New York Greens won two school board elections in mid-May, with Rome Celli running opposed for re-election in Brighton (a Rochester suburb), while Dr. Edgar Rodriguez was elected for the first time in New Paltz (about 90 miles north of New York City.)
Both Rodriguez and Celli have a long history in education and community activism in their local areas. Although New York local school boards have nonpartisan elections, both candidates are known in their communities as Greens.
“Since 1973, I have had the experience of putting six children through the New Paltz schools with three children now completing their secondary studies,” said Rodriguez. “Over this time, I’ve been involved in the school district in various ways, including serving on a variety of committees, most recently being the Community Diversity Representative to the New Paltz Central Schools. With my election to the school board, I feel like I’ve finally graduated from this process.”
Rodriguez, 60, campaigned on four main platform points. First, to teach the ‘total child’ with a balanced curriculum, including reducing testing and aiming instead to meet the social, emotional and psychological needs of students. Second, to reform school taxes, with the state providing more funding to schools with less dependence on local property taxes. Third, promoting meaningful public participation in planning for academic and new buildings. And fourth, educating students to respect and defend diversity.
For Rodriguez, respecting and defending diversity means many things. As a long-time participant of Concerned Parents of New Paltz, which provides a voice for parents and students of color, he was successful in getting the district to adopt a two and a half day “Undoing Racism” training for the superintendent of schools and other staff. As a result, five diversity committees were organized.
Rodriguez has also countered phobias towards students’ sexual orientation, and included diversity education to include people with physical handicaps and special education needs. He even adopted a campaign platform of “humane education” for animal awareness. “If you teach children caring and kindness towards animals,” said Rodriguez, “you can also carry across to other areas and make a better human being.”
Rodriguez also saw his election as a choice between two long-standing visions of education in the community. “Some people think education should use a ‘business model’, that operates schools like IBM, to be more efficient. But students are not ‘chips on an assembly line,” Rodriguez explained in a post-election video interview with Green Party state committee member Kimberly Wilder.
“Children are human beings. We don’t know completely how they learn and special education shows there are different ways of reaching different students,” Rodriguez said. “There are many who favor top down management in the schools, especially to meet the needs of capital in this country, in order to train kids to serve the needs of corporations. I don’t agree. I believe we need to teach knowledge for the sake of knowledge rather than only preparing for specific vocations, professions, and instead try and instill in them a love of democracy, environment, social justice and community service.”
This was Rodriguez’s second bid for the School Board. A year earlier, he finished a close fourth among four candidates for three seats. This time he finished second among three candidates for two seats. According to Rodriguez, in his first run, he involved traditionally disconnected voters from the town’s apartment districts, who didn’t tend to participate in local elections. As a result there was a record turnout in that race, but he didn’t win. This time he realized he also needed to pay more attention to frequent voters, especially homeowers who were more likely to turn out to the polls. The result was a victory backed by a diverse constituency built over two elections that he hopes will give him a mandate to be truly effective in office.
In his first term, Celli, 46, worked successfully with members of the community and the school district administration to upgrade nutritional standards and limit access to unhealthy foods and beverages in district schools. This led to the removal of soda from local schools.
A ‘big picture’ thinker and activist, Celli hopes to focus in his second term on helping to reform the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. As a member of the Monroe County School Boards Association and now its vice-president, Celli has already been lobbying local Republican congress member Randy Kuhl, who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, about the NCLB’s negative effects on all districts schools with its limiting of resources and unrealistic testing standards.
Noting that the first time NCLB was passed, it was drafted in closed-door bi-partisan meetings, “this time” Celli said, “its reauthorization will be made in public, and gives us a chance to truly make a difference for the children this legislation is allegedly meant to serve.”
On the state level, Celli is a former member of the Green Party of New York State Committee and has also been active as vice president of Citizens for Better Government in New York (CBGNY), a “good government” organization seeking to reform the New York State legislature, which has often been cited as the most dsyfunctional in the country. Carrying forward the same theme of open government that he wants to apply to the NCLB authorization process, in January, Celli presented a CBGNY-sponsored petition to the state Assembly and Senate. The petition calls for an end to the practice of governing by “three men in the back room” at the state capitol, and seeks to empower rank-and-file members to develop and pass legislation in a more transparent process.
Rounding out his civic activism Celli, a self-employed small businessperson (real estate broker) for 28 years, is also the vice president of the Brighton Chamber of Commerce.
While New York Greens won two school board races, the big shocker happened a few weeks earlier in New Paltz when Jason West was defeated 514 – 379 votes in his bid for re-election by village trustee Terry Dungan.
