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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 22, 2010

In the midst of uproar, BKW board adopts $19.7M budget

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, after a month of public pressure to avoid deep program and staff cuts, adopted a $19.7-million budget for the 2010-11 school year last night. This spending plan would raise the tax levy 6.7 percent, and will be up for public vote on May 18 unless the figures change between now and then.

“I don’t think any of us are happy about the tax-levy [increase] that’s in the budget, but at this point, we have to pass something tonight,” school board President Maureen Sikule said Wednesday before the budget was adopted by the four board members present; Helen Lounsbury was absent. “As far as being able to make reductions from that, we won’t know that until the state passes their budget, which could be long after we vote on the budget,” said Sikule.

Also on the ballot in May will be the 2010-11 bus proposition, and the four-way election for the two open school board seats.

Running for school board are: Lounsbury, the incumbent from Berne, and challengers Thomas Gagnon of Knox, Gerald Larghe of Berne, and Jill Norray of Berne. Michelle Fusco, whose term on the school board is up this year, is not seeking re-election.

Last Thursday, the administration presented the public with another potential spending plan for the 2010-11 school year, receiving more criticism than praise for its efforts. The school board had previously announced that it intended to adopt a budget that night, but after another lengthy public discussion, board members agreed that they would wait until Wednesday night in the hope that they might receive a little more guidance from the state — to no avail.

State aid paid for 43 percent of this year’s $19.8-million budget. In anticipation of a $1.13-million drop in state aid, the proposed 2010-11 budget would total $19,657,406, spending $133,661 less than the current year’s budget, but increasing the tax levy by $659,172, or 6.7 percent. So, while the 2009-10 budget raised $9.8 million by property taxes with no tax-levy increase, next year’s will cost district residents $10.5 million in taxes.

Adjusting cuts

At the April 15 meeting, BKW Business Official Kevin Callagy listed ways in which the administration had cut costs since the $19.7-million proposal introduced last month.

About $24,900 in savings comes from having “adjusted the clubs and activities,” said Callagy. “We took a look at numbers of students and how active the clubs were, and we’ve realigned that budget total,” he said.

An additional $8,300 in savings came from adjusting budget lines associated with insurance costs, partially accomplished through a decrease in the cost of BKW’s premium with Utica National Insurance Group; this resulted from the district’s repeated winning of the Utica National School Safety Award.

A full-time mechanic in the bus garage will be switching to part-time, saving an additional $10,000, Callagy went on, and there will no longer be a $30,000 transfer into the school lunch fund.

On the contingency budget, which is automatically adopted if the proposed budget is voted down twice, Callagy projected a 6.6-percent tax-levy increase.

The district will be cutting 18 of its employees, along with all field trips, 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.

At the April 15 meeting, the school board addressed several points in a petition drawn up earlier this month by district residents who were dissatisfied with the administration’s attempts at budgeting for the coming year. As of last Thursday’s meeting, the group had attained 376 signatures in the week since its creation.

Teachers step up

Salaries and employee benefits make up about $14 million of the proposed $19.7-million budget — more than 70 percent. Those benefits include: payments into the State Employee Retirement System; payments into the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System; Social Security payments; workers’ compensation; unemployment insurance; and medical insurance.

The petitioners’ main point is that teachers should sacrifice their yearly raises to help district residents bear the impending tax burden. Recent reports show that taxpayers’ desire to see this kind of sacrifice extends beyond state lines.

According to an article from Reuters, New Jersey voters approved only 41 percent of 537 proposed school budgets this year, marking the first time since 1976 that a majority of school budgets were rejected, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie urged voters to oppose any budget that did not include a wage freeze for teachers.

According to Callagy, BKW’s business official, if the school board and the unions were to agree upon contracts in which district employees would be paid the exact same salary next year with no form of pay increase, it would result in about $264,000 in savings for the 2010-11 budget — a 13-percent decrease from the latest proposal.

