Should A School Board Be Involved In Matters Outside Of Education?

Filed under: Around Town,News,OPINION |

By Joe Obermaier

A little over two years ago, a referendum was held to determine if the Town of Huntington would continue to elect its Council members at-large or whether the town would be split into four districts, each electing a single Council member. Four thousand people had signed petitions in order to get the matter on the ballot. Newsday, News12, and the Times of Huntington all issued editorials in support of the ward system (Newsday did it twice). The proposal was endorsed all over the political map, including County Executive Steve Levy, Suffolk County Legislator and Majority Leader Jon Cooper, and Assemblyman James Conte.

The trustees of the Half Hollow Hills school board disagreed. Half Hollow Hills is the largest district in our Town. If such a ward system were adopted, the school district, which resides mostly, but not entirely, within the Town of Huntington, worried it would lose the power of its political voice – its ability to “vote together on zoning issues which directly affect class size and learning environment.”

Not everyone in the district shared that opinion. This was, after all, a purely political matter, not an educational one. At school board meetings some parents questioned if it was appropriate for the Board of Education to take a position on a civic matter. Others wondered if it was appropriate for the Board to have given permission to the PTA to send out literature regarding the vote and questioned who was paying for it.

Still, one board member insisted on the need for action and justified that call on the idea that “a change in the way our town government works could affect the schools.” The board members’ responsibility to act in the best interest of the children and community (wording that made its way into the proposed resolution) was enough for them to act. The board voted unanimously to oppose the ward system. The school district put out flyers proclaiming, “Huntington’s Special Election Threatens Half Hollow Hills” and actively urged all residents to vote against it. The ward system was defeated, in no small part due to actions of the school board.

Was that wrong?

It’s election time again in the Huntington Union Free School District. And once again, some are questioning whether it is ever appropriate for that district to weigh in on political matters before the Town. It is an incredibly important question; should a school board be involved in matters outside of education, in matters that some have argued are beyond its purview?

Put aside the merits of that particular referendum, whichever side you were on. It wasn’t an educational question. This was a school board weighing in not only on zoning issues, but on the fundamental structure of Town government itself. This was one political entity using its political voice to defend against the loss or dilution of that political voice. And doing so emphatically. They certainly saw nothing wrong with it. As their PTA Council put it, “When issues become cloudy, we act to clear them – when issues and polices are suggested or enacted, we look to put in place those that are in the very best interests of the children for whom we advocate for.”

Last May, the board of the Northport-East Northport school district voted unanimously to file a lawsuit to stop LIPA from challenging its real estate tax assessment; essentially trying to stop LIPA from grieving its taxes. A few months earlier, forty-one school districts in Nassau County (41!) filed suit to challenge an amendment to the county charter that would leave them liable for successful tax grievance claims of homeowners. Why file suit? Because not doing so could cost those districts money; $30 million in the case of Northport-East Northport, over $50 million in the Nassau County matter.

These were also not strictly educational matters. These school districts aren’t the ones making tax assessments. The school board doesn’t get to decide the value of a home, or even which buildings get to stay on or off the tax rolls; who pays taxes and who pays PILOTs. But they are the ones who have to pay for those decisions. Money is the lifeblood of our school district. Everyone has strong opinions on how our money is spent, which programs cannot be cut and which teachers must be kept. But that is only half the equation. The other half is the revenue side – our tax base – the money that we are able to bring into the system, to pay the bills that make all the rest (programs, teachers, transportation, facilities and administration) possible. That revenue side of the equation is crucial. If those school boards did nothing – if they stayed out of these political matters – then they would be forced to use their educational dollars to pay for a municipal government’s mistakes.

Do board members, even as individuals, have the right (or even obligation) to speak up when they believe the actions of other entities threaten the district’s ability to succeed?

This past January, the Northport-East Northport School District issued a Letter of Opposition to the proposed location of a sewage treatment facility. In that letter, the trustees of the district weighed in zoning variances and environmental impacts; the Suffolk County Sanitary Code and the right-of-way of the Long Island Railroad. None of these are specifically an educational matter. The Elwood Board of Education met last week to discuss the Oak Tree Dairy property proposal. Were they wrong to ask questions? Or is it just in our district that such activities are inappropriate?

