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May 20, 2018 - 8:00am
posted by Howard B. Owens in schools, education, news, First Amendment, notify.

After reading Monday’s story in The Batavian about policies in five local school districts that prohibit individual school board members from sharing their views in public forums, such as news stories, the attorney for the New York State School Boards Association suggested that maybe something has been lost in the translation.

The NYSSBA’s policy recommendation seems clear: “ … whenever communicating about issues related to the district, each board member should clearly state that he or she is communicating a personal opinion and is not speaking for the board.”

Somewhere along the line, some school districts have turned this into a restriction on speech even by individual board members.

The fact that individuals don’t give up their First Amendment rights when elected to any public office, including school boards, could perhaps be more clearly communicated, suggested Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the NYSSBA.

“We’re the glad that you wrote the story,” Worona said, “it helps to remind us what the perspective of the press is related to covering their respective stories. Although board members, in the absence of being specifically authorized to speak on behalf of the board, may not do so (speak for the board). They certainly are not precluded from providing the press with their individual perspectives if they choose to do so.”

Further research by The Batavian on the topic also reveals the NYS Board of Education, as expressed in nearly a dozen rulings since 1978 by education commissioners, clearly supports the right of board members to speak freely. Ruling after ruling states, “Individual board members are entitled to express their views about issues concerning the district and engage in partisan activity, provided school district funds are not used.”

In our research, The Batavian also found another document from the NYSSBA that more clearly states that individual board members retain their free speech rights. 

“Individual school board members and other school officials, acting in their personal capacity, have the same right as any other member of the community to express their views on public issues,” the document states.

Yet, in Genesee County, there are five school districts – Alexander, Byron-Bergen, Le Roy, Oakfield-Alabama, Pavilion – that have articulated policies prohibiting individual board members from publicly stating their views outside of board meetings.

After reading The Batavian's story, Rick Blum, policy director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said he was baffled that elected bodies had such rules and the elected officials accepted such restrictions.

"I don’t understand how elected officials are not allowed to talk to their constituents," Blum said. "It doesn't make sense to me. If you are an elected representative, elected to run and administer a school board or any government agency or public office, you need to do it in a representative, democratic way."

Since the story appeared Monday, The Batavian has spoken with one local school official about speech restrictions.

Alexander Superintendent Catherine Huber, Ed.D., said -- in a single statement -- that board members both can and can't speak freely: They can't share their personal views on district business; and, they have the ability to express opinions. (NOTE: We will have more from this 45-minute interview in later stories.)

"Recently we did a board retreat and the board established norms, which you also probably saw on our website, and one of the norms that the board established was that they would speak with one voice," Huber said. "They would speak with one voice on matters related to the school district.

"Board members individually don't have power on their own. They have power and they come together around the board table. That is not the same as their inability to express an opinion. Anybody has the ability to express an opinion. But in terms of commenting on district business, the board members only can speak with that same one voice as a board and not as individuals and they've designated the superintendent, as they probably have in most school districts, as the spokesperson for the district."

In the interview, we compared the "one voice" policy to Communist China. Huber's only response, "You have the policies and I know you have the policies from the other school districts as well."

When The Batavian pointed out such a policy negates dissent or individual views, Huber responded, "It's in keeping with our policy. An important thing to keep in mind, too, is that one of the central jobs of a Board of Education is that they get to approve a policy. So Boards of Education approve the policy that talks about things like who is the spokesperson for the board."

When The Batavian tried to talk with Alexander board members after an April 23 meeting, Huber stepped in, and board members reiterated, that only she could speak to reporters, a communication transaction Huber confirmed during Wednesday's interview.

After that encounter and subsequent communications with the district, The Batavian decided to survey the seven other school district's in the county expecting to find Alexander's policy was an anomaly. What we found is, it is not. While the policies of Batavia, Pembroke, and Elba are, arguably, the anomaly, there are five districts willing to openly state board members can't speak freely.

There does seem to be some confusion in Elba about the policy. While Superintendent Keith Palmer said, "Board members should emphasize to the media when asked to speak as a board member that they can only speak as a private citizen," which is in keeping with NYSSBA guidelines. When, however, The Batavian attempted to send interview questions to Elba's lone school board candidate, Candy Bezon, she declined to answer citing board policy.

The story about board member speech restrictions seemed to surprise NYSSBA's Worona. He indicated he didn't know such policies existed at school districts in New York.

The NYSSBA serves 660 school boards in New York and provides information, training and advice on matters affecting school boards to its members.

Worona said if there is a lack of clarity among school boards, it something NYSSBA should address.

"We want to make sure our school boards are judged by what they do not how they do it," Worona said.

It's reasonable for school boards to have a designated spokesperson, whether that's the board president or the superintendent, because a spokesperson is likely to be the person with the most knowledge and information about a particular topic, but a board designating a spokesperson should not be confused with the right of individual board members to answer questions, or for reporters to ask them.

Board members, of course, have a right to decline interview requests for their own personal reasons.

“Some board member who wishes not to speak the press may not do so, not to be difficult, but because they don’t feel comfortable with that media," Worona said.

Some school district and board policies may not necessarily reflect that nuance, Worona said.

There's no nuance, however, in the decisions issued by NYS Board of Education commissioners going back to 1978 when a commissioner ruled on the appeal of Rita Wolfe. 

Wolfe was a Cold Spring Harbor School Board member who sent letters to residents of Cold Spring Harbor encouraging them to vote against a proposed school budget, an action the commissioner ruled was not illegal since Wolfe lobbied residents at her own expense.

"Although an individual board member or those members holding a minority view are not entitled to have their opinions published at the district's expense in board publications, this does not mean that the individual board member may not communicate his views at his own expense."

The Wolfe decision (which, given it is from 1978, is not available online) is cited in several subsequent commissioner decisions. Decisions that either site Wolfe or state the same principle include the application of Katrina Dinan, application of Rhea Vogel, the appeal of Kevin R. Allen, the appeal of Jeremy J. Krantz (which also notes that school district employees enjoy the same right to publicly express their personal views), the appeal of Guilaine Leger-Vargas, the appeal of Dione Goldin (which involves comments Goldin made to a newspaper reporter), the application of Kaila Eisenkraft, the appeal of Glen W. Johnson, the appeal of Vincent Wallace, and the application of Julianne C. Gabryel.

What an individual reporter can do about government policies that prohibit free speech by elected officials may be limited; though courts have found, such as in Chicago Reader v. Sheahan that government agencies can't argue that alternative newsgathering resources are available as an excuse for refusing direct access to a primary source. Yet this is what Attorney Jennifer Schwartzott -- who represents Alexander, Byron-Bergen, and Pembroke -- suggested when defending school districts' speech policies.

"Community members who are interested in what the local board members have to say can attend board meetings when the members discuss issues, share their opinions, and make decisions," Schwartzott said in response to questions emailed to her last week about individual board member rights.

Speech restrictions, however, abridge the rights most directly of school board members.

David C. Bloomfield, J.D., professor of Education Law at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Grad Center, and author of a book on education law written for community members who wish to better keep tabs on their local school boards, said board members who wish to challenge the speech restrictions might best be served by going to the NYSSBA to get information to bring back to their fellow board members. If necessary, however, they might need to file an application or appeal with the education commissioner.

