Monday, December 22, 2014

Holiday musings: thoughts on giving, receiving

The holidays are a time for giving and I am proud to recognize Watervliet teachers, staff, students and parents for their kindness and their generosity during this time of year.

In December, WES Student Ambassadors organized a coin drive for the nearby Mohawk Hudson Humane Society raising over $500 to help provide food and care for homeless animals. On December 17, the students visited the Humane Society in Menands to present their donation and a gift basket of food, supplies and pet toys. Having a rescue dog myself, this is a cause that is near and dear to my heart, so great job WES!!

Throughout the month, our Junior High Student Council held its annual Adopt-an-Angel program for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, while teachers and staff from both buildings (WES, WJSHS) bought gifts for children of local families in need to help make their holidays brighter. Last week, members of the High School Student Council helped wrap gifts that were delivered to the Watervliet Housing Authority for distribution.

Let’s not forget the gift of music. I had the privilege of attending the annual Winter Concerts performed by student musicians from the junior-senior high school and the elementary school. I applaud our music teachers for the instrumental and vocal training they provide our young talented musicians, but more importantly, for sharing their passion and enthusiasm for music with our students each day. I also commend the student musicians of all ages for their effort and dedication to learning the music, practicing the songs and presenting excellent performances that were enjoyed by family, friends, fellow students and staff.

Looking ahead to 2015

In early January, Gov. Cuomo will deliver his State of the State address and will present his Executive Budget a few weeks later. As our district begins to build the 2015-16 school budget in the months ahead, my administrative team and I will be paying close attention to both of these presentations for information that will steer our budget development process.

Although the state is sitting on a surplus and the Board of Regents has asked the state for an additional $2 billion for education funding, if recent history is any indication, it is likely that our district will once again face a significant budget gap that will be a struggle to close.

Fiscal matters aside for a moment, the State of the State Address may be especially interesting given a recent letter from a top Cuomo aide to the Board of Regents and New York State Education Department leaders that suggests the governor is maneuvering for more control in public education policy.

The letter’s author poses a series of questions to the Board of Regents and outgoing State Education Commissioner Dr. John King in a supposed effort to start dialogue about much needed education reforms. There is no arguing that in education, like most every aspect of life, there is room for improvement. What the governor fails to see is that as educators, we are continuously striving to improve: improve instruction, improve student engagement, improve skills, improve graduation and proficiency rates. Yet, nowhere in the list of 12 questions is one that addresses fair and equitable funding for small city schools like ours. Without sufficient resources it becomes an uphill battle to provide the level of high-quality education our students rightfully deserve—regardless of zip code—and clearly require to be successful in a highly competitive global economy.

Here is a question many school leaders have been asking the governor and legislature for years now: When will public schools see an end to the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA)? With the state now in the black, the GEA—a tactic that has allowed the state to balance its budget by diverting billions of dollars in aid from schools over these past five years—lawmakers must take action this year to end the GEA.

Mr. Groat gets tenure!

Finally, I congratulate Ryan Groat on recently earning tenure as Watervliet Jr.-Sr. High School principal. The Board of Education voted unanimously to grant tenure to Mr. Groat at their December meeting. Mr. Groat has worked tirelessly during the past three years to be an agent of change, an advocate for children, and an educational leader. I join our district’s educators and staff in thanking him for all he does for every student, every day.

Have a peaceful and joyous holiday season!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Audit revelations and fiscal stress

A recent state audit of our school district’s finances was fairly critical of the district’s budgeting practices. The audit cited the district for exhausting our fund balance in recent years to balance our school budgets. This is not news to those who have followed or participated in our budget development process during the past few years. The board and I have been quite open about the district’s financial situation, especially with regard to fund balance.

To put the audit findings in context, it is important to note that our district has been among those hardest hit by the one-two punch leveled by the state in recent years. Public school districts have two primary sources of revenue: state aid and property taxes. Watervliet, like most other small city schools, has historically relied on state aid for the majority of its revenue. The state, however, has failed to provide equitable and sufficient funding for education for small urban school districts.

In fact, just days ago the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a group called New Yorkers for Students Educational Rights (NYSER) and its right to proceed with litigation filed earlier this year against the state, Governor Andrew Cuomo and other government officials. The lawsuit seeks to compel the state to follow through on its constitutional responsibility ensuring all New York schools have sufficient funding to meet the educational needs of students.

