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Local Schools: Are We Or ‘They’ In Charge?

As a new school year peeks over the horizon, I’m reminded how our local school boards represent one of the last great examples of community democracy. For evidence, we only have to look at the annual spring rite of electing board members. Granted, some communities yawn and have a tough time mustering a quorum, but for the most part, here in Nassau County, the campaigns are as fierce as — and far more realistic than — TV wrestling.

And that’s a good thing. There is a lot at stake: “our children’s future,” “the future of our community,” “real estate values” and, most loudly, budgets and taxes. These days, most school board elections turn on terms such as “fiscal responsibility” and “cost control.”

Of course, most school districts in these parts don’t have an especially good record of “fiscal responsibility” and “cost control.” You only have to look at the contracts they negotiate with their superintendents. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that any board paying a superintendent of schools more than (often far more than) a quarter million dollars a year has the negotiating skills of a golden retriever.

That local school boards aren’t McKinsey & Co. models of efficiency is no surprise. But most of us accept that as the price of having our grassroots-elected neighbors represent our interests and the interests of our kids. Unfortunately, we often let the board’s financial antics overshadow the much more important issue of local control of schools.

We too easily forget that the school board’s primary purpose isn’t labor relations and accounting, but rather, setting policy. What will our kids be taught? How will they be instructed? How will we evaluate their progress? How will our schools reflect the culture and values of our community? Are we going to broadly educate our children or merely train them for jobs that may or may not exist when they graduate?

These are essential questions, and our communities must not let anyone else answer them for us. In New York City, local input was replaced a decade ago by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s General Patton-style control. As a result, the point of city public education has become cutting costs, breaking the teachers’ union and ginning up test scores and other data that give mathematical credence to his ham-fisted dismantling of America’s largest public school system.

Such calamity hasn’t struck us yet, though numerous state and federal programs are taking our schools out of our hands. Mandated tests, a curriculum based on the much-touted but unproven Common Core standards and other “improvements” are thrust on local school districts from on high.

Usually, there are financial strings attached — districts that comply get money, those that don’t get the shaft. At the same time, those higher up the government food chain require our districts to do things that they want on our dime. The much-discussed unfunded mandates.

Which brings us back to the financial issues that now dominate the discussion of our public schools. The testers, the data-collectors, the “efficiency experts” and other know-it-alls from Albany and Washington are taking over our schools by employing financial carrots and sticks.

And, of course, many tax-burdened residents and their school boards have a hard time pushing back.

Inside Today’s Schools

John Owens’ new book, Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education, is an eye-opening expose of the state of “school reform” and a galvanizing call to action for parents and communities. It is now available at, and booksellers everywhere.