"The new information (the decisions mentioned above that we found since the last story, with the help of Bloomfield) seals the deal," Bloomfield said. "Rather than speculating, it’s right there, spelled out in black and white. A district shouldn’t even discourage board members from speaking out. The First Amendment should be exercised."

There is no specific state law, such as the Freedom of Information Law or the Open Meetings Law, that addresses directly a board member's right to speak freely but such a law shouldn't be necessary, said Robert Freeman, director of the state's Committee On Open Government. "We have the First Amendment.

“If a board member is speaking out, it’s up to the board to take action, and I don’t think a board would, if they thought about this, because I think a board would recognize the right of a board member to speak out, absent not representing himself or herself, as speaking for the board,” Freeman said.

Later he added, “If a board member wants to speak out then I think he or she should and challenge the policy.”

If board members won't protect themselves, it will be up to voters to make changes, said the Reporters Committee policy Director Blum.

"I think the public is going to have to elect people who are going to change school board policy," Blum said.

May 19, 2018 - 6:24pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in WNY Tech Academy, byron-bergen, schools, education, news, business.

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The Western New York Tech Academy, at Byron-Bergen High School, hosted its first mentor's breakfast Friday morning and handed out three significant awards for the first time.

Isaac Ladley, a junior in the program, received the first-ever Professional of the Year award. Pictured with Ladley are faculty members Miranda Wharram-Santillo, Thomas Schulte (principal), Mariah LaSpina, Kathryn Beaumont, and Sean Madden.

The breakfast was followed by a business fair and mock employment interviews.

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Liberty Pumps was selected as Business Partner of the Year. Pictured are Jeff Cook, David Williams, Robyn Brookhart, Dennis Burke, and Thomas Schulte.

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The Mentor of the Year is Gina Lathan. Pictured with Lathan, a student she mentored, Rebecca Haniscewski, and Thomas Schulte.

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May 16, 2018 - 1:39pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in byron-bergen, schools, education, news.

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Ruger Starowitz for his science fair project at Byron-Bergen Elementary School made maple syrup. His father said he had ot use hand tools just like his grandfather would have done.

The science fair and an art show were part of an open house at the school last night. The student art show featured a unique black light art display.

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May 15, 2018 - 9:36pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in schools, education, news.

Here are results from the elections in Genesee County's eight school districts. Voting was held today.

Alexander

Proposition #1, Budget: Yes: 152, No: 32
Proposition #2, Bus Purchases: Yes: 139, No: 46
Proposition #3, Equipment Capital Reserve: Yes: 132, No: 53
Proposition #4, Capital Reserve Fund: Yes: 146, No: 38
Proposition #5, Capital Reserve Fund: Yes 150, No: 34

Board of Education, Sara Fernaays: 151. Write-Ins: 8

Note: These results provided by our news partner WBTA. Alexander CSD did not respond to our request for results.

Batavia:

Budget ($52,189,152 (increase of $2,318,567 or 4.65 percent; 2.40 percent increase in tax levy): Yes: 371 (78.27 percent), No: 103 (21.73 percent)
Student Ex-Officio Board Member (non-voting): Yes: 422 (89.03 percent), No: 52  (10.97 percent) 

Board of Education positions (Three) (Top vote term is from May 15, 2018 to June 30, 2021, and the next two terms are from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2021):  Zachary Korzelius, 408, Shawna Murphy, 407, Patrick Burk, 387.

Byron-Bergen:

Proposition 1 (Budget) Yes: 448, No: 125, Passed
Proposition 2 (Bus Purchase) Yes: 439, No: 128, Passed  

Board Member Elected -- Three-year Terms: William Forsyth: 480, Debi List: 429, Amy Mathisen, 165.

Elba:

Proposition #1 -- 2018-2019 Budget -- $9,720,931: Yes: 108, No: 40.
Proposition #2 – Capital Vehicle Reserve to purchase one (1) 65-passenger school bus: Yes: 116, No: 33

Board of Education, Candy Bezon (Incumbent): 133

Le Roy

Budget: Yes: 319, No: 65
Library Budget: Yes: 345, No: 39

School Board Members (Vote for Three): William Mackenzie: 322, Lloyd Miller: 289, Lawrence Bonacquisti: 309. Write-ins (one vote each): Mickey Mouse, Stan Barringer, Phil Mangefrida.

Woodward Memorial Library Trustee (Vote for One): Philip Weise: 342. Write-ins (receiving one vote each): Rob Currin, Porpus Rogers, Brian Manley.

Oakfield-Alabama:

Proposition #1: Budget -- Yes: 255    No: 60, Passed
Proposition #2: Buses -- Yes: 278    No:  63, Passed

BOE Members:
Timothy Edgerton: 254
Lorna Klotzbach: 217
Douglas Esten: 141

Pavilion:

Budget, Yes: 156, No: 32, Passed

Board of Education, five-year term (vote for one): Christopher Jeffres: 93, John Bannister (Incumbent): 89.

Pembroke:

Budget Yes: 301 No: 73, Passed 80.5 percent
Authorization to Purchase School Buses, Yes: 301, No: 73, Passed 80.5 percent
Authorization to Establish a Facilities Improvement Reserve Fund, Yes: 296, No: 75, Passed 79.8 percent

Running for a Five-year Term on the School Board: John A. Cima,  335 Votes

May 15, 2018 - 6:30am
posted by Howard B. Owens in schools, education, news, notify.

Today is the day that residents of Genesee County are being asked to vote for school budgets and members of the board of education.

For the boards of education, we sent candidate questions to 17 school board candidates. Only four candidates answered the questions (noted below). For more information on rules aimed at silencing school board members see our story from yesterday Five school districts in Genesee County restrict speech for board members.

Here's available information for each district in Genesee County:

Alexander: Voters are being asked to approve a $17,704,810 budget with a tax levy of 6,154,675. Besides the budget, there are four other propositions on the ballot. There is one candidate for school board, Sara Fernaays, who did not respond to questions about her positions.

Batavia: From the district website: "The Board of Education, at their meeting on April 10, adopted a 2018-2019 school budget proposal to be brought to the Batavia residents for vote next month. The proposed budget presents a spending plan of $52,189,152, an increase of 4.65% over 2017-2018, but with slightly more than $2.1 million attributable to State aid through the Smart School Bonds Act. The projected tax levy increase associated with the proposal is slightly less than 2.4%. According to New York State's formula, this year's allowable tax cap for a simple majority vote in our District is 7.17%; the projected levy is 4.77% less than that cap." The school board candidates are Patrick Burk, Zachary Korzelius, and Shawna Murphy. None of the three incumbents responded to candidate questions.

Byron-Bergen: From the Byron-Bergen Newsletter: 2018-19 Proposed Budget The $22,998,010 proposed budget projects a 1.01% increase. The budget was balanced utilizing Fund Balance, Reserves, and various reductions in spending. The tax levy is at Byron-Bergen’s “allowable” tax levy limit (cap) of 2.77%. This will enable us to go out under law with a simple majority vote. There are two open school board seats and three candidates: Amy Mathisen, who responded to candidate questions, Deb List (Did not respond) and Bill Forsyth (Did not respond).

