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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 1, 2010

At BKW: No more tiers

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo administration has moved away from its two-tier budget strategy, and amidst an outpouring of public interest, introduced a $19.7-million budget draft Monday.

The governor’s proposal to drastically cut state aid had spurred administrators to propose massive cuts in order to keep the tax rate reasonable, but the cuts have caused a public outcry.

While a school board meeting carried on in the elementary school cafeteria on Wednesday, two-dozen dissenting residents met at the South Berne Congregational Church to plan their next course of action to stop the cuts. The sentiment among those present was that the proposed 7.5-percent tax increase is unaffordable. They wanted to hear more from teachers about making financial sacrifices, and they questioned the need for four administrators.

Beyond the $19.7-million spending total, the most recent budget draft is similar in a number of ways to the tier-1 budget introduced earlier this month: In anticipation of the $1.13-million drop in state aid, it will spend about $57,000 less than the current $19.8-million budget, and there will be a 7.5-percent tax hike — an increase of $737,879.

After hearing the latest from the administration, including details on program cuts from the primary and secondary principals, onlookers at a budget forum on Monday were broken up into seven smaller groups, and floated some ideas of their own on how to improve next year’s budget. Some vocally opposed dividing up the crowd, and one man left the meeting in anger.

The consensus: The cuts are too many and too deep. Some are willing to pay more in taxes to fill in the gap. Some are not. School board member Carolyn Anderson reminded one group that each percentage that the tax levy increases would equate to roughly $100,000 in revenue for the district.

“In order to move forward, we’re cutting a lot of opportunities for kids to move forward,” said Andrea Fortuin, a district parent. Her son, Hunter Fortuin, is a BKW student who attends Tech Valley High School in Troy, which is meant to serve as a model for progressive, project-based learning. The administration had planned on discontinuing this opportunity for students, as tuition for the average BKW student is about $9,000, and is $12,000 for Tech-Valley students. But 65-percent of the Tech-Valley tuition is reimbursed by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, and Interim Superintendent Kim LaBelle said this week that the program may be restored.

Parents said at the forum Monday that they want to see more project-based learning. They want to see their kids get involved in designing the new district website to cut costs and educate their children at the same time. They want targeted community fund-raising; better student supervision during the afterschool 13th period so money can be saved with fewer bus runs; and fewer paper mailings. Households with 10 children often receive 10 copies of a school notice.

Some suggested credit-based mentoring by secondary students of primary students; others said that teachers should be contributing more to their benefits. Many said that district parents should be volunteering to fill in the blanks.

There was a call for more transparency in negotiations between the teachers’ union and the district — “The teachers need to have their feet held to the fire,” one parent said. The teachers are currently working off a contract that expired this past June. This contract outlines 30 steps; teachers on the first step earn $38,350, while teachers on the 30th step earn $86,874.

When The Enterprise called the district office to request a line-by-line copy of the current budget draft this week, the business official, through his secretary, said it was unavailable.

Monday’s crowd heard that the district would likely be eliminating the elementary-school foreign-language program. It also plans to cut all of its junior-varsity teams except for boys’ and girls’ basketball and cheerleading — a third of the athletic program — to save $36,000.

One full-time clerical position, previously announced as being cut, has been restored, but the district is now planning on 18 personnel cuts: a full-time clerical position; a part-time clerical position; a full-time head custodian; a part-time English teacher; a full-time art teacher; a full-time physical-education teacher; a full-time social worker; a full-time foreign-language teacher; a full-time business teacher; two full-time academic-intervention-services (AIS) teachers, who work with struggling students; a full-time special-education teacher; a part-time social-studies teacher; a full-time music teacher; a full-time foreign language teacher; and three full-time teachers’ aides.

All field trips will be cut, as well as drivers’ education, afternoon computer lab hours, all summer courses, and conferences at all grade levels. Children of out-of-district BKW staff members will no longer be allowed to attend school in the district.

Cutting class

At Monday’s meeting, Secondary Principal Thomas McGurl walked the audience through what specific courses would be cut in the high school next year; the middle-school program will not be affected, he said.

The English department will see its mass-media labs, writing labs, and Film and Literature 2 class being eliminated.

