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Man on a Mission: NYS Regent Roger Tilles

Roger Tilles reading to school children.

It was his passion for the arts, his appreciation for teachers, and his firm belief grounded in personal experience that the arts are fundamental to a good education that first led us to be intrigued by Roger Tilles. He has seen that children in struggling schools blessed enough to have an exceptionally committed educator can succeed in many ways. He has felt it himself as a product of the Great Neck public schools.

If you ask, he will tell you that a third grade teacher is a primary reason and focus for his and his siblings having music make a substantial difference in their lives, “In no small way was this great teacher, never knowing what the results of his efforts would be, just doing what he loved and doing it well, responsible for there being the Tilles Center. Teachers never know the result of their efforts but they can change the world.”

Roger Tilles boasts a rich resume that includes a law practice, and serving as Director of Tilles Investment Companies. He has taught at the University level, and been involved in one way or another with government for decades. He is possibly even better known for his dedication to philanthropy as the founder and/or Chair of diverse organizations, including the Long Island Arts Alliance, Association for a Better Long Island, the Long Island Regional Planning Board, the Long Island Association, WNET/WLIW Public Television, Long Island Philharmonic, Tempel Beth-El of Great Neck, and multiple interfaith projects most notably “Project Understanding” with the late Monsignor Tom Hartman.

When we sat down with Tilles in December of 2019 the current situation, while already manifesting, had hardly begun to register on Long Island. He started out daydreaming about wonderful places where he could retire and then announced he won’t do it, at least not yet. He’s got unfinished work as Regent for the Tenth Judicial District of the New York State Education Department, where he has served since 2005.

If you ask, he will tell you that a third grade teacher is a primary reason and focus for his and his siblings having music make a substantial difference in their lives, “In no small way was this great teacher, never knowing what the results of his efforts would be, just doing what he loved and doing it well, responsible for there being the Tilles Center. Teachers never know the result of their efforts but they can change the world.”

This work has often been a frustrating, uphill battle, but he’s a passionate, committed advocate.  He’s grateful for local administrators whom he sees as truly dedicated to education, such Robert Dillon of Nassau BOCES, William Johnson of Rockville Center, Thomas Rogers of Syosset Schools, Lorna Lewis of Plainview-Old Bethpage, and Jack Bierworth of Herricks and Hempstead, with whom he has consulted regularly for 15 years

Now, COVID-19 has caused everything to shift dramatically. There’s an in depth interview here, conducted by Newsday Columnist and Editorial Writer Lane Filler of Newsday with The Hon. Roger Tilles and Dr. Thomas Rogers, Superintendent of Syosset School District. Another insightful conversation was led by News12’s Elizabeth Hashagen. It included Tilles and nationally renowned educator and activist, Nicholas Ferroni: 

Much remains murky, and while some systems like Syosset are better equipped to plan ahead for multiple possible circumstances, even the best districts on Long Island are gravely challenged. What does seem clear, is that the issues Tilles spoke of a million years ago last December remain relevant, perhaps even moreso than they were back then…

A Looming Teacher Shortage

When we sat down with him in late 2019, the most important thing Tilles wanted us to know is that there is a pressing, critical need for teachers. Over 100,000 are projected to retire within the next 5 years. At the same time, enrollment in schools of education is down 40% due to, among other reasons, the loss of morale from the disastrous roll out of the Common Core. State and Federal support is insufficient.

He shakes his head, “The implementation of common core was so discouraging …what they really need is to let educators be educators.”

Tilles then goes on to talk about how he thinks Regents and other tests distract from important things we ought to be teaching: How to live a healthy and fulfilling life, financial literacy, problem solving, information literacy, civic engagement. He agrees that math and science are important but will also insist: So are the Arts and Humanities.

He is determined to stay in the system until legislation cements those aspects of learning into the curriculum

Funding Challenges

We spend a little bit of time talking about the challenges inherent in funding our schools, the problem of excruciatingly high property taxes and how 2% tax caps do so much harm to our schools while doing so little to address the real problems inherent in the system. We touch on a much more deeply researched, nuanced approach to addressing the school funding issue that had been promised but was abandoned by New York State when the Great Recession demanded budget cuts.

When we say the words “Unfunded Mandates” he bristles.

“Many want those who have little opportunity to even decrease their chances of success.”  Like any good businessman, Tilles agrees that reviewing policies to reduce waste is important. As a man with decades of experience in public service, he is well aware that the system requires a lot of revision to be healthy, and is painfully aware of the shameful things that happen when people have corrupt motivations, a lack of understanding, or simply seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

“The testing regime is a problem. It wastes tremendous financial and human resources on all the preparing and grading, and quite frankly undermines actual teaching. Those who demanded this suffered at the polls thanks to the Opt-out movement.”

