Thursday, December 15, 2016

Holiday message

Students, teachers and staff are likely counting down the days as the holiday recess nears, anxious to leave the classrooms, hallways, lockers, lesson plans, books and binders behind and spend time at home (or away) with family and friends. Our teachers, staff and students have been working hard throughout this first semester and deserve a welcome break.

Although it is easy to be swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, I encourage everyone to find some time to reflect on the many reasons to be thankful and to remember the most important gifts of all: family and friends, food and shelter, and good health.

This time of year can be especially difficult for children in our community whose families struggle to provide the essentials that many of us take for granted, like a hot meal and a warm bed. I understand the emotional toll this can take on educators as they strive to balance the needs of their own families with the needs of their school “families.” I thank you for your efforts each and every day to support our students; in particular, these past few weeks sharing the holiday spirit while continuing to challenge students academically.

The support our educators provide to students is clearly demonstrated in new initiatives implemented at the elementary school this year. These programs provide support for the minds, bodies and souls of our youngest students. WES Principal Loida Lewinter and her staff in partnership with the Watervliet Civic Center launched Food is Fuel in October. This program provides bags of non-perishable, easy-to-prepare, healthy foods for up to 60 students to take home on weekends. The Cannoneer Closet offers gently used or new clothing, like warm coats and mittens, for any student who needs it. Students look forward to the morning exercise program each day. After morning announcements, physical education teachers lead students in a short exercise and stretching routine done in the classroom that allows them to prepare their minds and bodies for learning. The ExTRA Breakfast Club provides additional reading and math interventions for struggling kindergarten through grade 2 learners before the official start of school three days per week.

Season for giving

I express my sincere appreciation to everyone who generously donated to the Watervliet Housing Authority’s Adopt-A-Family program. Many, many children in our community will experience joy this holiday season thanks to your generosity. Thank you everyone who purchased and wrapped gifts or offered a monetary donation. Your support is helping to make the holidays brighter and happier for struggling families in our community.

I also applaud second grade teacher Kim Tallmadge and her colleagues for organizing a highly successful Pajama Day fundraiser and Pajama Drive. In a short three days, the elementary school collected 126 pairs of pajamas and raised nearly $600 to purchase additional pajamas to donate to the Scholastic Great Bedtime Story Pajama Drive. (Impressive!) This national program pairs the PJs with a book, which is then delivered to local children in homeless shelters and other facilities in time for the holidays.

Arsenal Partnership plays Santa

A quick shout out to our friends at the Arsenal Business & Technology Partnership for their generosity to our schools this year. Peter Gannon presented a check for $10,000 to the district during the December Board of Education meeting that will help support more learning opportunities for Watervliet students. I am grateful for the continued support of the Arsenal Partnership and I extend my thanks to the event volunteers for their time and efforts, as well as to the many local businesses and community members who donated to support our student programs.

In the spirit of the holidays, I wish everyone good health, happiness and success in the New Year!

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Making the call: How weather-related school closings are decided

Mother Nature recently offered a gentle reminder that winter weather will soon be on its way.  Like many of my superintendent colleagues, I dread when snow is in the forecast because deciding whether to open or close school due to a weather-related event is often difficult ‒ but a fact of life in the northeast.

With that in mind, I wanted to speak to the process used to determine a snow day before Old Man Winter officially arrives. On mornings when winter weather is forecast, I am up well before the break of dawn monitoring local weather channels for information. Throughout those early hours, I consult primarily with our maintenance and transportation staff, but also with city road crews and local law enforcement. I remain in frequent contact with our district’s lead bus driver about road conditions to find out if our buses will be able to navigate the city streets. Watervliet is a small city that spans approximately 1.5 square miles. Unlike most other school districts in our region that are geographically expansive, our buses do not have to travel long distances or varying terrain to transport students safely to school.

Next, I take into account the condition of our facilities by checking with our maintenance crew to find out if they will be able to remove snow from the parking lots and have all walkways cleared in time to open school on our regular schedule, or whether they think a delay is warranted. I also speak with superintendents from neighboring districts for their input; but ultimately, I am responsible for making a final decision about closing our schools or calling for a delay.

Those who know me best, know that my priority is to open school whenever possible because our students are best served academically and socially when they are in school. Our schools serve a majority of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, meaning that when school is in session, our students are guaranteed two meals a day – this also factors into my decision making.

