COVID and the Students and Teachers and the Missed Opportunity to Create a Real "Community" for the HCSD

An Opinion Piece by Ken Sheffer
May 12, 2021

Last year I wrote about the Hudson City School District’s fantasy budgeting.  This year it is about the fantasy community that they rely on to pay their bills.

Let there be no doubt that 2020 and ongoing into 2021 (and perhaps 2022) the world has been on pause and in grave danger. The young learners have been impacted particularly hard. Who wants to “Zoom” into an art class or miss your final season of basketball? Those memories can never be rebuilt. To its credit, the Hudson City School District has done a great job in keeping the drama down, the kids and teachers safe, and a technology platform running when one really doesn’t exist. The credit for this in my opinion goes almost entirely to the teachers and the kids. Against the odds, they seemed to have built bonds that kept the whole thing in check and rolling even while risking great sickness and more. Hats off to them. I personally feel that one HCSD senior executive, Deputy Superintendent April Prestipino, has been a big part of this. Though I don’t know her and have never really met her, I have witnessed her work and style up close for the past few years. She is direct, smart, engaged, and full of ideas and energy. Read her reports. They are expansive and educational. They aren’t defensive either. She speaks to the Board of Education as if she knows what is needed, not what they need to hear. 

As for the emergence from COVID and how to rebuild a school district, the HCSD team, as it is, has missed its chanceperhaps its lastto build a bond-through-crisis with the Hudson district taxpayers and public. As usual, the Hudson Board of Education and Superintendent saw COVID as a chance to shut even more doors on input from the average person. And as usual, community outreach, one of their primary responsibilities, was nonexistent.

So now, with all our scars and all our debts the District’s new historically massive budget is currently being sold to you. And YES, they are INCREASING your taxes AGAIN, after this year of total financial pain for all.  

This is what they are asking you to approve on Tuesday, May 18, in the 2021-22 school budget vote: 
  • An increase this year over last year of $1,559,666 for a total budget of $52,244,404. (I guess a lot of people have tons of spare COVID change looking for a home.) This is the biggest budget in HCSD history, and also, as I have said before, this is the biggest local tax bill you will ever pay in your life.
  • They also want you to approve a 2.97% increase in Superintendent Maria Suttmeier’s pay to a record $204,000 (Is this what an F-minus earns you? See below.)
  • Lucy Segar, a professional educator from the Catskill School District, wants to be re-elected to the Board.
  • There are no other “official candidates” for the two other empty Board slots, though I am sure a write-in campaign has been organized by someone. Beware. It is illegal for school districts to favor or recruit board candidates or organize write-in campaigns. If you have been contacted on this front you must tell NY State education officials. But it is telling that no one wants to be on that Board.

Here are some of the things that are not on the ballot and not in the useless brochure they just mailed to the Hudson “community” (the brochure is on the website so the mandated mailing is a waste):

Massive amounts of monies are flowing into the District this year:

  • State funding to the District is up 5.13% this year
  • The HCSD is receiving this year Federal COVID stimulus monies of $1,856,505
  • The HCSD is receiving this year Federal American Rescue Plan Act funds of $4,108,737 

(This is all NEW money to the District, and there is no system in place for oversight of any kind.)

  • The HCSD is selling JLE for $3,000,000, and the monies are going back into the “reserve funds” and soon will disappear.
  • The District has already collected (without a vote) $600,000 from your pockets for the “utility tax.” They describe the District as eligible for this revenue but fail to mention that is a 100% optional tax. The District can simply say “no” to this tax and turn it off. Other school systems throughout the State refuse to enact the tax for fear of a revolt.
  • The District is seeing sharply declining enrollment in line with the County’s projected 6% loss of enrolled students for 2021-2022. The HCSD will see 30 to 40 fewer students this new year. SO, it’s more money for less kids. It’s in their own report card.
  • The HCSD is paying approximately $29,000 to educate each student in the District this year.
  • The budget for 2021-2022 is actually 3.08% higher than last year; the tax levy of 1.35% is a misleading number.
  • They actually tell taxpayers that they dare not reduce taxes or refund the taxpayer any part of the 2021 bounty because the taxpayer might get used to it. So, to the HCSD, any money they receive adds to their addiction. 
  • Finally (and please sit down for this one), even if you vote this giant budget down, you are still APPROVING a contingency budget of $52,109,873 (it’s in the fine print)—only $134,531 (not the $325,970 they advertise) less than the real budget! Still, the biggest budget in Hudson’s history! The contingency budget reflects a 2.8% budget increase from last year. However you vote, you are approving this contingency budget just by voting.  There will be no re-vote whatsoever. They don’t care what you think about these millions and certainly don’t want you to have two shots at shooting it down.
Then there is the overall performance of the District which goes unmentioned in their publications.

In April 2021, US News and World Report* issued its much respected and watched high school rankings for 2021. They rate every school in America (and New York State, of course) on the following standards:

30%  College Readiness

20%  Math and Reading Proficiency

20%  Math and Reading Performance

10%  Underserved Student Performance 

10%  College Curriculum Breadth

10%  Graduation Rate 

Here is how it played out for the HCSD for 2021 on this prestigious “Best High School Ranking” list in comparison to the other districts around us. The final score is based on a total of a maximum of 100 points (like a school test):

No matter how you measure it or what you think of these evaluations, this is an embarrassment. Heads should roll and budgets should be rejected. US News only bothers to rank up to the 980th school and then they stop, perhaps like me, in frustration that no one will tell them the truth. So, Hudson is 677th out of 980 out of 980 schools. And its grading as an F-minus seems like it should be a wake-up call for Hudson and its leaders. How do you compete with Red Hook and Rhinebeck at this stage? Why would you put your kids in the Hudson system voluntarily? (We even have a teacher from Catskill on the Hudson Board, and Catskill beats Hudson.) And where is the Hudson Mayor on this total mess? Why isn’t there City Hall outrage?

