CSI At The Berlin School Board Meeting
by David Flint
Before getting down to business, Berlin School Board members at their meeting Tuesday watched an episode of CSI detective work – “Petersburgh CSI” – a video production by Berlin’s first Tech Valley High School student, Joey Harrington. The video was part of a term paper project completed by Harrington, now in his second year at TVHS, for which he had done research at the NYS Crime Lab in Albany. Playing the role of lead detective himself, Harrington collected fingerprint, DNA and ballistics evidence at a murder scene, showed how the evidence was analyzed and how it led to his getting a confession out of the murderer. Faced with the overwhelming evidence that Harrington’s detective character presented, the murderess gave it up, pleading self defense – the victim had overcharged her for services rendered. “He was attacking my wallet!”
Harrington said he enjoyed the emphasis on problem solving and working as a team at Tech Valley and the opportunity to visit many companies in the area to see how technology is employed in the real world of work.
Two first year TVHS students, John Hendricks and Corey Doughty, also presented a report in the form of videotaped interviews of students and the Principal, Dan Liebert, at TVHS. Liebert said there were limitations to the traditional structure of high school education and that Tech Valley sought to provide one answer with intense use of technology, project based learning and connecting education to the real world. Students said it was an amazing opportunity to see how learning applies in the real world and to work one on one with the greatest minds in the Capital region. They believed it was the future of 21st century learning.
Radon Levels Slightly Above Action Limits
Craig Hansen, Director of Health & Safety at Questar III, reported on radon testing performed last month at Berlin Elementary School in coordination with EPA and NYS Department of Health guidelines. The testing showed levels of radon of 4.9 and 5.0 picocuries per liter of air (pCi/L) in the basement area, including the office of the Superintendent of Buildings & Grounds. These levels are just slightly above the EPA action level of 4.0. Hansen recommended sealing off these areas and following up with long term testing of 90 days or more and preferably extending over four seasons. Charcoal canisters have already been placed for testing over the next 90 days. He did not think any mitigation was warranted at this time, noting that in Rensselaer County 54% of homes surveyed have been found to be above the EPA action level, quite a few of them up to 20 pCi/L, but he recommended increased ventilation in the basement. Buildings & Grounds Superintendent Cyril Grant said that testing will be done later at the school buildings in Stephentown and Grafton and after that in the Cherry Plain building. At the suggestion of the Board he agreed that testing would also be done at the bus garage and office.
Interim Business Administrator Scott Hunter presented a first draft of the 2009-10 budget. In this preliminary look, expenditures total $18,122,120, a decrease of 1.48% from the current budget. But given an expected 3.9% reduction in State aid, this would result in a tax levy increase of 1.75%. Factored into this draft is an estimated $475,000 in savings to be achieved by closing Stephentown Elementary School. Another $174,000 would be saved by a program reorganization entailing the elimination of one teacher at the Middle School and one Special Ed teacher at the High School.
Hunter noted that there are a number of unknowns, so the bottom line at this point is speculative. On the expense side, Employee Retirement Services rates are not yet available, and negotiations are still ongoing for BOCES services and for health insurance premiums. On the revenue side, it is not known whether the NYS Legislature will support the Governor’s proposal for State aid reduction. It is also not known how much, if any, of the President’s stimulus package will come to Berlin. It is also undecided how much of a capital project will be undertaken at Berlin Elementary School. Funding for a small capital project of $100,000 has been included in this draft of the budget, offset by new building aid of $75,000. Hunter said that the Board must also decide how the District will prepare Berlin Elementary to accept the Grafton students in 2010-11.
Other questions that need to be answered include whether the Board wants to fund any of the new educational initiatives that were categorized last year as priority 1, 2 and 3. Some of the priority 1 initiatives totaling close to $316,000 were included last year and will be continued. These included teacher training and development, an alternative Middle School education program and a Middle School summer school program. Most of the priority 2 and 3 initiatives did not make it last year, but the Board had hoped to include them at a later time.
Board Member Tom Morelli estimated that there was a $750,000 gap in the budget that would result in these instructional initiatives not being included. These were commitments, he said, that the Board made last year. He suggested that an investment be made in grant writing to make up some of the gap and that a goal be set of raising a million dollars a year in grants. More immediately he insisted that the District needed to “redeploy” $750,000 from the operations, administration and faculty side in order to bolster the instructional side. He pointed out that Stephentown residents were making a “major sacrifice” in having their school closed and still might face a tax levy increase of five to eight percent if priority 1, 2 and 3 initiatives were to be funded.
Board Member Liz Miller, responding to Morelli’s inclusion of faculty in the redeployment of funds, said that if the Board is interested in educational programs, they should remember that the primary key to education is the teacher.
Interim Superintendent Charlotte Gregory said that with the Board’s okay she would explore the possibility of cost saving by sharing a Schools Superintendent with another district, possibly Hoosick Falls or New Lebanon. The Board appeared amenable to looking into this, noting that this would be the time to do it as they are about to embark on a search for a new permanent Superintendent. Morelli was agreeable, too, but said it would not fix the $750,000 gap.
