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December 27, 2013

Cuts, curriculum sparked debate in '13

By Mark Boshnack Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Area public schools dealt with one familiar problem in 2013 and one that was becoming clear, some familiar with the situation said.

The year began with concerns over budgets in area schools. Fittingly it made the news in January, as it has for the last few years, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed his state budget.

While the plan called for an increase of 4.4 percent, superintendents and business officials who are familiar with the process said they wanted time to analyze the state plan to see if it truly offered all that was promised. The state had been subtracting a so-called "gap elimination adjustment" from school aid in order to reduce the state budget.

Later in that month, officials said that when the totals were analyzed, the aid will not be enough to meet mandated costs such as employee retirement services and health insurance.

Unatego business manager Nicholas Rosas said that with the aid still being assessed, several years of relatively low state funding left the district running out of areas to cut.

Everything would be on the table, he said. In 2012-13, the district consolidated its two elementary schools to stay within the tax cap. It considered closing one of those to close a budget gap of about $1 million, and faces a similar situation this year.

Other schools said that they would also face tough choices this budget year.

Schools in the two area BOCES attended a forum with area legislators to discuss the issues facing schools at Otego Elementary School at the end of February. The day before that, state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, brought Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan to a meeting at Oneonta High School to hear concerns of area school officials.

The Legislature at the time was expected pass the state budget in a little more than one month, so “the next few weeks are critical,” Seward said. Although he was from Long Island, Flanagan said, in his travels around the state, he has become an advocate for rural schools as he became aware of the problems of fiscal insolvency they are facing.

Oneonta School Board President Grace Larkin said as districts deal with reduced resources, there aren't a lot of options.

As had other districts, Oneonta made some difficult choices to meet previous budget deficits. The district planned to move its sixth grade from the elementary schools to the middle school, and cut more than a dozen positions to close its budget gap, which at one point was $1.5 million.

When schools learned in late March of the amount of state aid they would receive, it was generally more than was anticipated when budgets were crafted to go before voters May 21.

At Oneonta, the $500,000 in additional state aid was “far better than what I thought we would get,” Interim Superintendent David Rowley said. While it wouldn’t change any plans, “this will change our thinking on further cuts.”

Delaware Academy Central School was also scheduled to receive an increase more than was anticipated. Superintendent Jason Thomson said: “We are happy to see more than expected but we have to be realistic and cautious. We don’t know if it's a one-time opportunity.”

At Unatego, which still faced a substantial deficit, savings from shared services with Sidney Central School, and amortizing required debt service payments were part of its budget plans.

With all area school presenting budgets at or below the state tax cap in May, only Middleburgh Central School saw its budget defeated. It was passed in June after it was cut below the tax cap.

After the May vote, Rowley said the open process in discussing budget issues helped. At Unatego, Rosas said the vote showed “outstanding” community support, while at Delhi, Thomson said it was “a resounding vote of confidence.”

Although the budgets were passed, schools had already started looking at ways to meet next school year’s anticipated budget squeeze. In late August, that included continued efforts by Sidney and Unatego Central school to save money by working together. A merger-study grant application was also submitted to the state by Schenevus and Worcester Central schools. The announcement came later in the year that it was not funded.

ONC BOCES District Superintendent Nicholas Savin said that although 2013-14 budgets were better than expected, districts realize “they are not out of the woods yet.”

The 2012-13 school year was the first year the state implemented the Common Core curriculum. It is being used in more than 40 states as part of national effort to improve learning standards.

But before the curriculum had completed its first year of usage, the state had students tested on it. The results were reported in August, with English Language Arts scores for proficiency or above down more than 20 points from the previous year, to 31.1. Math scores were down more than 30 points to 31.

State Commissioner John B. King Jr said that the scores should not be compared to previous results, because this was a new test. Instead, it should serve as a baseline to measure future achievement.

In light of the scores, the Board of Regents gave districts greater leeway in deciding who needs remedial services.

The scores and other issues led superintendents to talk in August about their concerns at the start of a new school year. Unadilla Valley Central School Superintendent Robert Mackey said the continued implementation of the Common Core will be the main issue.

At Sidney Central School, Superintendent Bill Christensen said the tests are different in style than those previously given because they call for applying knowledge and using high-order skills necessary in a real-world situation.

That is an improvement, he said, and while the previous standards may have been too low, they were what the state required.

Oneonta City School District Joseph Yelich, who started in the district in July, addressed the issues at a September school board meeting attended by more than 80 parents and teachers.

They were concerned with the district’s implementation of the Common Core and its use of modules, which they said provide step-by-step directions for teachers instead of letting them use their experience.

Yelich said he would give teachers flexibility in using the modules, adding: "I don’t want to lose the creativity in the classroom.”

In early November, a two-hour forum by the Oneonta Area for Public Education, formed in reaction to the curriculum, standardized testing and related issues, was held at Morris Hall at SUNY Oneonta. More than 200 people were in attendance.

One of the group's founders, Worcester parent Danielle Boudet, said: “Testing is creating a one-size-fits-all environment. Our teachers are doing a great job despite this."

Hartwick professor Betsy Bloom outlined the history of the issue starting with the 1983 federal report, “A Nation at Risk.” Teachers are forced to test because their careers depend on it, she said.

The issue is sure to continue in the new year.