Your Voice Was Heard

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Most school board meetings take place in the lecture hall in the high school’s administration wing, and they’re typically sparsely attended and uneventful. That changes during budget season, and this added meeting to discuss the final state aid figures was moved to the high school auditorium to accommodate a larger crowd.

And a larger crowd was indeed there.

You pull into the parking lot and see many more cars than are typically there for a school board meeting. You cross your fingers and hope they’re on your side. Last night, the auditorium was overwhelmingly filled with people who support Clarence schools, who came to send a message – some vocally, some silently – that people want to begin rebuilding what’s been lost over the last five years. That includes weighing the restoration of 67 teaching jobs lost during that period of time.

Superintendent Hicks went through his final budget presentation, which is available here. As you know by now, the proposal before the board is to raise the levy by 3.9% – lower than the 4.7% allowable under the tax cap – and to hire back 11 needed teachers who had been let go during the recent budget crisis.

Keep Clarence Schools Great was there to present a copy of the petition, the signatures, and people’s comments to each member of the board and to Dr. Hicks. Even if you weren’t present, the school board heard you.

Each member of the board took some time to express his or her view.

Matt Stock clarified that state law tenure changes would only apply to new hires, and any former employees whose positions were being restored would be grandfathered in under the prior 3 year scheme. The 11 positions does not include a social worker because the district replaced a retiring speech therapist with a psychologist, and they were able to handle the workload for now. Stock indicated his support for the budget, and the restoration of the 11 proposed positions.

Jason Lahti started out by mentioning that many of his relatives are teaching professionals, and he is cognizant of the fact that the district can’t bring all the teachers back. He supports hiring back 8 teachers – not 11 – and “exploring” the possibility of distance learning via the internet. Lahti noted that districts in Maryland and Nevada supplement their curricula by offering distance learning for some courses with small demand, and that the money spent on such infrastructure might have a “multiplier effect”. Lahti’s plan, however, wasn’t fully formed. He repeated that we should “use the money we didn’t expect to examine online learning”. November’s capital project included $3 million for computer infrastructure, and although he doesn’t know exactly how his idea would flesh out, it “may be worth exploring”. Matt Stock countered that the 11 proposed positions are already high demand, and that distance learning may be a good idea as a separate matter, that shouldn’t be conflated with the proposal currently before the board.

Susan Altman noted that the board had, in the past, considered distance learning possibilities, but the technology wasn’t ready yet and they decided against it. She noted that it was probably time to re-evaluate that in the near future. Nevertheless, she indicated her support for the budget, and the restoration of the 11 proposed positions.

Michael Fuchs said he was happy to finally see a restoration list, rather than a layoff list, as has been the recent norm. K-3 class sizes have spiked as high as 28, when 22 or 23 should be right based on enrollment. He also lamented the loss of the family career and science program, but noted that the district needs the tech and business positions because of our commitment to “project lead the way” and the finance academy. He noted that, based on recent practice, the tax rate is likely to end up closer to $15.09/$1000 rather than the proposed $15.37, because the final number is based on town reassessed values. Dr. Hicks noted that this may be somewhat different this year because the board passed the veteran’s exemption. In any event, Mr. Fuchs noted his support for the budget and the restoration of the 11 proposed positions.

Roger Showalter expressed concern about these 11 positions. He noted that he has 4 kids in the system, and he wants a strong district, too. He said that his job isn’t to “rubber stamp” whatever the administration or “special interests” want, and that he has to assess whether the request is a luxury or a necessity. He said it is “not a virtue to demand other to pay for what I want”, and that taxpayers will reward a modest and careful board action. He said that enrollment is declining, so it makes no sense to add positions back at this time, and that we should “stay the course” and let the ratios even themselves out. It is painful to fire people, so let’s not go through that pain. Mr. Showalter added that budgets a decade ago grew spending by over 4%, which led to the crisis in 2013. He noted that we blame the state, but we’re too dependent on state aid. Mr. Showalter added that Clarence taxpayers pay more than Williamsville taxpayers, which drew a challenge from Maryellen Kloss about the tax rate – over $20 in Williamsville vs. under $15 in Clarence. Showalter said that Clarence families pay more dollars, but Kloss reminded him that those dollars are based on home valuations. She also noted that it was silly to speculate what might happen with enrollment past 5 years because, “those kids aren’t even born yet”. Mr. Showalter noted his disapproval of the budget and that he was against the restoration of the 11 proposed positions. He did not offer any alternative or compromise position.

Tricia Andrews disagreed strenuously with her colleague, and noted that the proposed 11 positions are not “wants” but “needs”, and that the board’s job is to help balance the needs of the kids and schools. She noted that kids struggling with ELA and math exams needed these teachers, and that the elementary schools needed full time librarians. She indicated her support for the budget, and for the restoration of the 11 proposed positions.

Maryellen Kloss noted that the district made cuts when they were forced to do so, and asked everyone to fill gaps creatively. She added that the board is responsible for all kids – struggling or not. The gap elimination adjustment has taken away the district’s ability to fully fund the programs it needs for the kids. Here, the tax cap was high, so the board has lowered it but it’s important to keep the value and integrity of the district for all – past, present, and future.

Several people spoke to the board, overwhelmingly so in support of the budget and proposed restorations. One speaker brought up the “true cost of ownership”, which is terminology most frequently associated with, say, car ownership. He noted that the 5 year projections include growth of spending and revenue through the tax levy at around 3% and he asked whether that was leading to a “good return on investment”.  Subsequent speakers took that challenge and provided myriad examples of how the district gets a good educational return on its investment; one speaker added that any business valuation model includes “goodwill”, and Clarence has it in spades.

One speaker noted that he is the business administrator of a school district in Niagara County, and reminded the board that Clarence is the district every other district wants to be. They wish they had our students, our teachers, our results, our fiscal responsibility – everything. Students spoke passionately about how their teachers go above and beyond the call of duty; how the programs and extracurricular activities in which they participate are not only important for getting by in school and making friends, but in success throughout their academic careers – there were about 75 students in attendance last night.

One speaker took Mr. Showalter to task over his “special interests” crack, asking him pointedly to explain whom he meant. When it became clear that he was referring to Keep Clarence Schools Great – he had “seen some emails” – he was reminded that we’re not some cabal out to destroy or control something, but that we’re just parents who have united to make sure that the school district and its students have what they need to excel.

Sign up for our newsletter at this link, and be sure to come to next Monday’s (April 20th) board meeting at 7pm, where the board is expected to vote on the budget proposal for 2015 – 2016.  The budget vote is May 19th. We will need your help and support.  Thank you, Clarence!

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