SAYVILLE BOE RACE: Desmond Megna v. Mark Ruf v. Christine Sarni

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The Suffolk County News asked community members to submit questions for the Board of Education candidates and compiled them.

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

Here are their answers:

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

MEGNA: I have not actively sought anyones endorsement. 

RUF:  I have not approached any groups for endorsements. I’m doing this on my own.

SARNI: DID NOT RESPOND

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?

MEGNA:In speaking with community members the one problem that keeps arising in conversations is the apparent lack of transparency. Community members feel left out of vital decisions being made that they feel directly impact their child’s ability to learn. If elected I can help address this by making sure that parents are heard. No problem should be deemed insignificant because what may seem a small issue to some is life changing for another. Every child and every family should be valued the same. 

RUF:  I appreciate the generous amount of time our BOE members volunteer to better our district. I also appreciate that the current BOE had to work through unprecedented challenges during a major pandemic. In the midst of all that we were struggling with, I believe there could have been better communication. I want to open the door to more communication between the BOE and parents, and the community. It’s important to have honest two-way dialogue where the BOE is giving important and timely information, but also listening to the community. We can tackle this in many ways, including using social media and communication ambassadors who can help raise questions and disseminate information.

SARNI: I think the current Board has done a good job navigating us through the last two difficult years.  They were put into a situation where it was obvious there was no way to make everyone happy.  I believe they listened and adapted within their powers.  Unfortunately, there is a perception that the School Board does not effectively communicate with the community.  If elected, I will work to ensure public access to School Board meetings online. I will strongly encourage more opportunities for all constituent groups to be heard and actively work together with the Board and District Administration through roundtable discussions, focus groups, community forums and ad-hoc committees.

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.

MEGNA: CRT according to the latest data is not being taught in any public school on Long Island and I do not believe that it should be taught.  It is a complicated deep dive into race, culture, and law, and it has no place in public school.

RUF: There is much disagreement over what CRT means. I don’t believe in any curriculum that creates further division among our students and teachers. As a father of both white and bi-racial children, it is important to me to see all of our children accepted and treated respectfully in their learning environments so that they can grow as individuals. It is also important to me to see us work to bridge the divide caused by hate. CRT is not the answer. Judging people based on their race alone is an antiquated notion that brings us backwards rather than forwards.

SARNI: Unfortunately, the media has influenced most people’s understanding of CRT and a quick Google search does not help narrow down its definition. My understanding is that CRT is a theory that explores how certain values, most specifically racism, have influenced the public and private policies that have hindered the social and financial progress of people of color

I believe these theories are way beyond the level of the K-12 curriculum to be easily understood or properly analyzed. Even at the high school levels, students do not have the institution knowledge or experience to make well-formulated opinions about policies and if CRT has value.

I believe teachers should do what they have always done: teach the facts of American and World history; connect those facts through literature, language and other parts of the curriculum; and have children analyze them from different perspectives at age-appropriate levels. History does not have to be pretty, but a focus on positive outcomes and not repeating the negative aspects is appropriate in the K-12 setting. Most importantly, students need to be taught to discern between fact and opinion and learn how to vet sources for credibility, reliability, and bias.

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.

MEGNA: DEI is an initiative to promote and encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools across the state. Of course it has a role in the K-12 curriculum. As the demographics of LI change we should be promoting culturally responsible education, celebrating all of our students and making sure that everyone feels safe and welcome in our schools.

RUF:  DEI, like CRT, is perceived differently by different groups. What has been proven across the country is that some DEI efforts have had a positive impact while others haven’t. The best course of action always comes from open and honest communication. Creating ways for teachers to collaborate on supporting all students and creating opportunities for dialogue on diversity and inclusion should always have a place in K-12 education.

SARNI: Last spring, the NYS Board of Regents released a framework for districts to include elements of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion into school programming and curriculum. The framework includes the expectation for districts to establish a DEI committee of stakeholders (including students) to work towards creating a school culture that is inclusive, culturally responsive, and addresses the role discrimination plays in both history and our current students’ lives. Its goal is to foster relationships based on respect, trust, and understanding between students that come from diverse backgrounds and overcome negative stereotypes, reduce language barriers, and support the historically marginalized.

I believe DEI plays an important role in the K-12 curriculum. Exposing our students to different cultures and experiences other than their own allows them to open their minds and understand the perspective of others. Learning about history, traditions, foods, family dynamics and the overcoming of adversity by different groups should draw parallels among us and not divide us. As a board member, I will work towards creating a school culture that perpetuates positive stereotypes and maximizes student exposure by expanding opportunities for classes and clubs that celebrate our differences and foster support and alliances within them.

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.

MEGNA: SEL, as it applies to NYS Schools, is an approach to help kids develop self awareness and management skills, use these skills to build positive relationships and demonstrate responsible decision making skills. If implemented correctly it can be very beneficial. 

