Superintendents on senior graduation, school budgets, and school board elections

OSWEGO — It used to be there were things you could count on. School started in September and ended in June with a graduation. School districts knew how much state aid they could count on by early April. And school board elections, well, there actually used to be contested seats.

This year, all that’s changed. School ended in mid-March and graduation is mired in social distancing and mass gathering constraints, leaving it as an unfortunate question mark. School districts have no clear idea on state aid but have an overwhelming sense it’s not going to end well. And school board elections? No one’s going to the polls. It’s all absentee ballots this year, and even with the usual petitioning requirements thrown right out the window, almost no one has stepped up to challenge incumbents. Meanwhile, with the election and the school budgets together on the same absentee ballot, the districts could be inundated with their largest vote totals ever now that voting simply takes a minute to fill out a ballot and drop it back in your mailbox postage paid.

So, it’s no wonder when after calling every one of the 10 district superintendents in the county twice and emailing them once, that only a half of them responded to questions on graduation, the budget, and school board elections. The first two of those questions seem to have no definitive answers and the last is so simple it hardly merits a discussion.

The budget question is certainly the toughest. This is an extremely unusual year and financially an extremely hard one. But one thing really came through in every answer. These superintendents truly care about what they’re doing. They realize how important this is and how selling the public on a budget this year is not going to be a pleasant task or even a sure thing. With most likely more votes than ever coming in on these issues, anything could happen. COVID-19 has changed so much in our old normal way of life, and now, it’s even changed our elections. Ironically, it may have changed them for the better. We may finally see the voter turnout we always wished for.

Here then, are the thoughts on these issues from the superintendents of Central Square, Fulton, Hannibal, Phoenix, and Pulaski school districts.

Tom Colabufo, superintendent, Central Square School District:

On this year’s seniors and high school graduation:

“We wanted to be able to do something special,” Colabufo said. “We believe we have plans to do that without pulling the carpet out from under our seniors, which had been the case all along where they thought they were coming back to school, then it got extended, then they thought they were going to come back, then it got extended, and then their year was over. So, we didn’t want to gamble and say, ‘Okay, we are going to have a big, traditional celebration in August,’ hoping that we would be allowed to have a mass gathering only, potentially, to have the carpet pulled out from under them, and then they would have nothing.”

According to Colabufo, high school principal Kristen Enwright has been working with staff and students on graduation plans. The plans aren’t finalized yet, but they’re looking at utilizing their stadium, though not for a traditional ceremony due to COVID restrictions.

They’re going to put a stage out on their turf field and call up the students in small increments alphabetically.

“Obviously, we can’t have all of our 300 graduating seniors come all at once,” Colabufo said. “That would defeat the purpose of not being allowed to have mass gatherings. So, they would come in, the child would get out of the car, parents would then go down onto the field. There wouldn’t be a lot of people there at one time. The student would get out, the student would walk downstairs onto the field, go up onto the platform while being videotaped, would then receive the diploma, and then do – the students thought of this – kind of like a victory lap around the track one last time, and then they get into their parent’s car, and they would go on their way and then the next student would come down. It would be a long process, but it wouldn’t be for everybody ‘cause we wouldn’t have everybody there. It would seem like a relatively short activity per family. We would space it out through the day. We’ll use parts of that video to professionally have a video made, and then it would be aired on one of the media outlets. We would pay for that spot. And when I say ‘we,’ the senior class, from all the fundraising they have done, that money is there for them. They would buy that time slot. Family members, or anybody, would be able to tune into that channel and watch it.

“There are definitely community members that are very upset because they wanted the traditional ceremony getting everybody together. That’s not even our call. We wouldn’t even be allowed to do that until Phase Three or Phase Four of the governor’s PAUSE plan.”

So, rather than put all their eggs in one basket planning for a traditional ceremony in August, “it was unanimous,” Colabufo said, “among all the students that are on the leadership committee with the principal, they all said that they don’t want to take that chance. They want to do something, have it special, have a video, be able to watch it on a major network, rather than wait and wait and wait, because that’s what they’ve been doing for the past three months only to have their hopes and dreams dashed, like they think they’re going to come back and have a sports season or concert, and then only to say everything’s closed. So, at least this gives us some control over the situation and have something as nice as we can have it, again, complying with social distancing.”

The seniors will get a yearbook this year. There will still be videotaped speeches. “We want to make it as special for them as we still can do,” he said.

“There’s something to be said about going to the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance of a three-hour ceremony, there are other people that are going to look at this years from now that say, ‘Wow, it’s special that they were able to still do that for the kids.”

