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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 26, 2006

Trust shattered at Voorheesville: Old leaders accused

By Holly Grosch

NEW SCOTLAND — The state comptroller claims to have uncovered corruption in the Voorheesville School District.

At a press conference Tuesday, Comptroller Alan Hevesi accused former Superintendent Alan McCartney and former Assistant Superintendent for Business Anthony Marturano of making improper payments to themselves totaling $216,000.

McCartney, who was lauded at his retirement in July 2005 for leaving the district in good financial standing, paid himself an extra $127,338 over the course of his 16 year tenure, the comptroller said.

McCartney wrote his own contract, and then broke it, the school board president said.

Marturano is accused of collecting $89,069 over the 11 years of his employment, until his retirement in 2002. He denies it.

"I cannot say in strong enough terms, I did not do anything improper," Marturano told The Enterprise on Wednesday. "I’m shocked and surprised by the whole thing...My good name is now mud."

"Dr. McCartney and I were devoted to that school," Marturano said from Port St. Lucie, Fla., where he moved after retiring.

McCartney, who lives in Voorheesville, did not answer his phone this week.


Of the $216,000 identified, $167,000 of the payments were for benefits they were not entitled to, Hevesi said, including payments when the administrators appeared to be traveling for personal reasons to Las Vegas, Chicago, and Nashville.

He also identified an instance when McCartney gave himself compensatory time for showing up on a snow day when all other business office employees were either required to work or take vacation time.

The remaining $49,000 was paid without proper notification or documentation or was made under inappropriate clauses in their employment contracts, Hevesi said.

Hevesi also said that McCartney and Marturano authorized virtually all of these payments to themselves without the school board’s knowledge or approval.

Joseph Pofit, the school board president, said the board is "outraged" the former officials would purposefully manipulate people and internal controls to enrich themselves.

The district on Tuesday filed two suits—one against each administrator—to try to recap the funds. The court papers say that, by reason of the board’s "long standing-fiduciary relationship" with McCartney, it relied on him "for information concerning compensation and overall management of district personnel."

Board members have taken no responsibility for approving many of the payments.

They claim that McCartney and Marturano where purposely deceitful, and well aware what they were doing was not allowed.

When McCartney’s and Marturano’s contracts were up for renewal, the lawsuits allege, in 2002 and 1999 respectively, both men convinced the board that they were entitled to being reimbursed for unused sick time, so the board, through resolution, approved paying them extra money in their salaries over the course of three years before retiring. This also boosted their retirement packages, the school district claims in a suit filed against the two administrators.

Marturano’s denial

The state is throwing mud and seeing where it sticks, Marturano said. "I’m just devastated."

When he first heard of the allegations—that he collected extra vacation and sick leave compensation without permission—he thought it would all be settled quickly once his contract was reviewed, Marturano said.

"It’s all spelled out in the contact," Marturano said. He didn’t do anything that was not permissible, he said.

Neither the school district nor the school board president have released copies of the two administrators’ contracts, although Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, told The Enterprise the contracts are "absolutely" a matter of public record.

Marturano said that it’s a shame that the state and the district are clinging to "baseless" accusations. He said that he hopes "people who know us up there, will be supportive — not believe these lies."

"Getting paid for unused sick time and unused vacation time was a part of my contract approved by the board," Marturano said. "I don’t understand where this is coming from....Nothing under-handed was going on."

He said he is disappointed in the school board for jumping on the band wagon of the state’s "witch hunt."

"In my career I’ve saved them millions of dollars," he said of the district.

After corruption was found on Long Island, the state comptroller’s office wants to look on top of things, but instead is "picking at good people in the process," he said.

"We spent many days and nights devoted to our profession," Marturano, said of himself and McCartney.

He said he can’t believe how the Voorheesville School District is now thanking them.

"My family went without my time so I could take care of the kids at Voorheesville" and run the business end of things, Marturano said.

