Essential questions, empty answers

Voorheesville, by almost any measure, is an excellent school district. It has dedicated teachers and supportive parents, which allows its students to do well — not just on standardized tests but in a myriad of accomplishments outside of the classroom including musical performances, plays, service organizations, and sports.

School leaders are not complacent about just maintaining the status quo but want to forge ahead to do the best they can to serve students. A case in point is last week’s forum to gather ideas on how to level the playing field for female athletes.

Currently the district is spending $91,000 on 197 girls participating in girls-only sports and $130,000 on 230 boys participating in boys-only sports. Our New Scotland reporter Sean Mulkerrin wrote about the disparity that emerged during budget discussions this year and we editorialized in this space that the board should lead the way as educators to be sure that the underrepresented are not overlooked.

While the district appears to be technically compliant with federal Title IX legislation, we were pleased when Superintendent Brian Hunt told Mulkerrin last week that he’s not satisfied with “just compliant.”

“I want to equalize opportunities and make it easier and better for our kids to participate,” Hunt said, “and that’s for our female athletes and our male athletes as well.”

Good for Hunt and good for Voorheesville. The district didn’t bury a problem, but opened discussion to the public in a forum where all could participate in finding solutions.

This is in sharp contrast to the response Mulkerrin got when he repeatedly called and emailed the two school board members seeking re-election, Cindy Monaghan and Michael Canfora. For decades, The Enterprise every spring has interviewed candidates on current issues relevant to their school district.

School board members are, after all, public servants. School taxes are the highest taxes that residents pay and the board members who set the budget owe the taxpayers an explanation of their views on the district’s spending.

But, beyond that, budgets serve as an outline of a district’s priorities — money is spent, in addition to mandated costs, on what elected representatives believe is important. A budget, then, is a blueprint of sorts, underlying what an educational system is built on.

The candidates in the other districts we cover had no difficulty, despite having lives equally as busy as those of Voorheesville candidates, in answering reporters’ questions on issues important to their school communities. We, in turn, have devoted full pages, or more, of our newspaper to their answers.

Why?

Because we believe democracy depends on a well-informed public.

In Berne-Knox-Westerlo, a cynic could argue that of course the candidates would answer our questions since the race is hotly contested. But even in years when there has been no contest, the BKW candidates have answered our questions.

This year, the school board election in Guilderland is uncontested — four candidates for four posts. Yet each candidate carved out the time to give thoughtful and honest answers to our reporter’s questions.  This lets constituents know not just where their elected representatives stand on important issues — standardized testing or school security, for example — but can serve as a starting place for dialogue that will move a community forward.

So we were woefully disappointed when the two Voorheesville candidates, both incumbents in an uncontested election, did not respond for weeks to repeated emails and calls from Mulkerrin. Finally, he agreed to email his questions — although an unrehearsed dialogue is a better way to get at the truth.

What finally came back from the candidates did not the questions. Both of them gave biographical information about their careers and their families and their volunteer activities.

We’ve printed the questions Mulkerrin asked them alongside the story with their responses. But the public has no way of knowing if the candidates think there’s a problem with girls’ sports and what should be done about it, if they think every student needs to go to college, if they believe Robert Baron was unfairly pushed out of his coaching job and what should be done about his lawsuit, what if anything should be done about the disparity between school grades and state-test grades, if they think a school resource officer is needed for security — and more.

The public servants did not serve the public in this case. Voorheesville is better that that.

One of the initiatives Cindy Monaghan writes that she wants to see through is increasing communication and transparency.

“One of my goals,” writes Michael Canfora, “is to help the school community better understand the role of the board of education in the district.”

A good way to increase communication and transparency as well as to help the community better understand the role of the school board in the district would be to spend 20 minutes or half-an-hour once every few years, when seeking office, answering questions from a reporter who will record those responses so that thousands of people in the community can read them.

Why be “just compliant” when you have a chance to excel? Why not bring the community along with you by candidly sharing the challenges you face as a school board member, your plans for the best course of action on a series of issues that districts across the country are wrestling with, and your hopes and even dreams for the district you work so hard to serve?

 

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