This is a crew that can’t be cut

Let me preface this by saying that every time I think of one duty I would never undertake as long as I live, the words “school board member” shoot through my cerebellum like a 10-pound pinball.

I wouldn’t serve on a school board, any school board, for a well-greased salary, no less for the very modest sum of $0 per week, benefits included.

It is, without a doubt, the most thankless job on Earth. School board members learn early on that they can’t win. No matter the issue, no matter the level of logic emanating from their group, they just can’t win. And if you are a Newburgh Free Academy board member, you will invariably have an unhealthy number of occasions when community members — some of them entirely disengaged with reality — turn meetings into a slightly toned-down version of the WWE’s Royal Rumble.

So I respect the heck out of school board members. And I especially respect them at a time when they are being asked to make excruciatingly difficult fiscal decisions, decisions that drastically effect lives and livelihoods and the children they are sworn to serve.

But sometimes I have a problem with school boards.

And sometimes I have a problem with school-board decisions.

This is one of those times.

Faced with the need to make severe budget cuts, Newburgh Free Academy has decided to save $46,000 by dropping its crew program. The knee-jerk reaction might be, “Who cares?” Up until a month ago, I’m sure I would have accepted the move without more than an “Oh-that’s-too-bad.” But it’s worse than “oh-that’s-too-bad,” much worse than that.

I know, because last month I took a ride down to the Newburgh Boathouse. It’s the same Newburgh Boathouse that members of the crew team helped build, the same one in which members of the crew team maintain, the same one in which members of the crew team and their families spend countless hours raising money for upkeep.

Coach Ed Kennedy, who founded Newburgh crew more than two decades ago, has offered suggestions to cut costs. It was no use. The board was cutting crew.

I’ve been in this business for 25 years. I can’t remember ever coming across a high school sports team that did more for each other, for its school, and for its community, than Newburgh crew.

You know what crew members do when a schoolmate wants to join the team but doesn’t know how to swim? They take the kid aside and teach him how to swim. Think about that for a second: They teach a fellow student how to lose perhaps the his or her greatest fear, the water, opening up a whole other world for that kid.

You know how these kids spend most of their weekends? They are either competing in crew, practicing crew, raising money for crew or straightening up the boathouse. Ask any basketball team to clean its gym and see what kind of looks you get. Ask any football team to chalk and sod its field and see how that goes over. The crew team maintains the boathouse cheerfully. It’s their pride and joy, and this team has an overflowing amount of both.

I listened in on a team meeting last month. A girl talked about painting the docks while chest deep in the Hudson. The kids talked about picking up garbage around the boathouse. Kennedy talked about having to haul a bunch of trash a distance to the Dumpster, so what did he do? He got 80 of his kids and they formed a human chain handing off the trash until it reached the Dumpster. I believe that’s called teamwork.

“That’s kind of what this is all about,” Kennedy said that day.

For crying out loud, Newburgh crew should be the pride and joy of this school. Anybody who has taken a passing glance at the Newburgh Free Academy sporting scene the past year, with news that included six members of the 2009-10 boys’ basketball team cutting more than a thousand classes in three quarters while administrators looked up at the scoreboard, would agree that NFA should be showing off this program like it’s a rare jewel. Because it is.

Instead, Newburgh Free Academy is eliminating it.

And that’s impossible for me to accept.

In 1987, according to Kennedy, NFA wanted to become a blue-ribbon school. One of the ideas to help  reach that goal was to form a crew program. Two and a half decades later, NFA has decided to throw crew overboard.

These kids are rabid fund-raisers, spending most of the year selling something, anything, to raise money for their program. They do tons of volunteer work in the community. They have a collective average over 90 every year. They go onto college, many of them big-time schools. And I haven’t even mentioned that they perennially put forth one of the top teams in the state. That’s almost an afterthought given all they do that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.

The team is naturally devastated by the new. Kennedy left a note on the Newburgh rowing Facebook page. It read, in part:

“Anything worth having in life does not come easy. This is not over yet by any means. Keep practicing, keep working hard, let’s have a great season. Keep plugging away and don’t forget why you’re doing this. And why are you doing this? You’re doing this because you are making your life and your teammates’ lives better. Who you all are, you will find out, you will find your true self right now. You can easily just walk away. But some people will keep marching forward. Those are the true winners. And stop your whining about what’s going to happen next year. Focus on what happens right now. We have a championship to win. This isn’t over so let’s get back to work. Show them who we are.”
I’ve gotten to know these folks a little bit in the past month. I know who they are. The problem is that the majority of the school board doesn’t know who they are and what they represent. Or they don’t want to know them. Because if the majority of the school board knew what these kids and their parents and their coaches are about, there’s no way they could cut this program.; Twitter: @th_KevinGleason


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