Local public school districts are accustomed to working within in shifting landscapes, frequently using aid estimates as they develop complex spending plans. But as New York State continues grappling with the pandemic, proposed budgets are being crafted by school officials in an entirely new climate. One major hurdle is that state aid may be reduced in the middle of the school year due to revenue shortfalls.
“We’re really voting on a budget now that may not be the budget that we live with when we operate our school next year,” said Kingston schools superintendent Paul Padalino during a virtual school board meeting on Friday, May 15. “This budget may not be the budget that we live with. And the budget that voters vote on may not be the budget that we have to live with.”
Local school districts are sending paper ballots through the mail, with any vote returned by Tuesday, June 9 at 5 p.m. counting. As in the past, budgets falling within the state-mandated tax cap will pass with a simple majority/ Spending plans seeking a higher local tax increase than the state cap would need a supermajority of 60 percent or higher.
Local residents will also vote for open seats on their school boards. Except in New Paltz, the outcome is all but determined, with candidates equaling the number of available terms. As for when results in budget votes and School Board elections will be revealed, no one is certain. Though ballots will be received sporadically over the next two weeks, they cannot be opened until after the June 9 deadline.
Counting will depend, according to Kingston district clerk Camille DiPerna, upon how many of the roughly 33,000 ballots sent out are returned. “I have a team [of 35 people socially distanced somewhere on school grounds] ready to work to help me to count them, but we’ve never done it before,” DiPerna said. “I know from doing other paper ballots at the library that it takes three of us about two hours to do 200 ballots. So it really depends upon how many we get back. I’m not comfortable saying we’re going to get it done the next day. It may take us three days to get through it. I just don’t know.”
School officials are touting a $187.4-million budget that maintains programs and extracurricular activities and doesn’t include reductions in staff. The spending plan is an increase of 3.65 percent over the 2019-20 budget, and includes a tax-levy increase of 1.73 percent. The budget can be approved by the voters by a simple majority.
The proposed spending plan is based on state aid totaling $64.92 million, an increase of 2.3 percent over the current school year’s aid total. That figure may be reduced periodically during the 2020-21 school year depending upon revenue shortfalls. According to Padalino, the district has factored in three potential levels of cuts depending upon the severity of aid reductions from the state. “The first tier would be a little less painful than the second and the third tier,” he said. “If we get into a 15 to 20 percent reduction in state aid, obviously that’s a serious number. You know, that’s a $6-million kind of thing.”
There are three candidates for three seats. Priscilla Lowe, the board’s incumbent vice-president, retired as a Kingston teacher in 2013 after 32 years. Nora Scherer, another incumbent seeking a fourth term on the school board, is also a retired Kingston teacher. Cathy Collins is an associate professor of biology at Bard College with no previous school-board experience.
What motivates you to want to serve on the Kingston School Board? – My adult daughters graduated from Kingston High School in the Nineties, and now two of my four grandchildren attend Kingston schools. For them, and for all students, teachers, staff and the community, I want to see the quality of education continue to improve, to make sure the safety and security of our students is always top of mind, and to improve the attendance and graduation rates.
What skills do you bring to the work? – I’m very focused on making sure that everyone is heard. I regularly get phone calls or emails with questions or issues and I work very hard to find out the answers. I know the district and the community very well so I feel like I can be a good liaison between the two and advocate for change. I’m persistent and also not afraid to be the only lone vote on something even when it might not be a popular answer, but I feel like it’s the right thing for the district. I spend a great deal of time and energy making sure I thoroughly understand an issue before any vote.
What do you see as the greatest challenge the district faces at this time? – Before Covid 19, I would’ve said the challenges we are facing around keeping kids in school and improving our graduation rate, as well as ensuring the safety and security of our students and staff were the most important challenges. While they are still critically important, navigating distance learning and the challenges with food insecurity in our district, as well as the differences in learning in our students is a huge challenge, too.
What would you like to see the board accomplish over the next few years? – I would like to see the board focus on plans to make sure that distance learning is working for all students and staff, that every student has the food they need, support from the district, and that the return to school is safe for everyone. I’d also like to continue to see us address security, attendance and the graduation rate as well.
What motivates me to serve on the Kingston School Board? – As a parent, a teacher, a taxpayer and now a senior citizen, I believe I have a rather comprehensive understanding of the importance of education and the integral role that a school district plays in preparing students for their futures while at the same time I know it is also important to be sensitive to the economic realities of a community. My entire adult life has been dedicated to education, specifically the education of students in the Kingston school district.
In my tenure on the board, I have been proud to be part of a team that has faced downsizing the school district, merging elementary populations of both students and faculty in a thoughtful manner; has opened a new dual language pre-school hub; has repurposed all the district school buildings that were closed; and has brought in every budget since 2012 at or below the allowable increase to the tax levy.
What skills do you bring to the work? – I am always willing to work hard. I know that education is crucial to insuring that our young people reach their potential. I have a strong background in education and have gained knowledge in both facilities management and finance in my work on the board.
What do you see as the greatest challenge the district faces at this time? – Right now, we are facing a pandemic which has abruptly and significantly altered the way we deliver instruction and other services. It is a challenge to make sure that we can continue to provide all of this in an equitable fashion.
What would you like to see the board accomplish over the next few years? – Continuous progress has been our motto. I would of course like to see that continue. We have made steps toward increasing diversity in staff and administration and that should be supported. Early college efforts should be expanded. Dual language pre-K classes should be expanded to early grades. Online instructional capabilities need to be fortified. Social emotional health for students and all staff – especially in the face of our current challenge – must be supported and networks with community partners need to be reinforced. And with everything – we need to be flexible and responsive.
What motivates you to want to serve on the Kingston School Board? – I am an educator by profession and a parent of a kindergarten student in Kingston. I am passionate about education and want to serve and support KCSD.
What skills do you bring to the work? – As a scientist, I am adept at synthesizing and evaluating data, a valuable skill for making evidence-based decisions. I have managed large-scale, long-term scientific projects with substantial budgets and multiple staff members. The success of these projects relies on effective collaboration. I value open communication and transparency, and thrive when I am working closely with a team to articulate and achieve a common goal.
What do you see as the greatest challenge the district faces at this time? – We need to maintain our existing strengths in the face of considerable uncertainty. The Covid 19 crisis has disrupted learning in unprecedented ways. KCSD responded swiftly and creatively to the immediate pressures. Looking forward, we need to put careful thought into how we reopen schools, paying attention not just to academic excellence, but also supporting the physical, emotional, and social well-being of students and staff. The budget will be especially tight, making it even more challenging to achieve these goals.
What would you like to see the board accomplish over the next few years? – In addition to maintaining our existing strengths, I would like to reduce the achievement gaps that exist among students from different backgrounds in our diverse community. I would like to see the district recruit diverse faculty members, and provide adequate support to retain them. Providing resources for ELL education, bilingual programs, and pre-K education remain key priorities.