Marlboro approves closing two elementary schools
Members of the Marlboro Board of Education appeared to take no pleasure in what they all knew they had to do at last week’s school board meeting; each voted in favor of closing the Milton and Middle Hope elementary schools, effective June 30, 2013.
School Board President Stephen Jennison said the closings are a necessary step toward a more sound fiscal health for the district. Board member JoAnn Reed offered a few words about the two schools.
“They have been very special to me and it’s been an honor to be with them,” she said. “With a heavy heart, we do have to do this, unfortunately, but thank you all very much.”
Prior to the vote, School Superintendent Ray Castellani summarized key reasons for the closures and what restructuring measures are presently under way.
Castellani said the future reassessment of the former Dynegy power plant properties could drop by as much as 50 percent in the next three years, which will create a $10 million hole in the district’s finances. There will also be a drastic reduction in the school operating budget ($5 million) and to make matters worse, the state recently announced they will be reducing their aid to Marlboro by $850,000 in the 2013-14 school year; something Castellani said the district is challenging.
Castellani said the district is making cuts and changes to save money in personnel, technology, utilities, supplies and materials, BOCES and will move the central offices to the Milton Elementary School and perhaps share the building with the Town of Marlborough municipal offices, a proposal that is in discussion.
Castellani broke out the projected savings in the personnel line: the terminations of two administrators to save $300,000; 13 teaching positions to save $1,040,000; three clerical positions to save $150,000; 10 para-professional staff to save $210,000 and 3.5 custodial positions that will save $175,000 for a total of $1,875,000.
The superintendent outlined additional savings by restructuring: $20,000 in technology; $50,000 in utilities; $40,000 in supplies and materials; $45,000 in BOCES and $50,000 by the move of the central administration offices. This secondary tier of savings totals $255,000 and combined these actions will save $2,130,000.
For 2013-14, class sizes will remain fairly constant with a slight drop in the number of students in grade 5. The board is still considering the number of sections for each grade level; with six sections resulting in classes of 22 to 26 students and the five-section option pushes class sizes to the 27 to 30 range, however, next year the class sizes in grades K-2 will remain the same as this year.
Castellani said there are 40 full-sized classrooms available in the two buildings that will handle approximately 850 students. He projects they will use 37 classrooms and have three left over to accommodate growth. Besides K-5 classes, there will be classrooms to accommodate discovery, exploration and art classes within the 37-room calculation.
The superintendent said the district is also taking into consideration the possibility that in the next few years there may be 200 additional students as a result of new residential developments in the area.
During public input, Karen Enamorado asked why the district is in contract negotiations with the superintendent when his contract runs through 2015. The board said all contracts are on the table for discussion to see where and how much the district can save, with the end goal of preventing even deeper cuts across the board.
Dan Brooks said he feels it is common business sense not to negotiate anyone’s contract at this time.
“I don’t see why you guys don’t see that,” he said, adding it would be a “different story” if the teachers and administration were to agree to a 30 percent cut in their salaries and benefits.
Castellani addressed the contract issue, emphasizing that he was not speaking about his own. He said one of the goals of restructuring is to develop a contract that the district can move forward with into the future at lower costs. He said when a teacher’s contract runs out and before a new one is approved, they are entitled to step and longevity increases but not a raise on their base salary.
Castellani said this is known as the Triboro Law — a state law that guarantees step and longevity movement and increases even in the absence of a new contract.
In a follow-up, Castellani said that if the Board of Education could recognize an immediate savings as well as a cost savings into the future by adding more years onto a contract that is more economical than the current contract, and guaranteed Triboro increases in the absence of a contract, then this should be considered. But he stressed that approving extensions as an idea that would result in budgetary issues at a later date is not part of the current thinking during the present restructuring discussions.
“The intent of the board is to recognize savings immediately and to set financial constraints going forward that will help reign in costs,” he said. “That’s with my contract and every contract and the intent is not to make it up on the back end…the board is not going to recognize savings now and sell the farm in the future.”
Castellani confirmed that by restructuring contracts the district is hoping to save between $2 million to $3 million.
The board was pressed on why contract negotiations are done in closed sessions. Board attorney Stuart Waxman said the closed sessions between the board and the union are designed not to be adversarial but to create an atmosphere of cooperation so a free exchange of ideas can happen that will result in a win-win situation for both sides.
Waxman said he and his assistant, Alyssa Knapp, are part of the negotiations as well as three school board members – Stephen Jennison, Frank Milazzo and Dean Tamburri; Superintendent Castellani, Dr. Neysa Sensenig – assistant superintendent for business and Mike Bakatsias – assistant superintendent for personnel and technology. In addition, the union has six representatives present and an official from the NYS Union of Teachers. Waxman highlighted the fact that any agreement must go back to the school board and pass by a majority vote of four out of seven members.
Waxman commended the school board and Castellani for their openness.
“I think he [Castellani] probably shared even more than should have been shared at this point, but he did it in order to have the public realize that what he was doing is to be open and do the best he can for the public,” Waxman said.
Castellani reaffirmed that in early March he will be able to discuss the teachers’ contracts in more depth. He added that as soon as the district learns the outcome on what the possible reassessment figures will be on the power plants, a special public meeting will be scheduled to explain the details – “at this point we don’t have that information.”
When asked, the board did not definitively state they would release the actual negotiated teacher contracts for public review prior to the board voting on them. The board went only so far as to state they will schedule a public presentation to explain the contracts, perhaps a week before the vote.
Bill Bell, one of the founders of the citizen group Marlboro Community Concerns, said “in some respects I think they’re [school board] coming around” by being more forthcoming in posting information on the district website.
“I think they’re starting to open up the books a little bit and let people look in, but I think there is a long way to go,” he said. “I think they’re starting to hear that the public is unhappy and I think they are starting to react to that.”
Russell Conley said the idea of dissolving the district and starting over is losing traction because of nearly insurmountable legal difficulties to accomplish it.
Bell agreed, saying “The best option is to fix the problems ourselves. We need to find ways to save money, fundamentally change contracts so teachers do not get so quickly to the top, cut costs and ride it out for awhile and let some of these contracts reset themselves.”
Conley said the school board should have looked for savings in other areas, such as the busing contract, terminating many upper administration positions and downsizing central administration, before making the decision to close two schools.
“I think they could have worked harder to find better ways to save money that didn’t affect children immediately,” Conley said. “They’re protecting their own assets is my point.”
By MARK REYNOLDS