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Parents, teachers fight school closings

April 24th, 2013

They’ve approved more than $5 million worth of cuts in recent weeks, but as of press time, the Newburgh Enlarged City School District still needed to come up with an additional $3.2 million in order to adopt a budget that stays within the legal tax levy limit of 5.4 percent.

“We truly understand that any reduction will have an impact on our district,” said Board of Education president Dawn Fucheck during a meeting last week. “However, it is our charge to follow the guidelines set up by New York State laws regarding the property tax cap.”

At the meeting, school board members approved, by consensus, the elimination of 14 Newburgh Free Academy teachers, two clerical staff positions and two instructional coaches. The issue of cutting the executive director of technology raised some opposition among the board.

“We need somebody on the cutting edge to keep [students] on the cutting edge,” said Pamela Resch.

“We would be doing our students a tremendous disservice,” added Thomas Woodhull.

After receiving assurance that the director’s responsibilities could adequately be covered by remaining staff members, the board agreed to the reduction, which is worth nearly $200,000.

At the close of the meeting there were still several significant cuts on the table. Reducing kindergarten to half-day would save the district $2.9 million; making elementary class adjustments would save $654,595; and closing either Horizons-on-the-Hudson, Balmville or Vails Gate School would save between $4.4 and $5.2 million.

“I would like to clearly state for the record that no one in this room wants to close any of our buildings,” said Board of Education president Dawn Fucheck. “As you are all aware, we are under excessive mandates and regulations from both the state and federal level and these regulations and mandates come with significant and negative impacts to our operating budget.”

Because of ongoing contract negotiations, Fucheck said the board would hold off on making any final decisions about the remaining budget items, but they held a meeting on Monday to hear pleas and suggestions from members of the public.

Robyn Guzman was one of the first to speak in favor of keeping Horizons open. She also submitted a petition to the board signed by the mayor and city council members.

“They share the concerns that we have been voicing for the last two months,” Guzman said. “Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the district has been closing schools one by one until there are only two elementary options left in the city where almost half of our entire student population lives.”

Others, like Rob Ingram, tried to present logical, fact-based reasoning why Balmville would not be a good school to close.

“A school closure is emotional because a school closure deals with kids,” Ingram told the board. “But you can’t make an emotional decision. You have to make a decision based on facts.”

Next, Kathy Caldwell, a Vails Gate teacher, spoke in favor of her school, in particular, its science lab program. She said she hoped when making this difficult decision, board members would take a close look at each school’s past and how it related to the future.

“Which school is poised to address the academic concerns of our community?” Caldwell asked. “Our established science lab program begins the work of preparing students to be citizens who can think clearly, solve problems fearlessly and implement solutions successfully.”

Several of the evening’s speakers chose to remain neutral about which school should close; only expressing their concerns about how doing so would affect class sizes.

“Smaller class sizes have the greatest effect on graduation rates for low income, minority students,” said Melissa Lamar, a parent and taxpayer. “It is clear that keeping elementary schools, full day kindergarten and small class sizes must be a priority for our district.”

Latisha Politi, a longtime Newburgh resident, tried to be a voice of reason for the entire audience.

“We’re all here for one common cause; our kids,” she said. “No one wants to see any schools close.”

Politi said she had been hearing lots of “misdirected animosity” toward the school district, teachers and public education itself.

“The issue of possible shutdowns within our district is not due to mismanagement of funds on the district’s part,” she said. “Newburgh is not an anomaly for its budget issues. This is a trend not only in New York State but nationwide.”

Politi urged her fellow concerned residents to voice their grievances over dwindling state aid, unfunded mandates and the tax cap to lawmakers in Albany.

Otherwise, “We’ll be fighting the same battle against the wrong opponent until our school district collapses,” she said.

Fucheck said the board appreciates all of the input that they had received offering options on how to reduce the current budget gap.

“The last several months have been very stressful for everyone in our district,” she said. “We continue to strive to work collaboratively to arrive at a budget that is fair and equitable for everyone. This budget must ensure that we provide a high quality education for all.”


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