Another major factor in our district’s fiscal struggles is the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which was implemented by the state five years ago to address its budget woes. Under the GEA, a portion of the state’s funding shortfall is divided among every school district in New York based on a formula, and state aid is then reduced to each district accordingly. As a result of the GEA, our district has lost approximately $4 million in promised aid and has faced significant budget gaps each year since the legislation was introduced. Add to that the state’s property tax levy cap imposed four years ago, which limits school districts’ abilities to raise local revenue to help offset state aid reductions.

As a result of these challenges, we had little choice but to spend down the fund balance to safeguard our academic programs and prevent significant increases in school property tax. Let’s not forget either that since taking office, Governor Cuomo has repeatedly urged school districts to use fund balance to offset losses in state aid. The irony is that now the state comptroller is taking us to task for doing just that. You might call it a textbook Catch 22 situation.

As recommended in the audit, the Board, school business manager and I are currently developing a fund balance policy that we anticipate will be adopted prior to the end of this year and that will help us establish a sufficient threshold of fund balance to maintain and provide appropriate cash flow to reduce dependence on short-term borrowing.

The report also indicated that the district did not “properly monitor” capital project finances dating back to 2006, which allowed for cost overruns. It is important to note that this occurred in an earlier phase of the district’s construction project—not the most recently completed project (Phase IV).

The cost overrun referred to in the report is linked to an early phase of the building project during which asbestos that had not been detected initially was uncovered after building renovations were well underway. District officials at the time had no other choice but to pay for abatement because it presented a health and safety risk. This type of unforeseen situation does tend to occur in older buildings that are undergoing renovations and is typically a costly fix.

We subsequently established internal controls to better keep track of capital fund expenditures and ensure costs did not exceed authorized amounts.

The audit contained a total of six recommendations to the Board of Education for managing finances going forward. Some of the recommendations have already been implemented as noted in the district’s corrective action plan, which was developed in response to the auditor’s findings.

For example, the audit recommended that the Board of Education develop “structurally balanced budgets for the general fund that include realistic estimates for revenues and expenditures.”

Steps implemented in fiscal year 2014 have allowed the district to better align recurring costs and revenues and we have since been able to erase 80 percent of the district’s deficit. We will also continue to seek ways to cut costs, such as our shared service agreement with the city for trash removal and our summer school partnership with the Cohoes City School District that allowed us to provide academic support for at-risk students during the summer.

Thanksgiving wishes

On another note, as Thanksgiving nears, I want to wish everyone a relaxing and blissful day shared among family and friends. I am thankful (and proud) every day to work in a district with such dedicated, hard-working teachers and staff, talented and enthusiastic students and a supportive community. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Paperless education in a digital world

In recent months I have read various education articles and blogs expressing concerns about how schools are stuck in a time warp—teaching with outdated 20th century tools—blackboards and chalk, traditional textbooks, photocopied handouts, etc. These tools were generally effective when I was a student—but times have since changed and with the advancement of technology, education continues to change at warp speed.

Reference books like encyclopedias and dictionaries are quickly becoming the dinosaurs of our time, as students instead turn to online resources to research information in a fast-paced world where events are often documented in real time on Twitter and Facebook.

Today’s students have grown up with technology—and they are comfortable using it—from playing digital games on Nintendo DS as children to creating videos on Smartphones to share with friends via social media as teens. Not surprisingly, studies suggest that when technology is used as an educational tool, students become more actively engaged in the learning process.

When our students graduate and head to college, it is likely they will be required to submit assignments and other coursework electronically via Google Docs or another document sharing program rather than handing in papers as I did in college. They may access their professors’ lessons online rather than in a lecture hall. Knowing this, I applaud our many teachers who have embraced technology and are utilizing it in the classroom on a regular basis.

In Watervliet, we have a variety of technology—including portable laptops, interactive whiteboards, computer labs in the elementary school and the high school—available to teach skills that are relevant and valuable in today’s world. By using digital tools in class today, our students will be better prepared for the reality of post-secondary education and tomorrow’s careers.

Paperless education is more than a cost-saving measure

Large industries and small businesses alike have been moving increasingly towards a paperless system for two main reasons: it reduces operating costs, which makes good financial sense; and it saves trees reducing carbon dioxide emissions, which is good for the planet.

I understand that implementing a fully paperless approach may not be entirely realistic for schools, but keep in mind that instructional technology does offer an effective way to cut costs and maximize resources. After being designated the most fiscally stressed school district in the state last year, the cost savings alone would seem reason enough for Watervliet to embrace a paperless education to the extent possible.

