At the Tuesday, March 22 board of education meeting at Woodstock Elementary, school officials presented The Superintendent’s Recommended Budget to trustees that includes an increase in spending to a total of $50,477,497. If the board adopts the budget at its April 5 session, voters will be asked to vote on the budget on May 17. If voters reject the budget proposal, a contingency (or austerity) budget could be put in place that would eliminate $121,785 from the equipment budget line, as mandated by the State — including purchases in technology, athletic equipment and curriculum cuts. A contingency budget, based on the current annual Consumer Price Index rise of 1.6 percent projects to be slightly less than the Superintendent’s proposal — a 0.79 percent or $50,355,712.
In order to reach the $50.4 million goal, officials needed to trim over a million dollars from the 2010-2011 budget. Direct staff reductions in grades seven-through-twelve in the proposal, include three full time teachers, one each in English, Technology and Social Studies. One full time Special Education teacher is retiring and will not be replaced; however as services in Special Education change, a new teacher may be needed. Additionally the Middle/High school will see the elimination of one Guidance counselor and another five teaching positions will be reduced to part time, including some without benefits. This includes positions in health, foreign language, math and science.
The district’s new Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill, barely on the job for a month, explained how the reduction of teachers was decided upon. “The reality is, we don’t have teaching loads for the teachers because of the decrease in enrollment that’s kind of gone through the elementary level and is now going through the secondary level.” McGill said some unpopular electives have been dropped for lack of interest while other classes primarily in Advanced Placement have been added.
Two Kindergarten-through-grade twelve teaching assistant positions have been eliminated; and two elementary teaching positions have also been eliminated. However should enrollment increase, this could change. The board agreed to offer retirement incentives for senior teachers, but in order to receive cost savings four would need to retire. To date, two have announced retirements.
The Administrative position of Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum will also be eliminated. McGill said the building principals will pick up the duties of this position and that the district is also looking into a shared role with other districts through BOCES.
Other reductions include two part time custodians, two days of late bus runs, $19,500 from the athletic budget, after school elementary recreation, quizbowl and SAT Prep. The Gifted and Talented program that was nearly eliminated in 2010 will see changes. “What we offer is not really a pure gifted and talented,” McGill said, “because we’re servicing about 15 percent of our students.” She explained that 15 percent was too high to meet the criterion that defines a gifted student. Instead the district will offer an in-class enrichment program, “and then the five or six that should be in [the Gifted and Talented program] in each of the buildings, those kids will be pulled out for program once a week.”
Trustee Michael McKeon pointed out a $175,000 increase in special education summer school and asked why such a jump. McGill pointed the finger at the state. “The state paid 80 percent and the district paid 20 percent and now that’s been flip-flopped, by the state.” New York State may also decrease BOCES aid. Assistant Superintendent for Business Victoria McLaren warned that the district would need to look more closely at services offered by BOCES in the future since they might not be cost effective.
“According to our ratios with the State, even though our income wealth is about the State average, our property wealth is so far above, so that our combined wealth ratio is two times the State average,” McLaren said. “Governor Cuomo is using those kinds of statistics to tweak all the aid ratios.” The district currently receives about 30 percent State aid for BOCES services, but may see that drop to 14 percent.
McLaren was pleased to announce that the district’s health insurance premiums did not increase as much as projected. Early projections saw it at a 15 percent increase, but the reality was two percent, saving the district nearly $500,000.
Commitment to the elementary schools
Two hours were set aside for the Superintendent’s recommendation including feedback from the public.
Previous board member Rita Vanacore repeated the criticism she has been leveling for years. “I’m really disappointed in this school district,” she said. “Other school districts have the same problems that we do and what are they doing? They’re seriously considering closing a school.”
Trustee Tony Fletcher responded. “In terms of other districts, by fortune or by extremely good business sense, we are in a better position than every single school in around the district. You only have to pick up the paper and see the double digit tax levies districts are facing and if any of those districts are thinking of closing other schools, you only have to read the papers to see it is their last ditch effort on their part. It’s the last resort.”
Trustee Dan Spencer also weighed in, pointing out that the three elementary schools are full and thriving. “My feeling is that we made a real commitment as a board to protect those schools and that wasn’t just our commitment, that was what the community came to us and said.” He continued, “And whether you agree with it or not, there are a lot of people on both sides, with compelling evidence on both sides. But our commitment is there and those schools are doing a great job, but I want everyone to know we’re not going through this with blinders on.”
A small handful of people asked questions, but mostly offered opinions on the value of the teachers. Parent Calandra Cruickshank a former Onteora student said she attended when classrooms had 30 to 35 students per class. “It breaks my heart to see teacher positions being cut because I know what my kids are getting out of their education right now and I see the difference that smaller classroom sizes make in their learning experience.” Student representative Angie Cross said students at the high school are feeling the cuts. “We want to keep all our teachers, we love all our teachers and if a teacher is good and doing an excellent job, you know it hurts that much more when they’re cut.”
McGill presented statistics that showed enrollment statewide in rural school districts has seen a decline at a rate that is four and a half times higher than metro areas, and made the point that classroom sizes would not increase to those levels because the teaching positions that were being cut were in under-populated sections and subjects.
In a budget related request, McLaren asked the board to approve the set up of a possible Capital Reserve fund that voters would need to approve in May. This reserve would be for the purpose of upgrading facilities through the Energy Savings Lighting program or the energy performance contract. This would not be a bond, or borrowing, but an account for the accumulation of monies set aside through unencumbered funds.
In other news…
Trustee Laurie Osmond stepped down as school board president citing changes in her work schedule that conflicted with her duties as president. “Since the Christmas holiday, my working schedule has changed to the point where I’m no longer available during the day for phone calls, emails and meetings and that’s not an ideal situation.” By unanimous vote, Anne McGillicuddy was elected board president. The Vice President spot, by unanimous decision, went to Tony Fletcher, the position relinquished by McGillicuddy. Osmond served as president for over two years.
Principal of Woodstock Elementary Bobby Schnell took a leave of absence in order to take care of an ailing family member. Filling in as interim is Jack Jordan who is no stranger to the district. In the past he has filled in as interim Superintendent, High school and Middle school principal.++