Highland incumbents ousted
Although a majority of Highland voters supported the 2012-2013 school budget, the budget was defeated because it failed to get the state required 60 percent supermajority for a budget that exceeded the state recommended tax-levy limit.
The state formula determined that Highland’s cap would be .87 percent, which would have resulted in severe cuts in staff and programs. The Highland Board of Education had proposed a budget that increased the budget by 2.27 percent and the levy by 5.1 percent and retained most student programs, except for teaming in the middle school. The board now faces the difficult task of putting together a second budget for a new election on June 19. If the budget fails a second time, the district will be forced to go to a zero percent budget increase which may include cuts in kindergarten, sports, clubs and other after-school activities, music and art classes, foreign language in the middle school, and increases in elementary school class sizes.
A record number of 2,034 voters turned out for the election. Board president Vinnie Rizzi said he had never seen this many votes cast in the 16 years he has been on the board. Results of the budget vote and board election were not available until the day after the election in order to verify affidavits on some absentee ballots. The final numbers were 1,040 votes for the budget and 994 votes against. The bus proposition passed by just three votes: 990 yes and 987 no.
All three incumbents to the board were defeated as well. With 1,064 votes, Debbie Pagano was the clear winner. Michael Bakatsias came in second with 980 votes. The winner of the third seat was not determined until the next day with Michael Reid defeating Vinnie Rizzi by two votes: 884 to 882. Also defeated were Regina Tantillo-Swanson and Heather Welch. Pagano will replace Welch immediately. Bakatsias and Reid will take their seats in July.
As election results came in from around the state, voters learned that 24 school budgets had failed. Of these 24, 19 districts had proposed an override of the cap. New Paltz missed a 60% majority by just 18 votes, or .7 percent. Elmira missed 60 percent by 5 percent of the vote. Many districts have complained about the tax cap saying that the supermajority requirement allows a minority of voters to defeat a budget. Many districts have also said that they will find it increasingly difficult to provide a quality education under the tax cap coupled with continued cuts in state aid and no relief on mandates.
The failure of the budget was attributed by many Highland taxpayers to the inability to pay additional taxes of up to $600. The results of the board exit survey are available on the district web site.
When board member Sue Gilmore saw the results, she said, “The sleeping giant has spoken.” She also commented, “The tax cap was put in place for a reason. New Yorkers were (and still are) crying for relief and the politicians heard them. The plan is not perfect and will not come without pain, but something had to be done and I am glad it’s in place. In the long run, tax relief will make us once again a great state to live in. Tax relief will encourage small business owners to take a chance to either open or improve their existing operations in our town, which will in turn mean more tax dollars to pay for education. On the other hand, Highland was put in a severely difficult situation with their cap being at .87 percent. The board struggled for months on what the tax cap would mean and very early on in the process indicated that it would be impossible to stay within the levy limit. Going forward in these next few weeks, I am positive we can work together to find significant cost savings in the budget to insure a quality education in our district. We already have an excellent administrative team in place and that is half the battle. We can accomplish our goals without hurting the children, pay fair/competitive wages to the staff while having an acceptable tax levy for the public.”
Superintendent Deborah Haab agreed that “staying within the cap is very challenging.” She said that the board is meeting this week to discuss the exit survey results and prepare a revised budget proposal.
“As it becomes available, information regarding the new budget proposal will be posted on our website,” she said, “and our board meetings will continue to be live streamed and also posted on our website.”
New board member Mike Reid said, “The budget vote and election were bittersweet for me. I am disappointed with the budget failure, as I believe it was the right thing to do. The next budget that is presented will most likely also require a 60 percent supermajority to pass, since our actual tax-levy cap is 0.87 percent. I’m sure whatever budget the current board adopts will contain even deeper cuts than we have seen, but I hope that they stand behind it 100 percent and inspire community support. A second failure will result in certain irreparable damage to the school district for years to come.” Reid also commented that he was honored to be elected to the board. “I take this responsibility very seriously,” he said, “an am dedicated to seeking solutions which serve the best interests of the students that are also sustainable for our community.” Other board members declined to comment.
In a short meeting before the polls closed, the board recognized members of the middle school Bully Bus and viewed their video “Stand up, Be a Hero.” The board also honored students who participated in the recent Science Olympiad. These included seventh grade: Shruti Hooda, Alexa Langseder, Dhruv Odedra, Kaitlyn Poluzzi, Kathryn Russo, Kirti Shenoy, and Julie Stohr; eighth grade: Daniel Bergin, Summer Bugbee, Attilio Crimi-Varoli, Max Cutugno, Elvis Gadtaula, Danielle Jonietz, Danielle McGrath, Nevin Nedumthakady, Victoria Pflaum, Sara Pironi, Michelle Pirrone, Michaela Raffaele, Alison Rozzi, and Alfred Worrad; and 9th grade: Jahnvi Bansal. The team came in second in the region and 22nd in the state.
For personnel, the board accepted the retirement of William Frisher, custodial worker and bus driver; Patti C. Nickel, teacher assistant; Barbara Phillips, account clerk; Steve Sorbello, bus driver; Terry Elia, director of Transportation; and Donald Mc Morris, custodial worker.
In other business, the board also heard from business manager Stephen Perry that the fund balance projection had decreased some since the last report to $1,535,890. Of this amount, $900,000 will be used to reduce the tax levy. They also approved a lease agreement with BOCES, which will bring additional revenue into the district.
By Teri Jones