My name is Richard Garfunkel, and I want to thank this body for inviting me to speak tonight. I come here as a concerned citizen, who was raised in this lovely city over 66 years ago. I started high school at the AB Davis building approximately 50 years ago and I was in the last class to graduate from that edifice, and in the first class to be called the modern MVHS. I played varsity sports there and worked closely and developed a life-long friendship with the legendary Hank Littlefield and got quite friendly with the new coach Gene Ridenour, who spent many years serving this district.
In those years I got to know people like John Branca and Irv Halstead who guided athletics in Mount Vernon for many years. I even met the great Mount Vernon star quarterback Frank Carideo of Knute Rockne’s last Notre Dame team. I knew the coaches and leaders like: Dave Rider, Lorenzo Thomas, Ed Williams, Harry Bright, Al Cain, Randy Forrest, Bill Sywetz, Sully Mott, Arzelia Strong Thornton among others. Though we were from different backgrounds they were all critical to my development and knowledge of how to work with people. In fact, two of the schools in this district are named after Ed Williams and Nelly Thornton.
I met my wife Linda Rosen Garfunkel, who was student teaching at MVHS, while she was finishing her Masters degree at Columbia University after graduating from Barnard, while I was substitute teaching at the high school. I was temporarily working there while I was awaiting my OCS Class in the Air Force.
In my college years at Boston University, Mount Vernon hosted for the first time the Section I three county wrestling championships and I was asked to serve as the tournament director for Coach Henry Littlefield each of the years from 1965 through 1967. We won the Section I title every year from 1963- through 1967.
In the ensuing next years, even though I was married in 1969, I volunteered many hours and weekends to work with Dave Rider and Randy Forrest and their respective sports. By the mid 1970s, with a growing family, a business to run in NYC, and other responsibilities, my activities at the high school waned.
But, I have here a copy of a note and a telegram, sent to me by the then Congressman Richard L. Ottinger, who represented this district in 1975. When a MVHS track star named Ken McBryde, who was attending Manhattan College, was selected to be on the first America (AAU)-Chinese Track meet, the head of the NCAA banned him and other college athletes from the meet by threatening to have their scholarships revoked. I called Congressman Ottinger and he wrote Walter Byers and along with others pressured him to back down! Ken McBryde was allowed to participate in that critical international meet, which had a great deal to do with normalizing relationships with the People’s Republic of China. I have always been interested in MV and the rights of its residents.
In 1994, in the wake of the untimely death of my high school friend and classmate, Jon Breen, a former president of our class, a Dartmouth College, and Harvard Law School graduate and a Fulbright Scholar, I went to Superintendent Pratella, Brenda Smith, and LE Smith the head of the MVHS History Department, and suggested a yearly essay contest with a public policy theme.
Many in our Class of 1963, like Jon, went on to achieve excellent academic records in our best colleges and graduate schools. As I person who ran and assisted with all of our reunions; the 20th, 25th, 30th, 35th and the 40th, I got to know the life story and achievements of many, many of our classmates. I can say that without hesitation that MVHS and AB Davis HS produced an inordinate amount of doctoral scholars in many disciplines. I could easily say that Davis and Mount Vernon, with a pluralistic student body, all through those years, was one of the best suburban schools in America.
Over the years, from 1994 through last year, I have seen and met many of the best and the brightest students of MVHS. The Jon Breen Scholarship Fund, which I have chaired, has raised over $30,000. Much of it has been spent totally on giving out prizes for award winning essays on public policy. With the help of John Alberga and his successor Paul Court, the Chairs of the History Department, I was able to meet with their honors and AP Classes and give master class lectures on mid 20th Century history.
During the past five years I have hosted a radio show on WVOX called The Advocates, which specializes on public policy issues that range from education, health care, justice in America, and to a whole host of other issues.
On my program, I have had many shows devoted to education in America. I have interviewed your current Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Tony Sawyer, the volunteers and the director of the “Amazing Afternoons” program at the Ed Williams School, Mr. Daniel deVise, The Washington Post education editor, Professors Mark Taylor of Columbia University, John Loase of Concordia, Victor Cahn of Skidmore, John Valenti of the College of New Rochelle and a number of others whose concern is the future course of education. I have heard perspectives on all sorts of issues relating to how we improve our schools from the earliest grades through graduate studies.
