Letters (March 26-April 2)

mailSchool Board: Superintendent responded to freedom of information requests

On March 24, 2015, as a result of allegations made on social media accusing Superintendent Turner of refusing to respond to FOIL requests, the Board of Education of the Saugerties Central School District reviewed the allegations.

As a result of its review, the board determined, by a 9-0 vote, that the allegations were meritless and that Mr. Turner dutifully carried out his statutory obligations. The board found, contrary to the accusations found on social media, that upon receiving the FOIL request, Mr. Turner forwarded the request to the District’s Records Access Officer, who determined that the requested records did not exist and promptly informed the requesting party of such result. The district has not received any notification of an appeal.

The results of the board’s vote regarding the issuance of this public letter in support of Mr. Turner were as follows:

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In Favor: Mr. George Heidcamp (president), Mr. Thomas Ham (vice president), Ms. Krista Barringer, Mr. Damion Ferraro, Ms. Florence Hyatt, Ms. Angie Minew, Mr. Richard Petramale, Mr. Charles Schirmer, Mr. Donald Tucker.

Against: None.

George Heidcamp
President, Saugerties Board of Education

 

School Board must exercise leadership on testing issue

For those who may not know, it is legal in New York for a parent to refuse their child’s participation in the state standardized tests (grades 3-8) for any reason.

I am not against testing in general. I’m against the current tests for a number of reasons. The English Language Arts test is, by many accounts, a bad test, at times written above grade-level reading standards. It is seemingly designed for high failure rates, which in turn will be used as further excuse to strip more funding from “failing” public schools in favor of more corporate-run charter schools (which can pick and choose whatever students they desire, leaving the most challenged students to the underfunded public schools which must accept all comers). The tests are created and graded not by the State Board of Education but by a testing corporation which strips even more funding from public schools. And if Gov. Cuomo has his way, the underachieving scores will account for half of our teachers’ evaluations, setting them up to be labeled ineffective and possibly lose their jobs. The law says no one has to let their kid(s) take it, and I intend to exercise that right as a minor form of protest against the above.

Why is it legal to refuse what would otherwise appear to be a mandatory standardized test? I have no idea. Why does almost no one know that refusal is legal? In great measure because administrators and teachers in New York are mysteriously forbidden say anything to anyone about the test. Isn’t it part of a BOE’s job to educate the public about important matters such as this? Not in Saugerties, it seems.

Testing guidelines stipulate that there may be no non-test materials on a child’s desk during testing, and that an absent child must take the test at a later date. The guidelines do not address what to do with students whose parents exercise their right to refuse (or “opt out” of) the tests, so there is a protocol vacuum. If the Saugerties BOE fails to institute their own guidelines the result will be a mindless and relatively cruel “sit and stare” scenario for non-test takers, forced to sit idly at their desks without anything to occupy them for the duration of the exams.

On March 10, a handful of parents, including myself, addressed the BOE with concerns about this situation. The BOE is well within its right — indeed, is charged with the responsibility — to devise and enact policies to better the education and well-being of students in their district. An alternative to “sit and stare” will improve the test-takers experience (by removing fidgety kids from seats next to them) and deal humanely with the “opt-outs.” Setting such a policy would by no means be a rogue or illegal action on the part of the BOE. Other districts in our area — and across the state — have already addressed this situation (at least one has outright told parents to boycott the test!).

Board of Education President, George Heidcamp, recently sent an email to his “constituents” (who are apparently not the community at large). In it he responds negatively to our requests. In his thinking, districts who adopted opt-out policies “caved in to the pressure of… special interest groups.”

In my opinion, teachers should be given the discretion to allow non-test takers to sit quietly in a corner of the classroom — or another room — and read a book or do class assignments. “If the board were to approve such a policy,” Heidcamp bemoans in his email, “we would then need to hire extra teachers to monitor the ‘opt-outs’ while the other 97 percent follow the law and take the test.” Here he reveals his true nature: malicious budget watchdog. I also suggested PTA volunteers could monitor the opt-outs, but that detail doesn’t fit Heidcamp’s spending narrative (he later uses italics to emphasize taxpayers expense (sic)).

