The Onteora District Board of Education passed a resolution at its January 26 Board of Education meeting at Bennett Elementary that opposed the federal nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education. This follows in similar fashion to other school districts throughout the country that have opposed Donald Trump’s pick upon the grounds that she is not qualified. The resolution was sent via certified copy to Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. DeVos’s nomination was cleared by the Senate education committee on January 31 by a 12-11 vote and sent to the full Senate for a vote.
Board President Bobbi Schnell read the page long document. “Betsy DeVos demonstrated a pre-disposition towards and long-history of support for charter schools and school voucher programs, which by their very nature siphon monies away from public schools; and refused to say whether private/charter schools receiving federal funding should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools; refused to say if she would uphold current laws regarding the reporting of sexual abuse on school campuses, and refused to say if she would uphold current laws that protect students from for-profit colleges…” Schnell additionally alleged a lack of understanding with Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, growth and proficiency, on Devos’s part; that she supports a ban on gun free school zones, and has a history of financially supporting organizations whose actions are detrimental to LGBTQ students. The resolution passed by unanimous vote with Schnell, Trustees Dale Allison, Laurie Osmond, Lindsay Shands, and Bennet Ratcliff voting in favor. Trustees Kevin Salem and Valerie Storey were absent.
Tiny increase in state aid
Assistant Superintendent for Business Victoria McLaren presented 2017/18 figures for the district’s State Aid, recently released as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State budget. Onteora will have a very slight increase of 2.08 percent or $181,912. However, this number shrinks to .79 percent or $66,235 once building aid is absorbed through recent completed capital work on facilities. The aid from the State in 2016/17 was $8,436,616 and is proposed to increase to $8,502,851. Local taxpayers are expected to pick up the rest of a projected $41,828,741 plan. The allowable State property tax levy increase is 1.26 percent, compared to 0.12 percent last year. Onteora, however, has an allowable levy increase of 1.83 percent or $751,491, due to carryover from last year. But McLaren said health insurance expense for the district is projected to increase a whopping 10 percent in premiums, though rates are not set until March. “DHIC (insurance) has been experiencing record high claims,” said McLaren. “I think it’s not a DHIC only problem, I think its pretty much a problem everywhere. One of the things that is driving our claims is prescription drugs…unfortunately the cost of prescription drugs are skyrocketing.”
The governor’s budget is normally passed by April 1 and the legislature customarily adds a little more school aid. With the tax cap in place, should voters reject the budget in May’s election, it is not an indication that the tax levy will decrease. A rejection by voters would, however, place limits or completely eradicate expenditures on student supplies, new equipment, capital expenditures, and public use of facilities.
The decision to delay or cancel school during inclement weather has always been topic of contention due to unusual weather patterns that hit the district. Superintendent Bruce Watson shared his dilemmas. “I have talked to some parents, with some concerns…the weather is different in this particular district because we have so many square miles to cover…(it’s) predominately a busing community, which is very different from some communities where people walk to school.” Mountainous elevation is also a factor, he said, where snow can be heavier, causing roads to be impassable, at the same time as there are no problems in lower elevations. Watson outlined the process of calling a snow day that includes, watching the weather forecast from different sources days before the event followed by communication during the night between Watson and the district Transportation director. “Keep in mind that we have the towns of Olive, Hurley, Woodstock, Shandaken, Lexington and Marbletown to be concerned with,” Watson said, “so we are not going to put buses on the road until we get a favorable response from these communities.”
Public be heard…not answered
West Hurley resident and vocal supporter of the now removed Onteora Indian Mascot Doug Eighmey, complained during the public comment section of the board meeting that public commentary never receives feedback from trustees. “I think this is wrong, very wrong,” he said. “You are here to represent the members of this school district and when they come here to ask questions about what you are doing, resolutions or anything else that you are doing, they deserve an answer.” Eighmey asked why trustees would not answer.
Schnell broke rank, to allow him to speak when public commentary was over and to answer his question. “The Board of Education meetings run under the Sunshine laws, which mean we have to have it public, but public be heard is an option, so we can hear what people have to say and we do consider comments. However it is our meeting and we do not consider public-back-and-forth, unless it’s a forum.” Later during the meeting trustee Ratcliff said, “I believe that what we’re doing is a disservice…we need to make sure the people in the public be heard know that they are here to be heard, not engage in a forum, that they’re here to express their opinions, not to ask questions.” He suggested a copy of the policy and understanding that the public commentary section of the meeting is not a question/answer forum. The policy that outlines public commentary can be found on the district website at onteora.k12.ny.us.