HCSD: Walmart or Little Red Schoolhouse?
There is no doubt–at least, there should be no doubt–that the health of the Hudson City School District (HCSD) is a matter we should all take seriously, whether it’s building a new building or rolling out a new curriculum. And the recent discussion here is welcome. We need more of it.
Not only does HCSD pump $45 million into the local economy (through your tax dollars), it is supposed to educate our next generation of citizens. We don’t want to be throwing all that money away if all we are doing is creating future boobs. In fact, there are plenty of HCSD success stories to warrant confidence in HCSD as a district with a great deal of talent, in both the student and educator ranks.
This does not mean that “JoAnn Z,” John Friedman, and “Jay K” don’t have some justifiable complaints. Believe me, I sympathize. As a parent and taxpayer, I spent many years lobbying (and sometimes railing) for school improvement. I was a constant presence at PTA meetings, created a “listserve” to keep parents (and taxpayers) informed of the ins-and-outs of district issues, and spent five years on the school board working to improve our district’s education outcomes. We had some mighty loud arguments about how to do that, and my batting average was a baseball below-average (.210 maybe!) with only a couple of home runs and a modest number of RBIs. But we laid some good foundations during the superintendency of Jack Howe, and, I’m happy to report, we hired a worthy successor in Maria Suttmeier.
But here’s the problem: HCSD is more like a Walmart than a Little Red Schoolhouse. And that is a huge challenge for all of us.
There was a time when the Hudson School District was run by local citizens: a school board, elected by popular vote of registered voters, determined how much it would cost to educate our kids, then set a tax rate on local property owners to pay for it. Most of the city’s residents had kids, and most of those kids went to Hudson schools. It was a community enterprise. Greenport, Claverack, Livingston all had their own school districts. (It was the same everywhere. New York State had 10,000 autonomous school districts in 1900; today, just 730.) That locally owned and operated public school system worked for a hundred or so years. As a friend of mine who grew up in Hudson in the 1950s put it, “The shopkeepers of Hudson would not let the school fail.”
Unfortunately, such educational intimacy ended long ago. The current $45 million HCSD budget is funded by the federal government, the state government, and our local voters, each entity laying claim to a piece of the action. The district is also now composed of school children from five different towns--Hudson, Greenport, Livingston, Claverack, Stockport–each of which have their constituencies, further driving a wedge between local government and school government. All this means that our HCSD administrators have many masters, each spinning reams of regulations about how to use their money. The feds demand programs for poor kids; the state wants teacher evaluations based on standardized tests; the locals want excellence for their kids and low taxes; the unions want money and job security for their members. And we haven’t even talked about the “thought world” that drives the pedagogy: the schools of education training teachers about what should be taught and how to teach it. I think of the brouhaha over Common Core as a huge distraction.
Into this surreal world jump “JoAnn Z,” John Friedman, and “Jay K” with their opinions about how the school district runs–and should run. I wish there were more of them. But the fact is that these folks are mostly ignorant about the vast educational ice floes that now drive our nation’s school systems, not to mention the intricacies of how that plays out on the ground here in Hudson. The sale of John L. Edwards is nothing new; we were discussing it when I was on the BOE. And Mr. Friedman wrongly attributed the new sign in front of Questar to a decision by HCSD, apparently unaware of the BOCES system (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) which runs Questar and is a separate entity. (See the previous Gossips entry for other important but misinformed opinions.) Meghan Tice, the communications liaison for the district, has tried to sort some of this out with her comments, as indeed she should.
But this is but a whisper in the wind compared to the dialogue we need to have. And it is not a discussion for the faint of heart. There are no easy answers, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t answers. The one thing that should unite us is our communal ignorance–and the compelling need for more information. Unfortunately, at a time when we need more dialogue and more information about our schools, our local media seems to “cover” the territory as if schooling was an afterthought. As a school board member I attended many two- and three-hour board meetings, debating the pros and cons of multi-million-dollar budgets and expenditures, only to see silence from the local media. This sets up a “gotcha” dynamic, as the recent comments here attest, that is hard to change.
We can improve our local school system, but it will take a village. And the challenge is to find ways to create–re-create!–that village.
November 29, 2015