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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 25, 2010

Cuts spawn budget bedlam at BKW

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, in anticipation of a $1.13-million decrease in state aid, is considering several versions of next year’s budget, the most severe of which will lead to firing 22 employees and cutting the entire athletic program, while eliminating courses in many subjects, and increasing class sizes.

“The news has not been good,” said BKW Business Official Kevin Callagy at the top of last week’s budget discussion, “and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”

Last Thursday, hundreds of emotional BKW residents gathered in the high-school auditorium to hear of the administration’s attempts to weather the economic storm. They also heard the school board’s response to rumors circulating in the community that the district was planning to cut all sports programs and other extra-curricular activities, as well as several staff members. The administration was called “inhuman” for considering firing the elementary-school nurse to cut costs.

“I’ve personally witnessed the impact that sports, band, art, music, business, and other programs have had,” said Robert Bentley Jr., who chairs BKW’s social studies department. “Our students deserve a well-rounded education. They deserve all the benefits from all those programs. And, I would remember one thing: While numbers look like that on the board, they represent people that we all know — friends, family members, people that we all love and trust.”

His speech, and others like his, were consistently met with applause.

“We’ve been trying to balance the needs of all you guys with the financial realities,” Callagy told the crowd, “both from the state, as well as in the community.”

The district expects about $7.4 million in state aid — more than a third of the proposed budget. What exactly it will do with that money is very much up in the air.

The district has, at this point, four options: The tier-1 budget; the tier-2 budget; a rollover budget; and a contingency budget, which, by law, schools must default to if their budgets are voted down twice.

Board members expressed at a workshop Monday that they had no intention of accepting proposed tier-2 cuts, which were attacked by dozens in last week’s widely attended public discussion.

“We haven’t received any guidance from the legislature yet,” Callagy told onlookers, trying to illustrate the level of uncertainty.

The legislature has frequently not met the April 1 deadline for settling on a state budget. So far this year, the senate has followed the governor’s lead with $1.3 billion in cuts for school aid, while the Assembly Democrats are planning to borrow $2 billion and restore about half of the aid to be cut.

While there are few figures available regarding the contingency budget, Callagy said Monday that it would include a 3-percent overall spending increase from the current $19.8 million BKW budget, and a 20-percent increase in the tax levy.

Adopting a rollover budget would mean making no cuts, maintaining all current programs and staff. This near-$21 million budget would be $1.2 million higher than the current year’s budget, raising the tax levy by roughly $2 million, or 20 percent, up to $11.8 million.

But the district is looking at less costly options.

No contract?

One unresolved fiscal issue is the contract between the district and the BKW Teachers’ Association, which expired on June 30, 2009. On March 4, just three months earlier, the teachers’ union made an informal proposal to the district, knowing its contract would soon expire, said Kelly Smith, president of the BKW Teachers’ Association, this week. She told the audience last Thursday of an offer that was made to the administration in March to freeze the teachers’ salary schedule.

“They got back to us at the end of April, at which time we gave them a counter offer, and that’s the last we heard from them,” Smith told The Enterprise this week. “In their defense, there have been a lot of things going on.”

The BKW administration was in a state of flux last year as it sought a new middle-high school principal and business official, eventually hiring Thomas McGurl and Callagy to fill those positions. The district is also in the process of searching for a superintendent as the former curriculum director, Kim LaBelle, a candidate for the superintendent’s post, works as interim superintendent.

“So, that did put a kink in the works as far as negotiations go,” Smith conceded. “But, there’s always going to be something — of course, now, it’s the budget. The teachers’ contract is a large portion of the budget, so that’s a pretty big unknown at this point.”

Additionally, The Enterprise obtained, through a FOIL request, documents that outline mediation and eventual arbitration that occurred over the past year between the district and the teachers’ union.

The conflict surrounded a decision by the administration in April of 2009 to end the district’s practice of letting teachers leave school at the end of the day immediately after the first school bus has left on Fridays and on days before a vacation.

The Public Employment Relations Board arbitrator, Jeffrey Selchick, wrote in a Feb. 25 opinion that the district did not violate the collective bargaining agreement in changing its practice of when teachers are allowed to leave campus, and the union’s grievance was denied. But there is still no contract between the teachers and the district.

The teachers are working under their expired contract, which outlines 30 steps. Teachers on the first step earn $38,350, while teachers on the 30th step earn $86,874.

The public speaks

Early on in last Thursday’s meeting, before the audience spoke on the administration’s budget proposals, Kimberly Audino, president of the BKW Sports Booster Club, had prepared some words for the school board.

“A dark cloud appeared over the Berne-Knox-Westerlo community last month when the district announced on its website that it may be eliminating the sports program or target in on JV and modified sports,” Audino told the board. “With that cloud came apprehension, confusion, and panic.”

