TH board hears critics of busing bids, labor issues

CRARYVILLE–The Taconic Hills School District Board of Education heard from two speakers at the board meeting Wednesday, June 21–Robert MacFarlane from Pulcher Transportation and Joseph Argus, president of the school’s Support Staff Association, a union bargaining unit. One challenged the district’s transportation policy; the other questioned recent personnel decisions.

The first speaker, Mr. MacFarlane, questioned why the district renews existing contracts, which can run from one to five years, for bus service rather than soliciting new bids. Mr. MacFarlane, a retired senior sales manager and current bus driver for Pulcher Transportation, noted that the Hudson School District requested new bids for the upcoming school year and “saved money.”

In a post-meeting conversation Mr. MacFarlane said that the Hudson district realized an “$80,000 savings” on eight routes from accepted new bids. He also noted that the Catskill School District is requesting new bids.

At the meeting the board voted unanimously to approve three contract extensions and two new routes for the 2017/18 school year, to Michael Johnston, LLC of Philmont. The cost of the two new routes is not to exceed $122,686 and the value of the three contract extensions is $179,859, which represents a 1.8% increase.

In his presentation to the board, Richard Viebrock, the Taconic Hills supervisor of transportation, said there was “no guarantee [new] bids will come in lower” and noted that the current practice of extending contracts has never resulted in an increase greater than 2%.

In response to questions from board member William Arp, Mr. Viebrock acknowledged that the district can extend contracts “indefinitely” or seek a “rebid” and that a contract can be terminated with “45 days notice.”

Mr. MacFarlane argued that extensions made sense when there was only one company but noted that “now there is competition.” Pulcher Transportation and Michael Johnston, LLC dissolved their partnership in February 2017.

“All we are asking for is a level playing field,” said Mr. MacFarlane.

In his public comments, Joseph Argus asked the board to table a motion to create the new position of head custodian. He cited differences with Superintendent Neil Howard, Jr. over promotions and hiring as the reason.

In a conversation after the meeting’s public comment segment, Mr. Argus charged that Superintendent Howard was passing over two qualified union members to hire “an outsider with less experience.” Mr. Argus added that the increase of $1.70/hour including shift differential for the head custodian was inadequate in light of the additional responsibilities.

Asked via email after the meeting about Mr. Argus’ statement, Superintendent Howard wrote, “No comment.” In the email he did confirm that after an executive session the board had “approved the individual for the position.”

Mr. Argus said that the district has not had a head custodian and that in the past a staff custodian acted as a “coordinator on a needs basis,”

Custodians earn $23.98/hour.

In other business the board heard John Dodds, coordinator of computer technology, present a brief tutorial on a new phishing scam plaguing school districts with ransomware. Mr. Dodds said that firewalls do not work because scammers are “coming in the front door and breaking in.”

He described how a bogus email bearing the name of an employee or colleague as the sender is widely circulated to other employees and colleagues. If recipients open the email and click on a link in the message it leads to a form requesting information, including user names and passwords. When the recipient completes the form and submits it, the cyber criminals lock up the user’s computer network and demand money “to unlock” it. Mr. Dodds added, “there is no fix” for ransomware.

He advised board members to look closely at the email addresses received through the school’s system, noting that the sender’s email address “closely, but not perfectly,” matches the correct email address. He also counseled that neither the Taconic Hills Central School District nor state education personnel would ever request information like user names and passwords via email.

Mr. Dodds cautioned board members to treat the matter seriously just like a “fire drill or a test you would give a child.” A number of board members admitted to receiving the bogus email, and at least four had opened it. To underscore the pervasiveness of the ransomware phishing scam, Mr. Dodd added that he blocks “10 emails a day.”

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