I understand that the decision to open or close school has an impact on families as changes in the schedule can present childcare challenges for working parents. Once children are in school, parents leave for work. If weather conditions worsen during the day, it’s likely that I will cancel after-school activities, but I will refrain from an early dismissal because sending students, especially young ones, to unsupervised bus stops and homes with no adult supervision would be unsafe.

I recognize that there is no perfect decision when winter weather is involved. In the years I have served as superintendent, I know that my decision – no matter what it has been – has not pleased everyone. As a parent or guardian, if you do not feel that it is safe for your child to travel to school, whether walking or riding the bus, I encourage you to use your own best judgment. If you decide it is best to keep your child home, I respect that decision.

I will seldom, if ever, make the decision to delay or close school the day or the night before a snow event is predicted because weather forecasts can be hit or miss. Case in point, I remember several years ago when local meteorologists predicted our area would be hit by a storm with significant snowfall. Based on the forecast, most district leaders in our area decided to close school before the first flakes ever hit the ground, but the big storm never materialized. Although parents were highly critical of the school leaders who made that call, students and staff were thrilled to have the day off!

That said, the decision to close or delay school will typically be made no later than 5:30 a.m. to provide parents, students and staff adequate time to prepare. School closings and delays are communicated through a number of channels, including the district website, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Families can also expect to receive notification by phone, text and email through the district’s One Call Now messaging system. School closing and delay information is also made available on local media, including radio and television stations.

Coats for the Community

Speaking of cold weather, our district is again collecting Coats for the Community. If you have gently used, clean adult or children’s coats to donate, please drop them off to the district office by Monday, Nov. 14. The coats will be delivered to the Watervliet Civic Center for distribution. Call us in the district office at 629-3201, if you have any questions. Your generosity is appreciated!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Student-centric goals to support learning, drive success

This week marks the first full month into the 2016-2017 school year, and it’s good to see that students, teachers and staff alike have settled into their daily routines. In each classroom that I have visited in the weeks since school began, I have witnessed a high level of student engagement and professional behaviors as educators work to build relationships with their students. Moving forward, my hope is that we continue to build on that energy throughout the school year!

Parental support

It has been a busy four weeks, with four Meet the Teacher Nights ‒ from the UPK to grade 6 level and the grades 7-12 level ‒ all of which were very well attended by parents. The administrators, teachers and I were pleased to see such a strong turnout at all grade levels. Research shows that students whose parents are involved do better academically and socially, regardless of income or background, so we welcome and encourage parents to continue to be active partners in your children’s education throughout the year.

District Goals

Members of the Board of Education and I met during the summer to review goals that will continue to guide our priorities and our work as a district through the end of the 2018 school year. These goals help support our mission, which is to inspire, educate and challenge, every student, every day!

As you will see, students are the focus of our four district goals:

  • Students will have the opportunity to challenge themselves socially and intellectually based on their individual needs. 
  • Students will be afforded the opportunity to participate in a rigorous Common Core aligned curriculum.
  • Students, parents, teachers and community members will have the opportunity to support outcomes for student success.
  • Students, parents, teachers and community members will continue to foster a safe, supportive, and positive school climate.

Several programs and new initiatives our district has taken to help reach those goals are outlined in the following paragraphs.

Pivot Program
To provide ninth-graders the skills necessary to successfully complete high school and prepare for the challenges of pursuing a college education or entering the workforce, we offer the Pivot Program. Now in its second year, this grant-funded program extends the school day for all 9th grade students three days a week. In addition to strengthening academic skills, the program introduces students to careers by hosting guest speakers, and a job shadow experience, and students also have opportunities to visit several college campuses throughout the year.

For students who are struggling academically, we have Response to Intervention (RtI), an important educational strategy designed to close achievement gaps and help all students succeed, especially struggling learners, students with disabilities and English language learners. RtI is a process of providing high-quality instruction/intervention matched to student needs that helps prevent small learning challenges from becoming significant obstacles to learning.

Watervliet ExTRA
To provide additional academic support for students in kindergarten through grade 8, the curriculum office has been busy planning the implementation of our new ExTRA program, which begins this first week in October. ExTRA, which stands for Extended Time Raises Achievement, extends learning time and opportunities for kindergarten through grade 8 students by providing academic support and enrichment during the school year and summer months to reinforce classroom instruction, strengthen skills and raise academic achievement in literacy and math. The Watervliet ExTRA program offers a morning academic reading club for grades K-2, as well as after-school academic help and enrichment activities/clubs for grades 3-8. In addition to academic/homework support, the ExTRA program will feature project-based learning activities and clubs like robotics, Odyssey of the Mind, drama, art and intramural sports. Next summer the district will offer a summer academic program for students entering grades K-8. ExTRA is funded by an Extended School Day/School Violence Prevention grant through the New York State Education Department.

