Friday, September 24, 2004

9/26 Update: When I got to Samsonville on Friday night, I read the Olive Press, and discovered that the town clerk (isn't she great?) had put in an ad with all the school board members' contact information (this wasn't available on the school website). So, I sent this to the entire board.

Today, I sent this letter to the Governor, Commissioner of Education, Chancellor of the Board of Regents, three senators, three assembly members, the school board president, and the local paper:

I am writing to you to about my concerns over the “large parcel law” that was passed last year by the State Legislature. I realize this is a long letter and I appreciate the time you or more likely, your staff members are devoting to reading it.

How ironic that a reservoir picture appears on the school's homepage. [The italics sentence was only in the letter to the school board president.] When the large parcel bill was passed, we learned that the new law would include NYC reservoirs, and if the school district decided to adopt it, it would cause a huge increase in taxes in the Town of Olive, the town that contains most of the Ashokan Reservoir lands. Olive is in Ulster County, and is a member of the Onteora School District, along with the Towns of Woodstock, Shandaken, Hurley, and small parts of Lexington and Marbletown.

The School Board conducted a couple of public hearings that were well-attended; the majority of folks in attendance, besides elected officials from the various towns, were from the Town of Olive, and of course all were opposed to adopting the large parcel bill. However, the school board decided to adopt the bill this year, and when the school tax invoices arrived, Olive residents were hit with a 56% increase. To someone who attended those meetings, is a graduate of Onteora High School and has roots that go back to 1790 in the Town of Olive, it comes as no surprise that the school board adopted the large parcel provision. It was clear from the demeanor of the board at the public hearings that their minds were made up, the public hearing were for show only. It seemed to me they regarded the Olive residents who attended the hearings as ignorant, non-elite, and rather scary. At the same time, they believed the large parcel somehow corrects “inequity” between the towns – oddly, given the situation, between expensive, erudite Woodstock and cheap, low brow Olive.

I am an education professor, and these issues are not unfamiliar to me. Equity is much in fashion in education circles. Rumor has it that NYC and the problems of school aid equity created most of the State budget delay. It is a term bantered around when discussing resource distributions between suburbs, cities and rural areas; upstate and downstate; poor schools and rich schools; the list goes on and on. I always wonder when I hear these discussions how far one should push the concept. It is nice in idealistic terms to strive toward equity -- all in the education field see it as a worthy goal -- though it is somewhat hard to achieve in a capitalist society – but does it extend to equity from student to student within the school? Does Olive have fair representation on the athletics teams? Are Olive kids equally represented in advanced classes? On the cheerleading squad? On grading distributions? On receiving graduation awards? I’m only going from anecdotal evidence – I guess if I FOILED I could find out for sure (I suspect the Board will never voluntarily give out the data) -- but from my experience, the answer is “probably not.”

Olive is my hometown, and nearly all of my family lives there, and has lived there, for generations. For 100 years Olive has given water to New York City. Our ancestral lands were stolen from us to make way for the Ashokan Reservoir. Today, we live with that beautiful artificial lake; it is both a blessing and a curse. First, we still mourn, in vivid memories passed down from generation to generation, the loss of our lands and the decimation of our history. It is the breathtaking and bittersweet watery grave of our past. Second, there has been less development in Olive than there might have been had the Esopus Valley been left alone, to take its natural course of growth. To be sure, we enjoy the pristine environment that the Reservoir and its land restrictions have protected. At the same time, this has prohibited much business from locating in the town, and although the Reservoir has created some employment, it has taken away many more jobs. As a result there is not as big a tax base as our neighbors have. Third, we confront, on a daily basis, closed roads and detours, because of threats to the watershed in the aftermath of 9/11/01.

