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The search intensifies: authorities scour rural stretch for 2 escapees

Posted by keshiaclukey on April 20, 2016 at 10:15 AM Comments comments (47)

Albany Times Union
The search intensifies: authorities scour rural stretch for 2 escapees
By Keshia Clukey
See original here: http://bit.ly/1SkBh1Y
WILLSBORO—Heavily armed state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision officers spent most of Tuesday scouring through swamps, woods and farm fields of a small community on Lake Champlain in the massive manhunt for two convicted killers who escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility. 

Despite grid searches, the nearly 500 state, federal and local authorities have not yet located Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, who broke out of the maximum security prison in Dannemora, near the Canadian border, between Friday night and Saturday morning.
Law enforcement agencies descended onto Middle Road and State Route 22 in Willsboro, about 50 miles south of Dannemora, after a tip called in late Monday night, said State Police Zone Commander John Tibbitts Jr. "We're continuing to follow every lead," he said Tuesday afternoon, though he wouldn't be specific.
Neighbors said someone reported seeing two men run from a gully near 882 Middle Road into the nearby woods. George Sayward, a dairy farmer whose fields run along Middle Road, said he noticed officers near a barn about 5 a.m. Tuesday. He said he later saw a team of officers come out of the nearby woods. "They must have found something good because next thing I know they're coming by the busload," George Sawyard said.
He said it was disturbing to think fugitive killers could be at large in the area. "I'm worried about the neighbors down here," he said. "There are a lot of kids and stuff."
Darren Darrah of 882 Middle Road said he saw police lights on his street at 5 a.m. Tuesday but didn't think too much of it at first because police are always using the street to get to Route 22. He saw a state corrections bus around 8 a.m. before he left to work in Plattsburgh. He returned home after he saw on TV a news crew broadcasting from his yard. "It's surreal," Darrah said. He was apprehensive about letting his ducks out of their coop out of fear the two men could be hiding in the small structure. "You never think anything like this would hit close to home," he said.
 In addition to the state Department of Environmental Conservation and DOCCS, the FBI, U.S. Marshals and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are assisting State Police.
The DOCCS officers walked in groups, stopping to check along railroad tracks that run through the woods and every structure, including barns, abandoned outbuildings and even silos. They continued into the evening despite rain and thunder. A helicopter was also brought in.
State Police issued a statement about 5 p.m., about an hour before officers left the scene, saying that leads continue to be generated along the Clinton and Essex County border and residents will notice an increased police presence. A short drive from Willsboro is the Essex Ferry to Vermont that crosses Lake Champlain. State Police also said law enforcement authorities will be going door to door in and around the surrounding area checking homes and camps in the manhunt.
 Law enforcement still remained strong in Dannemora Tuesday evening, causing locals to believe Matt and Sweat still could be near the village.
When asked if he thought the two remained in the area, Allison Tucker, 73, who lives in nearby Saranac, said: "I'm not gambling on the fact that they aren't."
Tucker, president of the Mountain Lions Snowmobile Club, described intricate trail systems that run through the outskirts of Dannemora and around the small mountain north of it to Lyon Mountain and other communities. The paths include an old, unused railroad as well as hiking and snowmobile trails, Tucker said.
There are also a number of camps that they could seek refuge in, he said. "I keep stuff locked up, and I've been staying out of the woods," Tucker said, adding that he also carries a pistol. Matt and Sweat were housed on an "honor block" at Clinton Correctional Facility, giving them more liberties, including the ability to cook and visit other inmates' cells, according to a person briefed on the matter. The looser restrictions on the honor block tier may have been a factor in the meticulous escape plan.
Matt and Sweat used power tools to cut holes in the backs of their adjacent cells to access a steam pipe that led them to freedom. According to police, several employees, both uniform and civilian of the Clinton Correctional Facility have been interviewed in the investigation, but no arrests have been made.
Matt has been in state prison three times. In 1986, he served nearly four years in Attica prison for forgery and escape charges in Erie County, his home. He returned to state prison in 1993 and spent nearly three years in an Elmira prison for attempted burglary. Not long after his release in 1997, Matt was charged with kidnapping and killing William Rickerson, an Erie County businessman who was beaten and dismembered. Matt fled to Mexico, and in 2008 he was convicted and sentenced to up to life in prison. He'd been extradited from Mexico, where he was serving 25 years to life for killing an American citizen during a robbery.
Sweat, who is from Binghamton, was serving life without parole for killing Broome County Deputy Kevin J. Tarsia in 2002. Published reports say Sweat shot the deputy 22 times.

