Onteora OK’s board budget after outcry, calls for ‘vision’ and more community

Superintendent Victoria McLaren and board president Kevin Salem.

The Onteora school board unanimously approved a $57,403,498 budget for the coming school year at its April 24 meeting after Superintendent Victoria McLaren withdrew controversial proposals that would have changed the structure of the district’s educational programs. 

Following protests from parents and teachers at previous meetings, as well as from board members who said changes in staffing and class location were out of place in a budget proposal, McLaren sent an email to the “Onteora Community” on April 20 announcing the revisions, and included a new presentation for the April 24 board meeting.

“I have heard you,” McLaren wrote, “and I understand that many of you are feeling that there was not enough dialogue and opportunity for input.” 

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She reiterated the message at the meeting.

“No change that is instituted forcefully can possibly be successful,” she said.

McLaren’s previous budget presentations proposed moving self-contained special education classes from Phoenicia Elementary to Woodstock Elementary, removing co-teachers from special education and science classrooms and reducing the number of sections for next year’s sixth-grade class. 

McLaren also announced, to applause from the audience, that she would not be recommending a reduction in staffing for the social studies department, where part-time teacher Paul Colevas was slated to lose his job, which had prompted impassioned pleas at the previous board meeting from dozens of students and parents in support of Colevas. 

Bennett Elementary special education teacher Melissa Thongs, speaking on behalf of perhaps 20 of her colleagues who stood behind her, thanked the board “for listening to our concerns” about the proposed program changes. 

Parent Lisa Phillips thanked the board and administration for “following [Colevas’] example: hearing the students.”

“We’re incredibly happy,” sophomore Eva Donato said about Colevas.

New technology

McLaren’s new budget proposal highlights transforming three secondary classrooms into “active learning spaces,” with interactive presentation boards, and desks and furniture that could be arranged in various configurations, “not necessarily the traditional classroom with desks in a row,” she told Woodstock Times in a phone interview, adding that the classrooms would be more conducive to working in groups. “We’re recognizing that children learn differently than we felt like they have in the past,” she said. 

The district will also integrate more technology into the classroom, with Apple iPads for kindergarteners and Google Chromebooks as permanent fixtures in first- through sixth-grade classrooms, obviating the need for roving laptop carts, which, along with computer labs, merely “allowed for access and exposure to technology,” McLaren said.

The budget, which will face a public hearing on May 7 and a public vote on May 21, will also fund science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs and apps in elementary classrooms, as well as a “Guided Mathematics” curriculum and corresponding materials.

The budget will spend $190,000 on expanding network bandwidth to accommodate the additional devices, $130,000 of which will be offset by incoming revenue, according to McLaren’s presentation.

The budget would also fund professional development for the new programs, a technology integration specialist, “Social Emotional Learning,” special education, English language learning, “Streamlined Literacy,” “Three Dimensional Learning,” “Equity Work” and “Growth Mindset,” according to the presentation. 

Board Vice-President Laurie Osmond asked McLaren for clarification on the “Growth Mindset” line item, which McLaren defined as “the theory that everyone can grow and continue to learn.” It is, she elaborated, “the power of ‘yet’ — we have not learned that ‘yet’.” As at previous board meetings, Osmond expressed her desire for civics-based curriculum to be more fully integrated into all levels of instruction, one of the board’s goals for the 2018-2019 school year. 

No shrinking of schools

Over a backdrop of declining enrollment and nervous murmurs that the district will close Phoenicia Elementary, as it did West Hurley Elementary in 2004, board members called for more public involvement. President Kevin Salem emphasized the potential role of the Shared Decision Making Committee, comprised of students, teachers, parents and administrators, in shaping a strategic plan and vision statement. 

“Right now, we do not have the vision to guide us,” Salem said. He offered an object lesson using board Trustee Lindsay Shands’ three children, whose time in Onteora schools will span almost 30 years, calculating that during that time the district will have spent $1.5 billion educating 3000 students. 

While the number of students in the district has shrunk, its tax base has continued to grow. Salem, who is one of two candidates running uncontested for the two open board seats up for election on May 21, described the district as having an opportunity for dramatic change. 

“We have got to make a decision about who we are and what our intentions are,” he said. 

“I guarantee you we can change things here much more easily than we’re finding it to do things right now, and we have the budget to do it,” he added, drawing more applause from the crowd of mostly teachers. 

In an email to Woodstock Times, Salem disputed the notion that the solution to a shrinking district is shrinking the schools. His goal, he wrote, is for the district to be “so excellent and so much a part of the community that we start attracting new families.”

Capital projects

The May 21 ballot will also include a proposition to spend $6 million from the district’s capital reserve fund to make bathrooms and other facilities compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, improve athletic fields and partially replace the Bennett Elementary roof, which is leaking, according to a video produced by Ulster BOCES and posted to the district’s website and Facebook page. 

Of the $57 million general budget, $5 million would go toward maintenance, debt service, purchasing busses, and other capital projects including $272,000 for the chemistry lab, and also $478,000 for bleachers and a new press box at the athletics field, which was part of last year’s budget, McLaren wrote in an email to Woodstock Times. That project is separate from the bleacher and athletics field project in the $6 million capital project proposition on the May 21 ballot, she wrote.

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