Onteora proposes less spending, no tax increase

Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill

Onteora Central School District officials unveiled a proposed 2012/2013-school budget the Tuesday, March 20 board of education meeting that would reduce expenditures and produce a tax levy that does not rise.

“What we are going to see proposed tonight is a [proposed 2012-2013] budget below the current 11/12 school year,” said Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill, “and that is $49,686,922 which is a reduction of 1.69 percent or a reduction of $854,199…which means that the [tax] levy will not increase.” Although the meeting was sparsely attended, McGill’s announcement was met with a hearty applause.

If the 2011/2012-school budget of $50.5 million were to be merely rolled over, expenditures would have increased, due mainly to contractual obligations, by approximately $2.1 million, accompanied by a tax levy increase of 7.54 percent. “We’re actually reducing our budget for the first time, I don’t know since when,” said Trustee Tony Fletcher, “and that is phenomenal news.”

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Most of the projected cost savings are obtained through staff reductions that occur within the district’s new reconfiguration of grades, that will include two elementary schools, Woodstock and Phoenicia, that will house Kindergarten-through-grade three and one intermediate school with all the district’s grade four-through-six students at the current Bennett Elementary on the Boiceville site. McGill said that due to a larger than expected Kindergarten class coming in next year and the fact that Bennett will retain its third grade for a one year transition period, only five teaching positions will be cut instead of the projected seven. Additionally, nine teachers have taken retirement incentives, which saves money through reduced unemployment costs and their salary reductions.

According to plans understood by the board of education, that leaves an additional 18.5 positions slated for reduction. Some of those may be realized from the Onteora Non-Teacher Association, members of which were offered a one time retirement incentive of $10,000 for past eligible retirees while lifting penalties for those about to come upon retirement. The deadline for responses from the non-teachers is April third and the district needs at least four retirements for this to go into effect.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Victoria McLaren explained that the district’s contribution to employee health insurance was reduced from $8 million to $7.8 million, due to staff reduction, but also because changes were made in Medicare eligible retirees.

The district’s total fund balance of $4 million will shrink slightly due to the percentage allowed once the budget is reduced. Of that, approximately $2 million will offset the levy as is typically done every year. The coffers are usually filled yearly with unexpended funds from department budgets.

Cash reserves will total $10.9 million with nearly half of it set aside for the Tax Certiorari between New York City and the Town of Hurley over the Ashokan Reservoir tax dispute. Other monies set aside are targeted for unemployment insurance, benefits and repairs. Overall, McGill said the district was “ahead of the curve,” since no more than what is usually spent to help offset the levy was used.

School trustee Dan Spencer asked what would happen if voters rejected the budget.

McGill explained that since the proposed budget contained no tax levy increase, the board can “decide not to have a second vote.”

The only difference between passing the budget with no tax levy increase and a state imposed contingency budget as a result of a budget’s failure at the polls would be certain restrictions required by the state, such as no spending on sports uniforms, the inability to allow the community to use the buildings free of charge, and restrictions on certain building maintenance and equipment.

“If were going to post this budget presentation, I would like to see something that addresses that, because it’s an important feature out there,” said Spencer. “You’ve done a lot of hard work and I appreciate it, but there is a sentiment out there that it still means a budget increase, so there should be something out there to show what we lose.”

During public commentary, retired orchestra/strings teacher Winnie Paetow cautioned on cuts made in the music program, primarily the possibility of eliminating a strings teacher. “With our reconfiguration of our schools, my concern is that losing staff members in our department is going to cut so deeply in these programs it may be very difficult to recover.”

The budget recommendation and adoption will be held at the next board meeting, Tuesday, April 10 at the Middle/High School. District wide elections are May 15 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the district’s four elementary schools buildings, including the shuttered West Hurley.

 

In other news…

 

McGill, following up on concerns raised at Bennett Elementary of asbestos contamination, announced that, in addition to tests conducted every six months, eight air samples were done as a precaution. All the samples came up negative for asbestos.

 

The Ulster County Legislative Action Committee of Ulster County has been lobbying Albany on behalf of public schools as part of a statewide protest over funding. School board representatives throughout the county, including Board President Ann McGillicuddy, Rob Kurnit and Laurie Osmond, met with various political figures including State Senator John Bonacic and Deputy Secretary for Education David Wakelyn. Assemblyman Kevin Cahill apparently was not present, which led McGillicuddy to say, “I think this is his third year in a row he canceled on us.”