When we sat down with him in late 2019, the most important thing Tilles wanted us to know is that there is a pressing, critical need for teachers. Over 100,000 are projected to retire within the next 5 years. At the same time, enrollment in schools of education is down 40% due to, among other reasons, the loss of morale from the disastrous roll out of the Common Core. State and Federal support is insufficient.

He blames no particular party, “Bush started it. Obama doubled down. Cuomo and Republicans passed legislation together. It’s a bi-partisan nightmare.”

Still, Tilles is deeply concerned that too many people use the phrase, “Unfunded Mandates” as an excuse to devalue special education, teachers, and the arts, “I chaired a special education review of mandates. We went through 130 of these so-called ‘unfunded-mandates.’ Of those, four seemed questionable. Upon further review, only one was deemed unnecessary.”

This doesn’t mean his thinks the systems are perfect. “Unfunded mandates” and “Accountability” are charged words that don’t reflect reality.

And Worse…

Tilles has been a direct target of this, moving to another topic, where his choice of words in the past have led some to accuse him of racism.

Like every human, Tilles can’t prove the purity of his heart. We he did offer was this: “The organization Erase Racism is honoring me at their upcoming Spring Gala at the Garden City Hotel [now scheduled for November]. As a Regent, I have to be very careful about conflicts of interest. I can’t solicit funds. I told them that. Even so, they said they want to honor me anyway. That’s quite an honor.”

We agree – It’s very hard to imagine that if the Board of Directors of that particular organization didn’t think Roger TIlles was part of the solution, much less that he was part of the problem, they wouldn’t do that.

We won’t get into the particular choice of words that sparked the controversy. He’s found better ones to express his studied opinion of the leadership of the Hempstead/Wyandanch school district:

“Corrupt Sinkhole.”

He will further explain that the blame goes much further than the particular district. As former Chair of the LI Regional Planning Board, he saw that the train of events that led to this situation was easy to discover: Long ago, zoning was deliberately drawn on economic lines circumscribing the highest unemployment areas. Not only did this put the district itself at an inherent disadvantage to its neighbors, it, among other factors, demoralized those within it, empowered those who would take advantage of the situation, and generally invited poor behavior.

School Board Members were elected based on their willingness to hire family members and friends, and to pay them outsized wages, “The kids came second.”

Tilles notes that one of the biggest priorities in education in NYS is local control: Democracy. He agrees with this. Still, he firmly believes that in certain cases there should be mechanisms to supercede local control. He is happy to report that recently a bill has been signed by the governor to appoint monitors in those districts.

He offers his review of another situation, Roosevelt: “They had a State takeover. For five to six years there was no improvement. The State is in no way qualified to run a school, but it still worked. Eventually, the community got fed up and elected good governance. There were 90% state funded capital improvements. They basically replaced every school and inched up.”

He goes deeper, “Nassau is the only county in the state where the county often assesses property taxes too high. This fuels tax attorneys who engage in multi-year appeals, knowing they will get some reduction and money will have to be given back. That money then comes back from the County and not the school district that spent it. So, basically, the people of Roosevelt end up helping to pay Great Neck’s refund.”

Getting to the Roots of the Problems

Tilles believes deeply that public oversight and intervention is required to deal with acute corruption within these districts. Still, as he learned looking at the history, there are broader driving factors. The whole mess is, in fact, a product of long-ago established systems that are racist, classist, corrupt recipes for ongoing disaster.

While the socio-economic status of the individual residents has an impact, it’s not the only thing driving disparity, “The tax revenue in these challenged areas is based more on personal income than other areas, simply because there are so few commercial properties. In Great Neck, 35% of the school taxes are paid for by retail and offices. In
Roosevelt, less than 5% are.“

He goes deeper, “Nassau is the only county in the state where the county often assesses property taxes too high. This fuels tax attorneys who engage in multi-year appeals, knowing they will get some reduction and money will have to be given back. That money then comes back from the County and not the school district that spent it. So, basically, the people of Roosevelt end up helping to pay Great Neck’s refund.”

Those that benefit from this system are not going to allow changes to it.

Tilles believes deeply that public oversight and intervention is required to deal with acute corruption within these districts. Still, as he learned looking at the history, there are broader driving factors. The whole mess is, in fact, a product of long-ago established systems that are racist, classist, corrupt recipes for ongoing disaster.

The Power of Art and Someone Who Cares

“This is my 16th year as a Regent. You know how I get paid? I get to go to elementary schools four or five times per month. I read them poems. I’ve visited about 100 districts, spending a half hour at a time with the 3rd or 4th grade class.”

 learned something very quickly: In my first school visit to Central Islip, I went to read poems to the 3rd and 4th grade. When I asked, all raised their hands that they were excited and want to go to college. The kids were smart and enthusiastic. They got the meanings. They memorized. They interacted. Then I visited them in 9th grade….you can’t believe these are the same kids. Out of 30 or so, a half dozen planned to graduate. Two planned to go to a local college.

