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Rome student on bullying: 'I feel like I'm not safe'

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Rome student on bullying: 'I feel like I'm not safe'


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ROME - Sixth-grader Taylor Fulgieri said she has been bullied for two years.

"I've been called names that I cannot repeat and also have been threatened to get jumped and killed," the 11-year-old told the Rome school board Wednesday night. "When I go to school each day I feel like I'm not safe. … I'm very glad the year is almost over."

Blue anti-bullying bracelets were handed out at the door to the Lyndon H. Strough Middle School auditorium and students, parents and teachers spoke to the board asking one thing - to take action against bullying.

Bullying legislation known as the Dignity for All Students Act took effect July 1. Since then, area school districts have increased their programming and reporting of bullying issues. The law requires each school to have one person trained to handle issues regarding students being harassed over race, weight, national origin, ethnic group or other characteristics protected by law. It further requires districts to develop guidelines in training programs

High school teacher Maria Fulgieri, who is related to bullying victim Taylor Fulgieri, said bullying is a daily issue.

"It's not just student to student, it's student to teacher," she said. "We have kids that are just plain scared to go to school."

Michele Grifasi said her high school-aged daughter tried to take her own life because of bullying.

"Parents feel helpless, their concerns and fears fall on deaf ears day after day," she said.

School board President Patricia Riedel said the board is aware of the problems.

"The board will take very seriously everything we have been told this evening," she said.

Putting the test to the test

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Putting the test to the test

Educators, students approach Common Core exams with trepidation


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Many students across the state began taking standardized tests this week.

Tom Snizek's fourth-grader was not one of them.

He and his wife decided to opt out their daughter from testing at Myles Elementary School in New Hartford.

His main issue: the new Common Core Standards.

"There wasn't enough time for the test," Snizek said. "It's putting added stress on the teachers; it's putting added stress on the administration; it's putting added stress on the Board of Education, and it's especially putting added stress on the kids.

"My kid is not going to be a guinea pig on a state exam that hasn't been pre-tested."

Snizek, a private consultant for state assessments and a high school teacher, had concerns over what he calls the lack of development and field testing the exam was given.

Snizek is one of more than 90 members of the Facebook group, Opt Out CNY, which provides support for those choosing to withdraw their students from standardized testing.

Adopted in January 2011, Common Core standards serve as a consistent set of expectations for what students should learn and be able to do to ensure they are on track for college and career readiness, according to the state Department of Education.

Its implementation secures federal funding, such as Race to the Top and Title I monies.

The statewide testing for third- through eighth-graders began Tuesday with English Language Arts. Math is next week.

Teachers, parents and education experts are concerned about the "high-stakes testing," which could determine teacher and student success, and could lower test scores across the board.

Implementation of the curriculum began in September, but many are asking: Is it too soon to test?

"Common Core has the potential to enhance student learning by putting a greater focus on critical thinking skills and using document-based research in answering more difficult questions. … That potential is being jeopardized," said Carl Korn, New York State United Teachers spokesman. "Test scores are going to plummet and students and teachers are going to pay the price. It's high-stakes testing."

Third-grader Ajdin Karajic didn't know what this week's test would bring.

"I know a lot of reading and a lot of questions, and it might be hard for some people and some not," said the 8-year-old student at Roscoe Conkling Elementary School in Utica.

When asked how he was feeling, Ajdin said: "Kind of shocked and scared that I may fail. It's kind of too much to ask."

The state Department of Education said it is vital to test quickly because the longer it takes to implement the standards, the more students will leave schools unprepared.

Over the past two years, districts have been working with the state to ensure their staff is trained properly to teach the new standards.

"Our region is well prepared and certainly very involved in the implementation," said Kathy Houghton, New York Mills Union Free School District superintendent. "The whole idea of the Common Core is to push kids and encourage kids to think at new and deeper levels. … That's a very positive thing."

"I think we're as ready as we can be," she said about this year's tests.

Still, test scores are expected to drop.

The in-depth nature of the curriculum as well as the fact that the program has just started has left gaps, said Amee Zbytniewski, New York Mills second-grade teacher and ambassador helping districts learn about the curriculum.

"There's not enough time this year to close those gaps," she said. "This should be alleviated over time as students go through several grades with the new curriculum."

This year, it'll be a learning experience, she said.

Many districts use standardized testing to determine which students move to the next grade and which require accelerated or remedial services, Korn said. As for teachers, test scores are part of the newly implemented teacher-principal evaluation systems.

Mark Vivacqua, Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES district superintendent, said it's a necessary transition.

"Scores are going to go down. As long as we understand that, I don't see any necessity in delaying," Vivacqua said. "We're going to have a new baseline and it's going to be lower, but then we'll be able to monitor our progress."

He said there will be no adverse effect on children.

"The content of the Common Core itself is exactly the right direction for New York state," Vivacqua said. "I think it's the kind of assessment we've been asking for."


Mackenzie Spizer, 8, a third-grader at Conkling said her teachers and parents have been working with her to make sure she’s prepared. Lessons included showing work with math problems, and remembering to look back in the stories to find the answers, Mackenzie said. Still, she’s nervous. "It’s a big test and it’s my first time," Mackenzie said.

