While three incumbent school board members are running unopposed for new terms on the Lansing Board Of Education, voters and students turned out for a 'Meet The Candidates' forum Monday.  This year the event was organized and moderated by the Student Council, with President Lauren Phlegar and Vice President Anna Conti on the panel.  Student council member William Lewis moderated, asking questions from students.

sbc_candidatesCandidates (left to right) Tony Lombardo, Glenn Swanson, Tom Robinson

The Student Council has 24 members.  They represent students and provide activities that include the Homecoming Carnival, Brawl for the Ball, Night of Light, a blood drive, and gives two monetary awards at commencement.

William Lewis A reminder that the official vote will be held on May 20th at the Elementary School.  This event isn't worth a whole lot if you don't remember to vote for the candidates you support.

At the beginning each candidate will be given three minutes to make their opening statements, starting with Mr. Lombardo.  Following that we will begin with questions which have been written by members of the SCO and you will each have one minute to respond.  We'll start with Mr. Swanson and then we'll rotate to the right.  There will be no direct rebuttals to statements made by other candidates.  Without further ado I'd like to get started with the opening statements, starting with you, Mr. Lombardo.

Tony Lombardo I have lived here in the district for about 14 years with my wife Melody, and my daughter Bailey, who is in sixth grade.  I am the newest member of the board.  I filled a seat that was vacated about six months ago.  I've enjoyed the experience.  I think I've learned a lot and I thank you for having me here.

Glenn Swanson I think it's great that Student Council is running this event.  This is the first time.  It would be a lot more fun if we had more people running, but thank you for doing it.

I am running for my fourth term on the school board.  I am a mechanical engineer and I have lived and worked in Lansing for more or less 25 years now.  I have two daughters who have gone to Lansing schools.  One is still here and my daughter Shanna is in college now. 

This is certainly a challenging time for schools in New York State, and Lansing is included, with New York State funding cutbacks and different issues we are facing like APPR and Common Core.  It makes it challenging.  Fortunately for Lansing we have a very supportive community, great teachers and staff and great students.  It makes things a lot easier for us.

I'm running again because I think this is a challenging time and we still have things we need to accomplish.  I think having a consistent team working closely with the staff, moving forward, would be a help.

Thank you for your support.  Thank you for this event.  I'd be honored to serve on the School Board again if the public so allows.

Tom Robinson I am running for my second term.  I have completed my three years.  I have lived in Lansing for about 25 years.  My wife Denise and I have six children, and we are covering the elementary school, the middle school, the high school and Ithaca College simultaneously.  So we have a lot invested in the district.

I've been very fortunate to be in this area.  I moved here from the Mohawk Valley after college.  I consider this area a real anomaly in upstate New York because it has a very healthy economy and healthy environment.  Especially with the colleges it's a great educational environment to raise our children in.

I see the same challenges that were highlighted tonight.  There are a lot of financial challenges to the district -- not just to our district, but around New York State -- especially with the power plant's future in question.  It's really impacting this district.

I'd like to stay involved.  I'd like to see more people involved and running for the board.  Fortunately all three current members are running again.  Otherwise it may have left another opportunity for another write-in candidate.  I believe strongly in the democratic process and I really think we ought to have at least twice as many candidates running as open positions.  That really tells you the process is healthy.  We do have a lot of challenges and I hope that is not scaring anyone away from running.  The district needs people to stay involved and be involved.

William Lewis The first question is a general question.  What makes you qualified to make decisions for an entire student body and faculty?

sbc_swansonGlenn Swanson

Glenn Swanson That's a tough one.  Honestly I am not an educational professional.  Most of us on the board are not.  The board as a whole is qualified.  I have experience in different aspects of running a school like other board members do.  For example, as an engineer I am very involved in the Facilities Committee.  It is something I have some experience with and I enjoy.  We had a meeting before (this meeting).  We were talking about upcoming plans.

I do have experience from work creating budgets.  It's a very important part of being on a school board.

Really, the board as a whole is the only entity that has any authority.  We vote on everything, and the majority rules.  Each of us adds a little bit (of our own) aspect to it.  We often rely heavily on the Superintendent and her staff to provide technical information about New York State education law or school funding.

A lot of it is not very logical.  As an outsider it is difficult to understand and believe some of the crazy situations.

