Friday, March 31, 2017

Enforcing student residency policy

As an educator, I understand that for children and teens moving to a new home, particularly when it involves transferring to a new school midway through a school year, can be a difficult adjustment socially and academically. It is not easy to leave behind the familiarity or comfort of your friends, your teachers and the school community you know.

As the leader of a school district, however, it is my responsibility to adhere to and enforce the district’s policies, and that includes student residency. The Board of Education’s policy on residency, which I will add is based on state education law, states that the primary responsibility of the district is to provide the best possible educational opportunities for children who are legal residents of the district and who are of legal age to attend school.

School districts have residency policies in place for a reason. New York Education Law §3202 gives students the right to attend school tuition-free only in the district where they reside, and gives school districts the authority to determine whether a student is a legal resident. The purpose of this law is to relieve public school districts from the financial burden of educating non-resident students. In other words, it is not fair to Watervliet taxpayers to fund the cost of educating children whose families live outside the district, and therefore, do not contribute to the tax base.

Our board’s policy is clear. If a student moves out of the Watervliet school district before June 1 in any given year, that student must transfer to a school within the district in which they now reside. If the move occurs June 1 or later, the student may be allowed to complete the school year in Watervliet. The student must then enroll in their new school over the summer. The one and only exception we will make is if a high school senior moves at any time during their senior year, they may be allowed to complete the year and graduate from Watervliet High School, but only if the student was a resident during the prior year (as a junior).

In the 12 years I have served the Watervliet schools, first as high school principal and now as superintendent, whenever the residency of a student has been in question, we have looked into it as we are obligated to. The process involves informing the parents in writing of our concerns and offering them an opportunity to submit proof of residency. If that does not happen, we have no choice but to conduct a thorough investigation to verify their residency. Once we have gathered evidence and determined that the student does not reside in Watervliet, the family receives notification from the district registrar that the child has been removed from the attendance register and is no longer permitted to attend our schools.

Often, it is other parents or community members who tip off school officials or staff members if they know or have a strong suspicion that a student or a family does not reside within the district. Other times, we investigate after receiving mail returned to us marked as undeliverable by the postal service. But always, it is the student who is caught in the middle of a bad situation. My point to parents is simply this: do the right thing in the first place, that way you won’t be putting your child in an even more difficult position down the road.

Friday, February 24, 2017

No longer on the list, thankfully

I am really pleased to report that last month when NYS Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released his annual report of fiscally stressed school districts, Watervliet was conspicuously absent from the list.

I posted a blog in February 2014 when our district sat atop the comptroller's list of most fiscally stressed schools in New York State. I remember at the time making a prediction when speaking with news reporters that as a district, we would work diligently to get off the list as quickly as possible. Three years later, following some significant belt tightening, I am proud to say that we have turned the corner. It did not happen overnight, nor did it happen without painful cuts to staffing and programs. The slide below recaps the reductions made in prior years that have helped get us back on track fiscally.

image of budget presentation slide listing program and staffing cuts

In addition to those cost-cutting measures, we came in under budget on some capital project expenditures as well as transportation and special education tuition costs, and realized savings from unexpected retirements and resignations over the past two years. All of this has allowed us to rebuild the district’s depleted fund balance, a factor cited in the comptroller’s report as contributing to our fiscal stress.

With a healthier fiscal outlook this current school year, we were able to restore some of the programs and staffing that had been eliminated to balance prior-year budgets. In June 2016, our district received more good news: We were awarded a five-year grant to provide after-school academic support and enrichment opportunities for grades 3-8 students and offer a morning reading and math club for students in kindergarten through grade 2 to reinforce learning before the start of the regular school day.

Still, where school finances are involved, we recognize that it is important to remain cautious, especially in these uncertain times at the federal level. With the new administration in Washington, it is unclear what will happen with federal education funding to public schools. From every indication, Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Department of Education Secretary, is partial to charter schools and has unfavorable views toward the public school system. As a lifelong public school educator, and now district leader, I wholeheartedly believe in the power of a free public education to move everyone forward, no matter who they are or where they come from. Unlike charter schools that are free from many of the regulations imposed on public schools and can be selective about who they teach, we in public education welcome all children and provide opportunities for every child who enters our buildings.