He said he spoke to McCartney on the phone and they told each other that they were going to fight this vocally. "We can’t lie down and take this," Marturano said.

"I did not do this. I just did not do these things," he said.

Audit findings

In a Jan. 24 letter to the current Voorheesville superintendent, Linda Langevin, and to the school board members, Assistant Comptroller Steven J. Hancox detailed the audit findings.

The audit focused on the period from Aug. 1, 1989 to July 15, 2005 for McCartney and from Jan. 14, 1991 to Aug. 2, 2002 for Marturano, Hancox said.

McCartney received $141,400 in base salary for the 2004-05 fiscal year and Marturano received $95,967 in base salary for the 2001-02 fiscal year, the last full years of their employment with the district.

In addition, Hancox wrote, the district provided various other benefits over the years. For example, in his last year, McCartney had 100 percent of the purchase of his health insurance paid by the district; Marturano had 90 percent. McCartney had 35 days of vacation and Marturano had 30. Each had 15 days of sick leave and $1,500 annual reimbursements for payments made to their tax-sheltered annuities or disability insurance.

Hancox’s letter detailed these types of inappropriate payments and benefits:

— Excessive payments for unused vacation leave: Despite contracts that limited payment for unused vacation days, McCartney authorized $84,283 — an extra 135 days — for himself and he authorized $35,968 — an extra 92.5 days — for Marturano in excess of the amounts allowed.

— Absent without leave: By comparing leave records with cellular phone bills, the comptroller’s office determined McCartney "or minimally his cell phone" was out of town at least 16 days on nine occasions when he did not charge leave or have approval to leave for district business.

— Stipend payment not repaid as required: In exchange for unused sick leave, the board authorized annual stipend payments totaling $20,000 to Marturano in his last three years. Although the board resolution stated that the stipend was in exchange for unused sick leave, Marturano’s contract did not allow him to exchange unused sick leave, so the stipend paid for something the district wasn’t required to pay.

— Improper compensatory time and snow days: Although not authorized by their contracts, McCartney charged 15 and Marturano charged 21 compensatory days for absences during the audit period. The cash value of these unauthorized absences totaled $7,268 for McCartney and $7,482 for Marturano.

— Personal leave: Effective July 1, 2000, McCartney’s contract no longer provided him with the personal-leave benefits that had been included in previous contracts. However, he ignored his contract and charged nine personal days for absences after that date, which had a value of $4,397.

In addition to these "inappropriate" payments, Hancox’s letter also outlines several "improperly authorized" payments and benefits:

— Lack of notification for unused vacation days payments: McCartney generally sent his payment requests directly to the payroll clerk who processed the information. McCartney then approved the payrolls containing his leave payments. Marturano generally made his request to McCartney, who approved it and forwarded it to the payroll clerk.

— Improper employment contract provision: During the 1997-98 through 1999-2000 fiscal years, the board authorized $4,500 in reimbursement payments to McCartney for annuity and disability insurance benefits by cross-referencing his contract to the district’s collective-bargaining agreement for administrators. However, Education Law had been changed in 1996 to prohibit references in a superintendent’s contract to any other employees’ contracts, so, effective in 1997, the board could not authorize reimbursements in this way.

— Undocumented reimbursement: Marturano’s contract provided him with reimbursement payments for annuity and disability insurance benefits. Unlike McCartney, who submitted documentation showing that he incurred these expenses in order to be reimbursed by the district, Marturano did not submit documentation for $7,637 of his reimbursement payments.

Hancox concludes his letter with four recommendations:

— The board should continue to aggressively pursue collection of the payments and leave benefits;

— The district’s audit committee should develop written procedures, describing how it will monitor the administrative leave benefits provided to the district’s superintendents, and the board should adopt the procedures;

— The current superintendent should ensure all leave benefits provided to employees are in accordance with contracts; and

— The board should request that its attorney review any written contracts prior to approving the agreements.