On the budget:

“We’re all worried about the budget,” Colabufo said. “The governor’s asked for $61 billion from the feds, or you’re going to see cuts to education like never before. As a superintendent, I personally struggle with that ‘cause I kind of feel it’s like two parents arguing with each other, and the child is the one that’s going to be hurt. So, when I think about the situation, I really worry because if that money doesn’t come from the feds to the states to then be able to fund the complete lack of revenue from businesses being shut down for so many months, there’s going to be massive cuts to programming and to staff. It is a really stressful time right now, and we’re just waiting for the governor. And the governor has the opportunity to go in and re-adjust his budget three times throughout the year. That’s never been done before. And that’s also based on revenue. So, it’s pretty scary right now. We have $34 million that comes from state aid. That’s foundation aid. Now, we have an additional $10 million on top of that that’s total state aid, whether that’s transportation aid, BOCES aid, whatnot, but $34 million of it is what we call foundation aid. Well, $34 million out of our $81 million budget, that’s a lot of money. So, if the governor cuts, it could be anywhere from 6% to 15% of that, that’s millions of dollars. So, what every district is doing right now, especially districts that rely on state aid, there are districts, not in Oswego County, but there are districts in other counties that have very wealthy tax bases, so they get a lot less than other districts from state aid, so they don’t have to rely as much, whereas some districts, it could be as much as $250,000 a day in state aid, wealthier districts may see $3,500 a day in state aid. So, the districts that need it are really struggling right now. So, we’re trying to be as efficient as possible, knowing there have to be cuts, and we’re doing that right now, but it’s a guessing game. There’s no way that we feel that we are cutting too much. We know that we’re still going to have to cut more. So, we know when the governor’s numbers come out, it going to be worse than what we’re bracing for and we’re going to have to adjust. The worst part is the budget has to be passed by June 9. There is a 3.79% increase to the tax levy. That is $72 on a $100,000 house, $144 on a $200,000 house, and some people may say, ‘Isn’t that a kick in the gut to the community right now when there’s unemployment, there are people who’ve been furloughed.’ This is my response: we know right now that our state aid is going to be severely cut in the millions. If we didn’t put out the 3.79% – and we will be able to bring in if that passes, $1,093,000 – if we didn’t put out the 3.79% to the tax levy, $72 for a $100,000 house, and that’s before all the rebates and all the other things kick in, it’ll probably wind up being around $35 on a $100,000 house, if we didn’t do that, that’s another over $1 million for cuts, more of hitting sports programs, hitting fine arts programs. We have 85% of our students participate in sports and/or music/band and after-school activities. So, it kills me to think we’d have to cut more of that. But if the governor comes out and says, ‘Hey, Central Square, we need an additional $6-7 million,’ that’s devastating. We have total reserves of about $12.5 million. So, if we used $1.5 million a year, that would last us eight years. So, you don’t know what could happen next. So, I just want the community to know, that tax increase of $72 on a $100,000 house is not meant to be a kick in their gut. What it’s meant to be, especially for the people who have children in school, we don’t want when kids eventually can come back to school, the programs and the class sizes to look like something that is completely unfamiliar and have people go, “Oh my God, where are these amazing electives that they used to be able to have at the high school. Where are these amazing sports, we used to have so many more sports teams? What happened?’ And we feel that $72 on a $100,000 house will help us, ‘cause that’s another $1,093,000 that we would be able to offset the massive whack that’s coming in our state aid.”

They are budgeting in $2 million of their reserves, “more than we’ve ever done.”

“Unfortunately, across the state, there are going to be districts that hit their reserves so much, that the next couple years, they won’t be solvent,” said Colabufo. “There will be districts that go under as a result of COVID-19. I guarantee it.”

If the budget fails, it will go to a contingency, which is a reversion to last year’s budget along with numerous restrictions.

“This vote isn’t just impacting those who have children in the schools,” Colabufo said. “This is impacting everybody that lives in the district. If schools, all of a sudden, have massive cuts to electives, sports, fine arts, then people who do have kids wanting to move out, and then that drives down the value for people who don’t have kids anymore. I have always said, the success of a school district and the success of real estate and businesses in a community are directly linked.”

Overall the budget will go up 1.51%.

“The community needs to understand that if the governor actually comes through on what he’s saying right now, these cuts are going to be devastating to all districts.”

On school board elections:

The same three incumbents will be elected to fill the three vacancies on the board made possible by their terms expiring. No one else is running.

The incumbent/candidates are Kristy Fischmann, present board vice president; Michael Lawyea and Steven Patch.

They will be elected to three-year terms.