Conkling third-grade teacher Selma Sewall is "not a fan" of the tests, saying it can take away creativity for teachers and students. "Instead of teaching the love of learning, we may be doing the opposite."

Common Core breakdown

The state Common Core Standards were adopted by the Board of Regents in January 2011.

The changes were made to create a more standardized education in schools and increase students’ college and career readiness. The new curriculum is more rigorous and delves deeper into topics. It also includes ongoing professional development of staff, shifts in instruction and new assessments to measure student progress.

Implementation officially began in September. This week, students in third through eighth grade are taking the English Language Arts tests that are aligned to the Common Core. They will take the math exams next week. The curriculum changes won’t be reflected in the state exams for ninth through 12 grades until next school year.

For information, visit

Sources: Carl Korn, New York State United Teachers spokesman; New York State Education Department ;

Core standards a national effort

*Nationally, 46 states as well as Washington, D.C., have adopted the Common Core Standards. Kentucky tested the new standards last year and scores dropped 30 to 35 percent. New York is testing this year. All other states plan to test in 2014.
*Implementation secures federal funding for each state, such as Race to the Top and Title I monies.

Funding cuts hit colleges

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Funding cuts hit colleges

Work study programs, financial aid to be affected


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Utica College sophomore Chris Murphy relies on his work study job to make ends meet.

The 20-year-old Utican and history major does clerical work for the college's Office of Corporate and Professional Programs three hours every day, making $7.25 an hour.

"It's pretty much my main source of income," Murphy said.

It's more flexible than a regular part-time job, he said. He doesn't have to leave the campus and sometimes is able to do homework if his other duties are complete.

"It's more geared toward academics," he said.

Unfortunately, the work study program will face cuts soon - a victim of forced federal spending cuts, known as sequestration.

Local colleges and universities are trying to absorb the federal cuts for the 2013-14 school year while dealing with already rising costs and maintaining enrollment as the number of traditional college-age students decreases across Upstate New York.

The cuts now in effect after President Barack Obama and Congress failed to reach an agreement by March 1, will continue if a consensus is not met.

Sequestration reductions for the 2013-14 school year include:

* A decrease in research grants to colleges.

* Increases of about 0.05 percent in borrowing costs for Direct Loans, and 0.20 percent for Direct PLUS loans.

* A 5.52 percent decrease in funding to the Federal Work-Study and Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant programs - both part of students' financial aid packages.

"Cuts to the student aid programs … are affecting how our campuses put together financial aid packages for the prospective students and returning students who will be on campus this fall," Laura Anglin, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, said in a statement. "It is critical funding that can make the difference in a student continuing to enroll from one semester to the next and persisting to graduation."

Locally, the cuts are relatively minimal; however, the full effects are yet to be seen.

SUNYIT, for example, would lose an estimated $2,358 in Opportunity Grants and no Federal Work-Study money, based on an estimated 5.1 percent cut, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Updated numbers were not available.

"The eventual effects that we could see would be felt primarily through our relationships with agencies and organizations who are direct recipients of federal funding," said SUNYIT Spokesman John Swann. "Federal research funding, we understand, would be affected, and it remains to be seen what would happen as a result."

Herkimer Community College's situation is far worse: It is expecting an 8 percent, or about $24,000, reduction in Perkins Act grant funding, which helps provide vocational-technical education programs and services, Public Relations Director Rebecca Ruffing said in an email.

"Since career and technical programs generally are higher cost programs that teach skills that employers need, every dollar is needed to support them," she said.

The college's operating budget for 2012-13 is about $25.3 million.

The college also faces financial aid cuts estimated to be about $13,360 between opportunity and work-study programs, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Reductions in the opportunity grants effect students with the highest financial need, Ruffing said. Decreases in work-study funding mean fewer opportunities for the students and fewer part-time workers for the college to rely on, she said.

Utica College is in a similar situation, losing an estimated $24,888 in opportunity and work-study funding, said Tammy Raub, college vice president for financial affairs.

To hold the line, the college is working with departments on voluntary cost-cutting measures.

"We're not laying people off. We're just looking at the way we do things and trying to hold costs as much as possible," she said.

As for work study, for which the college will receive $299,683, a $17,277 decrease over the current year, Utica College will try to make up the difference, Raub said. The college's expected 2013-14 budget is $67 million, though it has yet to be voted on.

"We know what a student's expected family contribution would be and we're going to try to make up what they can't be expected to pay," Raub said about the cuts.

"We definitely have a very, very tight budget," she said. "While this isn't a huge piece of our budget, it add ups."

Proposed cuts

Opportunity Grants

School Tentative allocation Post-sequester allocation Estimated reduction

Colgate University $270,925 $270,925 $0

Hamilton College $142,543 $136,170 -$6,373

Herkimer Community $82,028 $74,716 $7,312

Morrisville State $96,851 $91,047 $5,804

St. Elizabeth School of Nursing $14,993 $13,795 $1,198

SUNYIT $40,492 $38,134 $2,358

Utica College $192,481 $185,600 $6,881

Utica School of Commerce $51,478 $51,478 $0

Federal Work-Study

School Tentative allocation Post-sequester allocation Estimated reduction

Colgate University $271,059 $271,059 $0

Hamilton College $223,829 $223,820 $0

Herkimer Community $84,543 $78,495 $6,048

Morrisville State $103,781 $103,781 $0

St. Elizabeth School of Nursing $15,356 $14,157 $1,199

SUNYIT $149,680 $149,680 $0

Utica College $316,960 $301,491 $15,469

Utica School of Commerce $0 $0 $0

Note: These figures are based on an estimated 5.1 percent cut; the actual cuts will be 5.52 percent, however updated numbers were not available.