School board voter turnout 'slower than slow'

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 22, 2013 at 11:10 AM Comments comments (3)

School board voter turnout 'slower than slow'

BY KESHIA CLUKEY

[email protected]

See original at uticaod.com.

Jay McFarland and other volunteers sat in the heat Tuesday waiting for voters.

“It’s slower than slow,” said McFarland, a poll inspector at Shepard Place in Utica.

At 6 p.m., with three hours until the polls closed, the site had just 90 voters.

“If they raised their taxes a little bit more, they might have shown up,” McFarland said, referring to the Utica City School District’s proposed 2 percent tax-levy increase.

Residents around the state hit the polls Tuesday to vote on their 2013-14 school budgets and Board of Education seats.

But local votes, especially those for school districts, don’t get the same turnout as state and national votes.

“It all depends on the year,” said Rose Marie Grimaldi, Oneida County Republican commissioner. “It really depends on the offices that are up and who is on the ballot.”

Grimaldi said local elections don’t have as big a turnout as the presidential elections.

Despite the turnout, the majority of the school budgets are expected to be approved, similar to last year, said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials.

About 99 percent of the budgets for the 2012-13 school year were approved in either the May vote or June revote, and only two districts had to use their contingency plans, Borges said.

(Final results from Tuesday continued to come in after deadline. For the full list, visit uticaod.com.)

Typically, about 10 to 14 percent of registered voters come out for the school budget and board elections, said David Albert, director of communications and research for the New York State School Boards Association.

Oneida County had 134,589 registered voters as of April 1 and Herkimer County had 41,103 as of June 2012, according to the Boards of Elections. So, an estimated 18,000 to 25,000 voters were expected to turn out Tuesday in both counties combined.

But those who do vote, generally support the schools, Albert said.

Pamela Darman, 59, of New Hartford, voted in favor of the New Hartford Central School District budget.

“I always vote, especially for the school budget. If there’s one tax that I want to pay it’s the school tax,” she said. “One vote can make a difference in a school vote.”

New Hartford voters streamed into the high school around 5 p.m., but the Rome district was a different story.

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, only 218 out of 3,585 registered voters in the Sixth Ward had cast their ballots at Fort Stanwix School.

 

“We got a long way to go,” said election inspector Mae Smith, adding that the turnout was typical of a school board election.

“Unless there’s some major issue or proposition that they’re voting on, then it would be more,” she said.

The low turnout could be for a number of reasons.

For Jaqueline Cole, supporting the school district was reason enough to go straight to the polling place after work. Cole, who owns Cole Auto Repair Shop, still donned her work uniform and cap as she voted.

“The budget’s important, so the kids keep learning,” she said. “If you don’t pass a budget, well, it costs more money.”

Major propositions or high tax increases can bring more voters out, as can highly contested school board race, which was the case in New York Mills Union Free District.

Tuesday was district resident Ashley Taylor’s first school vote.

“I care what’s going to happen to the school and who’s going to make decisions,” said the 19-year-old New Hartford resident.

Taylor knew all of the four candidates competing for three seats.

“I just had to think about the things they support and what I support and what lines up best for the school,” she said.

Contributing: Ned Campbell, O-D

 

'Complicated calculation': Some school districts exceed state's 2 percent tax cap

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 22, 2013 at 11:05 AM Comments comments (0)

 

'Complicated calculation': Some school districts exceed state's 2 percent tax cap

BY KESHIA CLUKEY

[email protected]

See original at uticaod.com.