From my perspective as an educator though, adopting a paperless approach in education is less about saving the environment or cutting costs (although both are important!) and is more about evolving our classrooms and teaching the 21st century skills that our students clearly need to be successful in college and the careers of tomorrow.

Upcoming Smart Schools Bond Vote

Our district and others around the state soon may have an opportunity to expand instructional technology in classrooms through the state’s Smart Schools Bond Act proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The proposition calls for the state to invest up to $2 billion in schools for classroom technology and high-speed internet connectivity to equalize opportunities for children to learn, high-tech security features and enhanced or modernized facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs.

If voters approve the Smart Schools Bond Act, which will appear as Proposition 3 on the November 4 general election ballot, each district will receive a share of the funding based on a state aid formula. It is estimated that Watervliet schools would receive $1.4 million under the proposal.

Districts then will be required to submit a “Smart Schools Investment Plan” to a Smart Schools Review Board, comprised of the state education commissioner, the state budget director, and the chancellor of the State University of New York. The plan will detail how the district will use the Smart Schools Bond Act funds. Grant funding will be released to individual districts upon approval of the plans.

Projects developed with Smart Schools grants will be fully funded by the state with no local financial contribution required from the school district. If the referendum passes, equipment purchases would have to be made via a cooperative bidding process.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Field opening celebration

Watervliet's varsity football team will kick off the first home game of the 2014 season on Friday, September 12 in a big way: hosting Voorheesville under the lights for the first time on the high school's new turf field.

Seems like not so long ago, we just broke ground on the site of the new field and track. Now here we are approximately 16 months later, and our student athlete teams have held practices and scrimmages in this state-of-the-art-facility—preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play the very first home game “under the lights.”

Before the game, we will mark this special occasion with a brief grand opening ceremony to recognize and to thank those who have worked diligently throughout the process to make this a reality for our students and our community.

It’s symbolic that this beautiful new facility is situated directly alongside our majestic and historic Junior-Senior High School building. It serves as a reminder of the importance the athletic program has on the overall education of our students. Research suggests a strong and positive correlation between high school sports participation and academic achievement. Interscholastic sports also teaches life lessons and builds character by strengthening responsibility, leadership, teamwork, and more.

For this, I personally want to thank the community without whose support this project would not have been possible. In December 2011, Watervliet residents approved the construction of the turf field and six-lane track as part of a larger $18.9 million project. With your approval, we were also able to invest funding in renovations to classrooms and other learning spaces in both school buildings; new seating, sound system, lighting and stage rigging in the high school auditorium; roof replacement at the elementary school; upgrades to the heating and ventilation systems and the installation of energy-efficient windows district-wide.

You may recall that the school district utilized a combination of Qualified Construction Bonds and state building aid to have the facilities improvements done at no additional cost to local taxpayers.

Upcoming golf tournament to raise funds for extracurricular opportunities for Watervliet students

I believe that without extracurricular opportunities such as athletics, our dropout rate would soar and our graduation rate would plummet. Because of harsh fiscal realities during the past several years, our district has had to make difficult choices including the elimination of many extracurricular programs at both the elementary and secondary level. 

Last year, we were able to restore several of our programs thanks to the generosity of the Arsenal Partnership, which raised more than $16,000 for the school district during its annual golf outing. The Partnership is hosting a golf tournament this year on Monday, September 22 to benefit our schools. I encourage community members and readers of my blog to participate in the upcoming Arsenal Partnership golf tournament. Please register to golf on that day, donate a raffle item or make a sponsorship donation. Information on the upcoming tournament is available here.

In the meantime, I hope that you will join us for Friday’s night home opener to cheer on our student athletes and check out the school district’s beautiful new athletic field under the lights. Go ‘Vliet!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Welcoming the 2014-15 school year

As the summer quickly draws to a close, it is with pride and excitement that I welcome back faculty, students, staff and parents for the 2014-15 school year. I hope that over the summer everyone found time to enjoy time with family and friends and re-energize for the start of the new school year, which begins on Wednesday, September 3. 

Building project winding down, district goals set

Over the summer, the transformation of our facilities continued in earnest at both buildings. From the installation of new floors and more energy efficient windows at the elementary school to a completely rehabbed auditorium at the junior-senior high school with new ceiling lights, seats, and stage lights and rigging. Our football, soccer and track teams have already been out practicing on the new all-weather field and track that stand ready to host home games and meets this year.