Many feel the Federal government should do more on education. Every candidate in this race adamantly agrees that the state government isn’t giving us what we’re due and that we ought to take them to task. But when the spectre of involvement with our local government comes up – the branches of government we know best, the easiest ones to talk to (one is just down the road), the ones whose actions most directly affect the district – it becomes a contentious issue. When it comes to the limits of the district’s involvement in political affairs, where is the line to be drawn? Not at Washington or Albany, I guess, but is it Riverhead, or Main Street? The current board and administration had some real questions about the Brownfields report and tried to get them answered at the public meeting held behind the big H. Was that wrong?

Candidates who say that they should not speak up on these matters, even when I disagree with their position on those matters, strike me as either naïve or disingenuous. The school district is charged with educating our children. It is the prime responsibility of a school board trustee to ensure that happens. No other entity or political figure shares the same interests. If the board doesn’t look out for those interests, no one else will. That’s just common sense.

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5 Responses to Should A School Board Be Involved In Matters Outside Of Education?

  1. I have always believed that school boards should not get involved in politics. In fact, according to school law, they should never promote the candidacy of a politician nor donate to a campaign. Therefore, it implies that politics should stay out of school district decisions.

    That being said, I find no problem with school board members questioning local government about issues that would DIRECTLY affect the district. So as in your examples, new housing that could bring in many more students, or loss of revenue due to PILOTS, or loss of revenue to due a huge tax grievance such as LIPA’s, would be acceptable areas of discussion and action.

    However, not supporting (or supporting) the ward system for town government is a far stretch when it comes to impacting a district, as is the sewage treatment plant (unless it was being built next door to a schoolyard). I don’t believe that passes the test for immediate impact on a district’s functioning as an educational entity.

    School board members most certainly can act as an individual citizen in their support or non-support of a politician or local issue. An individual MAY NOT act as a school board member without the expressed consent of all the other board members. A school board, acting as a whole, needs to be wary of what they step their collective feet into.

    I’d say DIRECT impact is the test an issue must pass before a board decides to get involved one way or another.

    My Town Too
    May 10, 2012 3:56 pm at 3:56 pm

  2. So have the all the new candidates said if they would speak up or not???
    I seem to remember last year that our newest board members Adam Spector and Jen Hebert said they wouldn’t say anything involving town policies even if it would hurt our kids education.
    Does that mean 1 more person elected to the board this year ( that thinks like them and doesn’t want to get involved ) will stop us from having our school board try to protect our schools against bad town plans?
    Do any of the candidates this year say they won’t speak up for our kids & schools??? Please say no!!! We can’t have another board member that thinks like that or we’re screwed!!!

    Maria
    May 10, 2012 5:17 pm at 5:17 pm

  3. We have asked each of the HUFSD BOE candidates to comment and state their opinion on this topic. We will post their responses as we receive them.

    Ilene Fucci - Editor
    May 10, 2012 6:02 pm at 6:02 pm

  4. If the HHA wants to change zoning through a ZBA decision to get 26 units per acre, I would say that qualifies for BOE action. Avalon Bay 20 units per acre when Town code only allows for 14.5? Absolutely. Removing taxable properties from the tax rolls, and ONLY in SD3, again, I say they should question it. Hell, it affects the bottom line, our school income!
    Northport/East Northport has a legitimate gripe about a sewage treatment plant right next to the high school. Why did no one complain back in 1993 when Rotondo was illegally transferring waste not very far from Abrams (and right behind the Huntington Community First Aid Squad)? Or was it just lack of info?
    In short, if it affects the income of the district, or the quality of the education they provide, yes, the BOE should get involved in Town government decisions that affect it negatively.
    BTW…SD3 is the ONLY Huntington Town school district with not one, but two housing development P.I.L.O.T.s….

    matt harris
    May 11, 2012 1:54 pm at 1:54 pm

  5. Pingback: Should A School Board Be Involved In Matters Outside Of Education? – Candidates Respond | The Huntingtonian

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