Source: National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators

New teacher evaluations costly for school districts

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

New teacher evaluations costly for school districts


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Students aren't the only ones subject to testing. A state mandated evaluation system now puts teachers and principals in the hot seat, but it's about more than just a passing grade.

Legislation passed in the 2013-14 state budget requires districts to have a plan approved by the state education department by Sept. 1 each year, a measure that costs local school districts time and money.

Those that don't abide by the legislation risk losing increases in additional state aid.

"It's a cost that wasn't there before. It's a mandate that doesn't come with any additional directed funding," said Robert Reina, Frankfort-Schuyler Central School District superintendent. The district is projecting to spend about $17,000 this school year for assessments, in addition to excess staff costs, he said.

This is the first year districts have had to implement their Annual Professional Performance Reviews, which include a combination of measurement of student growth through state exams and local assessments, as well as observation.

Districts were required to have their plan approved by the state by Jan. 17, or they would lose this year's proposed increase in state funding. All local districts were approved by the deadline.

The majority, about 90 percent of districts statewide, only have a one-year plan, said Robert Lowry Jr., New York State Council of Superintendents deputy director for advocacy research and communications.

"I would anticipate that, over time, as these requirements become more established and more routine, that we would see districts and unions agree to multiyear plans," Lowry said.

Districts must submit their new or revised plans by Sept. 1, or once again face losing state aid, though a district's expired plan will remain in effect until a new one is negotiated.

Districts must have their plans approved by their Board of Education and administrative and teacher unions prior to submission.

Districts could face penalties if they fail to fully implement their plans.

But implementation is expensive.

Outside of the state's five largest cities, school districts expect to spend an average of $155,355 to implement the new evaluation system, according to the New York State School Boards Association. Costs include additional compensation, training fees, assessments, software and technology, as well as printing. The majority of those costs are accrued the first year and should diminish in subsequent years, experts said.

The Utica City School District review plan already is a two-year contract, said Utica Teacher's Association President Larry Custodero.

The district and unions plan to make slight changes to the evaluation plan based on experience from this year, he said. These changes will be made and submitted this summer, prior to the state deadline.

"This has got to be a complete cooperative effort from everybody," Custodero said, though he doesn't believe there will be any issue in passing the revised plan.

Frankfort-Schuyler purposefully chose a one-year plan, Reina said.

"We'll be meeting in June and July to update it," he said. "We want to run through the whole process for a year to see how it works."

Still, it's a huge time commitment.

"We're looking at the possibility of changing staffing responsibilities in order to keep up with the record keeping and report filing that's necessary," Reina said.

The district estimated how many hours its three building principals would have to spend evaluating their teachers through the plan. The result: 19 straight days, Reina said.

They'll be spending about a month of the school year solely on evaluation, he said. "That's less time that they're in the classrooms, doing curriculum development and other related jobs."

At a glance
* In 2012, legislation was enacted to create a more comprehensive and rigorous teacher and principal evaluation system. It will protect more than $2.5 billion in Race to the Top money and other education funds over two years and improve student performance, according to the state Education Department.
* Districts had until Jan. 17 to have their plans submitted to the state Department of Education, and approved. All local districts were approved by the deadline.
* The 2013-14 state budget now requires districts to have an approved plan by Sept. 1 annually. Districts that do not have a plan in place face losing state aid.
* Legislation states that the district’s expired plan will remain in effect until a successor is negotiated, lessening the chance of losing aid, though they could still face penalties if they fail to fully implement their plans.

Not speaking the same language

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Not speaking the same language

More English language learners, fewer teachers pose major challenges


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UTICA - Chit Myaing waited in line Tuesday to register her 4-year-old for kindergarten.

Unlike other parents enrolling their children in the Utica City School District, the Karen refugee who arrived here in 2007 needs something more for her son.

He doesn't speak English.

"The English is very important to communicate to other people," Myaing said.

There are about 1,512 English language learners in the district, with more on the way.

Money, however, is not as abundant, making the already difficult learning process more taxing for these students.

The district has increased its English as a Second Language teaching staff - up until now.

"We have as many as we can afford right now," Superintendent Bruce Karam said. "If we don't have the money to pay the existing teachers and we have to lay off teachers and other staff in the district in order to balance the budget, then we don't have those resources to hire new teachers."

In the past 10 years, the number of English language learners in the Utica district grew from 1,353 in 2004-05 to about 1,512 this year. The staff rose with the population, from 30.5 ESL teachers in 2004-05 to 42 today.

Facing a $6.2 million budget deficit, the district's approximately $139 million budget for 2013-14 includes a 2 percent tax increase and the elimination of 94 positions, 59 of which are teaching.

