Commission and School Board Candidate Forum

On October 1, TAB, along with the South Florida 912 and the Palm Beach County Tea Party, hosted a candidate forum for County Commission district 1 and School Board district 1. Moderated by Steve Rosenblum of the blogTalkRadio show “CRF Radio with Steve and Daria”, the candidates were asked a set of questions about current issues facing their respective bodies, some of which proved to offer a real choice between the candidates. Present for the forum (and keeping them honest) was outgoing Commissioner Karen Marcus, who we thank for her service, and several of Mayor Levy’s councilmen, Bert Premuroso and Eric Jablin.

The School Board event matched former Minnesota Commissioner of Education Christine Jax against long term PBC teacher and principal Mike Murgio.

When asked about how to fix the general perception that the quality of local schools are poor and an impediment to attracting new businesses or hiring from out of the state, Mr. Murgio was defensive about it and claimed that the schools were “better than you think”, and that what we need is better marketing. Ms. Jax agreed that marketing was needed, but also pointed out areas of weakness, particularly at the high school level, that need action. On “high stakes testing”, Christine was firmly in favor of measurements and against “social promotion” while Mike narrowly defined it in terms of the vocational certifications achieved by students at Inlet Grove when he was its principal. Whether graduates can pass their nursing certification is important, but he did not address the wider measurement of academic performance. On school choice, Christine favors private for-profit charter schools where Mike does not. On the subject of the School System Inspector General (as opposed to the independent county OIG), Mike was hopeful that the current IG relationship can work, but would have accepted OIG oversight. Ms. Jax was emphatic – “having an IG on your payroll is just silly – you have to have someone from the outside.”

Moving on to the County Commission race, Democrat Palm Beach Gardens Mayor David Levy, a geologist, contended with past PBG Councilman and Republican Hal Valeche, a financial consultant.

On the budget, Hal gave a vote of support for TABOR measurements that constrain spending to match inflation and population growth. David favors improving efficiency while still providing core services, streamlining the organization chart and reorganizing the IT department. Neither were proponents of the counties giving tax dollars to private charities. On the issue of public safety unions, Hal (who has their support), doesn’t want to “whack anyone over the head”, but believes we need a glide path for pay and benefits to approach the norm. David was more direct – “The fire union was going to bankrupt the city”, he said, “they told me they’re coming after me, but I’m always going to do what’s right.” Neither was particulary supportive of large county cash infusions into the convention center hotel project, and Hal pointed to the Digital Domain fiasco as a reason to avoid such investments in the future, where the private company gets the reward and the taxpayer takes the risk. On the issue of the Inspector General lawsuit, Mayor Levy defended his role in bringing PBG into the lawsuit and said it was all about how the funding was calculated. Hal retorted that if he really wanted to end the lawsuit he should propose that to his council and we should let the IG get on with her business.

Below you will find a summary of the event, with the questions that were asked, and a link to a video of that section of the forum.

For the Palm Beach Post story on the event, see: Candidates for northern Palm Beach County commission seat spar at forum

School Board
Opening Statement:
Question 1: The school system has a budget of about $2.4B and an enrollment of 174,866 students, which is almost $14K per student, compared to $10,615 per student nationwide. In addition to 12,627 teachers, there are 8183 non-teachers, or about 40% of the total, and teachers average $46,946 / year, compared to about $60,000 in the non-bargaining classification (office workers and administrators). Would you want to make changes to the way the budget is allocated? How much could be done by the School Board.
Question 2: Much has been written and discussed about the drawbacks of the FCAT, the incentives to “teach the test”, etc. Yet many believe that objective measurements are necessary to identify weak as well as outstanding schools and act accordingly. At least one of you has supported the concept of “high stakes testing” as a prerequisite to improvement. What changes would you like to see in this area and what can be done locally at the school board level?
Question 3: Many believe that continuous improvement is enhanced by competition, and giving parents a choice to move to a better performing school will improve all the schools. There are several approaches being tried, including charter schools within the public system, vouchers for use at private or religious schools, and other innovations. Most of these approaches are opposed by the teachers unions and school administration alike. What is your view of implementing school choice?
Question 4: It is no secret that the reputation of the county school system is less than excellent. On a recent panel discussion on economic development in the county, this was listed by several of the panelists as a major impediment to attracting new businesses and for existing companies to recruit employees from out of the area. What can be done about this problem?
Question 5: There are many areas for waste, fraud and abuse in a school system the size of Palm Beach County, with its 20,000 employees and $2.4B budget. Although many county agencies have adopted the oversight of the office of inspector general, the school system has decided to go with their own IG structure that some would say is less independent than the county OIG. What is your view of this issue and how do you see the system IG office evolving over time?
Question 6: At the September 12 meeting, the School Board set their initial 2013 legislative priorities: The pension lawsuit, charter school accountability, local flexibility such as charter school waivers, restoring funds and merit pay issues. What are your priorities for the next legislative session?
County Commission
Opening Statement:
Question 1: With property valuations bottoming out, there is less pressure this year on programs and tax rates. Assuming we see increasing valuations in future years, how can we prevent the explosion of spending that occurred during the last period of rising property values? What can you say to the employees who want raises and the special interests that want more funding for their programs?
Question 2: Each year in the budget, about $13M is allocated to “Financially Assisted Agencies” or FAA. These grants are given to community organizations such as the Salvation Army, Goodwill and the Lord’s Place, which are mostly supported by private charitable giving. Is this an appropriate use of county taxpayer money which amounts to $10 for each resident of the county?
Question 3: Public Employee Unions have been very successful in obtaining generous salary and benefits for their members. In the county, what the PBA has obtained for PBSO employees and the IAFF for Fire/Rescue exceeds that for equivalent positions elsewhere. Given that one of you has recently been involved in rolling back some benefits at the municipal level, and the other has received campaign contributions from them, how would you approach this major part of the budget in future years?
Question 4: The current commission has voted 6-1 to proceed with planning for a 400 bed “headquarters hotel” adjacent to the convention center. They have proposed a $27M direct subsidy, $20M in loan guarantees and the land worth $10M on which it is t be built. Proponents say this is necessary to make the convention center competitive, although many think 400 rooms are not enough. The convention center is currently losing over $6M / year including debt service, and it is has not been shown that a hotel will make it profitable. Is this just good money after bad? Have you looked at the financials of the proposal? What should be done about the convention center.
Question5: The county has many beautiful parks and green space that add to our quality of life, and areas that are environmentally sensitive have been protected. When the economy improves and more land in PBC is developed, how would you maintain a balance between no-growth environmental activism and overly prolific development?
Question 6: Much has been written about the cities lawsuit against the Inspector General. In June, Andrew Marra in the Palm Beach Post commented “not all municipalities see the inspector general’s enhanced oversight — demanded overwhelmingly by voters in 2010 — as something to be resisted and feared.” As a commissioner, would you support the letter and the spirit of the IG ordinances? Why do you think some cities are resisting oversight?