Voters heading to the polls today to decide the fate of school districts might be surprised to see tax levies perceivably higher than the state’s 2 percent property tax cap.

But superintendents say don’t judge a budget at first glance.

“The name is actually a misnomer,” said Robert Miller, Herkimer Central School District superintendent.

The district is proposing an approximately $20.7 million budget, with a 4 percent increase in the tax levy.

“It’s a much more complicated calculation than just 2 percent,” Miller said.

According to the eight-page formula, the district is able to increase taxes 4.37 percent, including exclusions, if approved by a majority of district voters.

“We’re actually under our limit,” Miller said.

This is the second year districts and municipalities have had to work within the state mandated cap. All 29 school districts in the Mohawk Valley are proposing tax levy increases below or meeting the cap — though 18 appear to be higher.

Of the 669 school districts statewide voting today, 27 school districts are proposing budgets that actually exceed the cap compared to 48 last year, according to the New York State School Boards Association. Districts over the tax-levy limit must have a supermajority vote, 60 percent approval.

Levies and spending have gone up modestly compared to last year, thanks in part to a 4.7 percent increase in state aid, said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials.

Despite the increase, districts still face significant rising costs, unfunded mandates and insufficient aid.

The cap is on the levy, not the rate, so it restricts how much a district can raise, said David Albert, director of communications and research for the New York State School Boards Association.

Exclusions help districts stay within that levy. They include capital project expenses, legal expenditures and, as in the case with Herkimer, rising pension costs.

Levies make up 40 to 60 percent of a district’s budget, Borges said.

“It’s very important and they couldn’t exist with out them,” he said.

The main issue districts face is the nearly 37 percent rise in the Teachers’ Retirement System employer contribution rates from an 11.84 percent contribution rate in 2012-13 to 16.25 percent in 2013-14.

Several area districts also have payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements expiring.

For example, the Rome City School District’s agreement with Family Dollar will end this school year, so the company will be paying school taxes on its property’s full value.

 

The change will increase the tax levy by 4.65 percent, but will not affect resident tax bills, said district Superintendent Jeffrey Simons.

The district is proposing a nearly $105 million budget with a tax-levy increase of 6.57 percent — meaning an 1.75 percent increase for individual taxpayers

If budgets are voted down today, districts will have a second chance to have them approved by voters at a June 18 revote. Otherwise, they will revert to contingency budgets and receive the same tax levy funds as were approved last year.

Officials in the Clinton Central School District have been working to educate the public about its approximately $24.2 million budget and the property tax cap in the hopes that it’ll be approved.

“We tried to balance the needs of the students and be faithful to the mission, with the understanding that we can only sustain so high an increase (in expenses),” said district Superintendent Matthew Reilly.

The district is proposing a 2.95 percent tax-levy increase, though it is allotted 4.24 percent according to the state formula. The additional funds are due mainly to increased pension costs and capital projects, Reilly said.

At the same time, the district tried to keep the taxpayers in mind.

 “Districts are being conscientious, but it does take work,” Reilly said. 

 

Utica union coalition backs 2 school board candidates

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 22, 2013 at 11:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Utica union coalition backs 2 school board candidates

BY KESHIA CLUKEY

[email protected]

See original at uticaod.com.

UTICA — Union support can be crucial in local elections to help provide money for everything from signs to hosting forums.

The Coalition of Utica City School District Unions opted to back two of the six candidates for the May 21 school board election— Robert Jenkins and incumbent Donald Dawes.

But no screening process was used.

“We didn’t go out and screen, we don’t have to,” said Utica Teacher's Association President Larry Custodero. “Together the groups came up with the candidates.”

The coalition includes the Teacher’s Association, the Utica Retired Teachers Association, the Service Employees International Union, the Utica Administrators Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 43. The total amount pledged is not yet available.

