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Bedford Central's Heated School Year Spills Over Into Board Races

Left to right at a candidates' forum: Jennifer Gerken, Michelle Brooks, Suzanne Grant, Pam Harney, Michael Solomon and Beth Staropoli. Photo Credit: Tom Auchterlonie
A sign for Jennifer Gerken and Suzanne Grant's ticket (in the foreground) and a sign for Beth Staropoli in the background. Photo Credit: Tom Auchterlonie
Signage for Michael Solomon, Pam Harney and Michelle Brooks. Photo Credit: Tom Auchterlonie
Signage bashing Bedford Central school board member Michael Solomon, who is running for re-election. The sign calls him a "hypocrite" and "anti-school." Photo Credit: Tom Auchterlonie

BEDFORD, N.Y. -- As Bedford Central school board members have clashed and grappled with the district's finances during the current school year, a fully contested election cycle has laid bare the divisions that exist.

What is normally a relatively sleepy affair has taken on the hallmarks of campaigning normally found in state and federal races, as rival tickets and negative conduct have sprouted up.

On one side are incumbents Jennifer Gerken and Suzanne Grant , veteran board members who have served for nearly six years. The pair are running on a ticket in favor of staying the course in Bedford Central. The other ticket is headed by fellow incumbent Michael Solomon, who was first elected in 2013 after losing to Gerken in his first bid in 2010.

Solomon, who has clashed with colleagues and administrators over the budgetary process, is now seeking to unseat his colleagues. To that end, he is running on a ticket with challengers Pam Harney and Michelle Brooks.

At a recent candidates' forum, Solomon, who lives in Pound Ridge and has a daughter enrolled at Fox Lane High School, praised what the district has to offer, but with one caveat.

“The one missing ingredient is board leadership,” he said.

Solomon, who has pushed for deeper non-teaching personnel cuts as a way to avoid axing more teaching jobs, acknowledged that he has advanced proposals that were not necessarily popular - one colleague charged at a budget-planning session that he was trying to "gut" the school district - but he defended his approach as necessary to fix Bedford Central's finances.

The insurgent ticket, and its supporters, have decried the use of fund-balance reserves over the years to mitigate tax hikes without making long-term cost cuts. After using fund balance every year since the Great Recession, the proposed budget will not rely on fund balance because the district is running low. The budget also has about $4.3 million in cuts and is coupled with an override of the state-mandated tax levy cap , which requires voter approval by at least 60 percent.

“I see a history of short-sighted decisions that have served as only as just temporary solutions when long-term vision and planning is what we sorely needed," said Brooks, who lives in Bedford Village and has four kids in district schools.

Solomon, meanwhile, has taken flack for his support of the current budget, which involved cutting the allotted funds for health insurance - a spike in claims this year led to overruns - and for fund balance usage that continued the downward trajectory of savings. Solomon, at a recent meeting and at the forum, doubled down and argued that district's overall fiscal crisis still existed regardless. Solomon added that sustainable cuts should have been made years ago, which he faulted his colleagues for not doing.

Harney, a mother of four and a Pound Ridge resident, argued that new leadership is needed to reduce the acrimony.

“My top priorities are to bring the community back together, to ensure academic excellence and rigor for all of our students, fiscal prudence in creating a sustainable budget, transparency and improved two-way communication, and accountability.”

Gerken and Grant argue that their re-elections bring continuity and experience, and that they made hard choices to deal with the district's financial problems.

“I believe the balance and experience that I bring during this time and of transition in the district is crucial,” said Grant, who lives in Mount Kisco and has had two kids go through the schools.

“This year has been uniquely challenging," said Gerken, a Bedford Village resident with two kids in the district. Gerken, who serves as board president, argued that she has been able to bring civility to the board and to forge a working relationship among what she called a "divided board."

Running alone is outgoing Athletic Director Beth Staropoli, a Mount Kisco resident who is retiring effective June 30.

Staropoli noted that focusing on what went wrong is easy to do.

“The greater challenge is to find solutions that keep students' needs at the center of the conversation," she added.

Staropoli, who has been a union member, faced a question at the forum about impartiality in bargaining. She replied that she will no longer be a union member upon retirement and has not negotiated on the union's side before.

The school board has, on key issues, functioned with two ad-hoc factions. On one side are Gerken, Grant, and colleagues Ed Reder and Andrew Bracco. The faction has historically been more likely to side with top administrators on policy. The other faction has included Solomon, Colette Dow and Brian Sheerin, which has at times challenged administrators during the budgetary process.

Solomon's faction, which could grow to a 5-2 majority if the ticket sweeps, voted against bringing the current budget to the voters. It also voted against appointing Gerken as president last summer as Solomon made a competing bid. The one area where they came together, however, was in hiring Dr. Christopher Manno as the next superintendent .

Although the budget was barely passed to the voters, Solomon voiced his support for it given what is at stake presently. All of the candidates are backing the budget out of necessity, although none are enthusiastic about it.

Candidates run for fixed seats against each other. As a result, Brooks is challenging Gerken, Harney is challenging Grant, and Staropoli is challenging Solomon. Voting takes place on Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with elementary schools serving as polling places.

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