Berne-Knox-Westerlo's budget keeps programs intact, 4 layoffs 

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s esports club, will continue to run despite budget cuts, Superintendent Timothy Mundell told The Enterprise. 

HILLTOWNS — At its May 11 meeting, the Berne-Knox Westerlo Board of Education voted unanimously, 5 to 0, to accept Superintendent Timothy Mundell’s budget proposal that has expenses at $23,442,127 and projects a tax levy decrease of about 1-percent. 

Budget

The 2020-21 budget is $440,507 less than the district’s 2019-20 budget — reflecting the anticipated drop in state Foundation Aid due to the recent economic downturn — and $563,344 less than the expenses put forth in Mundell’s $24 million February budget presentation. 

Much of the budget's reduction comes from layoffs, resignations, and retirements. A secondary English teacher, two tutors, and an aid were laid off, Mundell told The Enterprise in an email. In addition, a teacher’s assistant resigned; and a bus driver, maintenance/operations worker, and another teacher’s assistant all retired this year.

Beyond personnel, the budget cuts equipment funding as well as funding for some clubs and a STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math] Camp, among other miscellaneous areas. 

These changes are meant to bridge a gap created by an estimated 10- to 20-percent reduction in state aid to public schools as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Last year, BKW received $10.4 million in state aid. At April’s budget presentation, Mundell had projected that, for the next fiscal year, BKW would receive $10.1 million. By the time the board adopted the budget, aid was projected at about $9.75 million, underscoring the economic haziness imbued by the pandemic. 

“We don’t know if we’re fully in the ballpark or if we’re way out of the ballpark in what we’re projecting to be the possible reductions,” Mundell told the board on May 11. “The perspective that we have taken here is we want to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

“We’ll see what happens when this look-back period is over,” Mundell said, referencing a timeframe when the governor can make changes to school funding based on state revenue. “I think we may be in adequate shape, but let’s make sure we all understand that they’re talking about 10- to 20-percent reductions in aid.”

In the meeting, Mundell explained that the aid reduction is centered around Foundation Aid and confirmed for board member Matthew Tedeschi that transportation aid and other components of the state aid package are not “being tooled with by the state at this time,” as Tedeschi put it. 

“One of the saving graces in our aid run has been our increase in BOCES aid,” Mundell added, referencing the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “Our increase in BOCES aid from 2017-18 to now is a difference between $671,00 and $895,000.” 

Mundell attributed this increase to the school’s participation in BOCES service programs. 

“It’s worked out well for us on the ground,” Mundell said, “but it’s working out well for keeping us stable now, financially.”

 

Changes to voting

Now that the board has accepted the budget proposal, district voters will decide by June 9, through mailed-in ballots, to adopt it or reject it. Typically, if a budget is defeated, a board may put it up for a second vote, retool it for another vote, or move straight to a contingency plan.

On the same ballot, voters will weigh in on two school board candidates and two propositions. 

School board incumbents Nathan Elble and Kimberly Lovell are each running uncontested for their positions. The 3-year posts are unpaid. This year, petitions for a school board candidacy did not include a minimum threshold for signatures, meaning anyone who meets age, residency, and other basic requirements could have self-nominated.

The first proposition is a standard bus replacement authorization that will replace three big buses and two Chevy Suburbans in what Mundell said is “typically a wash” since the bulk of the cost is covered by aid, reserve funds, and the money earned back from sold vehicles. 

“We have this plan and it’s worked out well,” Mundell told the board. “It’s kept our equipment safe and gets our youngsters back and forth to school safely and effectively.”

The second proposition is an authorization to fund an emergency repair reserve by culling from the “overfunded” unemployment reserve. Mundell said that an emergency repair reserve would ideally protect against more expensive repairs down the road. The unemployment reserve has $141,000 in it, Mundell said, while it only needs to carry about $25,000 to satisfy the “claims we typically get.” 

Following an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo, voting will occur via mail, with ballots sent out to qualified voters on May 26. The district will also send out a newsletter on May 26, which supplies voters with information regarding the ballot items. Per the executive order, two rather than four legal notices must be published in the district’s official newspaper.

Mundell told the school board that 10 election inspectors will be present at the school on June 9 to count ballots, as well as accept any ballots dropped off in person. Ballots that are mailed must be delivered to the school by June 9 at 5 p.m., Mundell said, not just postmarked by that day.

These changes drew ire from Tedeschi, who lambasted the governor for forcing districts to incur the expenses of the mailings while the district reels from still-unknown reductions in state aid. 

“I want to go on record as saying that I think this is completely irresponsible,” Tedeschi told the board, “for the governor — in these economic times, because of his decision to handle this virus the way he has — that put undue expense on the district in mailings and all of this stuff. And, in my opinion, it’s going to be way more expensive than just mailing out the newsletter [that] we have to send out ballots to each registered voter because there could be multiple in a household.”

Tedeschi asked if it was possible to send the newsletter in the same package as the ballot, to which Mundell replied that, because the ballots are sent out by another agency that specializes in ballot preparation, it’s unlikely. 

“On the flip side of that,” Mundell said, “the newsletter will be a single page, two-sided, that’s streamlined greatly because of the shortage of timeframe, so I’m not sure if that affects the postage costs at this point.”

