BKW considers $66K JROTC program

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Saluting their veterans, former Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education President Joan Adriance asked veterans to stand at the 2015 commencement ceremony.

BERNE — At its Nov. 13 meeting, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education weighed the option of establishing a $66,000-a-year Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, ultimately deciding to hear from both students and parents what their interest would be in the program before moving forward. The number of interested students is especially important, as the school would need to enroll 10 percent before it received federal subsidies.

The board viewed a presentation by Dennis Palow, a retired Army first sergeant who  was recently elected to Berne’s town board. Palow has trained recruits in ROTC programs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Siena College, as well as JROTC at Albany High School for two years.

Palow proposed that the district operate a JROTC program with himself as the instructor, and offer it to students from grades nine through 12.

According to Palow, the district would first have to operate the program as a National Defense Cadet Corps, and would have to fund it entirely. To qualify as a JROTC program, 10 percent of students enrolled in grades nine through 12 would have to join by the third year of its running.

BKW has 251 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12, said Karen Corso, a guidance counselor at the secondary school, meaning that 25 would have to join. If the program were to be awarded JROTC status, the federal government would fund half the salary of the staff members and subsidize the supplies needed for the program.

The annual cost of the program would be $66,852, including about $53,000 for Palow’s salary. He said he was able to mark down the price by not including the purchase of rifles for the first year, by being already certified, and by using a classroom and its equipment like computers when another staff member is not using it. Palow said he would not be a member of the district’s teachers’ union, but would help during free periods or lunch hours when he is not instructing JROTC procedures.

Palow currently receives retirement pay of $27, 928. If he were to teach JROTC, he would receive Military Incentive Pay, which includes active-duty pay, a housing allowance, and a clothing allowance for a total of $81,425.50. His retirement pay would be subtracted from that, meaning his pay for teaching JROTC at BKW would equal $53,497.50.

The district would have to pay this and sign a contract ranging from 10 months to a year. However, should the program go into its third year, Palow said, the school would need to hire an officer who, as a senior Army instructor, would receive a higher salary than his. He said at that point the district should have secured federal funding to cover part of the program’s costs.

The full-year program would count as a one-credit elective course and would not require enlisting in the military as ROTC programs do, said Palow. The curriculum would include activities such as the fitness challenge known as raider training, color guard or drill corps, community service assignments, and opportunities to attend a JROTC summer camp and American Legion-sponsored competition.

Palow, 43, has lived in Berne since 2014. Originally from Florida, he joined the United States Army in 1994, where he served in active duty for 20 years, traveling to places such as Egypt, South Korea, and Kuwait, and serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He later trained soldiers at the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. He was last stationed at the United State Military Academy at West Point in Orange County.

Secondary School Principal Mark Pitterson said he thought the program would be beneficial, but said the decision would ultimately be up to the board.

“It’s a good thing, in my view,” he said at the meeting. “It teaches kids discipline and respect.”

Board President Matthew Tedeschi asked Palow if he knew what the student interest is. Palow said he did not yet know. But, if the school allowed him to set up a table where he could speak to the students, he would be willing to find out.

According to Corso, two graduates reported they were joining the military in 2017, none reported this in 2016, nine reported they were joining the military in 2015, and three reported they were joining in 2014. In 2017, the school did not have any graduates report they were joining an ROTC program in college, said Corso. The school had about 64 students graduate this past June.

Board member Kim Lovell asked that Palow also find out how parents would feel about this program. Superintendent Mundell agreed to this, although Palow said he had spoken to residents while campaigning for Berne’s town board, and said he had a positive response. The board voted to approve having Palow find out about student interest; he is to report back in January.

Tedeschi told The Enterprise on Monday that Mundell would be surveying the parents about their opinion on the program.

“There are many different tools we could use,” he said, to survey the parents.

Tedeschi said he didn’t know what the interest would be from students or parents.

“There’s some significant numbers that we need,” he said. But he added that, if the interest is great enough, the school should provide the program; however, if there is not enough interest, “That speaks volumes, too,” he said.

Tedeschi noted, however, that the board is still in only the early stages of determining whether or not to have this program.

“I want to do anything I can to give the opportunity to students at Berne-Knox-Westerlo that their peers have in other districts,” he said.

Mundell initially discussed the program with the board at its Oct. 16 meeting. He said that the program would offer scholarship opportunities and leadership development but added, “It does come at a cost.” It was here that student surveying was first discussed.

Mundell did not answer requests from The Enterprise this week, seeking comment.

In the gallery, Martin Szinger, a former board-of-education candidate, asked if the community would be surveyed, adding that he personally objected to the program, stating that the United States military “weighs heavily on the rural poor,” and sends young people off into horrible conditions.

“If you knew any of these veterans, you’d think twice about this program,” he said.

Szinger is not alone in his opposition. The Chicago chapter of the activist group Veterans for Peace, for example, has made it a goal of “ending the militarization of public education,” and is opposed to JROTC programs. Chicago Public Schools has the largest number of students enrolled in JROTC, totaling over 9,000.

Szinger told The Enterprise on Monday that he thought it was good that the district is taking a step toward a kind of cultural development program, but that he hoped the school would consider other programs as well before making a decision, especially given the cost of the JROTC program.

Tedeschi objected to the idea that the program functioned as a recruiting tool.

“It doesn’t mean that the kids are going into the military,” he told The Enterprise. He added that the program is about teaching children values.

Palow said the program gives students integrity and personal accountability, and also makes them more involved with civic and social concerns. He said that statistics show that the program can improve attendance and graduation rates, decrease discipline and dropout rates, and increase grade point average.

Corrected on Nov. 24, 2017: Dennis Palow is a retired first sergeant, not sergeant as originally stated. The paragraph on his salary was corrected to accurately reflect both his current retirement pay and what he would be paid if he were to teach JROTC.

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