File photo: Denise Civiletti

Recent events certainly highlight the disconnection between our North Fork communities and our public schools. Let’s be careful with this subject: the power elite of the educational world are quick to resent any criticism, no matter how constructive, even carping that critics fail to use the proper bureaucratic phrases. Few speak out on the decline in our schools, except perhaps during a week or two in May, when school budget votes occur and board of education members come up for “election.”

Riverhead, Mattituck-Cutchogue, Southold and Greenport are the major school districts for the North Fork. For the latter three, school board elections are relatively fair, though fewer and fewer vote anymore. There is a sense that anyone from those communities will have a reasonably even chance to be elected. The teachers unions in those districts do play a role in BOE elections, but not a controlling one, as they interview and consider all candidates, and solicit input from their teacher members. Rarely if ever do citizens or BOE members express anxiety about the way these school boards operate. Most importantly, those two school districts can be described as delivering at least an average educational program to their students, with some room for improvement, and their graduation rates are considered good.

We have regrettably a far different situation in Riverhead. For the second year in a row, three of Riverhead’s schools have been designated as “focus” schools, meaning that the state has rated them as performing quite poorly. Riverhead’s school board officials and many teachers repeated the lame defense they offered last year, that this “focus” (sounds like such an innocuous label) rating is based on math and English tests that are unfair and too frequent, which more than 30 percent of the students refused to take. That totally fails to explain, much less excuse, this terrible situation.

Additionally, the teachers union in the Riverhead School District excessively dominates school board elections. A shameful illustration in May is where the union only interviewed candidates whom they planned to support, shutting out two candidates considered to be “outsiders.” And at least one such candidate, as well as a few teachers, report that union leadership does this all on their own, with no known input taken from Riverhead teacher union membership.

Once in a great while, candidates come forward for Riverhead’s BOE who are not part of the educational in-crowd. Yet they are quickly shunned once elected to the board, become loners in Riverhead BOE’s exclusionary culture, and leave.

A couple of weeks ago, two Riverhead school board members suddenly resigned. In keeping with how virtually everything is habitually swept under the rug at the Riverhead BOE, little is known about why these resignations occurred. Vague references to violations of open meetings (and other NY State) laws were mentioned in one resignation letter, pointing as well to dissension among board members. Dissension about what? Riverhead’s school board has made a mockery of open meetings laws for years. Is it any wonder that so few citizens attend Riverhead Board of Ed meetings anymore?

Could not these Riverhead BOE members have left their positions a few weeks sooner so that last May’s elections might have enabled the public to vote for their replacements? Or might that have allowed the election of unwanted “outsiders?”

Much has been said, especially in Riverhead, about the excesses of the Common Core curriculum, that it is too rigid and demanding. If this be the case, can’t the teachers union rally their members along with parents to bring the battle to Albany, where their lobbying prowess is legendary? The executive branch of state government is where the issue, and it’s solution, really lie. Our state legislative representatives, for their part, have kept ever so low a profile in all this. Think of it: state legislators, one a former legislative education committee chair, cling to a hands-off policy when it comes to the scandal of failing “focus” schools in their district! They don’t say a word. Why is that?

Yet the teachers union faces quite a dilemma because Governor Cuomo is their consistent benefactor. With all the outcry about the Core Curriculum, hardly a peep is uttered against this one state official in the best position to address it effectively, and who appoints the “leadership” of the State Education Department. So when it comes to the mundane issue of the Core Curriculum, better for the teachers union to spare the risk of using their real political power, and rather leave it to parents and students to run in circles. This is a shameful state of affairs.

Voter turnout declines in all elections, owing in great measure to inevitable public disgust and disinterest. The so-called property tax cap, adopted in New York in 2011 (amazingly Massachussets passed theirs in 1980), also has much to do with low voter turnout for school budgets, though Riverhead, with only about 2,500 votes cast — out of 23,167 registered voters district-wide — just approved a 5-percent budget increase. But with such special-interest dominance in school elections, we truly need drastic measures to revive public involvement.

The time has come to provide a reasonable salary to school board members. That will attract candidates who might bring an end to the insular, single-minded culture that has taken over governance of our community’s schools. And board elections and budget votes might well be moved to November’s Election Day to enhance, if only somewhat, voter participation. These and other reforms, however, would require action by sleepy state legislators and a shielded governor. Until they come to grips with these scandalous problems, property taxpayers will continue to bear this incredibly senseless burden. Surely we have it in our reach to give back to our kids the authentic, educational experience they need and deserve.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg