Six candidates run for four open seats in New Paltz School Board election

Voters in the New Paltz Central School District will be choosing from among six candidates to fill four available school board seats in the election on May 18. The three candidates with the most votes will each serve for three years, beginning on July 1, and the fourth-place finisher will finish up the remainder of the term for which Sophia Skiles was elected, a seat which was vacated by early resignation. Voters will also be asked to decide on the $70,013,600 school budget, which thanks to last-minute changes at the state level would result in a tax levy decrease of $560,000. Incumbents Glenn LaPolt and Diana Armstead, along with newcomers Jessica Decker Guerrero, Stephanie Lyons, Johanna Herget and Heather O’Donnell will all be on the ballot. In consultation with some prior board members questions were prepared, and the candidates’ responses are presented here, in no particular order.

Stephanie Lyons and her son.

Stephanie Lyons

Tell us about the reasons that have driven you to run for the board this year.

I spent the last year following every board of education meeting and every major decision made by the district in response to the pandemic. The decisions made were reactive and without forethought or planning. BOE meetings were used as announcements to the district without sending out timely messages to families that were unable to attend. One meeting in particular that stands out was a night when 18 families wrote in to express the severe social-emotional damage caused by frequent school shutdowns and lack of access. The district’s response was to deny publicly reading the statements while stating, “we hear you,” with no real outreach or attempt at improving the situation. The community frequently reached out with problems while begging for clear, open and timely communication to the point that several petitions were created asking for concrete attempts at improvement, to no avail. Many members of the board continued to sit silently all year long. Now, in the spring, communication has hardly improved and instead of planning ahead the district again has made last-minute decisions with little or no guidance for the families affected by them.

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What do you think of the public school experience, and how does it inform how you would serve in the coming term?

The pandemic has made one thing clear: the children of the “haves” have thrived academically with the help of private tutors, private schools and podding. The children of the “have-nots” have been pumped into day cares while their parents have gone off to low-paying essential jobs, many breaking the bank to survive school closures and maintain employment. Sometimes their work got done, sometimes it didn’t; sometimes they had supervision and sometimes they didn’t. They weren’t allowed to pod with the children of the “haves” because their families had too much exposure risk. They suffered from academic loss and social-emotional distress across all ages. Public schools are essential. They need to be open and remain open as much as possible as the guidance allows.

School board members have, in recent years, decided not to change school start times despite science supporting the shift. What’s your position on this issue, and why?

There are so many studies that show benefits to a later start time for some students. I think that this is a tricky situation because there is no one right answer for everyone. What do you do for the students that thrive with an earlier start? Earlier has always been better for me — in high school I often got up early to finish homework rather than working on it late into the day. How would this affect athletics? After-school jobs? Or at the younger level, how would this affect the parents’ workday? I would probably want to look into staggered start times over a complete shift to accommodate the needs of more students and families.

Recent history has shown a decline in enrollment in the district. What sorts of changes would you propose be made in the schools in light of that information?

There are so many things feeding this and I don’t think that there is any one solution. The immediate cause — the pandemic, hard-to-maintain school shutdowns and the difficulty of maintaining remote learning and increased screen time — many have pulled students out for private schools and private tutoring over the past year because of the stress put on their families by all of this. Having a plan in place to open for the five-day school week in the fall is paramount. Many other districts are already planning for this. Further, improving relationships and trust with currently enrolled families is key: while acting as an admin of a social media forum for district parents, I cringed over the last year when someone would ask to join because they were moving into town and would be enrolling their children for next year. I didn’t want to approve their request because parents were so angry about how every aspect of the year was being handled, no matter what position they were in, no one had happy things to say.

The New Paltz district includes many tight-knit groups of students and families focused on a common interest. How do you propose serving all families, including those who are not as involved with other families?

I would like to see families and staff reconnected as stakeholders. I think that that was the biggest mistake that was made this year. The surveys that were sent out were vague, left many questions and then were taken as final decisions. There should have been follow-up surveys that addressed more situations that came up. There is no way to always accommodate everyone, but by taking in information and data and a bit of problem-solving you can always find ways to better serve more groups of people.

Diana Armstead

Looking back at your first term, have you accomplished what you set out to do? Where in the district is your attention focused now?

