Listening to the Onteora options. (Photo by Lisa Childers)

A full audience of mostly parents, along with some concerned taxpayers and teachers turned out to listen quietly while Onteora district school officials spoke about finances, declining enrollment and education factors Tuesday, January 10 at Bennett Elementary. As the process unfolds, continued research offering more information on three proposed models was revealed, two of which would close Phoenicia Elementary.

Operating under assumptions necessitated by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s two-percent tax cap plan, projections show that Onteora will run a deficit of $11.3 million by 2017. The figure was put forth recently by Richard Timbs of Bernard P. Donegan consulting firm, and it showed that, compared to many districts throughout the state, Onteora is in better financial shape and has a little wiggle room, but that eventually financial changes must be made in order to stop the bleeding.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Victoria McLaren compared the three models projected expenditures up to the year of 2017, utilizing formulas that included a two percent tax levy increase each year that would have to be approved by voters.

In one scenario, Phoenicia Elementary would be closed, leaving two Kindergarten-through-grade six schools at Woodstock and Bennett. In that instance, by 2017 the district would still run a deficit of $2.2 million. If the so-called Princeton plan were implemented — with two Kindergarten-through-grade three schools at Woodstock and Phoenicia and one grade four-through-six school at Bennett, by 2017 it, too, would run a deficit of $2.7 million. The other Princeton proposal — one Kindergarten-through-three school at Woodstock and one grade four-through-six school at Bennett is the only model which shows a small 2017 surplus of $168,000. “What saddens me is all three models will still put us out of business,” Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill said. If voters were to reject the two percent levy increase along the way, the deficit depending on the model would run greater than $13 million by 2017.

McGill said she favors the Princeton plan or what some are calling the bookend plan, that would have two Kindergarten-through-grade three schools on each end of the district (Woodstock and Phoenicia) and one (Bennett Elementary) that would house grades four-through-six. “I like it — that’s my bottom line,” she said, reasoning that it saves financially, and is the only model that allows enhancement of the educational program by integrating core subjects and team teaching. Older students at Bennett could take advantage of the late buses leaving from the Boiceville site, she said, and because two schools are consolidated, this allows for more after-school programs in arts, sports and foreign language. Younger grades would remain small and focus on early literacy programming that would prepare them for the upper grades when State testing standards kick in. McGill listed other school districts that use the Princeton type grade configuration and noted most are happy with the results.

There are no projected cost increases in transportation on all three models, and savings are possible, though it’s too early in the budget season to determine. Travel time for students would also change very little, according to director of Transportation Betty Hughes, who said that the average travel time for a student currently is 47 minutes, with a maximum in district time of 51 minutes. On all three models there would be very little change from this scenario. However, with the Princeton plan, grades four-through-six would travel with the Middle/High school students. This raised concerns with some parents noting an inappropriate age mix.

If Phoenicia Elementary were to close, based on enrollment projections, approximately 94 students would get bussed to Bennett for a total of 332 students and 76 Phoenicia students would transport to Woodstock, totaling 335 students. Bennett students would remain in their home school.

 

Bennett petition supports two schools only

The presentation was followed by a public forum and commentary, extending the meeting to nearly four hours. Most comments and questions surfaced from people who had children in Phoenicia and Bennett schools, and clearly showed a divide between those who would keep Phoenicia Elementary open and a call to close it. Bennett PTA President Sharon Wood announced that a petition was circulated among its members that would only support a “two elementary school solution” — throwing its weight behind the closure of Phoenicia elementary. Three parents with children in Phoenicia school protested the nature of the petition, noting that they were “saddened and disappointed,” stating that it was a “divisive move,” primarily since financial accusations of failure were based on speculation and not fact.

Parent Wendy Wolfenson of West Shokan questioned the security at Phoenicia Elementary, noting a registered sex offender lives in the area. “What are the plans, or are there plans to enhance security at Phoenicia and specifically will you be putting up a fence around the playground and clear cutting that wooded area adjacent to the playground?” School board president Ann McGillicuddy said, “That wooded area around the playground is the nature trail and classrooms use it.” Later in the meeting parents with children at Phoenicia school said the area is well monitored and safe.

Trustee Laurie Osmond confirmed that 75 percent of the budget goes toward salaries and benefits for employees. This led Phoenicia parent Brett Barry to offer a different view stating that he’s “not in love with any of the plans.” The school district will have reserves until 2016 and Barry asked why rush since at the state level there are too many changes taking place. “We ought to wait and see if there will be a change,” said Barry. “I don’t think we should project too far into the future without having all the facts.” Barry said he is a member of three unions and has respect for teachers, however, “I’m wondering if there’s been any concessions by teachers unions or this administration…that is yet another avenue to explore before drastic measures are taken.”

McGill said the goal is to implement a new grade configuration by the 2012/2013 school-year. However McGillicuddy clarified rumor mills circulating. The board hasn’t set a final decision date on future planning until more financial and mandate information comes from the state level.

 

Hurricane relief…

By unanimous vote, the board approved tax relief for victims of hurricane Irene and tropical storm Lee. The property tax legislation signed into law December 9, 2011 will provide tax relief to owners of property that have lost at least 50 percent of its value. Trustee Tom Hickey recused himself from the vote, stating that he was, “someone who suffered a loss of 100 percent of property.” McLaren said taxpayers who may be eligible, would need to apply to their town assessors and have their property revalued post storm damage. If eligible, the school will refund a portion of the 2011/2012 paid tax, based on the lower property value.++