I commend our maintenance staff for their hard work over these past few weeks preparing classrooms, offices and hallways ensuring a safe and clean learning environment for students and staff alike. 

District goals developed in collaboration with the Board of Education have been established for the betterment of all students and stakeholders. These student-centered goals outline opportunities, expectations and supports for our students. Building leaders will discuss the goals in depth with staff during the opening days of school and will reinforce the goals throughout the year. The district goals and other information about building policies and procedures, as well as contact information and much more may be found online at

Communication is key

In addition to our website, the district employs several communications tools for parents and the community to stay connected to our schools. You can follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for School News Notifier (SNN) to receive school news and information via email. I encourage parents to register for Parent Portal, an online student information system that offers parents secure access to information about their child's academic program and progress, and provides another way to communicate with their child's teachers.

The past few years have been challenging with the rapid and radical changes in education at the state and federal levels. I thank our teachers, instructional support staff and administrators for continually working to meet the demands of these changes and for bringing their “A-game” to the learning environment for every student…every day. Education is the noblest profession and there is no more dedicated teachers and staff than in Watervliet schools! 

Welcome new staff

With that in mind, I am pleased to announce that approximately 20 outstanding educators will join the district in September taking the place of retirees or others who have left the district seeking other opportunities. The group includes both new and familiar faces—all with an abundance of experience and positive energy to bring to the classroom and share with our students! I hope you will join me in welcoming them—in some cases welcoming them back—to the Watervliet school community.

New staff members includes: Jennifer Donovan has stepped down from the Board of Education to accept a position as a speech teacher at the elementary school. She joins Kaleigh McGrouty, also a speech teacher. Denise Cusack will teach 3rd-4th grade special education as well as Annie Amaya working as a teacher’s assistant. Through grant funding, Geraldine Ferris—a familiar face to our UPK families—has become a district employee working in her same capacity in the UPK program.                                                           

At the junior-senior high school, Loida Lewinter, who once was our BOCES math coach, and later worked at the State Education Department—will serve as an assistant principal. Michael Foust becomes an assistant principal and athletic director. Jaclynne Lewis joins our science department; Rebecca Young is the new ELL teacher; Noreen Gill is our new social worker, Lisa Dubrule will be the library aide, Carol Connelly, Evan Thorpe and Robina Hussein will serve as teaching assistants. Giovanna Parente is a new hall monitor. Theresa O’Connor will be a part-time reading teacher. I welcome back John Grill to our social studies department and Corrina Pelkey to our English department.

Former board member Chris Daus was appointed during the August 21 Board of Education meeting to complete the remainder of Mrs. Donovan’s term.

I begin this school year with great enthusiasm and high expectations, and am grateful for the continued support our parents and the community have shown our schools over the years.

Best wishes for a productive and successful year!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sun sets on the 2013-14 school year

When school begins each September, it seems like June and the end of the school year are so far away. Yet here we are … it is June and again we join together as a school community to celebrate as our prekindergarten, kindergarten, sixth-graders and our high school seniors mark important milestones in their young lives.

It is truly a bittersweet time of year for educators—as we prepare to say farewell to students that we have nurtured and watch grow over the year or years—and as we welcome summer and the opportunity it offers to relax and enjoy time with family and friends.

Our UPK (photo gallery) and kindergarten (photo gallery) Moving Up celebrations took place on June 23 and 24, respectively. Our sixth-grade students will graduate from the elementary school on June 25, and then on June 27 the Class of 2014 will receive their diplomas beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Harry Tucker Gymnasium at the high school. Pictures of all these milestone celebrations will be available on the district website.

It is with pride that I recognize Muhammad Khan and Brittanie Clickner for earning top honors as valedictorian and salutatorian of the Class of 2014, respectively. Muhammad plans to attend Siena College in the fall to study biochemistry, while Brittanie will pursue a degree in chemical engineering at RPI. Both students are National Honor Society officers and were involved in several extracurricular activities throughout their school careers. I have no doubt they will be highly successful in their future endeavors!

I speak on behalf of the faculty, staff and administrators when I congratulate all of our graduates as each moves on to the next stage of their lives, whether that means first grade, the junior high school or pursuing college and careers!


Staff kudos

The challenges we face as a small urban school district are ongoing and numerous. We continue to have to accomplish more with less resources—even so, I have witnessed so many of our educators and staff rise to the challenges. Throughout the year as I visited classroom after classroom, I saw highly engaged students learning rigorous material under the instruction of highly trained, dedicated teachers and support staff.