Elba: We couldn't find the district's budget information on its website. We were provided a link this morning. Here is a statement from the district's budget newsletter: "The proposed school budget for 2018-19 is in the amount of $9,720,931, an increase of approximately $447,000 (4.82%) over last year’s budget. Most of our increase will be reimbursed through an increase in State Aid and a local levy increase of $59,244 (2% over last year’s levy). " There is one candidate for school board, Candy Bezon, who declined to answer candidate questions.

Le Roy: The budget is $25,199,228 which is an increase of 2.77% or $678,510. The levy will increase by 2 percent, which is below the tax cap formula, and the rate will be $24.54. School board candidates are: William MacKenzie, Lloyd Miller, and Lawrence Bonacquisti. None of the candidates responded to our candidate questions.

Oakfield-Alabama: The school budget for 2018-19 is $20,250,350. There was no further information we could find on the district's website. There are two seats open on the school board and candidates are: Tim Edgerton (Click here for response), Lorna Klotzbach (Click here for response), and Douglas Esten (Did not respond)

Pavilion: We couldn't find budget information on the district's website. School board candidates are: John Banister (Did not respond) and Christopher Jeffres (Did not respond). UPDATE: We were told this morning the total budget is $17,485,851 and the proposed tax levy is $5,517,797.

Pembroke: The general fund budget is $22,284,632, an increase of $698,530 over this year. The proposed tax levy is $8,101,329. There is one school board candidate, John Cima, who did respond to our candidate questions (Click here for response).

For times and locations of polls, check with your school district.

May 14, 2018 - 8:00am
posted by Howard B. Owens in news, schools, education, notify.

Tomorrow voters throughout Genesee County will be asked to cast ballots for school board candidates in our area's eight school districts, although in many cases they will know little about the policy positions of those candidates because of school district restrictions on board member speech.

There are five school districts in Genesee County that bar school board members from publicly sharing their opinions on any school district issues -- Alexander, Byron-Bergen, Le Roy, Oakfield-Alabama, and Pavilion.

As The Batavian found over the past two weeks, these restrictions can even have a chilling effect on candidates who have not yet won a seat on a school board.

The first hint that these policies existed arose on April 23 when members of the Alexander Central School District Board declined to answer questions about policy issues in the district, citing a rule that required all statements to come from the district's superintendent, Catherine Huber, Ed.D.

That prompted an investigation by The Batavian into board member speech policies of all eight school districts in the county. We expected the Alexander policy to be an anomaly. But it isn't.

Five districts clearly prohibit school board members from making any public statements outside of a school board meeting.

School Board Candidate Questions
The Batavian sent five questions to each of the 17 school board candidates who are asking for your votes tomorrow. Only four returned responses.

Alexander Central School:

  • Sara Fernaays (Did not respond)

Batavia City Schools:

  • Pat Burk (Did not respond)
  • Zach Korzelius (Did not respond)
  • Shawna Murphy (Did not respond)

Byron-Bergen Central School:

Elba Central School:

  • Candy Bezon (Declined to respond)

Le Roy Central School

  • William MacKenzie (Did not respond)
  • Lloyd Miller (Did not respond)
  • Lawrence Bonacquisti (Did not respond)

Oakfield-Alabama Central School:

Pavilion

  • John Banister (Did not respond)
  • Christopher Jeffres (Did not respond)

Pembroke:

According to legal experts contacted by The Batavian, these policies likely violate the First Amendment rights of those school board members.

Robert Freedman, director of the state's Committee on Open Government, said he's run across these school district prohibitions before and he doesn't believe they would withstand a court challenge.

"Certainly, school board members should not be able to speak on behalf of the school board unless authorized," Freedman said. "But a school board member, like any other citizen of the United States, has the right, and should be encouraged, to speak on matters of public concern."

School board attorney defends speech restrictions
Jennifer Schwartzott, the attorney for the Alexander Central School District, defended her district's policy and said: "It has nothing to do with the First Amendment." She said state and federal law, along with regulations, commissioner’s decisions, and NYS case law support the position that only the superintendent can speak publicly.

NOTE:  Jennifer Schwartzott has left a comment on this story and communicated with us via email indicating she does not believe this story accurately represents her views. Please see her comment and our response below.

Schwartzott also represents Byron-Byron Central School District.

Asked for legal citations to support her claim, Schwartzott responded, "I am not going to provide you with free legal advice or do your research for you. The extensive statutory provisions of the Education Law and the corresponding regulations are available online if you wish to review them."

At her suggestion, we looked at articles 31, 35, and 37 of the state's Education Code and couldn't find a single sentence to quote that supports her assertion that state law prohibits school board members from expressing their personal opinions on matters of public interest.

Here's what Schwartzott said about the state law: "The Education Law dictates that boards of education must appoint Superintendents, and the Superintendents shall be 'the chief executive officer[s] of the school district[s],' and 'speak on all matters' on the districts’ behalves."

The question, however, isn't whether board members can individually speak on the district's behalf but whether they can publicly share their own point of view on issues of importance to the district.

New York's education law also says the "superintendent shall be under the direction of the board of education." 

At her suggestion, we also searched for case law that supports Schwartzott's assertion that board member speech can be restricted and could find none.

We did find a case that confirms elected officials enjoy First Amendment protection for speech related to their elected duties. 

Republican Party of Minn. v. White, for example, states, “The role that elected officials play in our society makes it all the more imperative that they be allowed freely to express themselves on matters of current public importance.” 

We also found reference to a case in Arizona where a school board VP was demoted after criticizing the superintendent. A court ruled that the board had a right to pick somebody with opinions better aligned with its own views on policy matters but the former VP was allowed to retain his seat on the board.

We also couldn't find regulations nor commissioner's decisions that support Schwartzott's assertion. We spent hours searching through commissioner's decisions using various search terms and could not find any decisions that indicated school districts could restrict board member speech.

David C. Bloomfield, professor of Education Law at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Grad Center, whom we contacted with the help the Education Law Association, said he knew of no law or case law that prohibited school board members from answering the questions of reporters, or any other member of the public, or otherwise publicly sharing their own personal views on matters of public interest related to his or her school district.

“That’s protected First Amendment speech," Bloomfield said. “Individual board members cannot be prohibited from expressing their opinions publicly on district policies. They are not required to express their opinions but they may express their opinions as a First Amendment matter."

School Taxes
School board members make many decisions each year that affect the lives of local residents, including determining how much we pay in taxes. Here is a sampling of what percentage school districts take in local taxes.

  • Alexander CSD in the Town of Alexander: 49 percent.
  • City Schools, in the City of Batavia: 47 percent
  • Byron-Bergen CSD in the Town of Bergen: 48 percent.
  • Byron-Bergen CSD in the Town of Byron: 53 percent.
  • Elba CSD in the Town of Elba: 50 percent.
  • Le Roy CSD in the Town of Le Roy: 58 percent.
  • Oakfield-Alabama CSD in the Town of Oakfield: 50 percent.
  • Oakfield-Alabama CSD in the Town of Alabama: 53 percent.
  • Pavilion CSD in the Town of Pavilion: 49 percent.
  • Pembroke CSD in the Town of Pembroke: 52 percent.

He added, “A school board member can speak about their understanding of school district policies but should be clear they don’t individually speak for the school district. That is properly the responsibility of the board president or superintendent.”

Batavia, Elba, and Pembroke all have more permissive policies than the five districts that have essentially placed a gag rule on school board members.

