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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 30, 2009

Two vie for a single BKW school board seat

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — As challenger Carolyn Anderson and incumbent John Harlow run for a single seat on the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education, both candidates know that several challenges will be faced by whoever wins in the May 19 election.

Voters will have a chance to meet the candidates on Tuesday, May 5, from 7 to 8 p.m. at an event sponsored by the Parent Teacher Association in BKW’s elementary school library.

Anderson, 58, of Berne, calls herself “an exceptional communicator,” and “a highly effective mediator.” These attributes, coupled with her background in management of employee benefits, make her a well-rounded candidate for the school board, she said.

Harlow, 66, a retired mechanical engineer who got his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, has served on the school board since 2000, though he left the board for the 2005-06 school year. He reclaimed his seat on the board in 2006, for a three-year term that expires on June 30.

Harlow told The Enterprise earlier this month that he is an “advocate for educational excellence,” and that he believes his presence on the school board is a benefit to the district.

This week, the two candidates gave The Enterprise their views on the following issues:

Budget: Because of the recession, discussion over the budget for the next school year has been a heated one, with a great deal of dialogue between district residents and the administration. Do the candidates support the budget draft for the 2009-10 school year? Why or why not? Is anything there that should be cut? Is anything missing? And what course should the school board take if the budget is voted down on May 19? Should it put up the same budget? Should it go to a contingency budget? Should more cuts be made to appease voters?

Representation: Candidates were asked, if put in a situation in which they are forced to pick a side, who would they represent? Would the candidate stick up for teachers who want a raise, or stand with the taxpayers who want to see spending go down?

Westerlo School: There has been discussion in recent months on what should be done with the Westerlo School once the lease with Helderberg Christian School is up. Since it was built, the traditional brick building just outside the Westerlo hamlet had housed BKW students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. But, with tax rates on the rise and enrollment numbers in a freefall, the 60-year-old school was closed in 2005. Now, the district is weighing its options, as it considers offers from the town of Westerlo, Helderberg Christian School, and the Westerlo Fire Department to buy the building, and some think the building should be placed on the open market. Candidates were asked what course the district should take.

Consolidation: Enrollment has been steadily declining in recent years. In these tough economic times, should the district consider consolidating with another district to save money?

Disability: Special-education students make up one-fifth of students at BKW, and are a high cost to the district. Why is the number of special-education students so high in BKW?

Discipline: Mary Petrilli, BKW’s former high school principal, has been on paid leave since August, after being arrested at her home for menacing and possession of a weapon. She had returned from nearly eight months on medical leave a month earlier.

By the time former high school Principal Mary Petrilli’s resignation takes effect on June 29, the district will have paid for nearly 20 months combined of paid leave, and at least $30,000 towards a 3020A proceeding, the process required to remove a tenured employee, commenced just months ago.

Looking at Petrilli’s situation as an example, how would the candidates handle a personnel matter where there have been repeated complaints or incidents?

Carolyn Anderson

For the past year, Carolyn Anderson was on the district’s budget advisory committee, and saw firsthand what challenges school-budget makers are facing in the current economic climate.

“There was a great deal of thought and tremendous discussion that went into the budget,” Anderson said. “The lack of state funding was a tremendous concern to the board, and how they would develop that budget to insure that educational quality wasn’t sacrificed in any way.”

The governor had threatened to cut $705,643 of BKW’s funding, though it ended up being restored by the federal stimulus package.

“I’ve spent a good deal of my career operating under budgets, but I can say that the school budget is probably the most difficult budget to develop, that I have experienced,” she went on.

“I do support the budget, and my support comes from a greater understanding of the components within the budget, and the influences on the budget, that are sometimes within the control of the board, and sometimes not. I felt that having the zero-increase-tax-levy budget made a statement to the community that the board was working feverishly, and spending money wisely. It’s a good, sound budget. It’s lower than last year, and a tremendous amount of thought went into it, line by line, to make sure that every dollar is well spent.”

As for what changes she would make, she said, “I felt that it had truly been refined as best it could. One of the things I feel strongly about is that we need to look very closely at long-term constraints on the budgets. A very large piece of that is benefits — we must strive for benefits and their related costs to be reasonable and appropriate for the teachers, staff, and for the taxpayer.”

Should the budget be voted down on May 19, Anderson recommends that it be put up for a second vote.

“I support the budget as approved by the board, and I do believe that it’s been scrutinized, and that the necessary and appropriate cuts were made,” she said. “Should the budget vote fail on May 19, I recommend that it be presented to the public in a second vote without modification.”

If the budget is voted down, the board might decide to adopt a contingency budget, which would spend approximately $62,000 less than the budget draft that will go before voters in May, with no effect on the tax rate. But, as Anderson pointed out, while contingency budgets can include teacher supplies, they cannot include student supplies. “So, if a new photocopier is needed, it cannot be included in a contingency budget,” she said.

Also, while use of school buildings for meetings with school-connected purposes can be budgeted for, programs involving entertainment or of a social nature, like Hilltowns Players productions and Boy Scout activities, cannot be included in a contingency budget.

“So, my recommendation would be to bring the budget again before the voters, and make them aware of these things,” Anderson said.

While Anderson, now retired, understands the plight of today’s taxpayer, she believes that quality education comes before making things easier for the taxpayer, she said.

“We need to have quality teachers, and pay them appropriately,” she said. “I would really have to push to see that we have quality teachers at an appropriate level of pay. And, if that means that we’re going to affect our taxes, we have to accept that. The bottom line cannot be just a matter of dollars. The bottom line has to be the quality of education,” she said.

