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School Board Mulls Reopening DV

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — March 20, 2007 — Thursday’s Sullivan West school board meeting looked and sounded like another one two years ago.
Dozens of people packed the high school auditorium in Lake Huntington. Angry words flew at a stone-faced board. Denouncements of personal agendas and blind ignorance were common. Petitions with thousands of signatures were presented.
In 2005, that was all about averting the closure of the Delaware Valley and Narrowsburg campuses.
In 2007, it was about keeping those campuses closed – specifically DV – and averting the rumored closure of the high school itself.
The irony was not lost on most attendees, but only a small few this time advocated for reopening the DV campus in Callicoon.
Most of the comment period’s speakers urged the board to reject any notion of spending an estimated $1.7 million to reopen DV.
“We need programs,” said Kenoza Lake resident Elizabeth Kubenik. “We don’t need more buildings.”
That was the overriding argument of parents, teachers and students who spent more than an hour articulating their concerns Thursday night.
And they brought with them two sets of petitions signed by more than 400 students and over 1,300 community members who agree. A new grassroots group has even formed: Sullivan West CARES (Citizens Advocating Responsible Education and Spending), dedicated to “energizing voters, spending responsibly, avoiding redistricting, expanding and restoring programs, finishing all work at the high school, retaining the present building facilities, and most importantly encouraging a supportive and stable environment for students and staff.”
Just as in 2005, board members were accused of having personal agendas in the matter, and once again, several spoke to that issue.
“The only portion of the district not losing students is DV,” observed board member Noel van Swol, who has not shied away from advocating closure of the high school and a reopening of DV. “The [student] population is cratering in Narrowsburg and Jeffersonville-Youngsville.”
Saying that every district residents’ concerns need to be taken into account, van Swol said people should calm down and be assured that the board will honestly act and “take the long view.”
Board members Rick Lander and Anna Niemann, however, were glad to see so many residents arguing for the continuation of the current building configuration.
“I think we need to build on what we have and keep our schools,” said Lander, who reluctantly voted for closing DV and his hometown campus, Narrowsburg, in 2005. “We’re doing better now… It’s working. I don’t think there’s a need to change it at this point.”
“We’ve been in apathy and now we’re awake,” Niemann said in admiration of the audience.
She agreed with Lander (both of whom have been the focus of accusations from van Swol) that personal attacks by board members on other board members should cease and that the board – contrary to the feelings of other board members – had received all the information it requested to make an informed decision about the future of DV.
Board member Shaun Sensiba took a more neutral approach.
“What we have are honest people with honest emotions,” he acknowledged, “but we have to move past just having one emotional opinion or another.”
Saying that loud cheers and applause won’t in and of themselves lead to solutions, Sensiba didn’t avoid critiquing the public that evening, remarking that “the real problems… are much more complicated than anything I’ve heard tonight [from the audience].”
Board President Arthur Norden initially tried to include every board member’s stance in his response to the crowd.
“We all share all of the concerns we’ve heard tonight,” he began, then emphasized the point that administration should look after education while the board takes care of finances and policy. “Our biggest responsibility is to protect your assets, your resources.”
Complaining that the board did not get all the info it needed to determine what to do with all of the district’s buildings, Norden said he was disappointed that the board could only consider either a status quo scenario or one reopening DV next school year.
He lamented, “We learned that the closing of schools might not have been as necessary as we thought they were… You fell into this configuration as a result of bad planning and very bad information.”
But, he cautioned, people should avoid making assumptions about SW’s future.
“We are a little bit closer to robbing Peck’s [Supermarkets] tomorrow than closing this building or reopening DV,” he said.
Nevertheless, the board listened that evening to School Business Administrator Bob Miller explain not only a budget that builds upon the current situation at Jeff and Lake Huntington but an alternative scenario involving the DV campus.
The bulk of the estimated $1,716,332 it would take to operate DV next year (not including some minor building rehab work) would come from personnel – an operations supervisor, four cleaners, a groundskeeper, a maintenance worker, a principal, two secretaries, a librarian, five teachers and a nurse. Cafeteria and transportation expenses would also comprise a large chunk.
The figures engendered concern among some board members who weren’t confident of the numbers. After a short but tense confrontation, Supt. Alan Derry promised the board he would provide the administration’s reasoning by the next budget meeting.
Norden emphasized the need for hard numbers based on cold facts “if we’re ever going to move forward and be unified.”
Several board members also indicated the public may very well get the chance to vote on reopening DV should the board make it a part of the proposed budget for 2007-2008.
Derry said he’s sad he won’t be around to see what happens, as a family issue requires him to give up his superintendency this June for something closer to his New Paltz home. But he did urge people to see how much good has happened in SW since the merger – evidenced, he said, by how protective teachers and students are of current offerings and configurations.
“It is finished,” he commented. “We have a merged district.”
Now, he continued, is the time for everyone to put aside anger.
“We haven’t been pulling together. It’s not a secret,” he said, referencing SW’s widespread reputation for problems and infighting.
“We have to pull together,” he concluded. “You all, no matter what happens, have to leave the history behind us.”
* * *
Sullivan West’s budget workshops are ongoing and open to the public. The next is scheduled for this Thursday at 7 p.m. at the high school.
Voter registration (separate from general political elections) will be held on April 11 and May 9 between 4 and 8 p.m. at the Delaware Youth Center in Callicoon, the elementary school in Jeffersonville, and the Tusten-Cochecton branch of the Western Sullivan Public Library in Narrowsburg.
The budget vote will be held on May 15 from 12-9 p.m. Further information will be made available closer to the vote date.
For more information on Sullivan CARES, e-mail or call Jeanne at 482-3522, Cathy at 482-4186, Rose at 482-5798 or Greg at 482-4600.

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