“Sometimes we don’t support anybody, sometimes two candidates, sometimes one,” Custodero said.

In the past, the unions have screened candidates, interviewing all of them and then deciding who to support. The decision is made by the representatives, and doesn’t always go before every union member.

The unions look for fair and impartial candidates who listen, Custodero said.

Candidate Michael Paul sent a letter announcing his candidacy but was disappointed not to hear from any of the unions, he said.

Paul wasn’t interviewed due to family ties, chiefly his wife, Elizabeth Paul, who is the district administrator of Special Education Services, Custodero said.

“Even though it’s not a conflict of interest, we feel it’s very close to a conflict,” Custodero said. “We wouldn’t have supported him.”

Paul said if elected, he would recuse himself from any votes in which his family would directly benefit.

Paul is now left to his own devises, as he hasn’t received backing from any other organizations, he said. “I think in all fairness they should have screened all the candidates (to) find out (what) their views were.”

The groups decided to back Dawes because they had in previous years, Custodero said. “He’s been there to listen.”

Jenkins was brought up as a candidate because one of the union presidents knew him and knew he had children in the district, he said. They met with Jenkins and then group representatives made their decision.

“He’s well educated … he seems like a good man. He’s willing to listen,” Custodero said.

The Teamsters Union Local 182 is not included in the coalition.

Local representatives said they have not officially backed anyone, but may before Tuesday’s election.

'What a journey it's been' for HCCC graduates

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 22, 2013 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Not just the seemingly endless hours of studying or the dozens of times she practiced her speech.

The 19-year-old St. Johnsville resident has been working since August 2011 to get to Friday—Herkimer County Community College’s 45th annual Commencement.

“Oh, what a journey it’s been. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, and even pulled a few all-nighters,” Ranno said in her student address to the packed gymnasium.

“Today is a day of celebration. All of that hard work over the past two years has finally paid off and is an accomplishment we will be able to carry with us into our successful futures,” she said.

Ranno was one of 682 candidates for degrees and certificates that graduated Friday night.

She is graduating with her associate of science degree in digital filmmaking and is looking into colleges to further her education next year. Ultimately, she wants to work for a morning news show.

Ranno said she’s excited about graduating, but it’s “bittersweet.”

“I’ve made friends for a lifetime here,” she said.

Ranno’s speech was selected by the Commencement Committee to be given at the ceremony. It highlighted the school’s “Commit, Complete, Compete” initiative, encouraging students to stay in school and graduate.

“Today is the day that we officially get to complete our commitment in front of our friends, families and fellow graduates by getting up on this stage today and having President (Ann Marie) Murray hand us our degrees,” Ranno said to the other graduates.

“Let’s go grab life while we can. For it’s today that we complete and tomorrow we compete,” she said.

Crystal Bastien, 34, of Ilion, knows much about completion.

Bastien graduated with an associate degree in Science. She plans to go to SUNYIT next year for her bachelor’s degree, and ultimately wants to be a physician’s assistant.

“I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, and I feel it’s good to go on ahead and do something else,” Bastien said.

“I’m proud, very proud,” she said about graduating. “I have 10-year-old twins and a 3-year-old and I managed to graduate in a year and a half with a 4.0.”

Charter school students all from Utica

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 22, 2013 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Charter school students all from Utica

Others put onto waiting list

BY KESHIA CLUKEY

[email protected]

See original article at uticaod.com.

UTICA - A Marcy couple hugged each other, eyes filled with tears at the sight of their daughter's name on the acceptance list.

At the April 30 lottery, their daughter, a Whitesboro student, was accepted into seventh grade at the Utica Academy of Science Charter School.

Now she's on the waiting list.

Though enrollment is open to all Oneida County residents, students in the Utica City School District legally had preference.

When the Marcy student's application was being transferred into the computer for the random lottery, it was given a Utica preference, said school founder Tolga Hayali, director of the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School.

The Marcy girl was the only non-Utica student accepted to the school.

