Onteora school budget passes easily, but low turnout a concern

Phoenicia Elementary was one of three polling places for the Onteora budget and school board vote (Jacob Anderson)

With what appears to be the lowest turnout in at least the last ten years, voters in the Onteora School District approved both spending propositions and board candidates Tuesday, passing the coming school year’s $57,403,498 budget with 406 voting yes to 192 no, a $6 million capital project 455 to 141, and confirming newcomer Dafne DeJesus and incumbent president Kevin Salem as board trustees with 436 and 443 votes, respectively.

The capital project will 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.

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The 598 total budget votes — out of approximately 11,000 registered voters, according to the district — come as the board and administration have expressed concern over declining enrollment and the need for greater community engagement. The voters that did show up echoed those worries.

“It’s scary,” said Olive resident Rob Shultis at Bennett Elementary, one of three polling sites, where he voted yes on both propositions and board candidates. “It’s just sad that you get to that point and see the decline.”

The district’s budget, tax levy and tax base, by contrast, all increased this year, suggesting what many residents have sensed for years — second-home purchases and short-term rentals through websites like AirBnb are up.

“You don’t have the sense of community,” added Shultis, whose children graduated from Onteora.

Tammany Haynes of Mount Tremper, who has a child who graduated from the district, an eleven-year-old currently in the district, and one about to start Kindergarten, also voted yes down the ballot, and said she hopes to see more of an emphasis on music, arts and vocational training, as well as on keeping class sizes small and paying teachers more.

Haynes described her oldest child as having special needs, and said she admired DeJesus, whose daughter is in a special-education classroom at Phoenicia Elementary, for her good grasp of the “practical” issues that arise in managing a child’s education. While DeJesus has said she felt overlooked by district administration, especially with their proposal —eventually withdrawn — to move her daughter’s program to Woodstock, Haynes, a nurse, said “it does seem like they are truly interested in the children.” Her concern is about the demographic shifts in the district.

“Supposedly we’re the new Hamptons,” she said, wryly. “I’m hoping it’s not just about second homes.”

She said she worries that families moving with young children may opt to send them to private schools. She hopes that the district will become “more affluent in the most positive way.”

“All that money coming from Brooklyn has got to go somewhere,” she said.

Marilyn Wakefield, who voted yes to all at Woodstock Elementary, recalled years when the budget did not pass, and having to buy school supplies and provide transportation for her children, now grown. “I think that defeating the budget causes more problems,” she said.

Transportation in a huge district

Some said the low turnout reflected a relative lack of controversy over this year’s budget.

Bearsville resident Barry Price said he sees the lack of competition for the two open board seats as, in some ways, “a good sign.”

“I’m happy with the people who are there so I don’t have any complaints,” Price said of the board, which he described as “thankless work.” He was president of the board at Woodstock Day School, which his son attends. His daughter, a graduate of Onteora, “had a successful time here,” he said.

“Either it’s confidence or apathy,” said Tom Rinaldo in Phoenicia, where he has lived since 2002, adding that shrinking enrollment would put more pressure on the district to consolidate schools. “That could be a problem,” Rinaldo said.

William Wallace, who has a daughter and two step-daughters in school and declined to share how he voted, said one of his concerns is that the district might shut down Phoenicia Elementary, like West Hurley Elementary in 2004. (The closure of the West Hurley polling site this year caused some grumbles as well.)

Catherine Wildermuth, who taught in the former Head Start program on the Phoenicia campus and had children in the district in the seventies, also remembered the transportation problems that arose a year the budget was defeated. For the upcoming budget, bussing costs jumped around 30 percent as part of the district’s contract with new provider First Student, which is offering staggered $2000 signing bonuses in an effort to attract and keep bus drivers amid a national shortage. The logistical challenges that it, like Birnie bus company before it, is likely to face, are compounded by Onteora’s topographical size, one of the largest areas in the state, all the more reason not to close a school, Wildermuth said. “I think the closer [the students] are to where they live the better,” she said.

Even now, the trip from Bellayre Mountain, the westernmost edge of the district, can be a challenge, especially for younger students, according to Becca Frank, a pediatric occupational therapist on the Committee for Preschool Special Education who works with young children in the district. “I think it’s good that they have a [special education] program in each school,” Frank said, adding, “some students have to ride the bus for a really long time for their age.”

“My base hope is that Phoenicia stays open,” she said.

The board’s agenda for its meeting during the vote included an hour-long presentation by consultant Kevin Baughman on “school utilization and configuration,” whose handout detailing the scope of services provided included “possible re-purpose (uses) of any possible closed building.”

Summarizing Baughman’s presentation, board vice-president Laurie Osmond said “very often he will include doing nothing or keeping the status quo.”

Osmond said closing a school can have a “resounding impact” across the community, and that it “is something the district should do very cautiously and only after exploring all the options.”

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