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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, November 13, 2008

Facing tough times, BKW surveys community and listens to crowd at forum

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — With the state’s financial crisis as a backdrop, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school board surveyed its residents on the quality of the district’s schooling, and held a community forum on maintaining excellence in tough times.

Most respondents to the recent survey believe that BKW schools are teaching the basics effectively, while preparing children for a rapidly changing society. While 72 percent believe the staff is dedicated, professional, and accessible, only 47 percent think the educational programs are of high quality.

“I think it went a long way towards showing how much the board wanted members of the community to participate in the decision making process,” said Superintendent Steve Schrade last week of the Nov. 3 forum. “It helps the board members and administrators understand the thoughts and feelings of the people within the community. In that sense, it’s valuable,” Schrade said.

Upon commencing the community forum, Frank Quinn of the New York State School Boards Association reiterated that the state, like the rest of the country, is in a financial crisis. With state revenue down significantly, the school district faces many budgetary challenges, Quinn said.

Community members in attendance were broken up into four groups, at four different tables in the back of the room, where they shared opinions, and prepared to make recommendations to the board. Each group had its own topic to discuss.

One group discussed how to fiscally maintain quality staffing at BKW to support the ongoing advancement of curricula.

A second group discussed what steps should be taken to improve, or at least preserve, educational offerings while remaining fiscally responsible.

A third group discussed how to balance facility needs, given the approved $12-million-plus budget for building projects.

A fourth group discussed ways in which the district can be sure it is adhering to state requirements regarding testing and reporting practices.

Discussions were cut off at 8 p.m., after which group members spread out across the room. One at a time, a representative from each group stood at the front of the room and summarized conclusions drawn from each discussion.

The first group’s presentation on staffing at BKW led to a discussion about distance learning, which allows students to communicate electronically with teachers at a distant location, in a special classroom fitted with monitors and speakers by which to see and hear the remotely located instructor.

“A list of classes that are available over the distance-learning network are put before the students every year,” Schrade said, “and they can choose from various offerings when they’re signing up for their classes for the coming year.”

One parent inquired about the possibility of consolidating authority of the middle and high school principals into one position. The idea, she said, is to save taxpayers money by paying one salary instead of two. Schrade disapproves of her proposal. “I hadn’t heard this from the members of the public before,” he said. “I honestly would not recommend the board put one administrator in charge of a building with 600 students. I don’t think that’s a good student-to-administrator ratio.”

The second group recommended more of an outreach on the part of the administration for community volunteers, and further dialogues between residents and the school, similar to the recent community survey. Also discussed was the possibility of integrating some of the material from college-level Advanced Placement courses into the regular curriculum, and looking for new revenue streams and grants.

The third group expressed the difficulty they faced in discussing BKW’s facilities due to the unavailability of information on the $12-million building project, which should be made more accessible, they said.

Another economic strategy discussed was the consolidation of districts. Schrade said last week that BKW hasn’t been in communication with any other districts on this recently. “A few years ago, there were some talks with Duanesburg Central School District to see if there was interest in consolidation,” Schrade said.

He listed the following incentives for the consolidation of school districts: “Under current law, if districts are combined, they are given an extra amount of state aid,” Schrade said. “Also, New York State will fund any kind of new building project for a merged or consolidated district up to 95 percent of the cost. The theory is that a merged district would lower central office costs.”

The fourth group proposed electronic communication of student information, such as grades and other marks of student success, and echoed previous requests for a detailed budget breakdown. Forums like this are less effective without this information, the group said.

“The comments and notes that were written out by the attendees are being compiled and organized, and the plan is, either at the next board meeting or the following one, for the administrators to make recommendations to the board based on these comments,” Schrade said. “That is, they’ll look at what’s doable and what’s not, and how it can be incorporated, either immediately or in the long-term, into the [school] board’s goals,” he said.

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