Successive drafts of the budget will be presented at a workshop meeting on March 5, at the regular meeting on March 17 and at a workshop meeting on April 9. The budget will be adopted on April 21 and taxpayers get to vote on it on May 29.
The Board continued their discussion from last month about joining a cooperative investment organization. Nancy Weiss, Regional Director for MBIA/NYCLASS said the organization was started in 1989 with five school districts. It now includes 689 municipal and school entities around New York State. It is run by a 15-member board elected by its members, with MBIA Bank acting as administrator. Weiss said that safety, liquidity and yield are the primary goals in that order. She said that the cooperative is extremely conservative, investing mostly in US Treasury bills, but over the years they have outperformed the yield on certificates of deposit. It features daily compounding, and members can invest any amount in any number of sub-accounts. Accounts can be left with zero balances and still remain active.
Business Administrator Hunter said that joining the cooperative would give the District an alternative to investing in CDs which have to be monitored and turned over periodically. Rates are comparable to CDs, but, unlike CDs, the money is available on a daily basis.
Board Member Morelli said he wanted more discussion about the Board’s policy on use of reserve funds and investing and he thought that representatives of the Bank of America, where the District currently has its CDs, should be called in to participate in the discussion. Hunter pointed out that the Board does have an investment policy that is consistent with guidelines of the NYS Comptroller’s Office. Board Member Jeffrey Paine said the issue at hand was how the Board puts funds to work, not how they spend them and he didn’t think it necessary to confer with the Bank of America. Paine moved that the Board authorize the Treasurer and the Business Administrator to participate in MBIA/NYCLASS. Liz Miller seconded the motion and it passed by a vote of 4-3 with Frank Zwack and Julie Darling joining Paine and Miller in voting for it and Morelli, Don French Jr. and Beverly Stewart voting no.
Morelli said he wanted a monthly report of transfers made and asked that the Board entertain setting a cap on the amount that could be transferred in any month. Weiss said he could have a daily report if he wanted. Charlotte Gregory said it might be a good idea to invite Bank of America representatives in to discuss investments and Hunter said he would set it up.
ADA Compliance Bids
The Board accepted a bid from Hoosick Valley Contractors, Inc. in the amount of $47,850 to make curb cuts and other construction work at the Middle School/High School for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rejected bidders were Gallo Construction Corp. ($69,540), F.H. Alexander, Inc. ($69,990) and Mid-State Industries, Ltd ($82,700). Since the voters authorized $100,000 to be spent on this project, money which is reimbursable in State aid, Buildings & Grounds Superintendent Grant said that additional money could be spent to install ADA compliant hardware and lock sets in the school building doors.
Board Member Beverly Stewart said she had spoken with several consulting companies to facilitate the search for a new Superintendent. She said she was most impressed with the recruiting firm, School Leadership. This firm takes a close look at a school district, determines its particular circumstances and needs and looks for a good match. They do a thorough background check and seek a candidate who is likely to stay a long time. They could start advertising in April and would expect to have someone hired by September but only if they have found a good fit. The Board asked Stewart to contact several firms that could come and give a presentation to the Board on March 17, March 24 or March 31.
Jaqueline Elacqua, President of the Berlin Teachers Association, addressed the Board to say she was concerned and disappointed at remarks made by Tom Morelli to the effect that negotiations with teachers should be reopened and teachers should share the burden.
Elacqua characterized Morelli’s remarks as a “diatribe” and said his “histrionics were never really about negotiations but rather to incite unrest and anger.”
Andrew Zlotnick of Petersburgh said the Board should try to better communicate their activities to the public. The workshop meetings, he said, were “off the radar.” For example he said that radon testing was discussed at the last workshop meeting but was never on the published agenda. Zlotnick urged the Board to put not only the agenda but also the information in the Board packet on the District’s website the Friday before Board meetings so that people have a chance to see what will be discussed at the meeting.
John Nash of Grafton expressed concern that the Board was talking about saving $435,000 from closing Stephentown and working toward a zero increase in the tax levy but at the same time talking about cutting instructional programs and reopening negotiations with the unions and asking for give-backs and concessions. Yet last year they found the money for an 18.7% increase in the Superintendent’s salary. He said nothing has been heard about reducing administrative costs. Nash said there is a lot of talk about a fiscal crisis but he wondered where the crisis was in the face of money left over from the previous year, money put into capital reserve accounts and talk of money to invest.
Nash noted that the public will be asked to deposit another $100,000 in a fund for ADA compliance but that nothing had been done with the $100,000 authorized last year. Board President Frank Zwack responded to this that a contract had just been let to start ADA compliance work. It was the State Education Department, he said, that was holding it up.
The Board set a budget workshop for Thursday, March 5, at 7 pm and their next regular meeting for Tuesday, March 17, at 7 pm in the High School auditorium.