After nine years on the Saugerties school board, George Heidcamp is stepping down, choosing not to run for reelection as his third term comes to a close.
First elected in 2007, Heidcamp said he ran because he felt, after being a regular speaker during the public-comment period of board meetings, that he could accomplish more as a trustee.
“My primary reason back when I first ran was I didn’t like the direction the former board and administration had taken with the outrageous spending and the lack of fairness and accountability,” he said. “I just felt that the only way that I can change this is to get on the board myself. I didn’t like the fact that our former superintendent was going coast-to-coast on the taxpayers’ money. I felt there needed to be change there, and that was my primary reason for running for the school board.”
The sometimes-combative retired police officer has rarely shied away from speaking out or letting his feelings be known. That was apparent when Richard Rhau was the superintendent during the first two years of Heidcamp’s time on the school board. Rhau retired in 2009, and he was replaced by Grant D. Morse Elementary School principal Seth Turner, who remains the superintendent today. Heidcamp felt the hiring off Turner as superintendent was one of the most important things that happened during his time as a trustee.
“I wanted to find somebody that would be a good superintendent, somebody that the community liked, that the students liked, and somebody that was knowledgeable,” Heidcamp explained. “And we wanted to find somebody that was in-house. We needed somebody that was in house for a change, because our other superintendents were all from outside the area. We advertised for it in-house, and Seth Turner was the only one that responded from within that he was interested.”
Heidcamp said the then-candidate was also given high marks from within the school community and Saugerties at large. Heidcamp spent his first two years on the school board as vice-president, and rose to the presidency in 2009 when Turner officially took over as superintendent.
“I’ve had a close relationship with the superintendent, and I have to be honest with you; he’s probably one of the most dedicated and honest superintendents that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Heidcamp said. “I can walk down the hall with him and the kids come around him like he’s a rock star. The kids love him. His heart and soul is into Saugerties. His heart and soul is into the kids. He’s very conservative about spending, but he’s very fair. He’s had some criticism, but that comes with the turf. Within the last two years that I was the president of the school board, the school board unanimously evaluated him as exceeding standards. That’s how good of a job he was doing.”
Heidcamp remained president of the school board until last July, following the election of three new members two months earlier. Robert Thomann, James Mooney and Raymond “Mike” Maclary had ousted incumbent trustees Donald Tucker, Tom Ham and Richard Petramale. Heidcamp was nominated and seconded to retain his role as president during the board’s annual reorganizational meeting last July, but he declined. “It was time for somebody else to take the reins, and I stepped aside,” Heidcamp said.
Instead, Heidcamp has spent his final year on the school board with Thomann as its president and Mooney its vice-president.
Looking back on his time on the school board, Heidcamp said he felt he was able to accomplish much of what he set out to, including ushering in an era of transparency, which included the introduction of video and audiotaping meetings for members of the community unable to attend.
As one of his accomplishments, he cited changes in the way the Saugerties Teachers Association (STA) brought grievances to the district. “When the union had a grievance against the district, for whatever reason they always wanted to go into executive session to talk about it,” he said. “I challenged them on that, that if you want to discuss grievances you have to discuss them in public.”
Heidcamp said Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, agreed with him.
“We need to be transparent to the public,” Heidcamp said. “We need to show the public what’s going on. And I was a big advocate of the open-government laws, and I still am. It’s about letting the public know what’s going on. I know I’ve been criticized at times for not being transparent; I disagree with it. I’ve been very transparent, and when I had information my whole board got that information. I ran the meetings very orderly, and I think I ran them very professionally. I took care of business and I gave everybody a fair shot.”
In spite of the grievance issue, Heidcamp said he was proud of the fact that contract issues were settled and grievances resolved during his time on the school board. He cited a 2007 certificate from then-president of the STA Denyse Ortlieb cited the school board under then-president Tucker and then-vice president Heidcamp, “whose governance has led to unprecedented opportunities for the dialogue necessary for meaningful resolution of the challenges and concerns facing our district.”
“We resolved all the contracts with the unions,” Heidcamp said. “We were fair with the unions, we gave them a contract that was very fair on both sides. When I got on the board, there were approximately 30 outstanding grievances that were held over from the former administration, and we sat down and hammered out and resolved all those grievances, which was a cost savings to the district. I’m very proud of that.”
Heidcamp is also proud of his fiscal record.
“We had a $1.6-million deficit in 2009,” he said. “Under my leadership and the leadership of Mr. Turner, we brought the district from a $1.6-million deficit to an almost-$4-million surplus. Unfortunately, there were some people that had to be let go, but we took the district out of the hole, and right now we’re on good financial ground. We brought the district back to where it should be.”
Heidcamp also acknowledged that it wasn’t always a smooth ride. There were conflicts within the school board and the wider community, including the decision last year prior to the board election to extend Turner’s contract through 2020 when it wasn’t due to expire until 2018.
Heidcamp said the debate over Common Core was one example where his duties as a trustee and his personal feelings on a subject didn’t align. “Common Core and the opt-out was a stumbling block,” he said. “It was a bad situation. The board members themselves, the elected officials, they had to follow the laws. We really were not in a position to come out publicly and say we were against it. We had to bite our tongue whether we agreed with the parents that were up there talking or not. It was a pretty rough time for us. The Board took some abuse, but that goes with the turf. You’ve got to expect that.
“On a personal note, and not as a board member: I am opposed to Common Core. I couldn’t say that as an official. I just had to keep my mouth shut and go with what the laws were. As a police officer, there’s a lot of laws I don’t like, but I had to enforce them. I wish when they created Common Core they’d spent a little more time and gotten more people involved in it. I didn’t like the way it was rammed down our throats.
“It was a tough pill to swallow. It was a tough situation, not only for this board but all boards. It was emotional. I felt sorry for some of the parents, and I understood what they were saying. You’ve got to just sit there and take it and try to get people to follow policies. We were stuck.”
Heidcamp said that he’s stepping away in part to explore other opportunities. Chairman of the Saugerties Conservative Party, he’s considering running for the party’s county chair later this year. “It’s a powerful job,” he said. “It’s time-consuming, and I’m ready for the challenge. I haven’t made up my mind, but I’m leaning towards it, heavily.”
And it’s also possible he’ll take another crack at the school board one day. “I am not going to rule out coming back and running again,” he said. “I just need some time off right now.”
Looking back, Heidcamp said he has no regrets.
“I gave it 150 percent, and I’m walking away right now with my head held high,” he said. “I can come home from a meeting, lay my head down and go right to sleep. Because I feel that I’ve done the right thing and I have nothing to be ashamed of and I did nothing wrong. I feel like I’ve completed my mission. And I can’t say anything more than that.”