Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reply to Comments and Questions on NCN

In response to this NewCastleNOW article and the comments below that article.  This is the unedited version from before I tried to get it into one 2000 character comment box.  

Usual disclaimers apply.  I do not speak for the Board of Ed.  I speak only for myself. This is not a district statement either.  Shake well before using.  Refrigerate after opening.  Your mileage may vary.

To C-O-N-T-R-O-L:  I can think of many reasons both positive and negative why we would want questions asked privately.  But, I think it is safe to say that whenever the Board or Administration replies to an email, it assumes that that email can and will be made public.  I do.

I do not agree with your assumption that it makes our job a lot easier if people don't hear each other's criticisms. That is only the case if you also assume our job is to ignore the public.  While I recognize that some people think that, I view our job as actually the opposite of that.  While I don't think we should just be a weather vane twisting in the wind with the latest opinion, I do think that we are elected as fiduciaries to the community and as such have an obligation to listen to what the community has to say which by the way can include complements.   If you read the post on my blog about deciding to run or not, I address this there.

I think it is also important for the community to know that the Board is not always in a 5-0 agreement on how to do things, but we do act as a consensus Board.  In general, after a consensus of the Board is taken, the President of the Board will fashion a response that reflects that consensus.  Whether I support that consensus response, I will always support that this is a majority rules Board and that the President has certain power/authority/obligation to respond in a way that (s)he sees fit within the consensus.

As for the last meeting and the timing of the two statements, I can tell you there was nothing Machiavellian about them. After almost 6 years on the Board, I can tell you that the announcement about the administrator's contract was put first, for two reasons.  One, it was not on the agenda anywhere because of the timing of the agreement with the Board (not agreed upon until after the agenda was made.  Agendas are generally set on the Thursday or Friday prior to the next meeting.) so it was put first, and, two, it was good news for the community in terms of the budget impact.  The meeting was primarily focused on the budget. Hence, put the budget item first.

The so called Tim Bloom response was not purposely moved to 11:00 pm or later in the meeting so no one would hear it.  First, Tim never wrote directly to the Board.  He wrote to the administration and published it here on NCN.  So, it was a little confusing as to who the Board would actually be responding to.  In the end, we were responding to the community in general, but we never got one direct piece of correspondence from anyone in the community about it. Writing anonymous comments on an internet blog is a very inefficient way to communicate with the Board.  (Any Board.)

Second, there are few people attending the meetings.  Most watch it on replay or on NCMCTV online.  Anyone could fast forward to find the portion they are looking for.  Third, it was on the agenda in the Superintendent's and President's report. Ironically enough, it comes later in the meeting because we moved the presentations to the beginning of the meetings so that the public could come to watch that and not have to wait until the end.  When I first got on the Board and prior to that, the business section came first and then the presentations.  We got criticized for that and changed it.

Legally, we are required to have an agenda.  It makes sense to stick to it as much as possible as we are also required to publish it in advance.  Some have suggested that we start earlier.  We have considered that.  I for one, would love to get home before midnight on a meeting night.  But, there were other considerations and other points of view.  In the past, we had a lot of feedback that starting earlier would make it particularly difficult for those with students in elementary and middle school to attend.  Between dinner and bedtime, starting at 7:00 or 7:30 would be a hardship for many.

One of the interesting things that happened at the last meeting is relevant here.  I am not sure how many people noticed it, but we received an email with several questions from a resident who was unable to attend the meeting.  President Tipp actually read the questions during the appropriate part of the presentation.  It is certainly a way to ask a question while not having the pressure or whatever of coming to the microphone.  I will sometimes email questions to the presenters in advance so that they are prepared to answer them publicly. I don't think it is fair to the public when someone says they will get back to you on that.  Then the response is not on the record.  Feel free to email the Board with questions you might have in advance.  If you send it to the President and/or all the Board members, I think the President would be more than happy to represent your questions at the appropriate time.

