School board member under fire for speaking her mind to taxpayers PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ben Velderman   
Tuesday, 07 August 2012 08:29
By Ben Velderman
EAGnews.org
WEST HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – Do individuals forfeit their First Amendment right to free speech when they become school board members?
The president of the West Hempstead Union Free (New York) school board seems to think so, but the district's official policy on free speech won't be known until board members re-examine their code of ethics in October.
This philosophical debate was sparked by a postcard board member Cynthia DiMiceli sent to the community last spring – at her own expense – explaining why she had voted against the district’s $55.2 million proposed budget for the 2012-13 school year.
The postcard had no discernible effect on the budget’s fate, which breezed through the board and was later ratified by the voters, but it so angered board President Walter Ejnes that he denounced DiMiceli as an “insecure megalomaniac” who generates “unnecessary controversy.”
A tiny handful of community activists are calling on DiMiceli to resign her post. They claim her actions violated the board’s code of ethics, which require members to “abide by all board decisions once they are made and assist in carrying them out effectively,” according to the West Hempstead Herald.
DiMiceli says the Education Establishment is “bullying” her because she dared use her rights as a private citizen to question the direction of the school district.
“Just because I’m a board member, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to speak my piece,” she tells EAGnews.org, adding that her comments represent her views only.
Despite the overheated rhetoric from her critics, DiMiceli is faithfully executing the official duties of her office by working with her fellow board members to lead the district and implement its policies.
This controversy is really about DiMiceli’s decision to ignore the establishment’s sacred teaching that all board members must march in lockstep, so as to present a “unified front” to the community.
The "united front" is believed to be an essential ingredient to a healthy school district. In reality, it's a ploy used by defenders of the status quo to supress criticism and alternative points of view. DiMiceli is standing up to those tired ideas, and is catching plenty of flak for doing so.
'We must change this way of thinking'
DiMiceli decided to run for the school board in 2010, over concerns about the deterioration of the district’s facilities and the overall quality of education being provided to students. She has two children in the district, and witnessed the decline first-hand.
“Everybody can complain, but that’s not my style,” she says. “I wanted to find solutions to fix the problems.”
And the problems are significant.
West Hempstead is located in New York’s Nassau County, which has the highest median property taxes in the nation, according to CBS 880. DiMiceli says her personal property taxes have doubled over the last 15 years.
Despite all the spending, the district’s test scores have mostly stagnated and student enrollment has declined. Taxpayers are paying more and more, but results aren’t improving.
“That’s not logical to me,” she says.
So when school administrators presented the West Hempstead school board with a $55.2 million budget proposal this spring, DiMiceli grew concerned the district wasn’t addressing the structural deficit that’s expected to begin in 2014.
After the board passed the budget 5-2, DiMiceli shared her concerns in a postcard-letter to West Hempstead residents, explaining why she voted ‘no.’
Economic conditions -- decreasing tax revenue, increasing health insurance and retirement costs for employees -- are creating “tremendous challenges for future budgets," DiMiceli wrote.
"Therefore, if we do not spend wisely and make provisions for the future now, our standard of education will drop even further along with the value of our homes.”
She also noted that opposing a school budget is a sure-fire way of getting labeled as anti-public education.
"In my opinion, we must change this way of thinking," DiMiceli wrote. "I feel that in order to improve the quality of education in West Hempstead, we must have the courage to face and admit our deficiencies and work together to find new ways to raise district wide academic achievement.”
The letter – which is clearly identified as representing only DiMiceli’s views – did not urge taxpayers to vote a certain way on the May 15 budget vote. It only raised questions that she believes the community must begin addressing, sooner or later.
'Good board members learn to compromise'
DiMiceli’s letter drew a stinging rebuke from the board president.
In a letter to the West Hempstead Herald, Ejnes wrote that “good board members learn to compromise, and if a decision does not go your way, it is unheard of to go out publicly and undermine the board’s final decision.”
At Ejnes’ urging, the board will revisit its code of ethics in October to determine the course of action if a member violates the policies.
The school board’s attorney has already reviewed the legality of DiMiceli’s actions, but the board has refused to make his findings public.
“If my critics feel that they are right, they should ask the Board of Education why aren’t they releasing the legal opinion of their own attorney?" DiMiCeli wrote in a recent letter to a local news site. “I will leave that up to you to assume the response.”
Despite the controversy her letter has generated, DiMiceli plans to keep pushing the board to share as much information as possible with the public.
“Certain things can’t be discussed publicly, such as contract negotiations or information about a certain student. But everything else should be public."
Information leads to more transparency and more accoutability, key components to ensuring that a school district is being run properly.
"This is a $55 million a year business,” DiMiceli says. “I do what I think is the right thing to do.”
Contact Ben Velderman at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or at (231) 733-4202.
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