Hevesi’s view

"This is appalling... and an abuse of the taxpayers’ dollars," Hevesi said at the press conference. The district’s most senior officials "took advantage of a weak system of internal controls."

"We think this is disgraceful," he said.

A bad decision was made by the state 30 years ago to stop auditing school districts, Hevesi said. After scandals on Long Island, audits commenced there. About a third of the districts were poorly managed, and another third were found to have corruption, Hevesi said. He believes that corruption will be found across the state.

Where no one is watching, there is an increase in corruption, Hevesi said.

He commended the Voorheesville School Board for jumping in angrily when it found out about the wrongdoing. The district ran its own investigation and detailed audit, he said.

"We are very, very angry at this," Pofit said on Tuesday. "No board expects to uncover this type of deceit. A crime has been committed against the school and the community."

"We are outraged when someone cavalierly...uses taxpayers money as if it was a personal account," Pofit said. In no way was McCartney eligible for 35 days of vacation for just two weeks of additional work, he said.

While they are individually small checks, it all adds up to a significant amount of money. Pofit said the board had calculated the misspent money amounted to a 3.5 percent tax increase.

The district has a spotty history of passing its annual budget.

The allegations have been forwarded to Albany County District Attorney David Soares.

While the district did have, as required by the state, external audits done each year, such audits are only surface reviews; they don’t dig deep enough, Pofit said.

McCartney and Marturano were very clever, Pofit said. The superintendent was able to request a check; he would tell the treasurer or payroll clerk to cut him a check, saying that the board approved it; and then sign the check himself, Pofit said.

"We were dumbfounded" Pofit said. "Maybe, after a while, someone feels entitled." The board does feel personally betrayed, he said.

District sues

The suits filed Jan. 24 in Supreme Court — the lowest-level court in the state’s three-tiered system — are based on the findings of the state comptroller’s audit.

The suit against McCartney states the district is "entitled to recoup the monetary value of...improper payments." The suit against Marturano lists the money to be recouped as coming from "vacation days, compensation days, and other personal leave to which he was not entitled."

Both suits ask for "reasonable attorney’s fees, interest, and the costs and disbursements of this action...."

The suit against both claim that they represented to the school board that they were entitled to compensation for the unused sick days they had accrued although they were "aware that the district had no obligation to compensate [them] for the accrued sick time."

The court papers also claim that representations from each of them "were intended to induce the Board of Education to increase his base salary during the final three years of his employment with the district and thereby increase his retirement benefits."

In the suit against McCartney, referring to the superintendent’s Feb. 11, 2002 contract, the court papers say that McCartney "represented that the inclusion of the stipend would be more cost effective for the district than a lump sum payment made at the end of his employment..."

Board’s role

When asked why the board wasn’t familiar with the limitations of the contracts, Pofit said that contracts sit in a file and the board never really goes back to them, so it was not versed on them.

The board relied on McCartney to do due diligence, Pofit said, and now the district has learned its lesson.

Also Pofit said the board was led to believe that McCartney had or was going to have all his contracts reviewed by a district lawyer. The board has now checked into it and discovered the attorney’s office has no record of reviewing any of McCartney’s contracts, Pofit said. Additionally, McCartney wrote his own contract, and then broke it, Pofit said.

In the contract that McCartney wrote for himself, he was not eligible for any sick-time pay-out, Pofit said. But he convinced the board, in a memo in 2002, that the district was facing a huge liability of $100,000 of back sick time he was owed, Pofit said. He told the board it was a win-win for everyone if they included in his last three years’ salary an additional $12,000 for each year to compensate him.

In a May 2003, The Enterprise wrote about the superintendent’s pay increase. While the raise doesn’t seem reasonable on the surface, it actually represents a very good deal, said Robert Baron, who was the school board’s vice president at the time.

