Highland incumbents to duke it out with newcomers

Highland voters will see a mix of newcomers and incumbents vying for the three open school board seats this May. Incumbents in the race include board president Vincent Rizzi and vice president Regina Tantillo-Swanson. Challengers include some members of the grassroots 60 Percenters group.
Voters will also get to decide if they’re happy with the service of school board appointee Heather Welch – the third incumbent – or if they’d like someone different to fill her seat.
All six of the folks looking to sit on the Board of Education were asked the same questions – with some minor variations for incumbents. That’s because two questions put newcomers in the shoes of a school board member, asking them how they would have voted on recent decisions. Obviously, current board members were there already. Instead of “what if,” we asked them why they voted the way they did.
Candidates are listed here in alphabetical order.

Michael Bakatsias

Michael Bakatsias, 41, is an assistant superintendent for a nearby school district. He’s a father of three. Two of his boys are in the Highland schools – one in first grade and one in second – and one will be in the schools soon.
He’s lived in Highland since 1996, but is originally from Marlborough. He has not held another elected position.

Q: Why are you running for school board?
MB: I would say that this year, over the past couple of years, I have been concerned about cuts being made to the budget that really represent programs for students and opportunities for students. And in this most recent year, certainly the board was very concerned about even meeting a mandated program based upon costs and what they felt the community could support.
I came forward because I’ve got small children, and I’m not looking for the greatest education – I’d like to say yes to that – but I’m looking for a good, sound public education. And certainly the trajectory the Highland School District is in concerns me deeply.
So that’s the one thing. The other thing is, looking at the Board of Education makeup, I feel that parents of school-aged children are not represented there. Only one out of the seven actually have a child in the school, and they’re a senior – so they’re on their way out. I just feel that parents need to be more involved and be represented on the school board.


Q: What are the top three issues facing Highland’s schools, and if you got elected how would you address them?
MB: Certainly, maintaining a balanced program and opportunities for students is my top concern. The second one is we’ve heard over and over again the board, in some cases, has not taken the advice of some of their professionals – whether they be employees of the school district or advisors to the board, such as auditors and things like that – as far as maintaining a fiscally sound budget.
So that’s the second piece. The third item is just trying to, into the future – certainly expenses are a concern and maintaining any reasonable tax rate is a concern for everyone. But trying to balance that along with maintaining the quality of our schools – you know, I want to be part of that conversation.
I believe that in some cases that examining some of those recommendations, whether it is their school officials or their auditors, maintaining proper fund balance amounts or using mechanisms that are available to schools to try and maintain programs even in the face of rising costs. That’s something I think that could be addressed. The other piece is that I know the board is speaking with their bargaining units. I think that’s something that needs to continue. I think that looking at shared services and ways to reduce costs – that needs to continue.
As far as maintaining programs, going back to number one, I just don’t know what the goals of the school district are or the guiding principles. If you have some guiding principles and now you’ve got a menu list of items. How do you prioritize those if you don’t have any guiding principles? Keeping taxes low, I guess that’s a guiding principle – but I just feel that that has to be leveraged against how you’re going to maintain the programs, adequate programs for students.
I’ve seen other school districts say, “You know what? Full-day kindergarten is important to us and no matter what that’s off the table. We’re not going to reduce it.” In Highland, everything’s on the table every year. And I think it just adds to the animosity to the whole budget process.

Q: This year school board members went with a $36.88 million budget that would raise the tax levy by 5.12 percent. Would you have voted yes for that budget too? Why or why not?
MB: Yes I would, because when you have to, sometimes these difficult decisions have to go out to the community. Though everyone would like to pass their budget on the first vote, I think that as a school board, you have a duty to try to maintain programs for students as much as possible. And in this new age of a 60 percent, you know if you go over the 2 percent limit, you need 60 percent or what they call a super majority. That is really different this year.
So at least for your first budget, you should try and maintain as much as possible and allow your community to weigh in on that and kind of guide. So if it goes through, you know that the majority of your community did support the percentage you put forward. If it goes down, now you go back and examine. And yes you’ll have to cut down to a percentage you feel the community would support and have conversations around that. But it really allows those who are going to be paying through their tax dollars to weigh in. These are major decisions.
And I think that school boards need to really work closely with their community. Not that Highland hasn’t been – I think they have been. I think that’s why I would support that decision.

