BCS Superintendent: Berlin District “Dysfunctional”
by Thaddeus Flint
“This District is dysfunctional,” stated Interim Superintendant Dr. Brian Howard at the June 21 meeting of the School Board. What did he mean by this statement? Well, let us see.
The night started off on a nice note with a celebration of newly tenured and retiring employees. Five employees were given tenure. These were Diana Hanson a kindergarten teacher, Rachel Harrison of the school’s guidance office, instrumental teacher Dan Byron, science teacher Nick Toole and secondary school social studies teacher Bob Gould (correction – Gould added June 28).
Five women are retiring from the District – pre-k teacher Nancy Galvin who has worked with the District since 1981, Jane Halleck who has taught kindergarten for 23 years, Susan Brown a second grade teacher (“She has spent 30 years in rooms full of 8 year olds. Imagine that if you can,” said Berlin Elementary Principal Nancy Colvin) and Debbie Lennon who started teaching sixth grade in 1976. Kathy Fougere who worked with the Guidance Department for over 25 years is also leaving. Colvin wished them all goodbye saying, “Everyday will now be like a snow-day…remember you, we always will.”
Board Member Liz Miller, who is finishing her second and final term with the Board, was also honored. Acting Board President Bev Stewart presented Miller with a small present and thanked her for “doing one of the toughest jobs around,” that is being a volunteer school board member. “I would personally like to thank you,” said Stewart.
“Let’s eat cake!” said Dr. Howard, and the celebration finished in the hallway where teachers, Board members, administrators, friends, family and members of the public enjoyed as one cake and refreshing non-alcoholic beverages. With good-will, laughter and a few tears, there was a sense of real community in the building that night.
But the feeling of camaraderie soon ended and was replaced with what is often the norm at a Berlin School Board meeting – disagreement. An attempt to approve the minutes of previous meetings, usually a routine task, turned into an argument about a statement from the District, read by Liz Miller, accepting blame for problems during the last election where candidates for School Board seats did not have the correct number of signatures on their petitions. Board Member John Nash said he had not been able to read the statement ahead of time. He was “angry that the statement could be read without discussion. I politely disagree,” said Nash, who feels that the law in regard to petitions should have been followed. The statement read by Miller, according to Nash, “was not the position of the entire Board.” Miller and Nash argued about the statement until Board Member Gina Goodermote could take it no longer. “The whole mess was handled poorly,” she said, “but let’s go on.” And on it went.
A resident seeking to send her child to Catholic Central in Troy then took the podium and asked why they were not allowed transportation to Catholic Central from Grafton. She said other students had been provided with busing to that school in the past. Dr. Howard pointed out that while this previously may have been the case, “This Board is adamant about strictly adhering to the limit.” But he agreed to research the matter further and get back to them with more information.
Some students will be taking jet transportation out of the District when they escape, albeit momentarily, to Italy next winter. The Board unanimously agreed to grant permission to the trip’s organizer, Social Studies teacher Bob Gould, for the trip to take place in February 2012. Currently 20 students have signed up with another eight considering the adventure.
District Health and Safety Committee leader Kelly Kaschak addressed the Board with a worrying problem. After some false fire alarms during the school year it was found that the current alarm system in place needs updating. Further investigation into the problem found something interesting – the Berlin High School fire alarm is not networked currently to the 911 emergency service system. Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Cyril Grant confirmed this. “From 11 pm to 6 am, the school is unprotected in case of fire,” he said. This lack of alarm was alarming. In a District with four buildings, two, Grafton Elementary and Stephentown Elementary are ghost schools – sitting empty and unused. Berlin Elementary is falling apart with the exception of the parts that are held up by layers of lead paint. So that the only decent building in the District could conceivably burn down in the middle of the night with nobody to notice was indeed a possible nightmare (added 7/4/11). The Board agreed that an expense of $3,216 for the update of the fire monitoring system at the High School, with an additional yearly expense following of $1,381, would be a worthwhile expenditure in keeping the District’s one valuable property asset from possibly turning into a field of ashes. The Board agreed that an expense of $3,216 for the update of the fire monitoring system at the High School, with an additional yearly expense following of $1,381, would be a worthwhile expenditure.
Kashak also pointed out another safety problem. With more and more students in the District having health problems, it might be prudent to be able to provide bus drivers with information on the specifics of the illnesses of their at-risk passengers. The problem is that under New York State law, the health information of students can only be given out on a “need to know basis.” Currently bus drivers supposedly do not need to know this. Were a student, for example, to go into diabetic shock, the driver would not have any idea as to the cause or how to remedy the situation. The Health and Safety Committee agreed to look into this.
