OP-ED from Bedford Interim Superintendent of Schools John Chambers
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
A Tale of Two Cities
From where I sit, after 10 weeks in Bedford, 20 years as a school superintendent (Bronxville, Byram Hills, Chappaqua…) and more than 40 in public schools, it really does look to me like “best of times, worst of times” in BCSD.
The best of times? What I see happening in academics, arts, athletics – all the places where teachers and students come together to learn – is as good, or better(!) than I have seen in any of my experience. Student performance on tests from 3rd grade on up generally outpaces State comparison groups, while at the other end of the system college admission results (including those already in for the Fox Lane HS Class of 2016) are impressive indeed. Everyone here in BCSD should be proud of such results, and the way they are achieved amidst such challenges as educating diverse populations...and school budgets.
The worst of times?
Budget: The school funding situation I have found here in BCSD, as we look to make a budget proposal for 2016-2017, is the most challenging I have encountered in my 20 years as a superintendent – we face a funding gap approaching $8MM. Plainly speaking, I see three answers to the question of how this happened:
· Difficulties from the State level – These difficulties include a withholding of previously promised school aid (used to close State budget gaps), mandates that drive up costs, and the tax levy cap, which I see as another way to push the State’s budget problems back to the local level.
· Bad luck in this year’s budget – Cost overruns in special education and the District’s health plan (hard to predict, but typical of what happens in school budgets across the state) will have to be covered from the District’s already-slim fund balance, making it harder to craft the following year’s budget.
· Decisions last year – Looking back a year, I have told the Board that I think they squeezed too tight in making the 2015-2016 budget. Prior to that time, the Board had been managing – quite well, I think – to hold tax rate increases over a 7 year period to an average of 1.8%. These results, and the strategies to reach them, were very similar to what neighboring districts were doing, and still are. But last year, in the continuous quest for ways to ease tax burdens and make expenditure reductions, I think the budget decisions went too far.
For more detail on these issues – admittedly, from my point of view as someone new to Bedford, but far from new to Westchester’s public schools – see the Board meeting of January 26, or the most recent “Bedford Buzz,” both available at the District web site: www.bcsdny.org
Keeping Community: On another level, I have been surprised – even dismayed – to see some of the ways public discourse has been recently conducted in Bedford. A nasty web site calling for the ouster of the superintendent who left in early November was still up and running as of last week, parents have told me they are reluctant to speak in public meetings for fear of reprisals, letters to the editor and even emails to staff too often take a corrosive tone.
Better ways forward are necessary to the good health of the school district, and as examples to our students. Civility and respect for differences of view will be essential as we work through a difficult budget process where there will inevitably be pain enough to share between all parties. Let us also remember that the District is searching for a new superintendent, and to succeed in that search (a success devoutly wished by your interim superintendent) we must show that this is a school district, for all its challenges, where people work together.
Most of all, returning to my “best of times” impressions of the great work being done by students and staff, we need to keep those students at the center of our efforts, modeling for them the ways a school community can come together even in difficult times.
November 6, 2015
To Bedford Central Schools Families and Friends, Staff and Students,
With the Board of Education’s announcement that I will serve as Interim Superintendent of Schools comes my promise to do all I can to serve and support Bedford students, families, staff and community. As your long-time neighbor, I am so full of respect for the District’s mission, people, and accomplishments that I wish my own grandchildren could be Bedford students. I am, therefore, honored to take on this leadership role.
Experience has taught me how quickly a school year flies by, but also how important every day is to every student. It was, therefore, heartening to see how the Board of Education is approaching this transition in leadership:
Thanks to eight years of Dr. Hochman’s exceptionally strong leadership, our teachers, staff and administration are well-positioned to carry on the critical work of educating our students for their futures. A smooth transition, and continued academic progress for each and every child in the district during this process are our top priorities.
Those priorities will be mine as well, every day of this school year.
With your help, we can build a bridge toward the arrival of Dr. Hochman’s long-term successor. From November 19 to June 30, I will be looking for chances to see students and teachers in action, and for conversations with staff, students, and community members. While some of those interactions will be built into events and schedules, I hope you will help by stepping forward informally to say hello, and to tell me what must be sustained and passed on, in the best interests of the young people who are our sacred trust.
John A. Chambers
Interim Superintendent of Schools