Candidate questions
To test school board member's understanding of their district's policies on board member speech, we sent five questions to each of the 17 candidates for school board seats in tomorrow's elections. We sent the questions last Monday with a deadline of 5 p.m. Thursday to respond.

We received responses from only five candidates.

Four of those candidates answered the questions (see sidebar).

One candidate, and a current school board member, from Elba, declined to answer the questions even though Elba's policy appears to allow school board members to express individual opinions.

"Thanks for reaching out," said Candy Bezon from Elba CSD. "I think it's great that you're doing that. Being a current Board member, I wish to decline to comment at this time as our current policy is that any media communication should be directed to our Superintendent, Keith Palmer or Board President, Mike Augello. Thank you and I hope you're having a great day."

Palmer shared the district's written policy, which says in part, "The Board President is designated as the spokesperson for the Board when the Board is making a statement on an issue. No other member of the Board individually will speak for, or in the name of, the Board unless by explicit direction of the Board. Board members should emphasize to the media when asked to speak as a board member that they can only speak as a private citizen."

For the 12 candidates who did not respond to the questionnaire, we sent a follow-up request for comment Friday morning (we also sent a reminder email Thursday morning, ahead of the deadline) and inquired as to why they did not respond to the candidate's questions. Not one of the dozen who ignored the candidate's questions acknowledged the follow-up questions.

We actually communicated with one candidate seeking votes, Sara Fernaays, who is unopposed for school board in Alexander, through Facebook messages. She also did not respond. The prior week, The Batavian attempted to interview her after a school board meeting and she declined an interview saying she feared trouble with the school district if she spoke with a reporter.

Policies in Batavia and Pembroke
In our research to uncover specific school board policies for all eight school districts in Genesee County, we first contacted Pat Burk, president of the board for city schools.

Burk said the way he understood New York law, school board members could share their personal opinions but should be clear they are not speaking for the board. They also must be careful not to discuss confidential information, such as information regarding specific students.

There are state and federal laws that protect certain student information (but not all student information) from disclosure.

"They (board members) are allowed to give their opinion but it is only a personal opinion, it is not reflective of the Board," Burk said in an email. "Most Board Members should, of course, say something on an individual issue to the extent of, 'While I feel___________, this is a matter for the entire Board and together we support _____________.  I stand by the Board's decision.'

"So with that in mind," he added, "many choose not to speak individually as it really doesn't carry any weight other than it is a personal opinion. I always tend to be pretty open about my personal opinions on school matters as long as they can be discussed, but I am very certain that the person I am speaking to realizes that it is a personal opinion and not the decision of the Board."

We were surprised, then, when Burk, as well as the other two school board candidates (Zach Korzelius and Shawna Murphy) in tomorrow's city schools election, did not respond to our questionnaire. Nor did any of the three acknowledge our follow-up email.

When they failed to respond, we followed up Superintendent Christopher Dailey, who also said school board members were free to express their own opinions on matters related to the school district so long as they protected confidentiality, though it is best to refer questions to a designated spokesperson.

"For District policies and issues that our BOE votes on, the Board practice is to have a spokesperson to share the result of the decision of the Board, if asked by the media," Dailey said.

The other school district in Genesee County that does not restrict board member speech is Pembroke.

Superintendent Matthew Caledron engaged in a transparent and lengthy email exchange with The Batavian about the issue.

Calderon said he believes board members in Pembroke would abide by the policy that questions from a reporter be funneled through the superintiendent; they are not prohibited from sharing their personal opinions on matters before the board.

"I am the official spokesperson, and at Board meetings, it is the Board President," Calderon said. "Individual Board members cannot speak on behalf of the Board or District, and if an individual board members wished to share their personal views with a reporter (or anybody else), while they have the constitutional right to do so, they would probably opt not to do so because most matters are best left to the superintendent or Board President to discuss."

In Calderon's first email response to The Batavian, he pointed us to policy guidelines from the New York School Boards Association that recommends school boards have a designated spokesperson and that individual board members only speak publicly when they make it clear they are expressing their own personal opinion.

From Calderon's email quoting NYSBA policy guidelines:

... when making statements to stakeholders, the public or the media, school board members have a duty to distinguish personal opinion from the established policy or articulated views of the board.  Only the board as a whole, or its designee, has authority to speak for the board.  Therefore, whenever communicating about issues related to the district, each board member should clearly state that he or she is communicating a personal opinion and is not speaking for the board.

One of the four candidates to answer our candidate's questions is John Cima, school board president, and the only candidate on Pembroke's ballot.

What's interesting about Pembroke's more permissive policy is the law firm Osborn, Reed & Burk LLP represents Pembroke, according to the district's minutes for its 2017-18 organizational meeting. Jennifer Schwartzott, the attorney for Alexander and Byron-Bergen, who has defended the speech restrictions in those districts, is a partner in that Rochester-based law firm.

School districts that restrict speech
Here is an overview of the responses we got when we surveyed school district's on their policies:

Alexander: Their policy was uncovered through prior coverage, which sparked this investigation.

Byron-Bergen: Superintendent Mickey Edwards said "I am the official spokesperson for the District per my contract and Board Policy. 'All statements of the Board will be released through the Office of the Superintendent...' An individual Board member should not make public comment on District matters."

Le Roy: Superintendent Merritt Holley said: "Our Board Policy states #3110, 'All statements of the Board will be released through the Office of the Superintendent and/or District Clerk.' For Le Roy CSD, this policy would direct all statements or questions from the Board to come through my office for publication."

Oakfield-Alabama: Board President Kimberly Staniszewski responded to our inquiry and stated: "All communication is delivered to the media by our school Superintendent or his/her designee. No board member is permitted to speak to the media unless authorized to do so by the Superintendent. I have attached Oakfield-Alabama media policy #3110." The attached copy of policy #3110 is about news releases and is moot on the question of whether board members are entitled to their own publicly shared opinions. Nor does it explicitly direct board members to refer questions to the superintendent. We requested clarification from Staniszewski and did not get a response.

Pavilion: Board President Marirose Ethington responded by quoting the district's policy manual: "As the official spokesperson, the Superintendent or his/her designee shall issue all news releases concerning the District. All statements of the Board will be released through the Office of the Superintendent and/or the District Clerk. Identifying a media spokesperson who will be briefed on all details. This spokesperson shall be the Superintendent or his/her designee. Only this spokesperson shall talk to and maintain a timely flow of information to the media."

Policies elsewhere
The Batavian performed a deep search of online resources to find any legal support for speech-restriction policies and could find none. Where we did find school boards and school board associations that address the issue, the common theme is: School boards should have an official spokesperson and emphasize that school board members are free to answer questions for public review but should emphasize they are speaking for themselves only.

In Ohio, for example, the Ohio School Board Association says: "Dealing with the news media can be intimidating, but responding to journalists is an important responsibility of school board members and administrators."

Stacy Bogard, a public relations specialist advising the Michigan School Boards Association wrote in a column, "you’ll want to do whatever you can to ensure that the media receives openness, honesty, accessibility and trustworthiness from every member of your board and administration."

Even the National School Board Association says that part of a school board member's job is talking with the media.

There have been a couple of attempts we found around the nation of school board members pushing to prohibit other school board members from talking with reporters and in those articles, attorneys and school board associations tend to agree such policies are unconstitutional, such as in New Jersey.

