Seven out of ten voters in the school elections this Tuesday in the combined Kingston, New Paltz, Onteora and Saugerties districts supported the 2023-24 budgets presented to them in the Tuesday, May 16 voting. But the Onteora district voters at the same time expressed their displeasure with the announced closing of the elementary school in Phoenicia and the likely closing of the elementary school in Woodstock by ousting two incumbent board members — and a possible third if affidavit votes don’t give board president Emily Sherry a big boost — while electing two opponents of the closings on the ballot and possibly a write-in candidate who held similar views. It was a stunning repudiation, giving opponents of the closings four members on the seven-member board.
In unofficial results, voters approved the district’s $219,540,208 budget for the 2023-24 school year by a margin of 2289 to 974, with the spending plan sweeping all seven polling places in the district. The spending plan is $16,416,700, or 8.08 percent higher than the 2022-23 budget, and comes with a 2.95 percent tax levy increase, below the maximum allowable levy of 3.23 percent.
“It just obviously shows how much the community values education and value the Kingston City School District and what we do for kids,” said superintendent Paul Padalino.
Voters also supported the district’s five-year $162.5-million capital plan, which would use $10 million in capital reserve and be supported by the district’s roughly 75 percent state building aid formula for a project in part designed to upgrade HVAC systems across the district. The proposal won easily by a margin of 2212 ro 1005.
“Three, four years down the road, we’ll have all of our schools exactly where they need to be to serve this community for the next 50 years,” said Padalino.
In the district’s school board elections, challengers Marc Rider (1975) and Jennifer Fitzgerald (1825 votes) along with incumbent Cathy Collins (1687) won the three open seats. Incumbent Priscilla Lowe (1379) placed fourth and will close out the remaining year of James Shaughnessy’s term after the former trustee decided to step down last month. Also earning votes were Rose Desanges-Belfort (1299), Ryan Van Kleeck (1269) and Fabiana Weiss Furgal (1139). Dan Gruner picked up 622 votes as a write-in candidate.
Voters in Saugerties easily approved the district’s $71,192,559 budget for the 2023-24 school year by an unofficial tally of 933 to 417. Under the budget, spending will increase of $4,765,843, or 7.17 percent, over 2022-23. The budget includes with a tax levy increase of 3.96 percent, the maximum allowed by the state for the district to be able to pass with a simple majority.
Interim superintendent Dan Erceg said he was pleased with the support, particularly through the lens of a first-time district leader. “Especially after all the changes that we’ve gone through over the past year, I think it shows that the community is still behind us and values what we do for our kids,” Erceg said.
Two challengers received the most votes for three open seats on the school board, with Carole Kelder (922) and Jeffrey Riozzi (890) picking up strong support. Incumbent Timothy Wells will keep his seat on the school board with 678 votes. Andrea Viviani’s 643 votes would not be enough to overcome Wells even if all 29 affidavit votes were cast for her. Ashley Sanders (407) was also on the ballot.
The district also conducted an informal paper-based exit poll in an effort to get a sense of what is important to people who live in Saugerties. Erceg said they planned to publish the results after they’re tabulated over the next few weeks.
New Paltz district voters overwhelmingly approved a $71,428,660 budget for 2023-24 by a margin of 1,012-274. The spending plan sees an increase of $2,429,567, or 3.5 percent, over the 2022-23 budget.
New Paltz was dealt one of the lowest allowable tax-levy increases in the area by the state, just 1.23 percent, or $579,214, roughly one-third of what districts like Kingston, Saugerties and Onteora were permitted through the state’s complex calculations. After trustees initially considered going over the levy limit — which would have required a supermajority of at least 60 percent to pass — they opted instead to ask administrators to come up with a spending plan that stayed within the 1.23 percent increase. That was achieved by adding $1.9 million in fund-balance reserves, as well as reductions of $2,535,073, including some staff cuts.
Four elementary school teachers, four special education teachers, one administrative position, and two teaching aides were cut from the original budget plan. An additional $200,000 was found by not filling various vacant positions, and two retiring high school teaching positions with a combined salary of $308,000 will also remain unfilled.
“It was a difficult one, and we made a lot of hard choices,” said superintendent Stephen Gratto. “But the board came together nicely to make good decisions, and it’s great that the community appreciates the hard work they did and the final product.”
There were no incumbents running for reelection in New Paltz, and the two open seats were filled by Liz Bonhag (786) and Heather Kort (564). Challengers Jason Clark (436) and Joseph Londa (362) rounded out the ballot.
Over the past few weeks, voters in the Onteora district appeared divided over the district’s plans to close Phoenicia Elementary School at the end of the 2023-24 school year, as well as establishing an eventual central campus in Boiceville that would house all students in grades k-12 by 2028, plans that were approved by the school board on Tuesday, May 2. The decision came in the wake of a rapid decline in student population of around 1000 students over the past decade, and many believe it could also lead to the eventual closure of Woodstock Elementary School as well.
The district had three open school board seats on the ballot this week, with all three incumbents voting for the closure plan. At least two of those incumbents lost to a pair of challengers critical of the district’s plans, with David Wallis (686) and Kristy Taylor (777) ousted, and insurgents Emily Mitchell-Marell (1144) and Clark Goodrich (1143) sworn in before the long post-election meeting was adjourned.
With 55 affidavit votes still to be counted as of press time, board president Emily Sherry (878) could still overtake write-in challenger Caroline Jerome (924). Jerome, Mitchell-Marell and Goodrich were collectively endorsed by community advocacy group called Onteora Parents Engaged Now (OPEN).
Superintendent Victoria McLaren said it was healthy to have trustees with differing opinions.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “The more voices you get into a discussion, the more productive the outcomes will be. And these people have all shown that they’re dedicated and passionate, and what more could we want in board trustees?”
Onteora’s $61,322,550 budget for the 2023-24 school year passed by a margin of 1372 to 454.
The spending plan is an increase of $1,300,911, or 2.22 percent over 2022-23. The proposed tax levy increase comes in at just 2.0 percent, nearly half of the allowable increase under the state tax cap formula. The district achieved this in part by using $3,270,000 in appropriated fund balance.
“It just absolutely reiterates the incredible graciousness of this community and their support for our district,” said McLaren. “It’s incredibly, fulfilling, and I am so grateful that the community supports us in this way.”
Nearly half of the budget proposal, 47.67 percent, falls under the instructional umbrella, with employee benefits at 32.2 percent, transportation 8.89 percent, operations and maintenance at 5.39 percent, general support 3.77 percent, and debt service, community service and inter-fund transfers 2 percent.
Two other propositions on the ballot also received significant support. A proposal for an $8.8 million capital improvement project passed 1,501 to 337, and the creation of a Capital Reserve Plan for a maximum of $10 million over the next decade passed 1338 to 457.