Friday, May 15, 2009

School Board Elections: Catskill

------ On Tuesday (5/19), voters in GreeneLand's six school districts will make formative decisions about money, about leadership, and hence about the education of most of the county’s children. Experience indicates that those decisions will be made by rather small minorities of eligible voters. And yet the money involved exceeds one hundred million dollars. We will focus here only on the Catskill Central School District.

------ Participants in the Catskill district election (High School gymnasium, 6am-9pm) will vote Yea or Nay on a proposal to spend, for the public education in 2009-10 of about 1800 students, almost $37 million. And they will choose among six candidates for three positions on the district’s governing board. (Also to be decided is the fate of a proposed $439,580 budget for the Public Library. Please vote Yes).


----- Every year, just before election day, registered voters receive from the district office a “Newsletter” which blends, information (terms of the proposed budget, candidates’ self-written profiles) with advocacy. The current Budget 2009-2010 Newsletter. Reflecting Educational Excellence begins with an open letter to “Dear Community Members” that is published under the headline “Budget Reduced Almost $500,000 Programs Maintained.” Although its third sentence begins with the words “I am pleased to report” the letter is signed by James Garafalo, the school board’s president, and by Kathleen P. Farrell, the superintendent. Anyhow, its author(s) voice(s) gratification over current “academic growth,” strength of community support, and progress on major construction projects.

Subsequent parts of the Newsletter offer some details on categories of proposed expenditures, on revenue sources, on anticipated staffing changes, and of tax implications. Contemplated in the proposed budget is a $484,564 reduction in total outlays, accomplished chiefly by a big cut ($1,130,450, or 22%) in “General Support.” That expenditure category is not identified further in the Newsletter, but is distinguished from (in descending order of financial weight), Supervision & Instruction, Benefits, Special Education, Debt Service, Transportation, Pupil Services, Community Services, and Interfund Transfer.

------To meet these costs, according to the Newsletter, there would be an increase in State & Federal aid (up $251,208, to $16,017,963) as well as in local tax levy ($163,870, to $15,870,107). Those increases evidently are necessitated by the contemplated absence of “Repair Reserve” revenue, which in the current budget is said to be $900,000. Locally generated revenues (from property taxes and equivalents) would cover about half of the cost of Catskill district public schooling.


To gain perspective on the cost of public education here, it helps to make inter-district comparisons. To that end, relevant information can be gleaned from a portion of the data that every district administration provides by law to the State Department of Education. Included in these exhaustive “Report Cards” are outlays per pupil.

Figures published by the Education Department reach only to the 2006-07 school year. They differentiate between General Education and Special Education outlays. With regard to General Education, the per-pupil figure for Catskill in 2006-07was $9125, which is slightly below the State-wide figure of $9485 but higher than the figure for other districts that, in relation to a “Need-to-Resource-Capacity index,” are similar to Catskill. The latter figure was $8377. Meanwhile, with regard to Special Education, the local outlay per pupil in 2006-07 was $25,973, which is higher than the State-wide figure ($23,898) and the similar-district figure ($8377).

------Catskill school district differs from the others in GreeneLand in the financial, Need/Resources, classification. It is classed as being “high” in needs relative to local resources, whereas the Cairo-Durham, Coxsackie-Athens, Greenville, Hunter-Tannersville and Windham-Ashland-Jewett districts are rated on that measure as “average.” At any rate, for 2006-07 the $9125 Catskill district outlay per pupil in General Education compared with $7203 for Cairo-Durham, $8154 for Coxsackie-Athens, $8258 for Greenville, $10,767 for Hunter-Tannersville, and $11,894 for W-A-J. Catskill’s $25,973 outlay per Special Education pupil was substantially higher than its counterpart in other districts: $22,690 in Hunter-Tannersville, $19,661 in Coxsackie-Athens, $19,437 in Greenville, $15,755 in Cairo-Durham, and $11,717 in the Windham-Ashland-Jewett district (a suspect figure, since it is so low in comparison to other districts and is even lower than its reported General Education figure).

-----Current Catskill district enrollment is 1818. In relation to the proposed 2009-10 budget of just under $37 million, that represents an outlay per pupil (General and Special) of around $19,200. That figure is higher than for GreeneLand’s other school districts (but we do not have the necessary data). Sources of the difference are many and they are controversial. One substantial contributor, however, is readily apparent: Catskill’s proportion of Special Education pupils is higher than it is in other GreeneLand districts. That difference in turn is related to a higher incidence of mobile families whose children require Special Education services at a higher rate than the county average.


