CENTRAL SQUARE — It’s that time of year again. School district budgets and school board elections loom before the voters of the county’s nine districts. On May 18 all will be decided.
This article will look at two of those districts, Central Square and Hannibal and their respective superintendent’s views of their district’s budget, the state aid their district received, and the tax rate they are asking their community to approve. Also covered will be the upcoming school board elections and any propositions that will be put before the voters. Additionally, comments on the past school year, students’ progress, and plans for the coming summer will be included.
Tom Colabufo is superintendent of the Central Square school district.
“We’re not raising taxes,” were his first words when asked to comment on this year’s budget. “Even before we found out we were going to be made whole by the federal government’s COVID Relief Aid,” he said, “we had made the decision that the community has just been through so much with COVID that we were just going to have to figure it out and tap into our reserves. And then we just prayed it wasn’t going to be the possible 20% reduction in state aid that originally Gov. Cuomo had hinted at. So, we were delighted to find out that we were going to be made whole by the federal government. It was wonderful to be able to say to the community, ‘We are not going to raise your taxes this year.’”
Central Square’s budget comes in at $86 million this year, an increase of 5.7% over last year. State aid, up 7.57% from the previous year, will provide $50 million of that figure. Taxes, held to last year’s numbers, add almost $30 million on the revenue side of the budgetary equation. Utilizing fund balance will add another $3 million, and assorted other revenue brings in another $2.7 million.
“The wealthier school districts, they get a fraction of what we get in state aid,” Colabufo said. “So, when you’re a district like Central Square, where $50 million out of an $86 million budget is state aid-driven, you rely on that state aid for salaries and for programming. When state aid gets whacked, we feel it.”
This year, he said, “programming will not suffer. We have been made whole. We are thrilled to be able to get back to what we were doing prior to COVID. A lot of things we were doing for students that would have been in person, that you really needed to be in person, we’re going to be able to get back to doing that, and that’s what we’re thrilled with.
“On April 30, we’re still going to have 50% of our high school students go fully remote. But that’s by choice. Those are the kids who were self-driven, self-motivated and thrived remotely but then still had the opportunity to come to school after school for clubs and sports and band. But for those students who really need to be here, we now are saying, ‘You can come here four days a week at the high school/middle school and at the elementary, five days a week.’ At the elementary about 80% of our students are going to be coming in now.
“Oddly enough,” he said, “there were a lot of students that seemed to have thrived during COVID. That was their style. They were working from home. They were fully remote. And they were able to do it because our teachers did a wonderful job. We provided direct instruction every single day.”
In the past, Colabufo has often gone on extensive speaking tours of local organizations to promote that year’s budget. But this year, he said, “it’s going to be pretty easy for me to sell to the community that there’s no tax increase. I think they’re going to be thrilled with that.”
Because Central Square has a nine-member school board and terms are three years, three seats are up for election every year. This year two incumbents, Lorraine Wood and Chance Nickerson, will run for re-election along with newcomer Allison Douglas. All three are running unopposed. For more personal information on the candidates, see the district’s website at https://www.cssd.org/Page/156. There will also be a “Meet The Candidates Night” May 10 at Paul V. Moore High School following that night’s regular meeting and budget public hearing which begins at 6 p.m.
There will be three propositions on the ballot, the first being the budget itself. The second is for 10 school buses at a cost of $1.13 million, and the third concerns allowing the district to do continuous voter registration throughout the year.
The vote will take place Tuesday, May 18. District 1 votes at the Central Square American Legion. District 2 votes at the Constantia VFW. Polls are open from 6 a.m.-9 p.m.
In Hannibal, the story was somewhat similar. Christopher Staats is superintendent there.
This year’s budget came in at $36.3 million, up 3.1% from the year before. State aid will supply $26.25 million of that budget total, up 4.18% over the previous year. Taxes will remain at last year’s level, providing $6.67 million. Fund balance will provide an additional $2.88 million, and an additional $500,000 will come in from miscellaneous sources.