On a slightly similar note, Christine has been prodding the Board for several years to make its meetings live.  One of her concepts with having it live would be to have the ability for someone watching at home to ask a question maybe through email or a text or something. It is certainly something to be considered, although I have never seen it in practice.  I have suggested to Christine that I would be willing to do a live online forum answering questions.  I envisioned it something along the lines of a Reddit Ask Me Anything.  If I decide to run for a third term, I would definitely be willing to answer any question I legally could on any subject.

I think this Board has gotten an undeserved reputation by some of the anonymous commenters here on NCN as a closed Board.  Nothing is farther from the truth.  We have gone out of our way to be as transparent and forthright as we can.  Some items, particularly personnel and legal items, we are precluded from speaking about publicly.  It is frustrating to us too when we cannot speak about something we would want to otherwise.

Yes, we have a three minute stated limit on questions.  However, I can only remember two times where we actually imposed that limit and with those two times, we simply told the person they could ask additional questions after those who have not had a chance to ask any question yet already did so. Quite frankly, if you cannot ask one or two questions in three minutes time, then you are making a speech. I cannot think of anyone who has not had a chance to ask their question or make a comment at one of our meetings.

Do we get defensive at times? Sure, we are human.  We are also volunteers.  We are trying to do our best.  Really.  I recognize that we will not always be universally applauded for some of our decisions.  There are many issues where the community itself is divided.  I personally get frustrated when people think because we do not agree with them or do not take a certain course of action they support that we don't listen.  We listen, we deliberate, we consider ramifications and we decide.

I just want to make one more point about anonymous comments.  I get why some who make comments wish to remain anonymous.  It can be scary criticizing teachers or administrators when your child is in school. There is one school of thought that your child could be subject to retaliation.  Believe me when I tell you that I considered it myself when I speak out or when we negotiate, etc.  While it is a concern, I know the leadership of all the unions well.  I know many of the teachers in the district personally.  I give them more credit than thinking they would even dream of retaliation.  They are professionals dedicated to teaching.  It is just not something that would enter the mind of the staff.

I personally don't mind criticism.  I do mind personal attacks.  Question my thought process, question my vote, question my decisions, but don't question my integrity, don't call me names, don't make statements you know to be false or ones you don't know to be true.

I oppose anonymous comments.  I think using your name leads to a more civilized dialogue.  I think using your name gives your comment more credibility.  I get that some people want to hide behind the cloak of anonymity, but I don't condone it.

Finally, I wish the community would recognize that we are volunteers trying to do our best.  We don't get paid, we don't have any perks that I am aware of, and we don't get benefits.  We do spend a lot of time, we do work hard. and we do want to engage the public.  If it was such a great job, more people would be trying to do it.  It is a rewarding job if you care about education, care about the students and care to serve your community.  A wise former board member told me on the way out the door, that it is only a thankless job if you are expecting thanks.  I am not.

Edit: Feel free to post a comment here on my blog. I will reply to all that ask a question or ask for a reply.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

To Run or Not to Run, That is the Question

I wrote this email in response to a voice mail I received from Tom Auchtermonie, the editor of the Chappaqua/Mt. Kisco Patch.  Both he and Christine (New Castle NOW) asked about my plans to run again.


Thank you for calling.

That announcement put out by the LWV and the PTA regarding their April 2nd meeting is accurate.  They contacted me over the weekend to see what my status was, and I was ok with them sending out what they sent out.

I still have not run or not. They may have used the word "announced" which I prefer, but either way, I am still weighing the decision.

Serving on the Board for the past six years has been very rewarding for me and hopefully a positive for the district and community. There are many many factors both personal and school related that go into making this decision. 

I happen to think for a myriad of reasons that the district is at a critical crossroads as to the direction it takes.  While the budget issues that dominated my first terms are still there and will likely remain for years to come, I am very comfortable with how we have faced and will continue to face the pressures on the district in that regard. Negotiations with 3 of our 4 bargaining units have shown that the district and its units are trying to be true partners. 

