Draft budget spending increase will have to be trimmed
By Michael Turton
When Brent Harrington, principal of Haldane elementary and middle schools, addressed school board trustees at their Tuesday (Dec. 18) meeting, these were his opening remarks: “My report is really about the ordinary. Yesterday was an unremarkable day for our students. That was what we aimed for.”
Harrington was referring to how Haldane’s teachers and administration handled the aftermath of the killings that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., last Friday. In a letter to families, he explained that he and his staff decided not to draw more attention to the incident by observing a moment of silence on Monday morning.
“Many parents, including myself, consciously chose not to share the events of Friday with our young children. As a result, a moment of silence would raise questions from students and potentially create unnecessary anxiety,” he wrote in the letter.
A moment of silence was observed at the high school. “Students are struggling to process what happened,” Principal Brian Alm said. “It’s hard to make sense of it.” Alm said that many teachers used the moment of silence to introduce a discussion about the shootings. Throughout Monday, teachers, administration and support staff worked to make the day as normal as possible. “There is nothing more comforting than routine,” Alm said.
In the high school lobby, students created a large card and are collecting signatures before sending it to Sandy Hook School.
In his report, Superintendent of Schools Mark Villanti said of the school killings, “This is a game changer. Violence is so rare in our school, we’ve been more casual. There are some things we’re looking at tightening up.”
Harrington included some of the specific security precautions being taken in his letter to parents. Entrance doors will now be locked at 9 a.m., and teachers are now required to lock classroom doors. Monitoring of visitors to the school is being revised and increased. Some parents had inquired where students would be evacuated to in the event of an emergency, but Harrington declined to answer specifically. “Sharing the evacuation location would jeopardize … safety. However, this plan has been reviewed with staff,” he said in his letter.
Villanti said that he has received suggestions from parents regarding security and related issues. A safety committee meeting had been scheduled prior to Friday’s shootings, but he said administration wouldn’t wait and is moving forward with new procedures. He also encouraged the community to be involved. “Please, if you have any thoughts, share your ideas,” he said.
First budget draft presented
Villanti presented the first draft of a 2013-14 budget, one that has been described as the toughest financial challenge trustees and administration have ever faced. The draft includes total spending of $22,618,110 — a 3.15 percent increase over last year. That spending will have to be trimmed in order to stay within the tax cap imposed by New York state. Villanti estimates that about $350,000 in spending will have to be eliminated to meet that target — unless additional revenue can be found, which seems highly unlikely.
He continued to hammer the state government over reduced aid to schools and presented a slide showing that over the past four years, aid to Haldane as result of the “Gap Elimination Adjustment” has declined by a total of $1,659,553. During that same period, “Foundation Aid” for operations has increased by only $9,066. Villanti was again critical of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s assertion that state aid to schools has increased by 4 percent, saying that the figure actually varies greatly from district to district.
“I want the public to have the facts. It’s [The 4 percent is] a confusing number,” Villanti said. “Four percent in state aid is a fiction. I hate to say it, but I think it’s spin politics.” He said that Haldane has seen no increase but has experienced a net loss in state aid.
New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef and newly elected State Senator Terry Gipson will attend a Haldane School Board budget workshop scheduled for Jan. 15. The Haldane PTA is spearheading a letter-writing campaign aimed at making Cuomo more aware of how reductions in state aid are affecting the school.
‘It’s not about the technology’
Alm presented a detailed review of Haldane’s use of digital devices as teaching tools. The high school purchased a number iPads two years ago and has been using them on a trial basis in class — along with strategic student use of cellphones for project-oriented work. Alm stressed that the key is not the technological devices themselves but rather their ability to enhance teaching and learning.
His other major theme was that significant shifts in teaching and learning are now taking place. In the “new learning ecology,” teaching is becoming much more individualized with students learning at their own pace and ability levels. He said that in the past, it has been a cliché that “students enter high school curious — and we school it out of them.” The shifts in teaching emphasize a nurturing of that curiosity along with creativity and critical thinking.
On Monday, trustees sat in on a senior class in government and economics that incorporated student use of iPads and their cellphones. After watching a very brief video, students were asked to respond to a question about it that required critical thought. They then used their cellphones to anonymously text in their answers, which were immediately projected onto a screen at the front of the room.
Trustees were impressed with what they saw. “We’re absolutely heading in the right direction,” said Trustee Peter Henderson. “I have no question in my mind that what we saw will be (expanded) many times over.”
Villanti reported that he will meet soon with local real-estate representatives regarding the sale of the 10.6-acre James Pond property. He has already received an inquiry from one potential buyer. Funds from the land sale will be used to help pay for improvements to the main sports field, the auditorium and new lockers.
Trustee Jon Champlin, who co-chairs PLAY Haldane, the organization raising funds for the athletic field project, reported that cash-in-hand and pledges now total $57,000. The organization’s goal is to raise $100,00 towards the project. He also said that the group has three or four grant applications pending, and that if they are successful, they will be very close to achieving their financial goal.
Trustees approved the appointment of Tom Campanile to the auditing committee. Peter Henderson chairs the committee. Other members are trustee Evan Schwartz and Roman Danilov. One position remains open, and residents interested in serving are asked to submit a letter to the district outlining their qualifications.