BKW board makes final plea before budget vote next week

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
If Berne-Knox-Westerlo fails to get 60-percent approval of its currently proposed budget, it will have to move to a contingency budget, which could mean cuts to extracurriculars like the school’s esports team, pictured here in 2020. 

HILLTOWNS — A week before district residents will cast their ballots in Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s last-ditch budget vote on June 18, the board of education and superintendent made their final pleas to the community at a board meeting Monday night. 

If the $26 million budget — which has a tax increase of 5.1 percent, above the state-set tax cap — fails to get approval from more than 60 percent of voters, the district will have to move to a contingency budget that has no tax increase, at the expense of programming.

The district had already presented an identical budget to voters that fell short of supermajority approval by just eight votes. Rather than cut the $90,000 or so to bring the tax levy increase beneath the 4.35 percent cap, requiring just a simple majority to pass, the board is banking on getting more supporters out on voting day. 

Superintendent Timothy Mundell told the dozens of attendees who showed up to the June 10 meeting in person and online that the district would choose among the following reductions to reign in the $563,114 deficit that would result from an unchanged levy for the 2024-25 school year:

— Three full-time teachers’ assistants/aides;

— Two full-time teachers;

— A late bus run;

— The deputy treasurer stipend;

— Employee benefits;

— Non-union employee salary increases;

— A graduation ceremony at The Egg;

— School resource officer program;

— Bulldog Club;

— Field trips; 

— Equipment;

— Maintenance projects;

— Transportation for students within two or three miles from the school, depending on grade level; 

— Co-curricular clubs;

— Sports;

— Ready-Set-Go program;

— Chaperoned events;

— Summer student help;

— Community use of facilities;

— Supplies in all areas;

— Information technology support;

— Contract teaching; and

— Overtime and extra wages for staff. 

Board President Kimberly Lovell told the audience that the list was what could be cut — not what definitely will be — and that the board has not yet discussed “what that would look like” if the proposed budget does fail again. But the board made clear that, given the amount of money they would need to save, it “wouldn’t be just one or two things” off the list.  

Deputy Director of Communications for the New York State School Boards Association Al Marlin told The Enterprise in an email that contingency budgets have two constrictions: determination of ordinary contingency budget appropriations and statutory caps.  

Ordinary contingency expenses, he said, are “Defined as the expenditures absolutely necessary to operate and maintain schools (except for those items over which the statutes themselves either provide mandates for or give discretion to the board of education).”

And under the statutory cap, “The overall increase in the total budget, with certain exclusions, is capped at the lesser of 120% multiplied by the inflation rate or 4%,” he said. 

According to a Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) guide, “Determining which items fall under ‘ordinary contingent expenses’ rests with the board of education.”

BKW students have written letters to the Enterprise editor this week and last week to say what sports and clubs have meant to them, urging people to support the budget and keep those things intact. 

“Sports could theoretically be no modified, no junior varsity, maybe varsity, maybe we don’t play away games because of the other expenses there,” board member Matthew Tedeschi said at Monday's meeting. “It could look vastly different.” 

He said that the board would discuss specific cuts at its meeting on June 24, rescheduled from June 17. 

The large audience before the board was almost entirely supportive of the budget, as was the audience when the board held its first meeting after the initial budget defeat.

 

Response from the gallery

Parents on Monday spoke about how the school’s programs benefited their children, and what would be lost if any of it were cut. 

One parent relayed that her daughter had stayed after school 17 times in the past quarter and sought help on the weekends to bring her math grades up “because teachers were available to do that.” Cutting either after-school assistance programming or the late bus would make extra support for her daughter impossible because “I can’t afford an individual tutor for one kid, and I’m not even close to the poor end in this district.”

“It’s not hurting your best and brightest as much as it is absolutely gutting your kids who are just barely making it past, and I think we need to remember that when we’re talking about it,” the parent said. 

Another parent echoed that sentiment by saying that, while special education services are vital for her child, what allows him to “do so well” is “everything else that he has within the school besides the special-education services, so I feel for you that something will be lost no matter what.” 

Not everyone was supportive of the board, however. One attendee said, “We made decisions in the past that were so unnecessary, and now our kids are paying the price for this. Why?” 

She did not specify what decisions she was referring to, and the board did not react to her statement, except to provide enrollment figures when she asked for them.

Helen Marie Lounsbury, a former teacher and board member with the district, asked how the board could “justify a class size of between 12 and 15 with a full-time teacher and full-time aid.”

“It’s what the students in that classroom need,” Lovell replied. “You could have a classroom with five adults depending on what their [individualized education program] states, depending on what services they need, whether it’s speech, [response to intervention] services. It’s not the dark ages. These students are coming to us with their needs and we’re meeting their needs.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, let’s add a staff member here, let’s add a staff member there.’ It’s all based on data and what the students need in that particular class. And that’s why the numbers are fluid, because we don’t just stock a classroom with certain adults; the adults move with the students who need those supports.” 

Board member Nathan Elble said that increased test scores in the district are a result of low class sizes and that abandoning that concept would mean the district was stepping backwards, five years after “being challenged to raise test scores.” 

One parent who identified herself as a Parent Teacher Association member said that kindergarten and sixth-grade classes have about 20 kids in them, while her daughter in fourth grade has a “small class.” 

“But do you get rid of a teacher that’s great because that year you don’t need them, or do you keep your class size a little smaller so you can keep the great people you’ve hired,” she said. “The numbers fluctuate so much that it’s not simple to say just raise the class sizes.” 

Another parent said that “strong schools make strong communities,” and tied the quality of the school district to the local housing market. 

“If you keep your strong schools — testing-wise, low class sizes, giving students what they need — they also bring people into the community, and it helps with your tax base all the way around … It’s going to keep the rural communities afloat,” she said. 

One attendee, whose kids already graduated, said she recently walked through the school and wished they could have gotten the opportunities that are available now.

“We’ve come so far here, and I just hope we can keep what we have,” she said. 

****

The budget vote will be June 18 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the BKW high school auditorium.

 

More Hilltowns News

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  • In a 3-to-2 vote, the Westerlo Town Board got rid of the town’s planning board — which Supervisor Matt Kryzak has described as “rogue” — despite opposition from residents and the Albany County Planning Board.

  • The results still need to be certified by the New York State Board of Elections later this month, but official county-level results show that Janet Tweed, a member of the Delhi Village Board, has eked out a roughly 80-vote win over retired teacher and activist Mary Finneran.

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