Audino said that parents of athletes had mentioned moving away from the district, and that she had read studies, conducted in New York State, that showed a correlation between participation in sports and success in academics, particularly in small rural areas. Several students later echoed that sentiment.

“I am sure that the community taxpayers would like to decide if raising taxes would be a better solution than cutting a small piece of the budget, resulting in affecting a large number of the students at BKW,” said Audino. Other residents later spoke on raising taxes in place of making cuts, some for, and some against.

“Without sports, these athletes’ dreams will be crushed,” added Courtney Tedeschi, a BKW athlete. “Sports have taught me how to be thankful for the opportunity to utilize the gifts I was given, and have taught me how to have confidence,” she told the school board.

Gabriella Audino, another student athlete, added, “Living on the Hill offers little opportunity to participate in activities that promote team-building, social interaction, physical fitness, and the rewards of being part of a team.” Some of her friends, she said, only pass their classes for the opportunity to play in school sports.

Matthew Tedeschi, whose wife works in the elementary school office, addressed the board as well, receiving applause throughout.

“Not once has it been suggested that there should be an increase in our taxes,” said Tedeschi. “They’re not giving us the opportunity to speak out and say, ‘Yes, we want to pay more for our children. We want to give our kids more.’ That should be mentioned as a solution…Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to pay more taxes, but, if it’s what I have to do as a parent and as a citizen in this community, it’s what I have to do.”

The plan to cut guidance counselors, courses, and sports, cannot be adopted, Tedeschi went on.

“Maybe not having a tax levy [increase] last year was not such a smart idea,” he told the board. “Did anyone think of the repercussions of that?”

He pointed to other districts that are considering wage freezes, and the possibility of four-day school weeks instead of two.

As the meeting progressed, a line eventually formed, and district residents offered opinions and suggestions.

Daniel Smith, a Westerlo resident who has been a leading member of the growing local Tea Party movement, the Hilltown Homefront Patriots, told the board it should consider changing the way it handles employee benefits.

“The defined-benefit pension is a dinosaur,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of money, and you should go to a defined contribution, just like everyone else is.” The retirement system for teachers and other school employees is dictated by the state. The students and their programs, Smith said, are worth seeking other benefit options.

Thomas Gagnon told the board that he did not want to pay more taxes.

“This is about the children and the students,” Gagnon said. “If there were no children or students, the administrators and the teachers wouldn’t have a job.”

He asked if teachers receive retirement benefits; he was told that they do, and offered a different kind of retirement bonus as a cost-cutting concept: “I think we should start looking at some watches, and giving those out when they retire.” Some laughed.

“I haven’t heard too much of the administration or the teachers shouldering this burden,” Gagnon concluded. “The burden is being shifted to our children, and us as taxpayers.”

Maureen Abbott also proposed some changes.

“Back in the dark ages, when I went here to school, if we couldn’t find enough teachers and parents to chaperone an event, then you couldn’t have it,” Abbott said. “It was all volunteers.”

There should also be janitors scheduled Tuesday through Saturday, so that, if one is working Saturday, he is not being paid overtime. And, the district should avoid having “bus drivers sitting there through a whole game to go home with an empty bus because there’re all parents there to pick up their kids,” she said.

In response to the district’s plan to cut its only full-time business teacher, a student named Marjorie Adriance told the board, “In an economy like this, I’m not understanding why we’re getting rid of the business program.”

School Board President Maureen Sikule replied that the district would still be offering some business courses in the event of cutting its business teacher.

Kelly Smith, president of the teachers’ union, told the crowd of the expired contract with the district — “And we haven’t slacked,” she said.

Allison Moss, another student, told board members to “get creative,” and that, if they do cut sports programs, there will be a greatly increased need for disciplinary action within the district.

“You’re going to cut a nurse so they won’t be there to help my kid?” asked Paula Dunnells.

“You’re about to rip out the heart and soul of this school,” said Robert Rue, a district parent and former school-board candidate, of cutting the athletic program. “I’d be afraid of the failure rate once you take sports away.”

Jennifer Duncan, on the verge of tears, agreed with Rue.

“You take away those sports, I guarantee you’re going to have kids drop out of school,” Duncan said.

One student proposed that teams raise funds to help support the athletic program.

“Our team this year raised $500 for Coaches Vs. Cancer,” said Ellen Mahoney, an 11th-grade, varsity basketball player at BKW. “Our team is more than willing to do a fund-raiser for our own program. If we can raise $500 for something that doesn’t benefit us, imagine what we can do for something that will help us.”

With the May 18 budget vote less than two months away, the school board has until mid-April to adopt next year’s spending plan. Those who did not get the chance to voice their concerns or ideas will have another opportunity at a March 29 open budget forum, at 7 p.m. in the elementary school cafeteria.

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