In announcing a School Board meeting on January 19th, 2010, the district web site states:
Board of Education Special Meeting
Members of the Board of Education will hold a Special Meeting on Tuesday, January 19 2010, 7:00 P.M. in the Carew Room at the Administration Building, 515 North Avenue, New Rochelle, New York.
7:00 P.M. Special Meeting
I. CALL TO ORDER
II. NEW BUSINESS: INTERVIEWS
The Board anticipates making a motion to go into Executive Session to interview candidates for the position of tax certiorari counsel, during which they expect to discuss legal matters, pending and proposed litigation, and matters leading to the appointment of counsel including, but not limited to matters of prior employment history.
I struck by the line which reads: “...[the board] expect to discuss legal matters, pending and proposed litigation...”
This is not quite the message I received from either the City Administration or the School Board Other concerned citizens indicate that this is not their understanding either.
Perhaps my concerns are ill-founded --- possibly it is merely a poorly written announcement and its purpose is not concerned with pending or proposed litigation. Perhaps it is simply a general discussion around commercial taxpayers whose claims for certiorari relief are of concern to the District. Perhaps the Board wishes to assess the skills of advisory advocates before making a hiring decision. But, I think not; the district seems to be fixated on this as a expense management solution and, as clearly as I can state it, it is not. If if affects residential taxpayers, home or cooperative, it is just an additional, unwarranted behavior. If it affects our rather slim commercial base, it is unmindful of sound business development management.
I hold out the hope that my concerns are unwarranted. A board member responded to my concerns in late November 2009 saying, “it has never been and would never be the school district's intent to go after home owners and recoup money they are legally entitled to.” That leaves commercial enterprises. Even here, considering the tax abatement given to our largest commercial and residential enterprises, one wonders whether the school district has set its sights on multiple dwellings, such as Cooperatives, These are corporations under the New York State Business Corporation Law. Consequently, there is that risk --- defining such residential dwellings as commercial corporations even though the State recently struck down legislation under a Commercial Ratio statute to treat cooperatives as commercial establishments. We must remember that thousands of our friends and neighbors, many elderly, live in cooperative apartments and are homeowners by definition and tax design.
City Administration has also weighed in on this matter in November 2009. The explicit language stated (1) contracting an attorney to offer advice and counsel during certiorari hearings in cases where the projected award might appear to be excessive to the district, (2) that it would have no bearing on residential home owners or already settled awards, (3) the district cannot alter any amount but it can negotiate change during the actual certiorari proceedings. What is most problematic and most troublesome is the lack of clarity in the arrangements between the City and School District and it becomes more worrisome when it is difficult to focus on where the commonality of purpose is in terms of growth and development of both the City and the District. It becomes worse in situations such as certiorari when the lines of responsibility between the Assessor and District are blurred or erased.
What I do not know are the roles, relationships, and responsibilities of the City Assessor, School District Representative, and taxpayer in this process. It almost seems as if the City has abrogated its responsibility in this area perhaps to ignore the core question of the need for a city-wide reassessment. Nothing I have seen in print adds light to this matter; I do not know whether any change in the status quo ante requires referendum approval. Who is responsible for what? Why do we need to add what likely will be substantial additional dollars to our expense base? Don't we have an existing attorney expense line well in excess of six figures? My board respondent indicates we live in ,“extraordinary financial times and as representative of this community we have an obligation to protect all our interests so that we can avoid either high tax increases or the dismantling of our school system.” The law would protect it perhaps as being under “business judgment”, but the law is not concerned with whether that judgment is sound, only within the law. We, the taxpayer, need to carry that burden.
As a member of this community, I find the above language dramatic, inflexible and just wrong. There are many opportunities within the system to effect fiscal restraint and change. The real issue is that schools are sacred cows.. Somehow,change is seen as a personal attack on children. What is not seen or acknowledged is that the system is full of inefficiencies and kowtowing to special interests such as labor unions. It is time to sense the spirit in the air that has led to the people in all parts of this great nation crying, “enough!” Enough taxes, enough bowing to special interests, enough accepting diminished returns on performance while rationalizing that it is caused by a lack of “funding.” Enough on many levels --- it is no accident that in Massachusetts a man called Scott Brown went to the people in a truck emulating the spirit of another man who, over two hundred years earlier, went by horseback. Both men challenged the notion of “taxation without representation even though in today's terms, it is more of a question of willfully keeping taxpayers in the dark as opposed to bringing them into the light.
Today, our demands are less arduous than our forefathers. We want to be part of the process of meaningful change. We require transparency and we deserve clarity and rationale. Executive Sessions are, for the most part, a matter of hiding from the public what it has a right to know. Simple community access and straightforward knowledge of the need for additional public funds to support another legal entity might have been enough. In Washington, open sessions via CNN, as well as avoiding back-room union deals and other expediencies, might have restored trust in the Administration and kept Health Care Reform on track. It seems like keeping the people in the dark has become epidemic and clearly the end result of this willful neglect will work its way into the ballot box in the months and years ahead.
Make no mistake about it, change is in the air. These horrendous economic times are not without consequence. Many of the assertions made by the School District in terms of defending budget and budget rationales don't hold up in the light of day during these difficult times. Neither does the presence of a superintendent who labels budget problems as “unfathomable” and a School Board who neglects their charter responsibility for oversight and policy by accepting administration rationale and hyperbole at face value. This has no more face validity than the union crowing that any changes in a settled contracts benefits scheme is unacceptable given its lessening of wage and salary increases. Shame! – not on the union for making the statement but for the district for accepting this rationale. The board only has to turn its eyes towards the City Administration to see how it dealt with settled contract and how ill thought through and dysfunctional that decision turned out. Worse, it was unnecessary as proper collective bargaining would go a long way to resolving the District's budget issues and the idea that the unions would undertake a strike is remote at best in New York State No child would be harmed and the district would be better advised to challenge unwarranted State mandates and work collaboratively with other districts on pension issues rather than subject the taxpayer to further pain. .
We are the voices crying out for help; the homeowner, the fixed income family, the middle class family putting our hopes and trust in our elected officials. We have been ignored, disappointed, even mislead. We are aware of what has recently taken place in New Jersey, Virginia and now, Massachusetts. We demand and deserve a place, a voice and it must begin with openness, honesty and trust.
In conclusion, many administrators, teachers, and trustees take great pride in defining themselves as “educators.” So let me remind them what Paulo Freire said about dialogue. It is appropriate in this context of the need and, yes moral responsibilities underscoring transparency. He said, “dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person' “depositing” ideas in another.” Any good educator should be able to paraphrase this viewpoint as “the responsibility of teaching is to transmit an idea from the mind of the sender (teacher) to the receiver (student). Board members have a similar requirement – from the mind of the trustee to the taxpayer. In terms of transparency, you have not met this requirement.
Finally, on a personal note, in writing this post, I am breaking my word to my wife and myself that I would continue my involvement in blogging activities. My reasons are my own – I simply wanted to step back and see things more positively light. I sought to do rather than say things.. Yet, weeks later, I find that there are reasons to question my decision, re-examine the importance of this form of communication, challenge my assumptions and, like the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, pick up the lantern and continue the search for an honest man.