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Hilltowns Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 10, 2008
‘What’s going on?’
By Tyler Schuling
BERNE On Monday, Kimberly LaBelle, Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s assistant superintendent for elementary and special education, outlined the school’s program for disabled students.
LaBelle highlighted special-education enrollment, new programs and services, and projections. When she first started in 2002, she said, 158 students were enrolled in special-education programs.
“Now,” LaBelle said, “we’ve grown to 224, so that’s quite an increase over time.”
One year ago, she reported that BKW had 45 special-needs students transfer into the district. Since July 1, the start of a school year, she said, BKW has had only 14 new students.
“All summer long, we kept saying, ‘What’s going on? We don’t have a lot of kids enrolling,’” she said.
Of the 14 students, she said, seven enrolled within the past month-and-a-half to two months. “We had a number of new kids enroll since January,” she said.
Currently, 59 students, or 12 percent of the 455 students in the elementary school, are enrolled in special education programs. Of the 232 middle-school students, 38, or 16 percent, are enrolled. And, of 384 high-schoolers, 62, or 16 percent are in special-ed. programs.
“I think there is a myth out there that the more special-ed. kids that we have, the more money it generates,” LaBelle said. All of the money it generates is through aid, she said, but the aid doesn’t cover all of the costs.
“There are still net costs that the district is responsible for,” LaBelle said.
Programs run by the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services, she said, all have different costs associated. “Our number in BOCES, I believe last year, when I did this presentation…was 27,” LaBelle said. “This year, we have 29 students who are enrolled in a variety of BOCES programs.”
Business administrator on aid
BKW’s business administrator, Timothy Holmes, outlined aid for special-education students.
“It’s very difficult to get a relationship between how many students you have and how much aid you receive,” he said.
A lot of the children, he said, fit into “high cost aid,” which is based on a percentage. The threshold is about $34,000, and BKW receives aid for any child, Holmes said, “above and beyond $34,000.”
The other aid is based on the number of children in the special-education program.
“This year’s aid is based on last year’s enrollment numbers,” Holmes said.
Aid for private placements is also based on a percentage, he said, which is calculated by the wealth of the district.
“We get BOCES aid on certain services that are not covered…,” Holmes said, adding that BKW will get aid this year for what it spent last year.
Over the year
In the past year, 11 students have left the district, LaBelle said. Five were referred in June, at the end of the last school year.
“Four students were reclassified, which means we stopped special-education services on those kids because they made significant progress,” LaBelle said. “But those kids are monitored then for a year after.”
Two out-of-district students graduated from BKW’s BOCES program in January.
Six students’ evaluations are pending. “The verdict is not in yet, so to speak,” LaBelle said.
“I believe, again, last year at this time, we had around eight or nine kids in private placements,” she said. “Right now, it’s nine.” LaBelle said the Wildwood school is an example of a private placement.
One student just moved, she said, and another dropped out.
“Unfortunately, we did have two students who dropped out for a number of different reasons,” LaBelle said.
School board member Helen Lounsbury asked why.
“They were not successful, were not attending, and so their parents have opted to not have them attend any longer,” LaBelle said.
Both were high-school students.
“But these students always have the option of coming back,” LaBelle said. “They can come back until they’re 21.
1.95-percent tax-levy increase
By Tyler Schuling
BERNE In a unanimous vote, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board adopted a $20.5 million budget on Monday, but the school received projections for state aid yesterday that are lower than were used to design the plan.
BKW’s adopted plan represents a 5.9-percent increase in spending, and property owners in the district would pay $9,879,567 of the revenues, a 1.95-percent increase in the tax levy.
Based on the figures BKW received yesterday, Foundation Aid is about $95,000 less than anticipated, Superintendent Steven Schrade said yesterday. He will recommend to the school board that cuts be made to keep the tax levy at 1.95-percent, he said yesterday. This would be the lowest tax-levy increase since the 1998-99 school year, when BKW’s budget totaled $12.4 million.
Using the most recent projections of state aid, released yesterday by Assemblyman John McEneny’s office, BKW will receive $9,446,880. This is $120,619 less than BKW had anticipated when drafting its budget.
The most current information shows that, in the BKW School District, there are 4,249 assessed parcels, spanning parts of seven towns.
Voters will decide on the plan on May 20.