Q: Highland school officials have reached out to their neighbors looking for ways to share services and cut costs. Do you support that measure? What kind of shared services would you explore?
MB: The answer is yes, I do support exploring shared services. I think that you need to weigh what the benefit is against the cost savings. But you can have those discussions at every level. It doesn’t mean you’re going to participate in that, because it really does weigh against what the benefit is – what you might be giving up versus what that cost savings is.
The truth is, I know they’re farming out certain business practices. That concerns me a little bit. I know working in education that sometimes you really need information in a timely fashion. And you might need your whole financial team working on that to get you the data you require for your decision. I’m just wondering how that will work into the future. If timely decisions need to be made, they’re not farming out their business manager – but if he’s got to work with other folks, what does that do to the timeframe and turnaround of vital information?
In all fairness, even the shared service doesn’t have to be a permanent thing. What they say is, let’s try it. And if it doesn’t work at some point, or if something’s not working for us, you can kind of move away from that model. I think schools are adopting a much more flexible approach to the shared services rather than a more permanent solution. You know, you’ve got to try things out. And you’ve got to monitor and evaluate shared services and make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck – so to speak – or at least getting the benefit for that cost savings.

Q: How will your previous experiences help you if you got elected, and how would they be an asset for those who voted for you? In other words, why should people vote for you?
MB: I worked for the Highland Central School District for about eight years. I was a teacher there. I was a technology director there. Through that I was involved in the capital project that upgraded every one of Highland’s buildings. So through that process, I have intimate knowledge of that facility, the people and the runnings of the school district – at least at that time.
So that coupled with the fact that I am a school district administrator, I understand very well the many issues that the board is wrestling with, that the administration and teachers are wrestling with. There’s so many new things going on in education that I believe I could – with both of those experiences underneath me – feel that I could add a lot of value to the discussions.

Debbie Pagano

Debbie Pagano, 54, is a purchasing agent for the Marlboro School District. She’s lived in Highland for more than 34 years, and she’s a former employee of the Highland schools – where she had been the district treasurer and district clerk.
Pagano’s originally from Marlborough, and she’s held no elected positions before.

Q: Why are you running for school board?
DP: I’m running for school board because I really do care about the future of the Highland School District. And being that I have just about 30 years experience working in business offices, in school districts and in BOCES, I have lots of knowledge and understanding of how they’re funded. I would like to be given the opportunity to work with the administration, the staff and the community to help put Highland back on track financially.
This is a very difficult time, and I feel I have a lot of experience just because of where I’ve worked. And I understand. You give me a report and I understand – you know what I mean? – how a school district works from the inside. You just don’t know unless you’re there working it every day. So that’s why.
I really care about the future of Highland.

Q: What are the top three issues facing Highland’s schools, and if you got elected how would you address them?
DP: Well I guess the first of the three issues is getting us a financially sound budget. Like getting us back where we’re not – but how to do that? It takes a lot of work. It’s not just one person, and I know that. I think that the first of three issues is to get us financially sound so we don’t have to deal with this every day. I’m sorry, I mean every year. That’to me is the biggest issue. What are we going to do to have a future plan for that?
Knowing the board, I would think they would have a long-range plan. At least I would hope. And that would be my first topic.
The second one, I would like to work with the town. I know they were in discussions with the town to bring in commercial and possibly other ways to bring in revenue and taxes and other people into the district – other than putting it on the individual households. Let’s get some businesses in here. Something that can help us take the burden off the taxes and the individual taxpayer.
And I know they’ve had discussions.
Another thing is lobbying. One of the things we need to do is to continue to lobby the state as to how they fund school districts through state aid. Because over the years, they have taken away our state aid. It’s getting less and less and less, the aid that they give us – and putting more and more of the burden on the taxpayer.
So that’s something we need to do — continue to put pressure on the State to change how they do the state aid formula and what they do to help people like Highland out. It is hurting the local taxpayer. The burden is becoming ours. It’s changed over the years.
So that would be my thing, to just keep lobbying and stay on top of it.

Q: This year school board members went with a $36.88 million budget that would raise the tax levy by 5.12 percent. Would you have voted yes for that budget too? Why or why not?
DP: Yes I would have. I would have voted for it because, from what I hear, a lot of people in the community were asking for it because they don’t want to see Highland cut and slash programs – like they would have had to if they came in at a lower budget.
So I would have. I would have agreed to put that budget before the community, and I hope that the community will now come out and support the school district budget. And in return, they’re supporting the Highland School District to help us move forward.

