It’s not clear the BKW engine is on the right track for the rest of us who pay the bills

To the Editor:

Trying to get my mind around the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board election, I thought of novelist Ellen Glasgow writing, in “The Voice of the People,” “I ain’t never seen no head so level that it could bear the lettin’ in of politics. It makes a fool of a man and a worse of a fool of a fool. The government’s like a mule, it’s slow and it’s sure; and it’s sure to turn the way you don’t want it.”

Not knowing  Randy Bashwinger well — we met briefly when he came to our door campaigning — nor Lillian Sisson-Chrysler at all, my wife and I can only look at this race through the lens of The Altamont Enterprise, passing conversations at the post-office foyer, and some internet searches.

The letters of endorsement in The Enterprise for both candidates are not that informative — they are more balloons of happy-talk generalities, untethered and ungrounded by much in the way of hard facts, lists of accomplishments, or specific strategies and agendas for BKW’s coming years.

If not, what criteria makes sense for choosing between the two?  

Where is the current school leadership taking us? Take finances and taxes: Over the past 14 years, the District has gone into $13 million of debt for various building projects, buses, construction, and refinancing. Word on the street is that the district is considering taking on an additional $20 million of taxpayer indebtedness a meaningful amount of which will go to enhancements and aesthetics.

How much of such headlong rush into indebtedness is for the declining student enrollment (In 2004, the enrollment was 1,100 students; currently it is some 800) and how much of this is a reputation-building “edifice complex”?

The current annual  school budget is some $23 million, which works out to nearly $29,000 a year per student. In 2015, the New York State average was $21,000. Why do we need to pay more and more for fewer and fewer students? Many of us do not earn the $70,000 a year that the average BKW teacher earns. And our school tax bills continue to rise.

Does either candidate discuss finances? If yes, such statements do not appear to be readily available.   

Then there are the questions about the staffing of paid school positions. The terms “nepotism” and “cronyism” refer to assigning authority or designation to someone from a family or close friends. There are many differences between nepotism and cronyism. The main difference being nepotism means favoring close family members for paid positions and the letting of contracts. While the term cronyism stands for granting favoritism in employment or contracts to close friends regardless of any qualifications.

The question we have is this: Does the current board majority engage in staffing practices that can be legally defined as either nepotism or cronyism? The Dec. 17 board meeting minutes and subsequent reporting by The Enterprise lead one to conclude that the wife of board President Matthew Tedeschi was appointed to a $45,000-a-year position that was created by the board without public discussion.

At the same meeting, Shannon Chrysler (Lillian Sisson-Chrysler’s daughter-in-law, married to her son) was appointed as a one-on-one aide at $11 an hour and as a substitute licensed practical nurse at a rate of $80 a day. I am not clear if this was a position filled by advertising and competitive interviews.

Having spent most of my professional career in public policy and public administration, such combination of acts strike me as a likely quid pro quo, which, sadly, is all too common at all levels of government in New York and across the nation.

When BKW needs to fill a vacant teaching position, its advertisements have drawn a few hundred applicants in the past (mostly certified) applicants. Yet, the son-in-law of President Tedeschi, Christopher Miedema (who is married to Mr. Tedeschi’s daughter), lacked teacher certification at the time he was appointed as a math teacher; he was also appointed head cross-country coach, indoor track coach, and varsity girls’ track coach.

Additionally, a stipend position of assistant track coach was (recently) filled by Mr.Tedeschi’s daughter, Courtney. As is also the paid position of special-education teacher, which has been filled by the superintendent’s sister, Dana Slater. Lastly, a paid position of teaching assistant has been filled by Carli Elble, the wife of board member, Nate Elble.

While I do not know anything about the qualifications of Mrs. Tedeschi, Mrs. Miedema, Mr.Miedema, Mrs. Slater, or Mrs. Elble, as a taxpayer, I would prefer that teaching and coaching positions be defined and advertised for a competitive most-qualified selection.

And I am disappointed that Lillian Sisson-Chrysler has, apparently, raised no questions about these special familial appointments. That lack is hardly what I would conclude, as others have, that the current board is “one of the best we’ve had” and “a winning team that’s playing extremely well or an engine that’s running right.”

Of course, some might conclude that the current board “engine”  is working well as a cozy relationship for extended family and friends. As well as supporting a fiscally expansive visionary building agenda. It is not clear to us that this engine is on the right track for the rest of us who pay the bills.  

We conclude that the board could use a newer, fresher influence — someone who would bring much-needed seasoned skills in budget creation and management, personnel administration, project management, and hard negotiation skills to the table for overseeing BKW’s $23 million annual operations and future expansion.

Being Berne’s highway superintendent requires such a valuable skill set needed for the BKW Board of Education at just such a time as this. So, as for our house, we will vote for change with Randy Bashwinger next Tuesday.

Victor Porlier

Berne