Independent Living
We have launched a new Independent Living class this year that will help prepare our special needs students for life after high school. The Independent Living course was created this year to provide Special Education students the skills needed to work towards earning their Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) Commencement Credential. To exit school earning this credential, students must demonstrate achievement of commencement level knowledge and skills relating to the CDOS learning standards in the areas of career development, integrated learning and universal foundation skills.

Operation Graduation
To encourage high school seniors to stay focused and on track for a successful final year of high school we have Operation Graduation, a system that identifies those students who are at risk of not graduating either because of poor attendance, behavioral issues, or low academic achievement. In this program, teachers, administrators and other staff members serve as mentors for at-risk students providing the support they need in and out of the classroom to graduate.

Recognizing school leaders

Finally, October is National Principals’ Month! As a former principal and assistant principal, I am acutely aware of the challenges and the rewards inherent in this job. I appreciate our school leaders for their hard work and their tireless efforts on behalf of our students and our school community. Our principals are dedicated instructional leaders who value and encourage ongoing professional growth for our teachers, believe strongly in high academic standards and are committed to creating a supportive and responsive learning environment for our students.

My sincere thanks to these five individuals for their time, their talents and their dedication: principals Ryan Groat and Loida Lewinter, and assistant principals Kelly Webster, Michael Foust and David Wareing. They truly embody a school culture that inspires, challenges and educates every student, every day!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Great expectations for new school year!

The days are becoming shorter, the temperatures are starting to cool, and student athletes have returned for fall sports practices – all signs that summer is inevitably coming to an end. These eight weeks seem to fly by more quickly with each passing year. It seems like yesterday we were celebrating as the Class of 2016 graduated, and now here we are – preparing to greet the Class of 2029 next week as we welcome back all students and staff to school!

I hope you were able to relax, have fun with family and friends, travel, read a good book and rejuvenate for September during the summer break, and are now as ready and energized as I am for the start of school!

State test scores reveal some progress in math, little movement in ELA scores

Over the summer, the New York State Department of Education (SED) released the results of the grades 3-8 English language arts (ELA) and math state tests that students took in the spring. The Times Union published an article recently analyzing the results among schools in our region. Not surprisingly, small, urban districts, like Watervliet, were among the schools with the lower scores and the least improvement. See SED website for complete state assessment data

It is important to remember that state assessments are not the “be all, end all” measure of student success. The tests are one measure that educators can use to identify which skills students have mastered and other skills that require additional time and effort to learn. Despite showing some progress – our elementary math scores were up – as a whole, our results indicate that student performance on these tests remains below state averages for proficiency in ELA and math. While I know the 2016 test results are not reflective of the hard work and dedication of our teachers and staff, the lack of tangible growth in our scores represents a need for improvement district-wide. We must continue to identify and embrace instructional practices that are showing results and build on them. At the same time, we must recognize and discard ineffective strategies because to continue repeating practices that fail to engage students in learning, and yet somehow expect favorable results, is simply not acceptable. Our students deserve better.

I believe that educating children is one of the most important (if not the most important) responsibility we have as a society. I also believe wholeheartedly that teaching is the most noble of professions. My expectations for the coming school year are that we will work smarter, harder and even more collaboratively than we have since I first joined the district as high school principal 12 years ago. All of our students have the ability to learn and must be given every opportunity to succeed.

Our most important task is supporting their success. We can do that by prioritizing students’ needs in the decisions we make and committing to delivering a rigorous education and relevant experiences that will prepare all Watervliet students for college or for the workforce. I expect everyone – teachers, teaching assistants, bus drivers, support staff, food service workers, administrators – to bring their A-game for every student, every day. If you commit to inspiring, educating and challenging every student, every day – they will be engaged, they will learn and they will achieve.

Sharing responsibility for student success

To be successful, students need support from both home and school. A strong partnership between schools, parents and families can make a positive difference in a child’s education. I strongly encourage parents to be involved in your children’s education from day one of prekindergarten through the day your child takes his or her final Regents exam in high school. I invite parents to reach out to your children’s teachers, building principals or myself to let us know how we can best help you. If you are not currently registered for an account on the Parent Portal, please sign up for one today. The portal offers parents online access to a secure site with personalized information about their children’s academic program and progress, including class schedules, assignments, attendance, report cards and more.

