So, here we are again. Who’s in and who’s out. Who’s a resident and who isn’t. Who is a part of the community and who is an interloper. Who’s a native and who’s an alien. Sound familiar?
And no, I’m not talking about illegal aliens, about Hispanic rapists or gang members, much less Hispanic farm and service industry workers, documented or not. I’m talking about those whose families are long-time residents of Columbia County or, even, more specific localities within the county and who are the interlopers, the second-home owners or, even simply recent immigrants to the area from other places. And, yes, I mean New York City and its environs.
This is not a new story. It’s at least as old as it was when I first started coming here from NYC with my parents in 1952 when they bought a house on Copake Lake. By the way, in a precursor of things to come, we traveled here on weekends from Brooklyn. Now, it seems, everyone in Hudson comes from Brooklyn except when they don’t.
The tensions between new and old have been a part of the warp and woof of the area for as long as it’s been a recognizable part of the state. Think of the Dutch who settled along the Hudson’s shores in Kinderhook, the whalers who made Hudson their home port, not to mention the prostitutes who flocked to Hudson to service the lawmakers and lobbyists in Albany. For that matter, think of any European who settled not only in the Hudson Valley but all of America. We and our ancestors were all newcomers, interlopers at some point in our lives.
Moving along, that brings us to the current state of affairs in the Taconic Hills School District, which services students of families who live in the eastern part of Columbia County. The school board discovered that, for some reason, people who were deemed qualified to vote in general elections for political representatives in federal, state and local elections were not necessarily qualified to do so in elections related to school matters. Even more, the school board had the sole discretion to determine who was qualified to vote. And the Taconic Hills School Board seems determined to eliminate some property owners and/or renters who it doesn’t think should have the right to vote for matters like school budgets.
The board has yet to define the criteria for who should be allowed to vote but they seem to have made it clear that they only want “permanent” or “full-time” residents to vote while keeping second-home owners/renters away from the polls. A less generous way of putting it might be, “if you don’t ‘really’ live here, pay your taxes but keep your mouths shut.”
But why now? Yes, the by now familiar accusation of voter fraud has been raised by some without much proof that it actually exists. More likely, the particular concern at this time about part-time residents or weekenders, might have been motivated by a recent dramatic spike in voting by these people in school elections, very often by people who wish to vote by absentee ballot, one indication that they might not be full-time residents. As far as I can tell, this spike is related to the election of Donald Trump.
I changed my voter registration last year from NYC to Copake for that very reason. Or, the way I like to think of it, I’d rather be a minnow in a small pond than a microbe in a vast ocean. Regardless, that leaves the question, am I a full time resident?
The truest answer is yes and no. For example, I spend just about all my time in the Taconic Hills School District. I own a house here and have done so since 1990. I get mail here. I pay taxes here. On the other hand, I own an apartment in NYC. I get mail there. I pay taxes there. At the same time, I prefer for various legal and financial reasons to count the city as my primary residence no matter how many days a year I spend in Columbia County. So, where do I live?
I’m sorry to say that no matter where I legally live or spend my time, I don’t think that is the real issue. The real issue I suspect, the unstated issue, is that I and a lot of other second-home owners who have chosen to vote in Columbia County, are registered Democrats. School Board members are, almost exclusively, Republicans. If one looks at what has been happening nationally, changes in voter qualification requirements along with other attempts to limit voter access to polls has been at the heart of the Republican playbook for quite a while and this has nothing to do with Trump. Republicans apparently believe that the fewer people who are eligible to vote, the better it is for Republicans.
It’s really unfortunate, even tragic, that this might be playing out in the Taconic School District as well. If it does, it masks itself here as permanent resident vs part-time resident, old timer vs newcomer.
You would think that the Taconic District’s schools are performing exceptionally well and that input from “outsiders” can only hurt. The trouble is, that is not the case. The District’s schools’ performance is middling at best. The elementary school is considered average in the way schools are graded these days. The high school is graded at somewhat below average.
Regardless of the reasons for this performance (and family income is certainly one of the predictive indicators of student performance), I’m pretty sure that both the school board and administration would like it to be better, that they think it should be better for the future lives of their students and are trying to make it so.
Is it possible that board members think that these/we outsiders don’t want the schools to be better? Do they think that we are only interested in reducing the tax burden on ourselves for services that we don’t use? Do they think that we don’t care about the future of Columbia County or that we don’t think that well educated students are vital to the future of the County?
I don’t and can’t speak for anyone else, but I want Taconic Hills schools and all schools in the county to be better than they are. Education, in particular high school education in my case, was vital to whatever success I’ve had in life, both professional and personal. I’m sure that’s true of most second-home owners and other part time residents. Why wouldn’t the school district think that we aren’t really concerned about the long-term viability of the county?
According to a recent editorial in The Columbia Paper, Columbia County has the third highest concentration of residents in the country who are part of the “creative economy,” surpassed only by Taos, NM and Brooklyn. That’s pretty extraordinary but not too surprising if one is aware of what has happened in Hudson and the rest of the county over the past 20 years. As much as these people contribute to the economy and vitality of the county, as much as they are both cause and result of tourism, as important as they are to the future of the county, most of them are relative newcomers, both as permanent and part-time residents.
It is beyond me why the school board would want to treat them as unwelcome intruders, as distractions and annoyances. It is beyond me why, instead, the school board and administration doesn’t say, “how can you help us? How can we help you to help us? Here’s how we think you can help us.” If you have an answer to these questions, please let me know.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.