McCartney had accumulated $100,000 worth of sick leave in the course of his tenure, Baron said. The district wanted to keep a capable superintendent on, so the board negotiated the raise, he said. Some money from the sick leave was taken into the schedule and the rest was cleared from the slate, Baron said. "He actually gave money back to the school district," Baron said in 2003.

In the same article, Larry Bonham, of the Voorheesville Taxpayers’ Association, questioned the increase for unused sick days.

This week, Bonham referred to a 1996 Enterprise article where John Cole, then board president, is quoted saying: "... The desire to retain McCartney was unquestioned. The contract extension took two seconds. We had no problem with that....McCartney’s contract calls for an annual evaluation. But we spent about a half hour on what to give him."

For a board to be in the practice of only looking at a contract for two seconds or half an hour, Bonham said, "It sounds like the board is negligent to me."

In 2002, when McCartney claimed he was owed compensation for $100,000 worth of sick leave, Bonham said this week, he opposed that as well at the public board meetings. He said he couldn’t believe that McCartney’s salary had increased by about $30,000 in just two years.

In May of 2002, Cole said: "What the board and the superintendent did is, we have a senior superintendent with 13 years of service now, and several hundred sick days gathered...Part of the increase is just a salary increase of 4 percent. There’s nothing in his contract that gives him other benefits."

Cole went on in the 2002 Enterprise article to say that other districts offer superintendents non-cash payments like cars and transportation allowances, and McCartney just wanted to keep his contract simple. "So there aren’t hidden things in it," Cole said. "He certainly is not the highest-paid superintendent in the area."

Cole, who stepped down as a board member this summer after serving the for 15 years, told The Enterprise this week that he reviewed McCartney’s contract when negotiating a new one.

Evaluations were done at the time of contract renewal, but they were based on McCartney’s performance and duties more than anything else, Cole said.

One of the primary purposes of the raises for 2002 was to reward McCartney for his long service to the district and recognize the market value, Cole said. New superintendents in the area were being hired at a higher rate than McCartney, Cole said this Wednesday.

Pofit had said the district gave McCartney $12,000 more per year in 2002 out of fear of liability and because they were told by McCartney that it was owed to him.

New safeguards

Pofit went through, one step at a time, the way he says McCartney was able to circumvent checks and balances to gain personal benefits.

He would write a check request and submit it to the treasurer, Pofit said, then each check would be reviewed by the current assistant superintendent for business, Sarita Winchell.

Asked if the board is now questioning Winchell’s ability to do her job, Pofit responded, "As of yet, no one else in the business office has been implicated." The district and the state comptroller’s office is focusing on the two administrators first, he said and there are still three more months until the audit is complete.

If other district officials are implicated, the board will pursue action against them as well, Pofit said. No current business office-employees have been placed on leave, Pofit said.

All school districts in New York State are now required to hire an internal claims auditor, someone from outside, who will receive all the checks and do the leg work to see that documentation and approval are adequate. It’s someone who does not work in the business office and will report directly to the school board, Pofit said.

Also, the district has created an audit committee, made up of board members who will review the superintendent’s vacation time, sick leave, and travel, Pofit said.

Community saddened, disappointed, determined

By Holly Grosch

VOORHEESVILLE — Community reaction this week to the state comptroller’s statements that two top administrators had taken money from the school ranged from defense of the retired superintendent to condemnation.

"I’m saddened, but I still feel a person is innocent until proven guilty," said Chris Allard of the United Employees of Voorheesville. She said she still believes McCartney is a trustworthy person. "He’s a good person," she said. He served the district well for 16 years and did a great job, Allard said.

"I’m certainly not going to turn on him now because of allegations," she said.

High school Principal Mark Diefendorf, who is an old friend of McCartney’s, said that the whole situation has been disheartening.

He hasn’t talked to McCartney yet and he imagines it will be awhile before he will contact him, he said.

At the high school on Tuesday, staff and students were upset, Diefendorf said. But there hasn’t been much of an impact on the students; not all the high school students are in the building this week because of mid-term exams, he said.