During my first term as a trustee I focused on improving district communications, supporting a safe and equitable learning environment and recommending the implementation of restorative justice as an alternative to traditional approaches to disciplinary measures. The district’s budget remains a key focus as I have a fiduciary obligation to be cognizant of how taxpayers’ money is spent.

Communication has been a historical challenge for this district for many years. During this current academic school year the unforeseen circumstances brought on by the pandemic has created new communication concerns voiced by the community and the board of education. The guidance and assistance provided to the district by our local BOCES has been a valuable resource and communication has been enhanced considerably. Communications will continue to be a work in progress, as there will always be room for improvement.

Early on in my first term I introduced restorative justice to the district leadership. It took some time to convince district leadership the value of this practice. Subsequently, restorative justice has begun to be implemented in our school when needed and there is still room to expand the program.

Additionally, I supported the wellness programs at the high school which included the C.A.F.E., a space for students to connect with each other and staff during lunchtime. I’ve also supported the development of the student wellness center located at the high school.

Historically, New Paltz Central School District never sought diligently to hire people of color; particularly for professional positions. This has been a mostly white district with a bare minimum of people of color employed. In previous years this district’s search for staff was not extensive and was very much rudimentary. This had been a concern of mine for decades and as a trustee I presented this concern. Credit is to be given to the Racial Equity Initiative Advisory Committee for their role in recommending to the previous superintendent and the BOE to adopt the use of an interview committee that consisted of a diverse group of staff, students and parents for high-level administrative positions. For this reason, the district has increased the hiring of qualified people of color in administrative positions. In preparation for seeking a term as BOE member in 2018, it was my goal to encourage the hiring of professional and qualified persons of color when the opportunity presented itself. As such, the BOE hired the current superintendent. It is imperative that the community remain an agent of change in these processes.

Also, the Racial Equity Initiative Advisory Committee has been working on and addressing matters toward achieving racial equity and inclusion within the district. Recently, the committee has worked diligently to develop an anti-racism policy which is currently under review by the BOE and will be discussed at the meeting on May 5. At present time, I am working with the committee toward recommending curriculum improvements to include the history and contributions of black, indigenous and [other] people of color.

If I have the opportunity to serve a second term as a trustee, I will continue to focus on the work of the Racial Equity Initiative Advisory Committee. The New York State education department has a platform for growth and improvement in the education system, and is focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion. This is where we need to focus our attention and I intend to be part of this important and historical change.

Of utmost importance, as we look forward to returning to school in person full-time while still in the state of a pandemic, my focus will be the health and well-being of our students and staff; making sure that services are readily available for both.

What do you think of the public school experience, and how does it inform how you would serve in the coming term?

The public school experience is fascinating and intricate. So much goes on behind the scenes. It’s very easy to want to address or fix every concern that is presented. However, [what it is] important to remember is what’s in the best interest of all students and the district as a whole. If given the opportunity to serve again on the board of education for this school district, I will continue to serve objectively and thoughtfully based on my knowledge and experience, not to be influenced or persuaded by personal agendas.

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School board members have, in recent years, decided not to change school start times despite science supporting the shift. What’s your position on this issue, and why?

I’ve not reached a position one way or another on this as yet. I understand that young people tend to go to sleep late which then can make it difficult to rise early for school. While science supports starting later as students need more rest, the common thread I’ve heard and read about when I became aware of the discussion in this district was that sports is the issue of contention. What I can say is that when I attended a rather large high school, start-time schedules for students looked something this: seniors/juniors start time 6:40 a.m. and end time 11:20 a.m., sophomore start time 10:15 a.m. and end time 3:20 p.m., freshman start time 11:20 a.m. and end time 4:30 p.m. This was a non-issue and sports was not impacted at all. If or when this issue presents itself again I will listen to both sides of the conversation and make a decision at said time.

Recent history has shown a decline in enrollment in the district. What sorts of changes would you propose be made in the schools in light of that information?

At present time I would not suggest any drastic changes as I believe the decline in enrollment is temporary. However, New Paltz teachers are remarkable; they have been incredible in adapting to this situation and creative in their approach to providing for the educational and social needs of their students who are receiving in-school instruction as well as remote instruction. On one hand, the temporary decline has allowed for teachers to give more attention to the students who are attending both in class and remote; by no means does this indicate teachers have less to do. Teachers are adapting to the situation to do what is best for their students.

