Haldane Preps for Financial Storm

Discussion of athletic fields continues  

By Michael Turton

Last week’s meeting of the Haldane Board of Education, its first of the New Year, was brief. While it lasted little more than an hour, it touched upon a number of significant issues, not the least of which is the fact that trustees, administration, teachers, support staff and the community face a budget cycle that will undoubtedly be the most difficult in years. Superintendent Dr. Mark Villanti referred to the current combination of daunting economic factors as “the perfect storm.” He has been known to use that term in the past, but in describing a theoretical financial storm that was still far out to sea. It appears that storm is now very real and about to make landfall.

In preparing its 2011-12 budget the board will have to contend with both the end of federal stimulus funds and yet-to-be-announced reductions in state aid. Villanti provided a hint as to how difficult this year’s discussions will be when he opened the meeting by quoting from a recent New York Times article by Thomas Friedman. In part, the article stated, we are entering an era where to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people. It is the only way we’ll get our fiscal house in order before the market, brutally does it for us.leaders who will deserve praise in this new era are those who develop a hybrid politics that persuades a majority of voters to cut where we must so we can invest where we must.”

Villanti also highlighted remarks by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed contained in the Friedman article. “The bottom line is … there must be a generation tough enough to  take the hit…. It is time to begin having the types of mature and honest conversations necessary to deal effectively with the new economic realities we are facing as a nation. We simply cannot keep kicking the can down the road.”

“I want this to be a conversation with our staff and our community” Villanti said. It could be an intense conversation. Contracts with both teaching and support staff are being renegotiated this year. Funding decisions by newly elected New York governor Andrew Cuomo will likely add the Haldane board’s challenges. Villanti said that Cuomo is considering a spending cap of either 2 percent or the Consumer Price Index (CPI) – whichever is lower.  “The CPI has been zero the past few years” he said. “And on face value a 2 percent increase may seem to make sense – but when you look at the decrease in revenue, we are entering the perfect storm.”

Vice president Joe Curto, who chaired the Jan. 4 meeting, said “My real fear is that the legislative process (in Albany) will break down but the cap will still be put in place. That would be Armageddon for school districts. I think Cuomo is a serious, intelligent guy. But they aren’t all like that. It could be a disaster.” Trustees will adopt the schedule for budget preparations at their Jan. 18 meeting. The proposed budget will go to voters in May.

All the financial news was not dire. Villanti reported that with the help of Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, Haldane received a $90,000 New York State grant for the purchase of a full-sized, propane powered bus. “We desperately needed a new bus,” he said and added that the new vehicle will be both cost effective and environmentally friendly. Haldane will pay approximately $10,000 towards the purchase, using unspent funds from last year’s transportation budget.

Discussion of athletic fields continues
Despite the tough economy Haldane is also in the initial stages of considering improvements to its athletic fields.  Summarizing a Dec. 21 standing-room-only gathering that included a “who’s who” of local sports organizations, Villanti said “The meeting was very positive – it will be an ongoing conversation. Our athletic fields are substandard and we must address that. How we do that, and the costs, are not yet known.” Curto also thought it was a good first step. “The (athletic fields) meeting was great for what it was – the start of a dialogue.” In addition to Haldane, a number of other organizations including the Town of Philipstown, Village of Cold Spring, Garrison Union Free School District and the St. Basil Academy, all of which have playing fields, will be part of a “user groups” committee. “This will be an intelligent, deliberate process. We won’t be breaking any ground in January and this will be different than other committees. It will be a regional solution.”

Lila Gold, a former teacher who has lived in Cold Spring for almost 40 years, questioned the wisdom of spending funds on Haldane’s sports fields. “I think sports are wonderful but not the single reason for getting kids involved with education. Companies will always sell you equipment. But the runners who win world races – run on dirt!” She also cautioned trustees to be leery of Cuomo. “Be careful. He was raised on politics. It was his mother’s milk.”

Civil Service Employees Association President Carol Filmanski also felt that athletic fields should not be the priority. “Why can’t we finish the high school?” she asked. “Not all students are going to use the sports fields. I still want to see that building be the way we dreamed it would be.” Trustee Michael Junjulas responded. “I do think that building is finished. It’s what the voters passed. This community can’t handle another gym or cafeteria going up.”

For Dennis and Patty Meekins, whose son was injured while playing soccer for Haldane at a home game, improved safety on the sidelines is a more of an issue than the condition of the playing fields. “The lack of assistant coaches is a safety concern” Mr. Meekins said, explaining that when his son was injured there was no one with proper training to attend to him. “The chaperone did her best but had no training and the coach was busy taking care of 20 kids. We felt it was neglect. At some point you are going to run into litigious parents.” His wife agreed. “We love the soccer coach but he was in an unfair position.  It doesn’t have to be a teacher – but someone who is properly trained has to be there. There is a responsibility.”

Villanti said that during last year’s budget preparation he had to make a difficult decision. “I had to eliminate a sport – or an assistant coach.” He opted for the latter. “It’s on my shudders. I wouldn’t run an event if I thought it was unsafe. I need to get the facts about your son.”  On a lighter note Villanti reported that at a recent game in Croton-on-Hudson, star basketball player Liz Milner scored the 1,000th point of her Haldane career.


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