In general, people are upset about both allegations that made headlines this week, Diefendorf said of the audit and an arrest of a high school coach for rape. People are just numb from it, he said.

Kathy Fiero, president of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Union, said that, after all the district staff was called into the high school auditorium Tuesday afternoon to be informed of the press conference that morning, everyone was "profoundly disappointed." The feeling that came over the auditorium was one of sadness, she said.

There’s an assumption of trust and there has been a betrayal of that trust, Fiero said.

"We support our new superintendent and board of education," Fiero said.

"It doesn’t erase that he [McCartney] did some good in his tenure...but it goes cast a cloud over it," Fiero said. Trust and ethics are of primary importance, she said.

"I thought he [McCartney] didn’t tell the truth for a long time," said Lisa Myers, a Voorheesville parent. She said she hopes justice is brought against him. Myers had publicly disagreed with McCartney’s administration on the placement of her daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, into a program outside of the district.

"I’m so disturbed by all this," community member Fran Gorka said. "What really bothers me is this apparent sense of entitlement — you often see with people in position of power," she said.

People have sensed it before, she said of McCartney.

"But that’s not the way I want our school to operate," she said.

"This makes me even more certain of the importance to take issue with things that haven’t been right," Gorka said, who has in the past raised issues to the school board.

"I wonder if people either knew what was going on and were pressured into not saying anything or they turned a blind eye," Gorka said. "I think that’s what we need to get to the bottom of." She said she trusts the current board to look into it.

Larry Bonham, a founder of the Voorheesville Taxpayers’ Association, who has taken issue with McCartney’s high salary, compensation and benefits over the years, said he wasn’t surprised that the allegations against McCartney now are related to his salary and benefits.

The board in the past gave McCartney benefits he requested without questioning them and the board would spend only minimal time reviewing a contract before agreeing to it, Bonham said this week.

Former school board president John Cole said this week that, so far, he hasn’t heard anything from the current board president that he doesn’t agree with.

When Cole first heard about the allegations against McCartney, he said, "I was just saddened by it...My first reaction was a fish out of water gasping for air."

He did not see it coming at all and didn’t think it was something that McCartney would do, Cole said.

Basketball coach fouls out

By Holly Grosch

VOORHEESVILLE — John Krajewski was arrested Monday night, by the State Police for raping a 14-year-old girl. That same evening, he was fired from the Voorheesville School District for not having proper certification as a teaching assistant; he had also been the ninth-grade boys’ basketball coach.

The rape victim’s father spoke out to The Enterprise this week: "He’s charged, thankfully," he said.

"It’s just horrible," he said of what happened to his daughter.

Krajewski "became a friend and then he betrayed us," the father said.

Krajewski had coached the 14-year-old girl in St. Matthew’s Catholic Youth Organization basketball league last winter, when she was in eighth grade, and babysat for the family over the summer; there is a younger child in the household.

The Enterprise is withholding the victim’s name.

"We’re sick to our stomach over it," her father said. "It’s just horrible," he said again. He said, he was sick in bed over the matter and on medication, "I don’t want to believe," he said.

He was told by police not to talk to the press, but all he heard so far is what a great guy Krajewski is, the father said.

"I want to see him in jail for at least 25 years," the father said — then, he said he may be somewhat happy.

Krajewski, 25, of Quail Street in Albany, is charged with three counts of second-degree rape, a felony; three counts of a second-degree criminal sexual act, also a felony; two counts of third-degree sexual abuse; and one count of endangering the welfare of a child — misdemeanors.

The three counts of rape, mean that he is being charged with three separate incidents in which he had sex with a minor, said Trooper Maureen Tuffy, a spokesperson for the State Police. A criminal sexual act is a charge relating to sexual touching, she said. The charge for endangering a child is because the victim’s welfare was endangered by having sex with her, Tuffy said.