------The consequences of a negative vote on the proposed budget are discussed in the Newsletter.. By law the Board can respond to a rejection by putting the same budget before the voters, by offering a revised budget, or by going directly to a “contingent budget.” If the Board chooses either of the first two options, and its proposed budget gets rejected again, it must operate under the contingency rule, which is a plan of outlays whose total is affected by the national Consumer Price Index. That constraint means in effect that budgeted outlays for 2009-10 could not be more than 4 per cent higher than for 2008-09. (There are additional constraints on types of outlays). .

------The Newsletter also warns that State laws governing contingent budgets do not impose constraints on local tax levies, so “It is possible for the tax rate to be higher with a contingent budget.” Yes, but in this case, the proposed 2009-10 budget calls for outlays that are fractionally lower (1.29%) than in the adopted 2008-09 budget, although their funding would still require a fractional (1%-4%) rise in property tax.

------Advice about the implications of rejecting the proposed budget may owe its presence in the Newsletter, and its phrasing, to the fact that three members voted against the budget that was submitted for Board approval on April 21st. The dissenters—Karen Haas, Andrew Jones and Matthew Leibowitz--did not state their objections then or since. They have not gone public with appeals for a Yea or a Nay vote.


------On Wednesday night, in the Elementary School’s library, under the auspices of the Teachers’ Association, starting at 6pm, five candidates for election to the governing board of the Catskill Central School District took part in a public forum. Time for this event was limited to one hour, because another event, a workshop involving incumbent board members along with parents and students, was set for 7pm. Patricia Houlihan, chairing the event, invited each candidate to make an opening statement. She sought to keep those statements short, so as to leave time for questions, to be followed by closing statements. But the time constraint on candidates’ statements proved to be unnecessary; from the audience of 16 persons, apart from a Daily Mail reporter, came no questions.


------Based on information provided the Newsletter, along with presentations at the candidates’ forum as well as interviews, here are notes about the candidates for election to the governing board of the Catskill Central School District.

Kevin Allen and his wife, Kristie, have three children: a Catskill Elementary second-grader and two pre-schoolers. After attending LeMoyne College on a baseball scholarship and graduating with a Business Administration degree, Mr Allen worked in North Carolina for six years as a computer programmer before moving here seven years ago and making a career change to carpentry. Locally, according to his profile in the Budget 2009-2010 Newsletter that will go to voters in advance of the May 19th vote, Mr Allen has been “an active volunteer in youth sports.” He hopes to ensure that the school board will operate as a “proactive body” reaching “quality decisions” and “representing all of our students and community.” Being “fiscally responsible” is important in the current “unpredictable economy.” “We need to implement research-based programs that have been proven to attain positive results.” He commends “closer attention” by board members “to details of decisions.” To these remarks, at the candidates’ forum he added judgments that successful board operation is “all about relationships” and that too many people in the community complain but do nothing to improve matters.

------Beverly Cotten and her husband, Forest, have two children in Catskill public schools (grades 8 and 5) and a pre-schooler. Following graduation from the College of Saint Rose (with a biology/secondary education major) and from Union College (M.A. in Science Teaching), she accumulated 16 years of experience in teaching (in private and public schools, at all grade levels) and in school management, with special emphasis on technology. As Co-Ordinator of Data and Information Systems in Westchester County’s Elmsford Union Free School District, Ms Cotten currently supervises information, instructional technology, data handling, and testing. She went to the Elmsford district after a stint as Data Analyst/Central Registrar for the Catskill district. Before that she taught chemistry and biology in the Hunter-Tannersville and the Cairo-Durham districts while also handling school management tasks. Among her extra-curricular activities are the Fortnightly Club, church functions, and the Friends of Beattie-Powers Place. At the candidates’ forum, Ms Cotten suggested that the presently “good” Catskill school district needs to achieve a higher graduation rate and to shape policies that meet the needs of Special Needs students.