“The budget is looking pretty good,” Staats said recently. “We are maintaining all programs based on this budget. We are offering our students opportunities to engage in enrichment experiences. All of our athletic and extracurricular programming, including potentially expanding to offer boys’ soccer, will be provided. And all of the college coursework that we offer that is dual credit through our various partnerships will continue.”
The district finds itself in an unusual position this year with regard to state aid. They may have incorrectly received more than they’re entitled to.
“The Foundation formula, approximately $480,000 more this year, seems to be overestimated,” Staats said. “So, we were a little surprised. We don’t believe we’ll receive all the funding they report we are entitled to.”
On the other hand, he said, “We are researching and asking more questions about our building aid. We believe we’re entitled to more building aid.”
Although state aid provides over 72% of the Hannibal school district’s expenses, it still falls short of the districts needs, according to Staats.
“We have never been fully funded by New York state,” he said, “but this year is a great step in the right direction towards making us whole. We’re hoping over the next couple of years they do make us whole.
“We have not received any information how to allocate the federal funds yet,” he continued. “We know they are to be used as a short-term opportunity to bridge student needs with the gaps we see in learning and social and emotional supports, and we have been told we should not be using those funds to supplant anything we currently are offering. So, those are truly indicated funds for bridging gaps for students. That’s kind of unique to us. We thought that that money would be used towards our budget, but we have been told it is a one-shot fund that we may be able to draw down for a couple of years. But we thought we would have had that guidance by now and have not received it.”
Staats attributed the 3.1% increase in this year’s budget to contractual requirements and an increase in some expenses. But with the district’s increase in Foundation aid and by allocating $2.88 million in fund balance to the revenue side of the budget equation, Hannibal was able to maintain taxes at exactly last year’s level, meaning a zero percent tax increase this year.
Over the past year, kindergarten through sixth grade students have always had the option of in-school learning, Staats said, while just last week, seventh through 12th-grade students were given the opportunity to return for in-person learning one day a week. Prior to that, those students were learning solely via remote instruction. Students were also given the option to remain with remote learning if they so desired. Staats estimated 40% of all grade levels chose to come back. About 60% of freshmen chose to return for in-person instruction, he said.
The seventh through 12-grade students who choose to return to in-person instruction will come in on different days of the week. Teachers, however, will be in attendance all five days of the school week either teaching in-person or teaching students remotely.
“I’m extremely proud of so many of the students who were committed to their studies and were able to maintain that level of independence,” Staats said of those who were able to succeed remotely. “But because we are trained and have expertise in working with students who are in front of us, I have been frustrated in not feeling as successful as I would like to be with students who became disconnected through this period.”
For some students, that may mean summer school. Regarding that, Staats said, “We believe we are going to take kind of a customized approach here on campus in Hannibal. We have some students who just need to recover some credit at the high school level, and then we would like to create opportunities to welcome back more of our students and target some gaps that are specific to the student.”
Summer school is not mandatory, Staats noted, “but we will be reaching out to each individual family who would be impacted and have the conversation about the type of support with the understanding that some students or their families may not choose summer school. They may choose to repeat the course next year instead. I would hope they wouldn’t (make that choice).”
Depending upon the subject, students who choose not to attend summer school and instead choose to repeat a course during the following year, may find themselves taking both the previous year’s course and the present grade’s course at the same time. A course in English would be an example of that possibility because learning one is not necessarily a prerequisite of the other. A course in Math, however, would not work this way. Math is considered a sequential form of learning. A student needs to understand 10th-grade math before going on to 11th-grade math. So, a student who chose to repeat 10-grade math in 11th grade rather than take it in summer school would then wind up taking 11th-grade math in 12th grade.
Regarding school board elections: there are two seats available on Hannibal’s school board, and three people are running. Incumbents Michael LaFurney and Christopher Long are running for re-election. Tammy Miner is running for her first three-year term on the board.
There is a proposition on the ballot for a capital outlay project of up to $100,000, all of which is reimbursable by the state.
The annual school district Board of Education election and budget vote will take place from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, May 18, at Hannibal High School.
Editor’s Note: Look for articles on the remaining seven school districts in the next two issues of the paper.