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DV Reopening Not in The Cards, For Now

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — To a member, Sullivan West’s school board doesn’t plan on reopening the Delaware Valley campus in Callicoon this coming year.
So how did the discussion reach such an acrimonious point, with people – even board members – convinced a plan was in the works? And why is virtually every board member expressing bewilderment over the current situation?
The reasons are as varied as the board members’ perspectives – so here, straight from interviews conducted with them this past week, is what they had to say:
• Arthur Norden, Board President: “There has never been a plan by this board to open or close buildings,” he said. “There is no conspiracy going on.”
Instead, the plan has always been “to do what’s never been done,” he remarked: to look at every building and determine its usefulness to the district in the long term.
“The intention was that there would be a full and absolute review of everything,” Norden explained.
A Facilities Needs and Assessment Committee comprised of Norden, Shawn Bailey (chair), Catherine Novak and Shaun Sensiba – plus Supt. Alan Derry and School Business Administrator Bob Miller – was created last year to do that, but it hasn’t met since the turn of the year.
However, it was at one of those final meetings of the committee that Norden said Derry was asked about preparing all the possible opening/closing scenarios involving SW’s four campuses.
Derry balked at the work involved in gathering the required figures, so Norden said he asked him if he could do just one – DV’s reopening, as it would allow the committee to reasonably extrapolate the costs for reopening Narrowsburg as well.
The two men agreed that the public should be made aware that closing the high school in Lake Huntington is not an option for the coming school year, but a new wrinkle was added when Derry told Norden it would be easier and better to present DV’s figures during the budget development process.
However, that would put the issue in front of the full board, rather than the committee.
Norden didn’t feel that was ideal timing but acquiesced, eager to see the numbers on at least one scenario.
“That’s all we were going to get out of him,” Norden said of Derry.
So when Derry and Miller presented DV’s reopening figures as an option the board could consider in budget discussions, Norden didn’t shut down any conversation about it – even though he said that by that time there was no definite intention by the board to open the campus.
“It’s politically expedient for people to want to believe [otherwise],” he commented, saying that some members of the community are looking to politicize and demonize the issue – even though the board in the past has voted down Noel van Swol’s motions to move toward closing the high school/reopening DV.
“All along, we were absolutely open and honest about what we were going to do,” he stated.
• Alan Derry, Superintendent: Derry’s take on the history is slightly different.
Norden specifically directed him to formulate a budget option to reopen DV, he said, even though such data would take a great deal of time to compile – and even though, as Derry said, “I have no interest in reopening any schools.
“It would be foolish to open the school in a financial sense,” he stated.
But he said he did as the board president wished, including it as part of budget discussions.
And he saw how divisive an issue it became – an issue he indicated was predicated on personal, political agendas.
It’s a situation that has existed for some time, according to the supt. The very first Facilities Needs and Assessment Committee meeting was held without him last August, even though he had made board members aware of a prior upstate commitment.
Derry viewed it all as politics tied to who wants which school closed/opened.
“Once our leaders stop playing that [provincial] card politically, I think we’ll be fine,” he said.
He won’t be a participant in that future, however, as he is stepping down as superintendent at the end of June – likely retiring, actually – to spend more time on family health issues at home in New Paltz.
• Shawn Bailey, Board Vice President: Bailey puts the blame on himself.
“I believe it was basically a miscommunication on my part,” he related.
While he didn’t recall ever specifically asking Derry for just DV’s numbers, Bailey – chair of the Facilities Needs and Assessment Committee – felt he might not have been as clear with the superintendent as he should have been.
As a result, he’s not in favor of reopening DV at this juncture.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the level of information I have,” he said.
But he’s adamant that his view on the situation hasn’t changed.
“I said from the beginning that I don’t want to make another decision without the facts,” Bailey remarked, lamenting what he feels was a hasty and ill-considered decision to close DV and Narrowsburg two years ago.