------James Garafalo, current president of the School Board, seeks re-election for a term that would bring his years of service to a total of 24. Mr Garafalo was a board member board from 1983 to 1998, and from 2003 to the present. He operates Catskill Florist Inc. on West Bridge Street. His and wife Marjorie’s two children graduated from Catskill High School and a granddaughter currently is enrolled in the Middle School. According to his candidate statement, “Having been involved since the beginning of the High School and Middle School renovation project, he would like to see the project through to completion.” Moreover, he would “continue to strive for what is best for our students and the taxpayers of the district.” To those words, as provided in the Budget 209-2010 Newsletter, he added, at the candidates’ forum, judgments that the present school board is an especially “good,” harmonious, one, that “micro-managing” by board members must be avoided, that the district’s ambitious capital improvements program is advancing on schedule and “under budget,” and that he is determined to “Do what is right…even when it may not be the popular choice.”

------Eric Holsopple is seeking a second term on the Board. He and wife Lisa (a Catskill High School graduate) have two sons, Ryan and Liam, who attend the Elementary School. Mr Holsopple, a Columbia-Greene Community College graduate, has worked for 19 years as a lineman for Central Hudson Gas & Electric Company. He is a shop steward with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union local. He cites service on the Athens Zoning Board of Appeals as additional “experience necessary to contribute as a board member.” He seeks re-election “so I can do my part to help make the school district the best it can be for our children.”

------Jennifer Krieg Osswald is a Village of Catskill native, a Catskill High School graduate, and an active PTA member . She and her husband, Ryan, who is a Mid-Hudson Media technical engineer, have two children, a first-grader at Catskill Elementary School and a pre-schooler. Ms Osswald graduated from Marist College and then earned a Master’s degree in social work from Adelphi University. A State-licensed social worker, she has worked with children and “as an advocate for children and families.” While employed by Greene County Mental Health Services she worked with Catskill children. Currently she is the social worker at The Starting Place. Regarding her candidacy for the school board, in the Newsletter she emphasizes “respect for all individuals who live, attend and work within the…District.” “All individuals have a right to have an opinion and to be heard without bias.” At the candidates’ forum, Ms Osswald delivered a “primary concerns” statement dwelling on “top quality education for all children, despite any limitations or special needs that they may have,” on fostering “an environment that is safe and free from harassment and bullying,” and on overcoming present “difficulties” in “accessing those who are in charge….” She called for “new perspective, more involvement and louder voices by the members of the board of education….”

------Justin Somma lives in Kiskatom with his wife and two pre-school sons. He owns Village Hardware in Hunter. He is “eager to get involved in a way that I would best be able to help defend the quality of the district and help it progress to an even brighter future. As a businessman and parent from a family of teachers, I have the benefit of a broad perspective on the educational system.” He aims “to make sure our schools provide a world-class education, maintain a sound fiscal footing, and cultivate an environment of appreciation toward our teachers and administrators.” In response to a query from Seeing Greene, Mr Somma said he would “serve a single term and that an equally enthusiastic citizen can…provide fresh insight to the board” and he would “keep a blog to explain the logic behind every public session vote I make.” The latter intentions are not voiced in the Budget 2009-2010 Newsletter, and Mr Somma did not attend the candidates’ forum. Neither did he offer a statement.[See his Comment, below] He is first in the field, however, with roadside campaign signs.

P.S.: TEACHERS’ CHOICE [added 5/18]

The Catskill Teachers’ Association has endorsed newcomers over incumbents. An advertisement published in The Daily Mail (5/16) expresses support for Mr Allen, Ms Cotten and Ms Oswald, thereby spurning the Board’s chairman, Mr Garafalo, and the other incumbent candidate, Mr Holsopple. That choice reflects dissatisfaction with the District administration, and with the Garafalo-led Board’s firm support for the administration. The resentment is expressed in the phrasing of the endorsement. Concluding its list of qualities that “the CTA believes” the non-incumbent candidates would bring to the Board, and hence to school governance, is “a collaborative attitude.”

1 comment:

Justin Somma said...

Mr May, this is Justin Somma, candidate for the Catskill CSD School Board. To speak to a few points you make in your summary of my candidacy:

1. I didn't reiterate my promise to serve a single term or post votes to a blog in the Catskill bulletin because I was told to submit a brief paragraph. In the interest of brevity I had to trim my bio. Both promises still stand.

2. I missed the debate because of unavoidable work concerns. My apologies.

3. I was unaware that I had the opportunity to submit a statement for the forum. Had I known I would surely have emailed something to Ms Houlihan in advance.

Thanks for covering the election.