Easing into it: Onteora has quiet first week with new grades

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Nearly a week has passed since the first day of school and the Tuesday, September 11, Board of Education meeting at Woodstock Elementary, Onteora district principals weighed in on how the new grade configuration was going. Bennett Principal Gabe Buono, whose school now houses all the district’s students in grades four-through-eight, said it was like having a new school. “On the outside we look really good, but on the inside we’re still a mess, behind the scenes were still trying to work it all out,” he said. Classrooms and the new Project Based Learning style teaching program are progressing with consultants lending a helping hand.

Where the problems have cropped up, apparently, is in the after school programs. “We really didn’t know who and how many would be interested, we didn’t know how successful it was going to be and we had overwhelming response of student interest which is absolutely phenomenal,” said Buono. “I didn’t feel comfortable that we’d be able to pull it off successfully with getting the kids on the appropriate buses, get all the documentation in order so we knew who was going where.” He said attempts to start the after school program the first week of school was, “a little too ambitious.” He now hopes to have the programs begin sometime next week.

The two Elementary principals Bobbi Schnell and Linda Sella said things are running smoothly. Schnell said, at Woodstock Elementary, “All my teachers came in throughout the summer and everything was ready.” Schnell oversaw West Hurley School when it was a Kindergarten-through-grade 2 school some years back, and brought her experience to the new Woodstock format of Kindergarten-through-grade 3.


As to Phoenicia, where the grade configuration is the same as Woodstock’s, Kindergarten-through-grade 3, Sella said, “This is my 12th year (as principal), and I have never seen the Phoenicia Elementary School building inside and out look as good as it does today…so whatever were doing, we gotta keep it going.”

Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill said there was one problem with a bus route that has since been resolved. Trustee Michael McKeon reported on his own children at Bennett. “What I’ve seen with my two boys, it seems they are much happier, less of an edge, a more positive energy this year and it’s great to see…I get that feeling from them and their friends, so hats off to everybody’s who’s doing that.”


Tax Cert settlement leaves money in the coffers

The recently settled litigation over the value of the Ashokan Reservior between town of Hurley and New York City may have an impact future school taxes. According to Assistant Superintendent for Business Victoria McLaren, “It is good in the way that it followed in the footsteps of the town of Olive which was also a long term deal — [so] we don’t have to worry about [it] on an annual basis.” The assessment was agreed upon for nine years. “Right now the assessment on this property is set at $175 million, so it’s going to be dropping to $155 million and it will hold steady at that level until the year 2018 and increase to $160 million for four years,” McLaren said. “We do not have to go back and reimburse for all of the years that were at issue. We will have to reimburse them for the current year because the assessment role was set already.” The district will owe approximately $200,000 to New York City that will come out certiorari reserves set up in the event back taxes were owed. The reserves hold a little over $4 million. The drop in the value of the reservoir will impact the whole district. McLaren said, “Unfortunately, much like the year when Olive settled was the same year we had a zero tax levy…but that was a much greater decrease — $100 million in value. This is $20 million — and by no means am I saying that’s small — but relative, it’s less painful.” The board will take action next meeting on October 2 and once agreed upon, the certiorari reserve will go into a general fund. McLaren said the district is researching ways to offset spikes in the tax levy as a result of the tax loss and to possibly store funds in capital reserves.


Awareness offered

Marie Shultis founder of Awareness, a not for profit substance abuse education program, addressed the board, along with other parents and students. Shultis said Awareness is a “peer to peer” program that has a 65 percent success rate where students identify, reduce and stop their high-risk behavior. Parent Tracey Kellogg told the story of how her two daughters, who had just graduated from Onteora, disappeared after the prom, only to discover they had left a party the police raided. She said, “The night of the prom was probably the most scariest night of my life.” Kellogg asked in the future that the board consider having an event after the prom so the students remain safe. Barbara Shapiro tearfully said her son was a former Onteora student and became addicted to heroin. He is in long-term rehabilitation. “Drugs, including heroin are cheap and very available in this area.” Shapiro asked the board to consider more prevention programs. Shultis said that Awareness is offered free of charge to the district. For more information go to awarenessinc.org.


Asbestos abatement

The board approved $39,650 for an emergency procedure completed in August that removed asbestos contamination at Woodstock Elementary. This was in addition to over $300 thousand that was approved in June for a district wide asbestos abatement. The aging buildings containing asbestos were just part of the problem, though, the board said. The other part pertained to Wicks law, what was called an outdated mandate that awards construction only to the lowest (but not always qualified) bidder.

The problems occurred with contaminated glazing around cracked windows at the Woodstock School. As the work was in progress windowpanes broke and the company said it wasn’t in their contract to fix the window. When an additional contractor replaced the panes, it freed up dust containing asbestos. A third local contractor (different from the first) was brought in to remove contamination, resulting in the additional cost. McGill wouldn’t name the initial company and said there were other problems. “At the end of the day, we had people that were not local. We have all this pending litigation or deductions we’re going to do because the High School wasn’t done.” McGill said officials throughout the State have been lobbying to change Wicks law…“because it doesn’t allow you to work with who you feel is the most reputable, reasonable contractor.” McGill added that air samples have come up negative for any contamination. A few years ago, the district was in litigation with a company over inefficient work done on the replacement of a boiler at Woodstock Elementary.