By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON February 16, 2007 Sullivan West’s school board meeting seesawed between geniality/jokes and angst/acrimony.
As usual, most of the votes were unanimous or near-unanimous, but board business was heavily debated last Thursday.
Issues arose quickly when, minutes after the meeting began, board members Anna Niemann and Catherine Novak protested the addition of a motion to agree to a $503,827.54 payment to current high school construction firm BBL.
In exchange for BBL dropping its lawsuit, the agreement, said officials, would promise BBL the money both sides feel it is entitled to in the ongoing completion of high school work in Lake Huntington with the provisions that a five-year warranty, standard pay application, demonstration of bonded and/or cleared liens, and BBL’s signed consent to agree and drop the lawsuit be furnished to SW.
The vote, however, wasn’t to authorize the payment itself just to guarantee SW would pay up if BBL met conditions that officials said they had indeed agreed to.
Niemann and Novak, though, voted against even putting it on the agenda, complaining they were only made aware of the half-million-dollar figure minutes before the board meeting. Niemann added that she had seen an agreement weeks back that was about half that amount.
Norden said that all board members had been aware of this matter for some time and that a decision needed to be rendered immediately in order to ensure BBL’s continued work on the high school.
The board shoved the matter to the back of its agenda, but that simply delayed the inevitable wrangling.
“I’m not saying I don’t necessarily agree with doing this,” explained Novak. “[But] this happened yesterday, and we’re just seeing it!… It would be nice to have time to make this decision.”
She argued also that payment had been withheld from BBL “for valid reasons” and that voting to approve this motion would be “another example of an irresponsible decision on our part.”
“I really don’t think we’re being irresponsible,” replied board member Jennifer Mann. “We owe them this money.”
Norden said Superintendent Alan Derry, Business Administrator Bob Miller, and the school’s consultant and attorney had all signed off on the agreement (although Miller thought there might be a “slight” discrepancy of about $5,000, to which Norden disagreed).
With the clock pushing past 10 p.m., Niemann left while the argument continued, thus leaving only Novak to oppose the motion, which passed 7-1.
Superintendent Lashes Back at Critic
Many other items, however, were equal bones of contention. One even devolved into a yelling match.
Facilities Needs and Assessment Committee Chair Shawn Bailey (a board member) expressed frustration with a lack of information needed to make a recommendation to the board regarding the use of SW’s two open and two closed campuses.
Although he blamed it mostly on the immense scope of the committee and the related high expectations from a community split on the closure of Delaware Valley and Narrowsburg, other board members said Derry and Miller were at fault.
“The administration drags its feet when asked to do something, unless it’s ordered to,” charged board member Noel van Swol, claiming this is a typical stalling tactic from Derry.
Derry, normally a calm presence evidencing no more than mild frustration, became incensed with van Swol’s claims and responded that he had been told to cease working on some of the options the committee and board were considering. He added that he stopped formulating numbers and ideas regarding high school closure scenarios because he had been told that wouldn’t happen this coming school year.
“This is out of control,” he angrily stated. “I’ve done what was requested… but there are limits.”
Derry claimed Miller and his business office staff have been working 16-18-hour days trying to procure board-requested information, endangering the continued morale and possibly even employment of an exhausted Miller and crew.
He also took umbrage with van Swol’s blunt attacks on his integrity and truthfulness, saying, “This public embarrassment… is inappropriate! I don’t treat you like that, and I don’t expect to be treated like that!”
Derry promised the board would have two 2007-2008 budget options the next morning (one status quo and one visualizing a reopened DV campus in Callicoon), but by that time board members and Derry were shouting over one another in angry condemnations of unprofessional, rude conduct.
The tense situation briefly calmed when Bailey apologized to Derry for any miscommunication on his part. Derry said an apology was unnecessary from Bailey, but things heated up again when Board President Arthur Norden expressed disbelief that the business office was devoting so much time to the relatively small amount of information the board had received to date on school closing/reopening scenarios.
“I will not let Mr. Derry or Mr. Miller insinuate [that],” Norden stated. “It’s an absolute misrepresentation.”
“Having worked in a business office, I know that’s not all they have to do,” replied an angered Novak.
Norden said she was missing the point and wondered if the administration had, too.
“Either we have not communicated with our administrators about what we’re trying to do,” assessed a dubious Norden, “… or it’s some other reason. I don’t know.”
By the end of the argument, Derry, Bailey and board member Rick Lander had walked out of the room, but eventually all came back, and after Derry cracked a joke, the acrimony dissipated nearly instantaneously.
It came back in fits and starts. At times, disagreements were calmly handled, as when Lander opposed continuing to allow out-of-district children to attend SW classes when the parent works for the school. (The attorney-approved policy, which is currently in force but must be reapproved, passed 7-1. Lander was against citing the costs, liability and unfairness of the policy and Niemann abstained.)
Lawyers’ Fees Stir Debate
At other times, the anger re-emerged, including when Niemann questioned a large school attorney’s bill.
