Voters in the Onteora Central School district will go to the polls 2 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, at Woodstock and Phoenicia Primary Schools, Bennett Intermediate School and at the now-defunct West Hurley Elementary School to consider a proposed budget of $53,222,778 for the 2016-2017 school year. This represents a budget increase of $1,565,803 or 3.03 percent, but only a levy increase of $469,806 or 1.16 percent.
The budget increase is partially driven by a $550,000 or 0.9 percent transfer to a capital budget line. This will address upgrades and drainage issues to the Bennett playground. There are no cuts to programs, with few additions such as a new director of technology position; a Student Resource Officer (SRO) who has, in the past been a New York State Trooper; a network support specialist; an expanded Kindergarten-through-grade eight summer program; and JV Football coaching staff. If voters reject the budget twice, a State mandated contingency would be put in its place that restricts spending on school equipment, public use of school facilities, technology and capital expenses.
Additionally, on the ballot is a request to authorize a new Capital Reserve. The district is seeking voter approval to establish this reserve for the continuation of renovations that will address the buildings condition survey. The reserve can be up to $8 million and will be collected through unexpended district funds. This referendum is not asking to levy the money, only set up the account for money savings. Once the money is in place, voters would then have to approve the placement of it at a future time.
A special meeting of the board of education will follow the election at approximately 9 p.m. at the Onteora Middle/High School in Boiceville, to accept the votes as cast. Kindergarten-through-grade six students will have an early dismissal at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, May 17.
A copy of the school budget is now on file at the district’s schools, including the Central Office from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-through-Friday; at local town libraries in Hurley, Olive, Phoenicia, West Hurley and Woodstock during regular library business hours, and on the district’s website at Onteora.k12.ny.us.
Seven candidates for five seats, disagree on Mascot issue
There are seven candidates vying for five seats on the Onteora District School Board of Education. Five are incumbents and two have stepped up to challenge their seats. There are two vacancies for terms of three years each, and three other vacancies, each for a one year duration, that fills unexpired terms due to past resignations. The winners with the three lowest vote totals will fill the one-year terms.
All seven candidates have diverse opinions, primarily on the Indian Mascot debate, though all agree that when it comes to the budget, bullying and drug prevention that the district is doing a pretty good job, though more can always be done. Below are the seven candidates as listed on the ballot.
West Shokan resident Dale Allison, a new challenger, is a graduate of Onteora, married with two children and has a Bachelor’s degree in Business from SUNY New Paltz. She works as a kitchen designer and interior specialist at Cabinet Designers. She is an Olive Soccer mom, directs the Onteora Football Booster Club, and sits on the Onteora Babe Ruth Board. “I’m involved with sports, but feel I need to get involved with school, so I thought I would give it a shot,” she said. As a parent involved with district sports and Onteora graduate, she said the Indian Mascot is “an honor in my opinion. Maybe it’s just a local thing and maybe there are people who are against it, but I don’t believe it should be removed.”
She sees what’s been referred to an “opioid epidemic,” as a wake up call. “I was floored, by a recent article in the paper by the Rt. 212 coalition.” She supports the district’s prevention programs and assemblies. She would however like to see more communication between schools and parents on how to work with children on prevention. She supports the budget and in an email statement she wrote, “My view on hiring a new superintendent is that it would be great to find someone who has ties to the area and really cares about the school.”
Incumbent Laurie Osmond has been on the Board since 2008. During her tenure she has been President, Vice President, and a member of various Committees including facilities, policy, communications and green. Osmond attended Brown and San Francisco State University, and holds a B.A. in Broadcast Communication Arts. She works as a producer, writer and videographer, and has one daughter. She wants to continue as trustee because, “I think finally the BOE is in a good place, we work well together. All the discourse and dysfunction is a thing of the past and for the sake of a new Superintendent we need continuity.” When it comes to the budget she believes district officials have done a good job under the circumstances. “We have out of control health care costs, it’s a national problem and it affects the budget,” said Osmond. She believes students are handling the Mascot issue, “the way it should be,” and notes they’re not given enough credit for taking on such a controversial local issue. “What they’re trying to do is hold a real discussion and not be pulled in different directions.” She finds the bully conversation frustrating because of national politics, where she views it as, “ok to be hateful,” and therefore, difficult to prevent at a local level.
Incumbent Rob Kurnit has been a Trustee for nearly seven years. Originally from Long Island, he is married and has lived in Woodstock since 1991. He is Vice President of the School board, co-chair of the facilities committee, member of the Policy and Legislation Action Committee. He regularly attends county and statewide conferences, and lobbies for public school. If he is re-elected, he has been asked to become Vice-President of the Ulster County School Board Association. “I’ve gained a passion for this,” he said and began attending School Board meetings in 2005, before becoming a trustee in 2009. He has worked as a builder and custom woodworker, which he said allows him to understand the needs of facilities upgrades. He wants to continue to follow through with the upgrades, in which he works closely with Buildings and Grounds Director Jared Mance.