Over these years I have witnessed a great change from my graduation over 48 years ago through my period of teaching and volunteering to the 17 years working with the Jon Breen Fund, the MVHS College Scholarship Committee, and Project 2000, a group founded by Brenda Smith and I to rehabilitate the MVHS auditorium and create a school of the performing arts.
I have watched the change from one of the great public school systems in America to one that is on the verge of bankruptcy. Of course, one can never discount the negative impact of the current recession and economic malaise, the widening gap between rich and poor, the breakup of the nuclear family and the demographic changes Mount Vernon has experienced over the past 45 years.
Over the years, until very recently, I could come into the MVHS on any afternoon to meet with school officials, teachers or students to discuss projects of interest without an iota of fear and with the utmost sense of security.
I am sad to say tonight that I cannot do that today with the confidence that I had in the past. In fact, I find the high school threatening. With the need for a chained parking lot, metal detectors, scores of hanger-ons sitting on the stone wall on California Road and the milling around of students in the halls, I have no desire to come to the high school under these conditions. Whether I am right, or wrong, these conditions give me the impression of a state of lawlessness, lack of over all control and fear. This attitude has been re-enforced by my many conversations with teachers and counselors.
The building complex is rundown, the lawns are unkempt, there is rust on the support columns outside, and the damaged curbs reflect decades of neglect. Recently when I went to our annual summer meeting of the MVHS Scholarship Committee, I noticed many cars parked in the fire lane, where parking is prohibited, though there were scores of spaces available on each side of the building. The building is drab, display cabinets have been vandalized, and there is a dreary look to the building. The building is under-utilized as the high school population continues to shrink. It seems to the casual observer to be half-empty, while there are two other high schools at other locations, with an obvious duplication of services and staff, draining off valuable resources. The whole concept of the new Mount Vernon HS, which is located far away from most of its students, was to unite the students, faculty, and administrators of both the old Davis and Edison campuses. Therefore the question must be asked, with this under-utilized campus, cannot these three entities be housed again under the same roof?
In recent years, we have witnessed a revolving door of principals and support staff, which has featured short term incumbents with no sense of permanence. This lack of continuity spills back on educational continuity and drives leery parents away from investing their children’s future into a system that has no idea of where it is going. The stories of fights, knifings and shootings has blared for years across the local the newspaper headlines.
Along with the physical and moral deterioration of the school system, there have been many changes regarding the internal educational structure. There was a multiplicity of plans that incorporated house leaders and all sorts of different educational configurations that have come and gone. I do not have the time here to review the multiple changes and the amount of people who have come and gone. For sure, few over the past 17 years have had any knowledge or interest in what I was doing.
When I started the Jon Breen Essay Contest in 1994, I received hundreds of essays, which were written by hand and typewriters. By 2008 I could hardly get more than two dozen and they were all computer generated and many were lifted directly from Wikipedia. In the last few years, after being totally frustrated by the lack of student and faculty interest, the cavalier plagiarism, and the handful of submissions, I discontinued the essay contest and asked the English and History Departments to submit the resumes of their best students and I would give a scholarship prize to them in the name of Jon Breen and Henry Littlefield. Recently I even stopped requesting the few transcripts that were available and left the choice to the advisors.
The change has been profound, disastrous and depressing. I will conclude my statement with one last vignette which focuses on the failure of the past Boards to fund adequately the capital improvements to this school system. On January 22, 2009, I met Superintendent Sawyer in his office at the Education House. My colleague, Mr. John Berenyi, an internationally known financier and an advisor to state and international governments, accompanied me that morning.
Mr. Berenyi and I had just finished a year long effort to review the structural integrity of the Mount Vernon Doles Center, the Griffin-Valentino Fire Station, City Hall, create a jobs incubator, review antiquated zoning laws, bring businesses to the City of Mount Vernon and create a vision statement for the City. This was all accomplished, except the creation of the jobs incubator.
In that period of time, I was referred by Dr. Lewis Perelman, a Mount Vernon HS graduate, a Phi Beta Kappa, CCNY graduate in physics and the recipient of a doctorate from Harvard University, an innovative educational thinker from Washington DC’s McKinley Tech. Dr. Perelman, the author of the well-know received and respected book, “School’s Out,” which predicted many of the problems we have experienced over the past two decades told me how the McKinley Tech HS, which was an urban school on the brink of bankruptcy, was turned around by an innovative programs involving the collaborative work of parents and teachers and the introduction new age technologies.
