Musings from a School Board Member

27.11.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

Giving Thanks

One of my favorite authors is John Maxwell. The son of a pastor and a former preacher himself, he’s written prolifically on the subject of leadership–and life. I subscribe to a free service he offers, called “A Moment with Maxwell,” which has sort of morphed into his “Word of the Day.” It’s with that inspiration that I offer this first–and, likely, last–”Steiger’s Word of the Month.” And the word for this month is Gratitude. As in giving appreciation and recognition.

I wanted to take a moment, as we move into and through the holiday season and hurtle towards the end of 2012 (and, perhaps, the end of the world, depending on the calendar and political persuasion to which you subscribe), to say, “Thanks.”

Of course, it’s always risky to single out a few and miss the many. But I especially want to publicly note what a few groups and individuals have done to go above and beyond in providing opportunities for students that wouldn’t have happened without them. So, thanks to:

  • the Tully Elementary School PTO for tireless efforts to raise money and provide support to our elementary teachers and students. Most recently, the PTO was able to raise enough money to purchase and donate two Smartboards to enhance learning opportunities for children in this building.
  • community members who have volunteered their skills and time to allow programs to continue, such as Steve Davenport for coaching the golf team; (Mary/Kraig: who else?)
  • faculty who have pursued special funding and grants to provide opportunities we couldn’t otherwise offer, such as Mary Podsiedlik, who championed an effort that resulted in nearly $300,000 in funding over the next five years to provide an enrichment program for our students in K – 7; Derek Hill, who obtained a $10,000 grant to provide state-of-the-art welding equipment to train students in our Ag Mechanics course which will prepare them to pursue high-demand career opportunities; and (Mary/Kraig: who else?)
  • numerous individuals who have stepped up with financial and in-kind financial contributions to support Tully’s programs, such as the golf team, the indoor track team, and (Mary/Kraig: what else?)

I’m certain that I could name more folks for their specific efforts, time, and dollars that have helped us “keep on keepin’ on,” and apologize for any oversights and omissions. To the faculty, staff, and administration who “keep the trains running on schedule every day” through your day-to-day efforts to give your best to support our community and kids, ya know I love ya! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

15.09.2012 Leadership and Leadership Development, Musings from a School Board Member, Talent Management and Development 3 Comments

Change happens (and that’s good!)

The calendar turns, the cycle continues…things change, and things are familiar.

At school’s opening in early September, I had the opportunity to greet our district’s faculty and staff on their first day back from summer vacation. We welcomed new members to our learning community, and recognized with gratitude the decades of service that others have provided.

And I realized, with some angst and awe, that, as my youngest has moved on to the next phase of his life after his High School graduation in June, this was the first Back-to-School week that I haven’t had a child going back to school in almost two decades! While this hardly seems possible, since neither I nor my wife have aged a day since the chil’uns were born, it does, indeed, seem to be true. While he’s always close-in-mind, he’s nowhere in sight!

Yet, despite this change, there remains the familiar. The cats are still hanging around, doing their part to control the rodent and bird populations. We both still get up and try to make some type of meaningful contribution at work each day. Oh, and Number One son, fresh off his college graduation, has been spotted around these parts again, providing some continuity of lineage in the house, if for ever-briefer moments.

So, it has always been and will always be: things change, but we’re not left with nuthin’. What has ended, is over, and will never be again. For some, the ending creates hopelessness or a longing for the past; for others, it could be excitement and possibility for the future. In dealing with change, attitude is altitude! Change causes us to look afresh at not just what we do and how we do it, but who we are.

Looking for the opportunities that change can bring, the fresh perspectives and re-creations that it offers, we can find sustenance and renewal, energy and excitement. We have the opportunity to reinvent and refresh ourselves and our institutions, to help us and them become what we want to be.

As we move into the new school year, the district moves forward with ideas and initiatives to sustain and improve the opportunities for our students and our community. I’m excited to continue to work with an incredible group of committed volunteers and staff on your behalf, for our community’s future and our children’s futures.

01.06.2012 Musings from a School Board Member, Talent Management and Development No Comments

Commencement! (and a lesson in talent development)

A year ago, almost to the day, my older son, kind-hearted soul that he is, brought home yet another stray cat, this one from the mean streets of Binghamton. Esther, as he named her, was a bit skittish, no doubt a result of her challenging day-to-day existence, but also, it turned out, because she was pregnant. Little more than a kitten herself, in about a month she birthed a litter of six of the cutest cat babies you ever did see.

