Rensselaer City School Community Members,
During the past week, claims have been made about school district actions or decisions. As the Chief School Officer, it is my duty to provide accurate information to RCSD community stakeholders.
In education, we refer to an old saying: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” We don’t expect fish to climb trees because it is not their purpose.
If you judge a public school by its religious, political, or special interest activity, you will be disappointed. This is because schools have a moral obligation not to take on these activities. As an institution of public education, we cannot preach a given religion, endorse a single political party, or take on the role of any special interest advocacy. We have the duty to educate our students about all sides of issues and let them take that information and decide for themselves.
Given that foundational understanding of the role of public education, one can understand why the district cannot commit to supporting a given religion, endorsing a political candidate, and (in this instance) interfering with the operations of any lawful business. The school cannot purposely interfere with any businesses operating within the law based on our opinion of them. That action would be political, and therefore, outside the scope of our responsibility. There are other governmental and non-governmental organizations specifically tasked with these watchdog functions, but not school districts.
Unfortunately, this misguided expectation that the school should take on the role of activist has resulted in accusations of “payola” and “hush money” related to an agreement between the district and the landfill. Without a clear understanding of the role of public education, community members could be lead to believe that the school has done something wrong. This is simply not the case. The agreement clarifies that the district will not object or interfere with the operations so long as they are lawful. As I stated above, It is the district’s moral obligation to provide that neutrality anyway. The agreement also clarifies that the district is “reserving all rights and remedies available under the law” which clearly enables us to take action should we have any evidence of impact to the district. We have reported any incidents before and after that agreement was approved. We will certainly continue to do so. While some of the legalese taken out of context can sound objectionable, the agreement read in its entirety provides a measurable benefit to our students without actually giving up any rights that any public school district can exercise. In fact, that income was enough to get our district started with a 1:1 laptop program for next year.
It is critical to understand and insure the safety of our students. We clearly recognize the increased safety concerns of having a landfill next to a school. With this in mind, we have partnered with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Rensselaer County Department of Health to measure how the school may be affected. I outlined these efforts in a comprehensive safety update released last month. We spend a lot of time teaching our students how to find and verify information in an effort to separate fact from perception. We are making sure to measure the air quality and any evidence of pollution rather than assume that our facility is clean or dirty. Any decisions about student safety continue to be grounded in data. While we all agree that the proximity of the landfill is not ideal, we have not yet found any data to show that it is unsafe for our students or staff. We will continue looking.
In my role over the past year as the new Superintendent of RCSD, it has become apparent that this landfill issue is driven not just by activism, but also politics. As educators, we continue to applaud and encourage community activism. However, with elections approaching in November, the school district renews our request to leave the school out of the inevitable political debate.
I am willing to discuss any aspect of this situation with community members in an effort to answer questions, avoid confusion, and inspire confidence in what opportunities the Rensselaer City School District provides for our students. I would be excited to discuss instruction, culture, and student opportunities because those are the reasons I love my job and the reasons that our Board of Education members volunteer their time for kids.