April 15, 2008
This article appeared in The Townsman, April 17 2008 edition
This article appeared in The Townsman, April 17 2008 edition
The Woodstock town board heard a presentation by district superintendent Dr. Leslie Ford on the proposed Onteora School District’s annual budget in the amount of $48,215,077, to be decided by the voters on May 20. Because of an unanticipated increase in state aid the tax increase is expected to be only around 1% over last year’s levy, instead of the initial 2.84% projected increase.
Members of the town board and several of the large number of attendees of the meeting, however, expressed more interest with the school board’s yet-to-be accepted master plan for reconfiguring the school district, which may result in closure of the elementary school facility in Woodstock. With little to no contention over the actual proposed budget, attention was mostly focused instead on what most considered to be an unwelcome prospect.
Joining Dr. Ford were members of the school board appointed Budget Advisory Committee, who discussed the conclusions and recommendations in their report on the financial future of the district that faces declining enrolment. Committee members Jim Stoothoff, Paul DeLisio, Sylvia Liedtke-Tinti and Drew Boggess (the fifth member Pam Walkowiak was not in attendance) spoke at length on the financial challenges of maintaining quality education in an environment of shrinking numbers of students. Although not addressing the issue of potential school closures (the elementary school in Phoenicia is also a candidate for closure), it was certainly the elephant in the room.
The budget advisory committee’s recommendations aimed primarily at containing the cost of district personnel and benefits, which together consume approximately 80% of the school district’s budget. Ideas ranged from hiring new teachers at lower starting pay to curtailing if not altogether abolishing lifetime retirement benefits, including health insurance. Increased teachers’ contribution toward their health insurance premiums was also mentioned.
While Dr. Ford was quick to point out that these recommendations were contractual matters to be addressed with the teachers’ union, Mr. DeLisio countered that a more firm approach to reining is costs may be necessary. Mr. Boggess pointed out that there are less property owners in the school district who have children in the system, and therefore future school budgets will become more vulnerable to voters who may feel less vested in the educational needs of local children.
Councilman Wenk asked why were there dwindling numbers of children in the district. He was informed that second-home owners who send their children to school in their primary address communities were buying more and more residences in the district.
Officials in the Ulster County planning department have long cited the area’s “graying,” its lack of job opportunities and affordable housing for younger families as contributing causes for fewer children.
Supervisor Jeff Moran asked that questions from the public concerning Dr. Ford’s presentation and the presentation of the budget advisory committee be submitted in writing. As he read them it became clear almost all, directly or indirectly, addressed the potential closing of the Woodstock elementary school.
Dr. Ford, along with members of the school board also in attendance, repeated several times that the proposed master plan for the district, with its possibilities ranging from closing one elementary school to closing none, was still in discussion and was an entirely separate issue that had nothing to do with the May 20 vote on the annual budget. It was stressed that the master plan proposal and the bond vote required for its approval would continue to be discussed by the school board in public, and it was clearly a future consideration.
“Right now,” concluded Dr. Ford, “the proposed budget meets the educational needs of the children, and it shows great concern and respect for the taxpayer. That is the issue people should be focused on. I’ve seen too many school budgets voted down over extraneous issues. It only hurts the kids.”
After almost two hours of discussion Dr. Ford and other district representatives were thanked for their time.
Earlier in the meeting paying monthly bills amounting to $196,677.14 and accepting transfers to different budget lines took less than a minute. Also, a resolution for a $2000.00 contribution to the Babe Ruth baseball league to help pay for special infield dirt delivered to Davis Park in the Town of Olive was unanimously adopted after little discussion. Fees for enrolling children in Woodstock’s Summer Rec Program were increased, also by unanimous consent after brief discussion.
In other business conducted during a meeting adjourned not until midnight there was an hour and a half devoted to updating the fees for use of town buildings by residents and organizations. There seemed to be no “just right” in this matter. Performing Arts of Woodstock requires a modest fee in order to continue to provide dramatic presentations in the Town Hall, according to PAW member Ann Washington, and individuals such as Cassia Berman claimed the need for cheap rent in order for her classes, for which she charges a fee, to continue. The Woodstock taxpayer, according to councilman Wenk, needs about $28,000 dollars a year, the annual energy and maintenance costs of the buildings, in order to break even. Opinion on the town board ranged from councilman Collin’s desire to offer the buildings for free, to the supervisor Moran’s updated schedule of fees and the requirement for users to provide insurance to protect the Town’s exposure. He cited the example of a person’s (former councilwoman Toby Heilbrunn) suit against the Town and the Woodstock Film Festival after she had sustained an injury at the Community Center facility several years ago. After nearly two hours on the topic, including impassioned speeches from the buildings’ users, a motion to adjust fees was tabled.
The town board scheduled a special meeting for May 6 at 3:00 pm at the Town Offices for the purpose of opening bids for construction related to the Town Hall renovation, and also for a public hearing to commence at 5:00 pm on the closure of Old Forge Road to accommodate music on the Village Green. Proposed closure dates are May 26, June 14 and 28, July 5 and 12 and August 9, 16 and 30.