Like all of America, northern and central Ulster County can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it thinks of service on its school boards. The 2018-19 budgets of six Ulster County school districts (Kingston, Highland, New Paltz, Onteora, Rondout Valley and Saugerties) before the voters on May 15 propose combined spending of $465 million. This is not small change. But in most districts willingness to serve has been sporadic.
At the same time as they vote on their district budget and on various propositions, the people who cast ballots in these six school districts will choose a total of 19 members for their school boards. A glance at those who have submitted petitions for the ballot shows varied levels of engagement in the school districts.
On May 15 Saugerties and Kingston school voters will each see only the names of three incumbent candidates on their ballots. The Highland ballot will present two incumbents and a challenger to fill three seats; Onteora voters will choose between two incumbents and a challenger to fill two seats. Of the six candidates on the ballot in New Paltz for three open seats, three challengers running as a team with a platform are opposing a pair of incumbents, with a sixth candidate unaffiliated. And in Rondout Valley there are 10 candidates, including three incumbents, for five vacancies; but here there are no obvious major issues.
Three-quarters of the members of America’s smaller school boards, including all those in New York State, don’t get paid for their work. They have considerable responsibilities, though, including adoption of the annual budget, hiring and evaluating the superintendent and managing collective bargaining for district employees. Crucially, they also set district goals and adopt the policies required to reach their goals.
A system providing for local control, with each school district acting more or less alone, worked satisfactorily in an agrarian economy. It had both advantages and disadvantages.
In his remarkable Democracy in America, published in an English translation in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote about the importance of popular participation in private associations and local authorities in encouraging “habits of the heart” through performing civic tasks such as serving on school boards. These intermediary institutions between a central government and its citizens, he wrote, were essential to maintaining individual liberty.
“The observer who is desirous of forming an opinion on the state of instruction amongst the Anglo-Americans must consider the same objects from two different points of view,” wrote Tocqueville. “If he only singles out the learned, he will be astonished to find how rare they are; but if he counts the ignorant, the American people will appear to be the most enlightened community in the world.”
Three years after the translation of Tocqueville, the Massachusetts educator Horace Mann came back from a tour of schools in Germany to argue for the need for a national education system in the United States. His advocacy of universal public education merged with the “obsession with local control” that uniquely characterized American primary and secondary education.
The disadvantage of each school district acting alone was that it ensured educational mediocrity. As the economy became more complex as America industrialized, an educational system composed of 130,000 school districts, most served by a one-room schoolhouse, became increasingly inadequate.
As usual, Mark Twain most pungently expressed the derision that much of America came to feel about the governance of its educational system. His views were not useful for the recruitment of members of school boards. “In the first place, God made idiots,” Twain wrote. “That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”
As urbanization has accelerated and the American economy has become more and more built around what is called “knowledge work,” the tension between local control and national goals has become if anything more acute. In an outspoken article in The Atlantic a decade ago, journalist Matt Miller published an article entitled “First, Kill All the School Boards.” Miller argued that the American system was “more than anything an artifact of our Colonial past.” Greater state participation and standards-based reform hadn’t helped much, he said.
“We need to give schools one set of national expectations,” Miller counseled, “free educators and parents to collaborate on whatever ways work, and get everything else out of the way.” His prescription for primary and secondary public education is easy to say but will be hard to do.
In the May 15 election, 28 candidates will be on the ballots in the six school districts of north and central Ulster County. They will be seeking 19 available seats: five at Rondout Valley, three each at Saugerties, Kingston, Highland and New Paltz and two at Onteora.
Because of a death (David O’Halloran) and a determination of ineligibility (Michael Baden), Rondout Valley will choose occupants for five vacant seats — a majority of the school board. Ten candidates, three of whom (Gail Hutchins, Nicole Parete and Rebecca Versace) are incumbents, have filed petitions to run. The non-incumbents are David Bendell, Kimberly Cohen, Stephanie Diak-Salmonsen, Gerald Fornino, Elissa Jury, Brian Martin and Natalysse Stein.
This year’s is the highest candidate turnout in the nine years that retiring superintendent Rosario Agostaro (who will be succeeded by Joseph A. Morgan this summer) has headed the district administration. “There are no controversial issues at this time,” said Agostaro last week, “so my hope is that we simply have a very interested community looking to get involved.”
The Kingston and Saugerties districts find themselves in the same situation. There aren’t any races for the school boards. In both school districts, three incumbents are seeking reelection without announced opposition. In Saugerties, it is school-board head Robert Thomann, vice-president James Mooney and member Mike Maclary who are unopposed. In Kingston, it is incumbents Danielle Guido, Robin Jacobowitz and former president Jim Shaughnessy who have no ballot opposition.
In the Onteora district, three candidates will be contesting two seats. Incumbents Rob Kurnit and Valerie Storey will face competition from Leo Warren. Three seats will be filled in the Highland district by three candidates. Michael Bakatsias and Edward Meisel are incumbents, and newcomer Camille Adoma, an assistant principal in the Hyde Park district, is contending for the third seat.
That leaves New Paltz, where there’s a fierce battle between the candidates of two contending community factions. Candidates Joe Garcia, Meghan Goodnow and Glenn LaPolt have joined together in a slate advocating for more board funding for extracurricular activities, particularly sports and wellness. Incumbents Brian Cournoyer and Michael O’Donnell support the educational priorities of the present board. A sixth candidate, Diana Armstead, supports equity and respect for all persons.
Though the responsibilities of school boards have changed over time, their members still serve as a sort of grass-roots safety valve for encouraging the display of whatever “habits of the heart” exist at the community level. As advocates for engagement in education in its broadest sense, these volunteers, despite what Mark Twain said about them, play an important role in social stability and social change at the local level.