Bailey insisted that “everyone in the district is going to have to get involved” in campus decisions, though he is up for re-election this year and may or may not be put back on the board to advocate for such.
“I just want to be able to put it to rest finally and completely,” he said. “[Until then,] we’re not going to be the combined district we want to be.”
• Rick Lander, Board Member: The longest-serving member of the SW board (up for re-election this year) and a reluctant advocate of the closure of Narrowsburg and DV two years ago, Lander said he’s simply bewildered by the board leadership’s interest in discussing DV’s reopening.
“I’m confused why we spent so much time in the budgetary process to do it now,” he explained. “They never give us a straight answer.”
Lander, for one, is not interested in reopening DV at this time, especially as he considers the present building configuration amenable to staff and students.
“Why would you change it?” he asked. “I’d rather give that money [the $1.7 million estimated cost to reopen DV] back to the taxpayers, staff and students.”
Lander felt the focus on DV – a reopening plan that isn’t even going to happen this coming year – is taking time away from true budget issues.
“The last budget meeting showed we didn’t even give him [Derry] direction,” Lander complained, adding that the business department has been saddled with unfair, time-consuming research requests from the board.
• Shaun Sensiba, Board Member: “Until a rational analysis has been done fully… I don’t want to make changes.”
That’s where Sensiba stands on DV’s reopening – a decision he said he and the rest of the board came to about two months ago when they realized they didn’t have enough information.
He lamented that lack of information and his feeling that the $1.7 million reopening option is based on faulty figures – but he also didn’t know why the board was even discussing the DV option now.
“I wish we had had the ability to discuss this prior to it being shown as a budget proposal… because it then caused all of this confusion,” he said, adding that “this is being used as a political football to be divisive.”
He’s not really talking about the board per se but about those who seek to “kill discussion” on any reconfiguration of buildings.
Still, Sensiba felt that the DV reopening discussion should be halted until the budget process is over.
“We have to have an understanding of what’s best for education… and how much does it cost?”
• Anna Niemann, Board Member: Niemann, too, is not sure why DV is on the table right now.
“Why waste the board’s time?” she asked, faulting board leadership, not district administration. “If they didn’t have any intentions to open it, why ask for the numbers now?”
Niemann said she can understand board members’ desire to look into the issue and even Sensiba’s questioning of the administration’s figures.
But she also feels some on the board have acted insultingly and unprofessionally towards Derry and Miller, and she does not share concerns that the current building configuration is possibly less than ideal.
“I think the research [on configurations] was done when he had the Community Budget Committee looking at it,” she said of a group formed more than two years ago to study DV and Narrowsburg’s fate.
She’s not in favor of reopening DV at this point and is blunt about any discussion to that end: “I think it’s a waste of our time.”
• Rose Crotty, Board Member: “To me, it’s like a white elephant at this point,” Crotty related of DV. “We can’t kill him; we have to feed him.”
In other words, she’d like something done with the closed campus, but “quite honestly, I’m not making a move.”
Why? As others have said, the lack of information prevents her from being able to make a decision – but Crotty, too, said that reopening DV had never been a serious consideration for this year.
“Yeah, we discussed it,” she acknowledged, “but I’ve discussed having a new home, and how likely is that to happen?”
Crotty is particularly frustrated with the rumor mill regarding DV.
“I don’t know where it’s coming from,” she complained. “I’m completely mystified.”
She’s also slightly overwhelmed.
“I’ve gotten more e-mails in the last two weeks than in my seven months on the board,” Crotty explained of DV-related correspondence. “Who has perpetuated this myth?”
• Catherine Novak, Board Member: “I’m just as confused as everybody else,” said Novak, who said she often feels out of the loop with the board majority.
“We have board members who say one thing one day and the next week they say the exact opposite,” she explained. “They don’t speak clearly.”
“I think there are certain board members who thrive on conflict,” she said.
Even the Facilities Needs and Assessment Committee, on which she serves, has baffled her.
