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Dan Hust | Democrat

The Monticello Board of Education decided 5-4 at Tuesday’s budget meeting to close the Duggan Elementary School in White Lake. The vote was expected to be affirmed at last night’s regular meeting.

Duggan School to be closed

By Kaitlin Carney
MONTICELLO — March 26, 2010 — A decision two years and countless community planning sessions in the making was not to arrive on time or without further discussion.
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, the scheduled start time for the public session of the Board of Education for the Monticello Central School District, BOE President Alyce Van Etten addressed the nearly 300 people in attendance to let them know they would hear the board’s decision – but just not yet.
At 9:09 p.m. the board, District Superintendent Patrick Michel, and Assistant Superintendent Gladys Baxter solemnly filed into the Robert J. Kaiser cafeteria and out of executive session.
The magnitude of the decisions to be made during the public session silenced the previously chatty crowd.
But the budget was not the first agenda item; the board had to revisit Fund Balance 101.
Finally, at 9:25 p.m. Dr. Michel briefly presented the 4, 6, and 8 percent tax levy and the corresponding school budget scenarios. He thanked the board for their hard work, for working through each scenario, asking questions, and working through the hard times with such class and dignity. He also thanked the entire community for their participation in the process and for representing themselves with the same measure of class.
Barbara O’Rourke, board member, expressed her desire to “keep as much as we can for the kids, keeping in mind the economic times.” After some discussion, the board motioned, without opposition, to take the 4 percent and 6 percent scenarios (without school closure) off of the table.
Jo Ann Peabody made an impassioned presentation to save the Duggan School from closure, while advocating for an 8 percent levy increase. She cited university studies on school closures, the decimating effects on communities without schools, the possible erosion of the economic base, and a petition by parents stating that 38 percent of them would move their children to private schools if Duggan were to close as reasons for keeping the small school open.
Peabody also remarked that 64 percent of Sullivan County wage earners don’t have a College degree and therefore continued funding for the College in the Classroom program didn’t serve the students for the real world.
With the board’s opinions aired, the microphones were turned over for a question and comment session.
Students, upset about the arbitrary nature of their exclusion from College in the Classroom, and funding cuts for extracurricular activities (proposed at 50 percent in the levy increases without a school closure) lent their voices to the cause. A sophomore pointedly remarked to the Board that college applications don’t care if she “went to Chase, Duggan, or Cooke,” but were instead looking at the diversity of her extracurricular activities.
Voices from Rock Hill, one of the district’s few growing communities, were prevalent. Many parents began with introducing themselves as a parent from Rock Hill: “an area with no school where the kids are doing just fine” a pointed rebuke of Peabody’s continued assertions that a community without a school will flounder.
Phil Borko, one of said parents, reminded the Board that the definition of community is “from Bethel to Forestburgh to Mamakating – it doesn’t reside in one particular school,” and that they must now take responsibility for a problem they never solved, but rather deferred.
With many voices heard from, the Board voted 5-4 in favor of adopting a budget with a 6 percent levy increase and the closure of the Duggan School.
Van Etten, Vice President Richard Feller and board members Liza Glick, Tara Buckstad-Russo and O’Rourke made up the majority. Board members Peabody, Susan Purcell, Yvonne Housman and Bob Kunis wanted the 8 percent tax scenario, which would have kept Duggan open.
The decision was not met with applause, relief, excitement or fury; instead, the room was quiet from the weight of the proposal and the depth of a cut of 61 full-time employees (three administrators, 46 teachers and 12 support staff.)
At nearly midnight, the struggle was over.
On March 24, Dr. Michel and Duggan Principal Patti Sonnenschein distributed a letter to parents of Duggan students formally announcing the school’s closure.
The 2010-11 budget will be put to the community for vote on Tuesday May 18.

Practical realities will remain in wake of closure

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — March 26, 2010 — Though the Monticello Central School Board had yet to formally vote on the proposed 2010-2011 budget last night, Superintendent Pat Michel convened a press conference about it yesterday morning.
And he didn’t mince words.
“It is possible that next year could be just as difficult,” he warned.
As if this year wasn’t difficult enough.
On Tuesday, the board informally agreed in a painful 5-4 split vote that closing the Duggan Elementary School in White Lake would be part of a budget that includes a six percent tax levy increase, program cuts to College in the Classroom and International Baccalaureate, and the elimination of 61 full-time positions districtwide.
As a result, board member Jo-Ann Peabody, a White Lake resident, didn’t mince words either.
“While everyone is entitled to his or her vote, I want to say that I respectfully disagree with the five members who voted 5-4 to shutter this school,” she remarked on Wednesday. “Board members should have demanded a full impact study.
“The crux of my disagreement is this: last night, board members had the chance to vote for an 8 percent tax levy that would then have gone to a vote by the public. At 8 percent or at the 7 percent set for the contingency budget, the school could have remained open. Given that the community and the board itself is so fractured on this issue, I believe that the board should have allowed the voters of the school district to decide its values – as the recent capacity and demographic study recommended.
“The citizens and taxpayers should have been allowed to decide whether or not they wanted to support a valuable social and educational commodity such as a community school,” she concluded. “Unfortunately, this choice was made for the voters last night, not at the polls.”
Michel said the system worked as it should have, with a board that handled its duties with great care and diligence.
“They agonized over the whole process,” he explained, noting board members were coming in to meetings two or three times a week for months.
He also didn’t fault those who strenuously disagree with this decision.
“That’s how it should be,” he remarked. “They SHOULD care.”
As for allegations that he’s orchestrating a consolidation at outlying communities’ expense, Michel replied that the board made the decision, not him.
“I always make it a point to be very neutral about what that choice should be,” he said, referring to the three options (four percent, six percent and eight percent tax levy increases) that the board considered with the proposed budget.
Duggan will be maintained and remain in the district’s ownership, Michel said. It could be rented out or even reopened, so he doesn’t support selling it at this time.
As for the staffing cuts, he expects no more than 35 actual teachers will be laid off, with another 11 or so taking retirement. Twelve support staff and three administrators – the director of music, Duggan’s principal and a special ed. position – will also lose their jobs.
The closure of Duggan means its 224 students will next year face up to an hourlong bus ride, with K-2nd graders headed to Cooke and 3rd-5th graders off to Rutherford, both in Monticello.
A number of Rock Hill students will be shunted to Chase in Wurtsboro to make room for the Duggan students in Monticello.
And though the closure of Duggan is estimated to save the district $2,012,192, larger class sizes are inevitable, Michel admitted.
Chase will see classes averaging 25 students, while Rutherford will have about 24 per class and Cooke 22.
“We’re going to make your transition as smooth as possible,” Michel promised to parents and students, acknowledging what will be a “scary time” for young children.
Voters will have the final say on all this on May 18, but Michel said that a “no” vote will not save Duggan from closing, as the district is prohibited by law from proposing a higher-cost budget in the wake of a defeated budget vote.
And with dramatic fiscal issues locally and at the state level, he wouldn’t guarantee that Duggan will be the last school building to close.
“Everything is on the table,” he remarked. “It has to be.”.

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