Summer school, classroom and support staff to feel the pinch
By Michael Turton
The going is not getting any easier as trustees and administrators continue to inch closer to a final spending plan for the Haldane Central School District for 2013-14. The first set of numbers put forward by the administration in December estimated that $409,000 in cuts would be required to keep the district within the state-imposed tax cap. At its Tuesday (Feb. 26) meeting, new figures presented by Superintendent of Schools Mark Villanti indicate that cuts will now total $535,000. The reason? Recent increases in insurance premiums, Teacher Retirement Savings contributions and Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) expenses.
Tax rate increase estimated at 2.83 percent
Nothing is final yet, but the current spending plan would result in a budget-to-budget increase of 1.23 percent, with total spending of $22,196,872, resulting in an estimated tax rate increase of 2.83 percent. Total funds raised through the tax levy would be $18,082,353 — an increase of $619,849 over last year. Villanti and School Board President Michael Junjulas both stressed that the tax rate increase is approximate. The actual figure will not be known until August, when property assessment values for Philipstown are finalized.
“We do our damnedest to get the [tax rate increase] number as close as possible,” Junjulas said. “In six years we’ve never presented a tax rate increase [in August] above what we’ve went to the public with,” Villanti added.
Where they’re cutting
Villanti, whose demeanor is usually rather jovial at School Board meetings, was visibly upset as he presented the latest budget picture. His voice quivered as he outlined the anticipated cuts in spending, which include the elimination of summer school, a savings of $25,000; a $163,250 cut in classroom instruction; and a $108,048 reduction in support staff spending. Other areas being trimmed include benefits related to staff reductions, supplies and equipment, athletic supplies and equipment, and operation and maintenance expenses.
A reduction of $150,000 in special education spending is actually a positive. Villanti explained that there would be no reduction in services provided and that the reduced cost is largely due to a special eduction consortium developed in partnership with the Garrison Union Free School District.
“I’m an emotional person,” Villanti said. “If occasionally you see my emotional side, it’s because it’s painful. It’s painful to work hard to create a great school district, and then have things [impact it] that are out of our control.”
Villanti said that he would not announce in public which staff will be affected by cuts but will hold one-on-one conversations with those involved when the time comes. There are still a number of unknowns that will affect final staffing decisions, including the size of the incoming kindergarten class. Low enrollment could mean that the teacher who is retiring would not have to be replaced, resulting in a savings of more than $60,000.
When a parent in the audience asked if kindergarten might be cut entirely, Junjulas replied, “Kindergarten is not mandatory” as dictated by the state, but such a move was “not on the table this year.” Villanti said that if the trend in reduced state aid for education continues, “Everything is on the table.”
Other likely cuts include replacing a full-time French teacher, who is retiring, with a part-time position, along with reductions in spending on teachers’ aides. In the support area, cuts may be made to bus drivers, with employees who do both cleaning and driving picking up the slack.
“It’s grim; it’s what we predicted last year,” Trustee Peter Henderson said. “But I’m surprised cuts aren’t even more severe.”
Henderson said that the reductions are disconcerting, in the face of a number of fundamental needs that he feels the district should address, and listed such items as increased Internet bandwidth, greater information technology support, meeting requirements for online testing, professional development, and a targeted internal audit.
Junjulas and Villanti urged residents to view a short video produced by the New York State PTA explaining the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment and its impact on public education. The video can be viewed online at nysptapresident.blogspot.com.
iPads by the cart or one per student?
High School Principal Brian Alm made a detailed presentation, outlining options for the district’s expanded use of iPads in class. The iPad Project began two years ago as a pilot effort and has been praised by all involved. The district will now likely choose between either purchasing a third cart of 50 iPads, which teachers could sign out as needed for classroom use — a one-year expense, or purchase 30 to 60 of the tablets annually until each student in grades 10 through 12 has an iPad for individual use, much like textbooks have traditionally been made available. Villanti and Alm both favor the latter approach. Alm stressed that “ubiquity empowers learning,” with each student having an individual tablet to treat as their own during the school year.
Trustee Henderson vacillated, suggesting that while the day is not far off when every student will use a tablet, he said the question is, “How to get there?” He suggested that the district consider “smaller steps” first, such as purchasing two carts, each with 50 iPads. He also commented that the program as proposed leaves elementary and middle school students out of the mix.
School Board Vice President Gillian Thorpe disagreed and supported the one-tablet-per-student proposal. “I’ve been for it the whole time,” she said. “I trust the professionals we’ve hired. You have to start somewhere, and they’re asking us to let them start. You don’t ever know until you jump in.”
Villanti said he hopes a decision can be made by the second meeting in March. An additional option was presented that would allow families to buy an iPad through the district at a discount. Villanti said if that route is chosen, he wants to give families time to plan for such a purchase.
In other business
A lockdown drill was held at Haldane on Tuesday, Feb. 26, as part of the district’s security initiatives in the wake of the killings at Sandy HookSchool in Newtown, Conn. Villanti said that the drill, which included a number of monitors, was a success and that feedback has been very positive. “There will be some things to improve on,” he said.
The idea of having a three-hour delay as an option instead of choosing between only a two-hour delay or outright closing of the school when weather conditions warrant was raised by Junjulas. Such a move would help salvage part of the school day in situations when bad weather in the morning improves. He said a three-hour delay would have been very effective during a recent weather event. Villanti said that introducing a three-hour delay mid-year would create confusion.
Three Haldane teams — girls basketball, boys basketball and girls winter track — recently received Scholar Athlete Team Awards. The boys track team missed out by the slimmest of margins — a half point. Spring sports begin in two weeks.
Villanti and Junjulas recently visited the Schodack Central School District, just southeast of Albany, to take a close look at a solar energy project initiated there. A private company offers a program that provides school districts with discounted electricity for 20 years — at no cost to the district. Installation and maintenance is the responsibility of the company, while the district purchases the electricity generated by the solar panels. Company representatives will make a presentation at the Haldane meeting on March 19. Villanti said that the program, which has a strong education component, provides a high-profile presence for the company in communities whose schools initiate such a project.
Photos by M. Turton