Research indicates that the drop in enrollment is most noticeable at the kindergarten level. Kindergarten level is where socialization occurs and is important for the development of the young child. Imagine the five-year-old child in school and the child not being able to play with peers, a teacher not being able to comfort a crying child because of social-distancing. So much at this young age is hands-on, yet it cannot be done for health and safety reasons. Trying to teach a five-year-old how to navigate online learning must be difficult. As such, families here and across the United States were less inclined to register their children for school. Overall, there has been a drop in attendance because of the disruption brought on by the pandemic. Also important to note is that the pandemic has impacted the birth rate which ultimately will impact school enrollments moving forward.

The New Paltz district includes many tight-knit groups of students and families focused on a common interest. How do you propose serving all families, including those who are not as involved with other families?

As mentioned before, it is my priority to serve in the best interest of all students and their families. For some of the students and families in our district who are not as involved, if reelected I will do as I have done in the past and that is to attempt to find out why they are not involved and I will continue to use my resources and connections with community partners to foster and encourage the involvement of students and families who otherwise would not be engaged. Fortunately, there is a network of community members who have close connections and the ability to engage with many families. It would be my intention to continue to reach out to as many families while respecting their individual needs.

Glenn LaPolt

Looking back at your first term, have you accomplished what you set out to do? Where in the district is your attention focused now?

As a lifelong member of this community, when I first ran it was because I was at a point in my life where I was ready to give back. As a parent and teacher myself, I did not have an agenda, I just wanted to step up and gratefully contribute to the place I grew up in and chose to raise my own children. I felt that I had a skill set, and the experience, to help our district be its best. For 25 years as a public school educator I have been known as a fair, open-minded and zealous advocate of students. The pandemic has slowed things to a crawl, but we are moving in the right direction, where our focus is on the students. All of this is about the kids and this is what we need to stay focused on. Now I do have a more clearly articulated agenda: we need to become even more student-centered in this district.

What do you think of the public school experience, and how does it inform how you would serve in the coming term?

Public school is a bedrock of our society. I have dedicated most of my adult life to the betterment of public education. My entire life has been shaped through this lens. That being said, our traditional public school system must change. Indeed, this change has begun already. The pandemic is the beginning of this change. 30 years from now education will be vastly different, and when we look back, we will see that while some districts had already started, it was the pandemic that really accelerated moving this needle. I have faith that our teachers and educational leaders are up to this task, and I want to be a part of keeping us headed in positive directions, but public education is a key part of why our society is more and more the haves v. the have-nots. For-profit interests have for years, and will continue to grab an increasingly larger piece of the pie if we don’t fight back. It’s often cleverly disguised, but in the end it is about the continued marginalization of the less fortunate, minority groups and economically unstable households of our society and right here in our own district. We must not let this happen and you can be sure I will do my best to move us forward equitably.

School board members have, in recent years, decided not to change school start times despite science supporting the shift. What’s your position on this issue, and why?

I’m not averse to school start times changing. It makes sense and the data clearly supports it. That said, we cannot do this in a vacuum, and a major change like this needs to be undertaken by the entire county, not just one district. That is a dialogue and approach I can be a part of and support.

The county is going to be moving towards a countywide change of start times. I completely support a countywide, coordinated overhaul of school start times. A countywide change will support our student athletes, as well as extracurricular school-sponsored activities.

Recent history has shown a decline in enrollment in the district. What sorts of changes would you propose be made in the schools in light of that information?

We need to increase student programming. Decreasing student enrollment — a trend whose arc we’re not sure of given the pandemic — should not mean cutting staff and just maintaining. As enrollment decreases, we should double down on high-quality expanded opportunities for students. Private schools, charter schools and different academies already heavily funded by corporations and supported by too many government bureaucrats and lobbyists, have become more widespread. The funds for public education will continue to decrease. In this context, public schools need to deliver high-quality education. Increased student programming, social and emotional assistance, enrichment and increased opportunities like PTECH, expanded horizons, STEM, STEAM, humanities houses, flex schedules for students and staff, increased in-house tech programs like shop and home economics, students clubs at the elementary level and most important a district wellness initiative are just some of the ways to deal with decreasing enrollment. These programs, and others, allow the kids to remain part of their local school communities while at the same time allowing them to participate in a greater countywide educational system. Basically, when enrollment goes down, we need to go smart and big. Remember, K-12 education is a state constitutional right, and a public education counteroffensive is what we need right now.

