VCSD board mulls budget, discusses grade inflation

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Taking it in: Trustees C. James Coffin and Diana Straut listen Monday evening as Voorheesville schools Superintendent Brian Hunt goes over budget figures for next year’s spending plan, still in the works.

VOORHEESVILLE — The board heard some good news Monday on closing its budget gap and considered three posts that might be added next year.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal allocates $6.2 million in state aid for Voorheesville — covering about a quarter of the $24 million spending plan — which is a 0.86-percent increase over the current year’s aid. To stay under the state-set levy limit, Voorheesville can increase the levy no more than 2.38 percent; to go over the cap would require 60 percent voter approval.

District leaders hope that the legislature will come up with more state funds for school aid, as it did last year.

Superintendent Brian Hunt said Monday that the $94,000 budget gap predicted in January had been reduced to $24,000, since there would be two retirements instead of one, and since one health-insurance plan is “going away.” This makes it more likely, Hunt said, that the district can add positions.

Hunt went over  three possibilities:

— Adding a kindergarten teacher, for $70,000, because enrollment for next year stands at 81 kindergartners;

— Adding a science teacher, for $70,000, to relieve overcrowding in high school chemistry classes and to let a middle school science teacher teach only middle school courses; and

— Adding four-tenths of a social-studies teaching post to stop overcrowding of high school classes in government, economics, and United States history while allowing the middle school teacher pitching in at the high school to teach solely at the middle school.

Hunt concluded of the gap of $184,000 that would be created if all three positions were added, “That might be a stretch.”

Still, he said, he was “optimistic” about the state aid Voorheesville would receive, and went on to list other possible additions as well.

Hunt also said,  “Our students gravitate toward science” and that he has met with science teachers to find the best way to map out future courses. Doreen Sala, the board’s vice president, suggested posting for a science teacher now, in a non-binding way, so that Voorheesville wouldn’t be caught short if it decides to proceed with hiring one.

“We can do that,” said Hunt.

Sala also said that, even if the state budget is adopted by its April 1 deadline, “I don’t see us making up $240,000.” She asked if anything could be moved out of the budget.

Hunt responded by naming various expensive security measures that might be covered with other funding.

Like Lake Wobegon?

During the public comment period, Rachel Gilker, the parent of a Voorheesville sixth-grader and a soil scientist, pointed out the discrepancy between school grades and standardized test scores.

She said that 90 percent of current Voorheesville sixth-graders have averages of 85 or higher — with 70 percent in the 90s — and yet on the state’s standardized tests for math and English only 20 to 30 percent score in the top category of four, for mastery.

“If everyone’s special, then no one’s special,” said Gilker, quoting a line from the movie “The Incredibles.”

Before grade inflation nationwide, she said, an average grade was C; in Voorheesville, the average is an A or A-, she said. “That tells my kid you don’t have to work hard,” she said, requesting more academic rigor.

She likened it to living in Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town “where all the children are above average.”

With 20 percent of Voorheesville students not taking the required state exams, Gilker pointed out, even if all 20 percent had scored at the highest level, that would still have just 40 percent of Voorheesville students achieving mastery, not the 70 percent with high honors.

“The math doesn’t make sense,” said Gilker of 72 percent of sixth-graders receiving high honors.

Trustee Michael Canfora responded, noting his daughter was going to Duke University and said, “We work our asses off.”

“The board has tasked principals to...really talk about grading in general, to look at the rigor...to be more consistent in how we’re grading our students,” said Jeffrey Vivenzio, the elementary school principal.

“I want my kid to not feel he’s being handed an honor,” said Gilker. “It has to be earned.”

“We will bring it up in front of Curriculum again,” said the board’s president, Cheryl Dozier, referring to a committee.

Sala assured Gilker that seventh grade was harder than sixth grade, and said the district had tried to even out the transitions.

“We doubled the kids that could take accelerated math,” she said, and they they are all holding their own.

“What kind of study could be done across the district?” asked Trustee C. James Coffin.

“We don’t have a policy that dictates that,” said Hunt.

“It’s been raising its face for a lot of years,” responded Coffin.

