By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY October 13, 2006 Last week, BOCES Superintendent Martin Handler called Sullivan West School Board President Arthur Norden to ask him and four other board members to reconsider their decision to bar BOCES from a public vote to purchase the White Sulphur Springs Elementary School.
“They did reconsider,” said Norden, “and their answer was still ‘no.’”
He was speaking for himself and board members Noel van Swol, Jennifer Mann and Shawn Bailey. Shaun Sensiba, while sharing their concerns, was not part of the reconsideration, because Norden felt that would have constituted a meeting of the board majority and would have required an open public meeting rather than a simple telephone conversation.
But the 5-4 decision on October 5 to not approve BOCES’ desire to have a public vote on the $5.78 million purchase of the WSS school has taken a deeper and darker tone.
According to Norden, not only did board members reject the request because of millions of dollars’ worth of renovated yet empty space at SW (space they want BOCES to utilize), but they also said “no” because they don’t trust Handler or his figures.
“I don’t believe anything he tells me,” explained Norden, referencing the figures given to the board and public about the WSS project. “If these numbers are true, it might be valid. But I don’t believe his numbers.”
Norden used the $4.78 million leasing arrangement as an example. Now that BOCES can’t go to the public for approval on purchasing WSS, it is planning to extend its current lease on the building for the next 10 years. Coming to an agreement with the Liberty Central School District, which owns the building, will not require a public vote or even approval by the seven other public school districts BOCES represents.
Yet BOCES will still pour around $4 million into renovations at WSS, even though it won’t own any of it by the end of the lease.
“I’ll rent [an SW building] to him for a dollar if he’ll put $4 million into it!” Norden remarked.
According to Norden, BOCES is not making a smart business decision, and this is thus one of several reasons to doubt the accuracy or wisdom of BOCES’ figures.
Plus, those figures were in a flyer urging people to vote, a flyer that was released before the SW board had voted to approve or reject that vote.
“Marty Handler knew he hadn’t provided the legally required resolution… and yet a week before we voted on it, he sent that flyer out,” claimed Norden.
“That tells me maybe he’s made some other mistakes as well.”
Norden was referring to the resolution that came before the SW board last week. Ironically, two weeks earlier the board had approved, in a 7-2 vote (with Norden and van Swol dissenting), a similar resolution. But that version wasn’t provided by BOCES and was found to be legally insufficient. Thus a vote on a revised, legally acceptable resolution was held on October 5.
That night, Monticello became the seventh local school district to unanimously approve the resolution, leaving SW as the lone “no” vote.
Norden doesn’t mind that distinction.
“If the seven other school districts jumped off the Empire State Building, should we?” remarked Norden, calling the resolution a “cockamamie proposal.”
In his discussions with Handler, Norden said he recommended BOCES consider reconfiguring its Vo-Tech program so as to have those students come to SW and free up space for the higher-needs special ed. kids at the more central BOCES campus in Liberty.
“He hasn’t really thought about what he can do with his programs and our buildings,” charged Norden, adding that the WSS school, as portrayed by Handler, seems fit for “squatters,” not students.
Yet the echo of “inaccurate information” is reverberating from a point much farther back. Norden said that transportation and aid info given to him and other board members by Handler, BOCES and affiliated personnel back in the pre-merger days turned out to be catastrophically inaccurate, and Norden said he’s not going down that road again.
“The bottom line is, I don’t trust him,” Norden said of Handler, adding that “it’s difficult to mention capital projects to the people who were pushed and encouraged by Marty Handler” to merge into SW.
When told of Norden’s remarks, Handler said he was “at a loss.”
“This is the same man who said this is not personal,” remarked Handler. “I’m very surprised at his comments.”
Handler said he offered to meet with any of the board members and explain the figures, which he said can easily be backed up and which originate from professionals in fields like architecture and financial planning.
“I’m interested to know what figures aren’t accurate,” he said.
He’s also interested in finding out why he feels he’s being singled out for blame with the still-controversial SW merger.
“I’d like to know what else I supposedly knew that I wasn’t honest about,” he said exasperatedly.
“What motive would I have [to lie]?” he asked. “Nothing would make me happier than to see this district resolve their issues.”
But BOCES can only help so much, he said, and that doesn’t include transporting kids from seven far-flung districts to Sullivan County’s westernmost school campuses.
“I told him [Norden] once again why it was impractical,” he said of their phone conversation, “… and he thought that wasn’t a very good argument.”
Handler, of course, sees it the exact opposite.
“It’s not a reasonable response,” he commented.
“I feel very badly for the situation the district has gotten itself into,” he acknowledged, but he added that he is responsible for overseeing all eight public school districts in the county and must act accordingly.
Regardless, he feels a purchase of the WSS school would have saved the taxpayers many dollars in a project he is adamant is necessary.
“If you look at it over 20 years, it’s clearly cheaper to purchase,” he explained.
But it’s also clear he will not convince the majority of the SW board and that may spill over into another arena.
Handler, at the SW board’s request, is working on recommendations regarding the district’s massive amount of excess space (two of its four campuses are closed and not in use).
But Norden and possibly other board members isn’t confident the district will get useful, accurate information.
“Why did they ask me then?” wondered Handler.
He said he will nevertheless supply the information and hopes to have the same “excellent relationship” he has with the seven other school districts.
But, he acknowledged, that’s as much up to SW’s board as it is up to him.