No physical force was used in the rapes, Tuffy said. The charges are the result of statutory rape, since the girl was underage.

One rape happened at Krajewski’s residence in Albany, police said; the other charges occured in the town of New Scotland.

Krajewski was arraigned in New Scotland Town Court before Judge Margaret Adkins and was released after posting a $25,000 bond.

Krajewski’s arrest came five days after the investigation into his relationship with the victim was re-opened.

There had been an initial investigation after a complaint was made in October, but not enough evidence was found at the time, New Scotland investigator Matthew Zell told The Enterprise last week.

Another party came forward last Wednesday and new information from the Voorheesville School District led to the need for further investigation, Zell had told The Enterprise.

Zell this week said that he was the officer that arrested Krajewski on Monday and appeared at his arraignment, but was not authorized to answer any questions. Tuffy said that the State Police decided not to answer any further questions, so as to not feed into the rumors.

Judge Adkins declined to release any documents from the arraignment.

Krajewski did not return calls this week or last from The Enterprise .

Krajewski had been a Voorheesville Elementary School teaching assistant since August of 2004. Last school year, he was placed in a fourth grade class and this year was in a fifth grade class. This was his first year as the freshman boys’ basketball coach at Clayton A. Bouton High School.

On Monday evening, the school board fired Krajewski from both posts.

The 14-year-old victim is a ninth-grader at Voorheesville’s high school.

Krajewski was placed on administrative leave on Dec. 29 during the students’ winter break, Superintendent Linda Langevin said, because she became aware of written evidence against him. Krajewski has not been to work since the new year, but had been receiving pay.

Superintendent Linda Langevin said that she had filed with the state under a procedure that not only removes an individual from a particular school but also takes away his teaching license. The procedure can be used when a teacher’s moral conduct is in question, and is usually carried out when there are criminal charges. When Langevin filed with the state, a state licenser informed her on Monday that Krajewski did not have certification.

The school board was able to fire Krajewski on Monday evening because he did not have the proper credentials.

When he was hired, Krajewski was told that he would have to apply for the certification, but he never submitted the application as the district had believed, Langevin said. He had passed the teaching-assistant test and completed all the required education, she said.

School board member Kevin Kroencke pointed Tuesday at a press conference held by the state comptroller on a Voorheesville audit (see related story) that had Krajewski sent in the application and paid $50 he would have been certified.

Langevin said she has now gone through 70 percent of the district employee’s files to make sure all the teachers’ licenses are proper. "I totally believe this is an anomaly," Langevin said at the press conferance.

The response

On Tuesday morning, after Krajewski had been arrested the night before, the school’s emergency response team met with the elementary-school faculty, Langevin said, and an assembly was held for fourth- and fifth- grade children, where they were assured that they were safe, and the judicial process was explained to them.

Kathy Fiero, a teacher at the elementary school, who is also president of the teacher’s-union, said that the children have been handling Krajewski’s arrest pretty well, since it was not the first time they the heard about the ongoing story. The Enterprise broke the story in the media last week. She said she thinks the fourth- and fifth- graders have been able to comprehend what’s going on.

Among the staff, she said, there is "profound sadness," something they are feeling a lot this week.

"He was one of our own," Fiero said. Krajewski grew up in Voorheesville and went through the Voorheesville school system before becoming a teaching assistant.

She said she feels empathy for both families involved — the 14-year-old girl’s and Krajewski’s.

Lisa Myers’ fifth- grade son was in Krajewski’s classroom this year.

"He loves Johnny K," she said. "It is very confusing for him, for the older kids, too."

Her son played basketball with Krajewski during recess and really liked him, she said.

It’s sad and hard, Myers said. Voorheesville is a small community where a lot of people know both of the families. Myers said she wishes the young girl the best.

Myers said she believes the elementary school principal, Kenneth Lein, has been handling the situation at the elmentary school the best he can. Counselors came in last week and met with the students to counsel them, Myers said, and the students where apprised of the situation right after the Christmas break as well.