“That whole committee to me has been confusing,” she related. “I’m not ‘in’ with the rest of the committee in how I think.”
Novak’s convinced the confusion stems from people unwilling to let DV stay closed despite the facts.
“They love looking like they came in and saved the day,” she said.
“I’d love to reopen DV and Narrowsburg,” Novak added. “But I just don’t think it’s financially smart.”
Soon, however, she won’t have a say as a board member, as too many “unnecessary emergency meetings” have taken her away from home and family, so she’s not running for re-election.
“I would love to be on the board, but I just can’t,” she said.
• Jennifer Mann, Board Member: When asked if the board is considering reopening DV, Mann was succinct: “We’re not.”
She’s also of the mind that that’s what’s been said all along.
“I don’t really know why everyone showed up all afraid,” she remarked of a recent board meeting featuring impassioned pleas over the situation.
The plan, said Mann, has always been “to take a long-range view” based on facts, not emotions. And when the time comes, she wants the community to make the ultimate decision.
“It doesn’t look like we’re going to be doing anything [with DV] because we don’t have the research,” she explained. “I felt they closed those schools without that, without research, and I refuse to do the same.”
• Noel van Swol, Board Member: So what does the chief proponent of reopening DV and closing the high school have to say about the issue?
“At this point it’s premature to say we’re opening or closing any buildings, including the Delaware Valley building, because we don’t have all the facts,” van Swol commented.
And for that he blames Derry.
“Supt. Alan Derry has been dragging his feet since July,” said van Swol, referring to information the Facilities Needs and Assessment Committee has been asking Derry and staff to provide regarding configuration scenarios.
And what figures Derry has provided on DV are “wildly inflated,” van Swol said.
“Many board members, including myself, do not trust Mr. Derry or his numbers,” he concluded.

Public Gets Say in SW Budget Debate

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — April 3, 2007 — As has often been the sad case at Sullivan West this year, a moment of silence preceded Thursday’s school board meeting.
Narrowsburg native and graduate Anthony Kaiser, a specialist with the U.S. Army, was killed while on duty in Iraq. His funeral was held Tuesday, and board and audience members paid their respects to the 27-year-old Thursday inside the high school library in Lake Huntington.
The quiet moment was followed by an intense three hours of budget discussion and debate.
First, it was the public’s turn to have a say, as it was a regular board meeting with a comment session.
The majority opinion in the audience was one of preserving and enhancing current programs and already-open buildings.
“There is no need to touch what has already been proven to work,” said Callicoon resident Matt Kleiner, representing Sullivan West CARES (Citizens Advocating for Responsible Education and Spending).
Like several after him, Kleiner praised the addition of an elementary summer school, afterschool programs and late busing in the proposed budget.
Students also spoke, including junior Morgan Edwards, who felt disparaging remarks about young people’s comments at past board meetings were unwarranted.
“We, the students, feel this is ignorant on the board’s part,” she stated. “Your decisions should be made with the students in mind.”
Senior Heather Bellock agreed, accusing the board of having negative agendas, not students. She said the students of SW had organized a petition drive of their own free will, “and we will continue to fight for the education we deserve.”
Residents offered a variety of opinions, mostly advocating against reopening the Delaware Valley campus in Callicoon and criticizing the board for playing politics.
Former board member and longtime public educator Regina Wagner of Jeffersonville took a solution-oriented path, urging the board to enhance programs so as to actually reduce costs.
“Sometimes we forget that student failure is very expensive for the taxpayers,” she remarked, speaking of the costs involved in students retaking classes, getting special assistance and being sent to alternative education schools.
Wagner felt the $3 million worth of surplus monies generated this year could be partially used to invest in various “failure prevention programs” that would save money in the long run by keeping kids out of academic trouble. Based on current figures, such programs would represent barely 2 percent of the total special ed. budget – “the best education at the best cost,” she said.