The details of negotiations between school districts and their teachers’ unions are strictly confidential. But at last week’s meeting, school board President Sikule told the crowd, “None of the unions have agreed to a wage and salary freeze…When we were in negotiations, there was no agreement on a wage and salary freeze.” Sikule said this week that Interim Superintendent Kim LaBelle had approached each of the district’s unions outside of negotiations to ask if they would agree to a salary schedule freeze, but without success.

This insight offered by Sikule at the meeting created a stir in the community, as it followed a statement made last month by Kelly Smith, president of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Teachers’ Association.

“We did give the board a very generous proposal to freeze our salary schedule last March,” Smith told hundreds of BKW residents at the March 18 school board meeting. The teachers’ association has been working under its old contract, which expired in June of last year. This contract outlines 30 steps; teachers climb one step each year. On the first step, a teacher earns $38,350; on the 30th step, a teacher earns $86,874.

Smith, aware of the community chatter, sought to clear the air this week.

“The offer was made in March, and the offer was to freeze the schedule, which meant we wouldn’t have a percentage increase, but people would continue to move up the steps,” Smith told The Enterprise. So, while a teacher still moves up to the next step each year, thereby getting an increase in pay, the actual percentage increase that occurs for the steps themselves each year would be “frozen,” Smith said.

A large part of the confusion, she went on, is in the terminology.

“A wage, salary, and schedule freeze would be the same thing,” and is what the union offered last year, Smith said. A step freeze, on the other hand, would mean that teachers are no longer moving up the steps, but at no point was this offered.

“People need to understand that there’s more to settling a contract than just agreeing on salaries,” Smith concluded. “So, it’s not that it’s out of the question; it’s not that it’s off the table; it’s just that the entire package has not been agreed upon.”

The other sizeable union at BKW is the Civil Service Employees’ Association, representing cafeteria workers and bus drivers, among others. The CSEA president and secretary wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor this week detailing salaries and stating that, because of budget cuts on field trips and sporting events, BKW bus drivers are already sacrificing large parts of their salaries.

Second-grade teacher Patricia Miller said at last week’s meeting that some teachers viewed the petition as an affront to their dedication to the students and their abilities as educators.

The petition reads, “The taxpayers are tired of paying the bills while the students pay the price with an inadequate education.”

“I’ve been working 70 hours a week for years,” Miller told the crowd. “I’m in this building on Sunday afternoons for five or six hours…We’re not skating; we’re working,” she said.

“But that doesn’t close the budget gap,” an audience member replied.

Miller’s comments spurred a discussion on how the quality of education at BKW stacks up against other schools in the state, and reference was made to a website, www.SchoolDigger.com, which ranks individual schools and districts across the country according to scores on standardized English and math tests. (See related story.)

Addressing the petition

The petitioners had also suggested that students drive themselves to programs like Tech Valley High School; Interim Superintendent LaBelle told the crowd that the district is required by state law to offer transportation to off-campus programs. Districts are also required to offer transportation to private and parochial school students within certain state-set limits.

The petition goes on to say that the district should eliminate one of its administrators; long-time community members recall when the district had more students than it does now, and fewer administrators.

“We spent all of last year as a subcommittee evaluating the administrative positions in this district,” Sikule said. “This is the first year in a number of years that we haven’t had parents saying, and teachers saying, that there were issues in the school that weren’t being addressed…I don’t think you can eliminate one [administrator] and try and spread that burden around.”

David Clark, who works at BKW’s bus garage, commented on the petition’s call for removing the bus proposition from the May 18 ballot, and waiting as long as possible to replace the buses.

“If we put this off and wait until it’s absolutely necessary, we’re going to be putting 20 buses up for the vote, and I don’t think that’s going to fly,” said Clark. In March, before the adoption of the 2010-11 bus proposition, Clark told the board, “Any inspector we’ve ever had says, ‘You guys have the worst corrosion here out of any operators we do’…They salt nightly, whether we need it or not; we don’t really have a washing facility, just a hose outside; so, we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”

Further, referring to new diesel emission standards, Clark said last week, “We’ve pre-ordered…’09 large buses. That means they’re pre-emission, which adds $7,500 to $8,000 per vehicle. If we skip that, we’re actually going to be spending more money in the long run.”