I think, rightfully, that the focus going forward after this year's budget, will be a fight for the soul of the district.  By that I mean with a relatively new Superintendent, with new principals at Grafflin, Roaring Brook and Horace Greeley, with many many state and national mandates, the district has to decide who we want to be, what our mission will be going forward and how do we get there. It is going to take strong leadership to steer the district toward our goal. [Edit: Upon reread, I want to make it clear that I think we have that strong leadership in the district currently.]

Hopefully, one of the bi-products of Tim Bloom's open letter to the administration is a two way conversation between the district and the community about what we want, who we want to be, and how we accomplish those goals.  While I gave a general response on my blog,10514 Musings, I think it is important that the district, the board and the administrators have an open and frank discussion with the community about the future of this district. We need to find a shared vision, not an imposed one.

I think that being a Board Member for the next 3 years is going to take a significant commitment of time and energy.  It is why I hesitate. Whether I run or not, I strongly encourage members of the community to step up and make that commitment.  

I hope to make my decision shortly.  When I do, of course, I will let you and The Patch readers know.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Reply to Tim Bloom Letter to the Administration

(Note: I initially left off my usual disclaimer.  The absence of it does not change the fact that I am speaking only for myself, I do not speak for the district or the Board here.  All other disclaimers are valid here too. YMMV.)

I have told you this privately, but I think it important to reiterate it publicly. I very much admire your forthrightness and willingness to take personal risk by writing this letter.  Quite frankly, I wish I were not saying that there is personal risk in writing, but anytime you go against the establishment, in my days, "the man", you risk backlash.

As a School Board Member, I know that the district sometimes makes mistakes. I know that the reasoning for some decisions are not always readily obvious. I know that like any large institution that caters to all the students in the district we sometimes have to make compromises.  I know that there are times we are not even legally allowed to say why we do what we do.  It is all frustrating.  I add one more caution: Do not take the Board's silence in any circumstance as not caring or not aware or as tacit approval either.

One area in which I think we should never compromise is in our 'lofty ideals'. I have no knowledge of any of the facts of this particular letter. I am not writing now to comment on the particulars of this letter; this is something that Tim and his peers have to work out with the building administration. I am writing to thank Tim for starting the dialogue.

I would like to say that, in general, a successful district educates the entire student and the entire student body. If, in one of the Board's strategic questions, we as a district strive to educate critical thinkers, we must accept that that means allowing students to take risk, to make mistakes, and to learn lessons not only in the classroom, but also outside the classroom. Rather than stifle that urge, we should support it.

We need to support our students in extra-curricular activities including student council and self governance, in clubs, in sports, and in the performing arts. Education is not just learning the ABCs in the classroom.  It is not just your gpa or what classes you take. It is inclusive of after school activities.  We need to encourage our students to reach for their next level. We must let them challenge themselves. Sometimes that means taking risks ourselves.

Finally, at the risk of embarrassing you Tim, knowing what a terrific student you are, knowing of your dedication and fortitude on the football field, knowing you are a committed volunteer firefighter in Town, knowing you are student council President, and knowing that you are a good friend to so many, I sleep well at night comforted that future generations and future leaders like you will soon takeover.


Tim Bloom, Student Council President, Letter to HGHS Administration:

To the Horace Greeley High School Administration,
I was very disappointed to hear yesterday that the Greeley Games event that I proposed is not going to happen. Quite frankly, I'm not at all surprised, as this seems to be par for the course these days. It has gotten to the point where every single member of the Student Council is disenchanted with the way the administration is trying to dismantle the very things that had made Greeley great for so long. We have lost our motivation to try to engage the students, generate enthusiasm and a sense of community and make being a Greeley student more than capitulating to the arbitrary decisions of the administration. Why bother working on proposals and trying to innovate when we know the administration is going to say no? 
It’s funny that we are all so frustrated with our elected officials in Washington, yet the same thing is happening right here. Each time a new idea comes to the floor, we're getting filibustered, then left to take the blame for not taking action. It's really sad to see how significantly Greeley has declined over the past four years, from the exercise in political correctness gone mad re: the funball team name debacle to the arbitrary and ridiculous hoops that need to be jumped through to bring in a speaker, to the fact that a group was told they can’t sell hot chocolate in the morning for charity because it’s “too dangerous.” I don't feel as if I'm doing even half the job I ran for as President and the reason for that is the administration. Know that for us high school is more than just getting into college. It’s supposed to be an experience that matures us not just intellectually, but also in other ways. How can we do that when the only thing we are assured of is the academic aspects and those aren't so great anymore either? This school has become so resistant to positive new ideas that students actually care about and so concerned with the possibility of political incorrectness that nothing even has a chance. For example, how do we know that the event I proposed would have an attendance problem if it’s never happened before?
When I sat down with Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Corsilia in the beginning of the school year, I saw the potential to reignite at least some of the fire that I know Greeley used to have. I now know how wrong I was in thinking that. I know that interest in participating in Student Council is in rapid decline and I wouldn't be surprised if next year's group has trouble filling all of the positions, another sign that the administration is failing to provide a meaningful high school experience. People simply don’t want to deal with working hard and formulating new ideas only to be shot down. You are denying leadership opportunities to the next generation of leaders by rendering those who do want to lead utterly ineffective. It has become simply not worth my time either to think of fun creative ways to bring the school community together when I know that there is no chance of any of our ideas actually coming to fruition. I'm tired of being asked, "When are we going to have a school wide event?" or "When is something fun going to happen?" and not having an answer. From this day forward, I am going to tell anyone who asks that the administration won't let it happen. I don't want the students who elected me to think I don't care and haven't been trying mightily to bring this school back to its former greatness.
  I am deeply disappointed in the administration for not recognizing that the Greeley we all love is slipping away because they are afraid of innovation and trying something new. The other members of the Student Council feel the same way and share my disappointment in your decisions. I've spoken to many former Greeley students recently, some who graduated last year, some who graduated ten years ago, and some who were Student Council members themselves, and they are amazed that the Greeley they knew and loved bears no resemblance to the one I am graduating from in just a few months. This school has gone from a place of which I was proud to be President to a place that I can't wait to leave.  If it is your long-term plan to oversee a community of grade-obsessed, one dimensional, disinterested students then continue to do what you are doing. If you want a vibrant, engaged community of students who participate in their education more fully, then you need to reexamine how you interact with us. Less police state and PC paranoia and more positivity would help. Just today, I heard of two new issues that are all of the sudden problems in the eyes of the administration. I’ve been told that the beloved Greeley A Capella groups have to meet with you because the fact that they rehearse off the school campus is a problem. Why? Why do they have to change how they operate if they are successful as they are now? Isn’t this discouraging the independence that you encourage us to develop throughout high school? And now you want to change the traditional trip to Jones Beach for seniors? You have already dismantled quite a few senior traditions. Can you leave just one alone?
I feel compelled to write this as the elected representative of the student body, a position that I will continue to take very seriously until my term is up. I will continue to plan the events that are already on the calendar and I will continue to fulfill my responsibility of addressing the school at the coming assemblies and ultimately graduation, but I promise nothing more. The next time you need someone to represent Greeley, whether it be to a group of students from another country or one new student who will be joining this so-called community next year, find someone else. I don’t feel as if I can lend my time to your causes, if mine are not taken seriously. To summarize, we’ve all had enough of the arbitrary decisions. The Theatre Company just put on a play about sex (and a very good one might I add) without being questioned, and yet a song for the a capella concert was questioned because it included the word bullet and referenced guns. Can you explain that inconsistency? I can't. I wish you an uneventful rest of the school year.

Tim Bloom