Shot Down By SW
By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON October 10, 2006 Sullivan West’s school board has single-handedly shut down BOCES’ November vote to buy the former White Sulphur Springs Elementary School.
At the regular meeting Thursday in Lake Huntington, a tensely divided SW board voted 5-4 to reject a resolution authorizing BOCES to conduct a countywide public vote on whether or not to purchase the WSS school for $5.78 million, to which SW would have to contribute approximately $800,000.
(BOCES already leases the building from the Liberty Central School District.)
Board President Arthur Norden, Vice President Shawn Bailey, and members Noel van Swol, Shaun Sensiba and Jennifer Mann voted against that authorization, while members Rick Lander, Catherine Novak, Anna Niemann and Rose Crotty voted for it.
Officials acknowledged this may be the first successful blocking of such a vote in Sullivan County BOCES’ history.
The county’s eight public school districts, which fund BOCES, are allowed by state law to approve or reject a request to put a BOCES building purchase out to the general public for a vote.
And if even one district’s board rejects that request, BOCES cannot conduct the vote.
Sullivan West became that lone “no” vote Thursday night. Not even Monticello, which would shoulder roughly a third of the purchase cost, voted “no.” In fact, that very same night, Monticello’s school board unanimously approved the same resolution, leaving SW as the only district to not support it.
And that was after the same SW board voted to approve a slightly reworded resolution two weeks prior by a 7-2 vote (with Norden and van Swol dissenting).
To say BOCES District Superintendent Martin Handler was surprised would be an understatement.
“I have to tell you how disappointed I am in this,” he said in an interview Friday. “Now we’re going to pay Liberty a lot of money, and at the end of that, we’ll own nothing.”
Handler was referring to the fact that BOCES told the districts and the public that this was such a necessity that should it be denied the purchase, it would enter into a long-term lease for the building with LCS.
Such a leasing arrangement is not subject to district or public approval via any kind of vote.
Virtually all the same renovations i.e., fixing a leaking roof, adding handicapped access would be undertaken, with the exception of building an addition to replace modular trailers outside the WSS facility. Those aging trailers will now be replaced with newer ones, said Handler, and the total cost for everything will be $4.78 million.
While that’s a million bucks less than BOCES’ preferred purchase of the school, Handler said it will likely cost more in the long run, through the need to renegotiate leases on both the school and the trailers.
And since BOCES is funded by its component school districts, taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill one way or the other.
“These people are not reasonable people,” Handler said of SW’s five dissenting board members. “I can’t find a reasonable reason for a ‘no’ vote. Aren’t these people willing to accept the will of the voters?”
At the meeting, several board members explained themselves after a heated debate about the merits of BOCES’ proposal.
“I cannot… support this proposal, not when SW has all the empty space it does,” remarked van Swol, echoing his longtime efforts to have BOCES utilize one or more of SW’s four campuses for its educational needs. “It is fiscally irresponsible given the circumstances we have which Marty Handler was a part of to vote to authorize the spending of another $5,783,000.”
“It’s just unconscionable to be sitting with $12 million in renovated space and not be using it,” agreed Norden, referencing the closed Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley campuses.
Novak, however, was incensed by van Swol’s insistence that BOCES should be forced into using SW facilities.
“Dr. Handler is not going to consider our space because it’s not geographically or educationally [useful] to BOCES,” she replied. “And I think that makes sense!”
Handler said something similar the next day.
“I don’t know if the board thinks we’re going to rent Narrowsburg, because that’s not going to happen,” he remarked.
Handler added that the WSS location makes sense not only economically but from an educational point of view, arguing that long bus rides from BOCES’ Liberty headquarters to SW would virtually cancel out any instructional time. WSS is three miles from the Rubin Pollack Education Center in Liberty, whereas SW’s in-use Jeffersonville campus the closest to Liberty is eight miles away.
As for van Swol’s blaming of Handler for SW’s current financial woes, Handler responded, “I don’t mind being blamed for the stuff I do or don’t do, but when I’m blamed for something I was not a part of, that’s very discouraging.”
Handler, who was briefly the interim superintendent of SW when it first merged in 1999, said he was never made privy to falling enrollment projections and advised against building a larger high school.
“The only thing I did was advocate for the merger, and I’ll plead guilty to that,” he said, adding that he would not apologize for a merger which he believes was a smart decision. “I think some of the decisions made in the implementation of the merger weren’t very good… but I was not a part of them.
“I’m getting a little tired of being the whipping boy,” he continued. “Now it’s affecting my kids.”
But at least with two board members, it wasn’t Handler’s involvement with the merger that sparked a “no” vote.
Sensiba and Bailey felt they had been pushed into a vote on the matter back at the September meeting, when they joined five other board members in approving the resolution.
They said they voted “no” on this newly reworded resolution because, as Sensiba put it, this “do-over … tells me I’m being forced into a decision.”
Bailey explained that he had reconsidered his original vote and felt the BOCES proposal which would cost SW $800,000 wouldn’t be in the best interests of SW residents.