“I believe it is one of the best budgets I’ve worked on in conjunction with a business administrator here in our district,” said Schrade, who was hired as the school’s superintendent in January of 2000. BKW has been able to preserve its current program, and, he said on Tuesday, thanks to additional state aid, the budget represents the lowest tax-levy increase in 10 years.
“I’m really hoping that the community will respond positively,” Schrade said.
Six-tenths of a teaching position is being added to special education for the resource room in the middle-high school. Last week, Schrade estimated the salary and benefits to total $40,000 to $45,000.
BKW will be sending an additional student to Tech Valley High School next year. The total cost is $18,000. Schrade said BKW will be reimbursed 68 or 69 percent of the cost.
Last May, BKW’s budget, for the second year in a row, passed on the first try. The tax levy the amount to be raised from taxes increased 4 percent over the previous year, and residents paid $9,690,448 about half of the $19.3 million budget.
Timothy Holmes, BKW’s business administrator who was hired three months ago, told The Enterprise Monday that the district will not begin paying for the school’s $12.7 million building project until the 2009-10 school year, when BKW will start borrowing. In December, 66 percent of those who voted approved the $12.7 million project. About 80 percent of the cost will be funded by state aid, and the district’s taxpayers will pay about $1 million over 15 years.
This year, the project will get underway as a new roof will be put on the elementary school.
If the budget is voted down, the school board can do one of three things: put the same budget up for a second vote, put a reduced budget up for a vote, or move directly to a contingency plan, with a cap set by the state. BKW’s contingency plan is $483,440 less than the $20.5-million budget adopted on Monday.
Should BKW move to a contingency plan, Schrade said, funds would come out of the fund balance, which amounts to $700,000. Equipment cuts would be mandatory. Holmes and Schrade have recommended decreasing the amount of money in the fund balance. Last year, they said, it amounted to $760,000.
The school board’s vice president, John Harlow, called the fund balance a “rainy day fund.”
“I’ve been trying to reduce it because I think that number is too high,” said Holmes last week. “I would like to see it around $500,000.”
“But,” said Harlow, referring to the new governor, “if Mr. Paterson says, ‘I’m cutting your aid by 10 percent….’”
“If he did something like that, then we’d have to reduce our expenditures throughout the year,” Holmes said.
In the case of a contingency plan, BKW would eliminate or reduce overestimated appropriations in energy, salaries, and special education, Schrade said. Salary increases between 3 and 4 percent were built into the budget to prepare for contract negotiations, he said. The Civil Service Employees’ Association staffs BKW with bus drivers and custodial and cafeteria staff. The teachers’ contracts expire on June 30.
When designing the plan, BKW used figures from the governor’s proposal to project state aid. Holmes said last week at a budget workshop, he expects Board Of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) aid, which amounted to $564,218, will be reinstated.
The figures, released yesterday, show BKW will receive about $7,000 less than anticipated.
Throughout the budgeting process, a committee and the school board worked on the plan. They met last Thursday.
“I just don’t have a good grasp,” school board President Maureen Sikule said. “We’re not implementing any new programs. So, I’m just having a hard time understanding why this increase in 6 percent.”
Holmes said, “You have salaries that are increasing the budget, and that’s out of our control for the most part.”
The other issue, he said, is gas prices. Right now, he said, BKW is paying about $3.15 for oil and is anticipating $4.00.
“We don’t have a lot of wiggle room in this budget,” said Sean O’Connor, a member of the budget committee. “Especially when, on an overall basis, payroll and benefits count for 71-and-a-half percent of the budget, which are fixed costs that are contractual in one way or another,” he said. “We’re splitting hairs when it comes down to the percentage points that we really have access to, to make decisions that are going to affect this budget.”
Last month, Harlow said a lot of the budget expenses, which drive up the taxes, come from state mandates “where we have, and are obligated by law, to pay for certain things.”
Also last month, Helen Lounsbury, a school board member and a former BKW teacher, advocated a 0-percent tax-levy increase as a guideline for budgeting.
“Many people in the community are putting money aside at least $100 a week to pay their school and property tax,” she said last month. Lounsbury’s proposal was defeated 3-2.
At last week’s workshop, her brother, Joseph Golden, a member of BKW’s budget committee, encouraged the school board to lobby for change.
