I announced on my radio show on WVOX last Friday my intention to file papers this week to run for school board in New Rochelle. Over the weekend I began obtaining the required signatures and getting the necessary paperwork in order. The papers are due Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. but I will likely file sooner than that.
Once I file, I will explain more fully how it came to be that the most vocal critic of the New Rochelle Board of Education and the current administration opted to become a candidate for one of the two open seats but for now let me say that it had been my hope to find a candidate that was not selected by "insiders" and would advance my goals of increased transparency, accountability, equity, and excellence in the New Rochelle system. After looking long and hard and talking to over a dozen prospective candidates, all of whom ultimately opted not to run, it became clear that if no one stepped forward the available board seats would be filled by two candidates hand-picked by current board members with the goal of maintaining the status quo on the board. If all was well in the New Rochelle schools that might be acceptable but all is not well, as has been documented amply on Talk of the Sound over the past several years, and so more of the same is not only not acceptable but also intolerable. I came to realize that I had no choice but to step forward to present New Rochelle residents with a clear alternative to more of the same.
If you are satisfied with ever-increasing taxes then please vote for my opponents.
If you are satisfied with declining test scores and graduation rates then please vote for my opponents.
If you are satisfied with a system that allows criminals to work in our schools and come in direct contact with our children then, by all means, vote for my opponents.
If you are satisfied with classrooms overcrowded with children who do not live in New Rochelle vote for my opponents.
If you are willing to accept school budgets that purposely obfuscate the district's finances, school vehicles being misappropriated for private use, the willy-nilly paying out wages and overtime with no system in place to reliably clock workers in and out during the work day, or students enrolling in our schools from Yonkers, Mount Vernon and the Bronx then you most certainly want to vote for my opponents.
But if you had enough of the waste, fraud, and abuse then vote for me.
If you are not willing to tolerate the continued employment of staff who transmit nude images of students to other employees, who pull down the shades and lock the doors when meeting with young boys, who operate private businesses during the middle of the school day while collecting tens of thousands of dollars a year in overtime pay, then vote me for me.
If you have had enough of a propaganda machine that, like the residents of Lake Wobegon, wants to tell you that "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average," then vote for me.
If you believe that educational excellence is not an end but a process, not something to be "proven" by anecdote but to be strived for through a process of continuous improvement, then vote for me.
If you want to see an end to a two-tiered, North-South divide in our school system, then vote for me.
That is not to say all is unwell.
There are many good things about the New Rochelle school system -- excellent programs, teachers, staff and other employees. The physical buildings are often beautiful and the sports and extra-curricular programs are very good.
My wife is one of those teachers. Two of my older children have graduated from New Rochelle High School and I have two more in the school system now. They have gotten and are getting a good education in New Rochelle. The district is perfectly right to celebrate the achievements of our outstanding students just not to the exclusion of our struggling students.
We hear almost nothing about declining test scores and shockingly low on-time graduations rates and even when we do it is always in the context of explaining them away as aberrations or someone else's fault.
And no matter what anyone wants to claim there is a North-South, two-tier system in our schools; the data on this is blindingly clear and any person who has bought or sold a home in this City knows it.
Perhaps of greatest concern is a culture that would allow a man like Jose Martinez to operate in our schools despite numerous warnings from a wide range of district employees who were repeatedly dismissed and ignored. Over the years I have identified numerous examples of people who should never have been hired and others who should have been terminated and turned over to law enforcement. To allow convicted criminals access to our children is beyond poor, it is grotesque.
The New Rochelle Board of Education today functions on the premise that it should always present a unified, monolithic face to the public; that unanimity in decision-making is cherished above all other values. This approach might make sense if the nine members of the board were running a neighborhood association or a book club. The City School District of New Rochelle is not a book club. The men and women on the school board are trustees with a fiduciary responsibility to oversee the proper management of the largest employer, the largest land owner, the largest taxing entity in New Rochelle then more is required. When you run an organization that takes from residents about $180 million a year, that spends over $225 million a year, that takes in two-thirds of every local tax dollar, then honest, open debate and dialog about the major issues facing the school district is a fundamental obligation of those on the board. That sort of discussion has been almost entirely absent in the 100+ board meetings I have attended over the years. That needs to change. I intend to bring about precisely that change.
As a parent, activist and citizen journalist I have already brought about significant change. When I began Talk of the Sound in 2008, school board decisions occurred in a vacuum, there was no media coverage and the meetings themselves were largely ignored by the public despite the fact that since I attended my first board meeting the district has spent well over a billion dollars of our money. I have pushed hard for changes like putting every meeting on TV, live broadcasts, publishing board resolutions online prior to the board meetings, creating digital audio recordings of meetings. I have exposed the misappropriation of school vehicles which led to a policy of parking vans and trucks by the tennis courts at the high school. I exposed double-dipping by state pensioners, book censorship, no-show jobs, assaults on students, arrests at the high school and much more.
I want to do more. I want biometric time clocks in every building so employees must check and check out, without "buddy punching". I want GPS locators on all district vehicles linked to software that monitors location and movement of every vehicle. I want renewed and proper background checks for current workers as well as new hires. I want a residency audit so that only legal residents can send their children to our schools. I want to apply technology to these issues so that when the board adopts a budget cutting teachers or increasing taxes it can state with conviction that everything that could be done to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse has been done, that we are only paying people for work actually done and only enrolling students who live in New Rochelle.
A number of my critics on the school board would tell residents that my effort to expose problems in the district have hurt the reputation of the school district and are harmful to property values. To them I would ask, what has been worse for the reputation of our schools: two and a half years of Talk of the Sound or one day of the arrest of an Assistant Principal on charges of sexually molesting a student in one of our schools?
For too long the district has placed such a high premium on having good PR that they have been willing to tolerate just about any behavior so long as they can keep it out of the public eye. It is my position that when you adopt that attitude you not only make a Jose Martinez possible but inevitable.
As a reporter, pundit and activist I have had the luxury over the past several years of making my criticism of the district from the outside without having any of the responsibility for making difficult choices. Election by my fellow New Rochelle residents requires more than that. I believe that no one should be elected to public office simply on the basis of pointing out what is wrong. The genesis of my campaign is rooted in understanding first that there are serious problems in our school system, something I have believe has been made abundantly clear and is now widely recognized. The promise of my campaign is that I will come to the board with ideas and solutions to address and move beyond these problems to give New Rochelle something more than the facade of excellence but actual excellence.