Residents question MCS budget

By Pauline Liu
The Margaretville Central School Board of Education and its administrators faced a long series of difficult questions from the audience at a public hearing on the new budget Monday night.
“I’m speaking for the taxpayers,” said Warwick McKeon of Margaretville, after the meeting. The retired construction engineer, who was among the eight members of the audience, was clearly dissatisfied with the school district’s nearly $10.4 million budget, which carries a 2.04 percent tax levy increase.

The 2012-2013 spending plan is an increase of $20,954 or .202 percent from the current budget, which offered a zero percent increase.
“If you could have a zero percent increase like last year, that would have been brilliant,” said McKeon. 

Efforts by the school board’s budget committee to trim $165,099 from the new budget will result in lay-offs.  The two-and-a-half jobs being eliminated are: a full-time teacher’s aide, a front door monitor, and a day-time custodian, who will remain on as a school bus driver. The senior library clerk position held by longtime employee Carol Johnson will be eliminated when she retires at the end of the school year.

Seeks more cuts
Though school board members called the cuts “painful,” McKeon told them that he felt the cuts did not go deep enough. “If push came to shove, I think you could have done the same as last year,” he said. “Any other business could not function that way.”
He later gave the school board a warning. “At some point, you’re going to face some resistance,” he said.

School Superintendent Tony Albanese and District Treasurer Karen Dietrich both said they welcomed the opportunity to engage in discussion with the community.

Albanese explained that the school district is required to comply with mandates from the state, such as Common Core Standards, which are underfunded programs designed to evaluate student performance.

Higher standards
“We have to carry out higher standards for students and look at their assessment scores and the district received approximately $47,000 over a four-year period,” he said.

Albanese also explained that the school district is mandated by law to pay contractual increases to employee and teacher retirement plans as well as other benefits, which increased by $319,236 in one year.

That drew criticism from another member of the audience.

“Our taxpayers are going bankrupt and something has to be done on this giveaway on the pensions,” said Chuck Freas, a retired insurance underwriting manager, who is also chairman of the Middletown Republican Committee. Despite his criticism, Freas later said that he plans to support the budget, “ because I would not want to deny any child as good an education that can be offered.”

Freas also raised the issue of school consolidation, which led to some lengthy discussion. Albanese explained the subject of consolidating schools is widely discussed across the state, but the problem goes beyond logistics. “School districts are the heart and soul of a community,” he said. “It’s very hard for a community not to have that. In talking just from the emotional state of things. There are school districts in more dire straits than ours.” The current enrollment for MCS is 410, while Andes Central School has 124 and Roxbury Central School has about 360. “There are three schools, two are in worse shape in enrollment and those costs don’t change with enrollment,” said Freas. “Why can’t there be one school with 900 and shared operating costs? Gosh. That makes a lot of sense.”

Albanese explained that the school district already shares services with other schools. For instance, MCS doesn’t have a program for special needs students, but RCS does. “Roxbury has a program, so we send our children to them and we’re doing it in one small step,” said Albanese. He explained that MCS administrators also contacted Middletown in hopes of sharing some services with the town, but they learned that it would not be possible since their budgets are on different schedules.

Albanese also addressed the issue of why the school does not receive its fair share of state funding. “This school district is considered wealthy,” he said. “Our property is considered wealth. It is almost double the average and compares to the wealthiest school districts in Westchester. We’ve done a lot of advocating. We shouldn’t be considered the same as a same district with great wealth. We’ve made our statements about that, but the formula is the formula.” School board write-in candidate Kurt Holcherr agreed. “The governor did provide more money this year but because of our property wealth, we didn’t get much of it,” he said. MCS received $22,000 in increased school aid.

Among the highlights of the new budget, there were no cuts to teachers or student programs, MCS will have a full-day pre-kindergarten, the online learning program will be expanded, a new pre-engineering program will be offered to two seniors through Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES and 7th- and 8th-grade students will begin a new technology literacy program called Engineering by Design.  As the hearing drew to a close School Board President Randy Moore thanked Albanese and Dietrich for their work on the budget. “It was the most challenging we’ve ever had,” Dietrich said in response. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years and I think we’ve done it.”

MCS will be open on May15 from 2 to 8 p.m. for district voters to cast their ballots on the budget and school board candidates. There is more information about the candidates in a separate article in this week’s Catskill Mountain News. The school will also be open late that evening for the MCS Choral Concert, which begins at 7 p.m.