Niemann angrily took aim at that comment, saying such a “no” vote would hurt the students who need BOCES’ special education services the most and also not be of long-term economic benefit to taxpayers.
“So you’re flip-flopping on this issue,” she charged Bailey.
“I’d like to call it taking care of the taxpayers in our district,” Bailey shot back, adding that BOCES would succeed in renovating the WSS school regardless.
But Lander agreed with Niemann.
“I think we did a disservice to our special ed. kids tonight,” he told fellow board members. “It’s going to cost us in the long run and hurt our kids.”
Niemann left the meeting right after the vote, but it was not due to anger with the results. The next morning, she confirmed that she had informed the board earlier that she would have to leave by 10 p.m. to take care of personal business, and 10 came ‘round the clock right after the controversial vote.
When contacted Friday about her “no” vote, Mann said she agreed with Sensiba and Bailey that a rethinking of whether or not this proposal was advantageous to SW students and taxpayers led her to change her mind.
“I was presented with something that was wrong,” she said of the resolution, adding that her discussions with SW residents and parents led her to that conclusion. “I realized that probably my voters… would not want this.”
But rather than letting them vote on it themselves amidst a county full of people from other districts who might be in favor of the project, Mann decided she’d do what she was elected to do represent the people’s will and exercise a vote that would have more of an impact.
Besides, she said of the September presentation of the BOCES proposal, “we did feel very pressured that night.”
Handler said the board shouldn’t have felt that way, admitting there may have been some miscommunication with the administration regarding the lack of a need for an immediate decision.
“We never gave them a resolution,” explained Handler, intimating that the initial vote was based on a resolution not supplied by BOCES. “In fact, we didn’t yet have a properly worded resolution from our attorney.”
The right one, however, had to be voted upon by the SW board, which happened Thursday and has riled up at least one other SW official.
“I’m disappointed that this school board would impose their view [on the public],” remarked teachers’ union president Carol Slotkin. “I think this is an irresponsible action… This was not for the board to decide.”
Regardless, BOCES will be approaching the Liberty school board in the near future to negotiate a possible 10-year lease to continue allowing BOCES to utilize the WSS school for elementary special ed. and alternative ed. classes.
“We’ll begin hammering out the final language of the lease with them immediately,” Handler said.
SW School Board Strife Continues
By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON While the BOCES’ purchase vote was perhaps the biggest decision Thursday night, the Sullivan West school board tackled quite a few other issues of importance.
Auditors Recommend Dropping Raffle
Representatives of the school’s auditing firm Sickler, Torchia, Allen & Churchill attended to give the board a report on the district’s annual audit.
Despite the district’s challenging financial history, the report was mostly routine, and even the once-controversial undesignated fund balance (surplus monies not earmarked for a specific area) is now under two percent, below the maximum allowed by the state.
But the auditors did urge the board to disallow raffles. Last year, a group of people raffled off a car to benefit students, yet state law requires the organizations conducting such raffles to gain a license (which was not done in this case).
“Should the funds in effect be returned?” asked board member Noel van Swol, to which the auditors cautiously referred him to legal counsel.
Whither Goest the High School?
During public comment, ex-board member Rich Sandler charged that the district’s new facilities needs and assessments committee is formulating a plan to close the high school in Lake Huntington and reopen Delaware Valley in Callicoon (keeping Narrowsburg closed and Jeffersonville open).
However, committee and board member Jennifer Mann responded that such a plan was only one of numerous scenarios the committee is considering.
“We’ve made no decisions whatsoever,” she said. “We’ll let the facts make the decision for us . . . [and] when we’re ready to make some recommendations, we’ll be more than happy to let the board and public know what we think.”
Whither Goest The Superintendent?
Superintendent Alan Derry used the public comment period to clarify his departure plans.
Saying he was leaving by the end of this school year due to his wife’s health concerns (the couple lives in New Paltz), Derry dismissed the rumor that his leaving was related to any job dissatisfaction or anger.
“My time here has been good and interesting,” he explained.
But as pertains his replacement, “my strongest advice is to move as quickly as possible,” he told the board. “The earlybird gets the worm. Be aggressive!”
Derry predicted a replacement for now-departed Assistant Superintendent Candace Bennis would be named “long before Christmas,” but he said now is the time to seek a superintendent, as candidates get scarcer as the school year progresses.
BOCES offers a cost-free search, but several board members seemed quite cool to that idea.
“There seems to be a problem with the kind of superintendents BOCES has found… present company excepted,” said van Swol.
Despite teachers’ union president Carol Slotkin’s complaint that van Swol was allegedly approaching superintendent candidates by himself, the board president formed a search committee consisting of van Swol, Sensiba and Niemann, and members also unanimously approved seeking formal proposals from outside search firms, commonly known as “headhunters.”
On and Off the Agenda
The biggest argument of the evening actually wasn’t about BOCES.
Board member Catherine Novak kicked off debate by angrily denouncing the current board’s habit of convening multiple special meetings to address business that needs board attention sooner than the monthly board meeting. Particularly distressing to her is the fact that these meetings tend to have vague agendas, and she’s often surprised by what ends up being discussed.
