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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 20, 2010

Budget defeated, as budget supporters win in a landslide

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board will have to choose a backup plan now that the 2010 budget has been voted down. On Tuesday, district residents said “no” to the $19.7-million spending plan and the proposition to trade four decade-old buses for five newer ones, while electing incumbent Helen Lounsbury and newcomer Jill Norray to the school board by a landslide. Both victors had supported the budget, while their opponents had not.

Close to two-dozen residents were in the high school auditorium when the polls closed Tuesday night, among them administrators, board members, teachers, and parents alike.

Those present heard that 1,215 residents cast their votes. The budget failed by a 10-percent margin, with 644 residents — 55 percent — voting against it, and 522, or 45 percent, voting in favor. All vote tallies are according to unofficial results from the school district.

“I can’t say that I’m surprised,” said Maureen Sikule, president of the school board, after the outcome was announced. “We heard the numbers of people who were turning out; I think people are very concerned with the levy.”

Since the beginning of spring, residents cried out against the 6.7-percent tax hike, along with the program cuts in the primary and secondary school, and the elimination of 19 staff positions. The board, faced with massive cuts in state aid, paired with rising pensions and healthcare costs, would have had to hike taxes nearly 20 percent if cuts hadn’t been made.

In the days leading up to the election, members of a local Tea Party Movement, the Hilltown Homefront Patriots, had put signs up in the district that opposed the tax levy and read, “Got cash?”

One of the candidates backed by the patriots, Deborah Busch, is running for the State Assembly, and sent out a press release yesterday stating that “voters in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District rejected an unnecessarily bloated budget that would have increased taxes by 6.7 percent because they’re tired of all the unfunded mandates being passed onto us in the form of higher property taxes from the state legislature.”

Sikule went on to say that the board should consider the $19,649,912 contingency plan, which would spend $141,155 less than the 2009-10 budget, and $7,483 less than the failed adopted budget. It would raise the tax levy by 6.62 percent, or $10,533,726, also less than the adopted budget.

“If we bring the budget down too much, and state aid gets restored, then we can’t restore those programs,” Sikule said Tuesday. “If we go to contingency, we still have the latitude to see if we get some of that back…I think we have to think about those things, just because it’s such an uncertain time right now.”

Unlike Sikule, Interim Superintendent Kim LaBelle was caught off guard by the election results.

“We looked at everything; we listened to the community; so, I am surprised,” LaBelle said Tuesday night. “I felt we’d crafted a really sound budget, given the circumstances we were under, the potential loss of state aid, and the revenues that were coming in. It’s unfortunate, because I think we worked really hard at it.”

LaBelle has accepted a job to be superintendent of Galway Central Schools, and will start work there on July 1.

Board race

In the race for two opens seats on the school board, Norray was the top vote-getter with 728, or 34 percent. Incumbent Lounsbury, a BKW graduate who has been on the school board for eight years and is retired from a 35-year career as a teacher in the district, was re-elected with 681 votes, or 32 percent.

“It’s always good to be reaffirmed,” Lounsbury said. “On a side note, Jill Norray is a former student of mine, which should create an interesting dynamic. It’s kind of like the circle of life, I guess,” she laughed.

Norray looks forward to the challenge — “It’s exciting,” she said.

Challenger Gerald Larghe, a United States Marine reserves officer who made his first run for the school board this year, received 383 votes, or 18 percent; Thomas Gagnon, an illustrator and art teacher, received 373 votes, or 17 percent.

“Recognition in the community is a big deal,” Larghe said Wednesday, commenting on Norray’s mother, Arlene Lendrum, being a 27-year school board member, and Lounsbury’s decades-long career in the district. Larghe and his family moved into the district just four years ago. He was one of many residents who spoke out on wanting to see teachers and administrators taking a pay cut to close the budget gap.

“Hopefully, they’ll get their priorities sorted,” Larghe said.

