continually reevaluate.

Samantha Holcman: The district never had a reason to build a virtual learning environment and therefore had a steep learning curve when we switched over to distance learning. Students and families were caught in the wave of having to reinvent the traditional school day and are not satisfied with how our district has taught from home. Moving forward, KLSD needs to ensure that every student is equipped with their own device while streamlining the use of technology for distance learning. There needs to be synchronous learning to mirror a traditional school day. We need to make sure we are appropriately assessing our students, academically and emotionally, and meeting curriculum benchmarks. In addition, there is a need for more teacher training on a variety of topics from social-emotional learning to technology, and other educational tools, so our teachers and students can work smarter, not harder.

Catharine Oestreicher: Distance learning has been a challenge for everyone. We made some mistakes and those mistakes need to be remedied. In order for us to be successful at remote learning we need more clarity, review, checking for understanding and prompt feedback. We need to look at new technology, better software platforms and more instruction. Distance learning has to be more interactive; we need to engage our students and encourage them to become active participants.

I do not believe that distance learning is a substitute for in-school education. None of my children have enjoyed learning as much as they would have in the classroom, not to mention the lack of socialization, independence and maturity that comes with heading off to school each morning. 

We need to be thoughtful in our decisions because we aren’t just looking at our education system, but also at our children’s physical and mental health.

The Record-Review: How would you maintain a variety of course offerings during declining enrollment?

Catharine Oestreicher: I believe the ability to offer our students a variety of academic options is one of the major differentiators of the John Jay school system. Elective courses give students an opportunity to choose and hone their interests while actively engaging in their own education. Advanced placement classes, honors classes, technology, theater, studio art and language options alongside a strong core curriculum are essential to prepare our students’ admission into the colleges of their choice. I recognize the importance of maintaining these course options while operating in a fiscally responsible manner.

William Rifkin: This is one of the essential long-term questions for our district. It does appear that the rate of decline is leveling off. It is likely that we will reach our new steady state within the next few years. I think the district should continue to try to preserve offerings as has been done up to now. This has entailed a combination of needs assessments and creative planning.

The district cannot offer every possible opportunity or course to every student no matter the enrollment. What can be done is ongoing measurement of how many students are interested in which options, along with efforts to boost enrollment if interest appears low. At the same time, the district should continue to be creative in solutions to this problem. Shared experiences with neighboring districts are an option that has been used. Likewise, utilization of our local BOCES as a shared resource.

It is the clear and shared goal of everyone involved with the schools to assure that every student, no matter their interests or passion can find a home in our schools.

Samantha Holcman: I think that maintaining a high level of education, programming and services is part of what makes KLSD the powerhouse that it is. I want students to have choices, be engaged in their learning and become well-rounded people. If there is interest and enough enrollment to support a certain course or a program, I would prioritize offering it to students. Hopefully with the recent trend of an increase in families escaping into the suburbs due to the pandemic, declining enrollment will be a thing of the past. 

The Record-Review: Once things get back to “normal” are there other issues or problems you would like the board to tackle?

Samantha Holcman: I know first-hand that many of our students feel stressed, over-scheduled and anxiety-filled. There is a pressure to perform and fit in. Mindfulness needs to become more of a priority, whether through student programming or the implementation of double recess in our elementary schools, for more brain breaks during the day. Investing in school mental health professionals that take the time to communicate with our students and parents on social-emotional wellness and learning will go a long way in keeping our students healthy and building a positive school culture. 

We can’t change the lack of racial diversity in our school district, but we can focus more on building an inclusive environment where we empathize with one another, share cultural stories, teach point of view and celebrate our differences.

Catharine Oestreicher: I want the board to implement programs and hire specialists that will address the mental health and well-being of our students; to expand professional development for our teachers because I strongly believe that quality teachers are paramount to the success of our children in the classroom; to select a new mascot for our high school so that we can move forward together, as a community; to update our district emergency plan to include a pandemic preparedness section; to continue exploring different educational programs and mechanisms that can improve the academic life and social well-being of our students

William Rifkin: If distance learning, at some dosage, is part of our “new normal,” we should become experts at it, learn which students/subjects/experiences are most amendable to this format, and what approaches work best.

Continuing to work with our negotiating partners so as to create sustainable long-term financial stability will be important. The contractually obligated long-term benefits to retired employees are a looming hazard. I believe the district has taken steps towards long-term sustainability in this regard, but further work is needed.

I think it will become increasingly important for the district educational experts to explain and defend various curricular choices. I have noticed over my time on the Board, that it is becoming more common for parents (and students) to express specific concerns. The easy availability of evidence, data and opinion makes it necessary for decision-makers to explain their decisions in more detail than in the past.

Jeff Morris is a staff reporter at The Record-Review where he covers the Town of Bedford and the Katonah-Lewisboro School District. Prior to joining the paper he was a reporter and columnist for the Lewisboro Ledger and a business magazine editor.

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