While Anderson has not been closely involved in the discussion on future uses of the Westerlo School, she sees it as an asset to the district.

“We have to look at how the building serves the district, not just in dollars and cents,” Anderson said. “I would prefer seeing it go to a community-based organization of some sort, but I would want to keep it as an asset used for the benefit of the community, either of the school district, or the community of Westerlo, including its current use,” she said, referring to the Helderberg Christian School’s current occupation of the building.

Some districts are looking at consolidating with others, as a means to further cut spending.

“While I would be open-minded to looking at facts and figures that would support either doing that or not doing that, I am concerned about the reputation of our school district,” Anderson said. “We are at a point in time where we need to improve those state-level report cards. People, as they are looking to move into an area, are looking at the quality of the schools, and we need to improve our position. We’re not as attractive as we once were, and that could contribute to a lower influx of residents.”

One piece of the budget that is significant every year is the amount appropriated towards special education.

“This is an area that I’m very interested in, because it affects my family personally,” Anderson said, referring to her grandchild who is classified to receive special education services. “Twenty percent is high, and we need to ask the question of why the percentage of students is so high,” she said.

“I am extremely concerned that our special ed. program is not accomplishing its goals. I am a grandparent of a child that falls into the special education realm, and I can see on a very personal level that we aren’t meeting those challenges,” she went on. “I’ve asked the question, too, about the cost, because the cost is astronomical. I think more has to happen on a state level, because we’re a small community with a very low tax base, and it’s a struggle to commit those funds.”

About the situation with Petrilli, Anderson said, “I was frustrated with that situation, and, particularly, the unsettling situation that our students were placed in, given the actions of the individual in question. Although my background is within the private sector, I am familiar with tenure and the restrictions the board faced. I feel that the cost of remediation would have been an appropriate cost to bear, given the extent of these very serious problems. The board proceeded prudently and cautiously, and I do not fault them for that, but when there is a serious and recurring problem such as this, it must be dealt with swiftly.”

John “Jack” Harlow 

John “Jack” Harlow, a school-board member for a combined seven years, weighed in on the same issues this week.

He said that he stands firmly behind the current budget proposal.

“This is obviously a very bad time for people in general, and whatever we can do as the school board to mitigate the financial pain that people are feeling, we have done,” he said. “The difficult thing will be that we can’t keep retiring people forever,” he said, referring to the four teachers who retired this year, after which their positions were eliminated to cut costs.

“It may be that, next year, we’re not able to bring the tax increase as low as we were able to this year, because the impact on the children’s education could become greater,” Harlow went on. “If I believe that the impacts of monetary reductions are not consistent with my goal of our children being the best kids in New York State, then I will not favor as deep cuts as we have made this year. But I haven’t seen what those cuts may end up being, so I don’t know. But, as I’ve said previously, my primary objective as a board member is to see that our children get the best education possible, and I am always balancing that against the resources of the community.”

Harlow doesn’t think that further cuts could have been made.

“Things that are normally needed in a school have been cut,” he said. “You can’t keep doing that and not have it be a serious impact. Soon, it compromises your ability to provide the education your kids need. The children’s education is of paramount importance to us as a society, because we’re competing with people that want to eat our lunch.”

On what action the school board should take if the budget is voted down on May 19, Harlow said, “The question would be: What are the pluses and minuses of the contingency budget? Cutting $62,000, but also having those restrictions, and, since I don’t know specifically what that would mean, other than, I would still try and do what is best for the kids, and still be as fair as I can be to the taxpayers.”

Furthermore, $62,000 is close to what some teachers make in a year, meaning that adopting a contingency budget could save a teacher’s job, he said.

“If we lose that, we have to spread that person’s load to others,” he said.

With regard to whom he represents, Harlow did not hesitate: “I primarily represent the children,” he said.

“We talk frequently about how taxes impact those people on fixed income, and that’s certainly true, but what isn’t measured fully is the fact that the stability and the magnitude of their pension or Social Security check is directly measured by the quality of the education of the kids,” he went on. “If they want to have that pension check for the rest of their lives, the children will be the ones paying that, and, if they don’t have a good quality education, that pension check is in jeopardy. So, it’s very important to invest in children.”

He added, “I was very impressed and proud of [Karol] Willsey’s offer.” Willsey, a fourth-grade teacher, told the school board that $2,000 of her 2009-10 salary could be put towards school use in whatever way the administration sees fit.

On the Westerlo School, Harlow said, “I have been in favor of taking the Westerlo School and putting it on the open market for sale. In order to establish the value of a piece of property, it has to be bid on, in an open bid. You can’t characterize something unilaterally; you have to have people that compete to establish its value.”

Harlow went on to say that it is too soon to address the idea of district consolidation definitively, but, “I would never rule out any option,” he said. “If it was a thing that had to be done to ensure the kids got their education, then I would do it, or at least recommend it.”

On why the number of special-education students in BKW is so high, Harlow said he didn’t know, but offered the following as a possible explanation: “It may be that families that have children with special needs and limited income find it easier to live up here than other places. I don’t know if that’s true. It could be that our school is providing excellent services to kids with needs, and people gravitate this way.”

Regarding personnel issues, like the situation surrounding Mary Petrilli, Harlow said, “I would look to my administrator, and say, ‘How are you going to handle it?’ If there’s a behavioral problem, that’s an executive session issue, and we’re not going to talk about A, B, or C in public. That would be demeaning to everyone involved. The last thing that I would ever do is talk to the public about a private issue.”

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