Onteora District continues cuts; tax levy hike trimmed to 3.9 percent

By Jay Braman Jr.
The Onteora School Board of Education has directed the district’s administration to go back to the drawing board and prepare a new budget plan that carries a 3.9 percent tax levy hike, but maintains programming that would be in place under last week’s plan, which had called for a 4.5 percent tax increase.
At a three-hour long budget workshop session Monday Superintendent Dr. Leslie Ford was told to find ways to make up the difference by cutting things “as far away from the classroom as possible” including a five percent cut in administrative services.
Ford said she needed more time to put it together. The plan had been for Ford to present her budget on April 6. Given this new task, Ford said that many of the staff needed to work on where the cuts would be, are on vacation. The board has now given Ford until April 13.
Some board members are skeptical about the plan.
Trustee Tom Hickey voted against the measure because he feels that it has not been proven to be a feasible plan. Hickey wondered how the board could issue such instructions without knowing for certain that it could be done.
Trustee Donna Flayhan said that it is human nature for administrators to avoid cutting themselves and would never volunteer to do so. Therefore a clear directive from the school board was necessary.
Present at the workshop was Bennett Elementary School Principal Gabriel Buono, who told the school board that, relatively speaking, the administrator to student ratio at Onteora was already low compared to neighboring districts.
The 3.9 percent tax levy figure came after trustee Rob Kurnit warned of the importance of public perception. He said that, with the exception of Saugerties, school districts in the region are working on budget plans that would bring tax hikes in the three or four percent range.
The board agreed that asking voters to support a plan that cost more than what neighboring district voters are offered puts the budget at risk of being voted down.
Kurnit also asked the board to look at redistricting as a way to cut costs. He said that convincing only a couple of families on the Phoenicia school/ Bennett school boundary to send their children to Bennett could result in a substantial savings.
“We’re in a position now where school districts need to re-invent everything,” he said.
Board president Laurie Osmond felt that redistricting matters should be reviewed districtwide instead of just a shift from Phoenicia to Bennett.
The school’s business manger said that if a budget is voted down and the district adopted a bare bones, state mandated contingency plan it would “massacre” the district.
Even though the school has given Ford extra time to work up a plan, they will still hold the previously scheduled public forum for discussion of budget issues on Tuesday, April 6 at 5 p.m. at the Bennett school in Boiceville.