Included in the cuts: two ESL teachers.

The original proposed budget included a third position being cut, however, the Board of Education restored it along with 4.5 other positions due to a $313,164 increase in state aid.

The number of ESL teaching assistants has varied throughout the years, from 16 in 2004-05 to the eight currently employed. It was unclear if any of those positions would be cut next year.

A growing need

Throughout the state, the number of English language learners has increased more than 300,000 over the past few years, said Nancy Villarreal, executive director for the New York State Association for Bilingual Education.

ESL teachers are certified and specifically trained on how to provide not only language instruction but also content, Villarreal said.

They often become the liaison between the family and the district, and help the students' emotional and social development, supporting them in coming to a new country.

ESL teachers differ in salary based on their educational and professional backgrounds, said district Business Official Maureen Albanese. They can vary from the mid-$30,000s to $80,000s, she said.

The cost of ESL teachers for the current school year is about $1.05 million, not including benefits, funded through the district's general fund. Grant and aid money the district receives for its English language learners does not cover the cost of staff, Albanese said.

Funding for the students is included in Foundation Aid from the state. For Utica in the 2012-13 school year, that aid totaled about $72.2 million and is expected to increase to about $72.4 million for 2013-14.

The district also receives a Refugee Impact Grant. Currently in year two of the five-year grant, the money is used for in-class support such as academic coaches, as well as parent outreach, staff development, and orientation, said Carla Percia, district director of grants, contracts and compliance.

This year the grant was $311,250, reimbursing the district for what programming it provided.

The district received a $35,000 grant this year to begin planning a bilingual program, where students would be taught in their home language as well as English, Percia said.

None of the grants pay for staffing ESL teachers.

With nowhere else to cut, the number of ESL teachers will decrease to 40 in fall, a level it hasn't been at since 2009-10 when the district had 39.5 ESL teachers.

If distributed evenly, that makes a teaching ratio of one teacher to every 38 of the district's English language learners.

Attention needed

Cara LaMark teaches several grade levels at General Herkimer Elementary School.

One of two ESL teachers in the school, students come to her class in various size groups.

LaMark said she doesn't mind a larger group for the younger students.

"There's more interaction, they don't clam up," she said smiling. However the older students usually need smaller groups.

It's critically important that English language learners receive individualized attention, said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group.

"If the result of state policy is cuts to ESL teachers, the state is basically making the decision to let those kids fall through the cracks," Easton said.

English language learners might come from refugee camps and might not have had schooling, Villarreal said. "There are so many variations so when you have a classroom that is large, you cannot provide attention to all these needs."

English language learners are at risk for not graduating, Easton said.

This is one of the main reasons the Utica district is identified by the state as a "focus district," meaning the population subgroups are low achieving in math and English Language Arts or could have low graduation rates and are not showing improvement, according to the state Education Department.

The district is required to create a comprehensive improvement plan and must set aside funding for state approved programs and services. There are several other restrictions and requirements of the district in order to get it on the right track to improvement.

It includes a breakdown of seat time the students must have depending on their language proficiency; however restrictions on class size are not included.

"We're going to have a reorganization plan prior to the opening of the next school year when we set up the classes to make sure the teaching staff is spread evenly throughout the district to accommodate the student enrollment," Karam said.

If the district receives more funding, teachers are the first priority, Karam said.

"We would definitely restore the teachers that were laid off, and hire new ones so we could continue to keep the class sizes low for optimal instruction."

School-by-school breakdown

School Immigrants* English language learners

Albany 54 64

Columbus 90 122

Conkling 103 138

Donovan 148 117

Herkimer 59 74

Hughes 97 88

Jefferson 95 89

Jones 24 35

Kennedy 174 80

Kernan 79 87

King 71 62

Proctor 567 447

Watson 90 109

Total 1,651 1,512*

Immigrants include current and former English Language Learner students who were born in another county while English Language Learners include all current ELL students whether born in the U.S., Puerto Rico or abroad.

English Language Learners

Language* Number of students

Karen 775

Bosnian 621

Spanish 602

Burmese 280

Somali 199

Arabic 131

Russian 131

Nepali 60

Ukrainian 29

Total: 1,512 English language learners district-wide, 439 are at Proctor High School.

*Other languages are spoken but the number of students is fewer.

Source: Deborah Wilson-Allam, Utica City School District administrator for Pupil Services and English Language Learner Services

Who We Are FACTS

More than 42 languages are spoken in the Utica City School District.

14,267: Number of refugees the Mohawk Valley Center for Refugees has resettled since 1979.

1,512: Number of English language learners district-wide.

42: the current number of English as a Second Language teachers district-wide.

Since the 2004-05 school year, the district has added 11.5 ESL teachers.

English learners, teachers*

School year English Language Learners English as a Second Language Teachers ESL Teacher Assistants

**Current 1,512 42 8

2011-12 1,562 41 15

2010-11 1,314 40.5 15

2009-10 1,361 39.5 14

2008-09 1,287 36.5 13

2007-08 1,257 34.5 12

2006-07 1,119 33.5 12

2005-06 1,286 32.5 16

2004-05 1,353 30.5 16

The 2013-14 budget includes the elimination of = two English as a Second Language Teachers. The number of ESL teacher assistants being cut is not yet known.