The purpose of my meeting with Dr. Sawyer was strictly focused on curriculum and the possible meeting between Dr. Sawyer and the people from McKinley Tech. I had no contract with or no agreement to represent these people in any financial way, and no other interest, except suggesting alternate ideas for the district.
At the meeting on January 22, 2009, I was introduced to another attendee, Mr Bill Weinmann, whom I was told was the Director of School Facilities and Operations, of the Mount Vernon City Schools. I have a copy of his card for your inspection. Since this was a meeting strictly scheduled to talk about curriculum, I had no idea why he was in attendance.
After I made my presentation to Dr. Sawyer, he answered very quickly that he had no money for any project and seemed to show no interest in what I was saying. I was basically suggesting a meeting, at no expense to the district, to have the people from the McKinley School’s ideas expressed, but quickly that was ruled out.
Since John Berenyi and I had just finished a year-long needs analysis for the city, I turned to Weinmann and casually asked him if the school district had recently had a “needs analysis” on their buildings. He answered that the district already had an analysis completed. I asked him who had completed this project. He answered, and I quote, “my company.” I was a bit taken aback and astounded. Immediately I wondered about the specter of conflict of a interest, but showed no change in emotion. I then asked him directly, “How much did your people charge?” He answered that the job was “done pro-bono!” At that time I had no idea whether the work was really done for the school system, or that he, as an employee of a company, contracted to do the work on the grounds and the buildings. In fact, I later learned that he was not on the payroll of the school system.
Eventually, since I didn’t feel that I had the right to ask any more questions, the meeting ended and we departed. On April 12, 2010 the massive wall at the MVHS, near the auditorium collapsed destroying a number of classrooms. Luckily, it was late in the day when the wall collapsed, or many lives could have been lost along with the potentiality of scores of injuries and countless lawsuits. Just by blind luck an absolute disaster was avoided.
On April 14th, two days later, in the wake of that disaster, which has cost the district $500, 000 above the insurance reimbursement, I wrote a letter to Mr. Brian Bochow Jr., the assistant to the Mayor, reminding him of my earlier discussion regarding the meeting the year before with Dr. Sawyer and Bill Weinmann. I inquired whether the city administration had an interest in the structural safety of the MV public schools. I asked him in that letter the same questions I am going to ask you tonight. I have included a copy of that letter and a follow-up letter sent to Mayor Clinton Young on May 26, 2010. I never received an answer from both gentlemen.
So here we are, a few years later and the wall was finally repaired at the cost of $1.5 million. The questions still remain:
A) Did a needs analysis ever really take place?
B) If it did, why was the roof and walls not thoroughly checked by engineers?
C) Was Weinmann’s company paid for this supposed work and what was his connection to the school system??
D) Where is the report, and what did it say? Were there other reports?
E) What was the conclusion regarding the investigation of why the wall collapsed?
I believe that this new Board has an obligation and responsibility to search out the answers and to find out the truth behind this costly incident. It is critical to know whether these building were really inspected and why the students of Mount Vernon were placed in imminent danger.
As to the City, I would hope that the public would demand to know why the current city administration did not follow up this request which was sent to them in writing.
If the current Board of Education wants to turn around this obviously declining system from its curtain free-fall, it must start right here and now. It must seek out the records, follow the money and open a new era of transparency, openness and responsibility. It must follow every lead and find out where the money has gone. It must ask the tough questions about its previous capital budgets and the neglect of its properties. It is therefore incumbent of the Board to question the previous policies regarding the lack of capital improvement and therefore, answer the question of happened to the $120 million that was allocated. The Board should question why in the last fifteen years the school population has been reduced by 15% from 10,000 students to 8,500 and why you have added more schools along with two extra high schools, while older ones remain in the state of severe deterioration.
The public rightly knows and believes that the key to turning around the city begins with the school system. Most communities rise and fall on the success of their school system. Property values are intrinsically tied to how well the school system prepares its students for the world outside. Education helps establish community roots, and a strong community will encourage businesses to come to Mount Vernon and prosper. That prosperity will create jobs.
This effort should start with the wall collapse, the contract with Bill Weinmann and the history of the “needs analysis.”