Two audience members also pushed for in-house driver’s education, to which Supt. Alan Derry said a district/community-created report is forthcoming with suggestions on how to proceed.
Various residents argued for and against reopening DV, but Board President Arthur Norden attempted to put that debate to rest (for now) by saying the board is not considering opening or closing any additional buildings this year.
He also urged students not to think the board is not interested in their comments.
“Absolutely, your input is extremely important,” he said.
So now what happens?
Regarding DV, nothing. As for the budget, the board unanimously agreed to set a public hearing on the budget for Tuesday, April 17, at 7 p.m. at the high school (changed from April 11). After the public speaks, the board must vote on whether or not to adopt the budget.
By that time, Derry promised he’d have a budget incorporating various suggestions the board made Thursday evening, from soundproofing the 1961 gym in Jeffersonville to a three-year forecast of tax increases.
Still, Derry anticipated a “very low” tax levy increase this coming year – possibly less than a percent in a budget that will total somewhere around $32.5 million.
And what about the spending increases he and board member Shaun Sensiba sparred about the meeting before?
The superintendent came armed with two pages’ worth of material clarifying and refuting some of Sensiba’s concerns and arguments, although Derry acknowledged several instances where he agreed with Sensiba’s figures.
However, Derry insisted that School Business Administrator Bob Miller’s original figures were accurate and that any spending reductions would have “a major impact” on programs.
Like the the board, Derry did see a large surplus – so much so that “you could actually open DV without a tax impact” – but urged members to “squirrel away” the money in reserve funds.
“Don’t forget you have EXCEL [state aid] money,” he added, estimating proper usage of those funds could add close to $2 million in spending money for the district’s various building projects.
“If you’ve committed all your excess money this year,” he warned, “that means you’re relying on luck [in future years].”
“We’re not supposed to collect taxes just to park the money,” replied Sensiba.
Derry responded that he has worked hard over his time in office to create financially responsible staffing and building plans where none existed before, adding that closing DV and Narrowsburg “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my 39 years in education.”
This past school year, he said, “we’ve planned well and got really lucky. But you can’t count on luck every time.”
“Basically for two years we overtaxed everyone,” replied Sensiba.
“Or we collected more revenue than we anticipated,” said Derry.
The two men said they agreed on most of the issues, but they remained apart on how to spend that surplus.
“We have to get to where we are squeezing expense, not programs, out of future years,” replied Sensiba. “We’re still spending at a rate we cannot afford.”
“You’re taking the flexibility away to protect yourself this year and at year’s end,” said Derry of spending rather than saving the surplus monies – adding that enrollment projections predict student population dropping by 200 kids over the next four years, and with it the expenses.
In Other Business
Two other votes could have a significant impact on the district’s future.
While some board members did not see the need to create – and thus try to explain – a capital reserve fund that would not initially have any money in it, the board voted 5-4 to let the public decide.
Derry himself said it wasn’t an important issue to him, but Miller had strongly advocated for it as a wise financial tool. (A capital reserve fund permanently saves money until voters approve its use on specific building projects. The money in the fund cannot legally be transferred elsewhere without that voter approval.)
Board member Noel van Swol felt the wording of the resolution was too ambiguous and risked sinking the entire budget, as taxpayers will vote on it along with the budget on May 15.
But Derry promised Miller could provide an explanation to the public for the fund’s necessity.
Voting to send the resolution to the voters were board members Shawn Bailey, Rose Crotty, Rick Lander, Anna Niemann and Catherine Novak. Voting against were Arthur Norden, Noel van Swol, Jennifer Mann and Shaun Sensiba.
The other board vote that evening was unanimous once some confusion cleared.
Miller explained to board members that BBL Construction Services had yet to fully sign off on an agreement settling its lawsuit with the school over payment issues, and the district’s attorney had not yet recommended the settlement either.
So the board unanimously voted to authorize a near-$500,000 payment be made to BBL (which is still working on the high school) to settle the matter – pending approval from the district’s attorney.

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