Janet Bamford, a spokesperson for the New Jersey School Boards Association, confirmed in a statement to the Herald on Friday that board members do indeed have that right and do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when serving on a school board.

"Typically boards, as a best practice matter, will designate someone to be the spokesperson for the district, usually the board president and the superintendent," Bamford wrote.

"However, school board members retain their First Amendment rights to comment on anything; however, they must make certain that it is known that they are only speaking for themselves, and not on behalf of the Board of Education."

In Houston, it was school board members who complained that district policies violated their free speech guarantees.

Local government reaction
Over the past two weeks, as we discussed these policies with elected officials in local government, they expressed surprise that such policies existed in local school districts, especially when school districts take such a large chunk of tax revenue from local property owners (see sidebar).

We asked Bob Bauch, chairman of the Genesee County Legislature about it, and he was just as shocked as everybody else and has a hard time believing it's actually true.

“I just can’t imagine a basis for that, if, in fact, it’s true -- that you could possibly tell an elected official they cannot talk to the press, particularly during an election campaign when they’re up for office,” Bausch said.

The way Jennifer Schwartzott, the attorney for Alexander and Byron-Bergen, sees it, school board members speaking at sparsely attended school board meetings should be sufficient for the public to understand their thinking on issues of public interest.

"The Education Law also confirms that in their individual capacities school board members do not have any greater power than other community members," Schwartzott said. "Their power to exercise their board duties arises when they are collectively assembled as a board, as is the case with most boards in municipal and even corporate settings. Community members who are interested in what the local board members have to say can attend board meetings when the members discuss issues, share their opinions, and make decisions."

NOTE:  Jennifer Schwartzott has left a comment on this story and communicated with us via email indicating she does not believe this story accurately represents her views. Please see her comment and our response below.

At school board meetings, members of the public, of course, are generally prohibited from entering into a dialogue with board members during board discussions to better probe each member's thinking on issues.

Bausch said he understands the need of reporters to ask questions after a meeting and thinks it is simply part of the process of informing the public.

“If you believe in a free press and public elections, I don’t see how you could possibly say you can’t talk to the press," Bausch said. "I mean, I could say something at Ways and Means that I’m going to vote a certain way and I and the other legislators could all agree and then vote.

"That doesn’t necessarily explain to you in any way what my thinking is on why I voted the way I did. It happens all the time, you could say, ‘I understand your vote but could you explain it to me?’ That’s your job if you’re going to represent yourself as a news person or a reporter or a member of the public.”

May 14, 2018 - 7:55am
posted by Howard B. Owens in oakfield-alabama, schools, education, news.

The Batavian emailed candidate questions to all 17 candidates in Genesee County's eight school districts that are holding elections on Tuesday. Only four returned completed questionnaires. 

This is the response from Lorna Klotzbach, a candidate for the Oakfield-Alabama Central School District Board. There are two other candidates in the race: Tim Edgerton, who also answered our questions, and Douglas Esten, who did not.

1. What is your position on your school district’s proposed budget for 2018-19? What parts do you support? What parts would you change if you could?

I will vote “yes” on the budget for 2018-2019. There are allocations of funds in it that I would change. I would reduce administrative and other costs in favor of maintaining good academic programs that are now in place, but which are being cut in the new budget. I would change the way our computer technology monies are being spent because I have not seen benefits from several of the BOE’s 2017-2018 technology spending decisions, and doubt the wisdom of some of their new budget decisions as well. 

2. Are teachers in your district compensated adequately?

Teachers at OACS are compensated adequately for most things that we do. Of course, we all tend to want more than we have! We have difficulty finding competent substitute teachers so when we do find competent ones, those individuals should be paid more for their competence. My major disagreement with OA teacher compensation is that some non-athletic extra-curricular positions are not compensated at a rate equal to the athletic coaches. Many of these positions require as much time, creativity and student-teacher interaction as the athletic coaching positions do. Since many of these positions are, perhaps, more likely to prepare students for future successes in college, career, and character, they deserve as much compensation as the athletic positions.

3. Parents are more nervous than ever about school safety. Is your district’s communication to parents about school safety policies and procedures adequate? Should parents and the community be informed when a student makes a threat of violence against the school?

OACS administration keeps their public informed of threats to student safety. OA administration makes use of the “robo-calling” system and letters/emails to inform parents of problems as they become aware of such problems. If upon investigation, threats made by students seem to be credible, then the public should be informed. In our small community, many people are interested in, and affected by, the school’s schedule so our district’s notification system would be more effective if it was extended to residents who are not also parents or teachers.

4. Are you satisfied that your district responds to parents’ complaints and concerns in a way that ensures the parents know they have been heard?

There are many stakeholders in our district, including parents. There are also teachers and students who are most affected by BOE and administrators’ policy and daily decisions. Our district could improve its response to all stakeholders’ complaints, compliments, and concerns.

5. What two books published since The Enlightenment have influenced you the most?

The two books published since the Enlightenment that have influenced me the most have been modern translations of the Bible, and “Hawaii,” by James Michener. I followed my siblings’ example and read that big novel while still very young. It taught me to read more than just the dialogue pages. It opened up to me the influences of history, geography, cultural norms, and politics on regular people’s daily lives. I read books much differently after I grappled with all of the novel’s “other pages” of description and discovered the wealth they could deliver. The modern translations of the Bible challenged and deepened my Christian faith beyond a childlike conformity to my family’s norms. The modern language Bible showed me a living God.

May 14, 2018 - 7:55am
posted by Howard B. Owens in oakfield-alabama, schools, education, news.

The Batavian emailed candidate questions to all 17 candidates in Genesee County's eight school districts that are holding elections on Tuesday. Only four returned completed questionnaires. 

This is the response from Tim Edgerton, a candidate for the Oakfield-Alabama Central School District board. There are two other candidates in the race: Lorna Klotzbach, who also answered our questions, and Douglas Esten, who did not.

1. What is your position on your school district’s proposed budget for 2018-19? What parts do you support? What parts would you change if you could?

Upon my review of the Oakfield-Alabama 2018-19 proposed budget I believe that it represents a collaborative effort by school officials to present a fiscally responsible budget to the community. The budget allows the district to maintain academic programming as well as continue to offer a variety of extracurricular activities to engage our students. Resources appear to have been appropriately allocated where the needs of the district are indicated. As costs continue to rise, the district must adjust resources to cover operating costs. Preparing and enacting a budget is a constant juggling act that requires oversight by school officials and community members. From last year’s budget to this year’s budget there has only been a slight increase in overall spending and the tax levy. I concur with the budget that is proposed, and at this time I would not make any changes to it.

2. Are teachers in your district compensated adequately?

This is a complicated issue because it involves a budget process and reliance in large part on the school aid that we receive from Albany. It is without hesitation that I agree that entry-level salaries for teachers could be improved upon, (as well as pay increments throughout their tenure), not only here at OA but across the nation. Unfortunately, the demands of a responsible school budget along with a decreasing tax base hinders administrators and school boards and diminishes the flexibility in this area.

3. Parents are more nervous than ever about school safety. Is your district’s communication to parents about school safety policies and procedures adequate? Should parents and the community be informed when a student makes a threat of violence against the school?