Administrative changes find familiar faces in different roles

I am excited to introduce some key administrative changes at both buildings and the district level this year.
All three changes involve promotions from within our school district ranks. Loida Lewinter has stepped into the role of elementary principal after serving as the assistant principal at the junior/senior high school for the past two years. Two former teachers have moved out of their classrooms and into leadership roles, as well. Fourth-grade teacher Kelly Webster is now the assistant principal of the junior/senior high school, while grade 6 teacher Don Stevens has taken the position of Director of Literacy and Universal Prekindergarten. I am confident these changes will make for an engaging and productive year and as we move forward

Our district will welcome a number of new teachers and staff members this year, following the retirement of several veteran teachers last year. My message to new teachers and to experienced educators is the same:
We are all responsible for setting the tone for the school year. We can and we must set higher expectations and standards for behavior and academics in our classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and athletic facilities. I remind newer teachers to keep up with your certification requirements and commit to working hard to achieve tenure. Never be afraid to ask for help if or when you need it.

My sincere thanks to our maintenance staff for the work they have done this summer inside and outside of our schools to prepare the buildings and grounds for a successful first day of school on September 7.

Lastly, I want to express that it is truly an honor for me to welcome back our students and their families as another school year is set to begin. On behalf of Watervliet’s teachers, staff and administrators, we look forward to a successful and rewarding school year for all.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A few thoughts at year’s end

As we get ready to close the book on the 2015-16 school year, I want to wish the Class of 2016 the best of luck as they begin the next phase of their lives. I hope that your experiences—in the classroom, on the athletic fields, and participating in extracurricular activities throughout your years in Watervliet’s schools—have given you the confidence and the foundation for success whether you are continuing your education at a two- or four-year college, pursuing a career or enlisting in military service for our country.

To members of the Class of 2016, you are forever Cannoneers — represent our schools well, continue to make us proud!

High school graduation will take place Thursday, June 23 beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Harry Tucker gymnasium.

The end of the school year is both an exciting and emotional time; this is as true for sixth-graders (and their parents) as it is for our graduating seniors. Sixth-graders, too, are facing an important change next year as they leave the familiar surroundings of Watervliet Elementary School and the teachers and staff they know so well. To begin the adjustment, sixth-grade students and their parents had an opportunity to tour the junior high school and meet guidance counselors and administrators on May 4 during Grade 6 Transition Night. Then during the week of May 16, all grade 6 classes visited seventh-grade classrooms during the school day to meet teachers and get a preview of life as a junior high student. Looking ahead, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, all incoming seventh-graders are encouraged to attend orientation at 1 p.m. to receive their schedules, locker numbers and combinations and have an opportunity to ask questions before the first day of school.

I look forward to welcoming the Class of 2022 to Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School in September!

The Grade 6 Moving Up ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday, June 22 at 9:30 a.m. in the high school auditorium.

Tweaks to Pivot Program next year

Speaking of transitions, a few changes are in store for our Grade 9 Pivot Program next year. After evaluating the program throughout its first year, and listening to feedback from students and parents alike, school administrators and the program director have decided to make Pivot a 3-day program rather than four days as it was this year. When the program resumes in September, it will take place after-school Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2:30 – 3:30 p.m. This change will provide students two days per week to meet with their regular classroom teachers as needed, and receive support that will help them remain in good standing academically, while participating in the collaborative projects as required by the Pivot program.

The Pivot Program is structured to help students develop the skills necessary to successfully complete high school and be better equipped for the challenges of pursuing a college education or entering the workforce. Students attend career talks, complete a job shadow experience and participate in college visits throughout the school year.

I remind parents and incoming ninth-graders that the Pivot Program is a graded course for which students receive one high school credit; as such, class attendance and participation are necessary for students to be successful. The Pivot program has come a long way during its first year, and I look forward to continuing to provide this experience to our ninth grade students moving forward.

PTA meet and greet with new principal 

WES families are invited to a meet and greet with recently named elementary principal Loida Lewinter at the WES PTA’s final meeting of the school year on Tuesday, June 14 at 6:30 p.m. Mrs. Lewinter has served as the assistant principal at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School since 2014. She is a skilled and dedicated educator who has done an excellent job supporting teachers, staff and her administrative peers, as well as building strong relationships with students through the successful Character Education/No Place for Hate program over the past two years. Please join us in welcoming Mrs. Lewinter to the elementary school.

Thanks for supporting education

On behalf of the Board of Education and myself, I thank everyone who took time to participate in the school budget vote and Board of Education election on May 17. I am grateful for the continued community support for our schools. Despite low voter turnout again this year, our budget passed by a nearly 80 percent margin.