Tom Robinson Almost anyone in the district is technically qualified to run for the board.  What do I think that I bring?  We are a people-heavy business.  I interact a lot with people at my job, working on teams.  That is something I enjoy doing.  I think I have reasonable listening skills.  A lot of this board work is listening to people's concerns and then making as fair and level a judgement as you can on the decisions that are put in front of you.

Most of the items we vote on you don't have a choice on, but for the few that you do, you want to make sure that you are listening and taking into account as much input and opinions as you can.  And then do what you feel is best not just for your own children, but for all the students in the district.

And balance that with the needs of the taxpayers, because they are a loud voice and have a very legitimate concern about the total rising costs of education.

Tony Lombardo I'm going to piggyback a little bit on what both Glen and Tom said.  It's the board that is the authority and not the individuals that are on the board.  I think we're fortunate to have a good leadership team here and some good folks on the board.  We work together very well and I think we communicate with each other very well.

As for myself I've had 30 odd years of corporate experience.  I worked for IBM all over the country for 18 years.  I've worked at Cornell for 13 years.  So I do have some experience with leading teams, supervisory, creating budgets, technology, project planning... those kinds of things.  Some of those skills help when you are going through the problem solving process for the things that we deal with.  But mostly the idea that we work well together, and, as Tom mentioned, being able to listen and discuss and come to the best decisions that we can.

William Lewis How do you plan on making board meetings more exciting and/or accessible to the public?  I think the general idea behind this question is, how do you plan to get the public more involved in the decisions and discussions being brought up and made by the board?

Tom Robinson That's a good challenge.  Recently we've had vast numbers of attendees -- I think we had three, maybe, in the last several months!

It is a challenge to get the public to come out, especially when we perceive that people are in general agreement with what's going on.  its not difficult to bring people out when they're not in agreement.  It is pretty natural for any public committee or public service.  You only hear from the ones who are unhappy.

How to keep people engaged when they're not dissatisfied with the board is a real challenge, but I think by making our meetings effective -- i think we've done a good job of staying within the time estimates for meeting lengths -- and making sure that we're presenting positive information, and giving an opportunity for students and teachers to come in and talk about the programs and what they're doing.  That's a good way to bring people in.

Tony Lombardo It's an excellent question because it is a huge challenge.  Other than snacks -- those things bring in the kids pretty well.

But if you think about the sheer communications everybody gets nowadays, you know, through email and their mailboxes and on their phones... I'll admit that, as a parent before I got involved on the school board, the only thing I really knew about was the backpack mail, the emails I got from the school and those kinds of things.  So it's a challenge to come up with ways to communicate with people that, number one, doesn't increase the amount of communications they are already getting from all these other sources.  But it's important to let people know the issues that we're facing, the problems the school is facing and how we're trying to address those things.

Right now we have the Web site, the posting of all the meeting agendas and the announcements of when the meetings are and all those kinds of things.  I think it would be good to find a way to get more people... I don't know about excited... but involved and interested in what's going on at the school at this level.

Glenn Swanson It's always a challenge.  A couple of things we've done in recent years and this past year... the Web site.  Certainly you've seen that grow.  (Superintendent Chris Pettograsso) has taken to tweeting and many of us now have, for the first time, tweet accounts.  As Tony mentioned we are posting things more online than we ever have before.  Chris has done a great job in recent years with our videos.  We're getting more proficient at that.  And we are really striving towards transparency.  So everything we see, you see, for the most part unless it's confidential.

Things we're talking about in the future are having more concurrent viewing of documents.  Now the documents on the Web site are posted or handed out.  We're talking about going more electronic.  So maybe we have iPads with the same information that is up there.

We're open to suggestions.  It's a challenge.  People are busy with their lives.  We'd like to hear from more people.  That's always a challenge.

William Lewis The next question is to talk about one existing thing in this district that you like and why you believe it is a positive thing in the district?  We'll start with you, Mr.Lombardo.

sbc_lombardoTony Lombardo

Tony Lombardo I touched on this earlier.  I think there is a good leadership team here, folks that really care about the district and the students.  We have a great bunch of parents and students that care about the district and the students.

I think that's enabled us to do a lot of things that otherwise we wouldn't be able to.  Some of it is just the size of the school district and how well everybody knows everybody.

I think that's added to the high expectations that everyone's set here for the students and their achievement.  We try to create an environment where they can reach those goals.

Glenn Swanson The thing I like about Lansing is it's small enough that you can try anything you want.  For those of us who come from bigger districts you are either a jock or someone in a play or someone in technology.  In Lansing you can experiment and try things that you might not have tried before, and have a chance to do it.