Now we helped a little bit, providing food here and changing litter there. But she took the lead in their upbringing. First by doing things for them and then showing them how to do things and eventually letting them do things for themselves, she’s raised some mighty fine young men, er, cats (the two we’ve held on to) who can now go forth into the world on any given day and fend for themselves (well, except for that food and litter thing).

And so it is with our kits, er, kids. (You hoped I’d get around to a tie-in at some point, didn’t you!) Except it takes a bit more time than a year before ours are ready to face the challenges of the world they will enter, and it’s a much more complex, ever-changing one at that, for them and for us. We, the parents, bring them into our lives, in circumstances ranging from fortunate to difficult. With some assistance, or none, we do the best we can in their early years. At some point, we entrust a portion of their formal education to the educational community of the Tully Central School District, and we enroll them in Kindergarten.

From those tentative first steps as Tully students to their final jubilant ones as they “walk the stage” to receive their diplomas, we’ve followed a similar path as Esther did with her kittens. First doing almost everything for them, we teach them and train them to eventually do things for themselves, to be successful and confident young cats, er, people.

On June 23, I’ll watch my younger son and his friends and classmates stride with confidence across the stage to take the next, first really independent steps in their lives. While I have no illusions that they’ll be ready to completely fend for themsleves (they’ll, too, still need food and; oh, you get the idea), I’ll be filled with hope and optimism that they each will have the knowledge, skill, and confidence to learn new things and take on new challenges.

Thank you to our faculty and staff for your professionalism and commitment to their learning and development over the years. Thank you to all the parents of all of our students for your partnering with our staff for your children and for fostering learning in your homes. Thank you to our community for your financial and moral support of our schools and students. Congratulations to all of our students for your hard work and success in the past year—have a great summer!

And, of course, best of luck to all of our graduates. I know you can be wildly successful in any given endeavor to which you choose to commit yourself, as you go forth into that challenging world.


06.04.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

We’re putting it out there

We believe that Tully’s schools are worth it. And we believe an overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens agree with us—and will prove it by coming out to support all the budget propositions on election day, May 15.

To say “It’s a tough budget year” seems almost trite, not to mention, redundant. We’ve faced year after year, after year of challenges, resulting from the economy, in general, and from the impact this has had on state finances and, thereby, state aid to education, in specific. Over the past four years, Tully has seen overall cuts in the aid we receive from New York State exceeding $2 million. That’s a two followed by six zeroes. The state has, year after year, after year, been shifting the cost of public education to the local taxpayer.

Making this even more challenging is that, for the first time ever, the state has mandated a limit that can be exceeded, but only with the approval of a “supermajority” of the voters equaling 60% of those voting. No other level of government has had to put its annual spending plan to the public for approval, which has always served as a de facto limit on the plan, and now our state’s leaders and representatives have imposed an added hurdle to schools—and schools only—to provide the services that their community will receive.

We feel the property tax levy limit is something we have to address, but we will not be held hostage to it. We feel our community deserves more than just what bureaucrats in Albany mandate as the minimum to be provided to our children.

We’ve put forward a spending plan that we believe does this.

We had to make difficult choices as to what to include and how to include it. We had to have some means to evaluate and assess relative priorities for the district, and the primary screen we used was, “What’s best for kids?” and then, “How can we ensure we’re delivering not just what we have to, but what we feel we need?” And next, “What are different ways that we can deliver this?” (This last question is still a work in progress, and one that will be asked again and again over the course of this year and in the future.)

We reiterate: people can disagree as to how we prioritized, but we felt we had to give some guidance to administration, and have some discipline and protocol to adhere to for ourselves. There’s no doubt that one could make a positive case for many things, if not everything, we left out or put in an alternate proposition. Everything we included in all the propositions has our full and unanimous support. There’s not a single line item that wasn’t seriously considered and discussed, all with the mindset of “How do we preserve the best experience we can for our community and our kids?” We’ve chosen to not go down the path of “How can we cut enough to make the levy limit?”

The board listened to the community’s questions and input at several forums, beginning in December and all the way through the development of the final budget in April. We made adjustments, based on this input.

We have a responsibility to look at the “little” and the “big” pictures, regarding both the impact on this year’s budget and the future years’. We’re facing a multi-year issue, that has virtually depleted our reserves and our ability to weather hits like we’ve experienced from the cuts to our state aid. We can only replenish reserves through building fund balance—having more-than-budgeted revenues or less-than-budgeted expenses.

On April 4, the Tully Teachers Association gave strong acknowledgment to their understanding of the seriousness of this challenge when they ratified a new three-year contract that results in significant savings for the district. That, in combination with an adjustment to our state aid, will help us reduce the levy needed this year and help us plan for next.