Q: Highland school officials have reached out to their neighbors looking for ways to share services and cut costs. Do you support that measure? What kind of shared services would you explore?
DP: Well, I don’t disagree with shared services because I know Highland … is looking to share services with other school districts through Ulster BOCES. Like, I believe, they’re looking for possibly accounts payable and payroll – maybe not payroll – and, I think, a district treasurer and whatnot. I’m OK with that as long as it doesn’t mean anybody losing their job. If it comes through retirement, resignation, I’m okay with moving it forward.
But I think it needs to be assessed continuously to make sure that it is, that there is a financial savings – and that all the purchasing and the payroll and the audit are requirements. There’s a lot of rules with an audit. There’s a lot of audit rules that you have to follow. And I would make sure they’re being followed with shared service – because when you get audited, let me tell you, you know, you have to cross your T’s and dot your I’s.
So that’s the only thing, I just feel it needs to be continuously looked at to make sure it was a good decision moving forward.
If there’s shared services elsewhere, like with the town, that would be great. You can look at it and try it, but be open to the fact that it may or may not work. And I think that’s great though. I think it’s great that we all work together.

Q: How will your previous experiences help you if you got elected, and how would they be an asset for those who voted for you? In other words, why should people vote for you?
DP: Why should they? When I take office, if I should win, I am knowledgeable about what I’m walking into. Okay? What it takes to keep a district financially sound. I can read the reports. Talk to me about state aid. You know? I don’t know everything, like nobody really knows everything, but I do have knowledge of how it works.
I’m not on the outside looking in, as far as that piece of it goes, because I’ve had 30 years experience working in school districts. So I do understand what they’re up against. And I do understand the rules, the regulations, the laws – everything. I don’t understand them all, I don’t know them all, but I do at least have that knowledge about where they’re coming from.
So I think it would be a plus for them, because I don’t have a specific agenda if I’m going in – other than I care about Highland. It’s not like I’m going in for a specific reason, because I’m not. I just want to help the school district through a difficult time. And I think because of my experience, it could be an asset.

Michael Reid

Michael Reid originally hails from New Paltz, but the 30-year-old has been living in Highland since 2009. At his day job, he works as a wildlife biologist. While Reid has not held an elected position before, he does volunteer for the Highland schools’ Finance and Budget Committee.

Q: Why are you running for school board?
MR: I have a concern over the decline in opportunities that this school is experiencing. So that’s basically what compelled me to become interested last year. I don’t necessarily have a grievance with the board itself as it exists today. I don’t have a grievance with that or any personal issues. I have only a dedication to work hard myself and discover new solutions, because it’s an unprecedented problem that we’re facing.
I hold the district staff to be the most valuable resource that we have. The material things – the buildings and buses and whatnot – they don’t provide an education. So I think the district staff is the core of the educational system. They are the trained professionals. And I believe that the Board of Education should exist to facilitate the effective and efficient delivery of education that those professionals that know best how to provide. They’re the ones who spend the time and money to be educated in how to do this best.
Also, as you know I’m a scientist by training and trade, and I’m therefore driven by data. And I know that using data objectively leads to high-quality and dependable decisions.
And I guess if I could back up a bit, the only grievance I guess I would say I have with the current board is that I don’t believe the community is as informed as it should be at this point. I think we need to explore new and innovative routes of communication, so that the clear message can get passed onto the parents – specifically – but also other taxpayers, who may or may not have a vested interest in how the actual school operates.
The last thing is the biggie. And I want everybody to realize why we’re in the situation. And it’s not necessarily a local problem. It’s that Albany has put us in this situation, and I think that my ultimate goal would be to see a community which is united on a common goal to have Albany ante up the state aid that we’ve lost over the past four years. And to have that state aid returned would allow the students to see new opportunities return every year, as opposed to seeing new cuts.

Q: What are the top three issues facing Highland’s schools, and if you got elected how would you address them?
MR: They are how the community is informed, and I would explore new and innovated routes of communication to make sure that the community was in touch a little better than they are now.
Another thing is a lack of actual voter turnout, which is either a result of a lack of registered voters or just a lack of being inspired – which is probably a consequence of the lack of communication, which is number one.
And the last thing is obviously what everybody cares about, and that’s the budget. Highland has a very conservative budget compared to other schools in the county and all the few surrounding counties. And they’re doing a lot with a little. The big problem is how state aid is calculated, and that needs to be discussed in depth. Whether we need to change our spending strategy in order to qualify for more state aid, or whether we just need to strictly lobby Albany to get it back, that’s the biggie. I’d rather get back the taxes that we all pay on a state level, then have them transferred to the local taxpayer.