*Does not include those working at the adult learning center

Source: Deborah Wilson-Allam, Utica City School District administrator for pupil services and English language learners.

Utica teachers take hit when budgets are tight

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Utica teachers take hit when budgets are tight

Since 2010, about 175 positions have been cut


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UTICA - Over the course of four years, the Utica City School District has cut about 311 positions - and about 175 of them were teachers.

Continued financial difficulties have left the district with few other options.

"Nobody wants to cut positions or lay people off," Superintendent Bruce Karam said. "When we have a large budget deficit and we need to bridge the gap, we're looking at everything we could possibly cut. All we had left were people."

Facing a $6.2 million budget deficit - a result of forced federal spending cuts, significant rising costs, a planned charter school, the 2 percent property tax cap and insufficient state funding - the district again turned to large scale reductions this year.

The about $139 million 2013-14 budget includes a 2 percent tax increase and the elimination of 94 positions, 59 of which are teachers. The budget will go to a public vote May 21.

In the past three years, more than 35,000 educators have been cut from schools throughout the state, said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group.

"It's a very dramatic impact on the students and on the teachers and the community," he said.

The cuts result in the loss of programming, meaning fewer opportunities for students, as well as larger class sizes resulting in less individualized attention and more risk of students falling through the cracks.

And the cuts aren't over.

"This budget is the best one we've seen since 2008, but the feedback we're hearing is that more cuts are expected," Easton said about the state budget, which was finalized March 29.

The $21.2 billion state education budget includes about $425 million more than Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in January and $936.6 million more than districts received this year.

The increase equated to an additional $313,164, without building aid, for the Utica district and the retention of 4.5 teaching positions, as well as the restoration of a full-time science teaching position that was cut last year.

"It's still not a great situation, obviously," said Larry Custodero, president of the Utica Teachers Association. "We have no say in where they make the cuts. It just has to be done by seniority. Unfortunately, those who got cut last year (and were recalled) may get laid off again."

The cuts

Major eliminations began in Utica with the 2010-11 budget, when 16 positions were eliminated, 12 of which were teachers.

The 2011-12 budget was worse: 51 cuts, 20 of them teachers.

But then came 2012-13: 150.4 positions eliminated, 84.4 of which were teachers.

And this budget season will continue the pattern, unless further state aid or aid lost from forced federal spending cuts is awarded.

There currently are about 775 teachers in the district, Custodero said.

To make the cuts, the district takes recommendations from the 13 building principals, central office administration and those who oversee the departments prior to coming to a decision.

"We make sure that seniority is respected," Karam said. "We make sure that we are not in violation of any contractual rights in regard to the union."

Those laid off are put on a recall list and get the first opportunity to come back when positions open, Custodero said.

The association has been working to help the district, for example, agreeing not to take a raise last year,

The union and district have agreed on a $14,000 retirement incentive for teachers this year in the hopes of saving jobs. A total of 17 teachers must take the incentive for it to go through.

"We're working together, and we'll support the budget as we always have to get through it," Custodero said.

Still, the impacts of the cuts are detrimental.

The results

One of the major impacts is on class size.

"They're just getting bigger and bigger," Custodero said. "Everybody's worried about the number of children in the room."

Next school year, class sizes of up to 34 students are expected in classrooms from the elementary schools through the middle and high schools.

Larger class sizes put students at greater risk of falling behind or dropping out, experts said.

"At a time when the Board of Regents is raising standards and striving to ensure that every child is college and career ready, we are eliminating the adults in schools who are going to help children to do just that," said New York State United Teachers spokesman Carl Korn.

The whole area could feel the pain, Korn said.

"When you lose middle class teaching jobs, the economy suffers," he said.

Plus, the community and state's economic viability suffers, Easton said.

"We're not preparing the workforce that we need to jumpstart the upstate economy, and frankly, we're bursting the bubble on the hopes and dreams of parents and community members for the possibilities of young people," he said.

Utica Budget Eliminations

School year Teachers cut Total positions cut Budget total

2013-14* 59 94 $139 million

2012-13 84.4 150.4 $137 million

2011-12 20 51 $133 million

2010-11 12 16 $132.6 million

Did the board ignore the law?

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Did the board ignore the law?

* Expert: Budget talks must be public * Board: Staff discussions can be private


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UTICA - School boards legally can meet in private for several reasons, including matters of security, contract agreements or to discuss pending litigation.

One thing they can't talk about in executive session: The budget.

Yet that's what some members of the Utica City School District Board of Education say happened Tuesday.

During an executive session, the superintendent and board discussed returning the positions of treasurer and internal auditor to full-time in the 2013-14 budget after an earlier proposal had cut them to part-time.

In exchange, one full-time English as a Second Language teacher position and a part-time Spanish teacher would be eliminated.

Robert Freeman, director of the state's Committee on Open Government, said the private budget discussions violated state Open Meetings Law. What the district wants to do with your money is supposed to be discussed in public, not behind closed doors.

