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Story - Education

Feb 24, 2010 10:10 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Tuckahoe petition sparks review of historic statutes

Feb 24, 2010 10:10 AM

While the Tuckahoe parent who planned to force a referendum to expand the district’s School Board has dropped his crusade, state and local school officials have continued to examine the possibilities of what could happen if another supporter of the effort decides to pursue it.

When Kevin Luss announced that he would not appeal the Tuckahoe School Board’s refusal to schedule a public referendum to transform the district from a common school district to a union free school district, which would allow the board to be expanded, the immediacy of readying for the change faded. But the process that Mr. Luss’s petition put in motion piqued the interest of officials from Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which provides administrative assistance to school districts, and the State Department of Education, where officials realized they did not know how such a change would have been handled, and have been examining the history and legal requirements of such efforts.

Even though all of the state’s more than 2,000 school districts started out as “common” school districts, just 10 remain as such—three on the East End, including Tuckahoe. Most made the switch from common to “union free” as part of an expansion of their grades or by merging with another school district. Only a couple have made the switch via a referendum, and none since upstate Wynantskill School District did it in 1978.

“Of course, none of us was working here back then, and no one at the state [Department of Education] was there back then,” said Ed Zero, District Superintendent of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, this week. “So everyone’s been scrambling around to figure out how it should be done.”

Mr. Zero said that attorneys for Tuckahoe and BOCES have examined the state statutes, drafted back in 1913, that lay out the guidelines for allowing such a switch. The laws seem to indicate that an affirmative vote would dissolve the existing School Board. But the guidelines proceed from there in a very old-fashioned manner: calling for a special “meeting”—meaning the referendum—immediately after which voters would nominate candidates for the new school board and cast their votes, all in the same room on the same night. In the early 20th century, when districts were tiny, such a voting style may have been feasible. Not any longer.

“Clearly, holding a town meeting of sorts, as the statute would seem to dictate, is not really feasible today,” Mr. Zero said.

The only modern example of the shift was in Wynantskill. Mr. Zero said a Tuckahoe parent, Jill Schwartz, had done some investigating of the Wynantskill effort and shed some light on how the process unfolded there in a memo to his office.

Ms. Schwartz, reached at home this week, said she simply called the Wynantskill town historian who dug out some old newspaper articles, and identified the name of a former School Board member who was still around. A call to that board member put her in touch with the former district superintendent from the time of referendum.

“I was hesitant to call because I thought I’d be the millionth person to call them,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Turned out I was the only one who had called.”

In setting up its referendum, Wynantskill declared that the three sitting School Board members would continue on the board if the referendum passed and that two new board members would be added to the board after regularly scheduled elections months later. “It was a very slow, methodical process,” Ms. Schwartz said.

Mr. Zero noted that Tuckahoe could follow much the same process as Wynantskill had. Prior to a vote, the board could declare the number of board members that would be elected, how the nomination process would proceed and schedule the elections to coincide with already scheduled elections in May.

But he admitted that in the instance of a referendum forced by residents, as would seemingly be the case in Tuckahoe, where two of the three sitting board members have shown no interest in allowing the public to vote on the change, legal advisors and officials looking into it have still not identified how nominations would be handled, or who, with the board dissolved, would choose how many members the new board would have. He said the board could potentially take steps once the referendum had been scheduled to lay out ground rules, including the number of board members to be elected and when elections would be.

“In my read of the law, there is room for something more robust and comprehensive than just going through the whole thing that same night,” Mr. Zero said. “The good idea would be to spread out the process.”

The potential for the process, in any form, to play out in Tuckahoe remains to be seen. Any of the 33 signatories of Mr. Luss’s petition can appeal to the state education commissioner within 30 days of the February 8 meeting at which the board declined to acknowledge the petition. Thus far, however, Mr. Zero said the state is aware of the situation in Tuckahoe but has not been contacted by any residents.

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There you are, exposed in Black and White for all to see! THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES! Grimag seemed to have been right. Under the leadership of Mr. Grisnik, the petitioners and their backers in public announcements, have grandly exclaimed that their petition was well conceived, the details were well thought out, the Referendum process was well documented and simple (or simplistic?), was the consequence of very professional planning.

If even the most educated, experienced, professional ...more
By Observant (14), southampton on Feb 25, 10 12:53 PM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By Observant (14), southampton on Feb 25, 10 12:53 PM
observant, thank you. you have provided a significant amount of entertainment to those of us who actually know what is going on. you're the best. oh grimag is right all right...everything he says is right. i love you.
By tuckahoetrip (46), Water Mill on Feb 25, 10 3:50 PM