Twenty-three years ago, in 1994, a widely publicized survey by the New York State United Teachers said teachers were frequently pressured to raise grades so students could be promoted to the next grade, obtain scholarships, or graduate. Teachers reported feeling pressure about students who were close to failing and about honors students trying to get into prestigious colleges.

Most said the pressure was from parents; others named school board members and administrators.

Half of the districts in Albany County responding to the survey said teachers felt pressure to give grades they hadn’t earned. “This was education’s dirty little secret; now it’s out in the open,” said Carl Korn, a NYSUT spokesman, at the time. “We’d like to see school boards, parents, and administrators work together in increasing standards and holding students accountable. We would like to see them held to the highest standards.”

Local teachers discussed varying grading practices used at that time: some graded a student on his individual progress (so that by trying hard and succeeding he might earn a higher grade than a classmate who had done better but made less progress), others graded by comparing a student’s performance to classmates’ (so that grades followed a bell curve), and still others graded against a set of predetermined standards (meaning it would be possible for no one to earn an A or for everyone to earn an A).

At that time, The Enterprise compiled grading trends going back to 1959 for the Berne-Knox-Westerlo, Voorheesville, and Guilderland school districts. Rural BKW had stuck with a traditional grading system — most of its graduates were C students, as they had been for the past quarter of a century.

At suburban Guilderland and Voorheesville, the number of A graduates had steadily increased over the quarter of a century while the number of C students had decreased. Students with an A average had gone from less than 5 percent of a graduating class to more than 15 percent; C students had gone from more than half to less than a quarter while B students continued to make up 30 to 40 percent, and D students stayed under 5 percent.

Playground proceeds

A group of volunteers, Friends of the Voorheesville Playground, has formed to raise $200,000 to replace the quarter-century-old playground at the elementary school.

Vivenzio said that every day children come to his office with little bags that might contain a dollar or 40 cents to go towards the playground, which he called “humbling.”

This week, the Voorheesville Community & School Foundation awarded a grant of $10,000 to the project, also recognizing the students who are planning a danceathon on March 10 to raise more funds. The foundation will match up to $15,000 for all donations and revenues received at the danceathon for a total grant award of up to $25,000 toward the new playground.

The danceathon will be held at the high school from 6 to 9 p.m., said Vivenzio. “Put your dancing shoes on,” he urged the school board, noting the community is invited to the fundraising party.

Later in the meeting, Hunt said that electromagnetic field tests will be taken on the playground by National Grid.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Heard from Hunt that the documentary “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age” — “about use and abuse of screen time and effects on the brain,” he said — was so informative that it was to be shown Tuesday to middle school and high school students as well as faculty;

— Reviewed a draft of a calendar for the next school year that aligns with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services calendar. It includes 179 school days for pupils, three conference days, and three contingency days that can be used in case of bad weather. It also includes a day off on June 15, a Muslim holiday.

The Voorheesville board will wait to approve the calendar until after BOCES does;

— Heard a glowing report from high school Principal Laura Schmitz about outstanding student successes. Emily Skinner won an art contest, sponsored by Clynk, that will see her design displayed on a recycling kiosk at the Voorheesville Hannaford; Kerry Anne O’Neill and Celia Whalen will have their artwork displayed on Clynk trucks. Clynk made a $250 donation to the high school’s art program.

In January, 23 Voorheesville delegates participated in the Yale Model United Nations Conference. Stephanie Erickson received a verbal commendation for her role on the European Union as Portugal and Abby Goldfarb won best delegate for her role as India on the UN High Committee for Refugees.

Thirty Voorheesville students in ninth through 12th grade went to the Science Olympiad Regional Finals on Feb. 4, where Voorheesville came in sixth out of 24 teams and brought home silver medals in Astronomy, Experimental Design, Materials Science, and Microbe Mission. Two ninth-graders, Katie Hampston and Ellie Whiteman, won a bronze medal in “Write It, Do It,” where one student gives written instructions and the other student must build it. Schmitz said most districts have ninth-graders compete at the junior-high level, making Hampston and Whiteman’s success all the more impressive.

Speaking of all the students’ accomplishments, Schmitz concluded by telling the board, “I’m so very proud and you really should be too.”

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