By KEN CONKLIN
For The Recorder
I am writing this letter to you from a position of great disappointment. But before I begin, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ken Conklin. I grew up in St. Johnsville and upon graduating high school, I immediately left home to join the United States Army. After serving on active duty for nine and a half years years, I left the U.S. Army and began to pursue other interests, most notably I wrote a book titled, "Don't Thank Me, Thank Your Recruiter." In addition, I began my college education and I am currently majoring in political science at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. I am currently in my junior year of college and intend on going to law school once I have completed my bachelor's degree. Since leaving St. Johnsville, I have gone out into the world and accomplished many things and to be perfectly honest I owe the thanks for much of my success to the leadership of the village of St. Johnsville; specifically the school system from which I graduated from in 2001, St. Johnsville Central School, now affectionately known as Oppenheim-Ephratah St. Johnsville (OESJ) school district.
Many of the lessons that I learned growing up in the small town environment of St. Johnsville taught me the common sense and decency to go out into the rest of the world and do great things, which brings me to the reason for writing this letter. In February 2013, I gave a motivational speech at the high school, in which I had the opportunity to visit the school and pass on some of the lessons that I learned to the students at the school. During my visit, the subject of the merger of the two schools was brought to my attention. At the time, I felt that the merger was a good idea and that it was what was best for the students of both districts. But now that I look at some of the things that are taking place in the newly merged OESJ school district, I am deeply disappointed. I feel as if the great village that I grew up in is falling apart and I take that very seriously. So let us take a look at the facts:
Laura (Campione) Lawrence, the school's superintendent, was recently placed on administrative leave. While this incident has been recently covered by the media, I feel the need to bring this issue to the forefront due to the negative impact it is having on the school as a whole and, more importantly, the negative impact it is having on the students as well. After all, what is the most important demographic when discussing matters of any school district? The students. Now, in the situation regarding Ms. Lawrence, the board of education voted 4-3 to place her on paid administrative leave, without providing any explanation as to why. Now, I understand the legalities of releasing information to the public while a legitimate investigation is taking place, however how "legitimate" is the supposed investigation that is going on? It has already been stated in the recent article in regards to this matter that placing Ms. Lawrence on leave was unrelated to the Department of Education's investigation into past grading practices. Therefore, if the "investigation" is related to something else, then at what point will the voters and taxpayers of the OESJ school district be made privy to the reason for the removal of Mrs. Lawrence? Any amount of information would be better than what the people are being provided with now -- even a timetable as to when the investigation will be complete. In any true and functioning democracy the elected officials owe that to the voters. Elected officials of any capacity are not elected to rule over the people; they are elected to serve the people. There is a major difference between the two. Simply put, the board of education should be obligated to release some sort of statement to the people, whether it is a reason why this took place or a timetable as to when the reason will be released; forcing the taxpayers to speculate and wonder as to why is only going to "keep the rumor mill spinning" so to speak and will ultimately cause more harm to the village as well as the students than it will do good.
Speaking of the students, they too have been caught in the middle of this conflict between the school board and Ms. Lawrence as well. They felt the effect of Ms. Lawrence being forced out and in a show of solidarity the students participated in a sit-in protest on Nov. 8, 2013, in an effort to let their voices be heard. The message of the protest was simple: They wanted Ms. Lawrence brought back to her position as school superintendent. Of course, their protest was met with resistance and students were told that any of them who participated in the protest would be removed from their respective sports teams and not allowed to play in games. As we all know, our sports teams are one of the things that we take pride in our communities. Growing up in a small town we do not have many extra-curricular activities and our sports teams have proven year after year to be one of the most productive things to participate in. Telling students that they will miss out on this opportunity because they voiced their opinion is unacceptable. To make things even worse, students who participated were told that they would receive a grade of zero for any work missed during this sit-in and they would receive no opportunity to make any of the work up. So in essence, the school is actually allowing failure to take place, as opposed to giving the students the opportunity to succeed.
