LAKE PLACID - Attendance was light, but the discussion was rich at a school board candidate forum at the Lake Placid Beach House Thursday, April 26.
Four candidates are running for three seats on the Lake Placid Central School District Board of Education this year: Joan Hallett Valentine, Mary Dietrich, Martha Stahl and Patti Gallagher. Valentine is running for the seat she was appointed to last year; two other seats will be vacated by Jill Cardinale Segger and Cathy Johnston, who are not seeking re-election.
About 10 people showed up for the forum, which featured just two of the candidates: Dietrich and Gallagher. Linda Wallace of the Community Alliance for Responsible Excellence in Education, the new group that hosted the forum, said Stahl and Valentine couldn't attend because of other commitments.
Patti Gallagher, left, speaks at a school board candidate forum at the Lake Placid Beach House on Thursday night. Gallagher and Mary Dietrich, right, are running for two of the three open seats on the Lake Placid Central School District Board of Education. The other two candidates were not at the forum.
The forum was fairly informal, at times feeling more like a roundtable discussion of school issues, although the focus was clearly on the two school board candidates.
Dietrich, who lives in Lake Placid, said she's running because the school system plays an important role in her life, and she's seen it take a turn for the worse. Gallagher, a Wilmington resident, said she wants a more diverse board, one that includes parents with children currently going to school in the district.
Near the end of the forum, Wallace asked about what she called "the elephant in the room.
"There's a petition on (Superintendent Randy) Richards," she said. "What would be your steps in terms of addressing that?"
Earlier this year, former middle-high school Principal Robert Schiller presented the current board with a petition bearing 600 signatures asking Richards to step down. The superintendent became embroiled in controversy last year when middle-high school Principal Katherine Mulderig filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against him, claiming gender discrimination, retaliation and creating a hostile work environment. The EEOC upheld the complaint, but the school board has not publicly acted on it. Meanwhile, Mulderig, herself the subject of a prior petition seeking her ouster, has reached an agreement with the board to part ways with the school district.
Community members have also complained about poor financial decisions and a breakdown of communication between administration, the school board, and parents and faculty.
"Do you have an opinion of, 'Let's ride out the contract?' Would you work to make a change?" Wallace asked.
Dietrich said she's not sure what options are available to the school board "in terms of forcing him to leave.
"Through his behavior, he's lost trust of teachers, students and the community," she said. "I don't see how he can win that back. I think, through his behavior, he's put himself in a situation where he cannot effectively carry out his duties, supervise and evaluate teachers, recommend and deny tenure. I think any decision he makes is questionable at this point.
"If Mulderig was bad and needed to be gone, his behavior has made it more difficult and costly for the district," Dietrich added. "If she was good, we lost a good person."
Dietrich said she also questions the advice the school board is getting from its two attorneys.
"Are they representing the board's interest or the superintendent's interest?" she asked.
Gallagher said when it comes to Richards' contract, she would need to take a closer look at the information before coming to a decision. She said the petition, however, needs to be acknowledged.
"It hasn't been acknowledged in any meeting minutes," she said. "That would need to happen. Minutes are a record of what's happening. (Board President Phil) Baumbach did speak to the community, which I appreciated, and there's record that he opened a meeting with a statement asking for patience."
Dietrich said, as a school board member, she would work to address community concerns "before they fester and become a bigger issue." She also said she wants to create a five-year strategic plan for the district.
"We need a vision of what we need to present a quality education, and then figure out the most cost effective way to get there," Dietrich said.
She said the strategic plan could be revisited annually and adjusted as needed.
Mary Jane Lawrence, of Lake Placid, has three children in the school system. She told the candidates that it seems like the board sets out to do one thing, and internally, something else happens.
"It seems like there's a disconnect between the board and the inner workings of the school," Lawrence said. "How does the board know what is happening within those walls?"
Gallagher said the apparent disconnect is a concern for her, and that's why it's important for the board to include people who have children in the district.
Lawrence also asked the candidates if they would be able to make the tough decisions.
Dietrich said as a board member with the Lake Placid Sinfonietta, which she said has a "big budget," she has had to approve cuts that have led to cutting positions. Gallagher said every school district has to make tough decisions, but she thinks the board and the community both need to "lower their defenses" and communicate better when those decisions arise.