Sikule added that since the bus proposition does nothing more than give voters a chance to have their say on the purchase, she saw no reason to remove it from the ballot as the petition suggested.

The petition also calls for a revamp and competitive bidding process for the $12.5-million building project, and for elimination of the energy performance contract.

“We have never not gone out for competitive bid for the energy performance contract [or] for the capital project,” Sikule said. “We did requests for proposals. That’s how we’re going to get the contractors.”

Sikule later said that the board had not considered cutting the position of athletic director as suggested in the petition; LaBelle told her that the district is required to have a physical-education director.

District residents who signed the petition also questioned the need for Board of Cooperative Educational Services programs, which cost $49,590 before the $30,000 of aid, bringing the net cost for the district down to $19,836.

“We’re really buying into a complete team, a complete service,” Callagy said this week.

The BOCES services include: website design; crisis communication; budget and bond vote campaigns; event planning; creating and printing newsletters; creating videos, brochures, handbooks, and annual reports for the district; media relations and spokesperson training; communication workshops for school leaders; logo design and branding; and the School News Notifier.

Cuts adopted

While the district will be offering two new technology electives, ninth-grade Honors Global Studies, and French 4 in its distant learning program, the adopted 2010-11 budget proposal includes a slew of staff and program cuts.

The district is currently planning on 19 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 part-time science teacher; a part-time home and careers teacher; and three full-time teachers’ aids.

Additionally, the school psychologist will work three days a week instead of four.

The district will also be making several curricular sacrifices next year.

In the high school, the English department will see its mass-media labs, writing labs, and Film and Literature 2 class eliminated. Yearbook class will become a club, and drivers’ education will be cut.

The following business classes will also be cut: 21st-Century Computer; Advertising; Financial Applications; Agricultural Business; Finance for Life; and Microsoft Certification.

Marching band will be cut, too.

Statistics and Accounting, originally set to be cut, have been restored, LaBelle said at last week’s meeting. Two career and technical education (CTE) electives have also been restored, while enrollment in CTE programs would be reduced from 73 to 48 students.

“I can’t tell you exactly what those CTE electives are going to be at this point,” LaBelle said. “However, we do have those slots available.”

The administration was able to bring these courses back into the curriculum by re-configuring staff, not by increasing spending, LaBelle said.

“As we go through this process, the scheduling is starting to happen at the high school, and kids are signing up for different classes,” she told residents. “That’s what starts to generate your enrollment for your classes; that’s where you can now take a look at what you can and can’t add to the program. But again, we’re still in the same financial parameters.”

In the elementary school, the foreign language program will be eliminated entirely; the number of AIS teachers will be reduced from four to two; and art and music instruction will be reduced from two days to one day out of a six-day rotation.

Last month’s budget would have cut all junior varsity teams from the district’s athletic program, with the exception of girls’ and boys’ basketball, and cheerleading — a third of BKW’s sports teams. This would have saved $36,000.

Last week, however, LaBelle asked Athletic Director Fred Marcil if he and the coaches could find ways to stay within a $142,000 budget and keep all of the sports teams; Marcil replied that they could. The coaches, he said, met last week to discuss ways of cutting costs within the program, such as having teams play fewer games.

Vasilios Lefkaditis, a BKW parent who served on the district’s budget committee and has been vocal at recent meetings, asked Marcil if the coaches had considered volunteering hours, giving up some of their pay. “Was that even discussed?” Lefkaditis asked.

“The coaches dedicate a lot of hours, a lot of time, a lot of energy,” Marcil replied. “Some of them have to put a lot of money out on the table before they can even coach.”

As of last night, when the budget was adopted, there had been no update from the coaches on whether the athletic department could meet its fiscal goal.

A budget hearing will take place in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 10, but the administration and school board will have to wait until May 18 to find out if its efforts measure up to the expectations of the district at large.

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