Brian Pulvino, superintendent, Fulton City School District:

On this year’s seniors and high school graduation:

“We actually have a task force that’s pulling some things together,” Pulvino said. “We’re doing a survey of the kids in the next day or two just to get some feedback. We’re looking at kind of a multi-pronged approach, you know, if this, then that, if that, then this kind of thing. But obviously we’re trying to put something together that’ll best celebrate our kids and their families and their accomplishment. It’s truly a milestone. You only graduate high school once. There’s nothing definitive. We watch and learn from other districts. It was interesting. The kids are really looking. They have friends in other states, and they were talking to them. It was kind of neat hearing from kids about the things they were looking into and obviously the things they like to do and obviously within the parameters that are available right now, what are those things that we can and can’t do. It’s an interesting process, and we’ll be buttoning it up in the coming week or two. We’d like to stick to our June 20 date. I think we’re going to try to do something that morning too.”

There are 236 seniors in Fulton.

On the budget:

“Sixty-eight percent of our budget is state aid,” Pulvino noted.

“We started off just looking at a natural roll forward budget: 3.25% increase for salaries, 1% for non-salaried. We rolled forward and that was just about $2.4 million higher. And obviously since then, we’ve brought it down. So, in the end, we’re looking at a $73,777,000 budget. It’s up .58%, a $423,000 increase over last year. There are $2,048,000 in reductions.”

The tax increase is $35 on a $100,000 home. There is no use of fund balance or reserves.

“We’re right around our max values in our fund reserves,” Pulvino said. “So, we’re as good as you can get in those areas. The comptroller will only let you keep 4%, and we’re right there.”

There were 8.5 full-time or equivalent reductions but no layoffs.

“We did all that through resignations and retirements,” Pulvino said. “We reduced 60 hours a day of teacher aides in our schools.”

They reduced summer cleaning costs as a result of all their recent COVID cleaning.

“We cut a little bit in athletics, some modified teams that had low participation rates,” he added.

“We are the tightest we’ve ever been. There’s no wiggle room here right now. We’re at the point where there are no people losing jobs, and we’ve kept it as far away from programming as possible as well. No reductions in credit-bearing courses,” said Pulvino.

“There are four times in the school year where state aid can be reduced. That’s never really happened before. This is the first time the legislature has provided that opportunity to the Depratment of Budget.”

A 10% reduction in this year’s state aid “would eat up every nickel of your savings,” he said, if the district were to rely on its reserves to cover the reduction. “And where does that put you a year from now? You’ve got the same problem a year from now. Using fund balance allows you to band-aid the situation for a year.”

Being the self-described optimist he is, he hopes the reduction in state aid is “closer to 0% than 20%.”

If the budget doesn’t pass, they’ll revert to a contingency budget. In Fulton’s case, that’s not a severe or dramatic drop in spending.

“For us, because we’re so lean, our contingency’s only a reduction of $250,000 in our maintenance and equipment, and then, we’d have to have another $178,000, which the board indicated that we’d probably take out of reserves” Pulvino said. “For us, it’s negligible. It’s not a huge impact, but every dollar, every nickel, counts. It’s not something you really want to do. But, I’m optimistic. Our board approved the budget 7-0 the other night, and that’s a good thing.”

Pulvino hopes the community sees “we made some pretty significant reductions right up front, $2 million, we were conservative with our use of fund balance, and I hope that they support the tax cap because that’s $423,000 that will really help us ensure that we can continue our programming for all of our kids. I think Fulton does a good job. I think we can maintain all the support and services with this budget. If it gets hit too much, then you start to impact kids, and we’ll try to keep that far away, but now we’re getting to the point where there’s not much that’s too far away from kids. Every position impacts kids, it just impacts kids differently.”

On school board elections:

There are five candidates running for three, three-year spots. All three incumbents are running along with two new people, one of whom was previously on the board.

“We’ll be mailing out just about 6,500 ballots,” said Pulvino.

Generally, in past votes on the budget, average voter turnout was in the mid to high 500s. The high during Pulvino’s tenure was 804 three years ago. This will be the third election in that time. Years ago, he said, the turnout used to hit 1,200 and average around 1,000 voters.

Christopher Staats, superintendent, Hannibal School District:

On this year’s seniors and high school graduation:

“Here in Hannibal we take great pride in listening to student voice,” Staats said. “We knew we could not offer our students a traditional gathering in our auditorium this year. A gathering of 800 people in one place, with no opportunity to distance from one another. We took a number of ideas in from families. We have identified four options to students that promote the concept of social distancing but still allow families to hear the graduates name and see all of the graduates. We have offered those options to students and they are currently voting. We recognize that everyone has a new idea or wishes to have the power to decide this, so we decided, let’s have our graduates decide.”