Overall the school district does a good job keeping the community/parents informed about situations involving student safety. Practice drills involving school lockdown are conducted throughout the school year. Security enhancements continue to be implemented/upgraded accordingly; parents are notified and brought into the loop regarding student safety issues promptly and as necessary. As is always the case, there is always room to enhance current procedures and communication. This is an area that requires school officials and Board of Education members to be extremely proactive. They must continue to seek out best practices across the world, and where possible, implement them accordingly.

4. Are you satisfied that your district responds to parents’ complaints and concerns in a way that ensures the parents know they have been heard?

I feel that the school administration and teaching staff do a sufficient job in addressing parents concerns regarding their children and situations that develop within the school. However, there are always opportunities to improve the methods and processes that are utilized. School officials should be encouraged to continuously seek out best practices that are utilized by other school districts throughout the nation and explore implementing them.

5. What two books published since The Enlightenment have influenced you the most?

The two books that have influenced me the most are The Carrot Principle by Adrian Robert Gostick, and Chester Elton, and Pyramid for Success by John Wooden. From The Carrot Principle, I absorbed the importance of positive reinforcement and recognition. Everyone, be they teachers or students, need and should be given recognition for achievements and going above and beyond the call of duty. Pyramid of Success I believe is an excellent guide through, and preparation for life. It emphasizes the importance of an individual’s character, which I believe is all-important, especially an individual’s character when no one is looking. If the principles in this book were appropriately applied in a school setting, I believe that administration, faculty, and students, could all achieve maximum potential.

May 14, 2018 - 7:55am
posted by Howard B. Owens in byron-bergen, schools, education, news.

The Batavian emailed candidate questions to all 17 candidates in Genesee County's eight school districts that are holding elections on Tuesday. Only four returned completed questionnaires. 

This is the response from Amy Mathisen, a candidate in the Byron-Bergen Central School District. Neither of the other two candidates, Deb List or Bill Forsyth, responded.

1. What is your position on your school district’s proposed budget for 2018-19? What parts do you support? What parts would you change if you could?

I support Byron Bergen's budget. I would change the constant decrease in aid for schools. Unfortunately, there are some variables that can not be changed, such as retirement, and teaching salaries. I was not involved in determining the budget, as I did not attend the meetings they had, mostly because I did not know they were occurring.

2. Are teachers in your district compensated adequately?

That is a loaded question and I an split on this topic. I think there are some that are under-compensated and others that are over-compensated. In my opinion there needs to be a way to determine an effective teacher, through confidential peer reviews, student reviews, and teacher reviews. I always reviewd my kids teachers thru elementary school by sending a letter to the superintendent. I do encourage other parents to do the same, not just in the bad years, but on the good years as well.

3. Parents are more nervous than ever about school safety. Is your district’s communication to parents about school safety policies and procedures adequate? Should parents and the community be informed when a student makes a threat of violence against the school?

Yes, I feel our school is safe. As far violent threats by a student there is a fine line there. I would hope our board would be notified and they would handle the situation appropriately. 

4. Are you satisfied that your district responds to parents’ complaints and concerns in a way that ensures the parents know they have been heard?

Personally, yes I am satisfied with how complaints are handled at the district level. The superintendent is always very receptive to feedback and the board members I have brought issues to have taken steps to make changes, based on the complaints.

5. What two books published since The Enlightenment have influenced you the most?

I really am not a book reader. I am a here and now person; however, I am a quote girl and love Albert Einstein.

May 14, 2018 - 7:55am
posted by Howard B. Owens in pembroke, Pembroke Central School District, news, schools, education.

The Batavian emailed candidate questions to all 17 candidates in Genesee County's eight school districts that are holding elections on Tuesday. Only four returned completed questionnaires.  

This is the response from John Cima, the candidate lone in the Pembroke Central School District.

1. What is your position on your school district’s proposed budget for 2018-19? What parts do you support? What parts would you change if you could?

The Board voted unanimously to approve the proposed budget and we collectively support every part of it. We have had many discussions during the school year where we analyze budget items as a corporate body and made decisions based on that data. All board members are heard and we talk through any sticking points and concerns to reach consensus as a group. The proposed budget being presented to voters is one that all board members support without reservation. 

2. Are teachers in your district compensated adequately?

Collectively, I believe if you ask our teachers, they will tell you that Pembroke is a special place to work! As long as I have been serving on the Board we have looked at the District as a school district of opportunity for both students and staff. Being a rural school district we sometimes find ourselves having to do more with fewer resources than wealthier districts. Our teachers have risen to the occasion with creativity and a strong resolve. Our Board, I believe has done the same. While our teachers are not compensated as much as our neighbors in Erie County, we have worked hard to offer competitive salaries, and we are extremely pleased with the academic and extra-curricular achievements they have accomplished with our students.

3. Parents are more nervous than ever about school safety. Is your district’s communication to parents about school safety policies and procedures adequate? Should parents and the community be informed when a student makes a threat of violence against the school?

Safety and security are paramount and communication to parents is ongoing. When threats of violence occur, our school officials work closely with local law enforcement to determine the best course of action, including communications to parents, on a case-by-case basis depending on the circumstances.

4. Are you satisfied that your district responds to parents’ complaints and concerns in a way that ensures the parents know they have been heard?

Yes. I hope that parents trust in the policies the Board has put in place to ensure open lines of communication when they have a complaint or concern. Sometimes parents are just looking for direction. I believe our Board has developed a policy that allows for open and honest dialog along with a proper chain of command. In most cases, this has led to the de-escalation of situations and rational solutions being agreed upon by all parties.

5. What two books published since The Enlightenment have influenced you the most?

I have read a lot of books and it would be too difficult to choose which two have influenced me the most. However, if you were to ask me why I wish to continue serving on the Pembroke Board of Education I will tell you that I have been influenced by a school district and community that is open to exploring OPPORTUNITY. Our students deserve the best that we can provide when it comes to their respective educations. Our role as a school board is to set policy that ensures that this happens in the most cost-effective, efficient, resourceful, and creative way as possible. 

May 11, 2018 - 10:32pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in St. Joe's, schools, education, news, batavia.

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Second graders in Ann Marie Starowitz's class at St. Joe's Elementary School threw a surprise Mother's Day party for their mothers today, which included reading short articles form their research projects, three songs, and presentation of gifts.

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May 10, 2018 - 1:06pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in precision ag day, GCC, education, schools, news.

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Dr. Keith Carlson, with Attica Veterinarian Associates, explains bovine artificial insemination to high school students today at Genesee Community College for Precision Ag Day.

Precision Ag Day provide students with an overview of the science and technology used in modern agriculture, including drones, GPS-guided tractors, and robotics.

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Bradley Hirschman, a student at Pavilion, tries his hand at flying a glider with a camera attached toward a target.

May 5, 2018 - 10:53am

The commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Alexander is on a mission to get the Alexander School District to reconsider implementing a tax exemption for Cold War veterans.

Eric Radder spoke at Wednesday's school board meeting.

"I notice we’ve got all four service flags up here, so obviously Alexander supports its veterans," Radder said. "I’m here to discuss and implement it and bring it back as a point of discussion."

Several tax jurisdictions in the county have adopted the exemption, including the Town of Alexander and the Village of Alexander. 

Qualified veterans who apply can get an exemption on a small portion of the assessed value of their property. The typical exemption is 10 percent off the accessed value with a maximum of $6,000 exempt from the jurisdiction's property tax. In Alexander, both the town and village adopted the higher tier exemption, which is 15 percent off the accessed value with a maximum exemption of $12,000.

