SW Board, Public Debate High School Investigation, Bus Stops, Taxes and Enrollment
By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON September 25, 2007 Sullivan West board member Noel van Swol started off Thursday’s regular meeting with a call to arms and got shot down by fellow board members as a result.
Saying it was necessary to restore the district’s credibility and the public’s confidence, van Swol advocated for an investigation by the state attorney general and governor’s offices regarding the Lake Huntington high school’s various deficiencies.
Referring to the state education department’s [SED’s] involvement in both this and past SW issues, van Swol said, “I have no confidence given the history of SED here.”
Action is needed now, he insisted, “if nothing else, to prevent anything like this from happening in the state again.”
Otherwise, he added, “the community’s going to look at it as a coverup.”
Boardmate Richard Tegnander vehemently denied any coverup, pointing out that “our new superintendent [Ken Hilton] did not sit on anything” and adding that involving the state’s highest authorities is “premature… until we have all the facts.
“I think to do that at this point is grandstanding,” Tegnander concluded.
Board members Shaun Sensiba and Anna Niemann said they agreed about the timing, and in the end, only van Swol voted “yes” to putting his resolution on the evening’s agenda.
But the debate continued at the end of the meeting, as well. While less than half a dozen residents complained about the issue, board members pressed their points.
“His motion at the beginning of the meeting sounded to me like a publicity stunt,” said Tegnander of van Swol.
“If we thought this building was unsafe, it would have been closed and kept closed,” he continued. “… I can assure you that, to the best of our knowledge, the building is safe.”
“I emphatically disagree [about the high school’s safety],” said van Swol. “I do not trust our engineers or SED… because all of these people have conflicts of interest.
“The Sullivan West High School is a disaster waiting to happen,” he remarked. “… I personally feel someone should go to prison for authorizing this debacle.”
Narrowsburg resident Carol Wingert, who has a 10th grader in SW, was representative of the four or so people who addressed the board about the matter.
She advocated for a full inspection of every corner of the high school.
“What I’m not comfortable with is the past history of engineering … and a lot of the building problems we’ve seen,” she said. “… We have a warning right now.”
The board majority, however, is taking a wait-and-see attitude, and while assurances have been made regarding permanent repairs to the high school at no cost to local taxpayers it remains uncertain whether and how an investigation into all the building problems at SW High will be conducted.
Taxes, Enrollment and Bus Stops Continue Debate
By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON While the building issues surrounding the high school took center stage at Thursday’s Sullivan West school board meeting, they weren’t the only items of note.
In fact, there was almost as much discussion on a bus stop change in Kohlertown, along Route 52 near Jeffersonville.
Residents Eric Kubenik, Kim Breihof and others attended to voice their dissatisfaction with a move in their kids’ bus stop about eight houses down the busy thoroughfare which doesn’t feature sidewalks on either side for at least half the distance the students now must walk.
Superintendent Ken Hilton, Assistant Superintendent for Business Larry Lawrence and School Business Administrator Lorraine Poston personally visited the area before and after authorizing the change, and they disagreed with the parents over the relative safety.
In a 15-minute presentation Thursday, Hilton and Lawrence reminded the audience that parents are responsible for getting their children to and from a bus stop and for their safety in the process.
Plus, said Lawrence, this particular stop is well within the district’s voter-approved policy of no more than a half-mile walk for an elementary student and a mile for a high-schooler.
Each stop, added Hilton, was determined with consideration for all the students who use it, not just a few.
“This was not a decision of faceless bureaucrats,” he explained. “… These were, I think, careful, thoughtful studies.”
And just the other day, Breihof’s children were moved to a bus stop closer to her home and off Route 52.
But board members felt as the parents did.
“I grew up in Kohlertown,” explained board member Anna Niemann, pointing out how fast traffic passes by and how the existing sidewalks are not plowed in the winter.
“Those kids will be walking down 52 to get to the bus stop,” she predicted although she added that she is in favor of consolidated bus stops rather than door-to-door service.
Board member Richard Tegnander, who lives nearby, took a trip down to Kohlertown and found too many speeders and too few sidewalks.
“Kids are going to have to walk in the road, and I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “I think the safety of our children strongly outweighs money and time.”
But Hilton said he was “reluctant for us to just handle those who appealed,” arguing that equal bus service districtwide is important (a point that board member Shaun Sensiba pressed, as well).
In particular, Hilton feared that the district might have to accommodate upwards of 100-200 other students who face similar circumstances (though only four families complained this year).
“If that’s the case, we have a flawed bus system,” responded board member Noel van Swol.
He did not believe that to be the case, saying district officials should ignore getting “entangled in bureaucratic red tape” and simply provide relief to those who appealed.
“I think this situation possibly does warrant that,” agreed Niemann, followed by statements of support from board members Rose Crotty and Ken Cohen.
“I think Supt. Hilton and our business officials understand the board’s concerns,” concluded Board President Rich Sandler. “How about we let them work on it?”
As a result, jubilant parents left the meeting that evening expecting the Kohlertown stops to be adjusted closer to their homes.
And at least one family is already seeing some action, as the board approved a Child Safety Zone study to be conducted in the Delaware County portion of the district, where a student has to walk nearly a mile down a desolate road where neighbors feed local bears.
Anticipating the board’s decision, Hilton and Lawrence said the study, actually, is already under way.
Enrollment going down,
taxes going up
Elsewhere during the meeting, Hilton informed the board that the district lost about 50 students from last school year to this, continuing a trend of about a 3 percent loss per year (even though the incoming kindergarten class is requiring four sections of 22-23 kids each).
Worse news, however, was his feeling that a tax increase is inevitable next school year perhaps as much as 12-19 percent (though that figure is highly tentative, based on numerous unknowns).
“As we feared, this year’s drop in taxes may result in next year’s hike in taxes,” he said to the board.
“Voters and the board need to be warned if a financial hit is coming,” added Lawrence, who has been calculating potential tax impacts based on the limited information available this early in the school year.
“If you get bad news out early, you can fix the problem,” agreed Sensiba, who would like to see a tax increase no greater than 9 percent next year.
Faulting an overreliance on the fund balance (surplus) carried over from year to year in the early days of the district, Lawrence said tight budget situations may persist for some time.
“We’ve got a tough road to hoe,” he warned. “This is going to be difficult for the next couple of years.”
Superintendent lists goals
Hilton promised the board he will be focusing on nearly a dozen issues this year:
• developing a strategic plan
• developing an academic report card on student achievement
• holding public forums on that report card, the district’s fiscal condition, and demographics (i.e., enrollment, facilities use, etc.)
• examining student retention policies and practices
• lowering the dropout rate
• creating an elementary technology education plan
• instituting a new teacher induction program
• negotiating a new teachers’ contract
• working on common assessments
• involving himself personally in daily activities, including formal observations of teachers up for tenure
• settling union grievances
“Good luck,” replied Sensiba, impressed by the range and ambition of the goals. “You have our support.”