As we near the start of summer break, I want to recognize our teachers and instructional support staff for the dedication, talent, energy and care they bring to educating our diverse student population. Despite the financial limitations inherent in a small city school district like ours, we continue to find ways to leverage our resources to support student success. I value your efforts and your commitment to making a positive difference for every student, every day.

For our teachers who are retiring this year following many years of service to the district — Lori Habernig, Cheryl Hotaling and Tony Curro —  I wish you all the best in the next chapter of your lives. Your contributions to the success of our students and our district have been immeasurable.

Have a relaxing, safe and well-deserved summer break. I look forward to welcoming you back in September!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

School budget vote reminder, new school leaders appointed

A reminder that this coming Tuesday, May 17 is the annual school budget vote and Board of Education election. Last year’s turnout was historically low with only 146 votes total cast compared with the prior five-year average of 336 votes. We can do better! Every resident in the community 18 and older has the right to express their voice in the funding and the elected leadership of our school district. So, whether you’ve voted before or you are a first-time voter – I encourage all eligible voters to head to the polls between noon and 9 p.m. this coming Tuesday.

District residents can vote at one of two polling sites in the city depending on which neighborhood you call home: the Watervliet Elks Lodge or Watervliet Elementary School. Voting information

More about the budget proposal

The proposed 2016-17 budget totals $26.1 million and increases overall spending by 1.04 percent, which is $269,000 more than the current-year budget. Under the proposed plan the tax levy increases by 0.24 percent, which is approximately one quarter of one percent.

For the second consecutive year, we are able to present a fiscal plan that makes no cuts to programs or staffing and will allow us to address the growing needs of students. The proposed budget will help optimize the learning environment by providing resources to maintain class sizes; reinforce instructional support for English as a New Language (ENL) students, as mandated by the state; strengthen support for struggling learners; increase the number of spots available for students to attend BOCES Career & Technical programs; and maintain extracurricular and athletic opportunities for students.

I encourage you to learn as much about the proposed budget as possible and make an informed decision on Tuesday. Visit the district's budget web page and read the budget newsletter, which was mailed to all residents in early May. A copy is also available here.

The complete budget document is available for residents to view in the main office of each school, the district office or at the Watervliet Public Library.

District welcomes new administrators for the 2016-17 school year

On July 1, the district will welcome three new administrators to our leadership team. I am especially proud to announce that all three administrative positions are being filled with talented educators from within our schools!

During last month’s Board of Education meeting, Loida Lewinter, current assistant principal at the Junior-Senior High School, was appointed principal of Watervliet Elementary School. She replaces longtime elementary principal Terri O’Brien who retired in December. Mrs. Lewinter is a highly-skilled and dedicated professional who, for the past two years, has done a stellar job supporting teachers, staff and her administrative colleagues, as well as building strong relationships with students through the successful Character Education/No Place for Hate program. When she takes the reins as elementary principal, I am confident that she will continue to excel and grow as a leader in our district.

At the same meeting, the board appointed current grade 6 teacher Don Stevens to the position of Director of Literacy and Universal Prekindergarten. Mr. Stevens has served as a classroom teacher for the past 10 years at the elementary school. He completed his administrative internship with the district in the fall. Mr. Stevens recently was selected to serve as a member of the English Language Arts Committee for the New York State Education Department Learning Standards review workgroup. He was chosen for this committee based on his experience and qualifications as an educator from the more than 1,000 applications that NYSED received.

Kelly Webster, who has taught fourth-grade for the past 8 years, was appointed to the assistant principal position at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School during the May 10 school board meeting. She completed her administrative internship working with district administrators last summer and fall. Mrs. Webster will bring a fresh energy and enthusiasm in her new role.

As these familiar faces begin their new roles in the 2016-17 school year, it sets the stage for increased collaboration and cohesiveness between leadership in both buildings -- and that is something that will benefit our students.

Also, as we prepare for this school year to end, I give a shout out to Paul Scampini who has served as interim principal these past six months. I thank him for serving our elementary students, parents and staff as we conducted the search for Mrs. O’Brien’s replacement.

