Terms for the 2011-12 school year begin on July 1.
Lifelong Highland resident Kim Sweeney is a first-time board candidate. She is a wife, mother and grandmother whose five children and three grandchildren have graduated from or currently attend Highland Central Schools. A former bank manager, Sweeney is a per-diem secretary of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie. She is a former hospital volunteer and has served community organizations including the Highland PTA and District Leadership Team.
Attending school board meetings as an engaged audience member led Sweeney to the decision to run.
“Through public comment alone, I couldn’t have a dialogue with the board or administration; I was limited in what I could say. I became very frustrated. I realized that unless I can be a part of the board and hear the discussions, I can’t offer the viable solutions that I feel I can [provide],” said Sweeney.
Her primary focus is forging a district that provides a well-rounded education at a price that Highland residents can afford.
“You hear ‘We’re the lowest paid district.’ Well, we have to do what we can afford. It’s like living with the Joneses -- if you can’t keep up with them because you can’t afford it, so be it. What everybody else does isn’t my measure of what we should do. We have to do what we can to give the best programs to our children that we can afford. It’s common sense,” said Sweeney.
On Wednesday, April 6, the Highland Board of Education adopted a $35,827,312 2011-12 operating budget that proposes a 4-percent tax levy increase. Sweeney said she would like to see a lower tax levy.
“I would have liked to see a lower tax levy because I know where we’re headed. Too many people are going without raises or losing their homes and with 4 percent this year and 8 percent last year, it adds [to their burden]. I don’t want to see people priced out of our community, and I think there are other ways we can create programs for our children,” said Sweeney. “You don’t have to spend more money to get a better product.”
She supports extending the three-month budget season to a year-round affair, closely monitoring the development of potential shortfalls so cuts may be mitigated. She advocates public forums and committees, and would encourage community members -- especially those with financial planning experience -- to volunteer their expert opinions for ways to maintain district solvency in light of projected budget caps and ebbing state aid.
Sweeney hopes that Highland will continue to focus on educating the whole child, with an emphasis on study skills and diverse course offerings, especially at the high school.
“Our students need to be well-rounded. I think those things like extracurriculars and volunteerism are important, along with their studies,” she said. “What you do in high school is going to determine a lot of what happens to you in college, trade school -- whatever is after.”
Whether elected to a three-year or one-year term, Sweeney vows to work hard to preserve affordable quality education.
“I’m committed to the community and to our students. I can do no more than to give my word that I will be fair, and I will do the best that I can,” she said.
Board member Maria Peterson previously served the Highland School Board for six years and rose to the office of Vice President. She is a wife and mother whose three children currently attend Highland Central Schools. She is a private and Master class music teacher, director of The Peterson Studio in Highland and director of the Highland Visual & Performing Arts Institute (HVPAI).
Peterson resigned from the school board in April 2009 to pursue community-based educational reform. She and fellow Highland activists founded the Citizens’ Alliance to Reform Education (CARE), based on the tenets of improving district-community communication, raising educational standards, and developing plans for fiscal solvency. Peterson was reappointed to the school board on Tuesday, Nov. 16, to fulfill the term of departing member Mike Serini.
She is seeking a three-year term.
“If I’m going to be as critical and vocal as I always am, I really need to be a part of the solution rather than just telling everybody else to do better, to get involved,” she said.
Peterson cites the increasingly grim local real estate figures as a spur toward change. In 2010-11, out of 4,762 parcels in the Highland Central School District, 479 did not pay their school taxes. Of those property owners, 45 were eventually able to make partial payments, leaving 434 parcels unpaid. That’s 9.11 percent unpaid -- approximately 1 in every 11 homes.
“One in every eleven homes that you drive by -- that’s serious. In all my years here, I have never seen so many for-sale signs. I have never heard of so many people [losing their homes],” said Peterson.
