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