“So far we’ve spent $56,000 on our new attorneys, compared with $31,000 for the same period [last year] with our old attorneys,” she said.
“Good lawyering is not cheap,” responded Norden. “And cheap lawyering is throwing money out the window… We’ve been spending a lot of money on cheap, bad lawyering.”
In contrast, said Norden, the school’s current firm Bond, Schoeneck and King will help the district save money down the road.
“I’m not saying the money we’re spending is not well-spent,” replied Novak. “But we could contain a portion of the cost by negotiating a retainer… We shouldn’t have to be billed hourly for normal, day-to-day expenses!”
Board member Shaun Sensiba agreed, recommending a retainer be put in place for 2007-2008. However, he and board member Rose Crotty pointed out that Bond, Schoeneck and King had much work to do to learn SW’s legal issues and the firm had asked the school not to be put on retainer until a year had passed so as to craft an agreement that would accurately and fairly charge SW for routine legal services.
Niemann, however, noted that the majority of the bills had been for conferences with Norden, and Lander wondered how much of those conversations had been about board-dividing issues like repealing business tax abatements.
“These were discussions and time spent without the authority of the board,” Lander charged.
“I absolutely had it,” replied Norden, to which Niemann said she’d like to see documented proof.
Norden offered to provide that proof via a board motion, but Lander didn’t believe it would pass, and so the request was abruptly cancelled.
Ironically, it was another attorney’s bill one from former construction attorney Jack Osborn that was not approved by the board.
Norden made a motion to withhold payment until the district’s current lawyer could review the bill, but Niemann pointed out that the school already has a claims auditor, who is authorized to approve the bills.
In other words, the bill’s payment was already approved by the auditor and thus the district, making the motion moot.
Norden pressed on with the motion, however, and it passed 7-2, with Niemann and Novak opposed.
The duo again opposed a motion, this time to extend the meeting past 10 p.m., which according to board policy is the cutoff time for meetings (which start at 7 p.m.). Their opposition apparently had to do with the lack of a specified ending time, and it was shortly thereafter that Niemann left.
BOCES Caught in the Fire
BOCES Superintendent Martin Handler and BOCES board member Herb Bauernfeind attended to make their annual report to the district.
And while Handler touted the high return in aid, savings and student performance on SW’s investment in BOCES (even featuring a $282,000 surplus returned to the district), he couldn’t escape grilling by longtime critic van Swol.
Citing the loss of 240 students in the past three years at SW, van Swol reiterated his push for BOCES’ utilization of SW’s vast empty facilities space.
Handler conceded that SW’s buildings are in better shape than the 89-year-old White Sulphur Springs school that BOCES is renovating through a lease with the Liberty school district.
But he reiterated his stance that SW’s facilities are too far away from BOCES’ central Sullivan County locations, creating insurmountable transportation and budgetary difficulties.
“[Jeffersonville] is the outer fringe of what might be useable,” he remarked, adding that BOCES must honor its agreement with Liberty, as well.
Van Swol, however, insisted that if such a plan is not feasible, then Handler ought to help negotiate a bailout for financially strapped SW with the state an argument to which Handler actually agreed, should the SW board as a whole ask him to do so (which they did not).
Other board members pushed Handler to pressure utilities like Verizon and Time Warner Cable to offer high-speed Internet throughout the county on the grounds that it would greatly aid education. An intrigued Handler said he would think on it.
But the related BOCES vote to re-nominate Bauernfeind to the board position he’s held for the past 32 years was opposed by van Swol, who felt Bauernfeind has not done enough to stay in touch with the SW board or represent its interests.
A board majority embarrassed by van Swol’s blunt criticisms of Bauernfeind voted him back on the BOCES board with praise for his three decades of work.
Reassessing the Vitriol
Later, in the board comment period, Novak took much of the board to task over the evening’s tense, acidic conversations.
“The commentary has been insulting and demeaning,” she stated, adding she was disturbed by the board majority’s silent approval of inflammatory remarks.
Although he said Novak was equally responsible for the negativity, Bailey agreed with her.
“The level of rancor on this board has been very distressing to me,” Bailey remarked, excepting Mann and Crotty from that criticism, as he felt they avoid inappropriate statements.
Norden, the board’s leader and the one who is informally tasked with setting the tone for each meeting, seemed to take their words to heart.
“I apologize,” he said. “I have to take responsibility for the level of rancor.
“But boy, I’m just loathe to tell people they can’t talk,” he added, saying silence in the past has only led to trouble.
“But it does have to tone down. It does have to get less.”
Novak and Lander appeared unconvinced of Norden’s sincerity, and Lander left the meeting halfway through Norden’s apology.
But Norden continued, adding Miller and Derry to his list of people hurt by unnecessarily nasty comments.
“It’s not fair is what it is,” he said of the verbal “beatings” the two administrators sometimes take from the board. “We really have to examine our consciences about that.”