Clerical staff have pulled together to collaborate as more and more responsibility has fallen on their desks with far less help than was available in the past.

Custodians have worked hard to ensure our buildings are clean and safe for children and adults (without the assistance of a full-time night crew) and administrators have burned the candle at both ends wearing many hats (instructional leaders, evaluators, and ensuring a safe environment that is conducive to learning and teaching).

Above all, our students have demonstrated the ability to think critically and even if they were struggling at times to learn certain skills and concepts, they maintained a “never surrender” attitude. Teachers have commented on the higher-level thinking skills students are developing as well as their love of learning. This is a tribute to our educators and our administrators who never lose sight of our mission to educate every student, every day.

Finally, I thank our retiring teachers and staff for their years of service and dedication to the district’s children, and wish our students, educators and staff a safe, relaxing and fun summer vacation! I look forward to welcoming you back in September.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Thanks for your support!

On behalf of the Board of Education and myself, I thank everyone who participated in the school budget vote and Board of Education election on May 20.

I am grateful for a community that remains supportive of our schools despite the ongoing fiscal struggles presented by escalating costs and declining revenues. In recent years, we have had to make tough decisions to balance our budgets, while balancing our responsibilities to students and remaining mindful of our taxpayers.

I thank our educators and support staff for their commitment to our students and our educational program. In approving the school budget, the community has demonstrated that they value your hard work and dedication, and support our district’s mission to inspire, challenge and educate every student, every day.

I thank the Board of Education for developing a balanced budget that maintains educational programs for our students. This budget represents the first time in recent years that we haven’t needed to make any cuts to programs or staff. Still, it is disappointing not to be able to restore opportunities that provide our students the well-rounded school experience they deserve.  

My gratitude to Assemblyman John McDonald, as well, for his support of our schools. He continues to be in our corner advocating for our schools and working tirelessly to restore state education funding. His presence at board meetings and budget workshops this past spring demonstrates his commitment to our schools and to a strong public education system.

Thanks to everyone who helped get the “message out,” reminding people to vote and supporting our budget process throughout the past year. Our poll workers also deserve thanks, as do the students who volunteered to work our first exit poll, results of which will be shared in the coming weeks.

Going forward, we must continue to work together to come up with solutions that will meet our district goals and mission and that will continue to earn the support of our community.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Remember to vote Tuesday, May 20

The annual school budget vote and school board election will take place on Tuesday, May 20 from noon to 9 p.m. during which Watervliet voters will consider a $24.95 million budget for 2014-15 that preserves our educational mission and bears a tax levy increase within the district’s tax levy “cap.”

Budget proposal maintains status quo: no cuts, no restorations 

 When we first began developing the 2014-15 school budget earlier this year, the Board of Education and I anticipated having to find a way to close a six-figure budget gap based on state aid projections within the governor’s proposed executive budget.

Faced with an $860,000 deficit, I braced for yet another round of difficult, if not impossible, fiscal choices—continued downsizing of staff and/or further reductions in non-mandated programs and services—while remaining mindful of student needs and community concerns. With a program that is arguably bare bones now, I was dreading the decisions that would need to be made.

 Thanks to some widespread advocacy efforts made by concerned stakeholders from school districts across the state—including our own—legislators took notice and injected some additional aid for education in their state budget proposals. As a result, once the state’s budget was finalized on April 1, it included an increase in school aid, which put Watervliet in a fairly better position than we had originally expected and will spare us from having to make cuts to staff or programs in 2014-15.

Still, after four consecutive years of reductions in aid, this increase does not afford any restorations to programs or opportunities for students that have been reduced or eliminated, nor does it allow us to replenish any of the 25 positions that have been reduced in recent years.

Given the fiscal struggles we have faced during the past several budget cycles, however, being able to maintain the status quo is a welcome reprieve.  


Could state funding be used to restore programs or staff instead of an artificial turf field and track?

The new track and field that are being constructed at the Jr./Sr. High School campus are without question the most visible renovation occurring within our Phase IV facilities project. The project, approved by voters in 2011, is being funded through a combination of state building aid and Qualified Construction Bonds that our district was eligible to receive.

Some have asked during budget workshops this spring, if the district could use that funding, which is provided by the state, to restore teaching positions and programs. The answer is no; state building aid is prescriptive, meaning the district is not allowed to use it on anything other than construction and renovations. Watervliet receives state building aid reimbursement of 93.5 cents per dollar spent on the Phase IV project. The balance of the project is offset with Qualified School Construction Bonds, a state-sponsored funding program that was available for a limited time to only 30 districts in the state, Watervliet being one.