My daughter went out for the play for the first time this year.  She enjoyed it.  I don't know if it will be her long term thing, but she wanted to try it and was able to do it.  In big districts with a limited number of slots on a play you might not get that opportunity.

I think school should be a learning experience, not only academically, but socially.  You should be able to try things like the tennis team or the play or model UN -- whatever you are into.  Much like Cornell is an institution where you can learn anything, Lansing is a place where you can experiment and have the opportunity to try things out.  You may not be the best.  You may discover you don't want to do it, but at least you have the opportunity to do it.  I's like to try to maintain that as we go forward.

Tom Robinson The teachers.  Since my soon-to-be college graduate daughter was in kindergarten here I've expressed to the teachers how impressed I've always been with teachers.  My father was a teacher.  My mother was a cafeteria aide and reading aide when I was young.  I have a lot of extended family and nieces and nephews in school.  When we talk about comparisons of the teachers and the opportunities in Lansing there is little doubt in my mind that this is among the best.  When you take into account the opportunities and the size I think it's a real anomaly.  It is definitely a very strong point for this district.

William Lewis What do you believe we can do to make our schools safer?

Glenn Swanson There are two things.  Probably the more effective is for all of us to be aware of each other, and be aware of students who are, perhaps, bullied or otherwise challenged.  Because typically those are the people who may act out.

Technically the Facilities Committee is looking at restricting access to the buildings and doing things like more card swipes and maybe more cameras.  Although they will help I think the priority needs to be put on getting people to work together, look out for each other, and identify people in our own community who have concerns that aren't being addressed.  I think that would make us all safer.

I know we've done a lot of that with CASS and other programs.  But I think there's an opportunity to do more.

Ultimately we don't want to make our schools a fortress.  We don't want to make them a prison.  We'd like to have them open.  We'd like to have the community be here.  There's only so much we can do with restriction. I think we really need to focus on the environment.

Tom Robinson I agree with Glen on the point of looking at people who are potentially perpetrating the crimes, and looking at the bullying side.  The reality is you cannot make anywhere 100% safe.  There will always be a situation or an opportunity for someone -- they'll get through the fortress.

The biggest thing is trying to understand why this person is going on a violent streak in the first place.  Generally there is a back story.  The more we can do to understand those causes and have an ear to the groung when we think someone is at risk -- do something about it, and not just sit by and watch it and hope.

Tony Lombardo To continue along that line there is the physical security of the grounds and the buildings themselves.  As Glenn mentioned you want to leave them open to the public and for them to be accessible.  You're not going to be able to lock them down entirely, but maybe some of the things like the card swipes, video monitoring and some of those types of things...

I will say I have been impressed that even if there is a suspicious looking car parked on the road I get an email almost instantaneously.  I guess the second part of that is hat happens within the buildings.  With the Dignity For All Students Act and some of the recent anti-bullying campaigns I think it is important for people to be educated.  The staff, the students, everybody.  Because typically there is somebody that knows something is going on.  And for them to understand what it is that they can do about it and who they should tell and what the procedure is when they come across a certain situation... I think that goes a long way towards alleviating some of these things.

William Lewis In your opinion what is the biggest challenge that students face today?

sbc_robinsonTom Robinson

Tom Robinson I would say for a lot of students it's probably the environment.  The bullying.  In the past that was just an accepted part of being a student or a teenager and today I think there is a good attitude turnaround that that's not OK, that's not normal.  If you look at anyone who struggles getting up and going to school in the morning quite often I don't think it's the school work.  It's the environment they are going into.  I think that's the biggest challenge to them.

Tony Lombardo I would say their ability to compete, to be ready when they complete their time here.  Now there are plenty of opportunities, plenty of programs.  Glenn mentioned things from sports to the arts to advanced placement classes and things like that.  To be able to keep those things available to the students and make sure that every student has access to these things, and has the ability to take advantage of them so when they leave here they are ready to continue on to college or into the workforce, whichever it is that they choose.

A lot of things that go on here budget-wise is not part of (students') daily routine.  So for us to be able to provide those things and make sure the students will have those things available to them so they are ready when it comes time for them to move on.

Glenn Swanson I'll provide one short term and one long term thought if I may.

Short term, I think, is getting through school with all the social media distractions that we didn't have when we were in school.  That makes things like bullying much more 'in your face' -- at home you can't get away from it.  In our day you left school and school was behind you.  You were free.  Now you go home and get a text or a Facebook post or something, and have that pressure.

