Dozens of students and parents attended Tuesday night’s Onteora district Board of Education meeting at the Middle/High School, not for the purpose of the annual Budget Hearing, but to protest the changes that will take place to the extra-curricular music program beginning in the 2012/2013 school year. Woodstock Elementary music director Harvey Boyer, standing in solidarity with district music teachers, spoke on behalf of the beloved music program. “The reconfiguration has led to the disillusion of a highly qualified string specialist, half a band position and our valuable third grade instrumental program.” Boyer warned that scheduling changes that would have music instruction before the beginning of the school day and after school may devastate the program. “I ask you why are we going to punish some of the highest achieving and most dedicated fourth, fifth and sixth grade students by making them come in an hour early and making them ride the bus with high schoolers? Why not get some electric and acoustic guitars for newbies better?” District officials propose moving the program in order to access more curriculum time to help meet stringent academic standards mandated by the State.
Several students protested the change, feeling punished for other student’s academic weaknesses. “Look at the data, (at) the students that are doing badly on these standardized tests, the ELA (English Language Arts) and these other tests…and see which of those students are involved in the music program,” said High School senior Katie Martucci, “because I bet the students that are heavily involved in music are not the ones doing badly in those tests. I know off the top of my head most students involved in band and chorus are in AP (Advanced Placement) classes.”
Spencer Estes, a fifth grader at Bennett Elementary said, “If the music program was moved to afterschool I think it would be unfair to the kids who play a sport or do the help/homework club, or boy scouts or girl scouts.”
Bennett principal Gabriel Buono said that music after school was a problem. “If I were to pick, I would certainly advocate that we don’t have it afterschool at this point because we have those other opportunities available for children.” Buono said the Elementary principals were in discussions with the music teachers on moving the program before Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill was hired. “And again they didn’t like that option at that time,” Buono said, “but if they had to choose, morning would be better than afternoon.”
Once public commentary came to an end, School board president Ann McGillicuddy announced the commencement of the budget Public Hearing. On that note, dozens of people noisily left including school board candidate Cybele Nielsen. Candidate Rebecca Balzac stayed for the long haul.
The hearing lasted less than ten minutes and was reviewed by Assistant Superintendent Victoria McLaren. The total budget proposed is $49.6 million. Broken down, $39.8 million goes to program; $4.6 million to administration, $5.2 to capital and $20,000 is reserved for local libraries. The tax levy increase is zero and if voters defeated the budget, $80 thousand will be removed from the equipment budget line as required by State law. That would include sports uniforms, technology and limited use of buildings to the public.
In a five-to-two vote, trustees renewed McGill’s contract for an additional four years with a $10 thousand pay cut from $160,000 to $150,000 beginning July 1, 2012 and ending June 30, 2016. McGill was hired in February 2011. As political campaign season tends to stir the pot, criticism was primarily voiced through the district’s new FaceBook page that included calls to oust the Superintendent and replace the current board of education.
Trustee Laurie Osmond made attempts to explain their decision. “In New York State, by law no Superintendent contract initiated can be shorter than three years.” Contracts, Osmond explained “are usually three-to-five years in duration…” and the board was contractually bound to renew it by June 30, 2012. McGill opted for a pay cut before the end of her initial contract that was due to expire June 30, 2014. “Generally school districts restart the negotiation process 12-16 months before a contract expires…” said McGillicuddy. The law requires that contracts must be settled one way or another in advance. She added, “This is not a sudden decision, there are certain processes to follow.”
“I come from upstate and this is more money I thought I would ever make in education,” McGill said. “I took a $14,000 pay cut to come here from Katonah. I never thought I would make a living in education. I got into this because I’m a child advocate, am supportive of families and education and I do it because I love it and I love being here.”
Dan Spencer and Michael McKeon both voted against the resolution, instead supporting a three-year contract. Spencer said, “The new contract being voted on tonight has been in the works for several months and it is in my opinion time to invest in Dr. McGill.” A four-year contract he said was “awarded on merit,” and although “she is very committed to the district,” she was “inexperienced,” to be granted a four-year contract. McKeon said, “I believe that she is exactly the right person for the job but I just think it (a four year contract) is a little premature.”
School report card
McGill presented the latest state data on the district’s school report card and made comparisons to area rural schools. The district currently holds an 80 percent graduation rate, meeting the State target of 80 percent. Separated into groups, however, the special education graduation rate is a low 58 percent and the economically disadvantaged category shows a poor rate of 67 percent. Free and reduced lunches, which define families under the poverty line, are at 33 percent in the district, one of the highest in the area. In comparison, Saugerties school district is 31 percent with a general graduation rate of 75 percent. Onteora students classified as needing special education services is also at a high rate of 17 percent compared to State average of 13 percent. Rondout was the highest of 18 percent. District students needing remedial help due to failing test scores in grades seven and eight is highest at approximately 50 percent with McGill stating that specialized teachers must be hired specifically for that purpose. With any child under the poverty line needing remedial help, the State mandates that a tutor must be supplied after school. Students with disabilities are not meeting standards in ELA and Math at the Middle School and Phoenicia Elementary. McGill explained that Bennett and Woodstock, with a lower population of children with disabilities, didn’t calculate on the State data, but that the district’s own data reveals downfalls. Regents, standardized tests, graduation rates all show special education is lagging compared to regular education students. McGill pointed out that only a small percentage of students may not be able to meet those particular standards, however most with learning disabilities can meet those standards when given the right help. “As you can see,” McGill said, “we are losing a lot of kids in Special Ed, who we should not be losing. We should capture those kids and have them be able to graduate and be career and college ready.”
Election voting machines
The board approved site workers for Election Day May 15, but it was met with much debate. Trustee Tony Fletcher asked, “Why are there so many more [voting] machines in some towns as there are in others.” District Clerk Fern Amster said it was because the district had only seven machines for four sites. Two or possibly three will go to the town of Olive and two for Woodstock. West Hurley and Shandaken would get one. Amster said Olive generally has the largest voter turnout. Fletcher also wondered if Woodstock could use a third machine, but Amster said Woodstock was running short of people willing to work the polls. There must be according to law, one person per voter book and two election inspectors per voting machine. Fletcher said, “Can we not get two machines to each town?” Amster said, “nope, we don’t have them anymore.” The district used to borrow voting machines from the county, but it no longer uses the older machines, opting for the computer machines. The district is set to begin using the new voting machines next election year. ++