Friday, October 30, 2009

Racism? orly?

Trustee Edgar Rodriguez dropped a very colorful ball during the circus that was the most recent Board of Education meeting. In amongst a series of bizarre votes and actions, some of which seem to have been made up on the spot by board members, Rodriguez gave the rest of the board the impression that he thought they were all racist. I'm sure I'll be accused of either being Eurocentric or hopelessly naive for saying so, but I didn't realize we had more than one race among the board members.

Middle School Renovation
Let's back up a bit. Edgar Rodriguez felt outnumberered on the Board of Education from the day he was elected, and from my conversations with him I believed it to be because the other members at the time were very conservative and didn't hold the same philosophies about taxation and education. The debate over the Middle School led at least two of the current members to run for the Board, and I figured that if anything, Edgar had made it into the majority of thought, but apparently the shift still left him out in the cold.

The details of the renovation have been discussed at recent BoE meetings, and last week a fellow Board member told me that Edgar was handing out information to the public that was "just flat-out wrong." In particular, he made notes in the margins of some financial statements that made claims about what the district currently owed that were incorrect - claims that were corrected at the most recent meeting by superintendent Maria Rice, and were also the focus of much of the shenanigans that occured.

To say that Edgar is not quite decided on the fate of the Middle School is both fair and understandable. He voted to move forward with renovation over building anew, a project that would have cost far more in the long run but less per year, but now he's expressing concerns about the senior citizens in New Paltz (although maybe this project will get them moving into Woodland Pond more quickly, so the first residents won't have to pay extra if the facility isn't filled up - a bizarre contract clause that the Woodland Pond Board thought appropriate to foist upon their neighbors . . . but, I digress). I would probably have trouble balancing the needs to the community, too, because the property tax model pits our children against our elderly. I get that.

Let's not let the public see this
At the last meeting, Rodriguez' ambivalence was a focus. Trustee Patrick Rausch, according to the New Paltz Times, wanted to move to executive session to work out the disagreement. That's a creative use of executive session if I ever saw one. I may just try it on the Village Planning Board. Oh, wait, that's right, they would ask me the legal justification for the motion and I'd either talk out my butt or sit there with my mouth agape, because you can't just go into executive session because you disagree. Public meetings are about public debate, right?

Then Rausch tried a different tack, suggesting that they close the meeting and enter a "retreat" to discuss their differences. The fact that they seriously discussed this possibility would lead me to believe that Rausch didn't make this idea up on the spot, but I'm still not convinced. It sounds to me like another way to dodge the Open Meetings Law, like when they denied Rodriguez the right to attend Facilities Committee meetings (even as a spectator) so that the meetings wouldn't have to be open to the public. This kind of secrecy makes me want to vote "no" on anything they bring before me - what could you possibly have to say to each other that you can't say in public? How do you intend on treating this man?

But . . . the race card?
Edgar Rodriguez, who left the meeting early after casting the only vote against not adjourning it, told his fellows trustees he would not go to a retreat with them unless they all attend the "Undoing Racism" course. He was later quoted as saying, ". . . I am getting differential treatment on the board. And I'm starting to believe that it is because of my racial ethnicity."

As I said above, I never thought of Edgar as being a member of a different race than the remainder of the school board. There are three races, I was taught, and they are characterized by physical differences. Edgar does not possess a high melanin content, broad nose and lips, and highly kinked hair; nor does he have an epicantic fold that changes the appearance of his eyes. Granted, his skin lacks the particularly pasty quality of mine, but it's no darker than that of my Italian friends, and I'm certain that I share a race with them.

Did nature evolve a race of people with a genetic predisposition for fluency in Spanish that I am not aware of? Well Dan Torres should be a member of that race and be getting similar treatment. In fact, each of the board members seems to occupy a different racial profile: woman, firefighter, entrepreneur, IBMer . . . aren't these all races? No?

I don't think Edgar is wrong to believe he's being picked on, but I think it's got nothing to do with race, ethnicity, gender, or any of those qualities which he cannot control and from which genuine discrimination springs. Edgar has sat on this board long enough to see it swing from one end of the political continuum to the other and it change from almost entirely white men to a body diverse in ethnicity and representing both genders. I think that if he's still feeling like he's left out in the cold, that it might be more about how he behaves as a trustee of the Board of Education. It's about dispensing inaccurate information, the victim mentality, and not knowing how to conduct yourself when you hold a minority view in an elected body. If you want to be a kid, go trick-or-treating. We need adults handling our schools, thank you.

The Board of Education seems to be an illegally secretive body, but those secrets don't look like they have anything to do with race. I only wish that the much-needed shakeup on this Board could occur before the Middle School matter is voted on by the public, so that we can separate that question from these childish shenangins.


