Letter: Secrecy, divisiveness in Saugerties district’s response to test opt-outs

tests hzA letter was issued by BOE President George Heidcamp and posted on the district website on March 26 and appeared in Saugerties Times that day that purports to address an alleged comment made by a private citizen (who lives outside the district), which was allegedly made on the social media platform Facebook on March 25. Here are the facts.

Due to a variety of significant factors that relate to a child’s education, the opt-out movement was in full swing in New York as early as fall 2013. School districts across the state began receiving “opt-out” letters from parents asking that their children not be required to take the state assessments. Hudson Valley Parent Educator Initiative, a plaintiff in the NYSER lawsuit seeking funding from the state, took on the task of monitoring test refusals in the Dutchess County, Ulster County and Sullivan County regions with volunteers who submitted FOIL demands to each and every district within those regions for advocacy purposes.

According to HVPEI records, the undersigned submitted a FOIL demand to Superintendent Seth Turner on or about May 1, 2014 requesting that the Saugerties CSD district provide the total number of students who refused the 2014 ELA and Math exams. Normally, such a demand would be made to the district’s records access officer. But, since the district website is void of information about to whom and how a FOIL demand should be issued, the FOIL demand was sent to Superintendent Seth Turner himself and follow up applications were made to verify that the Superintendent received it. An email was sent to JoAnn Longendyke on or about May 2014 suggesting that FOIL information should be conspicuously posted on the district website. There was no reply.

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The information requested, test refusal data, is generated and attainable by the Saugerties CSD district via a SIRS report according to a NYSED memo. The SIRS-301 Tested/Not Tested Confirmation Report allows districts and schools to view data they reported in the Student Information Repository System (SIRS) for students who should be tested on the appropriate 2013–14 New York State Testing Program (NYSTP) assessment for their grade/age. If a student was not tested, the reason why the student was not tested (Medically Excused, Administrative Error, No Valid Score, Incomplete, or No Assessment) is listed.

Again, the undersigned requested the total number of students who refused (not tested code) ELA and MATH 2014 district wide consistent with NYSEDs TNT memo. See NYSED memo here.

While most of the districts in and around the Saugerties CSD made a good faith effort to provide the undersigned with refusal numbers in response to the FOIL demand, Saugerties claimed no such records exist. Public agencies such as school districts, are held accountable to a presumption of access and transparency in favor of the public’s right to access information. According to the Committee on Open Government, if the agency has the ability to access records easily via computer then the agency is required to disclose the records. In this case, Saugerties CSD had access to reports contained in the SIRS portal and the means to generate the TNT report for not tested students that the FOIL demand specifically asked for. The district should have disclosed the records in a FOIL response. Ms. Stacey Kahn was correct. The Saugerties CSD failed to provide records in response to the FOIL demand as they are obligated to do under the law.

An appeal was not filed to compel the district to disclose the records because to do so would have required court intervention and significant filing fees. While the majority of districts responded and cooperated fully by providing the information requested in the freedom of information request, Saugerties CSD did not.

BOE President Heidcamp’s letter regarding last year’s FOIL is perplexing. Why Saugerties leadership chose to surf posts on Facebook then convene its board members to a meeting then take a vote in order to address a perceived slight that someone found on social media certainly raises eyebrows. Many families in the community have been trying to address real issues that affect their children’s education. The district faces serious fiscal concerns. Students will soon be subject to the flawed, developmentally inappropriate Common Core exams that put children as young as 8 in the untenable position of having to make “hard choices” to discern complex reading passages in order to choose between an answer that is “plausible but incorrect” and “fully correct.” The district is at the mercy of unfunded mandates that threaten sports, programs and clubs. Parents are having to deal with the draconian practice known as “sit and stare” in many Saugerties buildings which is currently a grave concern. Despite the fact that NYSUT, NYSAPE, HVPEI, NYCDOE & the School Administrators Association of NYS have urged schools not to deploy this draconian practice, and NYSED does not support sit and stare, Saugerties leadership refuses to address and implement a district-wide policy to permit alternate activity as some responsible, engaged parents have requested. The majority of schools across the state have already abolished this horrendous practice.

One can’t help but wonder if Saugerties leadership is trying to create petty distractions in order to avoid addressing parent’s real concerns. Perhaps Saugerties leadership ought to spend less time trolling on Facebook and more time interacting with parents and community members in a good faith effort to implement sound, thoughtful policies that address the reality of test refusal while balancing students social and emotional well being.

I hope this adequately clarifies the facts. For those interested, please feel free to contact me with any concerns or for more information.

Anna Shah

Hudson Valley Parent-Educator Initiative

 

The Hudson Valley Parent-Educator Initiative is a group of concerned parents, educators and community members who “seek to address and resolve school funding concerns, excessive high stakes testing and advocate for parents and taxpayers with an eye toward reclaiming public education in Hudson Valley public schools.” More information at hvparentedinitiative@gmail.com.