"It was human error," said Hayali, who went to the family's home and apologized. But legally she had to be put on the waiting list, and a Utica student accepted in her stead. The family declined comment to the O-D.

A total of 337 students applied to the school, 29 of whom were from districts outside of Utica.

Only 176 spots were available in grades six through nine for the 2013-14 school year. Enrollment will increase each year as grades are added.

Education law states that if the number of applications exceeds the building or grade level capacity, the charter school must then accept students through a random selection process.

Preference must be given to students returning to the school, those who have siblings already enrolled and students living in the school district where the charter school is located, according to the law.

Hayali said there's still hope for those on the waiting list as there have already been students who have given up their spots because they are moving from the area. Many times there are openings in September as well, if students don't show up, he said.

Having all 176 students now coming from Utica will mean an approximately $1.6 million loss in state aid to the Utica City School District, money that will now go to the charter school.

"It would have alleviated our financial situation a little bit if students came from other districts," said district Superintendent Bruce Karam. "If they're all coming from Utica it's going to be a devastating blow."

The district also will be responsible for providing the school nurse and transportation, an estimated $148,000, said district Business Official Maureen Albanese.

The costs will vary if students also require English as a Second Language or special education services. Busing will be dependent on where the students live. The closer they live, the fewer runs are necessary, saving the district money.

The district met with Hayali last week to discuss logistics, but is waiting for the final enrollment.

"When we get the list and we get everything together, and we have everything calculated out, then we'll have a final cost number," Karam said.

Hayali hopes to have the list finalized by June 1, but the process involves contacting the parents of those accepted. Proof of residency as well as paperwork such as immunization also must be provided before students can be enrolled.

He said he will try to get the final enrollment to the district as quickly as possible.

"Hopefully we will be able to work together for the best of our students in Utica," Hayali said.

Cost to Utica school district

State aid to the district is estimated at $9,280 per student. With 176 Utica students set to attend the charter school, about $1.6 million in aid will go to the charter school rather than the district. This could vary if students require English as a Second Language or special education services.

The district is also responsible for providing transportation and a school nurse-another estimated $148,000. Transportation could be less if the students lived in close proximity and thus fewer bus routes would be needed.

The total cost to the district is estimated to be approximately $1.8 million. The district is currently awaiting the list of students who will attend the charter school in fall for exact numbers.

Source: Utica City School District Business Official Maureen Albanese

Charter school breakdown

Charter schools are public schools operating independently of school districts and are held to all state standards as well as their charter. There is no tuition to attend.

The Utica Academy of Science Charter School is scheduled to open this fall at the Holy Trinity Church's empty parish school building on Lincoln Avenue.

It will offer aspects of a college preparatory education with special emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.

At the April 30 lottery 176 students were selected for grades six through nine, out of 337 applicants. Utica students were given preference. Each grade will be comprised of two classes, with 22 students in each class.

All students selected are from the Utica City School District. Those not chosen were put on a waiting list, which will be used to fill vacancies until January 2014.

Students must show proof of residency and provide paperwork such as immunization records prior to enrollment.

The school is in the process of enrolling students, and hopes to have enrollment completed by June 1.

The school is in the second round of the interview process and expects to have all staff hired within the next two to three weeks.


Discussion of bullying continues at Rome school board meeting

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 22, 2013 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (0)

'Something more' can be done Discussion of bullying continues at Rome school board meeting

BY KESHIA CLUKEY

[email protected]

See original story at uticaod.com.

ROME - It's been a month since Michele Grifasi addressed the Rome school board about bullying, and she has seen some change.

"I'm very, very pleased so far where we're going with this," said the Rome parent at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting. "Please don't drop the ball."

Grifasi spoke at the April board meeting about the bullying of her 11th-grade daughter Kaleigh, who had been bullied with no recourse to the point of desperation - leading to her overdosing on medication.

Luckily, she called for help and is now doing much better and helping others by telling her story, Grifasi said.

Grifasi now asks the community to step up.

