PLATTSBURGH — Holly and John Sims are firm believers that the key to a fiscally and academically sound school district is an informed and involved community.
“It’s when the community falls out of touch that things start going the other way,” Holly said.
For that reason, the Simses, taxpayers of Beekmantown Central School District and parents of two BCS graduates, established United for the Kids.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization strives “to increase transparency, accountability and long-term fiscal sustainability and solvency” in public school districts, Holly said, by providing taxpayers, parents and students easy access to information about their schools that isn’t otherwise readily available.
DIGGING FOR DATA
On the organization’s website, unitedforthekids.org, one can find everything from data regarding the student achievement and enrollments of certain area schools to documents pertaining to districts’ class schedules, finances and employee contracts.
“You can get this information if you know where to dig and dig real hard, but that’s the problem,” said Holly, who served on the Beekmantown School Board from 1998 to 2005. “It’s not easily accessible for the average parent or the average taxpayer.”
The Simses, along with other members of the group, have obtained some of the information directly from the districts via Freedom of Information requests.
“Part of getting the information is knowing what to ask for, how to ask for it and where to get it,” Holly said.
The organization also collects data from the New York State Education Department at nysed.gov and the National Center for Education Statistics at nces.ed.gov.
While United for the Kids first began with a focus of spreading district awareness within the Beekmantown Central community, the group has since expanded to include Plattsburgh City School District.
Information regarding both districts, as well as Peru Central School, is now available on the organization’s website, with more information about Peru expected to come soon.
In addition, the site offers some general information about all districts in Clinton County.
The group intends to eventually provide extensive data regarding all school districts in Clinton, Franklin and Essex counties, possibly even beyond, and hopes to comprise members who reside in those districts, as well.
“Initially, we will focus on the local area, but there is no reason why (United for the Kids) cannot grow to include more of the state,” Holly said.
WORKING FOR CHANGE
The Simses hope that by cultivating informed school communities, the group can bring about change in the ways districts educate kids, manage their finances and relate to their communities.
“The common thing across New York is there are people that are frustrated and they feel they can’t get information about their school, from their school, and we act as a larger group entity, that people can get behind, and it’s easier to get things done when you have a lot of people working for a common goal,” John said.
One concern among members of the organization is that too many students in the state are not graduating high school with the skills necessary to be successful in colleges or careers.
During a recent speaking engagement at West Side Ballroom in Plattsburgh, New York State Commissioner of Education Dr. John King Jr. stated that fewer than 35 percent of the state’s high-school graduates are ready to take credit-bearing community-college courses.
Yet, Holly said, New York state spends the most money per student of any state in the nation.
According to Public Education Finances: 2010, a report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau in June 2012, New York spent $18,618 per student in 2010, second only to the $18,667 per student spent by the District of Columbia that year.
“Throwing money at this is not doing anything,” said United for the Kids member Walter Chmura, a taxpayer of the Plattsburgh City School District.
“Kids aren’t getting what they need, taxpayers aren’t getting what they’re paying for, and these kids aren’t prepared for the workplace and they’re not prepared for college, and they’ve got to do one of two when they graduate,” Holly added.
And, she and Chmura noted, the amount of money many districts are spending on retiree health-care benefits is another issue that needs to be addressed.
In some cases, Holly said, taxpayers are paying for district employees to have better health-care plans than the taxpayers can afford for themselves.
“Not only is it unfair, it’s unsustainable,” she said.
Still, Holly continued, many people simply aren’t aware of factors like how students are faring on state tests and how money is being spent within school districts.
“I think if people become invested in their school, I think that’s part of turning these schools around,” she said.
“I think education is a big part of it, but I also think the community plays a big role in turning these schools around, and we need to get the community involvement.”
And, she added, “the schools have to open their doors as well.”
Email Ashleigh Livingston: firstname.lastname@example.org