End-of-year events

Speaking of the end of the school year … I am excited to share some important upcoming dates and events that are scheduled during the final six weeks of school:
  • Thursday, May 19 – Garnet & Grey Spring Concert, 6:30 p.m.
  • Friday, May 20 – Senior Class Breakfast, 8 a.m.
  • Saturday, May 21 – Junior/Senior Prom, 7-11 p.m., Walk-thru, 6 p.m.
  • Wednesday, May 25 – Spring Sports Awards Night, 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, May 26 – National Honor Society Induction Ceremony, 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday, May 31 – No School (contingent recess day)
  • Thursday, June 2 – Senior Varsity Dinner, 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, May 9 – Elementary Spring Concert, 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, June 1 ¬– NYS Common Core Algebra II Regents Exam, 8 a.m.
  • Monday, June 13 – last day of regular classes at Watervliet High School
  • Tuesday, June 14 – Regents Exams begin
  • Friday, June 17 – WES Field Day
  • Monday, June 20 through Thursday, June 23 – WES Half Days  
  • Monday, June 20 – UPK celebration, 9 a.m., 10 a.m. 
  • Wednesday, June 22 – Grade 6 Graduation, 9:30 a.m.
  • Thursday, June 23 – Class of 2016 Commencement, 6:30 p.m., WHS gymnasium
Again, I hope that you will make time to vote on Tuesday, May 17 -- and encourage your friends, family members and neighbors to do the same. It’s important.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Recognizing our brightest

In addition to presenting the proposed 2016-17 school budget during the April 19 Board of Education meeting, recognizing the top scholars for the Class of 2016, applauding our hard-working and successful varsity wrestling team and congratulating teachers who are receiving tenure this year are also on the agenda.

Class of 2016 top scholars

During the meeting, the school board will recognize the top two high school seniors: Lauren Zakrzewski is the class valedictorian and Lydia Anderson is the salutatorian. Lauren plans to attend either Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute or the University of Michigan in the fall to study chemistry, while Lydia plans to study pre-law at Hartwick College. Both young women are members of the National Honor Society and have been involved in many extracurricular activities throughout their school careers, including Character Education/No Place for Hate and Student Council. They also have participated in interscholastic sports: Lauren ran track and played softball, while Lydia played varsity soccer. I am confident both will be highly successful in their future endeavors!

I also want to recognize the balance of the Top 10 scholars of the Class of 2016, which includes Samad Abdul, James Creaser, Sarah Skinner, Brendan Austin, Arianna Greene, Seamus Manning, Samael O’Brien and Ian Brown. Congratulations once again to all!

Wrestling a successful season

The varsity wrestling team and Coach Dennis Lane will be recognized for their hard work, determination and skill. The Cannoneer wrestling team with an overall record of 7 wins and 1 loss was second in the league, was named Class C Sectionals Champion, and earned the Section 2 Sportsmanship Team of the Year Award. Wrestler Collin O’Brien was Section 2 Champion with a season record of 38-3 at the 145 pound weight class and he advanced as a New York State Qualifier at the Times Union Center, where he went 1-2 in the state tournament. The wrestling team also had four Class C Champions, including Collin O’Brien, Connor Lyons, Charles LaBelle and Hunter Weaver. A stellar season!

Teacher tenure

We also celebrate and congratulate the following teachers for earning tenure this year and for their commitment every day to the students of our district: Denise Cusack, K-2 Special Education, Kara Taylor, kindergarten teacher, and Rebecca Hewitt, 9-12 Spanish teacher (who received tenure in January).

Budget proposal unveiled

At the April 19 meeting, school business manager Keith Heid and I will present the proposed 2016-17 school budget to the board for ratification. When state legislators passed the state budget earlier this month, they provided an increase in foundation aid for schools greater than that proposed by Governor Cuomo in his executive budget in January.

For our district, it translates to a year-to-year increase in aid of 4 percent, or approximately $450,000. I am, of course, grateful to our local legislators for fighting the good fight to increase school aid, but am reminded as we continue working to develop a balanced budget, that we face a 0.24 percent tax levy cap, which severely limits our ability to raise additional revenue. I will have more school budget information to share in my next blog before the school budget vote on May 17.

Student musician takes center stage

In the meantime, I want to mention a very exciting opportunity for our music students that will take place earlier in the day on April 19. High school junior and Delta Force singer Xavier Reyes will receive membership into the Barbershop Harmony Society, and as part of the celebration, a regional Barbershop quartet and music director will present a workshop for all Delta Force chorus members that will be followed in the afternoon by a performance. Congratulations to Xavier, who is not only a talented singer/musician, but also earns high marks in the classroom and is role model for his peers. Kudos as well to music teacher Terry Bradway who inspires and challenges her students every day.

