School budget approved unanimously

Before taking off for the winter break, the Board of Education had one important piece of business to complete, and that was done with the unanimous approval of the $144-million 2014-15 budget.

After largely taking a backseat to the now-resolved drama of who would be chairman of the board, passage of the budget was uneventful at the Dec. 19 meeting, which was the last scheduled one of the year. The budget passed unanimously, with only minor changes and no additions or subtractions to the $143,939,653 first proposed last month by Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, which represents a 2.1% increase over the current year’s budget.

One adjustment was pushed for by board Chairman Barbara O’Neill, who called for up to $92,788 of the proposed $650,000 slated for achievement gap issues to be spent on allowing children in kindergarten through third grade who are not reading at goal level to attend summer school at the lower rate already offered to students eligible for free and reduced lunch. This was done with the administration’s support, as the number was based on district estimates of what it would cost to cover those students.

“We have board goal on literacy in the primary grades, and this would be part of the achievement gap effort,” Ms. O’Neill said. “I haven’t seen any achievement gap program or plan that didn’t include extended year and extended day. We have summer school. That’s our extended year, and this would be the ideal way to get those students who are not reading at grade level, whatever school they come from, and get them summer school at the free and reduced lunch rate. It seems to me that it’s in our best interests to do this. Students who are not reading at grade level will return in the fall further behind and will then have the expense of tutoring and maybe special ed requirements. This seems to be a very economical way of dealing with students who are not performing at grade level and supporting our own goal.”

Dr. McKersie called this a “conservative number” and noted at this level there would not be a third location for summer school in the district, putting a ceiling on the number of students who would be able to participate.

“If the board does this, we would have to manage it very carefully and closely,” Dr. McKersie said. “Like other things we do, there would be a point where we say we just can’t add in more students.”

Board Vice Chairman Jennifer Dayton said that not all students who are invited to summer school end up attending it, meaning space and financial obligation might not end up being an issue. If not all the money budgeted for this item is used, it can be reallocated throughout the school system.

“I think this is a very important part of student achievement to get reading as proficient as it can possibly be around the age of grade three,” Ms. Dayton said. “Otherwise it is uphill work, and I think this is the appropriate time to intervene in the child’s career.”

This motion was approved by a six-to-two margin. The lone votes against the shift came from board members Peter Sherr and Peter von Braun. Mr. Sherr said he wanted to wait and see what the administration’s recommendation was as part of the achievement gap plan that was slated for March before allocating money for something like this. Both men ended up voting in favor of the total budget.

A motion from board member Laura Erickson to add $160,408 to the budget to allow for two more school social workers for the elementary schools failed. Ms. Erickson said she felt the current model of having only one social worker for the district’s 11 elementary schools was “too lean” and wasn’t properly addressing student well-being.

“When I was out in the community this fall [running for the board], one of the things that came across loud and clear was that this is an important issue and we need to address these children when they are young and at risk,” Ms. Erickson said. “I know this is a ‘wish list’ item on my part, but it’s important to signal that the need is there.”

The addition would have been followed up by cost offsets had it been approved, but the board was reluctant to do so since it had not been requested by district administration.

Mr. Sherr also noted the review already under way of district mental health services following the suicide earlier this year of 15-year-old Greenwich High School student Bart Palosz, who had reportedly been the victim of years of chronic bullying. As with the summer school money, Mr. Sherr said he wanted to address this as part of a bigger effort.

“I would rather wait and hear a more comprehensive proposal from the administration after that review is complete,” Mr. Sherr said. “We could then potentially revisit any additional resources that we may need to address this in a more comprehensive way. I know we’re all concerned. I’m concerned, not about the addition of resources if we need them, but I think we should be very careful as a board adding things into the budget that have not been requested by the administration or are not particularly called for in one of our planning and review documents.”

Board member Adriana Ospina added she was concerned about where the cost offsets would have to come from, since the administration had not asked for the social workers.

Dr. McKersie said he believed the offsets would have to come from money set aside in the budget to close the achievement gap, but that if the board wanted it he would make the change.

“We built the budget with great care and prioritization,” Dr. McKersie said. “Clearly the issue of student well-being and mental health as well as everything else social workers can pay attention to is very important. We did not have this on the screen as we built the budget. We have strong coverage in our schools for all these mental health issues. We have been looking at this issue for the past couple of weeks as it’s come forward in the board discussions. As superintendent I very much honor the board’s right to look at priorities and look at concerns and issues they do not feel were adequately addressed.”

Dr. McKersie later said that social workers could be added later as part of the district’s overall strategy toward closing the achievement gap.

Ms. Dayton was one of the supporters of the motion, saying the social workers should be in the schools for “rapid response to families in our community.” She said the past year proved the need for social workers.

Ultimately the motion locked in a four-to-four tie and did not move forward, despite having the support of both Ms. O’Neill and Ms. Dayton.

The board also increased its capital budget request from the town by $100,000 to attempt to accelerate the evaluation of New Lebanon School for possible expansion and/or renovation. The school has been dealing with a serious space crunch in recent years, and the vote for the increase, which will be used for a feasibility study, was unanimous. An interim appropriation of this money had been approved previously by the board, but Ms. Dayton said she felt this action was necessary to push it through the town’s capital process and make sure it wasn’t delayed or deferred by the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

Putting in the request this way could potentially move the money faster than under the current interim appropriation.

“It’s very important to make sure it’s part of the budget,” Ms. Dayton said, citing concerns from the school community over the space. Ms. Ospina added that she did not want to set a “dangerous precedent” by using operational budget funds for what was “clearly” a capital expense.

Benjamin Branyan, the district’s managing director of operations, said at the meeting that work is ongoing with an architect and a “rough draft” has been completed. A presentation to the board is scheduled for February.

“I think you will be pleasantly pleased with the result,” Mr. Branyan said. “The architects are doing a great job of quantifying and visually showing some of the deficiencies within New Lebanon from various learning spaces.”

The school budget will now go to the BET for consideration by its Budget Committee in February. Once it gets the blessing of the committee, it will go before the full BET in March and then the Representative Town Meeting for a final vote in May.


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