This scenario begs a few questions. First off, what kind of message are we sending our students by restricting their ability to participate in a protest that is a direct response to a significant local issue? In forcing the students to not participate, are we not making an attempt to limit free speech? The First Amendment of the United States Constitution allows free speech in society, and sure the students are minors and have to answer to the will of the teachers and school faculty, but it sends the wrong message to force the students to not participate in the sit-in. By doing so, we are almost grooming our students to not speak out in the real world, to not stand up for themselves -- that is in direct opposition to the values and ideas that our nation was founded on. Furthermore, how often is it that our students actually get the opportunity to participate in anything civics related? Growing up in a small town, they do not necessarily get the opportunity to participate in a protest very often -- any students who may be considering a career in politics or public service were robbed of the opportunity to experience this. The bottom line is that suppression of free speech should not be condoned or encouraged.
The removal of Ms. Lawrence and the student sit-in protest are not the only issues that the school district has encountered as of late. Another issue involved the location of the business office for the merged school district. The business office was originally located in St. Johnsville but was moved to Oppenheim. All of the essential functions of the business office are worked through the bank and post office, both of which located on Main Street of St. Johnsville. Both fiscally and operationally it makes perfect sense to keep the business office in St. Johnsville. The close proximity of the post office and bank made perfect sense, yet the board decided to move the office anyway. While this was taking place, Ms. Lawrence made various concessions to keep the business office in St. Johnsville. She offered to hand over the high school library and turn that into the new business office. She also offered to turn over the old agriculture building to become the new business office; in fact that building has two floors and would have had more than enough space to accommodate the business office's needs. In addition, both of these options had an outside entrance which would ensure that the faculty of the business office would not have to interrupt the normal day-to-day functions of the students. Instead of taking Ms. Lawrence up on her offer, the board went against common sense and moved to a small office consisting of one normal sized room and two small offices in Oppenheim. They even had to cut a normal sized desk in half to fit into the new business office. Again, none of this made any sense whatsoever since Ms. Lawrence offered two viable options. At a board meeting it was stated that both schools would be toured to determine which option would be best for the business office; the question is, did the tour even take place? If so, they would have seen that keeping the business office in St. Johnsville would have been the better option. Some things in life boil down to common sense; I am not certain common sense was used in this decision.
Another issue that has come to the forefront is the question of the merger money. Taxpayers are asking the big question, "Where is the merger money?" The school is supposed to receive a grant from the state as a result of the merger -- yet no treasurer's report for the newly merged school district has been released. There is a claim that they have to wait for the auditors' report so they can get an accurate count on how much money is accumulated in the school district. While I do agree with this, it would be hard to submit a complete and accurate treasurer's report until that audit has taken place, does the board not at least have the responsibility to at least release a partial report of incoming and outgoing funds in an effort to appease the taxpayers/voters? This type of partial report would help answer that "where is the merger money" question. The merger became official on July 1, 2013, meaning more than one fiscal quarter has passed since the merger. The people of the village are owed some form of an answer on this subject. This comes down to a point that I made earlier in this letter: Elected officials are here to serve, not to rule. Part of serving a people is giving them an explanation.
Since we are on the subject of money, let us address school supplies, shall we? This year, St. Johnsville teachers did not receive their new supplies and learning modules until well into September, while Oppenheim teachers had received their respective supplies well in advance. By keeping these supplies from the teachers, the board essentially set up these teachers for failure, and even worse, they are setting up the students for failure. The education of our youth should not be taken lightly. It should also be noted that use of new textbooks and learning modules is directed by the state of New York. Granted, the school board has the authority to tell the superintendent to order these respective supplies, but is that not just a formality? If the state is directing that all school districts statewide utilize these new materials then what is the need to "authorize" the superintendent to order them? I only bring this point to the forefront because Ms. Lawrence was accused of overspending when she was finally directed to order the supplies. How can something that is state directed to begin with be deemed as overspending? The simple answer is that it is a contradiction to do so; the school requires the supplies, the school is told by the state to order the supplies, therefore, the school must order the supplies. The superintendent did not overspend, she only did what a responsible superintendent is supposed to do in this situation. In other words, she did her job. Furthermore, the residents of St. Johnsville were promised that their taxes would see a decrease as a result of the merger. Instead, taxes in St. Johnsville increased -- so not only are the citizens of the village disgruntled due to the lack of information concerning the merger money, but they are also dealing with an unexpected tax increase. Do we not owe the citizens an explanation for this?
