It’s been another contentious School Board campaign. At times the attacks among candidates have become personal, particularly between Board President George Heidcamp – who is not up for reelection – and incubment trustee Steven Haun and challenger Robert Thomann. We sat down with the four candiates last week to let them make their case on the issues in their own words.
What specific qualities or expertise do you possess that would make you an effective School Board trustee?
Tom Ham: First of all, I’m open-minded and I’m willing to appreciate arguments from multiple perspectives, which is a requirement. All too often, people listen to one side of the story or another and try to make a decision based on that. One needs to understand that there are at least two sides and more often than not, there are many more than two. Secondly, I understand, because I was a director of engineering for so long, what good management is and how to recognize it and how to work with it. I think that’s important because as a board member, you need to get involved to just a certain level and there’s a fine over which you shouldn’t cross because you start to interfere or interject yourself into the day-to-day running of the school. I think it’s important to appreciate that there is a fine line and make sure you are staying on the proper side of that.
Steven Haun: Since serving on the board, I have been honored by the New York State School Boards Association with an honorary developmental achievement citation. I have taken leadership development opportunities totaling 30 credits. I have attended…leadership development opportunities, New York State mandated courses on fiscal oversight, negotiation issues, and superintendent evaluations, law conferences on claims and auditing, and a number of other pertinent topics.
I think I recognize when there is a financial problem that it is very important to control costs, and that was confirmed by the auditor recently. I feel as though the district is here for the students and my number one priority is to make sure the students maintain the courses they need and the full educational opportunities they need to be competitive in this world and secondly for the community to be attractive and competitive at the same time.
Charles Schirmer: I have a business administration degree from Ithaca College and after Ithaca College, I started teaching at Saugerties High School – business courses – so I have a good perspective from a teacher’s point of view about education. Also the business administration end of it gives me the business acumen to look at budgets and understand what’s going on. Because I taught for eight years, I’m very familiar with how things work at the high school level. Therefore, I wanted to be on the school board so I could help choose the present administration. That’s why I ran three years ago. I was also on the board for twelve years, back in the ’80s.
Thomann: I started as a school psychologist back in 1979, and I actually got into administration because I was going above and beyond things. I was designing programs and I was doing preventative stuff, basically to keep kids out of special ed.
I’ve been on the board of the Good Shepherd School, where my wife works, so I have some board experience. I’ve been doing that for about nine years, maybe close to ten. Good Shepherd School, being a private school, there are always financial issues; there is never enough money so the school is constantly in danger of closing. Being a board member, you make decisions, but you also have to do a lot of fundraising. I think that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty last year when we lost funding and I got involved with SLAM. One of the things I didn’t see was I didn’t see a lot of board participation.
That’s one of the things I see that’s missing here. There’s this polarization. There’s the older people who get up and complain about their taxes that are on a fixed income, and my heart goes out to them because I’m sure it’s very tough. Then there’s the teachers. Why isn’t the focus on bringing these groups together so there’s cooperation instead of pulling them apart.
I worked with the federal government as a consultant for school districts to troubleshoot why groups fail. There’s a whole host of reasons. One of them is that the meeting is dominated by a few individuals…I think sometimes there’s an investment on the part of one or two of the individuals in maintaining chaos rather than coming together, and that concerns me.
I’ve had a lot of practical experience in coming into school districts where they’re in some state of turmoil and working a plan with them to, whatever their identified issues are, to get through that. A lot of that is building a vision.
I was raised with the value of my parents that you have to support the volunteer, and kind of give back to the schools for what they give your kids. I’ve brought up my kids to give back, so we do a lot of volunteer work for our church and for the community, and I find myself volunteering more and more.
By all accounts, 2009-10 was a low-point for district finances. Though things seem to have stabilized, the reserve fund is still extremely low. How would you rate the current state of the district’s financial standing? How important is it to set aside money to restore the fund balance (rainy day fund)?
Ham: I don’t know how I would rate our financial standing. In terms of progress, I think Allen [Olsen] and the rest of the administration has made tremendous strides in closing the deficit. There was at one point, the real hope that we were actually going to erase it in the near future. I don’t think that’s in the cards right now, but you can see it’s down from close to $3 million, down to $900,000. Now, we all would like a lower tax levy or no tax levy at all. I don’t want to pay an increase either, but I’m personally okay with it because I have firsthand knowledge of just how hard they worked and how tight this budget is. There’s very little in it in terms of discretionary spending. It has a one and a half percent increase over the year before and that’s taking into account all the fuel and food increase, insurance increases, and everything else. The rest of my answer is a little vague in that it goes back to trying to find other sources of revenue. Right now, the school district has two sources of revenue, the state and your back pocket. We need to see what else we can do as a district.