An Albany-mandated two-percent tax cap, expected to take hold in 2012-13, led some members of the administration and the board to consider a contingency budget (5.76-percent increase) in an attempt to build the base for years to come. Peterson advocated a 4-percent increase.
“The 4-percent levy increase struck a good balance between things. It was as affordable to the community as possible, while continuing to provide as much for kids as we can and not dropping so low that next year, when we’re starting out with this tax cap in place, there’s nowhere left to go,” said Peterson. “I remain child-centered, but I just felt that we needed to do better than we did last year with putting out that 8-percent increase to the community. The whole thing is an incredibly delicate balance.”
Peterson supports an updated budget on every board meeting agenda, tracking district finances closely to allow maximum time to respond to impending cutbacks. The institution of outside agencies to address shortfalls -- such as booster clubs or an educational foundation, as supported by Superintendent Deborah Haab -- should be a priority, she said.
“We could always use more help. We could always use more voices. I feel like community participating has gotten a lot better... I was very encouraged by how many people came to budget forums this year -- the most of any year I’ve been on the board and even before I was on the board... There are still many people out there who really want to help,” she said.
It is imperative that the board, community and district work together to institute reform to ensure that Highland is viable and productive in the future.
“If you don’t have a good school district, no new families are going to want to move to Highland. We have to continue to work to bring relief to the people in our community without decimating programs for our children,” said Peterson.
Alan Barone is a lifelong Highland resident. He is a husband and father of three sons, all Highland graduates. He is a project manager/estimator for Highland-based general contracting company Eugene Di Lorenzo Inc. His long and diverse record of community service includes: 40 years with Highland Little League, of which he is a past president; 32 as an active volunteer firefighter; 17 years on the Town of Lloyd Recreation Committee; 12 years with Highland Youth Soccer; 10 years with CYO Basketball. He is a past president and current member of the Highland Board of Education, currently completing a ninth year of service.
Barone first decided to run for the board after many years of interest.
“Because of my background in the construction industry, I had some concerns about our facilities project back in 2000. That’s when I decided to get involved. If we ever do have another [project] like that, I’d like to be fully involved with it to help taxpayers get the best value for the money they’re bonding for,” said Barone. “And with my wife being a teacher in the district, we’ve talked about education and I thought it would be a good mix -- to understand some of the issues that the school district was facing from different sides and try to pull them all together.”
Barone voted against the 4-percent 2011-12 tax levy increase adopted by the board. He favored a $36,118,474 budget and 4.24-percent tax levy increase -- three cents more per $1,000 of assessed property value than the 4-percent proposal.
“I felt that the 4.24 was doable. For that little bit more we could have kept all the programs. We didn’t keep our LEAP (Learning Environment for Advanced Programming) program and...one section of first grade, which increases class sizes. That was a problem with me and that was one of the main reasons I voted against [the 4 percent],” said Barone.
In years to come, Barone wants the board to start the budget process early so creative solutions to budget shortfalls can be found. He would like to see the outstanding contract with the district’s support staff unit, HELPA, settled soon. Other priorities include investigating the realities of consolidation and shared services, as well as breathing life back into committees such as CASH (formed to investigate creative alternative funding sources for programming).
“CASH and CARE (Citizens’ Alliance to Reform Education) tried to bring some values back to the board, but it’s a hard process to get everybody on the same page, working together. That would be my priority for this coming year, and hopefully it’s the entire board’s priority,” he said.
Barone believes that state-level reforms are also needed. He advocates income-based school taxes and the institution of universal health care plans for state employees.
“They (New York State legislators) just have to look at funding education in a totally different manner than they do right now. It’s going to take a lot more than what a local district can do as far as making an impact on our taxes,” he said.
As a board member, Barone pledges to maintain a focus on balancing the needs of the students and the taxpayers.
“I think those who know me from past experiences know that I’m fair. I put my heart and soul into what I feel is the right thing for the community. I feel at the educational level, being a school board member, I definitely look out for the concerns of the taxpayers, the staff members and the children of our community,” he said.