RUF:  I believe parents are responsible for teaching their children morals and helping them learn how to behave and think in ways that help themselves and others. I believe our schools need to focus on academics. However, there are great tools our children can benefit from when they are surrounded by their peers or their peers and parents, and sometimes teachers need a way to address SEL competencies that may be blocking the learning experience in their classroom. Some of the programs initiated in the last few years have been well received and what I’ve found nice is that the programs to be done in the home are voluntary. We have experts in our district on the 5 competencies of SEL. If a parent feels they need to focus on any of these competencies it is a positive that programs and activities are made available, but I agree with the approach to date that it is not a mandate.

SARNI:  Social-emotional learning focuses on decision-making skills, habits, and mindsets that allow students to develop healthy attitudes, manage personal emotions, set personal goals, maintain supportive relationships, and show empathy. Historically, teachers naturally embed SEL into their lessons by planning activities that may include storytelling, working in groups, time and stress management, mediation, and mentoring.

I believe social emotional learning is essential in the K-12 curriculum and beyond. I would seek to enhance programs that continue to foster self-awareness, self-respect, and social awareness. I would work to reduce the stigma associated with asking for help when needed and expand awareness of available resources. As a community leader, I have worked with many organizations like the Great South Bay Coalition, New York Project Hope and our Sayville Library who offer many support services including therapy, drug counseling, suicide prevention and mindfulness. I would seek to foster relationships between these organizations and the district to raise awareness of the resources available to families in our community.

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?

MEGNA: I believe that every child should feel safe within the confines of our school walls, and that every child should feel accepted enough to seek out and ask for help if needed. 

RUF:  Learning through my daughter’s peers, I was very surprised by how young students were when they started identifying as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for children to face fears about being different or accepted at such a young age. I believe the school district has a responsibility to make sure all students feel safe and respected so they can focus on why they are there—to learn. Children should be able to express themselves through their clothing, or style, or pronouns. They have the right to their own identity. I have seen teachers show support to their students and increase their comfort level. I think that’s great. I don’t think it’s right to have students feel they need to talk about their sexual identity if they don’t want to. I also think we should be focusing on school—not who is dating who…

SARNI: I believe it is the district's job to accommodate and protect all students to the best of its ability. The School Board and Administration need to acknowledge that certain groups of students are more likely to find school unsafe or uncomfortable. This is not limited to the LGBTQIA+ students; however, research shows they are often the target of bullying. The Board must work with stakeholders to set comprehensive and consistent polices that reinforce a culture of non-discrimination and support inclusion of all. The Board needs to ensure that discipline policies do not disproportionately end in retaliation upon targeted groups such as LGBTQ youth, students of color, English Language Learners (ELL), or students with disabilities. Students are most likely to reach their full educational potential in positive learning environments that are safe, secure, welcoming, and where they feel a sense of belonging. The board needs to ensure the district receives input from teachers, counselors, support staff, students, and parents to ensure we all work in unison to ensure school is a safe place. As a Board member, I will constantly assess and monitor the school climate and work to strengthen a culture of inclusion for all by expanding programs like S.T.R.I.D.E.S and Peer Leaders.

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

MEGNA:  I do not. I believe that every parent has the right to make that decision for their child.

RUF: My wife worked at a hospital, so I got a glimpse into the seriousness of COVID-19, and what seemed to be factual versus not. As parents, we included our children in the decision to vaccinate, we talked to our pediatrician, and we listened to experts on both sides. I encourage everyone to do the same. I do not believe we should mandate anyone at this point. It should be a parent’s choice on how to proceed.

SARNI:  I believe everyone should receive the vaccine for their own safety, but stop short of believing it should be mandated. We have come so far in our fight against COVID, and the medical and pharmaceutical field continues to make advances in our ability to control and fight the effects of the virus. My hope is that this divisive issue is behind us, and we can begin work addressing the mental health and learning loss experienced by our children.

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?

MEGNA: I understand that the Board had their hands tied by mandates passed down from the State. I do believe, however, that a lot of parents feel like they were not heard when it came to virtual learning, masking, and special education concerns during the pandemic and beyond. This has built up a sense of frustration in the community.

RUF: Unfortunately, I do not believe parents felt heard by the BOE. Social media groups and planned rallies popped up expressly because of this. We need to do a better job of making sure parents are heard. Masks, vaccines, budget, and teacher scandals have all come up. I don’t believe communication should be thought through from a political point of view. It should be much more open and honest. Give people the facts. Make sure communication is widespread. Make sure it is timely. Give everyone a voice on important issues.

SARNI: I have heard parents at the microphone express concerns regarding the lack of a culture of inclusion and bullying incidents being overlooked. It is difficult to identify what actions have been taken because often those types of actions are confidential. However, as a Board Member, I am open to communication with all community members and vow to work towards outcomes that are in the best interest of all students and provide proper resources and support to the parents and the child such as counseling, buddy programs, and mentoring programs.

Anti-bullying is a strong component of the Sayville 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?

MEGNA:  Bullying has no place in a school setting and the adults in the community should be the role models for the youth. 