The Board then discussed the finances of the school lunch program. At one time they were told that this was a “money making program,” but it lost around $6,000 this year. This was attributed to rising gas prices. The deficit would be made up from the surplus from previous years when it made money, and a new vendor could be up for bid next year.
Next up was a transfer in funds to repave the high school parking lot. Board Member Alan Webster didn’t seem to find this a good idea. “If it were my house I would wonder if there are more pressing things to do than pave the driveway,” he said alluding to the oil burner failures and the roof leaks and other problems at the leaded Berlin Elementary School. Board Member Frank Zwack pointed out that poor parking would lead to an increase in cleaning costs from dirty feet at the high school. Grant explained that he would much rather tackle the other giant issues with funds that could be aided by the State. A bumpy parking lot could be fixed now with money left over in the current buildings repair budget. Goodermote said, “Since I have been on this Board this is the first time we are taking preemptive measures on maintenance…we have to start somewhere and this is the time to start.” Nash agreed, “This is a step in the right direction,” he said. The transfer was voted on and passed with only Stewart and Webster opposed.
Grant then brought up the $100,000 project to explain how funds could be acquired to fix more pressing needs. Right now the State was stipulating that emergency lighting at the elementary school be mandatory in such a proposal. The rest of the project could go towards the lead problem, the leaky slate roof and the bell tower. This was the same bell tower that was fixed around 10 years ago which strangely started to fall apart not long after the contractor packed up and went home. It was proposed that $100,000 projects, projects which could substantially be reimbursed through State aid, be scheduled yearly. The Board voted unanimously in favor of this idea.
This was the point where Dr. Howard’s “dysfunctional district” statement was stated, in the Superintendent’s report. Dr. Howard, who is supposedly leaving the District at the end of this month, said, “You are a conundrum, and I am trying to figure out what is going on in your district.” Dr. Howard has been here for nine months and possesses not only an experienced eye but the eye of an outsider looking in on problems that some might not notice so easily because they have been so repetitive as to become commonplace, or normal. Howard cautioned the Board on its infighting, its outfighting, its disagreement and its polarized sects of small groups against small groups. “If you want a good school,” he said, “it starts with the Board of Education. Come together,” he said. “Change some of your demeanor.” Speaking to the Board for the 900 students, whom he felt deserved something better from its leaders, he said, “The adults have to get it together…get your act together…its time…they deserve it.”
For a moment the Board seemed a bit chastised. Then the dysfunction started again. Miller read her legislative liaison report. Only, it was not a report on liaisoning with the legislature. It was an attack on the letter written to the Eastwick Press by Acting Board President Stewart in which she had rebutted a letter in that paper’s Letter to the Editor section attacking her (corrected 7/4/11). They argued back and forth. Stewart seemed dismayed at such a reproach from someone she had only a few hours before thanked and given a present for services to the Board. “You just can’t let things go, Liz…we were trying to get along here, and on your last note you had to sit here and read a letter and try and stir things up,” said Stewart. Dr. Howard, sitting between these two Board members was seen momentarily holding his head in his hands.
When that all ended, the Leadership Advisory Committee (LAC) spokesman Atsushi Akera, presented its recent work. The LAC is still working diligently to hold meetings that create drafts of proposals along with suggestions on future proposals in regard to the future “footprint” of the District. They did send out a survey to 120 residents asking what should be done in regard to what this District should look like in the future. They received 12 responses. They would like to send out a postcard mailing asking people to respond to the survey. The postcards would cost around $800. They also suggested placing a notice in the Eastwick Press asking for responses. “Not everyone reads the Eastwick Press,” stated Goodermote, “like me for one.” Zwack asked why not just send out the entire survey to all residents in a District mailing? District Executive Secretary Mary Grant was consulted. A mailing of the survey to all residents would cost around $300 not including paper and copying. It was decided to send the survey, over six thousand pieces of paper, to all residents sometime this summer.
Jim Willis who will take Liz Miller’s Board seat in July then addressed the Board. He noted that the District has a 15% dropout rate. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but that is not good enough.”
The search for a new Superintendent for the District is proceeding apace, but it remains likely that a new Superintendent would not be on the job by July when Dr. Howard had planned to leave. Zwack pointed out that by law the District required a Superintendent. Could Dr. Howard please stay two more weeks? Dr. Howard had the look of a man on an airplane experiencing extreme turbulence. He seemed to be counting the exit doors of the room. He did, however, agree to stay on for two more weeks if necessary. This concluded the meeting.
Were these the signs of dysfunction? Or was this just the normal doings of another all American family existing together in today’s upstate New York world?