 

Schools re-opening

Later in the meeting, Mundell addressed the school reopening in the fall, another area of significant uncertainty nationwide, and announced that a local re-entry planning committee has been formed.

“I think it’s important that we state now, [that] physically,” Mundell said, “the process of schooling is going to look different in September, when we come back to the building. It’s going to look different with social distancing. It’s going to look different with continual cleaning to the standards and expectations that are publicized out there. It’s going to look different in the manner of delivery of instruction. From the playground, it’s going to look different.

“I’m on a sub-group at BOCES of superintendents who are looking at this to frame a large template [and] guidance document,” Mundell said, “for the entire region where local districts can devise their own plan. We do have a local re-entry planning committee that’s already formed, and we’re beginning to look at that document and make our own plans. We’ll be meeting many times over the next few weeks.”

Mundell declined to provide The Enterprise the names of the people on the committee, saying that it was too early for details. 

“I have shared a guidance document with leaders of our various departments,” Mundell told The Enterprise, “but we will need to now consider additional parts of the thought process and include other voices. All things right now are fluid, even as we move information, and implement new directives.” 

In the board meeting, Mundell suggested a marriage of the concepts of re-entry and reimagining education. “Reimagining education” is a notion and phrase used by Cuomo, who announced his partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week to identify the ways technology can enhance learning experiences. 

“We need to take what we’ve learned in terms of remote learning,” Mundell said, “and move it forward. But we also need to recognize that we’re here for children … so we shouldn’t think that reimagining education all of a sudden means we’re going to do remote learning. That’s not the case at all. We just need to be out of the box with our thinking about how we do things internally, how we do things in partnership with other districts and regionally and what that looks like.

“Those are conversations we’ll be hearing more about month-to-month over the next three months or so,” Mundell said, “and I just wanted everyone in the community to be aware of those conversations.”

This discussion again brought out Tedeschi’s apparent frustration with the realities of the coronavirus.

“I hear what you’re saying and I appreciate what you’re saying with regard to the reopening,” Tedeschi said. “And I think it’s important to have a plan. What troubles me is it’s May, and we’re talking about social distancing measures in [September].” 

“I’m only speaking for myself,” Tedeschi said, “but I’m encouraging others as leaders [to speak]. I’m just struggling with this word social distancing. I just hope that we don’t react too soon before we have more data. In the development of those plans, I really think it’s important to have multiple plans that can work with different data as it comes in over coming months.” 

Tedeschi then suggested the importance of being “smart, and not just do whatever.”

“I just see people closing things when they’re months away,” Tedeschi said, “where they don’t need to yet. I think we need to have a plan, but we need to have a plan with multiple scenarios. Not just ‘OK, this is what it looks like in May.’ So I’m just very concerned about that.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, an immunologist and the de facto face of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has warned that the coronavirus will not go away in the fall, and that whenever states do open up again, the measures taken by the public to reduce the virus’s transmissibility will determine the likelihood of future shutdowns.

Additionally, the World Health Organization states that, as of April 24, “no study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to [the virus that causes COVID-19] confers immunity to subsequent infection by this virus in humans,” which means that the concept of “herd immunity” may not apply in this case. 

And with children less likely to show symptoms and therefore more likely to spread the disease, the school environment presents a distinct challenge to communities trying to reduce transmission. 

In his response to Tedeschi, Mundell reasserted the weight on people’s shoulders as they grapple with an unprecedented threat. 

“An old adage that someone told me long ago,” Mundell said, “is you make decisions based upon information in front of you on a given day, understanding and accepting that that information could change tomorrow, and that might require you to change your decision. And that’s a difficult thing for us as humans. We want to know that this is the information, that this is what I’m making my decision on. And that’s just not the case right now.

“The mark of a quality organization,” Mundell continued, “is being able to adapt and shift quickly to changing circumstances. And the ability to do that resides in the ability to plan and be disciplined, and [to] try to see all the possibilities out there, and at least try to have a framework for marching down each path. And whichever path presents itself we become more detailed on that path … 

“But it will look different,” Mundell went on, “and I think we need to talk about that as a community, be vocal about it, but I think also the best ideas about the best practices need to come to the table so that we have our academic program fitting what we see to be the best practices fitting our circumstances here. ” 

 

Other business

In other business, the BKW Board of Education: 

— Voted, 5 to 0, to approve tenures for Annette Landry, the elementary school principal, and Mark Pitterson, the secondary school principal; and

— Voted, 5 to 0, to approve tenure for teachers Michaela Kehrer, Dana Mundell, and Chris Miedema.

More Hilltowns News

  • Berne’s town attorney Javid Afzali informed the town board at its July 22 meeting that the controversial Switzkill Farm property may have been acquired illegally because the 2014 town board did not allow for a permissive referendum following the purchase authorization. Then-supervisor Kevin Crosier tells The Enterprise that no referendum was required.

  • A Black Lives Matter rally planned by Berne resident Laurie Searl has drawn strong criticism on Facebook, leaving some would-be attendants worried about a counter-protest that could turn violent, as has happened both locally and across the country.

  • A state audit has revealed that Knox Town Clerk Traci Schanz failed to deposit more than 300 fee collections within the legally required timeframes and made reporting errors that left the town with an unremitted cash balance of more than $3,000, according to a report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller. Schanz said she is grateful for what she learned from the audit and new procedures have been put in place.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.