At New Paltz school budget forum, residents voice support new wellness center

The New Paltz Central School District Board of Education devoted their entire regular meeting of Wednesday, March 27 to a community budget forum. Many more people than usual attended the session, with two prominent themes emerging: the school community’s desire for smaller class sizes and overall support for the proposed Wellness Center.

Proposed Wellness Center at the high school

Budgeting to create a Wellness Center was broached in public for the first time at the board’s March 13 meeting, although Superintendent of Schools Maria Rice said it has been discussed behind the scenes for the past two years, with the main question being how to fund it. At the last BOE meeting, a one-time ask of $300,000 to create the center was proposed, with the funding coming from the district’s appropriated fund balance. The budget proposal since then has been amended to a $150,000 ask for the 2019-20 school year and the same amount in the following school year, with an additional $50,000 requested in the upcoming budget for playground equipment at Duzine Elementary School.

The Wellness Center proposed for the high school has been put forward as something to be used by all students — not just athletes — during the course of their required physical fitness classes and potentially after school, although the matter of who would staff and supervise the facility in that case has not yet been determined. The district has received an unfunded mandate from the state to ensure its students’ mental and physical well-being, with the Wellness Center intended to offer opportunities for stress relief and all the other benefits of physical fitness. “It was designed and created around a curriculum and a need,” Rice said. The facility is currently planned to include 42 stations for working out with a separate area for activities such as yoga and stretching. 

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If the board approves the creation of a Wellness Center, it will bring with it a $50,000 budget line item that will appear on the budget every year after, to be used for maintenance and replacement of athletic equipment in the Wellness Center as needed, although with the facility containing new equipment, it would likely be several years until anything in the center needed maintenance.

Several of the attendees at the budget forum who stood to speak in support of creating a Wellness Center bolstered their argument with petitions signed by hundreds of other community members. Two speakers were representative of the school’s physical fitness program and several were students, who spoke of their past mental health issues and how such a center would have helped them in a time of crisis. One mentioned the value of yoga and mindful meditation classes in a dedicated space.

But others noted that the students may have misunderstood the eventual function of a Wellness Center, in that staffing has not yet been determined to supervise the space after school, so there was no promise of instructors who would offer mindful meditation sessions. One speaker also brought up the fact that yoga would be a difficult practice in the center unless it was completely separated from the noise of students working out on the gym equipment. Another said that a committee should be formed to audit the wellness support available at all four schools.

And while nobody spoke against the creation of a Wellness Center, with all the speakers acknowledging the well-documented benefits of physical fitness to both mind and body, several voiced concern that what is essentially the creation of a gym on campus ignores the value of the arts as a form of wellness support for students who are not drawn to athletics. Community member Elise Gold, whose family started the Maya Gold Foundation in support of student mental health after her daughter took her own life in 2015, beseeched the board to consider offering more arts programs as a means to foster the wellness of students. Another speaker endorsed the notion of calling the space a “Fitness Center” rather than a “Wellness Center,” suggesting that it was a more accurate term given the many forms that wellness support could take.

Support for smaller class sizes in elementary schools

The other big issue supported at the budget forum was the desire of parents to ensure small class sizes, particularly at the kindergarten and young elementary stages. Three of the elementary school teachers from New Paltz are retiring this year, and as of now, their replacement is not budgeted for. Class sizes in the elementary schools are projected for next year at approximately 20-21 per kindergarten class, 22-23 in first and second grades, 21-22 in third grade and 23-24 for fifth grade classes, said Rice at the last board meeting.

A number of speakers who identified themselves as kindergarten teachers spoke of the value of having a maximum of 18 students in their classes. Several parents, some armed with petitions signed by many others, stood to speak in agreement, noting the growth and progress they’ve seen in their own children when classes are small. This year, Rice noted, the kindergarten classes did have just 18 students, and she said the board had already spoken with her since the last meeting about ensuring smaller class sizes.

The budget does currently call for the hiring of an integrated technology teacher and more administrative support staff. Assistant Superintendent of Business Richard Linden is retiring in December, and some of the work he currently does needs to be allocated to others next year. The need for state testing formerly handled by the county, now shifted to the school districts, also brings an increase to that area of the budget.

The Board of Education will finalize and adopt a budget at their next meeting on Wednesday, April 10. The current proposal is for a $63,750,000 million budget for the 2019-2020 school year with a 3.8 percent tax levy. If adopted by the board, the budget will require a simple 50-percent-plus-one voter approval because the tax levy limit this year, including the purchase of buses, is 4 percent. (The “two percent tax cap” required by the state to pass a budget with a simple majority is not really two percent, because it is dependent upon a complex formula with ten different factors that includes calculating in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The 3.8 percent tax levy is the overall tax levy for the district, with individual tax rates controlled by assessments and equalization rates not determined until August.)

The budget calls for the purchase of six buses, but there will not be a separate bus proposition this year because of a change in the way the tax levy is calculated. The proposed budget includes a line item of $490,000 for the purchase of three 65-passenger buses, one 20-passenger bus, one wheelchair-accessible bus and one school car for small groups.

The vote will be on Tuesday, May 21, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Questions may be addressed to Richard Linden, assistant superintendent for business, by calling (845) 256-3010 or emailing rlinden@newpaltz.k12.ny.us.

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