Onteora Board, public, challenge budget proposal

Superintendent Victoria McLaren and board president Kevin Salem

Trustees of the Onteora Central School District board of education, along with parents and students, voiced their displeasure over aspects of Superintendent Victoria McLaren’s proposed budget for the upcoming school year at the April 2 board meeting at Phoenicia Elementary. Some expressed concern that that very building might eventually be placed on the chopping block, along with a popular teacher and special education services.

The standing room only crowd, larger than veteran trustee and board vice president Laurie Osmond said she had ever seen at a meeting, included around 20 people who signed up to speak out against the planned firing next year of Paul Colevas, a part time middle and high school teacher of social studies, philosophy and cultural anthropology. In her opening remarks, McLaren seemed to try to mitigate the impending emotional public comment period.

“At this time we actually have made no final decisions,” she said, changing the subject to an alum who recently set a world record for jumping rope. For the next hour, students and parents described Colevas as “the best, most inspiring teacher I’ve ever had,” (Sophie Frank, 9th grade); “the teacher [my daughter] will never forget” (Dannah Chaifetz); and “a friend, not only a role-model” (student Miriam Silver-Altman, who said a 10th-grade assignment on heroes resulted in 28 out of 40 students writing about him.)

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Other parents, like Dafne DeJesus, opposed moving “the most vulnerable of our students” in special needs classes from Phoenicia to Woodstock Elementary, part of the budget proposal. DeJesus’ daughter Stella, who has dyspraxia, a condition that affects coordination, “can barely handle the change of six different bus drivers this year,” DeJesus said, much less a completely different school. “Please don’t put me or any other parent in the position where we have to break our children’s hearts,” she said.

Bennett Elementary Physical Education teacher Matt Ryan, with 16 other teachers who stood in solidarity with him, opposed what the changes to special education programming would mean for class sizes.  “This is not about teachers, jobs or positions. This is about quality of education,” he said.

The proposed “program enhancements” include a resource room for grades K-6, removing special education co-teachers from science and social studies classes, and relocating Stella and 11 other students in two self-contained classrooms. 

Trustee Osmond questioned the appropriateness of including the changes in a budget proposal rather than as separate agenda items. McLaren defended them, saying it had been done in the past.

The ‘smallest school’ 

Several people, like Phoenicia parent Sharon Lipovsky, wondered aloud at the hearing if the reductions in Phoenicia’s enrollment “are really an indicator that Phoenicia will close?”

“What is the vision?” Lipovsky asked.

The district’s enrollment has declined steadily in recent years, which members of the administration and staff have attributed to a lack of jobs and affordable housing in the area. Phoenicia principal Linda Sella said hers has “always been the smallest school” but has held steady recently at around 140 students, and that while closing it seems to come up every time budget season rolls around, she wasn’t aware of it being part of any serious discussion, even though “people assume there’s an intent.”

“I think people are concerned about the district as a whole,” she said, admitting that she does think “there will be changes” to her staff.

Closing the Phoenicia school is not a new idea, and has been murmured about for at least ten years, according to Osmond, who ran for the board with fellow trustee Rob Kurnit on a pro-Phoenicia platform around a decade ago. Nevertheless, Osmond was wary Tuesday about removing a “significant population” of the school, which she said looked like “siphoning.”

The board will first have to approve the budget later this month. It will host a public hearing on May 7, followed by a vote of the public on May 21. Board President Kevin Salem, along with Osmond and Kurnit, expressed reluctance to accept the budget as is, saying the process by which it and the program changes were announced was inconsiderate to the school community.

“This is not being done in a way that is allowing us to do our job, which is vote on a budget,” Salem said. Trustee Robert Burke Warren remarked on the “significant outcry from people advocating for children,” saying the potential changes looked “like something that could ultimately lead to the shuttering of the [Phoenicia] school.”

Trustee Lindsay Shands said the public’s concern was valid. “Big changes are coming because our district is shrinking,” she said, adding that the board only gets “huge groups” at its meetings “when something insane is about to happen.”

Capital project in budget

McLaren, in her budget proposal, is requesting additional expenditures of $1,825,920 more than this year’s $55 million. The board also voted Tuesday to include on the May 21 ballot a $6 million capital project to bring the middle school and high school into compliance under the Americans with Disabilities Act, make improvements to athletic facilities, and repair the Bennett Elementary roof, all of which would be paid for with capital reserve funds at no additional cost to taxpayers, McLaren said.

She also proposed a $162,161 cut in spending on instruction, and $104,083 less for operations and maintenance. The lion’s share of the spending increase would go toward employee benefits — just over $1 million — and transportation, which would jump $691,641 (16 percent) following the district’s recent bid for new bus contracts, in which long-time local provider Arthur F. Mulligan, Inc. was beat out by First Student, Inc., a subsidiary multinational Scottish transportation company FirstGroup. The bus contract depends on approval of the budget vote. If it is defeated, a second vote would be held on June 18, which, if defeated again, could trigger a contingency budget in which next year’s tax levy would remain at current levels, purchasing of equipment would be disallowed along with a property tax rebate, and First Student’s five-year contract would be reduced to one.

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