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Forestville, Garrett a ‘shining’ star

By DAVID ALLAN LITTLE

As a statewide association seeking to make rural school districts more efficient and effective, the Rural Schools Association scours the state seeking out programs and services that would both improve rural education and be easily replicable. We want to know about the best and brightest leaders, the most inspiring stories and the people and programs that truly make a difference. I can tell you that time and again in my seven years of leading the association, that search leads us to Forestville and its superintendent, Renee Garrett.

Forestville is a shining rural educational star. Despite facing the same challenges as all rural districts, Forestville serves as an example of community collaboration, excellent attention to student needs, outstanding educational results and good fiscal management.

Forestville frequently presents at our conferences, relaying information that helps sister districts improve their own programs and services. Just as an example, Forestville is a leader in the state’s Farm to School program, improving student nutrition and supporting area farmers and producers. By leading, Forestville not only reaps the nutritional and economic benefits for students and community members, it supports local taxpayers by receiving state incentive funding.

The kind of student-centered success Forestville enjoys doesn’t come by accident. It takes focus and dedication. It takes leadership and thankfully, Forestville has one of the best. Superintendent Garrett is both a local school leader and a statewide educational leader. She is a tireless advocate for rural children working with several statewide education associations, including serving as the vice chair of RSA’s board of directors. With Garrett’s help, this year RSA successfully advocated for an additional 1% increase in state aid limited to only rural districts. This kind of additional state help is highly unusual but obviously very much needed. For Forestville, that meant more than $76,000 in extra state aid. Garrett was also instrumental in our advocacy efforts in Washington, where we helped secure billions in federal rescue aid for our state’s schools.

That kind of advocacy takes effort, the kind of relevant and powerful information that only a local superintendent can provide and Renee Garrett has worked tirelessly for years to be sure that Forestville and all of our state’s rural students’ needs are met. She conveys the critically important message of rural needs in a singularly powerful way.

I served for a decade as a school board president and I worked for 17 years as legal counsel to the state legislature. I directed governmental relations for the New York State School Boards Association for 15 years and for the past seven years I’ve directed the state’s Rural Schools Association and the Rural Schools Program at Cornell University.

In all that time and in all those capacities I’ve come across few leaders as personally devoted to kids, as effective at advocacy on their behalf and as insightful in creating and implementing an educational vision for a school district as Garrett at Forestville. Period.

No one recognizes the challenges and issues facing our rural schools like RSA and we are good at finding and using the very best and brightest leaders in our efforts on their behalf. It is no accident that Garrett holds such a high position of leadership at RSA. Its because her peers across the state know her abilities and her steadfast determination to bring the best to rural students. I can think of no one better suited to lead a rural community’s educational program than Renee Garrett.

Sure it’s a challenging time; certainly the most challenging of our lifetimes. Finances are too tight, restrictions are too plentiful and rural New York is experiencing an exodus eclipsed by only the Dust Bowl migration of the Great Depression. But in the midst of all of the difficult decisions that must be made in such challenging times, some schools are blessed with great leadership that will carry them through. As a parent, former school board member and education advocate I know how easy it is to zero in on areas of concern, forgetting the varied and often overwhelming responsibilities facing our local leaders.

Before calling for the termination of a current leader, community members have the responsibility to determine who would better serve them. Day after day, year after year I work among those who would potentially replace Garrett.

I can save you the work; you won’t find anyone better and the process of making that significant a change in the middle of a crisis has both a financial and an educational cost. With great respect, I would urge those calling for Renee Garrett’s resignation to take a broader perspective. You’re not seeing Forestville for the trees.

David Allan Little, Esq., is executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State.

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