From left, Lake Placid School Board candidates Joan Hallett Valentine, Patricia Gallagher, Martha Stahl and Mary Dietrich at a recent candidates’ forum.
Lake Placid School Board candidates Mary Dietrich, Patti Gallagher, Joan Hallett Valentine, and Martha Stahl attended a candidate’s forum at Lake Placid Elementary School on May 3.
About a dozen other people, the majority of whom are teachers, joined the candidates for a wide-ranging conversation.
The teachers were wary of the reporter present, repeatedly asking to go off the record and indicating that they would prefer their comments to be unattributed.
“I like my job,” one explained.
Dietrich, Gallagher, Hallett Valentine and Stahl are all seeking one of the three available school board seats. Current board members Cathy Johnston and Jill Cardinale Seeger are not seeking re-election, and Hallett Valentine is presently serving on the board.
The school board election will be held on May 15. The vote on the school budget will be held the same day.
The teachers at the forum expressed strong disapproval of the elimination of an elementary school classroom teacher’s job, which is part of the proposed budget.
They also questioned the information the school’s administration provides to the board, saying the board needs to become more active in fact-checking data and more proactive in communicating directly with teachers and observing day-to-day school activities.
Gallagher said that it is important for the board to establish regular visits to the schools and to communicate directly with teachers. She agreed that too often the school board has been provided with incorrect or unspecific information.
“There are three seats up (for election),” Gallagher commented at one point. “No matter what, there’s going to be a significant change to the board.”
Teachers: Tech spending is off-base
The teachers also discussed their concerns about the school’s technology spending, expressing reservations about both the amount allocated and about the way that money is spent. They said money is being spent on little-used machines while teachers are being laid off.
The proposed budget includes $100,000 for “computer assisted instructional equipment,” $136,165 for “computer assisted instructional salaries” and $146,800 for ”computer assisted instructional BOCES.”
“It just feels like it’s become teachers vs. technology,” one said. “There’s this technology push, and they’re letting go of teachers. This push for technology is so huge, but teacher support and small class size seems to be on the back burner. They need to work together.”
“The move to distance learning and computer learning, while I see the value in that, I don’t think that the majority of kids learn effectively in that way,” said Dietrich, who worked for decades as a teacher in Lake Placid’s elementary and high schools.
“The S.A.T. prep software program in the guidance office, I don’t know that it’s been utilized at all,” Dietrich said. “It’s very underutilized, and the kids that will use that kind of thing independently are the ones that will do well on the S.A.T.s anyway. The ones that would really benefit from it aren’t that great at independent study. If they have somebody with them to help explain things, it’s much more effective. We have to keep that balance in mind: Students learn best with that personal touch.”
“I already have an interactive board,” one teacher said. “I’m being told that I also have to have a ‘smart board,’ now, which is basically the same thing. I already have an interactive board! Do I need that? No. That’s $1,500 I don’t need spent.”
Hallett Valentine said that the school board actually whittled down spending on technology and that “the money that was left in was only to bring the infrastructure up to par.”
Dietrich quickly responded to that statement.
“The systems have about a 10-year lifespan,” she said. “So, some of the systems, we were at that limit and everybody knew they needed to be replaced, but for the statement to be made over, and over, and over, that ‘the school system’s equipment was outdated and we are 10 years behind’ is completely misleading. We’ve been cutting edge. If you talk to parents and teachers in other schools, they can’t believe what we have. To say that we’re 10 years behind is a falsehood, plain and simple.”
Dietrich said she wants to see detailed plans for how technology will be used.
Hallett Valentine said she has asked for more detailed information about technology spending and planning, and that those documents have not been provided to the board by the administration.
Administration’s facts disputed
“We are told that we lost a classroom teacher because of financial constraints,” one teacher commented. “To me, that would be the very last (thing to cut). What is the justification? We know the teacher that’s going to be lost is at the bottom of the pay scale — it’s not a huge amount of money. How can it be justified to take a teacher out of the classroom and not look at alternative ways of saving money?”
Hallett Valentine responded to the question.