Now, it’s your turn. We developed these propositions to give the community the opportunity to say they support these programs—all the programs—by overriding the mandated limit, and not letting Albany politicians who don’t know our community, nor care about our kids, dictate to us what we have to offer. We reiterate our support for the overall budget, including all the propositions. We want to see them all pass with the needed “Yes” vote of 60%, so that we can continue to provide opportunities for our students and community.

14.03.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

State Aid “Increase” is in the Eye of the Beholder

Forgive me, both for its length and for getting a little “wonky,” with this month’s commentary. But I feel as though, as a taxpayer and citizen of NYS and our school district, you need to be aware of issues that could directly threaten our district’s ability to provide the quality of education, programming, and services to our students and community you’ve come to expect.

On January 17, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his Executive Budget Proposal for 2012–2013.

The Good: The governor fulfilled his promise to increase money for schools, by 4 percent ($805 million). Funding is better than what most districts got last year, when aid was slashed to offset the state’s massive budget gap.

The Bad: Not all of that money will be distributed to schools in the form of aid. Some $250 million would go into a competitive grants program for schools, and most school districts, like Tully, will not be able to apply for it.

The Ugly: Rather than an increase in aid, Tully’s initial estimate is for a decrease in our State Aid of almost $29,000.


Excluding $250 million set aside for the competitive grants program and another $92 million that’s set aside as reimbursable building aid to districts, approximately $460 million is available for aid increases. If the governor’s budget proposal goes through, as is, “below-average wealth” districts such as Tully, are supposed to receive 51% of this, or just under $235 million. The average increase for these 454 lower-wealth districts is almost $517,000. Would that this were true for us! But alas, it’s not.

But the puzzling distribution of this aid is even more unequal, I fear. When I dig a little deeper, the inequities that have pervaded the State Aid distribution formulae, favoring higher-wealth districts, are further compounded with this proposal. The 223 districts that are considered “above-average wealth” will share a little over $225 million, for an average of over $1,000,000 each. (And, when I say “above-average,” I don’t mean districts such as F-M or Skaneateles, local districts that we’d consider higher-wealth; through the Looking Glass that is NY State Aid for Education, these districts are in the “average” category.)

Compounding the decrease we’ll be facing if the governor’s proposal remains unchanged, school districts are set to lose emergency federal jobs money that masked the effects of state aid cuts over the past three years, which is due to run out in 2012. For Tully, this is over $440,000. In addition, due to a change in the way tax receipts are shared, our school district will see a decrease in the sales tax revenue it receives from Onondaga County, of $10,000.

So we’re looking at total decreases in revenue from governmental sources outside of our district of nearly $500,000.


“Simply stated, the governor’s proposal and the budget ‘increases’ fall short—way short—of what districts need following the drastic cuts of the two previous years,” says Dr. Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide Schools Finance Consortium. Competing for funds? That’s a vague, un-tested idea, Timbs says. “Competing is what schools usually do on the playing field and in the gymnasium. Competing for the funds needed to ensure children get a sound, basic education and a fair shot at the future? We call that unfair,’’ Timbs said at an issues training session in advance of this year’s annual Legislative Breakfasts, co-sponsored by the Central New York School Boards Association (CNYSBA). “It’s also unnecessary. How do you build a budget for a community vote in May when you don’t know if you’re going to get the money? There’s going to be a real problem come budget time. Three-quarters of our (low wealth/high need) districts are going to have a hole in their budget.’’ “One thing seems certain,” according to the CNYSBA: “The road to a school budget proposal and vote could be long, bumpy and emotional, as district officials and Board of Education members wrestle with dwindling funding—as well as budget implications brought about by the tax levy cap enacted last summer—to come up with a plan.”

What can you do? It’s critical for us to keep you informed about funding and aid developments—and how they will hit home—as they become available. Check the school website for up-to-date information. It also is critical for parents, teachers, community stakeholders, and other interested parties to attend school budget and Board of Education meetings. Get in on the dialogue early and stay informed of the issues.

10.02.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

Chicken or egg?

You know the old paradox about which comes first.

How about student or athlete?

This fall, Tully’s sports teams—all of our sports teams—had remarkable success on the field, the pitch, and the course. They all qualified for their respective sectional playoffs or post-season events, and our community was and is rightfully proud of their accomplishments.