Asked if he plans on running again in the next school board race, Larghe said only two words: “Oh yeah.”

“My military career is coming to an end,” he said, “and it’s time to start having more of an effect on my children.”

Buses defeated

Also on Tuesday, the $365,000 plan to acquire two 66-passenger buses, two 28-passenger buses, and one wheelchair-accessible bus was declined by 556 voters, or 52 percent; 513 residents, or 48 percent, were in favor.

Of the total cost, $200,000 would have come from the district’s transportation reserve, which currently holds $500,000, and the remaining $165,000 would have been bonded over five years; 71 percent of the total would have been covered by state transportation aid, according to BKW Business Official Kevin Callagy, which would have been paid over a five-year period.

“I’m very disappointed that it failed,” Lounsbury said of the bus proposition, “and I am concerned that we may have buses that will be unable to pass the extremely stringent New York State inspection.”

The 66-passenger buses run on diesel fuel, the rest on gasoline. David Clark, who works in the bus garage, had advised the school board and its audiences at recent meetings that this year’s bus proposition was particularly important because the vehicles on the ballot were old enough that the district would be saving money, as these vehicles would not have to be adjusted to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s new diesel emission standards. He estimated then that this would have meant between $7,500 and $8,000 in savings.

Back to the

drawing board

Lounsbury, the incumbent victor, told The Enterprise the day after the election that, while she thought the district had put together the best budget that it could, she had doubted that it would pass.

“A lot of people had told me personally they were voting against the budget,” she said. “Many people are in crisis, and this is one place that you can say, ‘No.’”

And, while she was disappointed to hear the residents’ responses to the district’s budgetary efforts, she has already planned her next move.

“I always vote to immediately go to contingency,” she said. “I’m a person who believes that, however the vote comes out, that’s it…In my opinion, we put out the very best budget we could put together.”

LaBelle said after the polls closed Tuesday that she had hoped that her first and last budget as BKW’s interim superintendent would pass — “without a doubt,” she said.

“But, for the whole community, you want it to pass,” LaBelle said. “It didn’t fail by much. It was close.”

She expressed disappointment over the failure of the bus proposition as well.

“Because the bulk of that was being funded by revenues that we had, over time, it was a minimal impact on taxpayers,” LaBelle said.

The board will meet this Thursday, May 20, to discuss its next course of action. It has three options: It can put the same budget up for a second vote; it can go back to the drawing board and revise its spending plan; or it can adopt the $19,649,912 contingency budget, with a state-set spending cap of zero percent.

[For more on how the state-set cap was calculated, go to www.altamontenterprise.com, and look under Hilltown archives for May 13, 2010.]

While Sikule and LaBelle did not comment on what further cuts should be made, looking to learn more at tonight’s meeting, the current version of the budget included cutting several classes and staff members.

In anticipation of a $1.13-million drop in state aid, the failed 2010-11 budget totaled $19,657,406, and would have spent $133,661 less than the current year’s budget, while 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, the adopted budget would have cost district residents $10,541,220 in taxes, had it passed on Tuesday.

The district had planned 19 personnel cuts in the adopted budget: 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 would have worked three days a week instead of four.

Passing the budget would have also led to a series of curricular sacrifices next year.

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

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

And, enrollment in career and technical education programs would have been reduced from 73 to 48 students.

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

The district had also planned to 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. However, BKW coaches identified last-minute savings in other areas that allowed for these teams to be restored.

Should the board decide to put a second budget up for vote, the election will take place on June 15. If the district votes against the second version of the budget, a contingency budget will automatically be adopted.

“I want to know what things won’t we be able to do with a contingency budget,” Sikule told The Enterprise. “There are certain ways under a contingency budget that you’re constrained, even though it might be the same actual amount as the budget that we put up, so I want to know what those things are, and those are some things I’m hoping to find out Thursday.”

The school board will meet at 7 p.m. in the district office tonight, Thursday, May 20.

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