“I don’t think it’s constructive for us to continue doing this all the time,” she explained, pondering whether the board should have additional regular meetings instead.
“There’s no requirement by law to post any agenda for a special meeting,” responded Board President Arthur Norden, adding that he felt the public would not want important business delayed.
That tied into the other agenda argument of the evening.
Board member Anna Niemann expressed dissatisfaction with the addition of last-minute items on regular meeting agendas.
“The public may or may not want… to comment on those items,” she related.
Board member Shaun Sensiba, agreeing with Novak, said this too may be a reason to add a second regular monthly meeting.
“If you can’t get your ducks in order by Friday night [prior to the meeting, per board policy]… it’s going to be the same thing if you have two meetings a month,” Niemann replied.
She said the current policy should be enforced, although she’d be willing to see agenda items added as late as the Monday before the board meeting (which is now the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m., usually at the high school).
“If people can’t be organized enough ahead of time … that’s really an imposition on the public,” she said, with agreement from board member Rick Lander.
Board member Rose Crotty didn’t envision this as an eternal problem, however.
“These are extenuating circumstances,” she said, referring to the beginning of a new school year with a substantially changed board in place. “We’re literally rolling with the punches right now.”
Novak, however, was adamant: “There were things thrown at us this summer we could have and should have had the time to research. I think it’s common courtesy to your fellow board members to tell them what you’re planning to do.”
She asked the policy committee to create a policy for “effective and efficient” agenda additions, and the board agreed, save for Norden and van Swol, who felt it unnecessary.
Attorney issues arose as a point of contention as well, and again it was on two different fronts.
Firstly, a resolution was introduced to control legal counsel expenditures by requiring board members to go through the board president when seeking legal advice from the school’s attorney.
Since counsel is currently not on retainer, the district is billed for each and every call and request a potentially expensive situation.
Lander and Niemann felt that control should not be limited solely to the board president but should be shared with the superintendent, especially if a board member wishes to research a question pertaining directly to the president.
“They [the school’s legal firm] work for the district, which means they work for the entire board,” said Niemann.
“But we as individuals do not have the right to [the school’s] legal counsel,” responded Sensiba, who nevertheless agreed that such contact could be funnelled through either the president or the superintendent.
“I work for the board, not individual members,” cautioned Derry, who was evidently not thrilled with the idea. “I can’t give you blessing.”
“The real problem is how we deal with each other,” commented Vice President Shawn Bailey of fellow board members. “We have a group of people mistrusting each other.”
“There are some trust issues, and that’s OK, as long as we’re trying to resolve them,” added Derry, trying to defuse a tense moment in the meeting.
The resolution was initially amended to allow the president to designate another “gatekeeper,” but eventually it was tabled until it can be considered by the policy committee.
The other attorney-related issue was whether or not the district can spend proceeds from a lawsuit over the construction of the high school (should the court rule in the district’s favor, which is uncertain).
The problem is that the $4.3 million the district is seeking in damages from the school’s architectural firm might not be able to be applied to the unfinished high school athletic fields. Why? Because it may exceed the $50 million spending limit the voters authorized back in 2000.
Norden recommended using the state comptroller’s office to study the matter, which he said would be cheaper than using the district’s attorney.
But what concerned other board members was the possibility that proceeds from the suit could be used on items other than the high school’s fields.
“Our intent always was to complete the project,” said Lander, who’s served longest on the various involved school boards and is the chief proponent of keeping the high school open.
“But you may not be allowed to,” responded Norden.
“I think we would seek voter approval,” Lander replied. “The whole intent of our lawsuit was to complete the project.”
A motion was made to seek the comptroller’s advice on the matter, opposed by Lander, Niemann and Novak due to wording that they felt implied a board desire to not use the proceeds on the high school.
As an aside, School Business Administrator Robert Miller informed the board that he has 12 applicants interested in being the district’s legal counsel, including the district’s current firm of Bond, Schoeneck and King out of Syracuse.
Upon the superintendent’s recommendation, the finance committee will consider the applications and make a recommendation to the board.
Comptroller’s Report To Be Made Public
A soon-to-be-released report on the district’s merger problems, culled from months of research by the state comptroller’s office, caused a minor stir when it was learned that Norden had sent back district comments to the state (to be included with the report) without consulting the board.
“You drafted a response from the board and didn’t include board comment,” charged Novak.
“There was no point in discussing it because I got it today, and today [at 5 p.m.] was the deadline for the district’s response,” Norden replied. “I did the best I could under the circumstances.”
He added that if the board has a problem with what he wrote, he’ll ask the state not to include it in the final public report.
It looked like Novak and Mann had more to say, but at that point three hours into the meeting Norden abruptly made a motion to adjourn, which was seconded. The sound of people hastily getting up from their chairs drowned out the vote to approve or reject the motion to adjourn.
The next regular board meeting has been rescheduled for November 16 at 7 p.m. at the high school in Lake Huntington.