The New Paltz district includes many tight-knit groups of students and families focused on a common interest. How do you propose serving all families, including those who are not as involved with other families?

Trying to reach all families is always hard. That does not mean we should not try; it is vitally important. How we treat our most vulnerable shows us who we are. Bringing people and families together builds a shared understanding of everybody’s issues and brings about understanding and most important empathy. Empathy often leads to humility. There is not enough talk about empathy and humility. How to make all of this happen? We need to do better here and I commit to doing so.

Heather O’Donnell

Tell us about the reasons that have driven you to run for the board this year.

As a parent and a professional educator, I am running for the school board because I want to be part of the conversation on how the district comes out of the pandemic. I’ve studied education and children’s development my entire professional life. I graduated from Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology with a bachelor’s of science in human development before earning two master’s degrees, in early childhood general education and early childhood special education, from Bank Street College of Education in New York City. As a certified New York State general and special education teacher with 13 years of general and special education classroom experience, I am passionate about education for all children including those coming from circumstances that place them at a disadvantage. As a Wilson certified dyslexia practitioner and a Center for Effective Reading Instruction-certified structured literacy dyslexia interventionist, I founded a private tutoring practice here in New Paltz where my staff and I work with students who need extra support to be successful learners due to learning disabilities. Students with learning disabilities are not the only children who seek additional support. Many of our families find my practice because they have a child who needs a specific instructional approach that they are not being provided at their current school. I am passionate about increasing our ability as a district to reach all our students’ literacy, math and writing needs, and look forward to volunteering my experience and education towards achieving that goal.

Too many students need additional educational support, and coming out of the pandemic it is even more vital that we increase our ability to provide the science-based instruction our struggling readers need to be successful within the district. While our district already has an excellent multi-sensory reading program, we need to train more teachers and expand the program so that we can reach and support more students across our schools. Research indicates that a student who reads below a proficient level in the third grade is less likely to graduate from high school. Not middle school, not high school, but third grade. This makes the reading instruction at Duzine of paramount importance. We also need to provide our teachers with the training and the tools they need to be successful with the chosen elementary math curriculum. I am running for the school board because these are the issues I encounter in my work with kids, many of whom are here in our district, and I want to bring my experience as a dyslexia reading specialist to the table as part of the conversation in how we can better support all of our students in all of our schools.

What do you think of the public school experience, and how does it inform how you would serve in the coming term?

Public schools are an amazing enterprise — a collective decision made by a community to educate and care for all of their children. Meeting diverse educational needs is a huge challenge, and at times the public school experience falls short for many students from marginalized backgrounds including students of color, students with disabilities and students that identify as LGBTQIA+. I think it is important as a board member to realize what I don’t know, and spend time listening to those who have experiences that I do not. For example, the Racial Equity Initiative Advisory Committee has demonstrated an understanding of which students were “missing” during the time of remote learning; we should be leveraging those insights to better serve our entire student population. The promise of public education will remain unfulfilled unless we approach the endeavor with an open mind, humility and an unwavering commitment to student well-being.

School board members have, in recent years, decided not to change school start times despite science supporting the shift. What’s your position on this issue, and why?

I fully believe in the science that indicates a later school start time is beneficial for older students. However, this has been a year of constant change for parents and students. The district has gone from fully remote to a hybrid two-day-a-week model to a four-day-a-week model within the span of a few months. This number of changes has been exhausting for families struggling to maintain work and school schedules. The impact on single-parent families and families with special needs has been especially profound. Many students who participate in sports and extracurricular activities have not all had the opportunity to engage in their favorite activities this year due to pandemic health restrictions. To institute yet another change that has the potential to impact family work schedules, extracurricular participation and before/after-care arrangements on the heels of a year that has had such a dizzying number of scheduling irregularities should be considered with caution. I support a board that is respectful of those impacts on students and families given the educational impact we’ve all experienced during the pandemic. Once we have our district resettled we should come back to this question and consider the adjustment of our schedules to match the biological development of our students.