“The writing labs will be picked up next year during targeted study halls,” McGurl said. “So, there won’t be a specific class, there won’t be a lab, but what would go on in that lab will still take place.” A targeted study hall is supervised by a teacher who will work with students in a particular subject.

McGurl went on to say that only four students are currently enrolled in Film and Literature 2, and only four students requested the class for next year.

“Again, looking at the overall budget, and the overall impact on the schedule, running a course with four students was not feasible,” said McGurl. “Mass-media lab does have a high enrollment,” he went on, with 15 students currently enrolled, and 21 requesting the course for next year. He did not comment on enrollment for writing labs.

“All core classes in mathematics will remain in the schedule,” McGurl went on, with the only math course cut being statistics. There are nine students enrolled in statistics this year, he said, and 10 requested the course for next year.

McGurl also listed three cuts to the art department.

There are currently 10 students enrolled in the school’s yearbook class. While nine had signed up for next year, there will instead be a Yearbook Club in the coming school year — “A lot of schools handle it that way,” McGurl said.

In addition, Advanced Drawing and Painting will be cut; five students were enrolled this year, and four had requested it for next year. Graphic Design will be cut as well, though 13 students had requested the course next year.

McGurl went on to describe cuts to the business department.

“This list looks very long, and it is, but these are half-year courses,” McGurl said. The nine business courses being cut either had no enrollment for next year or were requested by fewer than 10 students: 21st-Century Computer; Advertising; Financial Applications; Accounting; Agricultural Business; Sports Marketing; Fashion Marketing; Finance for Life; and Microsoft Certifications.

The three business courses with the highest enrollment will be maintained next year: Career and Financial Management, with 42 students enrolled for next year; Marketing, with 31 students; and Computer Applications, with 21 students.

One course that will be cut next year, despite having been requested by 49 students, is drivers’ education.

“We are looking into an outside contractor,” McGurl said, to provide drivers’ education. “There’s significant interest there, but we are looking into other sources to provide that instruction.”

Of changes in class sizes, McGurl said, “People were concerned that enrollment in core classes was really going to expand. In running the schedule thus far, there is no significant increase in enrollment. Most of our core classes will come in, if not exactly where they are, they will be one or two students above that,” meaning each core class will have 24 to 28 students, and physical-education classes will have roughly 30 students, he said.

In conclusion, McGurl said that the enumerated program cuts would not prevent seniors from meeting their requirements for graduation.

Primary Principal Brian Corey outlined cuts in the elementary school, including the elimination of its foreign-language program.

“That program has been in place for two years,” said Corey. “So, that was something that we thought would least impact the program at the elementary school.”

In addition, the number of AIS teachers will be reduced from four to two, but this reduction will not affect class sizes, he said.

“Classroom teachers will be responsible for most of the AIS instruction,” Corey went on, “and we have a committee working right now to kind of re-work and re-structure the process for the AIS program.”

Art and music instruction, he said, will be reduced from two days to one day out of a six-day rotation.

“The reason for doing that would be to actually share the staff with the middle school and high school,” Corey said. “We have aligned with the middle-school-high-school scheduling so that we are able to share staff.”

Shifting athletics

Kevin Callagy, BKW’s business official, briefed the audience on how the proposed sports-program reductions will affect the athletes.

“As we’ve been going through the budget process, balancing kids’ needs versus fiscal responsibility inside the building and within the community…we have looked at mandated things and un-mandated things,” Callagy began. He went on, referring to the sports teams, “Athletics is in one of those areas that is not mandated. However, we all know the value of it.”

The cutting of several junior-varsity teams will result in the shifting around of student athletes. Ninth-graders who have participated in junior-varsity programs that are being considered for elimination would be able to play on the modified team with seventh- and eighth-graders, Callagy said, and 10th-graders will have the opportunity to play on varsity.

When broken into smaller groups, some parents expressed concern about ninth-graders and seventh-graders playing in the same games, due to size difference.

“Granted, there is an impact,” said Callagy, “but we were trying to keep intact the opportunity for those kids in those grades to continue participating in our program.”

The goal of the school board, said LaBelle, is to adopt a budget by April 15, though it has until April 23 to do so. There will be a public hearing on the budget on May 10, and the public will vote on May 18.

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