Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is PCS headed the way of Canton Central?

Since Canton Central is on the cusp of insolvency, can Potsdam Central be far behind? Both school districts are approximately the same size with similar budgets. Both are designated as "average needs" districts. Both have two colleges/universities. Both towns have about the same population.

"More than 40 percent of NY school superintendents say they will be unable to balance their budgets within four years if obligations and income continue on the current path, and even more say they won't be able to beep up with student instruction and services mandates." See:

According to the New York State Education Department (NYSED), there are four options for districts facing insolvency.

  1. Takeover: NY State Education Department takeover of the school district
  2. Bailout: NYSED could give extra state aid in the current year to meet operational needs.
  3. Advance on Future State Aid: NYSED could advance the school district aid due to them from future years
  4. Deficit Financing: The school district could borrow money for on-going operational expenses.
NYS's billion dollar budget deficit will continue to be a challenge for school districts. While "Gov Cuomo this year increased the state's spending for its 700 school districts by 4% or $805 million after three years of funding cuts or flat funding." those cuts and flat funding have had an inordinate impact on rural schools like Potsdam. 

It was reported by PCSD officials that health insurance and workers' compensation insurance will be going up next year by approximately $500,000. The NYS Comptroller has told school districts that they will have to pay much more to fund the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) next year. In Potsdam and this could amount to a $337K increase. The ERS (Employee Retirement System) cost to the district will also increase.  Contractual raises will amount to another significant expenditure. It looks like increased spending for next year will be well over a million dollars.

Last night,  financial expert Dr. Rick Timbs, speaking at the BOCES in Canton, reported that most schools in this region will be unable to meet their financial obligations within four years.

It is time for hard decisions to be made and for the public to make its voice heard.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Are students historically illiterate?

Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough was asked to name five lessons American students need to learn about history before they graduate from high school.

McCullough said it changed his life when one of his history teachers in college told the class they were not responsible for dates or quotes because that is what books are for. The class, instead, was told to learn about what happened and why.

McCullough went on to say that history should be taught:
  • through the teaching of music, drama, art, architecture, and the like
  • by using a laboratory technique (trips to museums, historic sites, gathering information about buildings, statues,  etc.)
  • by using source documents  
Most compellingly, McCullough said the teaching of history should not be boring with the primary strategies for instruction being reading history books at home and listening to teacher lecturing in school.

In a recent 60 Minutes segment, he said that American students are, for the most part, historically illiterate. Furthermore, he said, "I don't feel any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, and know something..."

American philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The future of AAK

Twice in the last year, the BOE has directed the superintendent to look into major changes at AAK. Early this year, Board members told Mr. Brady to examine the savings that would ensue if AAK were to be closed. Recently, the BOE told the superintendent to report to them about the feasibility of moving 7th and 8th grade to the high school.

What would occur if AAK were go be closed? The public is left wondering what kind of long-range planning is going on. Is the superintendent still preparing the report that was asked of him last March? What savings would be realized? What could be done with the building? Educationally speaking, what would be the impact on students?

A few months ago, the BOE asked for another report about the pros and cons of moving 7th and 8th to the high school. Enrollment has declined over the last two decades so there may be room at the HS to absorb 7th and 8th. How would this move benefit students? Employees? Taxpayers?

It's impossible to discuss moving 7th and 8th to the HS without also discussing what that move would mean for 5th and 6th grades. Would there be benefits to moving 5th & 6th to Lawrence Ave.? It wouldn't make fiscal sense to operate AAK just for 5th and 6th. Also, the middle school model would effectively end if 7th and 8th were not at AAK.

Fiscal constraints could, and likely will, drive any decisions about major changes at AAK.While the superintendent needs some time to prepare his report(s) to the BOE,  it would be helpful for the public to hear a detailed discussion from the Board about why its members are asking for reports that could have a very significant impact on the future of AAK.

Monday, November 19, 2012

PCS Capital Project: Yes or No?