"There is no basis for going into executive session, because they're talking about how as the government body, they're allocating public money," he said.

The superintendent, the district's attorney and all seven board members argued that a personnel issue is a valid reason to meet in private.

Board member Evon Ervin said the changes were discussed in private out of consideration for those holding the positions.

"If there's going to be any cuts, we don't want that person to find out in a meeting. With budgets you never know what's going to change," Ervin said. "Once we hash out everything, we usually do say what we're cutting … That's about as public as people need to know."

But Freeman said "personnel" is not a reason to go into executive session and all budget talks must be public.

"The word personnel doesn't exist anywhere in the law," he said. "It's a trap, a catch-all."

Reasons for going into executive session regarding an individual or company include: discussing medical, financial, credit or employment history, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation, according to state law.

The revised budget then was approved 6-1 during the public portion of the meeting along with an about $138 million budget, which includes a 2 percent tax increase and the elimination of about 98.5 positions, 63.5 of which are teachers. About 10 of the positions were eliminated through attrition.

Board Vice President Louis LaPolla was the sole vote against the budget due to the last-minute changes. He said he felt the board should have voted on the superintendent's original spending plan, and any changes then could have been revealed to the public and voted on separately.

"I'm in favor of restoring all teaching positions before I restore one non-teaching position," LaPolla said.

When LaPolla attempted to voice his concerns during the open meeting, he was discouraged by other board members.

"I was never going to reveal the positions or the personnel," he said. "They stopped me; that's when I said, well look, if I can't talk I'm going to vote against the budget anyway."

Goodwin said LaPolla wasn't discouraged, he was "forbidden."

"It had been decided that anything to do with laying off or talking about personnel changes would not be discussed at the open meeting until we have the budget meeting," he said, referring to a meeting planned for Tuesday where the board is expected to release the exact cuts.

There is no law stating that LaPolla could not discuss what happened in executive session, Freeman said.

Superintendent Bruce Karam said personnel matters were discussed in executive session and referred further comment to the district's attorney.

Attorney Donald Gerace, who represents the district, said the executive session was proper.

"Traditionally they won't talk about those kinds of cuts until the action is actually before them," he said. "We normally do not discuss personnel actions on the floor if they're just proposed."

Open Meetings Law

A majority vote of the board in an open meeting may elect to conduct an executive session for the following purposes only:

Matters that will imperil public safety if disclosed;

Any matter that may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;

Information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense that would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;

Discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;

Collective negotiations pursuant to article 14 or civil service law;

The medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation;

The proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.

No formal vote shall take place during executive session to appropriate public moneys.

For full law visit

Board Comments

Superintendent Bruce Karam: “I had a certain level of expenditures and then coordinating cuts to the budget in order to balance the budget,” he said about the recommended budget changes. He said he couldn’t discuss executive session and referred comment to the district’s attorney.

Board President Christopher Salatino: “There was nothing talked about relating to the budget. The only thing relating to the budget was a personnel issue. I’m a very large proponent of open meetings,” he said about the executive session. “We certainly don’t want to put an employee in the position where they read in the paper and say ‘that’s my job.’” The issue shouldn’t have been discussed during the public portion of the meeting. “Because the positions themselves are a personnel issue, it’s contractual.”

Board Vice President Louis LaPolla: He said he was following the advice of the district’s attorney that talking about personnel is allowed in executive session. “Any changes and amendments certainly should have been relayed to the public,” he said.

Board Member Margaret Buckley: “I disagree with Bob (Freeman, director of the state's Committee on Open Government),” she said. “I think when you’re dealing with individuals and people in a job and it’s only one person. I just don’t think you can do that,” she said about discussing the position changes in public.

Board Member Donald Dawes: “I believe that we were well within the law in the way we did things,” he said. “Until we vote on something we normally don’t release the names of people that we’re discussing. It could have legal ramifications depending on what the situation was. Also, sometimes in your mind you assume people know things and you don’t actually say them,” he said about not discussing the changes at the meeting. “Sometimes we have a tendency to do that when we get into things like the budget.”

Board Member Evon Ervin: “I just think it’s common courtesy to let staff know before everyone else knows,” she said about discussing the position cuts in private. “We just want to look out for the staff. We’re not hiding anything, we’re trying to stick as close to the law as possible.”

Board Member Barry Goodwin: “I don’t recall anything being discussed regarding the budget,” he said about executive session; however, the board is given budget packets at every meeting. “Anything that’s on paper, until it’s entered into record, doesn’t really exist as far as the budget is concerned,” he said. “Each of us have the law and we know what we can and cannot discuss.”

Michele Mandia: Declined to comment.

Proposed CUTS

Position: Number of reductions

Director of district operations: 1

Committee on special education chairperson: 1

Teacher of the visually impaired: 1

Elementary teachers: 24

Academic intervention services teachers: 5

English language arts teachers: 8

Math teachers: 7

Art teachers: 3

Music teachers: 2

Reading teachers: 3

English as a second language teachers: 3

Special education teachers: 7

Spanish teacher: 0.5

ESL facilitator: 1

Math facilitator: 1

Purchasing agent business office: 1

Senior steno management confidential: 1


Refugee assimilation: Fire kindles concern

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Refugee assimilation: Fire kindles concern

Unfamiliarity with cultural changes could prove dangerous


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UTICA - Before Lul Mohamed moved to Utica eight years ago, she never had electricity, running water nor a bathroom in her home.