But this is what happens when a school district has no “community” to rely on and when City leaders just don’t get involved. Rhinebeck, Maple Hill, and Red Hook rely on their community committees to keep things moving academically and socially, especially through COVID issues and otherwise. Their City leaders ATTEND Board meetings. They even encourage their communities to reach out to the State Education Department to find out more about how their schools are doing, AND they put the US News rankings on their websites, with pride. Not Hudson. Why would they? Without question, HCSD meetings, budgets, and performance news should be on the City of Hudson website and the Common Council should form a “School Committee.” They had one for more than 150 years.

In closing let me tell you more about the HCSD Board of Education and its “community outreach and engagement.” Since January 2020 there have been 34 Board meetings or “official gatherings” where the public is invited. There have been, over the course of those meetings, 56 public forums (PFs) for community input or questioning. Here is how it broke down:
  • I appeared solo, and asked multiple questions, at PFs 12, 14, 15, 16, and 56. One father appeared at PF 36 and asked about school re-openings and then wondered out loud why no other parent was at the meeting. No one else, at all, appeared at any other public forum. As for the public budget hearings, there was one hearing that had some 10 people involved but was Zoom-bombed. Since then, one or two people have wandered into and out of the budget hearings, but it is important to note that the meetings are no longer Zoom available. Regardless, no public questions were asked. So, with no one in the audience, the BOE decided to use the budget hearing time to ask itself questions during the time allotted to the “community” just to fill a gap in the minutes. When I questioned this ridiculous and pathetic practice in writing to the District, I was told that Board members are members of the community as well. This is true unless you don’t buy this absurd explanation.
Carrie Otty, President and member of the Board of Education for 11 years, should have slammed the US News rankings, 1,000 heavy pages, down on the desk of Dr. Suttmeier and asked some tough questions and demanded answers and changes. But that will never happen. There is no separation of powers between the Board President and the Superintendent. No oversight and no representation of the community by the Board’s leader. The Otty/Suttmeier combination of nearly a dozen years has failed the students and the teachers of the District AND the “taxpayer community” completely. It is time for a change and for both Otty and Suttmeier to go.

The District’s newly released 2021 slogan is truly hard to believe. It reads: “Future Focused: Achieve Academic Excellence, Become Future Ready, Commit to Civic Engagement.”  You can’t make this stuff up! We live in the future NOW. Walk out onto the new post-COVID streets today and it IS the future. You can actually feel it.

Do they know this? The future already exists in our homes, on our streets, in our families, in our political system, and in educational circles. It’s too late to plan for the future. You have to act now, not plan now. And certainly “academic excellence” has been proven to be out of the reach and beyond the capability of the current HCSD leadership.

So, we must start over. First, drop this outdated, badly worded, and out of touch new slogan. Start with a new team, new vision, new approach, and a new community outreach program. There are qualified candidates; see the name in paragraph 2 here.

And by the way, why does the taxpayer never, ever get the refund they are told should come their way when money is flying around like confetti? 

Vote a firm “NO” on the 2021-2022 MASSIVE budget proposal, and at the very least send this Board a message and build your own engaged school community one vote at a time. Stop the internal “money shuffling” (for which their outside auditors have taken them to task every year) that occurs on a daily basis at the highest levels of the HCSD as they make excess funds stay in their hands and useful for whatever purposes they see fit. 

The “Future Focused Goals” should have included building a new relationship with the “community” and installing new, fresh, accountable leadership at both the Superintendent level and the Board leadership level. (It should also include improving that F-minus grade that the whole world has now seen. Put it in the contract of the new Superintendent.) 

Rebuilding can and must start now--before it is too late for traumatized and overstretched Hudson district taxpayers and the young learners who desperately need this entire scenario to move and improve quickly.

And don’t forget to reach out to all the youngsters and teachers you encounter in the community and say "thank you" for risking their lives when it mattered most and for being the positive stewards and friends they have been during this scary and historic period of our lives.  Now, with the chance to create a new community in a new world, let’s get students and educators the new leadership they deserve to move them forward, legitimately focused on what can be done today to achieve this.

* U.S. News and World Report, “Best High Schools,” April 2021


  1. Ken, Thank You. Your work on behalf of the school children of Hudson is greatly appreciated.
    It has been painful for all of us with ties to the HCSD to watch what is happening in our schools.
    I am happy to see a new slogan, however bad it is. There may have never been a larger contributor to the "dumbing down" of our kids then "Destination Graduation".
    Your work is appreciated please keep at it, it is a noble purpose.
    Charlie Millar

  2. Charlie - Thank you very much. I am well in lockdown in Hong Kong, which should end soon. I guess it is for me “Destination Hudson.” But you are absolutely correct.....i made a group of 6 vaccinated dinner friends laugh last night with the slogan “Destination Graduation.” Sorta like Destination Brush Your Teeth. The dumbing down is a big issue. And it is sad. Hudson for us was a place of academic achievement and the Millars were really smart cookies. I commend and thank you for following what I follow. It is an exhausting and lonely battle. But I am committed for as long as it takes. Be well. Ken