"It shouldn't have gotten to this point. Our parents need to be part of this. ... You need to get your family, your friends, parents and teachers involved in this as well. It isn't just one-fold," she said. "What are we doing as parents when we don't hold our children accountable for their actions?"

Wednesday night, staff and parents once again confronted the school board about bullying issues.

Rome officials have acknowledged criticism for their lack of response to bullying, and is in the process of modifying its own code of conduct.

Steps include trying to respond to incidents of bullying in a timelier, more consistent and effective manner, officials said. The district is working on a streamlined web-based reporting system that would send all incident reports directly to district Superintendent Jeffrey Simons. It is expected to be in place by June.

The district also will have a new code of conduct in place by fall with a more prescriptive set of disciplinary consequences for behaviors such as bullying and harassment, Simons said.

Parent Amanda Beyette has four children in the district and believes bullying still is a "huge issue."

Beyette said she has one child, a bully, whom she worked with to stop his behavior, and another who continues to be bullied.

"It's to the point where I'm telling my (children) to defend themselves when for years I've told them to turn the other cheek," she said. "Parents need to be more accountable, teachers need to pay more attention ... there has to be something more that can be done to protect everybody from the top down."

All districts began implementing the state's Dignity for All Students Act in July, which includes bullying prevention programs, requiring age-appropriate disciplinary measures, increased training for staff, reporting of incidents to the state and having a Dignity Act Coordinator in each school building.

In other business, residents spoke at a public hearing in favor of naming of Gansevoort Elementary School gym in honor of Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Geary of Rome, who was killed March 20, 2009, in action in Afghanistan. The board said it would vote on the naming on a later date.

 

Nation to help Cooperstown schools pay for new uniforms

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 22, 2013 at 10:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Nation to help Cooperstown schools pay for new uniforms

BY KESHIA CLUKEY

[email protected]

See article at uticaod.com.

COOPERSTOWN- Starting July 1, the Cooperstown Central School District will be sporting its new nickname: the CCS Hawkeyes.

But change can be costly. The former Redskins will need new athletic uniforms.

Today the district will receive $10,000 from the Oneida Indian Nation at its 7 p.m. school board meeting, to help offset the cost.

"I believe this will cover the vast majority of the change in our uniforms," said district Superintendent C.J. Hebert. "This will go a long way toward making this change palatable to folks in a difficult fiscal environment."

The only other changes the district would need to make would be to a scorers table, he said.

In March, the school board voted to retire the district's former nickname, and on April 23, it unanimously approved the new name.

The schools orange and black colors and district emblem will remain, as will its logo, a Native American hunter and his dog - a tribute to the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.

"I think there's a realization that that was a fairly ubiquitous symbol and its relationship to the mascot nickname, there's really no direct correlation to them," Hebert said.

"The board and I are certainly appreciative of all those individuals who went out of their way to voice their opinion and to provide historical context for the name change," Hebert said. "At this juncture we're really looking forward to the presentation from (Nation Representative Ray Halbritter) and moving forward and looking toward next year."

 

Want to be an area school board member?

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 22, 2013 at 10:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Want to be an area school board member?

Training, hard work part of the job

By KESHIA CLUKEY

[email protected]

Story on UticaOd.com.

Almost a year after her election, first-time Clinton school board member Amy Franz has learned a lot.

Franz described keeping the state law book at her side and referencing it many times, especially in the beginning.

"This whole year has been a learning process," said the 49-year-old Clinton resident. "You learn so much about not only your own school district but about the state and requirements that you wouldn't necessarily know until you are in that position."

With two years left in her term, Franz now knows her stuff.

On May 21, voters will head to the polls to decide on the 2013-14 school budgets and choose school board members to take office July 1.

Of the 28 districts in the Mohawk Valley, 12 of them - or 43 percent - have contested races and a total of 62 area candidates will vie for 81 seats.

But there's a lot more to being a Board of Education member than just getting elected.