On the budget:

“During our initial budget development sessions with the board, we had great optimism,” Staats said. “Our district is heavily dependent on revenues from New York state. Unfortunately, this crisis has forced our elected officials to hold back on sharing anticipated revenues and impose a requirement that we present a spending plan to our voters to decide. My Board of Education views education as a crucial investment in society and the future economy. I am prepared to present the most responsible spending that I can next Thursday. We value all of the successes our district has achieved over the past few years and wish to continue to invest in offering students creative learning opportunities as well as enrichment experiences.

“The biggest factor that needs to be shared is we will begin to pay towards our Capital Project, we receive NYS building aid to offset this expenditure. So, the majority of the increase that you see is equally offset by the increase in building aid.

“The Board of Education is very sensitive to the current economic climate and has collaborated with administration to decide to access reserves to offset any increase to the taxpayers for 2020-2021. We are asking support of a 0% increase.

“At this time, we have not received any update from Albany regarding any reductions to state aid for Hannibal. We are very eager to see the calculation so we are able to anticipate how much of our reserves we may use and make any adjustments to our spending plan.

“We are monitoring class sizes and will only replace vacant positions based on student need. No other program will be reduced.

“It is our goal to employee a Career Readiness Specialist to assist all students to both local opportunities in the job market but also to expose students to career paths that they may never have heard of.”

On school board elections:

“We have three vacancies to be decided by the voters,” Staats said. “We currently have four candidates for the three positions. Listed in alphabetical order, they are: Mr. G. Hilton, Ms. J. McNeil, Mrs. T. Miner, and Mr. J. Pope.

“In collaboration with CiTi BOCES, our board clerk merged the names and address of: the people who voted in the past three HCSD votes; the Oswego and Cayuga County’s Board of Election registrations; the Oswego and Cayuga County’s Real Property data bases; and our own family data bases to include students in our system aged 18-21 years old. We also welcome calls to our board clerk from residents to have an absentee ballot mailed to them. All ballots must be received by the district by June 9, 2020 to be counted.” Christopher Byrne, superintendent, Phoenix School District:

On this year’s seniors and high school graduation:

“We are still planning graduation,” Byrne said. “We are listening very carefully to guidance from the governor, county executives and local/state health departments. We will be sharing our plans with our community in the coming weeks.”

On the budget:

“This year’s budget required us to overcome a budget gap of $1.1 million primarily due to the cut in New York state funding, as a result of pandemic shutdown,” Byrne said. “Fortunately, through careful years of planning, the district has established reserve funds for the contingency of sustaining educational programs in times of fiscal crisis. The 2020-21 budget uses those reserves, unspent funds from the 2019-20 school year and attrition through retirements to fill the gap and to maintain all our existing educational and extracurricular programs. We have done this while maintaining a 2% budget increase with a tax levy increase of 0%. In light of our current economic times, we believe that this is the best decision for our taxpayers and our community.”

On school board elections:

“We have two incumbents running for our school board. There are three seats available July 1st.”

Tom Jennings, superintendent, Pulaski Academy & Central Schools:

On this year’s seniors and high school graduation:

“We have a committee of teachers, administrators, parents, and students that’s convening to discuss ideas within the parameters the state has set,” Jennings said. “Our basic principle is, whatever we can do, we will do for these seniors...We want to get it right. We want to make certain that kids and parents are involved to help us celebrate those kids.”

They have 86 seniors.

Graduation was originally scheduled for Sunday, June 28.

On the budget:

“We worked very, very hard to pass a spending plan which maintains quality programming for our kids but is also responsive to the economic variables that are impacting us right now. Like everyone, we’re very concerned about the unpredictability of state aid this year with the threat of major adjustments. So, it’s something we’re really paying attention to.”

The proposed 2020-21 school budget totals $27,617,000, which is a 1.2% increase over last year. If approved by voters, this budget would result in a tax levy increase of 1.9% or $132,937, which is within the district’s calculated tax levy limit this year. That increase translates to a tax of $34 on a $100,000 house.

“Part of every budget is the thoughtful use of reserves and fund balance to maintain lower taxes,” Jennings said. “The board therefore decided to use $805,000 in reserves and $1,346,791 in fund balance this year.

:The proposed budget eliminates one elementary special education teacher, one middle-high school math teacher, one teaching assistant position, and one administrative position.

“It’s a very difficult time,” Jennings said.

On school board election:

Two running for two seats. Three-year terms. Travis Rice, incumbent. Julius “Jan” Hefti, previously on the board for almost nine years. Seven members on board.

They sent out about 4,500 ballots. The ballots are due June 9.

There will be an online public hearing, May 27, at 6:30 p.m.

The superintendents of Oswego, Mexico, Sandy Creek, APW, and CiTi BOCES could not be reached for comment for this story.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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