Because state building aid can be used only to pay for “brick and mortar” projects, it cannot be used for operational costs, such as staffing or instructional programs. Still, when this opportunity to secure funding became available, we sought to take advantage of it and address existing structural needs and also make improvements to our facilities that will benefit our students and our community for years to come.  

Two polling locations this year

Remember that voting will take place on Tuesday, May 20 from noon to 9 p.m. at two polling sites in the city this year: the Watervliet Elks Lodge at 501 4th Avenue and the Watervliet Elementary School at 2557 Tenth Avenue.

If you did not have a chance to attend our budget workshops in March and April, please plan to attend the district’s public budget hearing on Tuesday, May 13 at 7 p.m. in the WJSHS conference room to learn more about the proposed plan.

And finally, every resident of this community 18 and older has a voice in the funding and elected leadership of our school district. Whether you’ve been voting for years or will cast your first ballot on May 20, whatever your opinion may be, I encourage you to vote. Please make an informed decision by learning as much about the proposed budget as possible before you head to your polling location. Visit the district's budget web page and read the budget newsletter, which residents should have received recently in the mail. All provide detailed information about the proposed 2014-15 school budget and its impact on our schools and community. Every vote matters!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The impact of our choices and consequences of our actions

In light of recent events, it is important that I take a moment to address a serious incident that occurred in our district earlier this week.

I learned last night that a 17-year-old Watervliet High School student was arrested and charged in connection with the recent threats made against the Jr./Sr. High School. The threats were called into the Watervliet Police Department and resulted in an emergency evacuation drill, which disrupted an entire day of instruction and created considerable anxiety in the community, especially among parents and students.

The decisions made and actions taken by the suspect not only disrupted the education of the 700 students and staff at the Jr./Sr. High School, but it also had an impact on the students and staff at the elementary school, as well as parents of elementary children. 

I was saddened and disappointed last night after speaking with Chief Boisvert and learning that the suspect in this case was one of our own students. Even so, the threats that were made clearly violate the school’s Code of Conduct and this individual will now face disciplinary action in accordance with district policy, as well as the criminal charges.

As serious and unsettling as this situation has been, perhaps it can be used as a teachable moment. Life is a series of choices and consequences. One poor decision can sometimes put you on the wrong side of the law or worse; whether it be perpetrating a criminal hoax against a school, or getting behind the wheel after drinking alcohol or using drugs. It is important to think before we act, and ask: Is what we are about to do going to harm others or ourselves? Is it the right choice?

As we approach the end of the school year, and students begin thinking about prom season and graduation celebrations, I implore all of you to make good choices, to treat others with respect and to not act recklessly. Know that your teachers, guidance counselors and building principals do care, are available to listen to your concerns and offer advice, if asked. I also encourage parents to be involved, and help your children make the right decisions. 

Finally, I must again thank our teachers, staff, students and parents for their patience and cooperation throughout the incident earlier this week, and our building principals and administrators for keeping cool heads and ensuring emergency procedures were followed. I also express my gratitude to the Watervliet Police Department, Chief Boisvert, state and other local law enforcement agencies, emergency responders and city officials for their assistance. Safety was our top priority that day and every day, and by working together, we made sure all students got home safely.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Action needed as NYS budget approval nears

Last week (March 20) Dr. Rick Timbs, the Executive Director of the Statewide School Finance Consortium, and I were guests on The Capitol PressRoom with correspondent Susan Arbetter. (Click here link to listen to the program) [Note: interview begins approx. 23 minutes into recording]

Dr. Timbs and I were invited to react to several factors proposed by state leaders that impact funding for local education, including state aid, the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), charter schools and a property tax “freeze” as the clock ticks down, and the governor and legislators continue to negotiate a deal on the state’s budget.


Legislative budget proposals

This month, both houses of the Legislature presented separate budget bills that will be amended before a state budget is finalized on April 1. Each plan has its merits—and its flaws. Both proposals include more funding for education than the governor’s executive budget, which is heartening. 

The Assembly’s bill calls for an increase in Foundation Aid—this is basic operating aid for schools that has essentially decreased or remained flat for the past several years, even as operational costs have continued to soar. The Senate’s budget proposal offers no additional Foundation Aid; it does, however, restore more GEA funding than what the governor and the Assembly have proposed—and the Senate plan promises to phase out the GEA entirely in two years.