As a Somali refugee, learning to live and cook with modern appliances was a challenge.

"The most difficult was the stove and heater," she said.

In Somalia, she would cook on a wood fire - a long process - giving her time to talk with others and play with her children.

In America, it's quite different.

"The stove is faster than firewood," said Mohamed, an interpreter for the Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters in Utica. "If you put it on and play with the kids, it's already burning."

It's more than a learning curve when refugees and immigrants move to the U.S. The fire that tore through an apartment Friday at Adrean Terrace Apartments demonstrated just how dangerous that curve is and how potentially hazardous differences in culture and lifestyle can be.

A fire originating in the kitchen of the apartment left a Somali family of 10 displaced and critically injured a 4-year-old girl.

The girl remained in critical condition Tuesday at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, said fire Chief Russell Brooks, who said the cause of the fire has not been determined.

Brooks said oftentimes cultural differences contribute to potentially dangerous situations and the language barrier often proves difficult to surmount.

"It occurs very often on medical calls and also fires, where we have to act immediately, where lives are at risk," he said.

Brooks said traditions from refugees' homelands can be problematic.

Many Somali refugees decorate their homes with tapestries and fabric along the walls and entryway - that was the case in the Adrean Terrace apartment. Those materials feed a fire and contribute to excessive heat and smoke, Brooks said.

In addition, most refugees are not familiar with stoves - something that has not been ruled out as the cause of the fire.

Not having had them before, some refugees might use stoves improperly by leaving them on when they're not in use, using them to heat the house, pouring water on cooking oil fires, or cooking with firewood on top of the stove.

But the list of potential dangers goes beyond the kitchen.

According to Brooks, other cultural differences are:

* Lack of understanding about traffic and being able to cross the road.

* Not knowing when to call 911.

* Distrusting police and fire officials due to incidents in their own countries.

To help avoid dangerous situations, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees provides a cultural orientation to new refugees, said Executive Director Shelly Callahan.

"One of the very first things we do with folks when they get here is make sure they can say their name, address and dial 911 on the phone," Callahan said.

The refugees also are given an identification card.

"We work with them to preserve their traditions, but to be safe," Callahan said.

The Municipal Housing Authority, which owns Adrean Terrace, also has an orientation with its residents.

Following the fire at Adrean Terrace, the authority inspected its buildings for possible issues, something it does regularly, said Executive Director Taras Herbowy.

"There are a plethora of issues that do come up that aren't covered in the orientation," he said. "We try to include that once we are aware."

The Refugee Center has worked with the fire, police and health departments to help them prepare to handle the diverse communities through competency training, Callahan said.

"We are always learning and we are always updating things," she said. "If we see needs coming in that haven't been addressed or haven't been a problem before, we update the cultural orientation."

Cultural Orientation

Refugees and immigrants are first exposed to an orientation prior to coming to the United States.

Upon arrival they are given an in-home orientation through the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, which takes about three hours and includes essentially safety information and how to properly use appliances in their home.

The center then does a more in-depth follow-up orientation and in-home visit within a few days. Refugees and immigrants are given booklets of information in their own language. For those who don't read or write their own language, a video is available through the center.

The center then does an about 90-day follow-up where a quiz is given. If they do not know the information or are having further issues the refugees are then referred to a different program for more help.

Source: Dzevad Racic Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees director of resettlement.

How to help

Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri and Fire Chief Russell Brooks said donations will be used to assist the family with travel costs and replacement of lost property. Donations can be dropped off at the Utica Fire Department headquarters at 552 Bleecker St. For information, call 792-0264.

Agencies and community members looking to assist in outreach to area refugees can contact the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees at 738-1083.

By the numbers

Since 1979, about 14,139 refugees have arrived in the area, according to November numbers from the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

About 273 Somali refugees have arrived since 1996, the main influx was about 113 in 2004.

About 4,449 Bosnian refugees have arrived in the area since 1979, the majority coming between 1979 and 2002.

The most recent wave of refugees are from Burma, with 2,626 arriving since 1997. About 151 arrived in 2012 as of November.


The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees: 738-1083.

Compass Interpreters: A 24-hour hotline through the center at 749-7080.

Charter school gearing up for fall opening

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Charter school gearing up for fall opening

Lease for Holy Trinity school in Utica to be signed soon by science academy

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UTICA - The Mohawk Valley's first charter school has a home.

The next step: hiring staff and enrolling students.

The Utica Academy of Science Charter School will be moving into the Holy Trinity Church's empty parish school building on Lincoln Avenue.

"I feel much better," said founder Tolga Hayali, director of the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School.

The school was approved by the New York State Board of Regents in November and is expected to open in the fall, but much work first needs to be done.

The lease has not been signed but is expected to be completed within the next week. It will be about $6,000 per month, not including utilities, though the exact amount has yet to be finalized, Hayali said.

"Once we sign it, we will go in immediately to polish, paint and do whatever needs to be done. Then we'll start to organize open houses," Hayali said.

