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December 27, 2012

Local schools made hard choices

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — Editor’s note: This is the second of a five-part series on the top local stories of 2012.

By Mark Boshnack

Staff Writer

Tight budgets and tough choices were issues many area schools faced in 2012. That situation was something school officials said they did not expect to change in the upcoming year. Legal issues were apparently decided in a case against some Cooperstown high school football players, while a former Walton teacher accused of having sex with two underage students is still waiting her day in court.

In January, the proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo set the tone for the 2012-2013 budget season.

Cuomo’s proposal appeared to call for increases in school aid, but as the plan was analyzed, educators became aware that the state’s gap elimination adjustment cut aid in many districts in an effort to close the state shortfall.

While many districts had to make difficult choices, the problem at two districts were in the news often during the year.

Closing Center Street School

Oneonta City School District found itself facing a deficit of more than $1 million during the budget process. This led to the closing of Center Street Elementary School. It began at a Feb. 17 meeting attended by about 400 people.

Superintendent Michael Shea, who had announced his retirement in January, ending a 32-year career in education, said, “doing nothing doesn’t appear to be an option,” faced with a sizable deficit. If legislators don’t significantly increase state aid he had to look at such options as staff reductions, cutting student access to occupational education and consolidating the four elementary schools. He asked people to write letters and sign petitions.

A community group, Support Oneonta Schools, was formed and met several weeks later to help the board of education find ways to close the deficit. About 150 people attended that first meeting. The following day, Shea announced that he was developing a plan to close the school, if funds were not forthcoming.

“I have a responsibility to put forth a spending plan” to go before voters in May, Shea said, adding that while it was the hardest decision he has ever made as Oneonta superintendent, it was necessary to maintain programs without increasing taxes an unacceptable amount.

In April the board decided to give voters a chance to decide the issue in May 15 voting. One budget option would call for a 1.81 percent tax levy increase that would call for the closing of the school. The second would call for an additional 5.15 percent tax increase that would raise $931,536 necessary to keep the building open. Despite a campaign to convince residents to support the additional tax hike, the effort was defeated by a more than 2-1 majority.

The final day of classes, June 21, was an emotional one for many. Principal Coleen Lewis said: “It was the last day we would be together as a Center Street family. I tried to keep it upbeat — to make it a positive ending.” It went really well thanks to the “professional manner of the teachers and staff. They rose to the occasion,” she said. Lewis, who lost her job in the cutbacks, went on to be principal at Schenevus Central School starting in July.

In September, the school year began with some transportation problems, but following reports said it had improved. At a December 5 board meeting, principals of the remaining three elementary schools said that while the closing remains an emotional issue for some, it has had educational benefits.

Unatego Reconfiguration

The Unatego Central School Board started discussing a plan to reconfigure its two elementary schools last year in the face of a projected budget shortfall of about $1 million. It was decided to table the issue in light of concerns of local residents until more details were known about state aid.

In response to the possibility, a group of area residents formed Unatego United to organize action about getting more state aid. The group helped organize a forum Feb. 9 at the junior/senior high school to meet with area legislators to talk about restoring some of the state funding that was proving the earlier predictions to be accurate.

The state aid cuts “cripple our fine schools,” Superintendent Charles Molloy said. The state budget released March 30 gave some additional money to area schools, including $149,000 to Unatego. It was not enough to change the direction of the budget crisis, officials said.

It led to Molloy and business manager Nicholas Rosas proposing a plan in April at a school board meeting that would close Otego Elementary School, while maintaining the K-5 elementary school in Unadilla. After a proposal by board member Scott Brown to use additional fund balance, the final plan that was part of the budget proposal that went before voters called for students in grades K-2 to go to Otego and grades 3-5 to attend Unadilla Elementary School. In September, students and staff said the new arrangement was working well.

Budget Voting

and the Tax Cap

Voters approved Unatego and Oneonta budgets in May 15 voting. The Oneonta vote required a 60 percent majority because the two proposals on the ballot, if passed, would have put the total tax levy increase above the new state property tax cap requirements.

This was the first year the rules were in effect. It requires schools to propose budgets where the tax levy increase does not exceed 2 percent, with some exceptions. If it is beyond that, a 60 percent majority is required. The two other area central school budgets that exceeded the cap, Unadilla Valley — that called for a tax levy increase of 4.3 percent, and Cobleskill-Richmondville — that called for a 4.54 percent increase — were defeated. Both were reduced to meet the cap requirements and were passed in June 19 voting.

The Future

Schools have started to look at what next year’s budget might bring and they were not hopeful for good news soon. In November, students and staff at Unatego joined a statewide effort to bring continued funding problems to state legislators’ attention. Unatego Superintendent Charles Molloy said that if his school gets state aid similar to last year, the only alternative would be to close Otego Elementary School and cut non-mandated programs.

At a December Oneonta City School District Board of Education meeting, preliminary budget information showed that the district could be facing a $1 million budget gap at this stage in the process. While that could change, it is an indication that the district could be in for another challenging year, officials said.

Legal Cases

Non-criminal harassment charges were lodged against five Cooperstown High School students at the end of last year. They came in connection with the alleged bullying of a teammate. No guilty pleas were entered by the teens. The cases were adjourned in contemplation of dismissal, Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl said in May. That means that the charges would be dropped in six months if they stay out of trouble, he said. Muehl could not be reached Tuesday to see if there were any changes.

In late November, a former Walton high school teacher, Stephanie Fletcher, who had until recently been employed by the school, was charged with two counts of third-degree rape, one count of third-degree criminal sexual act and one count of endangering the welfare of a child, for allegedly having sex with two underage students. A hearing scheduled for Sidney Town Court in mid-December was postponed until Feb. 14 at the request of special counsel Michael Breen of Middleburgh, with the consent of Fletcher’s attorney.