More than two years ago, the school district held two public forums on the proposed exemption. The first forum, said Board President Reed Pettys, was lightly attended because of a snowstorm. The next forum had 30 to 40 people attend, Pettys said, and the public was evenly divided between support and opposition.

While the perception is that the Alexander School Board voted against the exemption, Pettys said since the community was divided on the topic, the board just never took the issue up again.

Pettys agreed Wednesday night to go with another board member to the VFW's board meeting Thursday to publicly discuss the proposal again.

He said a lot has changed since the board last considered the idea -- there are two or three new board members, including one -- John Slenker  -- who is a veteran and more jurisdictions, including other school districts, have passed it.

"I think we’ll discuss it at the next meeting and see if we can get a public forum," Pettys said.

The exemption, Radder said, would help keep veterans in the community.

"You could retain the veterans who bring a set of values that they learned in their military training experience and then in return benefit the community at large," Radder said.

May 4, 2018 - 3:19pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Alexander Central School District, alexander, schools, news, notify.

A reduction in state aid for the Alexander Central School District is contributing to the district's need to raise property taxes by 38 cents per thousand of assessed value for 2018-19 even though overall spending will be reduced from this academic year.

Voters in the district will be asked to approve the proposed budget May 15.

The district is asking to spend $17,704,810 next fiscal year, a reduction in operational spending of $293,367.

State financial aid, which makes up more than half the district's budget, is being reduced by $193,685. Building aid is being reduced as well by $565,851.

The proposed tax levy, the total amount collected through property taxes, is $6,159,675, compared to $6,050,850 this year, an increase of $108,825.

That levy would put the property tax rate at $21.51, or 38 cents more than this year, per thousand of accessed value.

Catherine Huber, Ed.D., superintendent of schools, said the budget is responsible and meets the needs of students.

"We always, of course, focus on developing fiscally responsible budgets," Huber said. "To talk a little bit about a fiscally responsible budget and the things we were able to do with our last budget. With that budget, we were able to maintain staff and programs.

"With that budget we were able to build capacity in our school district by bringing on a school social worker, by bringing on an ESL teacher to build the capacity for when students come to us with varied needs their needs can be met."

With the proposed budget, the district will also be able to build capacity.

"If anybody was at our last board meeting, you heard about the expansion of our agriculture program," Huber said. "It's an exciting expansion for Alexander. We also are proposing the addition of an instrumental music teacher. Did you know that we have 300 students in grades four through 12 -- out of 800 students in the school system -- (who) participate in music?

"We just had a sampling tonight of what the quality of our programming is, so to expand that program is something we can sustain over time and something we're really proud of."

A key proposal in the budget is the addition of a school resource officer. An SRO is a member of law enforcement -- in this case, a deputy from the Sheriff's Office -- who is posted at a school full time throughout the school year.

Sheriff William Sheron attended Wednesday's public hearing and encouraged voters to approve the proposal.

He said in this day and age, an SRO isn't a "nice to have." It is a "must have."

"The officer protects the individuals here, the students, the faculty, the visitors that come in here," Sheron said. "He will interact with all the children. He will also be a mentor with the children in the school."

The SRO program has worked out very well at BOCES and Byron-Bergen Central School, Sheron said.

"The SRO is a resource for children go to when they don’t feel comfortable going to a teacher or an aide," Sheron said. "You create those relationships and those children will come to you. They’ll have faith in you. They’ll have confidence in you and they’ll share things with that officer that they wouldn’t share with anybody else."

Some budget highlights:

  • Regular classroom spending increases from $4,829,106 to $4,977,365;
  • Special education and vocational education spending is up from $2,868,973 to 2,920,888;
  • Athletics increases from $436,585 to $532,316;
  • Transportation increases from $776,134 to $818,087;
  • Maintenance for building and grounds decreases from $321,575 to $278,058;
  • Central administration spending will increase from $167,612 to $190,048;
  • School administration will increase from $585,069 to $609,329.

Tim Batzel, the district's finance director, said at Wednesday's hearing that in June the district will make its final payment on a $17.9 million bond that was financed in 1998 primarily for addition of the Middle School. As a result, next year's budget reflects a 66-percent ($530,000) drop in bond payments and a 21-percent drop in interest payments ($23,303).

Lighting upgrades continue to reduce the cost of utilities, Batzel said, and for the second year in a row, the district is benefiting from a 9- to 10-percent reduction in workers' compensation insurance.

After the hearing, during what the board calls "the roundtable," Board Member John Slenker made a statement with an apparent reference to recent school board meetings where multiple parents used public comments to voice complaints and concerns about child safety issues and whether the Code of Conduct is fairly applied. The story was reported by The Batavian.

"I would just like to remind parents that the school board is a very important function," Slenker said. "It is also voluntary. We’re not paid. The people who sit up here take the safety and education of your children very seriously. We have 15 current, future and former children among us. The other part I would like to say, it’s been an absolute honor serving with Reed Pettys and working with Catie. They are some of the best people I have ever met."

Pettys, currently board president, is stepping down following the completion of his term in June.

  • Besides the budget, there are four other ballot measures for voters to consider May 15:
  • Proposition #2: Authorize the purchase of two school buses at a cost of $305,470.
  • Proposition #3: Purchase a new marquee sign for the front of the school at a cost of $29,595.
  • Proposition #4 and Proposition #5: Establish capital reserve funds.

There is also one open seat on the school board up for election and only one declared candidate. The candidate is Sara Fernaays. The Batavian attempted to interview Fernaays after Wednesday's meeting. We wanted to ask her thoughts on the budget, the SRO, and other issues and Fernaays declined. She said she feared granting an interview would cause trouble with the school district.

The school district has a policy that prohibits school board members from speaking individually with reporters.

May 4, 2018 - 1:26pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in alexander, Alexander Central School, schools, education, news, arts.

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There are more than 1,000 pieces of student artwork, from middle and high school students, on display in the foyer of the Alexander Central School Auditorium and Wednesday's school board meeting, Trustee Rich Guarino drew attention to it and to the jazz ensemble that performed prior to the meeting.

He said he's heard over the years how students who perform music and participate in fine arts do better academically and he said that may just be anecdotal but he tends to believe it.

"I see the kids who are in the music program or the visual fine arts program and those are often the kids I see in other activities that the school has and it’s great to see," Guarino said.

Actually, there is some evidence that students who play music tend to do better academically. That seems to apply across artistic disciplines.

According to Guarino, more than half the students in the elementary grades are learning to play a musical instrument.  

"That's a huge percentage and it's great," Guarino said.

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April 30, 2018 - 2:46pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in City Schools, news, schools, education.

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Press release: 

Typically working behind the scenes, Roberta "Bobbi" Norton was recently in the limelight at an awards banquet in Buffalo as she was recognized with a Western New York Educational Service Council Award for Excellence.

Norton is the executive assistant to the superintendent and assistant clerk /secretary to the Board of Education for the Batavia City School District.

She was nominated for the annual award by Superintendent of Schools Christopher Dailey and Board of Education President Pat Burk, who wrote, “Mrs. Norton is dedicated to our district, the Board of Education, and the children. She is caring, conscientious, compassionate, and professional, and she makes the Batavia City School District a better place for all every day. “

Norton has worked for the District for more than 38 years, beginning as a clerical intern in the business office, continuing with positions in schools and administrative offices, and, for the last 10 years, in the superintendent’s office.