Charter schools are public schools operating independently of school districts. They are held to all state standards as well as their charter - a plan that shows how they might improve on public education.

The Utica Academy of Science Charter School will offer aspects of a college preparatory education with special emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, referred to as STEM. There is no tuition to attend.

At first, the school will enroll about 176 students for grades sixth through ninth. The number of students would increase each year as grades are added, and enrollment is expected to reach 462 in the next five years.

The charter school began the application process on its website, To date, more than 90 applications have been received, Hayali said.

"We're getting good feedback," he said. "By the end of April we should be done."

The Holy Trinity building served as a Catholic elementary school from 1960 to 2002 and an alternative high school for BOCES until 2010.

The parish has been paying to heat, power and insure the building, church pastor Rev. John Mikalajunas has said.

The parish is excited to finally be leasing the building.

"Right now, it's a $60,000 loss," Mikalajunas said. "It would help us financially."After the building is repurposed, the charter school group will start staffing it and holding information sessions.

The school is looking for candidates who are New York state certified teachers in seventh through 12th grade English, math, science, social studies, music, art, physical education, school counseling, special education, as well as sixth grade teachers, secretaries, custodians and hall monitors, Hayali said.

The charter school founders must work closely with the city school district, because the public district would pay for the students and services such as busing through its state aid.

Parents must apply to enroll their students, who are then selected by a lottery. Utica students are given preference.

Brochures with open house dates will be mailed after the lease is signed and the building complete. Open houses will include parents and students from the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School.

Hayali said he's pleased with the location and the response thus far.

"I think we're in very good shape. I think because we did so many outreaches, we are ready," he said.

Charter school information
* The Utica Academy of Science Charter School will be at the former Holy Trinity Church parish school building on Lincoln Avenue in Utica. Its rent will be about $6,000 per month, not including utilities.
* The school will be taking 176 students in grades 6 through 9 for the 2013-14 school year.
* It will hire at least between 20 and 25 people from teachers to custodians, secretaries to school directors.
* There is no tuition fee to attend. Parents must apply to enroll their students, who are selected by a lottery. Utica students will be given preference.
* To apply for a position, send a resume to Tolga Hayali at 1001 Park Avenue, Syracuse, NY, 13204.
* The school has received more than 90 student applications so far.
* For information or for a student application, visit or email [email protected]
Source: Tolga Hayali, Utica Academy of Science Charter School founder and director of the Syracuse Academy of Science Charter School.
What’s next?
The building will be repurposed; staff must be hired; information booklets will be mailed out; open houses will be held and students will be selected.

34 students in one classroom

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:20 PM Comments comments (0)

34 students in one classroom?

It's possible if all Utica budget cuts enacted


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UTICA - Cuts to teaching positions in the Utica City School District could result in class sizes of up to 34 students.

"It was a balancing act," said district Superintendent Bruce Karam about the proposed 2013-14 budget. "We made cuts in every bargaining unit in order to be fair and consistent across the board."

Facing a $6.18 million deficit, the $138 million proposed budget includes cutting 88 positions - 54 of whom are teachers and 11 teaching assistants. Four of the cuts are being done through attrition.

If the district gets more money from the state this year, Karam said his first priority will be to restore teachers.

"We need teachers in the classroom," he said.

Larry Custodero, president of the Utica Teachers Association, said he's not too worried about the current proposal.

"The situation is not as idealistic as we want it, but I don't think it's as bad as we're portraying it," Custodero said.

The number also can change due to retirements, or if the district receives more aid.

"I'm not saying we're going to get everybody back, but I'm hoping we do," he said. "In my experience, the superintendents take everything at the worse-case scenario when they do their budgets. What's presented to the voters may be a little different. You don't know what's going to happen until that's finalized."

The proposed budget is about one-half percent, or $742,714, more than this year's, and includes a 2 percent property tax increase as well as reductions in supplies and staff development.

Last year, the district faced a similar deficit when about 150 positions were cut as well as funding to programs.

The 2012-13 budget originally had 227 position cuts; however, an increase in aid allowed the district to restore some.

If the current cuts pass, the proposed class sizes could be between 20 and 34 students in classrooms from the elementary schools through the middle and high schools.

For example, at John F. Hughes Elementary School, the two third-grade classes are projected to have 34 students with one teacher per class.

The state does not require or recommend a teacher-to-student ratio, said spokesman Jonathan Burman in an email.

He said, however, districts under the state Contracts for Excellence Program, which gives aid to low-performing districts, requires districts to reduce class sizes.

"A district that has signed a contract calling for a reduction in class size must meet that obligation," Burman said.

Under the program Utica received about $11 million from the state, according to the department.

Karam said the district has recommended class sizes but no cap contractually.

"We will balance out class enrollments across the board to make sure that again we have an even spread and to make sure that we can accommodate enrollments," he said.

The Board of Education will review the budget and conduct public hearings. The board is expected to vote on it in March followed by a public vote in May.

"I want to reiterate that we did not want to lay off anybody," Karam said. "We didn't want to lay off teachers, but since we are not getting our fair share of state aid, we just don't have the funds to sustain the current workforce."


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