Bowers outlines ‘smarter spending’ even if Cuomo won’t give numbers
By Pamela Doan
In a welcome relief for everyone affected by school budgets, the Haldane Central School District is on course for an uneventful — one could even say, optimistic — budget season. Uneventful compared to last year, when the Board of Education was facing down cuts to programs and laying off staff until a last-minute settlement with the Haldane Faculty Association balanced things out, and optimistic because it increases opportunities for students and adds new programs without exceeding the taxpayer cap.
At the BOE meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 24, the board heard the second of two presentations about the 2015–16 school year; this one focused on educational programs. At an earlier meeting, operations were covered. Without any information about how much state aid the district will receive since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office hasn’t released any figures yet, Superintendent Diana Bowers called this “a budget for the worst-case scenario with no increases in state aid.”
Bowers laid out her plans for ongoing teacher development, including programs at Harvard and Columbia universities. About 40 faculty have been trained this year in Project-Based Learning, a new approach that focuses on individual learning and metacognitive thinking. She wants to enhance the teachers’ skills by using the resources of different institutes. Board President Joe Curto said, “Since I’ve been here I’ve never heard a proposal as far as supporting our teachers and retraining like this.”
The principal of the elementary/middle school, Brent Harrington, and the principal of the high school, Brian Alm, talked about the budget impact of program enhancements and expansions for their respective schools. The new makerspace in the district has been very effective and popular with students. Harrington said, “It has transformed our approach to teaching and learning.” The budget includes funding a new teaching position to move those initiatives forward for kindergarten through the 12th grade. He referred to it as “Discover, Innovate and Create.”
In the high school, Alm focused on adding electives and co-curricular activities that he described as being relevant to 21st-century students. The makerclass, computer programming, advanced science and math classes, as well as incorporating student groups that have sustained interest and need faculty support, were among his priorities.
Sports, technology and library resources will also be improved and updated with more choices and resources for students. Athletic Director Thomas Cunningham said that 60 percent of the student body was involved in one of Haldane’s 11 sports offerings. More coaches will be added to accommodate all the students who want to participate. Technology and the library’s resources will be upgraded without significant costs.
In summary, Bowers described the budget process as trying to “spend smarter rather than spending more.” She has identified ways to decrease money that is paid to BOCES for communications and public relations, “a substantial cost” she said will bring back $125,000 to the district. All of the money to fund the district’s budget for 2015–16, including two new staff positions, would come from recapturing and repurposing money that is already in the budget.
At the next meeting on March 3, the board will review the first budget proposal, which is based on the rollover budget that they discussed in January. Curto said: “I love the concept of what you’re trying to do. We don’t want to exceed the cap, and if we can do all that within the cap, we’ll probably have a pleasurable budget season.” Bowers noted that the plans they presented were not based on any increases in state aid.
State aid seen as hostage
As an expression of their frustration with Cuomo’s refusal to notify districts of their proposed aid for the coming school year, the board voted to sign onto a resolution to the governor calling for an immediate release of information.
Cuomo has tied several reforms to any increases in state aid, including changing the way that teachers are evaluated and eliminating limits on the number of charter schools. Many districts, including the Garrison Union Free School district, have joined together to protest this tactic. While districts are held to a strict timeline by law for passing budgets, they are not in control of the information about state funds that impact their budgets. Board Member Peter Henderson said: “We have very strong objections to the governor holding this money hostage as we’re trying to pass a budget. He’s using it for political purposes.”
Board Member Evan Schwartz’s term is up this year and he announced his intention to run for another term. There will be three seats up for election this spring. Curto, a trustee appointed to fill Gillian Thorpe’s seat when she resigned last year, will not seek a full term, and Jon Champlin will be stepping aside as well.