What happens between 4th and 9th grade? They don’t have someone to mentor them, to guide them in choosing courses and figuring out what direction to take. Overall there are few positive role models and lots of gangs filling the void.”

He reflects again on the disparity: “In Great Neck, there is a far greater ratio of counselors to students than in Central Islip.”

He talks about how the teachers from elementary to middle school seem to lose faith, too. How discouraging and hopeless it all seems….and then…his eyes light up…

“As I was leaving Central Islip High School, I heard a choir. I love music, so I stuck my head in….I figured it must be a college choir. It turns out it is 20 high school kids singing their hearts out getting ready to perform in Salzburg, Austria, for the Mozart Bicentennial!

They are SOOOOO GOOD!!!”

He stuck around. Finally, they noticed and invited him in, “I asked how many planned to graduate. Every hand went up. Half are planning on college!

I ask, ‘Why you and not your peers?’

A girl answers, ‘We LOVE music. The choir teacher says we can’t stay unless we do our work. He calls us once per week to keep up on us.’

HIS IS THE POWER OF MUSIC, OF ART, OF SOMEONE WHO CARES!”

Still, The Corruption

We’ve mentioned Dale Lewis and his passion for arts education before. Someday we will profile him directly. Roger, in fact, was the first person to recommend we do so. Dale is amazing. Dale loves to work with kids and has volunteers ready to help. He is able and willing at times to basically bring music programs to schools for free.

On at least one occasion, according to Tilles, he seems to have run into opposition because an administrator wasn’t in charge of the program. Other stories Roger shares involve opportunities to be involved in major regional programs, worth $3-$400,000 that administrators pulled out of for similar reasons.

He is intensely frustrated at the lack of attention to these and other actions that he asserts, quite frankly, are almost criminal and hurt our children and taxpayers.

He stuck around. Finally, they noticed and invited him in, “I asked how many planned to graduate. Every hand went up. Half are planning on college!

I ask, ‘Why you and not your peers?’

A girl answers, ‘We LOVE music. The choir teacher says we can’t stay unless we do our work. He calls us once per week to keep up on us.’”

Endeavors Beyond the Formal Education System

Among Roger TIlles’ extracurricular activities is the Long Island Arts Alliance. The mission there is to serve as “an alliance of and for the region’s not-for-profit arts, cultural and arts education organizations. LIAA promotes awareness of and participation in Long Island’s world-class arts and cultural institutions. Formed in 2003, LIAA offers leadership and diverse support services to arts organizations, serves as an advocate for arts education in our schools and collaborates on strategies for economic development and community revitalization.”

It’s not easy to get organizations who are generally competing over insufficient funds to work together. Tilles wonders if part of the challenge on Long Island is that, while some places have some sense of this, historically Long Island as a whole is not known for its loyalty to community.

“It was a delicate situation,” reflects Tilles, “We had to be very careful. It’s an endeavor to get those in the arts community to work together, but they didn’t want us to cannibalize the limited funding for the arts.”

The LIAA endeavored to foster collaboration, but were met with resentment, so they changed the model and did no fundraising. For 3-4 years there were grants from NYS and others for tourism and such, but it was impossible not to lose money. The whole effort appeared to be a losing proposition.

Then they found something folks could agree to get behind: The Arts Map

The collaborative map concept works,” says Tilles, talking about this map of Long Island that pinpoints arts and cultural organizations and offers targeted advertising that they then distribute from Penn Station to Montauk Point, “The budget is tiny and the map self-sustains.”

The LIAA also prepares education and management forums. They are very careful not to do anything that infringes on the art funding pool, nor to set up anything that has various organizations competing against each other.

Another success has been the Scholar-Artists program

“The arts community likes it. Newsday covers it. What’s really great is that it raises the profile of arts students. It’s not just Scholar-Athletes having their awards up on the wall when you walk into a high school. Now there are Scholar-Artists. It helps reduce the stigma that art kids are somehow not mainstream.”

It’s a relatively inexpensive program.  The kids are nominated by their school art teachers. A panel that includes 15-20 teachers and others volunteer to evaluate.  Twenty winners in Nassau and Suffolk counties are announced. They celebrate with a reception that offers a wonderful opportunity to highlight the kids and raises $15-20,000 to support the program.

They are still accepting applications for the 2020-2021 program, though now all the galleries and theaters are closed and no-one’s sure when such receptions may occur again. The primary thing the LIAA is promoting now is resources. It’s assisting artists and arts organizations in surviving the panedemic.