The voters in the PCSD are being asked to approve an $18 million capital project. There are many reasons why the public should consider supporting this project:

  •  What needs to be fixed? The infrastructure needs significant improvement: roofing, window replacement, lighting update, fire alarm system, and much more.
  • How will the project be paid for?
  1. Because the PCSD is not wealthy, NYS will pay for 86% of the project.
  2. The local taxpayers will have to cover 14% of the project or $2.5 million.This $2.5M will be covered by using $885,000 that the district saved to fund capital projects. The remainder will be covered by monies that are currently going to pay other debts. These debts will end just as the new debt will begin.
  •  How will this affect taxes? There will be no additional tax impact (because one debt will be      replaced with another). Some will argue that their taxes would go down if debts ended and no new debts were incurred. While this is true, the work is needed. There are no "wants" in the project...just "needs."
  • INTERVIEW*: The superintendent explains the project in a brief and informative interview...see:
  • TOUR: Nov. 26th  Lawrence  Ave. Elementary 6 PM...Tour the buildings and see what needs to be renovated or replaced.
  • PUBLIC MEETING: Dec. 3rd  HS Library 7 PM...Discuss the project with the BOE and Supt.
  • VOTE: On 12/12/12 the public can vote on the project from 6 AM to 9 PM in the high school auditorium.
* The interview was made possible by North Country Matters, the local video news magazine produced by WCKN under the direction of Dan Dullea of the Center for Excellence in Communication at Clarkson University and by Donna Seymour from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and Kathleen Stein from the League of Women Voters (LWV).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do we want compliant students?

     Should schools place a high priority on fostering compliance among students? Compliant means yielding - especially in a submissive way. It means being a conformist. It means making no waves or as few as possible.
    Compliance was a well-suited characteristic for the industrial era when monotonous assembly line work favored the compliant and the submissive. Schools helped set the stage. Teachers lectured while students, for the most part, passively took notes. This outdated model of teaching (and preparing students for the workforce) is even called the factory model. Robert Freeman, author of "Competing Models for Public Education," states that it was so often teachers that saved students from the de-humanizing process of the factory model of education.
    As I see it, teachers themselves are now dealing with forces that are intent on de-humanizing them. For instance, proponents of the new teacher evaluation process in NYS (APPR) have forced teachers to  place mandated standardized tests high on their priority list (if not at the top). They have foisted on students an astonishing number of high-stakes, high-stress tests. Teachers know that what is valued now is student results on these tests - for that is how they (the teachers) will be judged/evaluated by their bosses.
    Should schools place a high priority on compliance? I hope teachers are not compliant about what bureaucrats have foisted on them vis-a-vis APPR. I hope parents are not compliant in accepting such broad and deep testing. I hope students know that compliance is a double-edged sword - it can  help students win the approval of a certain type of teacher or boss but it can hurt students at a time they are supposed to be learning how to stand up for their beliefs and convictions.
     We are past the Industrial Age and have moved to the Information Age. Students need to work and learn collaboratively. They need to be creative and think outside the box. They need to question what they are told. They need to debate. They need to be active learners in a class - not passive receptors. They need to be more facile at finding information than memorizing "facts" because in our Information Age, what is a fact today may not be a fact tomorrow.
     What traits should be fostered by schools? Thomas Jefferson said, "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock." And let's hope that students know that when it's time to stand like a rock, they should not yield, should not be submissive, and should not be compliant.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

BOE Conflicts of Interest?

A Potsdam resident asked me to respond to the following "Sound Off" comments that were recently included in North Country Now.

Potsdam Board of Education conflicts

Friday, November 9, 2012 - 1:48 pm
On a board of education, should it not be considered a “conflict of interest” when the board members have a daughter, wife or other relative working at the school? Does this not open up the school to be run by a dictatorship? If the board members are afraid of their loved one being harassed or losing their job, they may not stand up to a corrupt administration.

My Response:
  1. Unfortunately, according to NY General Municipal Law and NYS Education Law, it is not a conflict of interest to serve on a board of education if one has a spouse or dependents in one of the unions in the school district. However, anyone with common sense can see that this law needs to change.
  2. These are some thought-provoking questions about having spouses serve on Boards of Education:
  • Should it become, by law, a conflict of interest? Yes. 
  • Does it compromise the decision making ability of such Board members? Yes. Definitely.
  • Does it give the Board's only employee, the superintendent, undue influence over such Board members? Yes.
  • Conversely, does it give the employee (whose spouse is on the BOE) undue influence over the superintendent? Yes. Several years ago, such a spousal employee made a request of her principal. It was refused by the superintendent. This employee complained to her BOE husband, who leaned on the BOE president, who leaned on the superintendent of schools, who then, reluctantly, reversed himself on the decision. This is but one example of how the presence of an employee's spouse on the Board creates special favors for the employee and undermines the authority of the superintendent. 
  • Does it compromise the Board's ability to negotiate contracts? Yes. PCS board members, who have spouses in one of the district's unions, will personally receive contract benefits. How can they negotiate on behalf of the public's interest when they will benefit from acquiescing to union demands at the negotiations' table? 
  • Why is this legal? Politics. 
  • What can be done about it? Lobby politicians to make it a conflict of interest to serve on  Boards of Education if one's spouse or dependent family member is in one of the unions in the school district.
     My thoughts are backed up by others. For instance, Ted Biondo blogged about the issue of whether being on a BOE and having a spouse as a teacher in the school district constitutes a conflict of interest. He wrote:

     "Many would believe that if this relationship is not a conflict of interest, what is? What actions should the board member take when issues such as salary negotiations and payroll, that benefit both the spouse and the board member’s income, come before the board for action?