Recent history has shown a decline in enrollment in the district. What sorts of changes would you propose be made in the schools in light of that information?

As enrollment declines, class sizes will decrease. This enables our teachers to better reach our students’ needs which is especially fortuitous coming out of the pandemic’s disruption to learning and the realities of school this past year, but I also think it will be important to be creative in terms of making sure resources are used to maximize the education we can deliver to students. For example, I’d love to see all of the district’s reading teachers trained in a science-of-reading program and institute small-group instruction to increase the reach and support provided to struggling readers across the district. 60% of students require direct reading instruction to become proficient readers. We are not meeting this educational need in our district. Providing our reading teachers with additional training in a multi-sensory reading program, and expanding our reading support program to include small-group student support, would enable us to increase our ability to support more students without staffing changes.

The New Paltz district includes many tight-knit groups of students and families focused on a common interest. How do you propose serving all families, including those who are not as involved with other families?

It’s always worth asking: “who are we not hearing from, and why not?” Is it a lack of interest, a lack of awareness, a lack of communication, or all of the above? The New Paltz Central School District is owned by, and in service to, the people of the school district. If any community member feels uncomfortable or unheard by the district, it is the district’s responsibility to fix that shortcoming. As a board member, I promise to listen. It’s important to remain committed to a simple principle: the district exists to serve all of our students. What are the projects that will reach and support the most students across common interests? The wishes of one group cannot supersede the needs and rights of a different population. If elected to the board, these are the perspectives I will keep in mind while I serve.

Johanna Herget

Tell us about the reasons that have driven you to run for the board this year.

I have chosen to run for school board to help find a way for all of our children to receive a full five-day-a-week education while maintaining necessary safety measures. I care deeply about limiting the spread of Covid-19, at the same time for the past year many of our children have been unable to attend more than two days of school per week in person or online, which does not constitute an adequate education. While I know some of the restrictions are out of our hands, I want to make sure the board is actively advocating at all levels for policy that makes sense at the local level. Everything we do that isn’t improving education or directly mitigating risk is at cost to our school and our children’s education. Now is the time to plan not only for September, but also for the upcoming years, by setting policy to proactively and regularly assess needs, address learning and social/emotional challenges, improve communication, and support all of our children not only to recover but to thrive.

What do you think of the public school experience, and how does it inform how you would serve in the coming term?

Public school’s main purpose to my knowledge has always been to provide a free and accessible education to all children within the area. With schools closed, or run as remote, or even as hybrid, it has become crystal clear to me how much more beyond just an education our schools provide for our children, and how integral of a societal structure public school is for our community. The past year has focused on stopgap measures to provide an education during this pandemic, while imparting enormous stress on our school staff and families. The strain of the pandemic has highlighted areas that we’ve always needed to improve. We have the opportunity to assess where these breaking points in our systems surfaced so we can move forward and be better than before. We have now had a year of experience and knowledge to draw from in order for us to move into a more proactive position and provide the stability, trust and dependability so needed for all of us.

School board members have, in recent years, decided not to change school start times despite science supporting the shift. What’s your position on this issue, and why?

What I would give to have school start times be the central topic this year. The idea of an earlier or later start time seems so benign after the events of the past year, both seem so pleasant and easy! That being said, the science supporting the shift in start times was very compelling. Of course I can have my personal opinions, but in the end as a board member, I have an obligation to represent public opinion. Change is hard and I suspect if more districts around us shift their start times, public opinion may change as well. I do find it interesting that my children’s start times for remote learning were later than the traditional in-person start times, although this may have other reasons. It will be an interesting and welcome discussion when pandemic concerns have passed, and something as benign as start times can potentially become our school community’s main focus once again.

Recent history has shown a decline in enrollment in the district. What sorts of changes would you propose be made in the schools in light of that information?

