Elected School Boards?

April 7, 2012

Very frustrating, very disappointing, very stupid….

The Mount Vernon City School District (NY) has been an underperforming district for at least 2 decades.

Instead of finding ways to improve student outcomes, our elected Board of Education demonstrates their collective incompetence by mysteriously ‘suspending’ Superintendent Dr. Welton Sawyer in early November 2011.

Now (fully 5 months later), we learn that the reason for the suspension was something called, ‘irreconcilable differences’.

We also learned that we, the hard working, money earning Mount Vernon Taxpayers, will continue paying Sawyer’s $269,403 yearly salary through May 31, even though he hasn’t worked full time since Nov. 4, when the Board of Education suspended him.

Further, we will also have the privlege of covering five years of Sawyer’s post-employment health insurance, as well as 50 percent of his health insurance bill in the second five-year period. (That is what he would have received under his employment contract after working a minimum of five years.)

Other financial perks for Sawyer include 10 unused vacation days and $42,500 in tax-deferred annuity retirement payments.

If this isn’t proof that our Elected School Board is a recipe for disaster, what more evidence do we need?

Oh, wait! There’s more!

In another bone-headed move, our elected School Board members decided that because the newly created and state-approved Amani Charter School would take “money away from financially distressed public schools”, they refused to fund it.

Amani appealed to the State (which had approved the Charter after an incredible uphill battle) and the State agreed to pay Amani directly by intercepts of state aid to the MVCSD since it opened in the fall of 2011.

Our elected Board of Education filed legal papers in state Supreme Court last year asking for a reversal of state education officials’ original approval of a charter.

Ruling on the suit in October 2011, the judge vacated the Charter, but the Regents reapproved it a week later, followed almost immediately by the District appealing the Regents decision, and renewing the legal battle.

Amani Executive Director Debra Stern said recently she hopes the state will, once again, reinstate the Charter saying, “This school has been under attack since its inception. We view this as an attack on the basic civil rights of high-needs, high-poverty kids in Mount Vernon.”

Now, those who know me know that I’m not a big fan of Charter Schools in New York State.

I mostly don’t care for them because they tend to create plenty of tension between the parents of students who ‘win the lotto’ and those who don’t — see: “Waiting for Superman”.

I also am not fond of the way charter schools are funded in New York State — but that is a state legislative / policy issue, not a local issue.

In fact there are some examples of fabulous School District & Charter School partnerships and cooperation that have led to great outcomes.

Public School #68 in Buffalo had deteriorated to become one of Buffalo’s worst performing elementary schools serving students in a very low-income neighborhood. Now known as the Westminster Charter School, it’s charter was sponsored by the Buffalo Board of Education and it has become a nationally recognized model of school transformation — now the inspiration and centerpiece for a recently awarded $6 Million federal Promise Neighborhood grant.

We — the taxpayers of the City of Mount Vernon– need to get involved in our schools. We need to look at what is working elsewhere; what is being done and spent here; why; who is making the decisions; and what are the outcomes?

Most people from inside (and outside) our city assume that the School District and the City are one in the same.

Some of us know the School District and the City are two completely independent entities which — for the most part — are not working in harmony to create efficiencies, champion best practices, and to achieve optimum outcomes for the children and taxpayers in Mount Vernon.

We just can’t allow this to continue for one more week — we need radical change in the City Charter and in our School District governance model — NOW!