West, one of two Green Mayors in New York (along with Mike Sellers in Cobleskill) had skyrocketed to national attention three years earlier when his decision to perform same-sex marriages as mayor helped push the movement into national headlines. West had also won local applause for his innovations on environmental and housing issues.
Mayor West’s defeat was the material of a Greek tragedy. His opponent defeated him by embracing West’s agenda over the last four years — even though it was a 180 degree shift from the prior administration — but contending that he could it better, primarily by doing a better job of ‘bringing the community together.’ Dungan ran an effective door-to-door campaign attacking West’s personal style.
Perhaps overconfident owing to West’s high name recognition and the strong community support for the direction the Greens had taken the Village, West and local Greens started their own campaign only a month before their election. In addition, the candidates backed by West for the village board two years previously had overwhelmingly defeated the slate put forth by the village’s old guard — and now the old guard wanted payback.
In summarizing his accomplishments, West said “Four years ago, I ran for Mayor promising to bring environmentally sound infrastructure, expand involvement in village government, protect tenants’ rights and expand affordable housing. Since 2003, we’ve built the first phase of a reed bed system to turn our sewage into compost, rather than mix it with toxic chemicals and ship it to landfills in poor communities. We installed a solar panel array on the public works garage which has so far generated 15,333 kW of electricity, saved taxpayers $2,299, supplanted the burning of 1,127 gallons of oil and 1,533 lb. of coal and kept 16,743 lb. of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. We’re exploring the feasibility of building a 500,000-gallon-per-year biodiesel fuel facility, which could supply every public works truck, fire truck and school bus in New Paltz with a non-toxic, biodegradable fuel, with 80 percent fewer emissions than petro-diesel. And we’ve recently finished writing a pair of laws that will protect wetlands, streams and the Wallkill River; one law defining what is protected and how, and a second law creating a wetland and watercourse.”
“Under the leadership of Deputy Mayor [and fellow Green] Rebecca Rotzler, we’ve also passed our first affordable housing law, requiring 15 percent of new construction be affordable, and giving priority to residents at most need based on a point system for senior citizens, emergency services volunteers, and others vital to the community who may not otherwise be able to afford to live in the popular municipality. Not surprisingly, because of the affordability requirement, this is now being challenged in court by the biggest developer in town. I’ve also written an affordable housing law that would give incentives to developers to build more affordable housing than the bare minimum currently required”
West actually received more votes in losing in 2007 than he did in winning four years previously. The difference was that the old guard Democratic Party had fractured in 2003, running two competing candidates for Mayor. In addition, at that time local Greens were able to mobilize the large number of students at local State University of New York at New Paltz to vote as well, by tapping into the strong campus anti-war movement there where they played a strong leadership role. But this time, the local anti-war movement was not as strong as it was four years earlier when the US-led invasion had just occurred; and with the U.S. occupation continuing seemingly indefinitely, students lacked the same sense of urgency that also carried them to the local polls four years before.
Looking back, West and Rotzler transformed village politics in their time in office. “What we did in four years was change the paradigm for elections around here,” said West. “Students won’t be ignored anymore; we’ve effectively brought half the village population back into the body politic. And maybe most importantly, people understand that it’s not just about water, sewer and potholes any more. You’ve got to keep the big picture in mind and you’ve got to act on that knowledge.”
Rather than being a rubber stamp for developers, West and Rotzler provided leadership on affordable housing and the environment, as well as West’s groundbreaking stance on conducting gay marriages, which drew him national attention until his practice was shut down by the state court. Because of his success, opponents were forced to adopt his agenda, while only running one candidate against him in 2007. Unfortunately, West’s Achilles heel was that — motivated by his strong desire to make change and make change quickly — he tended to move on issues too much by himself and be out ahead of his colleagues, managing to alienate several of his supporters on the Village Board. The fact that Rotzler herself decided not to seek re-election — choosing to focus on her national Green Party work — may also have weakened the get-out-the-vote operation. And as Tip O’Neill famously pointed out, you need to ask voters personally for their support, no matter how much good you have already done for them.
Reflecting back Rotzler added, “we were able to enact the Ten Key Values of the Green Party here, and as a result many neighboring communities now view New Paltz as a model for positive, effective local government. It will be exciting to see the projects initiated under Green leadership continue to thrive, not just in New Paltz, but elsewhere as well. I wholeheartedly believe we all need to act locally in order to achieve goals that will benefit society globally.”