Most all involved in the arts feel deeply for kids across Long Island – especially our High School Seniors — who are missing out on their performances, art receptions and other deeply meaningful end of year events. In response, another organization that Roger is fundamentally connected to, The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, began soliciting videos of young performing artists. Recently, they started posting them online. You can find them on the Tilles Center For the Performing Arts YouTube Channel and their Facebook Page.

They can’t hear the applause or feel the energy of a crowd…but it’s something.

Tilles wonders: What is happening to student morale, much less their mental health? The virus and quarantine alone are traumatic. What happens when teachers and students are unable to make the social/emotional connections that are such a large part of education? What is the impact on parents? Teachers?

For Schools, Now What?

Schools like to have data to drive their guidance. Teachers like to work with curriculum developed over years. Since we met in December, they have had to completely change the way kids are taught.

A current task now, being conducted by Robert Dillon of Nassau BOCES, is to survey all of the schools in Nassau County to more formally assess which have the proper broadband/wifi and hardware, and whether there is actually communication going back and forth between teachers and students.

Are the teachers able to deliver? Are the students able to receive? What kinds of online teaching have been happening? They already know this ranges considerably, with some districts capable of providing full zoom classes to houses of children who have ample space and equipment to sign in. Others have simply been providing a link to homework, with no real teacher interface. Others, still, don’t even have the equipment needed to possibly have any such exchange.

Tilles wonders: What is happening to student morale, much less their mental health? The virus and quarantine alone are traumatic. What happens when teachers and students are unable to make the social/emotional connections that are such a large part of education? What is the impact on parents? Teachers?

Then, there are these looming funding cuts that are coming at the same time schools are forced to implement a Plan B. Will the federal government offer assistance, or are we looking at 20-50% budget cuts? How will these be distributed across school districts, a few of which rely on the State for less than 10% of their funding, and some of which for more than 70%. Those more reliant, of course, also have the kids least likely to have Wi-Fi and the most likely to have language and other learning barriers. Still, the more self-sufficient schools stand to lose a lot, too.

What happens when school board and budget votes, which usually have a 10-15% turnout comprised largely of those who have kids in the district, are suddenly conducted via ballots that are mailed directly to voters?

Colleges have concerns, too. Why pay for the first two years of a prestigious school when an online service that has much more experience in the digital arena will offer that basic education for so much less? Then there are the broader economic impacts…schools are important to the economy.

Even more, there are questions on the efficacy of remote learning, especially among younger students. Some research is pending. Anecdotally, it’s likely there are major concerns regarding stresses on even the best equipped of families. While those who are enthusiastic to begin with are likely to remain so, Tilles fears that overall engagement will suffer.

As though the virus were actually an earthquake, gaps in education that were gaping before are now becoming widening chasms. Noone knows when schools will physically reopen. Kids, parents, teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, so many others have real concerns. For many parents, their economic challenges are compounded by the sudden removal of a safe place to keep their children enriched. For too many students, even with the virus, school was the safest, most nurturing place to be.

How do we keep providing adequate services to those with developmental challenges or language barriers? What happens to art, music, and physical education which, anecdotally, people seem to finally be remembering are important because we’re seeing the impacts of cutting them?

Are we going to continue to progress with 21st Century learning skills that are critical to our society and simply navigating adult life, such as information literacy, financial literacy, critical thinking, civic engagement, problem solving? These were important discussions that are now being put off. It’s really important that we get back to them.

As though the virus were actually an earthquake, gaps in education that were gaping before are now becoming widening chasms…How do we keep providing adequate services to those with developmental challenges or language barriers? What happens to art, music, and physical education which, anecdotally, people seem to finally be remembering are important because we’re seeing the impacts of cutting them?

One benefit Tilles sees is that we might begin to realize that all the testing is fairly expendable; that there are better ways to assess students and the efficacy of teaching practices than spending so much time and resources on what have become unreasonable, high-stakes games.

And then…what happens when we try to go back? What about the suggestion that maybe it’s more cost effective NOT to go back? Safety – for the students, the teachers, and everyone else – is paramount. Still, we must also remember the important role school buildings themselves play.

Tilles notes that the buildings themselves are not the major cost drivers in education, especially not when the value they provide is taken into consideration. Can we/should we get better at online teaching? Of course. Can it replace the in-person experience? He can only speak anecdotally – these studies are still being done – but he suspects that even as there may be an increasing blend, the actual in-person learning remains the most effective.

Are we going to continue to progress with 21st Century learning skills that are critical to our society and simply navigating adult life, such as information literacy, financial literacy, critical thinking, civic engagement, problem solving? These were important discussions that are now being put off. It’s really important that we get back to them.