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The People – And
The Board – Spoke

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — May 24, 2005 – The signs said, “The people have spoken.”
But what did they say?
Was it the planned closing of the Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley campuses that sunk the budget?
Or was it the 18.82 percent tax hike?
Sullivan West board members opted not to find out at Thursday’s board meeting at the high school in Lake Huntington – two days after voters overwhelmingly rejected the district’s $29,591,785 budget.
Per state education law, the board had the option of presenting another budget (either revised or unchanged) for voter approval, or board members could vote an austerity, or contingency, budget into existence without voter approval.
That evening, the board decided 6-3 (with Angela Daley, Shawn Bailey and Catherine Novak opposed) to approve a contingency budget of $29,489,785, 1.38 percent less than last year’s, and pegging the tax hike between 16.5 and 18 percent, depending on what the board does with unanticipated extra money from the state.
Words of Warning
That didn’t sit well with the large contingent of residents in attendance who favor keeping the Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley campuses open, as the contingency budget makes no provisions for that. In fact, the austerity budget is essentially the same as the one taxpayers voted down by a nearly 2-1 margin on May 17, minus $102,000.
Signs praising the voters and castigating the board were in evidence in the auditorium that evening, and speakers’ words were even more pointed.
“I’m just appalled,” stated Carol Wingert of Narrowsburg, one of the most vocal opponents of the school closings. “I’ve never, ever seen so much arrogance in my life. We will not forget, and the arrogant will be unseated.”
“To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement,” added Shannon Bailey of Mileses, whose husband Shawn sits on the board and who has also been a vocal opponent of school closings.
Bailey in particular felt that the election of Narrowsburg residents Catherine Novak and Jennifer Mann to the board – both of whom ran on a “save our schools” platform – indicated that residents were willing to spend the additional 23-25 percent in taxes it would take to keep all four of SW’s campuses open.
She encouraged residents to petition Albany for help while also warning board members of the consequences of their actions.
“You’re the one that has to answer to God and the public, not me,” she said.
Superintendent Alan Derry tried to answer a few times but was drowned out by the roar of a crowd in no mood to hear his explanations.
“You guys have pissed just about everybody off,” stated Long Eddy resident Doug Rogers, to applause from much of the audience. “You are definitely not off the hook.”
Citing an anti-closure petition signed by more than 500 residents, he promised that voters would ensure the removal of board members who aided the closing of the two schools.
“The only way this district is going to function is through mutual respect among these three communities,” he stated. “This is a gross act of disrespect to these other two communities.”
“I am absolutely appalled at the six board members who do not listen . . . and can’t read election results,” said fellow Long Eddy resident Noel van Swol. “That vote was a mandate to keep these schools open. You have betrayed your constituents.”
Van Swol offered five “sensible, easy solutions” to SW’s current financial woes: 1. Keep DV and Narrowsburg open for about $640,000 this year and wait for Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and others to come through with extra state aid; 2. Rent parts of SW to BOCES for a minimum of $250,000 a year; 3. Drop out of BOCES for an immediate $3 million in savings; 4. Scrap the high school and relocate it to Jeffersonville’s existing campus; or 5. Renegotiate faculty contracts that would feature zero percent increases for the next few years.
What the Board Said
In a tense moment, Narrowsburg resident Flo Graham angrily tossed what appeared to be money at the board on the stage, calling it her “donation” to keep the schools open.
“What in God’s name were you people thinking when you decided to close our schools?” she demanded.
Some board members attempted to answer that question.
“In this situation, it would be really easy to do what’s going to keep people happy,” said board member Regina Wagner. “The situation itself calls for so much incredible courage.”
Wagner said falling enrollment needs to be reversed, but in the meantime it undeniably impacts the ability of a school to provide the best education possible.
“It’s a real sad position we’re all in at this point. . . . It’s a no-win situation,” added Rick Lander, who surprised many in the audience by voting for the austerity budget, even though he had staunchly opposed closing Narrowsburg and DV.
Lander said he understands all sides of the issue, but costs continue to climb while enrollment falls (and is projected to keep falling) – and even if the schools were kept open, he said, students would still have to be shifted around to meet a higher student-to-teacher ratio.
Fellow board member Angela Daley, who voted against the austerity budget, didn’t necessarily disagree with Lander.
“The hardest decision would be to close the buildings,” she remarked, “. . . and economically do the right thing.”
But the voters’ will needed to be respected, she said, even if it might be the wrong choice.
“At this point, it’s not looking good – it’s looking terminal,” she continued. “People will have to realize that.
“Unfortunately, people aren’t yet willing to let go of a loved one.”
And a contingency budget approval “is like taking our ball and going home,” said Shawn Bailey, who questioned the need for the high school, as opposed to the older and more beloved campuses slated for closure.
People are also upset because they feel there was a lack of forethought about the closings, said newly sworn-in board member Catherine Novak, who replaced Jerry Triolo (who himself has been sitting in the vacated seat of Jerry Murphy).
She recommended a new budget be presented with the option of keeping the schools open or not, depending on the voters’ wishes.
However, the contingency budget was approved instead, per the recommendation of Supt. Derry.
Supt. Says It’s the Right Choice
“I think we can do better with the K-6 youngsters being housed at Jeffersonville,” Derry explained to the crowd, adding that spending money where it’s not required is irresponsible.
Derry acknowledged in an interview yesterday that DV and Narrowsburg area voters sent a clear message that they wanted their schools left open, but he said that advocating such would be irresponsible on his part.
He said that for too long SW had been spending money without an appreciable or comparable increase in educational opportunities, and it’s time to stop repeating “the sins of the past.”
And since there was no room in the proposed budget to go lower without impacting programs, the board and administration decided closing two campuses would be the appropriate – albeit painful – solution.
“We [the board and the administration] thought we’d have far more educational benefits if the [elementary] students are all under one roof, and for less money,” he said Monday.
Was Thursday’s vote a slap in the face to residents who disagree, as some have claimed?
Not at all, said Derry.
“Because you feel or think differently than someone else doesn’t mean it’s a lack of respect,” he explained, adding that while the decision of the board was not popular, it was the best decision, given the current financial status of Sullivan West.
“We believe we made the right decision,” he said.
And although the austerity budget means no new equipment purchases and $15,000 less for the supplemental lunch program, he’s optimistic about the future of the district.
“We’d like to move ahead and do what’s best for the students and taxpayers,” Derry remarked. “We feel we’re on the verge of greatness.”
Still, many issues remain, not the least of which is a potential 12-15 percent tax hike next year, said Derry.
And the angst will continue – perhaps to the district’s detriment, said one Jeffersonville resident at the board meeting.
“Through the comments of adults in the district,” remarked Delaware Valley teacher Michelle Brockner, “the students are learning hate and prejudice.”

Closure Vote
Yet to Happen

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — May 24, 2005 – Contrary to popular opinion, Thursday’s vote to go to an austerity budget at Sullivan West was not a vote to close the Delaware Valley and Narrowsburg campuses.
That vote, per state education law, must happen separately and will likely occur at one of the two June board meetings, said Superintendent Alan Derry.
In practical terms, Thursday’s austerity budget vote sealed the fates of the two schools, since there is no funding for them in that budget.
But the fact remains that a separate, formal vote must be held – and the board theoretically could vote to keep one or both open, should it be able to come up with the funding to do so.
And although much public comment and discussion have occurred on this very issue over the past few months, the district may hold a formal public hearing on the school closings, said Derry.
“We probably will do a public hearing, but I don’t know that for a fact,” he said yesterday.
The school’s attorney will be consulted about it first to see what the law requires.

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