Q: This year school board members went with a $36.88 million budget that would raise the tax levy by 5.12 percent. Would you have voted yes for that budget too? Why or why not?
MR: That is the budget that I would have voted for also. I do support the decision in that 6-1 vote.
The cuts in the other (budget scenarios) were too deep … And also, a resounding sense from the community that a 6 percent would be supported.

Q: Highland school officials have reached out to their neighbors looking for ways to share services and cut costs. Do you support that measure? What kind of shared services would you explore?
MR: I do support shared services to the greatest extent possible. I’m not in favor of producing layoffs, if that’s a consequence. But if it’s strictly cost saving, I’m absolutely in support of that – especially through the BOCES option. Also through revenue generating options, such as what they’re attempting to do with the bus garage.
I also would encourage an expansion of the special ed program, as Barbara Chapman has proposed – which would entail an initial investment in training some of the staff. But if it would allow Highland to keep in-house a lot of the special ed services and also invite students from other communities to pay Highland, then it would be a revenue-generating venture. And I would support that.


Q: How will your previous experiences help you if you got elected, and how would they be an asset for those who voted for you? In other words, why should people vote for you?
MR: I have masters in management, with a concentration in project management. What this has taught me is that human beings are the valuable asset – they need to be listened to, whether it’s the community or the staff. It allows me to maintain my composure and weigh the options objectively. And also, with respect to the project management side, be able to consider multiple variations of a scenario at a time – basically, multi-tasking.

Vincent Rizzi

Vincent Rizzi currently serves as the board’s president. His two adult children are out of college, but they went through the Highland schools. The 57-year-old is self-employed as a contractor and has lived in Highland his whole life.
Outside of his 16 years on the school board, Rizzi has also volunteered with his church and as a part of his board service has sat on a slew of different school subcommittees.

Q: Why are you running for school board?
VR: First and foremost, I want to make sure that the children receive the best education possible. I also believe I would continue to bring continuity to the board. I feel that I have proven myself over the past many years, and I will continue to do the best I can despite these challenging economic times.
I feel I have a great deal of common sense, which is needed when decisions have to be made – especially facing some of the particular problems that can occur.
With respect to the candidates that are running against me and supported by the 60 Percenters group, I think they will not represent the community as designed. The candidates are either employed as educators, or their spouses work for the school district.
We currently have two board members that have spouses employed by the district. While that is legal and I accept it, I do object to having a board’s make-up not having a balanced representation of the community.
In other words, I do think that it is New York State’s intent to have community members serve that do not have ties to the district, and not have individuals serve that represent the district’s employees. Otherwise, it would be equivalent to me sitting on a company’s board of directors and appointing my wife as CEO, then deciding her salary and benefit package. It is a conflict of interest and employee representation should be left up to the unions.

Q: What are the top three issues facing Highland’s schools, and if you got re-elected how would you address them?
VR: The top three issues facing our schools today are: The 2 percent tax levy cap, unfunded mandates and the continuing high increases of pensions and medical costs.
There is very little we can do locally other than all groups coming together and lobbying Albany. I do believe locally that we can do a better job at negotiating contracts.

Q: This year school board members went with a $36.88 million budget that would raise the tax levy by 5.12 percent. You voted yes for that budget too, right? Why?
VR: What the board decided on was a budget of $36,885,345. Based on the information that we received, this maintained many programs with a tax levy increase of 5.12 percent. This tax levy increase still may change.
The only measuring stick that the Board of Education has to date is the budget vote. We have had people who stand before us week after week, presenting us with options to maintain as many programs as possible – begged us to let the community speak. As the president of the board, I felt that consensus was important, so I agreed to let the voters decide.

Q: Highland school officials have reached out to their neighbors looking for ways to share services and cut costs. Do you support that measure? What kind of shared services would you explore?
VR: I would look at any way to cut costs. If that means that we can benefit by sharing services or consolidate in any way I certainly would support that.

