Gail Stevens has been on the Batavia City School District Board of Education for six years. If reelected, she will be serving her third term.
Stevens has a daughter, Michelle, who graduated from Batavia High School and a son, Eric, who will be graduating from BHS this year.
She works as a secretary to the Supervisor of Fleet Management at the New York State Police Troop A and is active in many community volunteer activities (see her short biography on the school district website for more details).
What experience do you have that makes you a valuable member of the school board?
I served on the Pavilion Board of Education before I moved to Batavia 14 years ago, and I have been active at all the parent/teacher groups in the Batavia school district -- first at Robert Morris, then at the middle school and right now at the high school. We now have a district-wide parent/teacher group meeting twice a year, and I was instrumental in developing that, communicating with all the groups, pulling names together and setting the agenda.
I'm also on the Genesee Valley School Boards Institute's board -- they're the ones who develop training programs for different school districts in this area. In addition to that I'm a second vice president for the Genesee Valley School Boards Association, and then I'm currently on the legislative committee for Genesee Valley Educational Partnership Board (GVEP) -- formerly BOCES.
Serving on the GVEP board has been a very enriching and wonderful experience, because it takes you one step above the local school district. BOCES oversees 22 component schools, including Batavia. It really helps you to see the big picture. I've had wonderful opportunities to go to Washington and network with other school districts across New York State.
Also, over the past six years I've attended many school board training sessions, be they conventions, conferences or just all-day workshops. The school district is a whole different entity than what people see it as. It has its own laws -- laws that pertain to education and the State Education Department -- and different guidelines that have to be followed, and it's completely different in how it runs, how it can be run, and what you can and cannot do. So it's been a gradual process, and it's been a fun journey along the way learning and developing myself in that way. That's why I do this. I don't want to sit back and complain or make statements that aren't fact-based. I'm not that kind of person. If anyone comes to me and asks me a question, if I don't know the answer, I'll get it for them. And I'll make sure my answer is not based on hearsay or emotions. That's not my style. I'm a very fact-based person.
Why are you seeking reelection?
I've been part of the consolidation process for a long time, and contrary to what people think, this is not something that has just been thought about or mulled over during the past year. I remember us talking about it years ago, because -- also contrary to what people think -- we (the school district) do plan for the future.
Another thing I want to point out is that people say we don't communicate enough. But the more information you put out there, sometimes I think the more people get confused. Also, some of the information is evolving over time, like with anything else. It's kind of like when you have a job interview; you don't go out and tell the world that you got the job, because anything could happen.
We've had some really tough times and really tough decisions (to make) with this consolidation process -- and contrary to the popular opinion that the board always agrees, we don't always agree. So because of the consolidation process, which I was present for in the starting phases, I would like stay. I want to continue to help with the transition to consolidation.
Of the things you have seen during your tenure as a board member, what do you think the board has been doing well (that you would like to see continue), and what do you think needs to change?
We are very good at communicating with each other when we're at the table working. There's no screaming, no yelling...I've heard of other districts where board members walk out of meetings, and to me that's just a huge waste of time. (At Batavia school board meetings) everyone sits, everyone listens, everyone speaks their peace, and if they don't agree they will say, "I don't agree, but I will support this for the sake of the district," or "for the sake of the students," or "for the sake of the taxpayers," or what have you. Everyone thinks we're all "yes" people, but we really aren't all "yes" people. It's a very diverse section of people, and I think that's what makes it so good. We don't all have the same professional background, some of us have younger kids, some of us have older kids, etc. I think it's a good cross section of the community.
At this point, I don't believe anyone on the board has a personal agenda. I know I never have, and I still don't. I've seen other districts go through some very controversial times because of one or two board members. You can't be out in the community condemning your colleagues or other board members. If you're going to do that, you shouldn't be on the board.