The recent debate over the school Indian Mascot brings memories of past contentious arguments, something he is not keen to repeat. “I would prefer to not stir the pot if I can help it,” said Kurnit. “I have no personal feelings, I’m trying to be fair, and I think our goal as a Board is if the students can make an impact.” He regards the students leading this as good democracy.
Regarding the so-called opioid epidemic, Kurnit said “I don’t believe we are doing enough and with a new Superintendent I would like to see us work as a team in trying to bring focus and I have strong feelings about bringing prevention to the Primary Schools.” He compared the community to the National conversation on opioid abuse. “I don’t think as a culture we have figured this out, so I don’t believe we have as a school.”
Incumbent Kevin Salem has lived in West Hurley since 1998, and has one daughter. He is originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and went to school at the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in psychology and anthropology. He works as a musician, writer, and producer in music. He was Bennett’s PTA president from 2012-2014 and was appointed to the Board in October 2015, following the resignation of another trustee. Since 2009 he has worked with Operation Respect, an international anti-bully group. He wants to continue as a trustee because, “I’m a huge advocate for Public Education, and it’s a real way to make a change.”
He believes that public school has become demonized with little notice on what is good in it. He notes changing times when it comes to the Indian Mascot debate. “Society moves forward,” he said. “I personally don’t think the word Indian is offensive, but at a national level the view of it is changing, so locally removing it is inevitable, a generational reality, it could happen in ten years or six months, but it’s going to happen.” He called it a “great exercise in democracy and activism,” and applauds the student government for its effort. “Would I have brought it up? I don’t know, probably not,” he said. “And the hostility, I could do without, we need to be respectful in our dialogue.”
He described the current School Board as diverse, however respectful in debate, “and I have a ton of respect for Interim Superintendent Victoria McLaren.”
He believes there is never enough prevention when it comes to children and drug abuse. “The district is on it, but we are bucking a National trend. I was shocked when I moved here, when I saw the level of the problem and I’ve lived in London, New York City and Boston.”
Incumbent Lindsay Shands has been a trustee since February 2016. She was born and raised in Shokan, is married, and has two children. She holds a degree in Anthropology from SUNY New Paltz and a Paralegal certificate from Marist College. She works for an attorney in Kingston, was President of PTA in 2010/11 at Chambers Elementary School in Kingston, and Vice President of Bennett Intermediate School PTA in 2013/14. She has always been involved in her children’s education and mentions that her youngest is ten-months old. “I want to make it the best possible school district she can have, that all the children can have,” she said.
Bullying is a priority to her and said if re-elected it’s a topic she wants to tackle. She described the budget as an, “eye opener,” because, the state recognizes the district as, “wealthy,” based upon land value and not income, coupled with trying to keep the tax levy down for struggling families.
She supports the student government effort on the Mascot. “I think it’s great, kids are being proactive and as a former Onteora student I have allegiance to the district, but not to the Mascot. The times are changing.” When it comes to the election on May 17, Shands said, “I hope everyone gets out and votes.”
Leo (LJ) Warren
Shokan resident Leo (LJ) Warren, another new challenger, is married with children, and works for the County. Originally from Queens, was raised and attended school at Onteora. As a student, he was a member of DECA and participated in track. In the past he has worked in managerial positions in other states, and with large budgets. He is an active member of the Phoenicia PTA, and when not working, he spends time with family, camping and playing sports.
He said the community is where his heart is and believes that the current Board leans too heavy with members from Woodstock, West Hurley and Phoenicia (three out of seven trustees are from Shokan). But does that make a difference? “I think subconsciously people are going to make a decision on where their heart is,” said Warren.
He is against the removal of the Indian Mascot with the belief that most of the community doesn’t want it removed. “A lot of individuals who are around 25-to-45 years old and went to Onteora would rather keep it. No one sees it as degrading or negative, not everyone is against it.” When it comes to the student government input which suggested a new Mascot following forums and surveys he said, “If they can show me a large majority of students are against it, if they can break it down to facts, not just opinions, I will work with them.” Warren believes that declining enrollment needs to be addressed and it’s the Board’s responsibility to draw more families into the area based upon bettering test scores, and supporting innovation programs such as, farm to schools initiative. He said, “I like to make an impact and I can look at multiple sides of things, of opinions.”
Incumbent Bennet Ratcliff of Bearsville has three children, has lived in the area for two years, and has served as trustee since February 2016. He works as a consultant in the field of education on a national level, and in the past, he has consulted in national and international politics. He is a graduate of Princeton and post-grad work at the Universite de Grenoble in France as a Rotary Foundation fellow. He applauds Onteora Schools. “It’s the only school in Ulster County to get Best School award (from US News and World Report), it has a graduation rate of over 90 percent. We have a lot of intelligent students and gifted teachers.” Ratcliff said, “Teachers at Onteora, teach the students how to think and it’s just not kids making AP (Advanced Placement).”
He said it’s frustrating when the district holds community events and no one attends, such as the forum on drug addiction. He called the local heroin problem “Inexpensive death,” and said through community efforts including working with the schools will it be curbed.
Ratcliff supports the student’s effort driving the Mascot issue. He has a wait-and-see temperament and suggests whatever the end result, maybe somehow between the communities common ground can be found.