RUF: I am glad that anti-bullying is a strong component of the district curriculum. Unfortunately, it still happens. I am also glad that our administrators are ready to tackle bullying situations. But they can’t control everything. Parents need to be involved. I think every instance of bullying needs to be brought to a parent’s attention, both the parents of the child who was bullied and the parents of the child who was the bully. Parents have a strong influence when it comes to bullying. Whenever my children have been involved, we have spoken to other parents ourselves and had our children talk to the other children outside of school. It may be uncomfortable, but I believe it goes a long way to putting it behind the children so they can move forward stronger. I do think we should look at additional bullying assemblies that take a peer perspective and make it feel more relevant to our kids’ social climate.

SARNI: I believe the most important action to counteract bullying is to support the target. Letting people know that you recognize the actions of a bully, that they are not alone, and you are there to support them is extremely important. Secondly, it is important to work to counteract the bully without amplifying their voice and feeding into their self-determined power. I reach out to people on a regular basis regarding this type of behavior. I discuss and model this behavior with my children on a regular basis. It is important that we reinforce self-confidence and respect for others in our communication with children.

The children witness and internalize more than we realize through observation and access to social media. Combating bullying needs to be done in unison with the School Board, administration, educators, parents, and the community at-large. Bullying is not isolated to just the school hours or on its premises. I will work to create coalitions among constituent groups and pool resources to support targeted individuals or groups and tackle bullying no matter where it occurs. I will seek to do this on an ongoing basis by collecting and analyzing data through surveys, incident reports, attendance records, and discussions with administration, parents, and students.

What do you love most about Sayville school district?

MEGNA: The pride in which people have for it. The small town feel with the school being the center of it all.

RUF: I have lived in Sayville since 2005. My wife and I bought our first house in Sayville in part because of the school district. As our kids have gotten older, we’ve become more involved in academics, sports and school activities and we have been impressed. From the PTA-sponsored events like the fun dances and Bingo nights, to the school-sponsored events like the runs, field day and Halloween parades, everyone gets to be involved and have fun. We’re grateful for the administrative and special education support we’ve received to date that has kept our children all on their own right paths, and I can honestly say we have had teachers that will be forever etched in the minds of our children. They are the superstars that have made genuine connections giving them the insight they needed to guide our children academically. Those teachers are what I love most about the district. I believe in small class sizes so those connections can continue.

SARNI: There is no greater feeling than watching Sayville and West Sayville come together as a community for a common purpose. As a community leader, I have witnessed this community extend their overwhelming generosity to those in need, whether it be for the people of Ukraine or local families in need. I have worked side-by-side with parents and their children cleaning along our local creek beds and planting native plants to preserve the health of our bay. I have worked with our Junior Civic to identify volunteering opportunities at local events and work with their peers to make them successful. Our Sayville and West Sayville community always rises to the occasion. Just last month, NYSED announced it would start accepting applications from districts seeking to apply for the option to add an additional graduation pathway in civic readiness. To achieve credit, a student would need to demonstrate civic knowledge through coursework and civic participation through a service project or engagement in civic minded activity. I believe the Seal of Civic Readiness can be the recognition of the work so many students already do in our community. As a Board member, I would work to create partnerships including parents, students, our community organizations, and local business.

What do you feel needs most improvement in Sayville as a community?

MEGNA: I love Sayville. I'm excited for my family's future. I'm excited for community events like "The Holiday House Tour", "Concerts in the Park", and "Summer Fest " to be back at full strength this year! 

RUF: I think it would be great for the entire community if people would talk and listen more and keep up respectful communication.

SARNI: Sayville/West Sayville needs more places for the children in the community to have a recreational outlet. Sayville/West Sayville has a long-standing, positive commitment to sports at all levels. Our sports community thrives to provide opportunities for everyone. However, not all children are interested in playing sports. I believe a similar commitment to arts and music would be a positive addition to our town. I would continue to work to bring in more programs and locations geared to the diverse interests of our children. Research shows that children and young adults who are active and engaged in their community are less likely to find themselves in trouble. There are 26 civic-minded groups in Sayville, but most of them are geared towards adults. I would work to build bridges and create opportunities between these groups and our young community members.

Do you believe teachers should have at-will employment?

MEGNA: I believe the current tenure system is sufficient.

RUF: I would never want to see a teacher in a classroom that no longer wants to teach. What a teacher does and says has too much influence and they should be allowed to leave at any time if they don’t feel it’s in anyone’s best interest to stay. Also, if our administration has found a teacher not upholding the values of the district, then they should be empowered to take action without delay.

SARNI: I believe all workers should have due process.

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

MEGNA:  Parents should have the ability to bring up any issue they feel is important to them. If that issue is with a book then it should be discussed with the proper school personnel. The word "insist" holds a negative connotation and it doesn't have to be a vitriolic discussion. It can be handled calmly, and professionally. There is always room to compromise.  

RUF: I don’t believe in book banning, but parents can guide their own children to read/not read what they see fit.

SARNI:  I do not feel that parents should be able to insist a book they find objectionable be removed from the school library unless all parents agree. At any given time, a book that is appropriate for one student may not be appropriate for another. If a parent has concerns about content or themes found in some independent reading material, the parents should work with the teacher and school librarian to pick out something they find more appropriate.  In addition, parents should keep open the lines of communication with their children to create a safe place to discuss issues that they do not understand or make them feel uncomfortable as they encounter them, whether in books or other places.

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