Calling her a leader and an example of excellence for the clerical staff, Dailey and Burk noted that, “Through superior work performance that includes trustworthiness and professionalism, Mrs. Norton has earned a place within the inner circle of trust among the leadership within the District.”

In announcing her award, Council President Lori DiCarlo said, “Bobbi exhibits undying loyalty to public service, the students and to the administrators she supports. ... Driven by an obsession for creating meticulous order to things, Bobbi draws a lot of personal satisfaction from the clerical work she performs.

"When asked to identify the best thing about her job, without hesitation she credits the positive environment within the Batavia City Schools as a source of great job satisfaction.”

April 28, 2018 - 10:07pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in byron-bergen, schools, arts, education, news.

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Morgan Fuller, a senior at Byron-Bergen High School, was among the dozens of students at the school last night who showcased their artistic and musical talent in the school's annual "Buzzin Bistro," a celebration of the arts.

Besides the art show, vocal and music students performed in the cafeteria to a packed house, including songs such as the B-52s' "Love Shack" and the Guys and Dolls/Frank Sinatra hit "Luck Be A Lady."

As for Fuller, as much as she loves art, especially drawing either with graphite or charcoal on black paper, she is thinking of pursuing a career in photojournalism.

"I still like drawing but I don't know if I'll do it that much professionally because, you know, moneywise, and stuff like that, but I'll always do it as a hobby," she said.

She doesn't go much for abstract art. She likes realism but she likes pictures that tell a story and can get a reaction from people rather than just a depiction of a realistic subject.

"I like pictures that are very awkward," She said. "The fish one is my favorite because it’s so awkward and it makes people feel uncomfortable. I also like the mysterious look of black and white and graphite."

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April 26, 2018 - 11:00pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in WNY Tech Academy, byron-bergen, schools, education, news.

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A group of students in the WNY Tech Academy at Byron-Bergen High School can now be called entrepreneurs.

They've researched a business idea, wrote a business plan, built financial projections and stepped into their own version of the Shark Tank and walked out with a guaranteed $125,000 in financing for their planned business.

The business, Academy Greens, will grow spinach and tilapia in a greenhouse on the Byron-Bergen campus that will be equipped with an aquaponics system.

They will sell the spinach to the cafeteria at Byron-Bergen and to the culinary arts program at BOCES. 

"There is an unlimited opportunity for success and there is so much to learn within the business itself," said student Kyle Goloskey. "I'm excited about the project because we’re able to provide food for local schools and it’s organic so it’s a clean project we don’t have to worry about contamination."

The students haven't quite figured out what to do with the tilapia yet, and under questioning from the "sharks" during their hour-long pitch, acknowleged that they didn't account for the preparation costs associated with selling fish.

The "sharks" were: Genesee County Economic Development Center CEO Steve Hyde, who was asked to represent the vegetable-processing company Bonduelle, which has a plant in Oakfield, for the purpose of the pitch review; and Paul Gister, manager of customer and community management at National Grid; Michael Gardinier, VP of operations at Farm Fresh First; and Thomas Schulte, principal of the WNY Tech Academy.

Hyde said Bonduelle will make an in-kind contribution of coaching and food-processing expertise to assist the students with their startup. Gister and Gardinier said they will take back recommendations for funding to their bosses and board of directors.

At the end of the presentation, Schulte announced that the budget for the WNY Tech Academy, which is funded through grants, has been rewritten for next year to make $125,000 available for the project. Any financial contribution from National Grid or Farm Fresh will backfill the WNY Tech contribution.

Hyde said he found the whole project exciting.

"Food is such a heartland for us," Hyde said. "We've got three industrial parks across the county that are being developed around food. On the entrepreneurial side, that is such a critical piece. We have the Med-Tech Center and the entrepreneurial zone for startups. That is an accelerator for businesses. Things like this help plant the seeds that spark things."

He praised the project-based learning experience.

Gardinier said the project is going to give the students a real hands-on experience in the world and in business that will benefit them when they start their careers. It is a bridge for them to connect their class work to the work environment.

And starting and running a business isn't easy, so the students will learn from the mistakes they make and the challenges they encounter.

"I fully expect them to hit problems," Gardinier said. "It’s important they get their network built around them. They’ve got some very key players with them now that have offered time and offered expertise to the project to help them get over those hurdles, so build your network and use it."

Noah Toal, 11th grade, said he likes the project because he gets to learn how businesses start and the sharks who asked challenging questions gave him an idea of what it takes to put a business together.

He plans to enter into accounting but might want to own his own business someday.

"I might think about starting my own business once I get out there more and start getting cash flow in, and I get more understanding of how this world goes," Noah said. 

The primary goal of the project, Schulte said, is to provide a learning experience and bring together the three disciplines of the tech academy -- food-processing technology, supply chain management, and accounting -- into a single effort.

"From very early on we tried to talk about ourselves as a startup company and how important for every person on our team, staff, students, to play a role in making it become what the vision of it was from the very beginning," Schulte said. "I think the greenhouse is just going to be another example of -- to make it work, we’ve got to work to make it work."

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April 24, 2018 - 10:35am
posted by Howard B. Owens in agriculture, schools, education, news, alexander.

A pair of technology teachers in Alexander Central Schools think it's time to reintroduce agriculture into the curriculum of the high school and shared their plans Monday night with the school board.

"We live in an ag community but the kids seem distant from it because all of their food comes from factories," said Bob Hollwedel, who has been working on creating an agriculture program at the school with Aaron Forgnone.

Initially, the program will concentrate on field trips to ag-related businesses in the region.

Board members expressed an interest in seeing the high school start an FFA (Future Farmers of America) program.

Hollwedel said in their research they looked into it but decided it's too much to pursue right off the bat.

"We realized really quickly how there is a lot to that and you can get really deep, really quick," Hollwedel said. "We found we should start from something and then look at that as a separate element."

Board VP Richard Guarino was particularly excited about the prospect of reintroducing an ag curriculum into the high school and encouraged the teachers to work toward forming an FFA chapter. He said FFA teaches students a lot of important life skills, including public speaking, parliamentary procedures, and business.

"I am thrilled that we are bringing agriculture back to Alexander," Guarino said. "I don’t know when it left, I guess some time in the ‘80s. I think it’s great that it’s coming back. I like to think it’s not just cows and plows, which is what we used to say in FFA. It’s not just cows and plows. It is so many different businesses.

"I can still say it was in ag classes where I learned to fill out a 1040 ( U.S. Individual Income Tax Return form). No other other class in high school taught me the stuff I learned in agribusiness, so I’m thrilled."

April 20, 2018 - 1:47pm

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Batavia Middle School was rockin' this morning with a visit from the rock band class at Batavia High School to help kickoff STEAM Day at the school.

The band's visit was intended to also give middle school students of another idea for a class they might take when they get to high school.

The band played The Ramones, Tom Petty, The Kinks (twice depending on how you count "You Really Got Me" with the Van Halen intro of "Eruption"), and Cream, among others.

During a Bryan Adams song, the students broke out their mobile phone flashlights and waved them in the air just like any other rock concert.

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