The job includes training, difficult decision making, strict guidelines and ethics to follow, and numerous man hours.

"There is a lot of responsibility that goes with being a school board member," said Charles Borgognoni, executive director of the Central New York School Boards Association. "You represent the community. You represent the taxpayers within your community as well as the students."

"It's a lot of hours, and sometimes a very thankless job. It puts you out in the public, which is not always easy," Borgognoni said. "You can't have a functional public school system without folks stepping up to the plate and participating."

To run, candidates must first file a petition with 25 signatures from district residents. The applications are then reviewed by the school district to ensure the candidate meets the New York State School Boards Association and the New York State Bar Association requirements.

Qualifications include being able to read and write, being a qualified voter of the district and a district resident for at least a year prior to the election.

Once selected, the newly-appointed members are required by law to attend two trainings within their first year of office, Borgognoni said.

One is the general government training, which includes rules, responsibilities and other duties, he said. The second is fiscal training, which includes going over fiduciary responsibilities such as budgeting.

"Board members typically put in between 20 and 40 hours a week, as well as going to meetings," Borgognoni said. "The fiscal responsibilities for school districts are very important and require a lot of work and attention. This is all a volunteer job."

Louis LaPolla has been on Utica City School District Board of Education since 1997. By the end of his current five-year-term, he will have served for 20 years.

LaPolla, the board vice president, brings 16 years of experience teaching in Utica, as well as being Utica mayor from 1983-97, and being on various boards including the Municipal Housing Authority.

"I think you've got to know education and know the community before you even attempt to run for the school board," LaPolla said.

His experience helps him on the board, and to know the community, he said.

"I serve on the school board because I think it's a way of giving back to the community," LaPolla said. "It's very time consuming, the hours are long and the pay is nothing, but you do the best you can because you want to see the community grow and prosper."

Edge of a fiscal cliff: Is the future of local education in danger?

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 13, 2013 at 10:45 AM Comments comments (0)

Edge of a fiscal cliff: Is future of local education in danger?

To see original visit uticaod.com. Published in paper on Sunday, May 12, 2013.

BY KESHIA CLUKEY

[email protected]

Classrooms crowded with more than 30 students.

No electives or advanced placement classes.

No sports or music.

This is the future for some local schools if finances continue on their current trend — and it might happen sooner than later.

Schools across the state are struggling with significant rising costs, declining enrollment, the 2 percent property tax cap and insufficient state aid.

Year after year, they are forced to reach deeper into their reserves and make cuts to staff and programming.

“We’re going to fall behind other countries in terms of the quality of our education system and the graduates who can lead us into the next generation in terms of successful careers,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “We’re mortgaging our future to pay for our past mistakes.”

Schools across the state and region are headed toward educational insolvency. They essentially would go bankrupt — either running out of money or lacking the funds to meet legal requirements such as mandated programs — and jeopardize the districts’ and students’ futures.

“They’re running out of things to cut,” said Rick Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium. “Instead of doing more with less, we’re really just doing less with less.”

What’s at stake?

Students graduating now will be at a disadvantage when it comes to colleges or the workplace, said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group.

“Colleges look closely at the quality of the curriculum in high schools,” Easton said. “When they cut advanced placement, honors or electives, students are simply less competitive.”

Headed for trouble

Statewide, 77 percent of superintendents said they would be unable to fund all state and federal mandates in the next four years, while 18 percent said they would reach that point within two years, according to a November survey by the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Though a district is not able to declare bankruptcy, it can seek special legislation to help it deal with a financial emergency or deficit, according to the state Education Department.

For the 2012-13 budget, the Utica City School District originally had 217 positions and some sports on the chopping block, along with cutting kindergarten to half day. Increases in aid kept programs safe for now, but staff cuts have continued.

During the past four years, the district has cut about 311 positions, 175 of them were teachers even as enrollment continues to rise due to a large refugee population. The district currently has 1,594 employees, 768 of whom are teachers.

