Monday, December 14, 2009

Steve Greenfield's Letter to the Editor 11/26/09: The Voters Must Have Their Choice and Their Say

I'm writing to communicate as an individual to express my personal thoughts to residents of the New Paltz Central School District. This letter does not represent a statement from the school board.

An article in last week's paper caught on to the sound-byte-friendly "loudest voice in the room" in response to a question about the board's decision to spend the last two years researching plans for renovating the Middle School. That was a figure of speech that was unfortunately almost designed to invite the interpretation that other voices were overlooked, or that a single mechanism drove the board's subsequent actions. In my opinion, and guiding my own actions, this is not the case.

The board of two years ago made great efforts to invite the public into a discussion about whether to replace the Middle School or renovate it. That invitation stemmed from an engineering report that had found significant deterioration throughout structures considered so aged as to more prudently warrant replacement rather than repair. I was a member of the public who responded to that invitation. While it was true that a petition with 800 signatures was then assembled in just ten days, I also witnessed several crowded public meetings at which most people, including several public officials and representatives of Town and Village committees, strongly supported renovation. A smaller number, that included Board President Rod Dressel and former teacher's union head Ron Simon (who later changed his mind and supported renovation), advocated building new. Nobody spoke about trying to simply repair failed systems. The same was true for a blog put up by the district for public comment, which can still be viewed at Not only was there no advocacy for simply repairing, but some people coming forward today to oppose renovation posted pro-renovation comments at that time.

Due to my own support for the renovation concept, a few months later I ran for the board with that as my central campaign theme, and won with the first-place vote total. Since then, a considerable amount of work has been done to develop the team and the plans to conduct the renovation, all of it at public meetings. At no time did a member of the public appear at a meeting, send me or the board an email, or communicate privately that they'd like the planning to cease. A year later, the chairperson of the committee that had formed the previous year specifically to advocate for renovation also got elected to the board in a first-place finish. It is worth noting that her election came at the peak of the financial collapse, and that from the date of her election until just a few weeks ago there still had not been a single message requesting cessation of the Middle School planning, all of which was being conducted in public and reported upon in the press.

At no time were any choices based on "the loudest voice in the room." Choices were made based on the deterioration and educational deficiencies, financial advantages, and overwhelming public demonstrations of support for renovation, not just as manifested in a petition, but repeatedly, and in very large numbers, in many forms, over the whole two years, and the total absence of any indicators that any portion of the public opposed renovation. As a property taxpayer of moderate income myself, raising three children under financial uncertainty, I am personally sensitive to the "no new taxes" theme. As an elected official I am sensitive to public input, and to public interest and need. Thanks to democracy, enforced in this case by New York State law, I am not empowered to decide whether or not to renovate the Middle School. That will be decided by the voters. That's the big difference between school matters and all other local and statewide government in New York. Town and Village Boards and the County Legislature may receive public input and then vote to do what they as legislators think is the best choice. Should I vote to put a renovation referendum before the public (and I expect I will), all I am doing is letting you make the choice yourselves. If I bowed to recent pressure to drop the referendum, I would be denying the right to vote to the full public of the district. Even in this regard, it is worth noting that at the forums held to date, there have been more people speaking in support than in opposition, and more people asking neutral questions than speaking in opposition. But even if those proportions change over time, what they would prove is the essential wisdom of the public vote.

That's the bottom line. I received a substantial mandate, substantially reinforced many times since, to plan renovations for the Middle School, and that is what I have done, to the best of my ability. I am trying to whittle costs down further every day, but at some point in the next few weeks I'm certain I will vote to put this matter before the voters, and I truly believe that the voters should come out in support of democracy and choose the path they prefer. No matter how the public decides, I will follow their will and work to keep the Middle School performing at the highest possible capacity. Let there be no confusion about my belief that that capacity, as well as the physical lifespan of this substantial piece of public property, will be much higher if we renovate. But the voters must have their choice, and their say.

Steve Greenfield
New Paltz

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