Peldunas says Board of Education must be more effective

Between now and Election Day, the Greenwich Post will be running profiles of the six candidates running for four spots on the Board of Education. This is an interview with Brian Peldunas, one of the two Republican candidates endorsed by the Greenwich Republican Town Committee.

 

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Brian Peldunas, one of the endorsed Republican candidates, says his private sector experience can help the Board of Education.
— Ken Borsuk photo

For Brian Peldunas, the decision to run for one of the Republican seats on the Board of Education was one that has its roots back in advice his mother once gave the family.

“Growing up, my mother always told us, ‘If you see a problem, you can either go fix it or shut up and don’t complain about it,’” Mr. Peldunas said in an interview with the Post. “And I see problems in the school district. There are things we need to deal with and we can if we do it in a logical, reasonable and coherent way.”

If elected, over the next four year, Mr. Peldunas said, he wants to see a focus on improving student achievement. He said putting more focus on the early years of education pays off down the line with higher achievement in high school.

“We need to start at the elementary school level and build from there,” Mr. Peldunas said. “There are things we can do at the high school level, but it’s going to continue to be an issue if you don’t start at the elementary school level.”

This meansa more rigorous pre-K instruction, according to Mr. Peldunas, to better prepare children to enter kindergarten with structured instruction. He also said there is data to show that a dedicated focus in subjects, such as through instructional coaches in math, can have a positive impact. But what’s missing most of all, he believes, is a concrete plan to address the achievement gap in town.

“It has to be a plan that everyone agrees on and is willing to be accountable for,” Mr. Peldunas said. “If you list one year what the five goals are for student achievement, then next year I want to see how we’ve done on those steps and if they’ve been successful or not and if we should continue or discontinue. That’s not what I’m seeing right now. There’s a lot of programs, but there’s not a lot of analysis and follow-through on the success or lack thereof.”

This is not Mr. Peldunas’s first involvement in school matters on a district level. As a Riverside School parent, he pushed for a districtwide review of the math curriculum. While those happen on a regular basis across all subject areas, Mr. Peldunas said that what he saw with his daughter showed that the review needed to happen on a far more accelerated basis than the district had been planning, leading to changes in how math is taught in the public schools.

“She was in second grade and I would look at her homework,” Mr. Peldunas said. “I knew I could do it and she could do it, but I did not think it was preparing her for algebra, for geometry, for calculus, or beyond. And when I started looking at the program, I saw what people recognize now, and that’s there were faults with it that contributed not just to lack of progress and lack of achievement but also lack of consistency across the spectrum of learners.”

But don’t expect Mr. Peldunas’s message to the voters to be just about math. He said all subjects, from science to language to the arts, have to be looked at to make sure the right information is being looked at to address achievement issues.

“If you want to improve achievement, then you have to start with the basics,” Mr. Peldunas said. “My whole campaign is built on basics. We need to make sure we get it right early, and that means pre-K through third grade and get those basics for the children to build on. Then we have the rigorous curriculum that will improve achievement as we go along. That, to me, is what we’re missing.”

In looking at the issues in the district that he feels need to be addressed, Mr. Peldunas said there has to be more “speed” from the Board of Education. That doesn’t mean rushed decisions, but he says the board can’t be afraid to act, particularly in areas involving curriculum.

“I recognize that it’s a public process and they need to go through various steps to get things done, but coming from the private sector, you’re used to seeing a problem and then tackling it to fix it as quickly as you can after consulting with people,” Mr. Peldunas said. “I think the board has gone through a very good process to consult. I think they’ve gone through a reasonable process to get data. But the overall effectiveness of the meetings could be improved.”

Improving effectiveness is also something Mr. Peldunas said he wants to see with the monitoring reports that are done across all subject lines in the district. Pointing to a recent one for English language arts, Mr. Peldunas said, “You could question if a person who used the English language put it together.” And beyond the language that was used in the report, Mr. Peldunas said it didn’t even show what progress, if any, was being made on existing issues. Calling that the “core of grappling with an issue,” Mr. Peldunas said there has to be an adjustment in how progress is evaluated and presented in order to improve the achievement gap.