School board President Joseph Pofit said that the crisis counseling team was made available to those who needed it and an informational letter to parents was sent out in the mail.

Czech exchange student finds America a big hit

By Holly Grosch

VOORHEESVILLE — In this largely suburban, middle-class school district, students turn toward foreign exchanges for cross-cultural experiences.

About a dozen Clayton A. Bouton High School students went to France this fall for a few weeks on a field trip with their French teacher.

Voorheesville senior Nicole Layden, after sharing her home with an international exchange student from Brazil last school year, is leaving this week to spend 12 months in New Zealand, signing up for an extra semester of high school — a sacrifice she said is worth the adventure since New Zealand’s school calendar runs from January to December.

And Michael Strestik, a student from the Czech Republic who is living with the Sotola family on Indian Field Drive, is now, after 4 months, halfway through the 12th grade at Voorheesville. He said he came to America to play ice hockey although he is also enjoying his studies — one day he wants to play for a professional team.

Sole visitor

Being the only exchange student at Voorheesville is both good and bad, Strestik said. Everyone recognizes him and knows his name, while he might not know who they are, he said. It does not annoy him at all that he is asked questions all the time about the Czech Republic. He enjoys being a delegate, representing his county, he said.

Sometimes he even has to inform people that his county had a revolution in 1989, he said. Strestik was only year old at the time, so he doesn’t have any memories of what it was like before.

"Voorheesville students are really friendly," he said; they wave and go out of their way to say hello to him all the time.

"Teachers here are more friendly to the kids," he said.

In the Czech Republic, the relationship is a more formal one, he said. Also, one thing he has liked about Voorheesville is the teachers are always asking if you need help while at home, he said, you have to ask for the help, which most students don’t do, because they are not comfortable with approaching their teachers, and also because they are too proud.

Strestik is enjoying unusual classes at Voorheesville, including photography and communications—a media production class. Also, he is enrolled in English, United States history, and psychology.

Back home, Strestik said, students have to decide their future career paths early on, after the eighth year of school, students then have to apply to get into specialized high schools.

Hockey first

Hockey is his number-one priority, Strestik said; it consumes him.

He attends a school in Prague that specializes in sports and economics. He arrives at school at 9:30 a.m. and gets out of classes at 1:30 p.m. so that he can spend the rest of the afternoon practicing hockey. His school has only 150 students.

"Bethlehem would probably be too big for me," Strestik said, explaining that the 730 or so students at Voorheesville’s middle-school and high-school building was overwhelming enough for him.

Strestik is a tall, slender teenager who greeted a recent visitor, wearing sport shorts and T-shirt. Later that afternoon, he would be heading off to hockey practice with the Junior River Rats, who practice at Union College. He leaves for practice at 4 p.m. and returns at nine at night.

While Czech is Strestik’s first language, his English is very strong, and he has only has a slight accent. He said that most Czech students his age, while knowing basic English, have not perfected it to the level he has, which was another reason he wanted to come to the United States.

Voorheesville’s 12th-grade class has helped a lot, he said. If he graduates with an expertise in English, he will have an advantage in business in the Czech Republic.

"English is the international language," he said, and businesses that have jobs and offices at international locations are looking for employees who know English.

If a professional hockey career does not work out for him, Strestik said, he’ll probably start his own computer business. That’s the one thing he misses from home — computer tools, he said. He’s not into computer games but instead enjoys tinkering with computers and building them, Strestik said.

What has improved Strestik’s English the most, was when his host brother, Alex Sotola, visited him in the Czech Republic over the summer. He "helped build my vocabulary...gave me a lot of practice," Strestik said.

Strestik had originally met his host family five years ago when his Czech hockey team came to the United States for a series of hockey tournaments. His team played against Alex Sotola’s team in the Capital Region and then Strestik kept in contact with the Sotolas.