Long term it's competing in the global environment.  It's a global world, much more so than when we were kids.  I travel around the world -- may of us do -- and there are hungry people out there who are just as well educated as you are.  So you've got to figure out what you can bring to the global economy that will keep you engaged and prospering.

William Lewis Our next question deals with an emerging issue.  What is your opinion on the starting time of school?  I believe there's been some discussion of moving it a bit later so we'd like to hear your opinion on that.

Tony Lombardo This is something that my wife has always mentioned to me.  She says that the little kids are always up early and the older kids want to sleep in. Why don't they switch things around?

I suppose that there may be some leeway in those things, but what people don't take into account is that sometimes because of the bus schedules and the contracts with teachers and the amount of time kids have to be in certain classrooms and all those kind of things, there are some restrictions to how much you really can shift things around.

I know that it's been looked at.  I don't think any final decisions have been made.  I think if there are some things that can be done there I'll certainly be open to doing them.

I get that question a lot.  It just seems easy.  But it's not always that clear cut.  It's not always that easy to do.

Glenn Swanson There is a Shared Decision Making Team that is looking at this.  I know some members of the board are on that team.  I'm not, so I haven't been involved in all the discussions.  There are definitely pros to it and that Ithaca has gone to it recently, and there are benchmarks we are looking at.

As Tony mentioned there are restrictions, and the bussing, and how do you get people in and out at the same time, as well as the fact that we compete with sports in other districts.  Can you do it if they don't?  If they're on a different schedule how do you manage travel times and things like that?

I'm also concerned about after school time where students  can meet with teachers and get some extra help.  I', concerned about potentially losing some of that, which I think is very valuable for people.

Tom Robinson I think some of the proposals that have been put forward are a good compromise: looking at trying to reduce the transportation time.  Because that's really wasted time.  In the ideal world we would go buy ten busses.  Chris, I'm sure, would jump up and down if we put that in front of the voters.  It would cost a lot of money to make that problem go away, so I think the compromise of trying to reduce that overlap... to be able to reduce the amount of time students are sitting on busses.  That's really not value-added time.

I don't feel strongly that just flip-flopping the ages is the solution.  I think there is some evidence that you would be putting some of that impact onto the younger students by getting them up earlier.  I think a middle of the road shift is a good compromise for that.

William Lewis Do you have any plans to make changes in the school district?  Perhaps an issue that you saw go unresolved this year that you are planning on working toward a solution for in your next term?  If so, what changes are they?

Glenn Swanson One of the things we'll continue to work on is communication with the public.  You brought it up earlier.  It's been a challenge since I've been on the board: how to get people engaged.  How to really get the pulse of the community.  Often, I think, we hear from the vocal minority on some points.  We really need to continue to work to get feedback from all members of our community.  Not only people who have students in our schools, but retirees, people in the community who don't have students in the schools.

We've talked about doing more with live broadcasting of our meetings.  I've watched our meetings sometimes and they are pretty dry, but I am amazed at the number of people who watch them, even on recorded videos.  I'd like to see if we could do something more with that.

I'd also like to build more on our 'Parent University' that we've had, and maybe try to incorporate some of that into our programs as well.

Tom Robinson The one physical part that I've been frustrated with for a while... I'm not on the Facilities Committee, and I think many people share the same concern: the traffic.  Knowing that we've got much more challenging and short-term capital needs like the septic system that has to be taken care of first, it would be interesting to take the campus and in the ideal world, what would it look like in ten or fifteen years if we could spread some of the construction costs out, what would the entire campus and the roads that we are on be to make it safer?

I think anyone who drives here before or after school sees it's pretty crazy.  Luckily we haven't had any serious incidents.  We're doing the best we can with the facility we have right now.  I would like to see over a long period what could be done to address that.

Tony Lombardo I would say there are two areas, one that maybe I can affect and the other, hopefully, participate in.  The first area: I was fortunate enough to work with the Advocacy Team.  Advocacy efforts had started before I got here, but I thought it was interesting when I first came on board hearing that we had money that was promised to us, and what do you mean they're not going to give it to us?  So it was interesting to me to find out how generally approachable the state and local legislators have been, to be able to get involved and work with the Advocacy Team to contact these people and talk with them.

I'd like to continue the efforts to do that and make sure Lansing's voice is heard as a school district and make sure we're getting the share of the funding that we should be getting if that's possible to do.