As for the second part of your question, there is going to be a lot of change. The Batavia school district, as we know it now, is going to look totally different in the fall. Right now, I think that's enough change. I think that if you bite off more than you can chew and make too many changes at once, that upsets the equilibrium of the district. You have to take baby steps. You have to stop, see what you're doing, see where the problems are, and go forward. At this point, I think the biggest change will be the consolidation and any bumps that come out of that. That's enough for the district to handle at this point.
What are your thoughts on the proposed budget?
Obviously, I support it. If I didn't, I would not have voted in favor of it. Like I said before, sitting on the BOCES board, I obtain a lot of knowledge of what's going on in other districts. I think Batavia was very proactive and out ahead of everyone else, but the flip side of that was that we took a lot of heat from everybody. I had someone sit next to me at a meeting when I talked about the financial situation and the consolidation, and that person asked me, "Why are the districts around us not doing any of this?" Since we were upfront and making people aware of the consolidation, and the districts surrounding us -- not neighboring districts in this area, but other districts in New York State -- hadn't really come out publicly about their financial situations, we came across as acting too fast. But that's how it is. You've got to be proactive. Some districts don't have buildings to close, and they're in serious trouble.
Some people are opposed to the budget because they feel that school district employees are demanding excessive pay and benefits. How controllable are these things at the local level?
They're not. And it's not just the schoolteachers, it's any unionized group -- be it state workers, county workers, etc. If you have a contract, that's a binding agreement. Some people have said, "Make them take a pay freeze." Well, we can't. We would then have to spend even more taxpayer dollars fighting a lawsuit.
And you've got to work with them. That's one thing I can say about our administrators -- they work very well with the staff. We have a committee looking into cheaper medical insurance costs, and there are administrators and union people on that committee. So we're working on it. And that's one of the reasons I work on the legislative committee for BOCES. When we go to Albany every year, we draft a position paper, take it with us, sit down with the senators and the assemblymen, and we talk about (the various laws that pertain to this issue). There's a whole slew of laws in New York State that we would love to see changed, but New York State is a huge ship. You can't turn it suddenly.
So the salaries/benefits that people object to will remain in place even if the budget doesn't pass?
Absolutely. The only things that will be taken out are programs for the students. When you vote down the budget, the only people you're really hurting are the students. If you have an ax to ground with the teacher's association or the union, voting "no" isn't going to help. It's going to be nothing other than self-serving -- so that you can say "I'm happy because I voted 'no.' "
What these people should do is come to board meetings, listen, and educate themselves. (One of these people should) start as a budget ambassador -- that's how I started out. I was budget ambassador two or three years in a row before I half understood what was going on. My biggest pet peeve in life is complaining about something without being willing to do something to change it. If you're not going to work to change it, then don't complain.
What was the rationale behind the in-house administrator position at Batavia Middle School?
We've listened to the parents and their concerns. One of the biggest concerns was the fifth grade moving to the middle school. When all was said and done, parents' biggest concern was with the lack of supervision, the program there, what will be going on...there are going to be a lot of changes. We want the transition to the middle school to be a positive thing for the students, for the parents, and for the staff. As a parent myself, I would have been thrilled if my kids could have gone to the middle school for fifth grade and had the enrichment opportunities these kids will be getting, the exposure to technology, and everything that goes along with it. We want to make sure we don't short ourselves with personnel in that area, because we want this to succeed.
We don't want to set up any of our buildings for failure at all. That's one thing I have to say again about the administration: Contrary to what people think, they are very intelligent people, and a lot of the decisions they make are really well thought out.
Also, everyone keeps saying that we haven't cut administrators. The fact is, we have cut one administrator per year for the last four years. It's right on paper, and I've mapped it out for many people.
Do you have any closing comments?
I just encourage people to go out and vote. Vote however you want to vote, but please vote. It's sad to see the apathy that goes on sometimes. We typically don't see public participation as important until something bad happens, and then everybody's there. Well, we'd like to have everybody there at every meeting, listening, learning, obtaining information and sharing it with others.
Photo courtesy of the Batavia City School District.