Alex’s father, Vaclav Sotola, is originally from Prague himself and, whenever he went to visit family in the Czech Republic he would also visit Strestik’s family. Then, for a series of summers, Alex Sotola went out to visit Strestik, and played hockey with him through summer leagues.

"The people here play hockey more tough," Strestik said of the game in the United States. "There’s more hitting here...It’s more rough of a game...I really like it," he said.

Strestik plans to go back to the Czech Republic to play professionally. Since he doesn’t have American citizenship, it would be difficult for him to play professionally in the United States. Ice hockey is very big in the Czech Republic; it is, in a way, the national sport he said. The New York Rangers have nine players who are Czech, Strestik pointed out.

"Most beautiful city in the world"

Strestik’s family lives in Marotritsy, a little village of about 100 people, just a 20-minute bus ride from the center of Prague.

"It’s the doorstep to Prague," Strestik said.

The biggest difference between Voorheesville and his hometown is the transportation, he said. The Czech Republic has sophisticated bus system and it is easy to get from one city to another even across the country, which is smaller than the state of New York. In Voorheesville, he has to take a car to get anywhere.

"People often say that Prague is the most beautiful city in the world, and I agree," Strestik said. It’s a really nice city, old and historic with beautiful architecture, he said. "It’s the most beautiful city in the world."

Downtown has been maintained and the Czech people take pride in the old buildings. People still live in the old houses and maintain and renovate them, rather than tearing them down and building modern buildings. It’s one of the few countries that has not been destroyed, Strestik said. The Czech government has also dedicated a lot of money for building restoration, he said.

But so far, Strestik said, he hasn’t been homesick at all, and, whenever he craves his favorite Czech dish of balled meat and dumplings, his host dad knows how to make it for him.

Layden’s plans

Nicole Layden said she is looking forward to her year in New Zealand because she loves the outdoors, like hiking and she has plans to join her exchange-school crew team.

She will be living on the North Island in Auckland, and, while she doesn’t know what to expect, she knows the weather all year round is like Hawaii’s, and she’ll only be 20 minutes away from two beaches—one to each side. The west-side beach is a surfing beach, she said, and the east-side beach is a swimming beach.

"I love to swim," Layden said, adding that she wants to learn how to surf.

Layden’s sister spent six months in Brazil last year and didn’t feel like it was enough time, so Nicole has sighed on for the full year. She said she imagines she would just be getting established after sixth months.

Layden is only a few classes away from completing all her requirements to be a New York State high school graduate, she said. So, for most of her academic schedule in New Zealand, she’s signing up to take "all the fun and easy classes," she said—like automechanics, design on computers, and photography. She is going to go to New Zealand for the cultural and geographic experience rather than education, Layden said. The cultural experience will be an education in itself, she said.

Her exchange is through the American Field Service, which is the same program that Strestik used. AFS is looking for more volunteer host families.

Sedan exchange

After a dozen Clayton A. Bouton students went on a field trip to France in the fall, they made a presentation this month to the school board about their travel experience.

Voorheesville’s foreign language department chair, Bob Streifer, said the students’ trip to France was "one of the highlights of my career."

It was an educational experience for the students culturally, linguistically, politically, and, he added with a smile, gastronomically. The students went to Sedan, France from Oct. 12 to 23. They had 12 warm gorgeous days, he said.

The students said they used their dictionaries a lot, but also learned how to communicate through body language. They ate a lot pastry and cheese, and adjusted to cheese being kept in a cupboard instead of a refrigerator. The list of activities they crammed into a few days included: an historical scavenger hunt through a city; a meet and greet at school, where they answered and asked questions of each other in both languages; cathedral visits; shopping; and watching a marionette show.

They also spent time with individual host families, took excursions, and concluded with a visit to Versaillies and a boat ride through Paris.

The exchange is with a private school in Sedan, France whose students will be visiting Voorheesville in October of 2006.

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