The other area I've been fortunate enough to participate with is the Technology Committee.  It's interesting to me that a lot of the the technology work that's being done in conjunction with BOCES.  Especially when you consider where education seems to be heading with a lot of online coursework that can be done almost anywhere outside of the school district.  So it's interesting to be involved with that and collaborate where I can help.

sbc_studentpanelStudent Cuncil President Lauren Phlegar, Vice President Anna Conti, Moderator William Lewis

William Lewis Our next question is somewhat related to that one.  What do you believe is the biggest issue that our district is currently facing, and what will you do to fix it, or what do you believe is important in solving this issue?

Tom Robinson We've beat the financial part to death so I'm not going to harp on that one.  I would say number two is providing the opportunities to a small district that larger districts offer.  Tony said some of the course opportunities are online and some of the associations we already have with TC3, and some of the programs I know are being discussed through BOCES.  Can we offer students more opportunities even if it's only a couple of students who are either interested or eligible for that specific course or specific program?  How can we get that to them without having them have to travel off campus, and not having an outrageous cost to offering that opportunity, so we can compete with the opportunities of larger schools without having to look at consolidation to be able to do it?

Tony Lombardo Those are the kinds of things I would like to be able to continue to offer to the students here in the district.  More and better programs.  Things are always growing and moving forward.  Unfortunately some of the bigger school districts have an advantage because of funding and their ability to have access to these kinds of things.  So it's difficult to do that without having the funding to do it.  But it would be nice to find some creative ways to collaborate with some of these other... and we have.  Elements in the area like BOCES and TC3 and Cornell and some of these places that offer these programs.  Maybe we can find creative ways to partner with them to offer these kinds of opportunities to the students here.

Glenn Swanson I definitely support what both of these gentlemen mentioned, but I'd like to offer a third thing.  Coming from our Facilities Committee this afternoon, we are looking at how we can better support our music and art program.  We have great programs.  I know we have students practicing in the halls, and not enough room for things.  We're looking at some creative ways to create space in the high school for practice rooms -- maybe taking a little bit of the courtyard space and seeing what we could do there.

Also in the middle school with the theater.  Anyone who has been to a play comes out of there and there's no room to move.  So we're seeing what we can do to make that a better and safer venue for people who attend the plays.  We've been really focussed on infrastructure, but hopefully we can move on to some of the other things now.

William Lewis Our next question deals with what is considered to be an important issue by the students.  What are your thoughts on students' freedom of expression.  Essentially, how can it best be balanced with students' safety and creating a safe environment in the school.

Tony Lombardo As Glenn mentioned earlier it's certainly a lot more difficult nowadays with access to all the social media and smart phones that you carry with you wherever you go.  In my mind it goes back to educating students on proper etiquette.  On the dangers -- sometimes if you put something out there it's going to be out there forever and sometimes it's difficult to get that back.

I fully believe students should have the right to express themselves in any way that they would like to as long as it isn't detrimental to another student.  That's the difficult balance, right?  The best way to balance that is to educate students and make them aware of the ramifications of using social media, and even just the way that they treat each other when they're in school.

Glenn Swanson I feel students have the right to express themselves, but I go back to our mission statement, which is really about inspiring our students to be good citizens in the world.  We can do a lot of things by restricting access and all that, but ultimately students graduate and if they don't learn while they're with us about what's appropriate or not appropriate they're going to end up in a world where there are no restrictions like that, and maybe do inappropriate and hurtful things.

I think we need to educate people.  Understand what's appropriate and not appropriate.  And when people make mistakes we need to talk about it and get people to come to a common understanding about what is the right thing to do.

Tom Robinson Schools do a disservice to students if they don't teach them what the expectations are in the world when they leave school.  If you look at what the norms are and the expectations of companies and small businesses, the owners, their supervisors... we end up setting up students for failure when they find out the hard way that something that was allowed in school isn't allowed in the real world.

On the other hand respectful, professional expression of your opinion should be free everywhere.  You have to teach students what an acceptable way to present your opinion is with respect of others, then depend on the students to self-monitor.  Let them highlight when they think something's done inappropriately because adults can't and won't be able to keep up with everything that happens.  The students have to help guide each other as to what those expectations need to be.

William Lewis That brings us to the conclusion of the prepared student questions.  Thanks you all for coming out tonight and thank you, candidates, for participating in the forum/debate.  Everybody that's here remember to make your vote heard on May 20th.