Golden is a Berne councilman and retired teacher. He is also a former BKW school board member.
He said, “This school district, like the whole state, has gone through some really, really hard times, and, in those hard times, the reaction has, generally, been to cut. Now, the difference was, in those days, the budget could be cut by the voters.”
Golden referred to past budgets when voters could “chunk the sections off of categories,” such as for a library.
“They could do that,” he said. “Now, there isn’t really anything that a voter can cut off your budget except for just trying to kill it completely. Which that doesn’t even work. So the immediate responsibility is pushed over to the school board on a lot of it.”
He said he would be the last one to want to cut a “teacher-to-kid” program.
“There’s an obligation that everybody on the board has,” Golden said. “You have to lobby for the change in the way schools are funded so that you can welcome the challenge of special ed. and everything else.”
But, he said, you can’t lobby for it by “sitting in your chair.”
“There are things that can happen, but they’re not going to happen unless you guys, as a board or individuals, write a letter,” Golden said.
School board member Joan Adriance said, “And I would suggest it’s not ‘us guys.’ It’s every taxpayer in this district.”
Adriance said, “I’ve been on the board five years now, and every year at this conversation we say a reform doesn’t happen here. Reform has to happen in Albany. I don’t know how you teach taxpayers that.”
“By example,” Golden said.
“I can go. I can write a letter,” Adriance said.
“And I’m sure you have,” Golden.
“And I’m sure that I have,” she said. “Look how many people are here tonight.”
No residents attended the workshop. Only the school board members, Holmes, Schrade, Denise Martin, the three members of the budget committee, and two members of the press attended.
“Look how many people come to the budget workshop. Look how many people come to the public hearing. They would rather complain than take action. I’m not saying that’s everybody,” Adriance said.
Golden said, “When you write as a member of the school board, you represent however percentage of the 10,000 humans that live in the district. But here’s the thing: If we’d spent as much time advocating for change in the tax thing as we advocated for Trooper Steve, we might be making some progress.”
School board members and administrators met with legislators who represent the district in March to fight a proposal to relocate, State Trooper Steven Rothwein, the school’s resource officer, to a higher-crime area. For the past five years, BKW has received state and federal funding to have Rothwein permanently at the school. The state budget now allows for Troopers to remain in the schools.
“Everything I pick up has got his picture and an article about him,” Golden said. “Good for him. But let’s take something serious like this.”
Walter appointed to Westerlo Town Board
By Tyler Schuling
WESTERLO In a unanimous decision, the Westerlo Town Board last week appointed Susan Walter, a Democrat, to the town board.
“It’s a great town. It’s a great country town,” said Walter this week. All of the people, she said, are very friendly. She loves living in Westerlo, she said, and serving on the board is a way for her to be involved in the community.
Walter, 50, replaces Dorothy Lounsbury, a longtime board member who did not seek another four-year term last fall. Kristen Slaver, a member of the town’s planning board, ran unopposed for the town board in the election but did not take the oath of office on Jan. 1. Under the Hatch Act, she could not assume the elected post because of her job.
Born and raised in Delmar, Walter graduated from Bethlehem High School. She has lived in Westerlo for almost nine years, and, for nearly 22 years, she has worked for Pratt & Associates in Delmar.
“I’m a Democrat because Westerlo is a Democratic town,” she said. All members of the town board are Democrats. In this rural Helderberg town, Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans. Only one member of the GOP has served on the board in decades.
Walter, who lives with her son, has never before served on a board. She heard of the vacant seat from a friend, she said, who told her, “You know, you ought to go for it.”
Right now, Walter said, she will be “observing and listening” and “taking it all in.”
This year, each town board member is earning $7,250. Walter will not be paid for January, February, and March, said Richard Rapp, the town’s longtime supervisor and Democratic Party chair. Walter, who was the only applicant for the seat, will earn $5,437.50 for the year. Rapp said she will decide whether she wants to be paid quarterly, twice a year, or at the end of the year. He said he thinks she’ll do a good job.
An election for the seat will be held in the fall. Last year, all Democratic candidates ran unopposed.
Currently, the town’s planning board is working on the town’s first comprehensive land-use plan.
“Development seems to be moving this way,” Walter said. “Hopefully, that won’t happen for some time.”