These inconveniences are hardly a new thing. Never a morning person, I still remember the long detour of my high school bus that happened more than 25 years ago. That time it was for a more benign reason than terrorism, though it was still a dangerous situation. The Traver Hollow Bridge on NYC's Route 28A, which links the hamlets of West Shokan and Boiceville, had to be closed because pieces were falling off, something that was discovered after a school bus went over it. My three mile trip transformed into 20 miles. Several times our bus was sent back home, because we left West Shokan so early, and arrived at the school after the determination was made to close due to snow. New York City was in dire financial circumstances at that time, so once again no one in power cared about the rural folks in the Town of Olive. It took three years and a lawsuit by local community members before the bridge was rebuilt and my short bus ride was restored.

I have a house in Samsonville in the Town of Olive, built on land my parents gave me. It is a weekend residence, as I must live in the Capital District to find appropriate professional employment. Obviously, I am a fortunate person, and the absurd tax increase will not bankrupt me, although I still must dip into hard-earned savings to pay for it (and with the recent increase, my school tax bill for Onteora is now more than three times as large as in Castleton, where I'm proud to say my district is Schodack Central Schools in Rensselaer County). But I know many Olive residents who are not weekenders like me (albeit a hometown weekender). They may not be writing to you as I am, but I want to be their voice. There are senior citizens on fixed incomes. There are couples with mediocre jobs struggling to raise families. There are old timers who are land rich but cash poor who face astronomical tax increases. Why should they have to move entirely or sell some of their land to developers (and non-native weekenders) to pay for the outrageous school taxes? Is not intact land in rural areas something worth preserving? Don't local people deserve to stay in their hometown? Do Town of Olive residents have to take another indignity because they are host to a NYC reservoir? Why does the biggest beneficiary, Woodstock, or any of the other towns deserve to benefit from having the reservoir in the district? What have residents of their towns given up as a result of its presence? What was the legislature thinking when they passed this unfair law, and allowed a biased school board to make this important decision?

I have not addressed the other issue, which is not really related but adds to the indignity of this enormous tax increase. In 2001-02, on average OCS spent 23% more per student than did all NYS public schools ($15,090 to $12,265). In 2002-03, an article in the Kingston Daily Freeman reports that OCS spent $15,538.15 per student. District Business Administrator Snyder is quoted: "We are the second largest geographic school district in the state and you have neighborhood schools, which means they are spread out." He doesn't directly state that as being the cause of the high costs, but the article follows his statement by reporting that Onteora's costs for transportation are $1,090 per student, which is the highest in the county. Even in the unlikely event that OCS has transportation costs of $1,090 and other districts have a cost of zero, that still leaves more than half of the difference in expenditure unexplained.

For help the article turns to School Board Trustee Eisenberg. He is quoted: "I actually like where we're spending our money as opposed to where we're not spending our money. We [sic] much heavier on the instruction." So then I guess he is saying the higher costs are not from transportation? Let's return to the data. In 2002-03, according to NYS Education Department School Report Cards, per student instructional costs at OCS were $8,068 for general education and $24,906 for special education, compared to $6,649 and $15,575 at similar schools, or $6,968 and $15,712 at all public schools in NYS.

How about at three Ulster County peers? At New Paltz, they were $6,801 and $16,274; at Rondout Valley, they were $7,171 and $17,547; and at Saugerties, they were $5,945 and $15,816. So, yes, instructional costs are higher. (Duh.) But why? Is OCS better than the peers? Better than NYS Education Department-defined similar schools? Better than all public schools in NYS? Or even somehow different?

I looked quickly through comparison data to see if any numbers jumped out at me. OCS has a limited English proficiency population that is 1% of the students. This compares to .8% at Rondout Valley, 1.7% at New Paltz, .5% at Saugerties (statewide, 6.8% of students are LEP). OCS has a free-lunch eligible population of 14.4%, compared to 11.4% at Rondout Valley, 13% at New Paltz, or 13.4% at Saugerties (statewide the figure is 37.7%).

