Lonnie Palmer looks for 'happy accidents'

BERNE — Within four years, Lonnie Palmer graduated from Union College with a physics degree, taught science in Poughkeepsie and Albany, and was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War.

At the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, Palmer calibrated radiation detection devices using different-sized polyethylene spheres to slow neutrons enough for an electronic counter, to inform how people should be protected.

Palmer has calibrated himself to schools — with high and low wealth or large and small size — and become known as a reformer. He says that, at 64, he still likes the education field because he gets to figure out ways to motivate people and orient them in a common direction.

Palmer has been a consultant in education since 2007, after two years as Troy City School District’s interim superintendent. In July, Palmer will take an interim post at BKW.

Palmer was appointed to the job at Monday’s school board meeting. He will be in a transition period this month, stepping into the interim role formally in July. The one-year contract is for $800 a day. Vasilios Lefkaditis, president of the board, estimated the total cost would be $300 less than the salary and benefits for Superintendent Paul Dorward had been for a year; Dorward’s annual salary was $127,000.

For now, Dorward and Palmer have met to discuss the transition, while Dorward moves on to another district, and share responsibilities for reference calls for a new elementary school principal. Regina Yeo, hired in November as an elementary school principal for BKW, will be superintendent at another school starting in July. Palmer said applications to replace resigning teachers are now being sorted.

Over the next week, Palmer said, he will meet with BKW administrators, and he is especially interested in understanding the projections of fund balance and reserves with Business Official David Hodgkinson.

“He feels we’re in pretty good shape, and Dr. Dorward said the same thing,” said Palmer.

Voters recently passed a budget with no increase in the tax levy and a 5.95-percent spending increase. With around 40 percent of the BKW budget coming from state aid, Palmer said the district is among the more vulnerable to a 2-percent state-set levy cap having a smaller tax base to cover any decreases to aid in recent years.

“I think we might be better off with some kind of state-level property tax…the wealth is shared more evenly, so the 2-percent cap hits everybody the same way,” said Palmer.

Palmer has been summoned from retirement to be an interim superintendent before. He worked in Troy, where he said the school board directed him to oversee changes to the administrative staff, their roles and weight in the school, at a time when positions were being filled.

“I think it’ll probably be a similar kind of pattern here, especially with new board members…They’ll develop a plan to achieve goals, then I’ll be in a better position to be an enhancer,” Palmer said, pointing to later in the summer when he would have a clearer vision of what he will do.

Three board members will be new in July. Joan Adriance, voted into a three-year term this May, will be the only new board member with a past term.

Reviewing the BKW data, Palmer named two areas that are in need of improvement: math scores and special-education classification.

“It looks, on paper right now, that Berne-Knox-Westerlo has more kids in special ed. than they should,” said Palmer.

The state’s 2011-12 report card has the BKW special education classification rate at 14.1 percent, while the rate for all schools in the state is 12.8 and for similar districts is 12.1 percent. Over-classification can mean academics suffer, Palmer said.

With a new special-education director, Susan Casper, hired last year, classifications have gone down — progress Palmer said he would monitor.

“I approached the job in Troy as though I wasn’t just a caretaker but as though I was a specialist who was in charge,” Palmer said, describing how, with any plan to improve instruction, the staff needs to believe it can improve results, not take orders.

Candidates for school board unanimously said the tenor of board meetings needs improvement. Palmer said he is aware of this reputation.

“Go out and make the school district the best district it can be, and those issues will fall by the wayside,” said Palmer.

He spoke optimistically of the people he has met who want to support the district.

Palmer, who lives in Latham, said he plans outings in the community, at a church dinner and town board meetings.

When growing up in Gouverneur in northern New York, Palmer worked after-school on a three-generation family farm, with vegetables growing in front of the house, and a tree nursery in the back. He learned to drive a tractor when he was 11 and worked in a lead mine at 18.

Palmer has completed graduate studies at State University of New York at New Paltz for physics education and administration.

He has worked as an administrator at Spackenkill High School in Poughkeepsie, Averill Park, City School District of New Rochelle, and City School District of Albany. For the New York State School Boards Association, Palmer worked as director of its management and consulting services, and he was marketing vice president for Energy Education Inc.

Painting a sky with clouds in watercolor, a blob of paint, a mistake, is a mess, Palmer said. He has learned, in a book about watercolor technique, to treat such a blob as a “happy accident.”

“When I found out, instead of by-the-book physics person, you look for those happy-accident opportunities,” he said of what it reflects on his leadership roles.

He said he reads constantly, plays guitar, and spends a lot of time riding his bike or in a gym. On a golf course, he says, he walks to all the holes, with his bag over his shoulder.

“Nobody else does it, but I do anyways,” said Palmer.