For the 2013-14 budget, another 81 position cuts, 46 teaching, are proposed. As a result, class sizes could reach up to 34 students each next year.

The district also has been using its fund balance, appropriating $12.4 million over the last three years. With only about $875,000 left in reserves, the district doesn’t have a fallback.

Further staffing, kindergarten, sports and other non-mandated program cuts will be the last resort.

“Hopefully, we will not become insolvent,” said district Business Official Maureen Albanese. “If things did continue as bad as they were the last couple of years, we would definitely be headed for it.”

Options

It’s much more expensive to recreate a program than to maintain it, Easton said.

But with an approximately $5.5 million budget for the 2013-14 school year, and only about 195 students, the Owen D. Young Central School District has to explore all options every year.

Merging with other districts would be difficult due to the district’s geographic remoteness, said Superintendent James Picolla.

This year it’s cutting French. As for advanced placement courses, they can’t afford to offer them.

But the district got creative when it comes to staffing. The business official, Committee on Special Education chairperson and even the superintendent are shared through the Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES.

Picolla works part-time as the BOCES Human Resources director, and earns an additional $55,000 a year as superintendent. The district’s savings went to reinstating the school principal position to full time to accommodate mandates such as the annual teacher reviews, he said.

Districts can avoid insolvency by sharing services or merging, but in the long run, experts say the only way is through state aid reform and mandate relief.

Olympia Sonnier, spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said it’s clear that the state is showing unprecedented commitment to schools, providing more than $341 million in education funding to Oneida County next year — about $13 million more than this year.

“For decades, the Albany solution to education was to spend more and more money even though graduation rates remained abysmal,” Sonnier aid. “While overall aid has increased over the last two years, Gov. Cuomo also enacted reform that injects accountability and reduces costs and bureaucracy, and puts more funds into the classroom.”

As for Owen D. Young, if financial difficulties continue next year, the district will look at cutting core programming, Picolla said.

“If we have to make cuts, then we’d be offering a student not much more than the minimum requirements toward graduation.”

By the numbers

* School spending statewide is expected to increase 3.12 percent in the 2013-14 school year, if approved by voters May 21.

ä Unrestricted fund balances, which are used to plug holes in budgets to prevent further layoffs, declined an average 13.8 percent statewide last year. This year, they are expected to decline another 8 percent.

* 52 percent of superintendents statewide said their district's financial condition is worse or significantly worse than a year ago.

* 83 percent of superintendents statewide said they're concerned or very concerned about their district's reliance on reserves to fund recurring costs.

* 18 percent of superintendents statewide said that within two years their districts may become unable to fund all state and federal mandates. 77 percent foresee reaching that point within four years or beyond.

* 9 percent of superintendents statewide say within two years their districts may become unable to ensure some financial obligations. 41 percent foresees reaching that point within four years.

Source: New York State Association of School Business Officials, New York State Council of School Superintendents November survey

Definitions

* Financial insolvency: Bankruptcy, or the inability to meet financial obligations.

* Educational insolvency: A school district's inability to meet legal or regulatory requirements and are therefore not in compliance with education law. It also can mean when districts meet all the rules but its students are not prepared for post-secondary education or to be career ready.

Signs leading up to insolvency

* Eliminating non-mandated programs, for example cutting electives, advanced placement courses, remedial services, extracurricular activities and cutting kindergarten or pre-kindergarten.

* Exhausting reserve funds.

* Borrowing money to meet their tax-flow needs.

District options

A district isn't able to declare bankruptcy with the state, but many districts have sought and received special legislation to help them deal with a financial emergency or deficit, according to the state Department of Education. Legislation includes:

* After certification by the state Comptroller, the district would be allowed to bond out the deficit over a 10-year-period.

* The state advances funding such as lottery funds. Funds are recouped over a period of years.

* Bailout with a grant or loan.

* The state appoints a control board which has oversight of district finances.

* Consolidation.

* Sending students to other districts willing to receive them.

Source: New York State Department of Education

 

 


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