PINE PLAINS, N.Y. – If superintendents could get report cards, Dr. Martin Handler, head of the Pine Plains school district, would get an “A+” in all his subjects.
In fact, the Board of Education is so pleased with the academic strides the district has made under Handler’s leadership, that it recently extended his contract by a year and gave him a salary and benefits bump.
Together they have, board president Fred “Chip” Couse said, "created a positive forward momentum for the district."
Couse said Handler, whose contract was set to expire on June 30, 2018, has agreed to defer his retirement and to stick around until 2019.
“We strongly believe we have the best man for the job,” Couse said.
Handler’s salary will be raised by $1,700, or 4 percent, to $176,638. With other compensation factored in, that means he will be making $199,732, which still makes him the lowest paid schools superintendent in Dutchess.
Joseph Phelan, of neighboring Rhinebeck, reportedly pulls down $268,266 a year, making him the highest paid superintendent in the county, according to a report by The Poughkeepsie Journal.
Even with Handler’s raise, the district will be saving $21,000 a year, Couse said, because hiring a new person means it would have had to pay $23,000 in health and TRS (Teacher’s Retirement System) benefits.
Handler came to Pine Plains in 2013 after stints as superintendent of the Brandywine Heights school system in Pennsylvania and as the head of BOCES in Sullivan County.
In just four short years, he has made his mark here in a number of ways, Couse said.
During Handler’s tenure, the district has kept completely out of debt, has seen its academic scores and “metrics,” such as the number of Regents diplomas, rise; and has expanded programs.
Saying that “the waters are calm,” Couse also noted that relations with the district’s two collective bargaining units (support staff and teachers) are good.
Handler keeps everyone in the loop by regularly holding meetings on budgetary and academic issues in “all corners of the district,” Couse said.
Personality-wise, the superintendent is “a straight shooter,” the board president said, explaining: “You may not like his answer, but he doesn’t say he will do something that he won’t or can’t.”
Both the school board and superintendent agree that one of the best things they have done is to establish a Pre-K program without having to resort to a lottery like a lot of other school districts have.
Handler said Pine Plains could do that because, although it is large, geographically (140 square miles), its enrollment has been on the decline.
A few years ago, there were about 1,200 students; now there are 950, with the Pre-K kids.
“It’s sort of a good news-bad news situation,” Handler said.
It’s good because the district can spread more resources such as laptops and tablets around, especially now that the old industrial arts paradigm has shifted to technology ed, Handler said.
The superintendent also pointed to the expansion of the languages program to include Mandarin Chinese.
Pine Plains is the only district in Dutchess to do so, Handler said.
Seventh-graders now take half a year of Spanish and half a year of Mandarin Chinese. When they are in the eighth grade, they can choose which language to pursue and, once in high school, they can take it as an elective.
Mandarin Chinese, Handler said, is not only spoken all over the globe, it is especially important to know in the world of international business.
Handler said that works well with the trend toward STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in education.
He himself has visited several schools in China where “tech ed” is as important as the old “three Rs.”
Pine Plains has ramped up its tech ed program over the past two years to include pre-engineering, electronics, and robotics.
While others are heaping praise on Handler, he himself doesn’t like to toot his own horn.
The superintendent, who has worked in the education field since 1987, says Pine Plains is “professionally and personally” the best place he’s ever been.
Handler said that is all due to the folks on the school board, the staff, teachers, the “kids,” and the community.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure,” he said.