Q: How will your previous experiences help you if you got re-elected, and how would they be an asset for those who voted for you?
VR: I believe I have the ability to read between the lines and ask the questions that are not popular but need to be asked. I have always felt that the administration should be held to the highest level of accountability.
I have worked with many educators, board members and administration members. I have gone to all the training programs offered to school board members and was given insight, of which I tried to bring back and implement the best practices to serve our district.
This year it is critical that all eligible voters come out and vote, particularly because it requires a 60 percent margin to pass the budget. Your vote will be heard and have an impact.

Regina Tantillo-Swanson

Regina Tantillo-Swanson currently serves as the board’s vice president. Like her colleagues, she’s also mounted a campaign to win another term on the Board of Education.
Tantillo-Swanson, 54, sold her family business last year — Tantillo’s Garage — after working there for 17 years. She was born and raised in Highland, left town and lived throughout the country, but she came back home to stay about 20 years ago. Most of her family, her father and her aunts and uncles attended the Highland schools. Her kids both graduated from the Highland schools.
Outside of her service in Highland, Tantillo-Swanson is also on the Ulster County BOCES Board of Education as Highland’s representative. She’s also on the Ulster County School Board Association, and on the board’s new Legislative Action Committee.

Q: Why are you running for school board?
RTS: Ah. Wow. That’s a deceptively hard question, I think. Partly because I must be a little bit nuts. When I came on three years ago, I filled a vacancy for a short period of time. And when I was asked if I was interested, at first I’m like: “Well why would I want to do that?”
And then I’m like, “why not?” What better thing can you do than be a part of our children’s — and when I say “our children” I mean our town’s, our school district’s — education. And while it’s been frustrating at times and difficult, I still want to be a part of that. I still want to see it through. I want to see this stupid levy limit through. I want to be a big part. I want to be there.
I think I’m a valued member of the board. Sometimes I feel like I’m the board’s sense of humor. Sometimes I think things just get too much — somebody’s got to crack a joke and it might as well be me.
I am not the most vocal of persons, but I like to think I could speak up when I need to.

Q: What are the top three issues facing Highland’s schools, and if you got re-elected how would you address them?
RTS: Mandate relief — and that includes specifically the Triborough Amendment, which really ties our hands with teacher negotiations, with union negotiations. And I can tell you that I have been working.
I’ve been seeing politicians on a semi-regular basis, it seems. And I think I’d rather have a root canal than do that, but I feel like it’s important. I met with Assemblyman Cahill, and I’m not talking at the state — I mean more intimate settings. I’ve talked with Assemblyman Cahill, and had a brief introduction to Assemblyman Skartados — since he does represent our district, our town.
We as a school, and as parents, went down to see Senator Larkin with a school bus — which was amazing to hear our kids in action. And I have met with him at another time on a two-on-one basis — I went down with my superintendent.
So I am getting the message — and this probably applies to everything I’m going to mention. It probably overarches everything — that I am doing something. I’m doing what I can do, and I’m representing the board and I’m speaking for the board. Sometimes I’ll speak for myself too. But I am doing that.
So mandates. I would have to say the pension cost/health care. Now on a local level, we can’t do anything about the pensions, we can’t do anything about the mandates. That’s why you have to bring it to a higher authority, so to speak. But the health care issue ties back into the Triborough. There’s very little we can do. We’re starting on an uneven playing field when we’re negotiating with the unions, and it’s tough. It’s tough. We value them as teachers, but we need relief.
When your health care rates go up 10, 15 percent a year — that’s significant, significant money. Now, as an aside, since I closed the garage I had to buy in health insurance somewhere. So I buy it through Ulster BOCES. I pay the full cost, so I’m not getting anything — you know — something for nothing. But it’s an incredibly freaking amazing plan. So I can understand why they’re going to fight to hold onto it — and to hold onto every little thing about it. But the fact is, I pay almost $700 a month just to cover me. So that’s unsustainable. Unsustainable.
And we need help. We need help from our unions; we need help from the state.
And third but not last, not least important by any means, is would be the new levy limit legislation that we’re dealing with this year. Our individual tax levy was 0.87 (percent). So it was ludicrous. So we had to go over it. We might as well be at zero if we had to do 0.87 or under. I know we’re stuck with it until, I believe, the 14-15, 15-16 school year.
I think it’s ludicrous that it’s tied into the rent control issue in New York City, which just goes to show you how crazy our state can be sometimes. Not just our state, I’m sure any state. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If any budget goes down twice and goes to zero, I would daresay for any district — maybe not a few in Westchester or the really high top-notch ones — but for any of them it’s going to be catastrophic. And I don’t often sleep at night thinking about it.
(If Highland went to a 0 percent tax levy), it is not pretty. I believe it was close to 40 positions cut — 40 teaching positions. It would basically gut us, and we wouldn’t be alone in that gutting. We would not be alone by any stretch of the imagination.