Before I close, I am going to bring one last issue to the forefront, that issue being the respective traditions, colors and alma matters of the respective schools. When the merger took place, the board was quick to ensure that the original St. Johnsville colors of purple and gold were removed and replaced with the new colors of the merged district, and rightfully so. We are supposed to be one team, one school district. Changing the colors is par for the course. However, why is it that there was no rush to change the colors in the Oppenheim buildings? Furthermore, the Oppenheim alma mater was not removed until last week, regardless of the fact that St. Johnsville's colors were removed immediately. The volleyball team played a full season with the Oppenheim alma mater displayed; as opposed to OESJ. The team may have well called themselves OE as opposed to OESJ. To further matters, when the St. Johnsville colors were changed, all of their sports banners from the past were taken down. Those banners are an important part of the school's heritage, as are Oppenheim's banners. So the question is, why? Why such a quick effort to hide, destroy and cover up all of St. Johnsville's heritage as a school? And why was that same effort not made in regard to Oppenheim's heritage? After all, as a newly merged school system we should be making strides toward unity. By suppressing St. Johnsville's past, we are only going to further the divide. Ultimately this hurts the students more than anyone, and that is the sad part. At any point has anyone asked the question, "What is best for the students?"
After looking at all these facts, it is my contention that all of this harm has been done for one reason and one reason only: a vendetta against anyone who was affiliated with St. Johnsville, perpetuated by anyone who was previously affiliated with Oppenheim. At first glance, I did not want to believe this. After all, one could call the relief of duty of Ms. Lawrence a simple personnel move, even though she is not the only one who was removed for almost no reason. Jason Brundage, the school's famed athletic director, was also removed from his position recently. Both Ms. Lawrence and coach Brundage were critical parts of our old school system, but does that mean they should not be a part of the new school system? Were their years in service in vain? The immediate suppression of any and all pieces of St. Johnsville's heritage reeks of personal vendetta. But why let a petty rivalry from the past between two towns, two high schools affect our decisions today? Is this not the time for unity? More importantly, is this not the time for maturity? As adults, there is no reason to allow a petty rivalry to affect the decisions that affect our students. To do so is immature. The idea of "breaking up old St. Johnsville cliques" is simply that: an idea. Those so-called "cliques" do not truly exist -- they are merely an elaboration of something that was perceived to have existed in high school. But the thing is, we are no longer in high school and we should conduct ourselves as such. Allow me to put it into perspective this way: In 9th grade I got into a fight with a friend from school, and he broke my nose. The fight/feud/rivalry was immediately ended and we became good friends. Today I am a 30-year-old Army veteran going to college. Does that give me the excuse to hit the gym, watch a few Rocky movies and challenge him to a rematch 15 years later? Of course not. The reason being that our fight was something petty from high school. Sure, it makes for a funny story or a great conversation piece now -- but as adults we are expected to rise above things like this. I ask the OESJ school board to do the same.
In my recent studies of political science I have come across a theory by a man by the name of John Rawls who authored the book, "A Theory of Justice." In his work, he wrote about a theory called the Veil of Ignorance. The theory states that if people were unaware of their position in society that social and economic inequalities would only be allowed to the extent that they benefit society as a whole and all offices would be open to fair, honest and open competition. While this theory is not only dated, but has also been contested by some scholars, its basic principle remains the same: If we are unbiased in our decision making (aka, unaware of our position in society) then we will be more likely to make decisions that benefit society as a whole. That is why the theory is called the veil of ignorance; if we were to wear a veil that would leave us ignorant to our own beliefs, ideas and biases then naturally we would make decisions that would better everyone as a whole. One would ask the school board to employ this theory. Please abandon the petty rivalries and make unbiased decisions, not decisions that benefit Oppenheim students or St. Johnsville students, but decisions that benefit OESJ students, because the reality is simple: there are only OESJ students at this point. We need to make decisions that are best for them, because they are our future. Even though I do not live in St. Johnsville any more I do like to pay attention to the matters of my hometown. I will forever love St. Johnsville because that is where I came from, but sitting and watching my beloved town be torn apart by a petty rivalry is truly appalling.
U.S. Army Veteran,