 

The facilities committee prioritized the five-year facilities report. Number one priority needing immediate attention is the ventilation and heating system in the Bennett Elementary Kindergarten rooms. Kurnit said the list contains 31 items at an overall estimated cost of $5.5 million. The board approved the energy company AMERESCO to conduct an energy audit detailing the proposal on upgrades throughout the district. This includes priorities on the facilities report, including upgrades or replacements to boiler and electrical systems. A performance contract is cost neutral because of energy savings and is eligible for some state reimbursement.

 

The district hired Cynthia Bishop as the new Director of Pupil Personnel, beginning May 7 at a salary of $118,000. Bishop was director of Pupil Personnel services since 2008 in the Hyde Park School district. She replaces Joyce Long who resigned in December 2010. Jim Walker has been acting as interim.

 

March 23 and 24th at 7pm in the Middle/High school auditorium, the High School will be presenting the play Sleepwalker by William Mastrosimone. Tickets are $5 for adults; seniors and students are free.

 

Congratulations to High School advanced marketing student Peter Vesely who won a writing competition sponsored by the University of Arizona. His article titled, “Is Avoiding Junk Food Healthy for Your Wallet?” will be published on the University’s website.

 

Woodstock Elementary grade five students have artwork on display at Woodstock Artist Association and Museum (WAAM) until April 8. ++

 

 

 

Zena Elementary safe…for at least another year

Zena Elementary School has been in the crosshairs for months, as the Kingston City School District grapples with reconfiguring itself to address a steadily declining student population. If Superintendent Paul Padalino has his way, Zena will remain open…for at least another year.

Padalino was scheduled to present his recommendations to the Kingston Board of Education on Wednesday March 21 after press time, but he gave Woodstock Times a sneak peek at his proposal. The superintendent was tasked with coming up with an alternate redistricting plan after a number of options proposed by his predecessor, Gerard Gretzinger, were rejected by trustees. Padalino became the district’s head administrator in early January after Gretzinger chose to retire nearly seven months before the end of his contract.

Last year, board members approved the closure of Frank L. Meagher Elementary, though as the months rolled on and a host of different redistricting plans were bandied about, faculty and students were kept in limbo. The possibility of closing no elementary schools, including Meagher, until at least the end of the 2012-13 school year was discussed, but Padalino opted to move forward on that part of the original plan and the school will close at the end of the current school year.

Three other elementary schools were also viewed as serious candidates for as many as two other closures school officials were considering: Anna Devine, Sophie Finn and Zena, the only school in the district located in Woodstock. For the time being, all those other schools are safe. But Padalino may still recommend further closures.

“I think we’re in the mindset that we have 10,000 students like we did years ago, and we only have 7000,” Padalino said. “It’s time we come to reality. We’re not a 10,000-student school district anymore, and that means not operating 14 school buildings for 7000 students.”

Zena is one of 11 elementary schools in the district, which also operates a pair of middle schools and Kingston High. Padalino said he hopes to have his complete redistricting proposal ready by the end of June so students at any other schools that might be earmarked for closure will have plenty of time to prepare.

Padalino, who is also in the process of preparing the district’s budget for the 2012-13 school year, is hoping work done on the district now will help lessen the impact of the redistricting plan down the line. He added that his goal as officials craft the proposed spending plan is to ensure the district’s students are affected as little as possible.

“We’re continuously looking every minute of every day to where we can achieve efficiencies without having an impact on students, and we’re finding a lot of it,” he said. “But I’ll say this right now: There are going to be layoffs.” ++

Crispin Kott

 

There is one comment

  1. Wendy Wolfenson

    More financial smoke and mirrors. Are we supposed to applaud the 1.69% decrease in spending? It could have been so much more if the BOE had adopted one of the other configurations, instead of choosing the most expensive option (which happened to keep their half-empty neighborhood school open). The fact that is cleverly concealed in the budget presentation now and related reporting is that the student body drops another 48 students (from the graduating class of 141 to the entering class of 93). This decline, way more than 1.69% of the current student body, means that our per student cost continues to rise. We already spend more per pupil than any of our 16-district neighboring group. No wonder they are hiding the facts. It’s clearly time for a change in leadership and I am looking forward to putting new people in charge on the Board of Education.

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