School leaders across the state, including me, have been pleading with state leaders to end the GEA, which has systematically been diminishing our ability to provide a high-quality education to all New York students—regardless of zip code. Now that state’s economy is on the upswing and Governor Cuomo has declared the state has a surplus, that funding should rightfully be returned to the schools, which have helped shouldered the brunt of the state’s economic crisis during the past four years. (Read my February blog for an explanation of the effects the GEA on Watervliet schools, or download WCSD's GEA infographic)


Major concerns persist

Still neither the Assembly’s nor the Senate’s plans appropriately address the dire and imminent fiscal challenges our school district faces; in fact, the Senate’s proposal contains some troubling recommendations, including an increase in funding to charter schools and a permanent property tax freeze.

I take issue with the Senate’s resolution that would increase funding to charter schools. Some may wonder why a proponent of education would be opposed to this. Simply put, like the GEA, charter schools siphon much-needed funding away from our public schools; and yet, charters are not held to the same level of accountability as public school districts. 

Others may question why this matters, since there are no charter schools within the City of Watervliet. While that is true, several charters exist in our neighboring cities of Albany and Troy, and by law, parents may apply to send their children to a charter school, if one is located within a specific distance of their resident school district. When a Watervliet parent enrolls a child in a charter school, the district must pay “tuition” to the charter. At present, our district pays tuition of $9,400 per student. This year 38 students are enrolled in charter schools, which results in nearly $360,000 in aid being diverted from our district directly to those other schools.

I also am deeply concerned about the devastating consequences that would result from a tax cap freeze, proposed in one form or other by the governor and the Senate, and which the Senate wants to make permanent. Dr. Timbs, a leading expert on school finance, predicts that a property tax freeze will only benefit more affluent communities in the state, and continue to shortchange the low-wealth, high-needs schools like Watervliet. (Read more about how the NYS Senate Budget Resolution will harm children)

During our Capitol PressRoom appearance, Dr. Timbs hit on an important point. He said that state officials have failed to live up to their “constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for New York's students.”


With clock ticking ... Time is of the essence

The disparity between small city high-needs school districts and wealthier, low-to-average-needs schools is significant. As this gap widens, we are able to offer fewer programs and less opportunities for our students.

If this alarms you—TAKE ACTION NOW before the state adopts it budget! Call, email or Tweet our elected officials! Post messages on your FaceBook page to share with friends. We must do whatever it takes to offer our students the education they deserve!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Step 1 to relieve our fiscal stress: end GEA now!

Since becoming superintendent two years ago, I have been very candid about our district’s fiscal challenges. I have spoken about it frequently during budget workshops and presentations, and written about it often in this blog, (even referencing “Education’s fiscal cliff” in a blog posted in November 2012).

In mid-January, the Watervliet school district was thrust into the spotlight after landing at the top of the New York State Comptroller’s Office report of the most fiscally stressed public schools in the state. 

Under the state’s new Fiscal Stress Monitoring System, 87 school districts statewide—or 13 percent—were designated in some level of fiscal stress, which is determined by such financial indicators as year-end fund balance, cash position and patterns of operating deficits.

The comptroller’s report itself garnered widespread media attention around the state, but as you might imagine being named the most fiscally strapped school district in the state resulted in a flurry of interviews and local media reports that gave me an opportunity to offer context about our district’s fiscal pressures.
(Times Union article/Jan. 16 2014, NYSSBA On Board/Feb. 10, 2014, CBS6 Schools in financial distress/Jan. 19, 2014, WTEN Schools in Fiscal Stress Report/Jan. 18, 2014)


How did our school district get here?  


In his press release, NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli acknowledged that, “… reductions in state aid, a cap on local revenue and decreased rainy day funds are creating financial challenges that more and more school districts are having trouble overcoming. My office’s fiscal stress scores highlight the need for school district officials to manage their finances carefully with an eye towards long-range planning and how they can operate more efficiently.”

I agree with Mr. DiNapoli’s assessment—state aid reductions and the tax levy cap have placed significant financial pressure on schools. I would argue, however, that the issue, especially for districts deemed in significant or moderate fiscal stress, is more complicated than merely a need to “manage finances more carefully.” Three factors by and large have brought us to where we are today:
  1. a lack of equitable and adequate state funding; 
  2. the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), which has resulted in a $4 million loss of revenue for Watervliet schools alone over the past four years; and 
  3. an unending barrage of unfunded mandates that schools must comply with, which increase spending.
First, the inequitable disbursement of state aid continues to shortchange small city schools disproportionately. As a result, districts like ours have made many difficult, often unpopular choices to balance our budgets. In Watervliet, we have downsized staff across the board—instructional, support staff and administrator positions alike, in recent years. In some cases, these reductions have led to larger class sizes. We have cut advanced placement courses and summer school programs; eliminated athletic teams (tennis, bowling and modified sports); and offer fewer extracurricular opportunities for students than before.