Q: This year school board members went with a $36.88 million budget that would raise the tax levy by 5.12 percent. You voted yes for that budget too, right? Why?
RTS: Until we were discussing it that night, I had no intention of going above 4.75 (percent), which was kind of where most of us were — give or take. And then — not that it was suddenly pointed out, because certainly we’re all aware of it. Shouldn’t we let the community decide how much they will bear?
We have obviously a very active group, the 60 Percenters. And they have been lobbying us, for lack of a better word, to … well they initially wanted a rollover budget, which would have been at 15 percent. But even they turned that back when they realized how unfeasible that is.
Listening and sometimes you have to — I have to anyway — I have to talk things out. And I have to listen, I listen a lot and I don’t talk much. And then it’s like, “Okay. If we’re going over the levy anyway, where is that invisible line? Where is that breakpoint? Is it 4.75? Is it 6?” I don’t know where that invisible line is. Maybe it’s even lower than 4.75 to our public.
I don’t know, but I realize that we will trust the public — it’s new to them too — and let our voters decide what they feel they can sustain for our school children. I don’t have kids in the district anymore, so I understand that you’re paying for kids. But that’s part of what we have to do.
At a recent meeting there was a brief statement given by our board president that there had been informal talks with our union and that nothing had come of them. So we’re proceeding as we did before. I have to tell you that I know we could have been at a 4.75 without cutting any programs if we had just a little bit of support. Just a little bit.
And you know what? They were under no obligation to do anything, and that’s fine. It is what it is, and we’re dealing with it.

Q: Highland school officials have reached out to their neighbors looking for ways to share services and cut costs. Do you support that measure? What kind of shared services would you explore?
RTS: I absolutely in no uncertain terms support it. Actually, as a member of the BOCES board, that’s kind of what we’re about. I am absolutely for it. I think we have been in the forefront of trying to push these arrangements. Not push arrangements on anyone, but to get those ideas out there.
I talked to lots of other board members in lots of other districts, and let’s see what we can do. It is just a no-brainer to reach out to other districts, to reach out through BOCES, to reach out by whatever means we can with the town, and see if there isn’t (a way). Why can’t we be a bigger member of something and get costs down, like we’re doing with the centralized business office? That’s amazing.
And it takes a little guts, I think, to be the first ones in it. So we’re doing that. We’ve reached out to other districts. We put out that letter to see if anyone would be interested in a consolidation study. Did that mean we want to consolidate? No. But that’s, oh, how many districts in New York State, 700? And let’s put it out there. Let’s get in front of it before somebody else tells you what to do. Let’s try to do it so we have control over it.

Q: How will your previous experiences help you if you got re-elected, and how would they be an asset for those who voted for you? In other words, why should people vote for you?
RTS: I can’t say that everybody’s happy with things I’ve decided. I’ve learned. I’ve made a few working mistakes. I think I was lucky, in that I came on both boards with some background. My father had been on the BOCES board. My father had a 15-year stint in Highland. I had a working idea of how boards work. I wasn’t a complete novice.
I also didn’t come on with any agenda, with any one issue, with any idea. I feel like if I were a doctor, I’d be a GP. You know? And I think, I know I have grown in the past three years since then. I am still more of a listener than a talker, and I always will be.
I believe that you can agree or disagree with decisions I’ve made. No one can question my dedication and my belief that we want the best for our kids.
I’ve also, as an aside, after this first time after the Senator Larkin visit with the kids, I sat down with the kids one-on-one and just had them blast me with questions — and answered them. I’m active. I’m involved.
And I’m lucky I can do these things. I’m free during the day, so I can be in the school during the day, so I can go to the middle school (building level team). And I feel like I’m finding my stride now. I can only say that I’ll continue to do the best job I know how, and that again it goes back to that agree or disagree, but you can’t question.
And frankly you don’t know until you’re here. And I was a little surprised, I mean there were still some things where I said “oh my God, really?” But I’m fairly unflappable, I’m steady, I’m there, I’m listening and I’m ready.