     Even if the board member abstains from the vote on issues that directly benefit them monetarily, one would believe that the member must also refrain from deliberations with other board members that might influence their vote. In abstaining is that board member adequately representing their subdistricts on issues that might affect those constituents, such as reduction in programs versus union concessions to reduce deficits?

     The Illinois Education Association’s opinion is that members of the board of education in the state of Illinois are considered to have a conflict of interest in the position of board member, only when their spouse is directly impacted as an individual, not when it affects all the members of the union, such as across the board raises or benefits, even if the board member has pecuniary interest in the outcome.

     An investigation of Attorneys General opinion in the state of Illinois on this issue reveals that on April 30, 1976 William J. Scott, Attorney General’s opinion was that, 'considering then whether the board member has a conflict of interest, I am of the opinion that he does, and have advised in other contexts that the interest of one’s spouse may be attributed to one’s self and be a prohibited interest.'
'There is a natural and probable sharing of assets between spouses. This probability of sharing is sufficient to create a conflict of interest in this situation.'"

     In NYS a BOE member's pecuniary interest in the salary and benefits of his/her spouse (who is a member of a union in the self-same school district) is not considered a conflict of interest. Is it in the interest of the public to change the law? Absolutely, but don't hold your breath waiting for the right thing to happen.


For additional information see the NYS Education Dept. website at:


Inherent in a trustee’s/board member’s fiduciary duty of loyalty is the responsibility to avoid nepotism in hiring, purchasing and other institutional decisions.  Care must be taken at all times to ensure that family and/or personal relationships do not inappropriately influence a trustee’s/board member’s decision-making.  Any decisions that are based on personal/family influence rather than the best interests of the institution constitute a breach of fiduciary duty and may result in a trustee’s/board member’s removal from the board.  Institutions should adopt and enforce policies prohibiting impermissible nepotism in hiring and other institutional business including provisions for disclosure of such interests and recusal from voting.  In the case of school districts, BOCES, and public libraries such policies must be consistent with the provisions in the General Municipal Law, which permit a trustee/board member to vote on employment contracts for spouses, minor children and dependents, and the Education Law which requires a 2/3 vote of a board of education to employ a teacher who is related to a board member by blood or marriage.  To ensure legal consistency, anti-nepotism policies and provisions should be reviewed and discussed with the institution’s attorneys and auditors prior to adoption.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Potsdam Central's Capital Project: Learn About It

The following press release was made public by Donna Seymour from the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

North Country Matters, the local video news magazine produced by WCKN under the direction of Dan Dullea of the Center for Excellence in Communication at Clarkson University, will air its latest show on Mon., Nov. 12 and Tues., Nov. 13 at 7:30 pm, following Peak Moment TV. This edition looks at the proposed Potsdam Central capital improvement project. WCKN is available at Time Warner Cable Channel 30.

The Potsdam Central School Board of Education is proposing to send an $18 million Capital Improvement Project to the voters on Dec. 12. Patrick Brady, Superintendent of Schools for Potsdam Central, sat down in the WCKN studios to talk about the scope of the project. With him were two members of the St. Lawrence County Branch of the American Association of University Women, Ann Carvill, a former Potsdam Board of Education member, and Donna Seymour.

This proposal involves work at all three schools and the district’s bus garage to make safety, energy and equipment upgrades to infrastructure, including some large ticket items like roof replacement and repairs to all district buildings.

In addition to this North Country Matters video, district residents can learn more by visiting the district’s website for an overview of the project at

There will also be building tours for the public on Mon., Nov. 26 and an informational meeting in the High School Library on Mon., Dec. 3. The public referendum vote will take place on Wed., Dec. 12.

Once the show has premiered on WCKN, it will be available on YouTube at
 Check the websites for AAUW-St. Lawrence County and the League of Women Voters of St. Lawrence County for specific program links. As a service to local residents, the broadcast will repeat on each Monday and Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm through the week of the vote on Dec. 12.

The North Country Matters civic partners working to educate North Country residents about critical public policy issues facing our region include AAUW-St. Lawrence County, the League of Women Voters of St. Lawrence County, and Clarkson Media and Mass Communication students who provide the technical expertise for the productions.