Friday, May 16, 2008

Governing Catskill's Schools

Public education in the Catskill Central School District is a 37 million dollar enterprise. Of those dollars, about 16 million come from State and Federal coffers. The other 21 million come from local taxpayers, who are charged at the rate of about 24 cents for each thousand dollars’ worth of assessed value of their properties. The dollars are spent on operations that affect a school population of approximately 1800 girls and boys. The outlay per pupil, on average, is more than 20,000 dollars.

Control over Catskill’s 37 million dollar educational operations reposes most immediately in a nine-person board of directors. The directors are subject to popular election for terms of three years. They serve without pay. They govern by giving directives to, and processing information coming from, a salaried professional Superintendent.

On Tuesday (5/20) three seats on Catskill’s school board will be filled by the will of local voters. Five candidates are standing for election. They are Ernest Armistead, Karen Haas (incumbent), Andrew D. Jones (incumbent), Matthew R. Liebowitz, and Evan M. Ulscht.

To help clarify the choices, the Catskill teachers’ union sponsored yesterday afternoon, in the High School cafeteria, a “debate” among the candidates.

News of that impending event, that encounter between prospective controllers of Catskill’s 37 million dollar educational enterprise, did not appear in the local Press or on radio. Neither did it appear in the Budget 2008-2009 Newsletter that was mailed by the School Board, in advance of Tuesday’s election, to all District voters. (Printed just below the mailing’s title was the slogan “reflecting educational excellence,” twice).

Attendance at the “debate,” apart from the speakers and the moderator (Patricia Houlihan, president of the teachers’ union), consisted of 14 persons, most of whom were candidates’ kinfolk. Parent-Teachers Association members accordingly were absent in droves, as were members of the non-profit support group, the Catskill Education Foundation. So were teachers and administrative staff. So were reporters from news organs other than Seeing Greene. So was one candidate: Mr Jones. If he apologized or sent excuses, no message to that effect was passed to the assembled listeners.

Under Ms Houlihan’s supervision, the four attending candidates made opening statements, responded to questions from the floor, and made closing statements. Apart from providing biographical information, the candidates voiced these views:

>>Ms Haas has “enjoyed” her time on the board. No “worst problem” affecting the schools comes to mind, although a “more friendly” atmosphere may be needed.

>>Mr Armistead is particularly concerned with the District’s various Special Needs programs, and with the plight of children who come from poor, and poorly managed, single-parent homes.

>>None of the candidates knows how Catskill’s schools compare with other Greene County schools in terms of cost per pupil, although Mr Ulscht suspects that the Catskill figure is higher. (He is right)

>>With regard to the Federal law that is known as No Child Left Behind law, no candidate feels sanguine.

>>Mr Ulscht holds that an “administrator” who emits a “kill them all”-type message regarding teachers “perhaps should no longer be here.” Meanwhile, Catskill’s s schools are “at a crossroads.” The “climate” that is needed for effective schooling “does not exist” now. People involved with the schools “need to respect each other again,” perhaps by way of a “revaluation of No Child Left Behind” and a “communication workshop.”

>>Mr Liebowitz shares Mr Ulscht’s concerns about the prevailing atmosphere, voices them more subtly, and advocates “giving teachers back control of their classrooms.”

EVALUATION Judging from what took place at today’s “debate,” as well as from bits of other evidence, we venture to voice the following electoral advice:

For voters who feel optimistic about the present state and likely prospects of Catskill’s schools, the appropriate move is to return the incumbents, Mr Jones and Ms Haas, and to cast their third vote for Mr Liebowitz or for Mr Armistead. This course of action seems warranted in light of the bland, substance-free character of Ms Haas’s words in the “debate” as well as in her Budget Newsletter statement. Equally, it seems warranted not only by Mr Jones’s absence from the debate (and, as it happens, from many Board meetings), but also from the terms of his Newsletter declaration that he “is seeking re-election…as he thinks that the…District is headed in the right direction.”

For voters who feel troubled about the present direction--voters who favor a substantial change of course--the suitable candidates are the non-incumbents: Ulscht, Liebowitz and Armistead.


COMMENTS on this and other installments of Seeing Greene are welcome. If they are signed by the sender, they will be posted. If they are not signed, they will not be posted, although they may shape some passage in a future blog.

1 comment:

A.Carter said...

Maybe next year we, the public, can be better informed about such meetings since the "Public Information" budget is increasing 225%.