Thank you

Finally, April 27 marks Administrative Professionals Day. I know I am a few weeks early, but I want to publicly applaud the dedicated clerical support staff who work in our schools and our offices and thank them for all they do each and every day to assist administrators, faculty and students!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Pondering the school budget, outlining the fiscal challenges ahead

During the Board of Education meeting in February, a preliminary overview of the school budget was presented that outlined where we stand in the early stages of the budget development process. [View the presentation] New York State Assemblymember John McDonald took the time to stop by our meeting to share an update on state aid and the property tax levy cap with the school board and audience members. The good news is that Assemblyman McDonald is confident the Legislature will increase the amount of state aid to schools over that recommended in Governor Cuomo’s Executive budget when each chamber presents its own budget proposals this month.

However, Assemblyman McDonald pretty much guaranteed that neither the state Senate nor the Governor has the will or the inclination to yield an inch as far as the property tax levy cap is concerned. The cap limits the increase in the property tax levy to 2 percent annually or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. For our school district and many others, the so-called 2 percent tax levy cap translates to a near-zero percent increase for the 2016-17 school year due to unusually slow growth in inflation throughout the 2015 fiscal year. School leaders and education advocates around the state have rallied for elected officials to tweak the tax cap formula by making the allowable levy growth factor a consistent 2 percent, regardless of the inflation rate. This would at least provide a level of predictability schools do not currently have. By all accounts, however, changes to the property tax cap do not appear likely anytime soon.

Of course, the governor contends the cap is not restrictive, saying schools have the option to override it. While that’s true, Watervliet and most other school districts have chosen to comply with the law since it was enacted in 2012. To challenge the cap, which is popular among the public and deemed by political pundits to be the governor’s “greatest achievement” is a gamble many school leaders are not comfortable risking. To exceed the cap, districts must secure a 60 percent majority vote by the public. In Watervliet’s case, the gamble is not worth it, as every 1 percent on the levy equals approximately $67,000, enough to cover the salary and benefits of perhaps one teacher, but certainly not enough to close a sizeable budget gap and risk alienating the community’s good will in the process.  

Fiscal recovery underway, but for how long?

You may recall in 2013, the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) branded Watervliet the most fiscally stressed school district in the state. Although we no longer topped the list in 2014, the district’s fiscal stress score remained high. Our most recent score, released by the OSC in January, indicates the district now has moderate fiscal stress, an improvement that demonstrates our resiliency. Yet, between the near-zero tax levy cap and the dismal 1.35 percent increase in state aid, our district’s fiscal recovery could stall. [View NYS Comptroller's Fiscal Stress Report]

Balancing our budgets and paving a path to fiscal recovery has not been easy. It has required many difficult choices over the past several years including workforce reductions totaling 24 full-time staffers, ranging from administrators and teachers to instructional and clerical support staff; eliminating summer school programs and extracurricular opportunities; and consolidating junior varsity and modified teams, while eliminating athletic programs with below average participation. We also discontinued Advanced Placement courses at the high school and reduced enrollment in BOCES programs.  

This current school year, we have taken careful steps toward rebuilding opportunities for students after the state restored a considerable amount of Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) funding that was owed our district. I am thankful that the end of the GEA is finally in sight, but it is long overdue. School leaders have repeatedly called for the GEA’s end because of the significant loss of educational programs and services for students that have transpired since its inception.

Applauding our supporters

During the past two years, Assemblyman McDonald has secured additional aid – known as bullet aid – that has helped our district significantly. He continues to be an ally for our schools and the Watervliet community, and I thank him for being an advocate for public education.

The Arsenal Business & Technology Partnership also continues to support our students by gifting the proceeds from its annual golf outing to the district. We have been able to restore many extracurricular opportunities during the past three years thanks to Peter Gannon and the Arsenal Partnership’s generosity. This year, through a generous donation by Mohawk Honda to our Athletic Department, we were able to reinstate some of the modified sports that had been cut to save costs. Thanks to Nick Bonarrigo and everyone at Mohawk Honda for supporting Watervliet’s student athletes!

What’s next?

As I work with the school board, the school business manager and my administrative team to develop next year’s budget, I remain cautiously optimistic that our district will receive a much-needed jolt in aid. If not, we could face the unacceptable prospect of again having to make untenable decisions that place our students at a competitive disadvantage as they strive to become college and career ready.