This is a very interesting and hot topic right now. As I understand it, the recent graduating classes were very large compared to the younger grades, which as they’re graduating from the district makes it look like we have a drop in enrollment. However, what is more concerning at the moment is the effect of the pandemic on enrollment. It seems we all know a handful of families that have pulled their child out of our public school district this year to an alternate form of school, whether private or home-school or even to move out of district altogether. I would start by gathering information on this trend. What exactly are the trends, and what is driving them? Will families return once five days in person is restored? Are there trends by grade level? Have high school students dropped out to find work in order to help support their families? As other districts are noticing, will there be a large influx of kindergarten students and first graders, and what does the district need to do to accommodate that? Furthermore, if the county assumes an all-remote learning program for 2021-22, how will that impact district enrollment? Perhaps the board and administration are already working on the answers to these questions, however, at this time I have not seen anything discussed publicly regarding the details on our dis-enrollment trend. There are so many unanswered questions that I would not even begin to propose a solution without understanding if we have a problem we can fix. I am looking forward to this issue being openly and transparently discussed so that we can serve our children and families best.

The New Paltz district includes many tight-knit groups of students and families focused on a common interest. How do you propose serving all families, including those who are not as involved with other families?

The fact that, as part of our governance, we have a board made up of volunteer community members speaks to the necessity of being responsive to the needs of the school community, parents and caregivers. Our success as a district very much depends on how responsive we are. It is wonderful when parents or caregivers can advocate for their child, but some children do not have someone that is able to effectively advocate for them, and those needs must also be met. The district must take it on themselves to reach out and gather information rather than just having the information coming in only from those able or willing to speak up. How are we collecting data? Can we evaluate our methods of data collection to make sure we are collecting from all representative sub-populations? What systems or communities have been formed to help advocate for underrepresented populations, and do they feel heard? Most importantly, once we have public input what are we doing with this information? Are we actually responsive to the needs being voiced? Is there a system in place to gather feedback on our district’s responsiveness?

As a parent involved in special education, I understand the community is reeling having lost many of their children’s supports over the past year, including children at need going un-diagnosed or [education law section] 504 plans and individual education plans not having been created simply because the children were not in school to be identified, or children who were unable to follow through on their preschool education or services, who will now be coming into the district without having had that support in place, or without even having been identified as needing support.

There is a lot of work to be done! It is imperative, after having lost school as we know it for over a year, that our district proactively and thoroughly identifies all of our children’s needs with the help of the community so a plan can be made to address them to the best of our ability.

Jessica Decker Guerrero

Tell us about the reasons that have driven you to run for the board this year.

I am running for the school board because our school district is one of the foundations of our beautiful community here in New Paltz. I would like the opportunity to serve our town, and most importantly, our students.

What do you think of the public school experience, and how does it inform how you would serve in the coming term?

I am a NPCSD graduate, class of 2000. My experience was very positive, but I recognize that not every student or family has the same experience. If elected, my focus would be on the district as a whole, with additional emphasis on the students and families in our community who need extra support.

School board members have, in recent years, decided not to change school start times despite science supporting the shift. What’s your position on this issue, and why?

Research provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics has shown that a later start time (8:30 or later) “benefits students with regard to physical and mental health, safety and academic achievement.” Many other studies have shown this as well. Therefore, I support a later start time. With that said, I recognize that the implementation of a later start time impacts working families, after school activities, et cetera. This may not be something we revisit this year; however, should we move forward on this in the future, there is much to be taken into consideration.

Recent history has shown a decline in enrollment in the district. What sorts of changes would you propose be made in the schools in light of that information?

Due to Covid and a decrease in population growth, it is unsurprising that we are seeing a decrease in enrollment. However, I would need several years of data before suggesting any changes be made, especially as we are seeing more families move to the Hudson Valley, and specifically, the New Paltz district.

The New Paltz district includes many tight-knit groups of students and families focused on a common interest. How do you propose serving all families, including those who are not as involved with other families?

The mission statement of the NPCSD states: “The New Paltz Central School District exists for the children of the community. The focus of its programs and activities is the commitment to measured excellence and continuous growth and development for all.” If elected, it would be my duty to serve all students and their families, not just those with a “common interest.” This is achieved by listening to the needs, suggestions and concerns of the entire community. Public comment at board meetings allows community members to express their concerns. We need engagement and input from all, but more importantly, the school board needs to listen and take all opinions into consideration. 

Related: Candidate’s forum on May 10 in New Paltz

There is one comment

  1. Greg

    School Board? Lapolt is a man of such high virtue and dedication to the cause of public education he ought to be running for president of the country. You have my vote good sir.

    Truly,

    Your former student and biggest fan

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