I was saddened to hear the news that Frank Bugg, a 1961 Beacon High School graduate and former city resident, died on Nov. 15. He’d been sick in recent years and deteriorated further after contracting COVID-19. He would have turned 79 on Dec. 12.
We published Frank’s obituary last week in The Current, but I felt that more of his story deserved to be told.
I became familiar with Frank toward the end of 2015, when I started covering Beacon’s city government and public schools for The Current. He was a fixture at school board meetings, which, with the district in upheaval over its revolving door of nine superintendents in as many years, were hourslong, wild affairs back then.
Frank addressed the board frequently, sometimes contentiously, urging its members to do something about the disparity between the district’s mostly white teachers and the far more diverse student body. He was often the oldest person in the room, and one of the loudest.
This week I called his sister, Rhonda, who lives in Newark, New Jersey, to learn more about his passion for learning.
Frank “spent a lifetime in education,” she told me, recalling her older brother’s work as the assistant director of the Educational Opportunity Program at SUNY-Morrisville. Later in life, he managed educational programs for nonprofit agencies before ending his career as the director of the Newark Boys Chorus School, a tuition-free private school for elementary and middle school students. After retiring, he returned to Beacon to be closer to family.
Frank and Rhonda were the youngest of six children and the only ones to attend college. While their parents never finished high school, their mother, who was descended from slaves, instilled in the children the value of education, and Frank took it to heart.
“When I was a little girl, I used to hate him,” Rhonda said of Frank, who was 12 years older. “But he stayed involved in my life and my education. He would find out what my grades were before my mother did, and he would be on the phone telling her if I’d dropped from an A to a B.”
She said Frank was able to attend Temple University with government assistance after serving in the U.S. Army. Later on, he helped pay for his nieces and nephews to attend college, as well.
I interviewed Frank in mid-2016, when I was reporting on the lack of instructional and administrative diversity in Beacon’s schools. Even at 73, his lifelong fervor for learning had not waned.
In 2010, he told me, he’d learned that only five of the district’s 266 instructional staff (or 2 percent) were Black, Latino or Asian. There were about 3,000 students attending Beacon’s schools at the time, and more than 53 percent of them were non-white.
“This was a matter of educational equality,” he said sharply.
Later that year, Frank was one of five candidates who submitted applications to fill two vacant seats on the Beacon school board, although he wasn’t chosen. While the district has made some attempts to increase diversity in the years since, and the percentage of Black, Latino and Asian teachers did increase from 7.6 percent in 2010 to 11.7 percent in 2018 (the most recent figures available), I would bet Frank was disappointed in the pace of progress.
I also suspect everyone on the school board now would agree there’s still plenty of work to be done.
The district took a small step in 2010 when it began advertising job openings on the Online Application System for Educators (OLAS), which reaches a larger audience of candidates than newspaper ads or the Dutchess County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) that had previously been used as resources.
In 2017, after Matt Landahl was hired as superintendent, the district stopped allowing OLAS to filter the candidates it provided for job openings in Beacon by grade-point average and other factors, further widening the applicant pool. In addition, school officials began sending representatives to recruitment fairs geared toward Black and Latino teachers.
It also began publishing data about diversity on its website, although the most recent posted is from the 2017-18 school year — even older than what the state provides. Beacon’s statistics show that 87 percent of its 297 teachers and administrators were white that year, and of 320 teacher aides and support staff, 75 percent were white.
Meanwhile, the district’s 2,723 students in 2019-20 were 55 percent non-white.
Why is this important? Melissa Thompson, who was on the school board from 2007 to 2016, the last three years as its president, was a frequent target of criticism from Frank. But she appreciated his message. “He believed that kids need to see adults who look like them,” she said. “He had very strict ideas of things we needed to change. We all agreed that he was right, but when you’re working with a school board, change comes slowly.”
Meredith Heuer, the current president of the board, met Frank when she was still a parent attending meetings of the grassroots Advocates for Beacon Schools. Between the lack of diversity and unstable leadership, “we connected the dots that maybe there was something in common between those two problems,” Heuer said. “He really wanted to impact kids of color in a positive way. He saw a gap in the Beacon schools and kept fighting for it.”
After Heuer, Antony Tseng and other newcomers were elected to the board, “he continued to hold us accountable and was not satisfied that the work was not done. He never stopped caring about public education. We were lucky to have him in our community,” she said.
I didn’t know Frank personally, only as a source. But after speaking with Rhonda, it was clear that his campaign for fair representation in Beacon’s schools mirrored how he’d lived his entire life. “He tried to get excellence out of all of us,” she told me. “Anything he was interested in, there was passion involved, believe me. He was very good and kind-hearted.”
I’m thankful that I was around to see Frank in action — taking our elected officials to task for what he saw as a major shortcoming. I hope students and teachers today appreciate his contributions, too.
I want to thank Jeff Simms for a well-written appreciation of Frank Bugg, who was iconic in our community. He knew the importance of education for people of color and being able to see diversity in the education system in his community. Frank was my wife’s uncle and we were truly touched by this column.
Frank was a good friend when we worked at Focus:HOPE in Detroit. He encouraged me to become re-involved in social justice and that’s how I ended up at Focus:HOPE. I still continue to support its values. Thanks, man — you will not be forgotten.