Steve Greenfield said...

Terence, you were a bit precipitous in several ways in posting this, esp. since you have plenty of people to ask. Since I'm on my way to a Halloween party at Lenape, I only have time to deal with the ending of your piece.

"Executive Session" is just a term Patrick tossed out in haste when he meant "retreat;" it's just what comes to mind when you want to leave public session. He said it on autopilot. He was quickly asked if his topic met the Exec Session criteria, and he said no, he meant retreat. Retreat means we're trying to deal with conflict and learn to get along -- we don't discuss board business in retreat. Not one bit. What happened next strkes me as what you claim you support -- I noted we had not yet adjourned, and so long as the motion to adjourn was defeated, we would remain in public session and try to hash this out in public. That was approved 6-1, with Edgar walking out even though the meeting was still in session.

It proved challenging to work on personality conflict when the one person we needed to work with had walked out on us (preposterous and inflamamatory accusation aside), so we kicked a couple of ideas around, tried to be cautious in referring to someone who wasn't present, and then closed the meeting. Everything was done on the up-and-up, and nothing was concealed from the public. A person is allowed to use the wrong term and then correct himself, no? And the session was held in public, no?

What's the problem?


Terence said...

I haven't yet seen the meeting, so I admit to having based my understanding of events on the article in the New Paltz Times. It sounds like important information was neglected, and assuming it pans out as you have described, Steve, then it sounds like my concerns on that note are addressed.

I understand that the Board has regular reasons for executive session, but that volume of legitimate reasons makes me very cautious of any suggestion that inappropriate business was ever discussed within such a session. It's a privilege of open government that I am always concerned will be abused.

Steve Greenfield said...

The following are my own individual impressions and not an agreed upon position of the School Board:

I assure you there has never been a single thing discussed in Exec Session that is not required by law to be exec session. Those include matters in which we are required to guarantee the privacy of a student or employee, discuss a contractual matter in which talking in public would give any bidder in earshot an unfair advantage, or discussing with lawyers things that have to do with pending lawsuits against the district, or pertaining to fair hearings with parents, that are legally confidential. We simply do not discuss things in Exec Session that don't fall under these categories. And if we discussed any of those things in public, we'd all be hauled into court, and also thrown out of our posts by the SED for violating state confidentiality laws.

Edgar is undergoing some complicated emotions that have nothing to do with racism on the board (or anywhere else) and everything to do with his own challenges in determining what are the important elements of due diligence for MS decisions. Watch the tape. He told us he's reading two books on the philosophy of justice and recommended we read them. He says he can't make his decision until he reads and mulls over these books. The rest of us are contemplating the physical deterioration of the buildings, the failure to comply with code and disability access, and the incompatibility of the small, antiquated spaces with contemporary educational modalities. Edgar also mentioned at least twice some Japanese expression about the nail that sticks up getting hammered, and he thinks of himself as the nail that sticks up. In other words, he's deliberately sticking himself up as a nail, in his own mind, and he's doing it as a person, not as a Puerto Rican. It's his choice. He also said, when voting no on the timetable in which to complete our due diligence and public input and try to fix a project scope, date, and amount for our bond referendum, that he feels he needs at least a full year from now to conduct due diligence on JUST THE FINANCIAL ELEMENTS.

Come on, now. Edgar is tormenting himself, and he's demanding that the board and administration indulge him in that, regardless of what this will cost the students and the taxpayers, and he revels in the isolation of not getting his way. Edgar may have his own path to walk in mulling over this major issue. That's his right, and perhaps his duty, too. I'm not going to interfere with that, or recommend that anyone else interfere. But it's a seven-member board, and we have our own duties and individual methods of executing them, as is our right as much as Edgar has his, and votes are by majority, not unanimity.

There are no secrets and no racism. A reduction in accusatory speculation from everyone would be most helpful.

Billy said...

Terence, basing anything other than a bad joke on what you read in the New Paltz Times is always a mistake.

Pete Healey said...

Steve Greenfield said, Steve Greenfield said, what the heck is he talking about? And who the heck is this 'Billy' character, another 43 year old going on twelve, so he picks a kid name like 'Billy'? Maybe the two of them could start a musical group with a catchy name like Billy and the Carp? I'd buy a ticket to their first gig if it didn't cost more than a dollar.

Billy said...

You're off by a decade or so, Pete. I'll let you guess which direction. Billy happens to be my actual name. Not a Billy Joel fan, huh Petey? I'll say this for myself. I'd never be stupid enough to run for office and not vote for myself. And I'd never be enough of a pathetic whiner to then complain about losing the election.