Haun: Next to maintaining the academic services for our students, which is what the district is primarily there for, and all the rewards and incentives, which are the art and music and all the extracurricular activities, the finances are [in a very poor state], but yet there’s still this cavalier attitude that we can buy backhoes and we can now pick up the full load for the SRO [student resource officer]. Things like this are just a microcosm of what this overall attitude is. Academic services for the students should be number one, and the financial mess needs to be cleaned up as quickly as possible.
Schirmer: Everything hinges on the property tax itself. This is an archaic tax. It should not be the basis for funding our education system, which is the most important thing in a democracy. Up to the present, there have not been enough legislators in the legislature to bit the bullet and find another source. So we are stuck trying to fund the schools through an imperfect system. All we can do is look for grants, and look for other ways of making revenue.
It’s a catch-22. We are stuck with a system that doesn’t work well, and when you give the voters a choice between paying taxes and educating kids, unfortunately a lot of times paying taxes survives. They do not want to pay more taxes… I don’t want to pay more taxes, but if it’s going to be necessary to educate the kids at a reasonable level, I’ll pay the taxes.
Thomann: I think it’s pretty important [to put money aside]. You want the district to be financially stable, so people see this as a viable place to send their kids. You want it to be educationally stable so we can get more people in to build up the tax base.
It hurts that we can’t offer a lot of things, and the more students we have and the more revenue we have, the more we can offer.
Many readers complain their school taxes go up every year, increasing the cost of living here in a time when the economy is bad. Do you think it’s possible to hold the line on expenses? To have a year with a tax decrease?
Ham: I think it’s impossible, and I know these aren’t the answers they want to hear, but it’s the truth nonetheless. The reason I say it’s impossible is because most of the expenses are contractually obligated. Others, such as fuel and food costs, are also outside of our control. So if you look at our budget, probably 85 percent of it is out of our control, and it’s driven by the market. We don’t know what a barrel of oil is going to cost next year, and we use a lot of oil. We use a lot of natural gas. We consume a lot of food. The raw materials that we consume will increase, so therefore our budget will. We can’t control it.
As far as athletics and music and those types of things, I consider them part of the program, because these kids do learn things from it. There are self-esteem lessons, there’s teamwork, there’s social work that gets done, there’s time management. There’s a lot of self pride. And, at the end of the day, there are certain kids who do well in school just so that they can belong to one of those types of programs. We have to stop using those programs as a slush fund to deal with our late-year shortcomings.
Part of the reason also, that you won’t see a zero increase is because the state has significantly reduced the amount of aid that we receive over the past three years.
Haun: We can be responsible. We need to be more responsible stewards and trustees of the school’s finances and what it takes to provide this academic service to the students of the community. We need to do a better job. I have voted against all pay raises since I’ve been on this board, and I have done my best. I’m just one out of nine, but I’ve done my best to make my case and to be persuasive, but obviously I haven’t done a very good job at persuading the other members to listen to my point of view. It’s been frustrating and I hope that people keep in mind the stance that I have taken. When May 17 comes around, we need a change of attitude and direction on this School Board.
Schirmer: It’s impossible to hold the line. There’s only about 15 percent of the budget that we can do anything about, and a lot of that is teachers’ salaries. Teachers’ salaries are negotiated. You go to mediation, you go to arbitration. You can’t just say we aren’t going to give you any raises this year. It doesn’t work that way. There are so many expenses that we don’t control, like health insurance in particular. That was expected to be a 14 percent increase this year. They all add up, so the short answer is no. There is no way there is going to be a zero increase.
Thomann: Economically, because it’s such a hard time, you certainly want to keep a lid on taxes, and I think I’d like to see more transparency with the budget.
It’s not always about money. Money’s important, but sometimes, it’s how you look at it. Are we going to hold the line on taxes for our community because the community can’t afford it and we value our citizens, or is it going to be that we’re going to lower taxes and forget about our students. Look at what happened last year. You can’t have a 21 percent increase and then boom, we’re cutting all our activities.
Enrollment is down over the past several years. Do you think Saugerties should look into closing a school? If so, how urgently?
Ham: I don’t think you look into closing a school; you look into what opportunities that may bring to reduce the budget. I don’t think anybody out there wants to close a school just to close a school. So, this board gave Mr. Turner direction to begin a feasibility study along those lines. Now whether that ends up being the closing of a school or the restructuring of our school district we don’t know yet, but it does bear looking into. I don’t know if we’re at the point where it makes fiscal sense, but I do believe that if enrollment keeps dropping, then it’s coming.
Haun: We have seen a decrease in our enrollment of about 43 percent [since 1969]. Our current enrollment is between 350 and 370 in our elementary schools. Just those figures alone are pretty persuasive. I think it needs serious consideration and I think being such an emotionally charged issue, that it would be best that we find some money to have the New York State School Board Association conduct this consolidation feasibility study and present it to the community. At that point when we some good, solid, non-biased, objective facts, then I want the community to be as involved as it cares to be in making this decision. I think a referendum is something that should be strongly considered.
Schirmer: On the face of it, everybody is looking at those numbers, saying this is ridiculous- we’ve got to close one of these schools, but the state has increased the mandates over the years, and there are so many things connected with it, like transportation, that you have to do a study.
Mr. Turner is looking into the possibility of consolidating in some way, but it’s going to take some time.
Thomann: I’ve had a hard time getting the data to look at this. There are too many unanswered questions that would have to be looked at before you could say yes or no to closing a school just based on a motion. What I really want to see in a facilities report is what are the physical conditions of each of those schools? How bad are they? Would it make more sense from an educational point of view to consolidate things?
Ideally, it would be good to involve the community, to get their opinions and take surveys, and to give them as much information as possible, and to have some public discussion about it.
How would you rate the effectiveness of the current board? Does it work well with the superintendent and the teacher’s union? Is it functional and productive? Does it prioritize the right issues?
Ham: I think it is functional and productive, warts and all. The reason it is, is because there are nine members, so when any one member might be having a bad day, the rest of the board can still keep things on track. I have to give hats off to the president for controlling us, making us behave, and having a wealth of knowledge relative to union negotiations and Robert’s Rules. When the board president runs an effective meeting, regardless of how out of hand we may want to get, he keeps up reasonably well behaved. When you take a step back, and look at us from a slight distance, it is a productive board. Each board member brings certain strengths to the table, and certain of us are go-to people relative to particular levels of expertise in certain areas. I think we all have a relatively good rapport with the administration.
Haun: I have been confronted, and I have been on the opposite end of many majority votes. I feel that this board financially is too cavalier with its attitude and its spending habits, and I have a difference of philosophy with the majority of this board right now. The leadership of this board has voted for everyone of these spending measures. When it comes to providing raises for the business administrator, when it came to forming our superintendent’s salary. I don’t understand the spending and I don’t understand the lack of willingness to control costs. At the same time, six of these people made a decision to deny thousands a vote and put our district into an austerity budget, cutting extracurricular activities, cutting art and music, cutting athletics, and these are some of the same people who voted for all of these administrative raises. It’s been very difficult for me to deal with that philosophy.
Schirmer: I’m a little fortunate because I was on a previous board, so I have something to compare to. The previous board that I was on was an older board, in general, and very little controvery, but not nearly the interaction that this board has. Maybe it was because computers weren’t as popular back then, but we are in touch with one another constantly- daily. It gives every board member the opportunity to be completely aware of what’s going on. In the past, none of that communication took place between meetings. This board, generally, is very supportive of the administration…we work well together. I have great faith in the honesty and the integrity of these people, and I foresee a light at the end of the tunnel even though we’re still right at the bottom.
Thomann: The superintendent and the board seem to have a good relationship, and the board seems to work well together, with an occasional exception. I think they are all well-intentioned individuals. I don’t want to find fault with any of them. Their intentions are good, but then the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so I think sometimes they get sidetracked.
This is supposed to be a board of education, and I have yet to see the education part come in. They talked about a backhoe for the last two or three meetings…Let’s get to the most important stuff.
Where would you like to see the district in five years?
Ham: I would like to see a district that offers more electives. I would like to see a district with an afterschool program that’s vibrant, not only for children, but maybe the adults in the community too. I would like to see what I heard existed back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where the schools were the centers of community activity. I think they still are anchors of the various communities they serve, and I’d like to see that get polished up and come back.
My biggest program push is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). That is where the jobs are going to be in the future. It could touch every life.
Haun: I would like to see it financially sound. I would like to see it competitive with the likes of the Red Hook School District, which as the crow flies is probably the closest district to here, and they are looking at 70 to 75 percent achievement levels at this time. I plan to attend a few board meetings in Red Hook and see how they do things. I think they are a benchmark in Ulster County. They are a very good school district. I know the people in our school district have the potential. We have some very good people in our school district, I just feel that there is a lack of harmony and cohesiveness within the district now because of all these adversarial moments. Somehow, we have to bring the employees and the teachers and everybody together, working as a team. We need to be on the same page. Hopefully within five years, we can straighten out some of this financial mess and of course we hope to maintain a better level of academic achievement.
Schirmer: I’d like to see the income tax pay for education, first of all. I’m impressed right now with the PTA’s involvement.
Five years from now, I want to see a fund balance back in place. One of the reasons that the outlying districts have not had the increases that we have had is because they had a fund balance. And, they took their fund balance, and they put it into their budget. We don’t have a fund balance to rely on.
And, maybe we can have decent electives back again.
Thomann: I’d like to see a fund balance restored. I’d like to see the test scores up where all kids are achieving at mastery level. I’d like to see the special ed groups that were cited for not making progress, a report on how they’re overachieving now. I’d like to see the special ed population decreased. Special ed students are graduating at a rate of 46 percent… As a parent I’d be very concerned about that.