By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON August 12, 2005 One thing didnt happen as promised Wednesday night.
The hour-long meeting went on for two and a half hours.
But it did remain a Q&A session that allowed Sullivan West school district residents an extraordinarily rare moment to talk with the top brass of the NYS Education Department (SED).
And they certainly took advantage of the official attention.
From finances to administrative decisions to calls for secession, almost two dozen people took turns at the Sullivan West High School auditoriums microphone to air their deep concerns about a district facing tremendous challenges.
Set up by Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and SW Superintendent Alan Derry, the meeting was attended by SED Deputy Commissioner Jim Kadamus and his colleagues, Assistant Commissioner Jim Butterworth and Coordinator of School Operations and Management Services Charles Chuck Szuberla.
Kadamus is commonly considered Commissioner Richard Mills righthand man, and Butterworth fulfills the same role for Kadamus. Szuberla is recognized as SEDs chief authority on finances and state aid issues.
All three are in the top tier of management at SEDs Albany offices, and they traveled three hours south to hear and respond to the cries of district residents.
Our interest is to have a financially sound district that can continue to offer a quality education, said Kadamus, adding that he had dealt with districts in worse shape. This is a very difficult situation but not a hopeless situation.
Sometimes everything doesnt go well and there are bumps in the road, and youve faced these this spring, said Butterworth.
He made mention of Gunthers offer of $50,000 from the NYS Assembly to aid SW which can be used for any purpose the school board chooses, announced Gunther.
Thats extraordinary, said Butterworth, although he urged the board to use it to hire an SED-approved independent, objective consultant to formulate a 3-5-year financial plan for SW.
Beyond a certain point, its not productive to spend time in the past, he explained.
But thats exactly where residents want the focus to be.
Derry himself referenced concerns over the districts checkered history.
Although saying the focus cannot be on angst and the past, lest the children suffer, he did admit that promises were made, and people heard what they wanted to hear, and a building was built that probably shouldnt have been built.
The crowd roared in approval of his reference to the high school, which has come under increasing blame as the cause of much of the districts financial woes.
Derry indicated an ongoing audit of the district by the state comptrollers office would be unusually thorough and deal with these issues, but some of the speakers wanted more.
Theres a very common-sense attitude that says, if you want to know how a person will act in the future, look at how they acted in the past, remarked Narrowsburg resident Monica Meunier in advocating for a thorough investigation into the merger.
By way of example, she rhetorically asked officials if they would simply be satisfied with switching to another accountant should their former one steal their money.
Were not fools, she said angrily. Stop patting us on the back and telling us to move on!
We need an investigation into what happened with our funds, agreed fellow Narrowsburg resident Carol Wingert. Nobody holds the people in charge accountable, and if there are no repercussions, why do we have laws?
There needs to be accountability, demanded Delaware Valley graduate Jonathan Casterline, who attended despite breaking his back recently. If anyone needs help fighting, Im sick but Ill do what I can, because this is ridiculous.
Long Eddy resident Shaun Sensiba was glad to hear the new consultant would be independent of SED, because the ones that advised three districts to merge into one seven years ago made erroneous promises, he said like no significant hikes in taxes.
The merger was built on lies lies from SED, BOCES Superintendent Martin Handler, the board and the administration, added Mileses resident Shannon Bailey. You guys gave us poor advice.
SED bears an enormous responsibility for this mess, added longtime critic Noel van Swol of Long Eddy. You have massive corruption here.
There was absolutely nothing in our financial picture that indicated we were in need of merger, said Callicoon resident and SW board member Arthur Norden.
Norden, who sat on the original merger committee in the late 90s, said SED recommended the consultants who gave incorrect information, people who he claimed always talked about the benefits, not the negatives. And approvals for the high school, said Norden, were based on the possible population influx due to casinos, the redevelopment of the Concord and Grossingers, the construction of a mushroom plant all outside the districts boundaries, and all projects that still have yet to come to pass.
The problem is, said Norden to the SED officials, the debt service on projects that we did not need that you shouldnt have approved.
Norden said the future isnt the issue.
Theres nothing left to do here but survive on a contingency budget, he explained. We dont need guidance.
What is needed, he said, is a full investigation by the comptroller not just of the finances, but of the entire merger process. He claimed board members and the school attorney were too afraid of retaliation from SED to pursue the matter wholeheartedly, so he asked SED itself to promote an investigation.
What SED Had to Say
Certainly we want people to take an objective look at the facts, responded Szuberla, who stopped short of agreeing to an expanded comptrollers investigation. Certainly in light of whats happened, a look should be taken.
And, he said, retaliating is the last thing on our minds.
Kadamus, for his part, said the second merger study in the late 90s seemed far less optimistic than the first, and Butterworth cautioned the crowd that an informed electorate had to take responsibility for its choices as well.
You have a responsibility to stay informed and understand the whole picture, he explained.
Szuberla added that SED had told district officials early on that the state would be able to apply 95 percent aid to about 75 percent of the renovations/construction project that followed the merger, but the choice to move forward regardless was a local decision.
Still, he said, were not here to minimize the fact that these are tough choices you have to make . . . or that you dont have to look at the decisions that were made.
Were not saying, Cover up the past, added Kadamus. But you still have to have a future plan.
Kadamus explained that while SED is here to help, its the comptrollers office that is tasked with finding out what happened to the money.
He said SED is cooperating with the comptrollers office in that regard.
Coming Tuesday: The Publics Issues and SEDs Responses Regarding Finances, Transportation, Secession/Annexation and the External Consultant