While a review was done recently of all monitoring reports, Mr. Peldunas said they still need to be refined so it’s “crystal clear” what is expected and that there’s the kind of analysis with the data that will help the board come to a conclusion about what is working well and what still needs to be addressed.

If elected, though, Mr. Peldunas will be just one of eight members on the Board of Education and part of a freshman class that could make up three or potentially four of the seats. So when asked how he could improve that effectiveness, he quickly pointed to his private sector experience and his budgeting and financial sector background, including several international assignments where he said he not only grew very comfortable with numbers but with writing reports on them.

“I think I can bring an element of analysis, if you will, to the board related to budgeting,” Mr. Peldunas said. “I can also bring a view from the private sector on dealing with issues and analyzing problems. When it came to the math curriculum issue, I didn’t just declare that this was bad. I went and did my research and tried to understand what the issues were and what the potential solutions were to present it and try to come up with something people could get behind.”

The main issue facing the Board of Education now is the district’s response to two schools being in violation of the state’s racial balance mandate as well as continued concerns about facility utilization. To that end, the board is likely to vote on a plan tonight at its meeting at 7 at Greenwich High School to pursue a plan of open choice and new magnet programs. However the options pursued haven’t found universal acceptance from either the board or the parents. If elected next month, Mr. Peldunas will likely find himself in the position of implementing a plan that he did not have an opportunity to formally work on.

But Mr. Peldunas said he did not believe a delay to get new members seated on the board first was necessary as long as there was “sufficient information” available before tonight’s planned vote. He said it would be wrong to “drag this out” since it’s impacting lives in Greenwich. Even though he and his fellow candidates have attended the meetings and forums on this topic, Mr. Peldunas said, he believed the sitting board members still had a better level of information to make a decision now because of the natural learning curve that would come for any new board member.

As for where his own vote would be, Mr. Peldunas said he believed 90% of the pieces are already in place and agreed upon by the board members for a solution built around voluntary choice and magnet schools.

“Is it going to work short-term? I’d say there is a good possibility of that,” Mr. Peldunas said. “However, and I’ve been consistent in saying this throughout, the design of the magnet programs is what is going to dictate the success or failure of this. I think you’re going to have a difficult time putting a magnet school structure out there that would draw enough students, from a numerical point of view, from New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue to free up enough seats that people would come back into those schools to address the racial imbalance issue.”

But even with uncertainty about the solutions and how effective they might be, Mr. Peldunas said he would vote for the choice plan put forth by Superintendent of Schools William McKersie.

“From my training in the private sector, I recognize that when you have imperfect information or incomplete information there comes a point when you still have to make a decision,” Mr. Peldunas said. “That’s what a good manager and a good leader does. You have to make that judgment call.”

The next Board of Education will have a call to make on the district’s leadership, as Dr. McKersie’s contract will be scheduled to come up during the time frame. Greenwich has had frequent superintendent turnover, and when he was first hired in 2012, Dr. McKersie said he wanted to be in Greenwich long-term. But that will partly be a call for the board to make, and Mr. Peldunas said the superintendent has his support for a new contract.

“Dr. McKersie has, I think, established a good rapport with the board and has established, from what I’ve seen, a good working relationship with his staff and with his teachers so there’s a coherent direction,” Mr. Peldunas said. “He’s taken the lead in restructuring the administration. He’s brought in some good people, and I think he has taken the good first steps to establish a foundation for a longer term superintendency. Greenwich is a tough place. Somebody said that Greenwich wants to be the best but is not willing to change. At a certain point in time you have to recognize when change is required and put together a logical way of doing that. I think Dr. McKersie has started down that path.”

 

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