Heather Welch

Appointed to the Board of Education in the fall, Heather Welch came on to replace former Trustee Maria Peterson. In her professional life, Welch works as the supervisor of accounts payable for Central Hudson Gas & Electric.
The 30-year-old accountant graduated from Highland High School in 2000, she was born and raised in the Town of Lloyd and went through the public school system. While she left briefly for college and the earlier part of her career, Welch and her husband decided to move back home and raise a family.
While an appointee to the Board of Education, Welch has not held an elected position before. Technically, this marks the first time she’s running for election.

Q: Why are you running for school board?
HW: Back in November of 2011, I was selected to fill a vacant seat on the Board of Education. My experience thus far has been an extremely positive one and I am interested in continuing.
Ultimately, I want to be able to give back to the community in which I grew up and feel that with my background in accounting and business this is the perfect forum to do so.
Although people may criticize me, claiming that I do not have a direct tie to the district, I think that is both a positive and a negative. For those who say I do not have a vested interest in the well-being of the district — since I do not currently have kids in the school — my answer to them would be “not yet.” As a result, I am interested in the long-term financial stability and viability of the district.
In a positive light, I feel that since I have no direct ties to the district I can provide an independent and objective viewpoint.

Q: What are the top three issues facing Highland’s schools, and if you got elected how would you address them?
HW: 1) The biggest issue facing Highland schools, as I’m sure everyone could agree, is the tough times that we are facing economically. This includes increases in taxes, combined with cuts in state aid.
As part of the Board of Education, I think it is important to continually look at ways in which the district can reduce its costs, as well as making sure that our voices are heard in Albany. Working with the administration to research the variety of ideas that they have to cut costs, as well as ideas brought forward by the board and the community to cut costs is vital to the financial stability of the district.
2) Another issue that is one that is not only facing Highland schools but all schools, is the growing number of unfunded mandates. In some of the budget scenarios that we were considering, one scenario included reducing the assistant superintendent’s position to a part-time position.
However, this combined with other unfunded mandates — for example, the new teacher evaluations being instituted — that will require a significant amount of time from the administration, makes this a difficult reduction.
Ultimately, although the services of the administration may not impact kids directly in terms of the programs offered, the administration of the district is responsible for the well-being and success of the district, including the environment in which the district operates, therefore although some may feel that these are costs that do not affect the kids directly, I would disagree.
3) The last issue is also one that all school districts face — the various competing stakeholders involved in the various decisions being made within the district. Decision-making within a district often affects children, programs offered, district employees and the community. I feel that it is important to make sure that all stakeholders’ views are considered before making any final decisions.

Q: This year school board members went with a $36.88 million budget that would raise the tax levy by 5.12 percent. You voted yes for that budget too, right? Why?
HW: I did vote for the budget. For those who were at the meeting in which the vote took place, I had an extremely hard time making a final decision.
From looking straight at the numbers from a business perspective, as I am accustomed to doing, the lower projected percentage increase — 4.75 percent — that we were considering really makes sense. But when looking at the programs that were going to be cut and how the kids and the district would be affected, it was overwhelming and in the end that is what ultimately drove my decision.
It is certainly up to the community to determine if they can and/or want to afford the differential.

Q: Highland school officials have reached out to their neighbors looking for ways to share services and cut costs. Do you support that measure? What kind of shared services would you explore?
HW: I absolutely support this measure. In my opinion this is a great way for districts to be able to provide the same services at a reduced price. Most recently, the Highland School District will begin to share services related to its accounting functions. I think this is a great way for the district to save money on “back end” operations and therefore be able to devote more funding to programs directly impacting the kids.
Recently, the Highland school board had a joint meeting with the Town of Lloyd regarding opportunities to share services. I look to continue this effort with our town as well as other neighboring districts.

Q: How will your previous experiences help you if you got elected, and how would they be an asset for those who voted for you?
HW: As mentioned above, I feel that my background in accounting and business will be extremely beneficial in helping our district make it through the tough economic times that we are currently facing.
However, while my accounting knowledge definitely helps, it is not always what ultimately drives my decisions. Decisions made must consider the effect on the kids, the effect on programs offered, district employees, as well as the impact on the community and taxpayers. When serving on the Board of Education there are many competing stakeholders that must be considered, and I feel that it is extremely important to be sure to listen to all perspectives before making any final decisions. ++

Editor’s note: Want to learn about the candidates running for a seat on the New Paltz Board of Education? Find the interviews on our website at newpaltzx.com.