“As it was presented to us,” the school board member said, “there were 38 kids in this class,” taught by three teachers.
“Two teachers can handle 38 kids,” she said, but added, “You’re right: It didn’t save a huge amount of money. I said, ‘We can’t find $30,000?’ and I was basically outvoted on that. I’m just one person on the group that brings the final budget out.”
Teachers replied that the number of students currently in first grade at the school is actually 44.
“I can go get the list,” one commented, adding that budget documents publically disseminated underestimate enrollment by 20 to 30 students.
“We’re frustrated, because we feel like nobody’s doing the research,” she said. “Clearly there are discrepancies here.”
Reached by phone after the meeting, Stahl said that the disagreement over numbers points to either “a factual or a communications problem.”
“It’s troubling,” she said. “That’s a process that whoever is elected is going to need to look at, because the board can’t make decisions unless they’re based on facts. he administration needs to be doing its due diligence. I think it falls on the administration to make sure that those facts are correct. I think a lot of people in the room were upset to hear that, and I know several people, myself included, were surprised by that.”
Candidates: Restrict Richards’ influence
Richards has admitted to using the term “bitch” or “bitchy” in reference to teachers at the elementary school, and inevitably, the question of whether the school board should remove Richards from his post was a topic of conversation at the forum.
“If we have to live with him for a year, and I’m not convinced that we have to be, then I think that the board has to find ways to restrict his influence,” Dietrich said.
“That would be a big relief to us,” one teacher responded. “Those words are still ringing loud and clear and they just put us all down, right where women belong.”
Reached by phone after the meeting, Gallagher said she agrees with Dietrich about the superintendent.
“The decisions that he’s made over the past year-and-a-half have not benefited the students, and I’ve written about that and said it,” Gallagher said. “And it’s a choice by a school board to make the superintendent the chief financial officer. Three months into the school budget year he’d overspent the budget by $50,000.”
Gallagher agreed that technology spending at the schools is excessive and that detailed plans for how money will be spent need to be provided to the board.
“Five LCD monitors, $2000 each, were purchased,” Gallagher continued. “Two are in the elementary school, two are in the high school and one is in the administrative building. That purchase was made without board approval. There was no plan as to implementation and how it would benefit an educational program.”
“The school board supports the teachers, and not what happened,” said Hallett Valentine. “I don’t support the superintendent and what happened. All of a sudden the school board was put in the same category as the superintendent. It’s very frustrating. My views are the same as yours.”
Stahl said that her opinion of the superintendent is “based on his reaction as things have happened.”
“Dr. Richards had a chance to react to what’s going on in a positive way, and I haven’t seen that,” Stahl said.
“I haven’t seen him come forward and talk openly about what’s going on and apologize, not only to the faculty, but the students and the taxpayers and the whole community. If he had stepped up and said, ‘This is a really difficult time and I want to work with you,’ that would have been one thing, but that’s not the reaction that we’ve seen. It’s hard for a lot of taxpayers to trust that he knows the best decisions to make, because people feel he hasn’t made good decisions in this situation.”
“I honestly doubt that he is going to have the ability to repair that relationship with the taxpayers and the board and the faculty,” Stahl added.
“To some extent he is not able to perform his duties because of what’s gone on. He’s not able to have the impact that he should be having. He has limited his effectiveness. The board needs to look at that and really look at what their options are,” said Stahl, a resident of Wilmington.
“The other thing that I hope doesn’t get lost is that, if (former principal) Katherine Mulderig needed to go, his behavior made it harder and more expensive,” Dietrich commented after the forum.
Forum: Trim BOCES, admin. spending
There seemed to be broad agreement at the meeting that Lake Placid’s school district spends too heavily on administrative salaries and on BOCES.
“Outsourcing to BOCES, that direction is wrong,” Dietrich said. “I don’t think anybody would argue that the value we’ve received from the BOCES technology this year has been A1.”
The teachers and candidates said that the board should look to trim administrative spending as much as possible.
The idea of sharing administrative services between school districts appears to be gaining traction locally.
Stahl said she is inclined to look favorably upon that idea.