But did you know that each of our six fall sports teams might have had an even more remarkable success? Every varsity fall team qualified for the NYSPHSAA Scholar Athlete Team Award. What does this mean? The football, golf, boys’ soccer, girls’ soccer, boys’ cross-country, and girls’ cross country teams each had a team GPA of at least 90. From the recollection of coaches, the athletic director, teachers, and parents, this hasn’t happened—ever—in Tully, and from conversations I’ve had with board members at other school districts, this is, indeed, rare. What an accomplishment!

Anecdotally, we know that extracurricular activities serve an important role for our students. For many, they provide opportunities to form new relationships with people they might not normally interact with, or opportunities to develop and demonstrate leadership skills; for others, they’re an outlet for creative expression; for some, the “extras” might provide the incentive they need to “hang in there” and keep their grades up, in order to continue to participate.

Research validates this. Numerous studies over the decades report a positive correlation between participation in extracurricular activities, including sports, music, drama, and other clubs, and better academic attitudes, higher academic aspirations, and higher academic achievement. In part, this comes from the engagement and connection students form with each other and with their school; this is enhanced by the interest and involvement their parents and family take in their activities, which is crucial to student success.

We have such a high level of participation in extracurricular activities of all types in our student body in Tully. If it were measured, I have little doubt that our “team” GPA in band, and chorus, and drama, and art club would qualify them for “scholar/performer” team awards, as well.

Chicken, or egg?

02.01.2012 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

Local Control? In a small, rural district, at best, it’s at the margins, yet, it’s what makes us distinctive.

(Author’s note: This column was originally published in February 2011. I thought it apropos, still, as we enter a new budget planning process. Since there’s no district newsletter published in January, I thought I’d refresh this piece and offer it this month, at the start of a new year.)

Budget Season. Not exactly tidings of comfort and joy in the best of times (cut me a little slack, as I’m writing this during the glow of the holiday season!), this year promises to be filled with extraordinary challenges. A property tax cap enacted in the summer of 2011 and the expiration of special revenues from the federal government that were used by the legislature and governor to offset cuts in aid from New York State over the past three years will exacerbate the challenges we’ll have to deal with this year when the governor releases this year’s budget in a few weeks. This will require a different approach in our planning to ensure we’re able to meet our commitment to provide a valuable and relevant educational experience for the students and our community.

So, just what should that educational experience look like in Tully, NY?

Each year, we strive to provide an engaging range of opportunities for our students, in the traditional classroom setting and outside of it. Beyond the mandated basics, our ag programs, athletic programs, Career and Technical Ed programs, AP and college-credit courses, music and drama programs, and the opportunities available through the New Visions program have created links for our students to help them see relevance in their academics, and explore interests and possible careers after high school. None of these services are mandated by the State Education Department; should we cease to offer them?

Several years ago, after several tragic accidents throughout Central NY involving teen drivers, the then-board of education asked the community if we should reintroduce Driver Education as an elective for our students. The community—we—said “Yes.” It’s not required; should we continue to do this?

While our district administration and board of ed have taken a leading role with our state legislative delegation in seeking relief from burdens such as the Wicks Law, the Triborough Amendment, and other unfunded mandates, we, at this point in time, have no flexibility and no choice but to plan for no relief. In fact, when all unfunded mandates and uncontrollable expenses such as energy costs and mandated pension contributions are factored in with the required costs associated with providing basic school, academic support, and transportation services, you might be surprised, as I was, to learn that nearly 95% of our annual expenses are dictated to us. Where do we have any flexibility? In the distinctive services we provide to make a Tully public school education unique and engaging for the broadest range of students.

Rather than shrink from the challenges before us, I believe this can be one of our proudest moments. We can come together as one community, to declare the importance of and priority we give to our students and our future.

What should we do?

I’m serious: what do you want us to do?

We represent you; we are your voice; the budget that will be developed will be your budget, and you will “own” it. Whether it passes overwhelmingly, as I hope it will, or by a single vote or goes down in defeat, only to be re-submitted, there will be school next year. The board is committed to practicing what we preach, and in supporting the environment to fulfill it: “Inspire kids. Excite teachers. Be creative in achieving excellence.”

30.12.2011 Musings from a School Board Member No Comments

Musings from a school board member

I’ve served as a local school board member in Central New York since July 2001, as president of the Onondaga-Madison School Boards Association since September 2008, and as president of my local district, in Tully, NY, since July 2010. Each month, I offer an essay, of sorts, to the local community, sharing my musings, thoughts, concerns, and hopes in our district’s newsletter. It’s been positively received, and I wanted to share it in this forum as a way to reflect on the specific challenges and opportunities of our public educational system, and on the larger issues of leadership and learning.

The district’s newsletter is published ten times per year on the first of each month except January and July. I’ll share my monthly column on this blog when it’s published.