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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 10, 2011
BKW leaders and legislators discuss the school district’s future
By Zach Simeone
BERNE As it wades its way through another turbulent budget season, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District has been meeting with its legislators, having philosophical conversations about the future of schools.
Members of the district’s administration and school board have already met with Assemblyman Jack McEneny and Senator Neil Breslin, and the school board is set to have a discussion at its March 14 meeting on a possible meeting with Congressman Paul Tonko.
“The superintendent had reached out to Tonko’s office,” said School Board President Maureen Sikule this week, “and got some specific instructions back on how it needs to be a specific federal issue. A lot of what we brought to Mr. Breslin and Mr. McEneny were issues the state needed to address, so we need to make sure the issues we bring to Tonko are federal based, something that would be handled at the federal level.”
In mid-February, McEneny and Breslin met with BKW Superintendent Paul Dorward, school board President Maureen Sikule, board member Jill Norray, and Business Official Kevin Callagy to discuss ideas like district consolidation, sharing services, bringing the latest technology to the area, increased aid to districts with high percentages of special-education students, and relief from the Triborough Amendment. The 1982 amendment to the Taylor Law keeps in place a worker’s current contract until a new contract is negotiated. Critics say it gives school boards no leverage, as teachers continue to get their step raises even if they don’t have their new contract.
Varied views on Triborough
McEneny and Breslin’s views differ slightly on this topic.
“We’re getting to that point where it has to rise to a level that there’s a lot more legislators concerned with the amendment than just me,” Breslin said. “Essentially, until the contract is determined, it just leaves in place things like the steps that a teacher can rise to, and that means that there’s a disincentive to reach a contract, because the teacher can arrive at certain salary levels by doing nothing. And that has to be talked about in the whole scheme of things, particularly with our economy being the way it is.”
But, Breslin said, schools should not expect any relief in the short term, and there is case law suggesting that a full review of the Taylor Law may be necessary.
“We have to get a critical mass of people talking about it in order to change it,” Breslin said.
McEneny, a former educator, defends teachers, adding that, if changes are made to the law, “It should be done with a scalpel, and not with an ax,” he said.
“Certain aspects of Triborough should continue, and others should not,” he said. “If a person works for five years, and they get a bonus after five years, I’m not sure that should be denied just because that contract ran out; some compromise could be in order.”
He went on, “If you take a particularly young teacher, and they get in there with a bachelor’s degree, and they’ve given up those nights and weekends for their studies, that person spends money, and time, and effort doing that; then, all of a sudden, the contract expires on a certain date, and you say, ‘That’s tough, maybe when we have a new contract in a couple years, we’ll talk about it then.’ When there’s been that expenditure of time and money, summers lost and evenings lost, I think some of that should continue. Maybe it’s 20 percent or 50 percent of what you got, but it shouldn’t be all or none.”
Making cuts across the board tends to “lock in injustice,” McEneny said.
“I’ve never been comfortable with across-the-board cuts and across-the-board raises, especially for large, complicated entities,” said McEneny. “The people who are underpaid to begin with, they’re still going to be underpaid, and the ones getting too much may still have a high percentage. They may not deserve it. When you don’t have the time to look at each entity and each individual for their uniqueness, it’s quicker; it’s a sound bite; but there are always exceptions to the rule, where one will be getting too much; one will be getting too little. Whatever the injustice is, you’re locking it in for another year.”
The BKW School Board mentioned at a meeting last month that it had expressed to McEneny and Breslin the district’s disinterest in consolidation.
“I agree with them,” said McEneny, referring specifically to BKW consolidating with a nearby district. “I think what we came to was that sharing services makes sense, and better cooperation. But actually physically consolidating with a district, I don’t see it happening in those districts. They’re geographically too big.”
“You have to sit down and say, ‘All right, what is the longest period a student will be on a bus? We can’t put people on a bus for three hours a day,” Breslin said, “and we have to be sensitive to those needs. Are there some areas where we can have long-distance learning? Yes, but that goes into, how can we have long-distance learning if we don’t have good Internet access? We had a bill on the table for statewide Internet access, and it got pulled back. It puts BKW at a disadvantage, because there are so many pockets out there that don’t have good Internet access.”
Breslin said that his legislative district suffers more than most in terms of lacking Internet access.
“Obviously, it’s different because of the topography,” said Breslin. “I think you hear, both on the federal level with the president talking about it, Governor Spitzer talked about it, and there was a program to provide complete Internet access across the state, and we fell short.”
Said McEneny, “We talked about technology as an opportunity for employment for people in this area Sematech, nanotech and, in another context, the idea of sharing technology,” through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services and with other districts.
“BOCES is what makes it possible for most districts to offer far more in services,” McEneny went on. “Most people think of BOCES as education of the disabled, and it’s much, much more than that.”