The attendance rate at OCS is 93.3%; it is 93.4% at Rondout Valley, 94% at New Paltz, or 94.5 at Saugerties (statewide: 92.3). The suspension rate at OCS is 1.7%; at Rondout Valley it is 8.4%; at New Paltz it is 6%; at Saugerties it is 3.9 percent; and statewide it is 4.7%. At OCS, 3.7% of students dropped out of school; at Rondout Valley 4% did; at New Paltz it was 1.8%; at Saugerties it was 5.4%; statewide it was 7.3%. The proportion of students classified as having disabilities was 14.6% at OCS, 11.8% statewide, 16.3% at Rondout Valley, 13.9% at New Paltz, and 9.8% at Saugerties.

Tentative conclusions I would draw from these proportions are that students at OCS and the peers are not as needy - they are much less likely to not be proficient in English, or to be economically disadvantaged, and so eligible for a free lunch, than students statewide. Also, OCS is less likely to suspend a student, and Rondout Valley and New Paltz are more likely to suspend a student than schools statewide. (Whether this is because all the students at OCS are angels or because the school tolerates inappropriate behavior is not answered by the data.)

Regardless, these numbers do not answer what might be driving the higher instructional costs. Here is another data category: in terms of a breakdown of staff, OCS had 352: 60% are teachers (211), 9% are non-teaching professionals (34) and 31% (110) paraprofessionals. For Rondout Valley, the total is 340; 64% teachers (217); 11% non-teaching professionals (36) and 87 paraprofessionals (26%). For New Paltz, the total is 261; 67% teachers (174); 11% non-teaching professionals (29) and 22% paraprofessionals (58). For Saugerties, the total is 306; 70% teachers (215); 7% non-teaching professionals (20) and 23% paraprofessionals (71). Statewide, there were 217,739 teachers (64%); 40,823 non-teaching professionals (12%); and 84,072 paraprofessionals (25%).

Assuming that paraprofessionals mean teacher's aides, a part of those higher instructional costs are coming from the larger proportion of "paraprofessionals" at OCS than at the peers or statewide. Which, I guess, is explained in this quote from the article: "Trustees also said special education costs, at $2,590 per student, include work that provides assistance in regular classrooms as part of long-term planning in the district." The problem with this quote is that the number $2,590 is wrong, by a lot. It is probably just an editing error, but who knows. The actual figure for special education costs, per student, was $24,906 in 2001-02.

Then Pupil Personnel Director Boyce is quoted: "The consultant teachers and teaching assistants offer support to the students without disabilities. They maintain a high level of instruction." No facts are given in the article to support the district's and Ms. Boyce's assertions, and unfortunately, I have only anecdotal evidence with which to evaluate the information. But, based on conversations with regular education students in the school, and also from my educational background, I think this is stretching the truth. Sure, having one or two or a few extra adults in the classroom probably helps the teacher, that's a no brainer. But how much regular education students actually get out of aides that are hired to help students with disabilities is debatable.

And, sadly, how this justifies OCS spending $9,331 per student more on special education than at similar schools in the state remains unanswered. Simply put, this is a very out-of-touch school board and administration. The district dealt with two divisive issues recently: closing the West Hurley Elementary School and the large parcel law, given those decisions and these figures, is it any wonder that the school budget was voted down twice this year, and one incumbent board member was resoundingly defeated?

I attended town meetings, and I apprehensively watched the events as they unfolded in the newspaper. I cannot register my disapproval by voting on the OCS budget or in the school board election, since my legal residence is Castleton (is that taxation without representation?), but I am not willing to sit by and watch while Olive's land is stolen once again. No one has the right to take money from the pockets of Olive residents and call it redistribution or equity. In my world that's called theft, and by any definition it is a crime. I am left with no choice but to refuse to pay my Onteora school tax bill this year.


Gina Giuliano, PhD
37 Green Avenue
Castleton, NY 12033
20 Jomar Lane
Olive Bridge, NY 12461

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