As for his implication that students who don’t take the test are in violation of the law, this is reprehensible enough but he goes further: “It appears to me that when parents encourage their children not to follow the rules, they are the ones who are doing a disservice to and being cruel to the kids.” If he would check his facts, Heidcamp might understand that “the rules,” in this case, allow parents to refuse the test.

Mr. Heidcamp (and the special interest group he calls his constituents) needs to pull his head out of the legal sand and start showing something resembling thoughtful leadership. His “just following orders” drivel is not a policy. I challenge the BOE to a Sit and Stare contest. If they can go the length of the test sitting quietly at a desk under fluorescent light, without begging for mercy or being otherwise annoying to anyone around them, then I’ll let my kid do the same.

Alex Rappoport
Saugerties

 

Heidcamp addresses testing opt-outs

I offer the following as a private citizen:

A few years ago, Dick Iannuzzi, President of the New York State Union of Teachers (NYSUT), met with Gov. Cuomo and the commissioner of education regarding “Race To the Top” (which included Common Core standards, annual assessments and teacher evaluations), with all parties in agreement.

Then, once “Race to the Top” was accepted, school districts would meet with their respective labor groups (teachers’ associations) to hammer out an agreement. In Saugerties, a committee of nine was created consisting of the following individuals: assistant superintendent, High School principal, director of special ed., and six teachers (two from junior/senior high and one from each elementary school). That committee made a recommendation that the Saugerties BoE accept the APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review), which is part of the STA contract.

APPR document, page 7, states: “NYSED has determined that a district arrives at the composite score in the following manner: (1) Twenty (20) points will come from the growth on New York State Assessments. This will come from State provided student scores comparing growth with similar past test scores. This would apply to teachers who are responsible for students who take the Grades 4-8 English language Arts (ELA) and/or Mathematics (Math) tests. This is known as the State Growth Score (SGS)”

APPR document, page 9, states: “The SGS is for teachers whose students take a State Assessment and the scores from these Assessments can compare student growth to those scores of similar test. These are teachers who teach students who take the Grades 4-8 State Assessments in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics. The score is determined by the State and will be available to Principals after the State Assessments have been scored.”

On October 14, 2014, the Saugerties Board of Education voted unanimously (George Heidcamp, Tom Ham, Donald Tucker, Angie Minew, Richard Petramale, Charles Schirmer, Damion Ferraro, Flo Hyatt and Krista Barringer) to accept the recommendation of this committee to adopt the new APPR to replace the original plan, which was adopted in December 2012.

Saugerties School District has always had a greater than 97 percent participation rate in taking these tests. If too many students refuse (opt-out) and this number drops below 95 percent then the District is at risk for penalties which may include loss of state aid, and loss of local control of our schools. Programs for children may need to be cut, or local taxpayers will have to make up the difference in lost aid. This could be devastating not only to the district but taxpayers as well. When some local districts loosened their requirements as to how students could refuse the tests, the number of opt-outs increased dramatically, resulting in a “chaotic situation” and concern about the impact on funding.

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I understand and respect every person’s right to protest a cause, and parents’ right to have their child refuse to take these tests, however, it puzzles me when I hear parents say that they’re opposed to the weight that the tests will carry on teachers’ evaluations, so they are “supporting the teachers by boycotting the test.” How is this beneficial to their children? I thought it was about the kids?

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said that parents who boycott the state exams are giving up their right to know how their children are doing in school. She further said, why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college? Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in the district, region and state? Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education? Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky one? She further said, “We are not going to force kids to take the test, but we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.”

Bottom Line: Regardless of which side of the topic you’re on, it’s a very emotional issue. I agree wholeheartedly that there are flaws in the Common Core implementation, as well as in some of the tests, and I know that Saugerties CSD has some wonderful, dedicated teachers, but until such time that the Board of Regents changes laws and regulations, the BoE and administration have an obligation to administer the tests to all students in grades 3-8 in accordance with and in the manner prescribed by the law.

George Heidcamp
Saugerties

George Heidcamp is president of the Saugerties Board of Education.