Looking ahead to the 2017-18 school year, we will develop a budget that is fiscally conservative in an effort to sustain the financial stability we have worked so hard to achieve. This will not be the easiest task, because as I have said many times, ours is not a spending issue but a revenue problem because of our heavy reliance on state aid and a property tax levy cap that limits our ability to raise much in the way of local funding.

If you are interested in taking part in the process, I invite you to join us for upcoming budget discussions on Tuesday, March 14 at the Watervliet Elementary School’s PTA meeting at 6:30 p.m., and then on Saturday, April 8 at 9 a.m. for our annual Budget Breakfast at Watervliet Jr./Sr. High School.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A first look at budgeting for 2017-18

Watervliet student vocalist chosen to sing at State of the State address

First, a shout out to Watervliet High School senior Jessica Vallee who was selected to sing the national anthem a cappella to open the Governor’s State of the State Address at the University of Albany on January 11. She did a tremendous job and made her school and her community proud! You don’t have to take my word for it, you can see (and hear) for yourself, here.

Governor releases his state budget proposal

The state Division of Budget recently released school state aid runs following Governor Cuomo’s presentation outlining his proposed Executive Budget to legislators. The Governor’s proposal includes $1 billion more in aid to schools, an increase of just about 4 percent, which brings the state’s overall investment in education to $25.6 billion for the coming year.

This is a welcome starting point as the state legislature begins its budget negotiations. Still, I have to agree with leading education groups that say the governor’s proposal falls short of the amount needed for many schools to maintain the current level of services and programs offered. The Board of Regents, the Educational Conference Board and the New York State Association of School Business Officials (NYSASBO) all had called for aid to increase in the range of $2 billion.

Closer examination of the governor’s executive budget reveals the different nuances of his proposed billion-dollar increase in funding to education, which includes the following:

  • $428 million in Foundation Aid, which supports everyday school operations; 
  • $333 million in reimbursements for expenses such as transportation, BOCES services, and approved capital projects; 
  • $35 million to expand after-school programs in 16 previously identified high need districts, (Watervliet is not among them); and 
  • an additional $15 million in other educational initiatives, such as the expansion of prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year old children in high need districts and Early College High Schools programs, funding typically awarded through competitive grants.

Also in the proposed increase is $22 million in charter school tuition reimbursement, and $17 million related to financing the Smart Schools Bond Act, which allows districts to invest in newer technologies. There is also mention of a new Fiscal Stabilization Fund totaling $150 million, but no details yet on how those dollars would be dispersed to schools.

What does this mean for Watervliet? While it is still early in the process, right now it appears that under the governor’s proposal, our district would receive a 3.17 percent overall increase in aid, which equals $585,183 in state funding. Of that, $216,572 is foundation aid (an increase of 1.8 percent), while the balance is expense-driven (reimbursement for certain expenditures) or other categorical aid.

On the plus side this year, we get to begin developing our school budget with knowledge of the level of aid we can anticipate to receive from the state, as opposed to last year at this time when the governor withheld this essential information from schools for many weeks while the legislature worked on its state budget proposal.

Another known factor: according to the Office of the State Comptroller, the property tax levy growth for school districts will be capped at 1.26 percent for fiscal year 2017-18, making this the fourth consecutive year that the so-called “2 percent cap" will be less than its name implies. The cap limits the local revenue our district can collect through property taxes. Still, it is better than the 0.12 percent cap, the lowest allowable tax levy growth since the law was enacted in 2012, that we and other school districts had to contend with when developing our 2016-17 budget.

Tuition-free college proposal

Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo announced his plan to provide tuition-free college for students who meet income eligibility requirements and want to attend to any of the state university system’s two- or four-year schools.

Serving as the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, my initial reaction was to think how a program like this would benefit many of our students. Having tuition covered would create a significant incentive for students who aspire to pursue a college degree; and it would help remove the financial barriers for students who simply cannot afford the high cost of college.

I have since read conflicting reports on the proposal; some in favor of the free college tuition, with others expressing questions about the cost to taxpayers and lamenting that nothing can really be called “free” when someone else must pick up the tab. Elected officials are known for introducing well-intentioned ideas, but the devil is always in the details.

It also would be helpful if the governor and other state leaders would recognize and remember that public schools provide an important foundation and pipeline to college, and we need equitable funding and appropriate resources to prepare our K-12 students for higher education, whether or not it is tuition free.