It is well past time that our state leaders take action and overhaul the school funding system to ensure that schools in small urban communities receive equitable and sufficient funding so that all New York’s children receive a comparable, high-caliber education regardless of their zip code. 

Second, our elected leaders must also eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), another major fiscal stressor confronting our schools. Enacted by then-Governor David Paterson in 2010, the GEA was supposed to be a temporary fix allowing state government to close its own budget shortfall by reducing the share of Foundation Aid that had been promised to schools across the state. Watervliet has lost approximately $4 million in the past four years because of the GEA, and will lose another $500,000 in 2014-15, if state leaders fail to act.

Now that the state’s economy appears to have turned the corner—the governor says the state has a budget surplus—the time has come to do away with the GEA and restore school funding to levels that enable us to offer the education and opportunities that prepare students to be college and career ready in today’s ultra-competitive global economy.

Finally, the state and/or federal governments regularly enact new mandates that school districts must comply with that encompass many areas of school operations, including instruction, transportation, health and safety. More often than not, however, these new regulations come unfunded, or underfunded, which again drives up the cost of operating schools. While mandates increase accountability, and in many cases, help improve educational quality, implementing them without adequate funding only piles on the fiscal stress that schools face.

Whether or not you have children in our schools, a robust education is vital to the future of both our city and our state. For that reason, it is important that parents, community members, students, teachers and staff alike be informed, be engaged and advocate for our schools! The best way to support Watervliet's schools and students is to contact our elected officials in Albany and urge them to end the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment, fix the inequities in the school funding system and place a moratorium on new mandates.

Visit our district’s website for information on advocating for your schools. A list of state legislators and their contact information is also available on our site. Get involved today!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

It is past time to do better for students

“We can do better, we must do better, we will do better. Let’s invest in the future, let’s re-imagine our classrooms for the next generation, let's have the smartest classrooms in the nation because our children deserve nothing less than the best.” —Governor Andrew Cuomo (2014 State of the State)

I happen to agree with the Governor: our children deserve nothing less than the best.

Unfortunately, that is not what they have received during the past several years. Watervliet’s students, like many others growing up in small cities and rural towns across the state, have been and continue to be shortchanged when it comes to receiving the high-quality education they not only deserve, but also need to thrive in a highly-competitive workforce and to become productive citizens of New York State.

An important point missing from Governor Cuomo’s speech is that more than $387 million in state aid to education has been withheld from public schools in our region over the past four years because of a measure the state has used to close its budget deficits called the Gap Elimination Adjustment (or GEA).

New York State has used the GEA to balance its own budget shortfall—at the expense of every child in the state. In Watervliet, this equates to a loss of $4 million in aid that we would have received, if not for the GEA. As a result, our schools have been forced to cut programs, eliminate jobs, increase class sizes and defer vital technology improvements and other instructional necessities.

In addition to the GEA, a persistent lack of state leadership on equitable school funding and the failure to achieve real mandate relief continues to cripple our ability in Watervliet to preserve the academic programs students need to be college and career ready upon graduation.

It’s the time of year when my focus turns to developing next year’s school budget. If nothing is done to eliminate the GEA, our schools will again suffer staff and program reductions to offset the loss of state aid for a fifth consecutive year—that is unless all of us take immediate action to stop it.


I invite you to join me and others who are concerned about the plight of our schools and public education funding in general, for a regional advocacy event—New York schools STILL in fiscal peril: Our kids can’t wait another year—on Thursday, January 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Colonie Central High School.

This event follows last year’s highly successful advocacy forum that brought together students, parents, teachers, taxpayers, legislators and school leaders to talk about what is at stake if state leaders take no action to eradicate the GEA and fix the broken system so that our schools receive adequate and equitable funding from the state.

At this year’s event, we will again call for an end to the GEA as we hear directly from students, teachers, parents and school leaders as they describe how the funding crisis has affected programs and opportunities that are important to them and their communities.

If you would like to attend this important forum, please call my office at 629-3201, or email

Save the date! Show your support for ours schools on January 30.