Saugerties BOE president seeks a changed culture and ‘a more harmonious place to work’

School board president Robert Thomann

School board president Robert Thomann

Though the lazy days of summer are upon us and local kids are enjoying time away from the classroom, the school district is still in operation. The official transition from the 2015-16 school year to 2016-17 marked by a meeting of the school board last week.

Held in its customary setting in the high school media center on July 12, it was the first meeting since the final day of school last month. It was officially dubbed a reorganizational meeting. Board president Robert Thomann said there was still plenty to be decided before students return to school in September.

The meeting was the first for new Saugerties school trustees Paul Van Schaack, Elena Maskell and Katie Emerson-Hoss, who ran under the Working Together umbrella and unseated incumbents Flo Hyatt and Angie Minew. A third incumbent, George Heidcamp, chose not to run for reelection.


The three new members heralded a significant change in atmosphere. “I think things are different in the fact that we have some new board members and there’s not the animosity that was there in the past,” Thomann said. “There’s a lack of attacks in … letters to the editor towards candidates. We can differ and agree to respect each other in our differences.”

To help foster that spirit, trustees are planning a retreat in August to discuss board goals, which will be firmed up at a late-summer public meeting. Thomann’s hope for a retreat during his first term as president last year hadn’t panned out.

“One of the things I didn’t accomplish last year is that I really think the board has to set goals and evaluate itself,” he said. “There was some opposition to that last year, but this new board seems on board with wanting to do the retreat, wanting to set goals, so that our goals will align with the goals that we set for the superintendent to make it a more harmonious place to work.”


Improving student achievement

Among the topics of discussion, Thomann said, would be ensuring policies compatible with an increased focus on student achievement.

“One of the charges from the New York State School Boards Association is to make sure that all of our policies align with improving student achievement,” he said. “So that’s probably the biggest task. We’re going to make sure to look at all of those polices and make sure that we’re doing all we can to optimize student achievement throughout the district.”

How that will work remains to be seen. Reorganizational meetings are often brief. New and returning trustees are sworn in and a president and vice-president for the coming school year are elected. Thomann and James Mooney will remain in their roles as president and vice-president.

Thomann assigned each new trustee a sitting member of the board they can use as a mentor as they navigate unfamiliar territory.

“I think my role is to help facilitate the discussion so [trustees] can be heard,” Thomann said. “Sometimes there’s questions and you don’t want to feel stupid asking, and if you go to someone like myself or the superintendent you might feel a little awkward asking. So here’s somebody that you can ask anything you want, or even talk about how you feel about me or the superintendent. Also, if you’re sitting there and have the agenda in front of you, you might get confused or feel out of place. The mentor can help you stay focused.”

So far, so good.


Hopes for a productive school year

“I enjoyed my first meeting getting to know some of the lay of the land,” said Emerson-Hoss. “All I can say is at this point that the board has nine committed, interested and involved members. I think we will be very productive in the coming year.”

Still to be determined are committee assignments, which Thomann said would likely be settled at the next board meeting on Tuesday, August 9. “I talked to the trustees about having them e-mail me what committees they would be interested in,” he said. “There was some discussion about that, but it’s still a work in progress.”

A follow-up meeting will be held on Tuesday, August 30, with the meeting on September 13 including a reception for new teachers. From October through January, board meetings will be held at each of the district’s four elementary schools, with a return to Saugerties High for a board budget workshop February 7.

Thomann sees board success as one of his personal goals as president. “I believe in the concept of being a statesman where you’re called upon to serve when there’s a need, not to be in that office for life,” he said. “So part of what I’m looking for long-range is how to transition out of being board president at some point, probably at the end of the term, and leaving the board in a better place than it was when I came on for my second term as a board member.”

He feels the current atmosphere on the board is going to make that transition a smooth one. “The culture of the board, I think, is going to change,” he predicted. “I think it’s going to be more cooperative, really focusing on student achievement perhaps more so than in the past. I want to make sure that’s there so at some point when I step away there’ll be an intact, functioning board that works well with the administration and the teachers. My plans right now are not to run again when my term expires unless something dramatically changes that.”