I invite parents, staff, students and community members to be engaged in the budget development process by attending budget presentations on the following dates:

  • Tuesday, March 8, 6:30 p.m., WES PTA meeting,  Watervliet Elementary School cafeteria
  • Thursday, March 17, 6 p.m., prior to the regular Board of Education meeting, Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School
  • Saturday, April 9, 9 a.m., budget breakfast, Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School

I would also encourage you to stay informed by visiting the budget section of the district’s website and connecting with us on social media (Facebook and Twitter). And finally, please be sure to cast your ballot during the annual school budget vote and Board of Education election on Tuesday, May 17 from noon to 9 p.m.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Disappointing fiscal news for schools

Two weeks ago, Governor Cuomo delivered his State of the State address and Executive Budget proposal in Albany where he outlined his agenda for the year. With New York in healthier fiscal shape than it has been in several years, I was hopeful that perhaps education would truly be a priority this year, but what I heard was the same disappointing political rhetoric with a little softer tone.

School aid as proposed by the governor for the 2016-17 school year is less than half of what the state Board of Regents and other education groups have stated is necessary for schools to support student success. And once again, it appears our school district will take a direct hit.

The Executive Budget proposes a $2.1 billion total school aid increase over the next two years: the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.  An analysis of the nearly $1 billion increase in state education funding proposed for 2016-17 shows that it would be split largely in three categories: $408 million to reimburse schools for expense-driven costs such as transportation, construction and BOCES services; $266 million for Foundation Aid, the primary source of funding for general school operations; and $189 million to partially restore the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), a practice of diverting promised funding from schools that began during the height of the economic recession and has since continued to help the state alleviate its own budget shortfalls.

The governor’s proposed year-to-year increase is well below the $2.4 billion in aid to public schools recommended by the state Board of Regents and the $2.2 billion increase called for by the Educational Conference Board, which is comprised of several statewide organizations including the New York State Parent Teacher Association, the New York State Council of School Superintendents, and The New York State School Boards Association among others.

Lack of sufficient operating aid and an excessively restrictive tax cap will impede progress

The state aid projections released by the governor present a total increase in aid for Watervliet schools of $231,673, or 1.27 percent more than our schools received for the current budget year. Of that increase, approximately $136,000 is Foundation Aid, while the remainder is for expense-driven categories.

Making matters worse is that the property tax levy growth for school districts in 2016-17 will be held to 0.12 percent—literally a fraction above zero percent—as reported by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli last week. That is due to a key factor in the tax cap formula that limits levy growth to either 2 percent or the change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI), whichever is less. [See copy of op-ed piece published in Dec. 22 Times Union co-authored by me and Schodack Superintendent Robert Horan on the potential effects of a zero percent tax levy cap on schools.]

Many district leaders, including myself, have argued that the inflation rate is not an appropriate measure for school districts since most of our fixed costs are personnel-related, including pension contributions, contractual salaries and benefits, fuel and instructional materials; expenditures which are not typically reflected in the CPI, which measures the change in costs of goods and services that consumers purchase. Also, the CPI reflects conditions in the 2015 calendar year, yet is applied to cap 2016-17 school year expenses that have yet to accrue—in other words future costs.

By making the tax levy growth factor a consistent 2 percent, rather than based on such a volatile factor as the CPI, our district would at least have a more predictable and sustainable way to develop our annual budget.

As costs continue to rise and we strive to meet increased expectations, the inability to raise any additional tax levy revenue threatens to undo the modest progress we were able to make this year to preserve and restore programs after several years of devastating cuts for our district. As I said in my December blog, it’s a classic one step forward, two steps back.

Major challenges lie ahead as budget development gets underway 

While it is still too early in the development process to discuss budget numbers for the 2016-2017 school year, I can tell you that our district has no plans to try to exceed the tax cap. To raise the amount of funding needed to close the gap that we will likely face, would require the district to increase the tax levy by double digits, which our community simply cannot afford.

I am extremely concerned that without intervention by the state legislature, our district will struggle to meet annual cost increases and will again be forced to consider program cuts. We must continue to plead our case and make it known that we can no longer accept inequities in the distribution of state aid that fails to adequately fund high-needs, low-wealth districts like ours. (Links to legislators' email addresses are below.)

As legislators continue state budget negotiations, I ask that parents, staff and the community join me in reaching out to our elected representatives in the Legislature to ask that the Foundation Aid formula be fixed and that our public schools receive equitable and sufficient funding so that we can meet our obligation to educate, inspire and challenge every student, every day.

Assemblyman John McDonald

Senator Neil Breslin

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, Chair of the NYS Assembly Education Committee

Senator Carl Marcellino, Chair of the NYS Senate Education Committee