Dan Hust | Democrat
TRI-VALLEY CENTRAL SCHOOL Superintendent Thomas Palmer, standing, answers one of many questions at a forum on the budget sponsored by the Tri-Valley PTO.
Tri-Valley wrestles with choices
By Dan Hust
GRAHAMSVILLE Tensions swirling in the Tri-Valley Central School District were made evident in the questions Superintendent Tom Palmer was asked Thursday night.
“Will teachers be laid off?”
“Will programs be cut?”
“Will buildings be closed?”
“Will administrators take pay cuts?”
Though seemingly not that different from the questions being asked at school districts around the county, these queries were often delivered with worry and suspicion, and residents privately confirmed afterwards that trouble is brewing in a district long known for superior education.
Speaking to about 100 people gathered inside the elementary school’s auditorium for a special PTO-sponsored Q&A, Palmer not yet a year into his superintendency frustratedly tried to dispel rumors about the district’s budget process.
“The board has not acted on any cuts at this time,” he remarked, explaining that budget planning is ongoing.
But he could not dispel well-founded fears.
“We [New York State] are $14 billion in debt,” he acknowledged. “According to Governor Paterson, right now we’re going to lose $699,000 [in state aid] next year.”
Plus, state aid may be frozen for at least two years, he added, and the district’s enrollment continues to decline, falling from nearly 1,300 students in 2001 to 1,181 this year and projected to drop to 1,115 in the next two years.
“It is very difficult to move into this district,” he said. “New York City is buying up a lot of land, and people are leaving this county.”
The governor’s proposed budget also leaves out the STAR tax rebate program, and the just-announced federal stimulus program promises $356,000 in aid to T-V over two years, but only if the state doesn’t keep more stimulus monies for itself, said Palmer.
Thus the school board is looking at a variety of scenarios, from slashing personnel to hiking taxes as much as 15 percent (with the former far more likely than the latter). Voters, of course, will have the final say come May 19, the day of the school budget vote.
“The board is adamant about two issues,” the superintendent said. “They do not want to increase class sizes. ... And they want a budget that is fiscally responsible that this community can support.”
Though T-V’s taxpayers have consistently approved at least three decades’ worth of school budgets, the board is not taking that for granted this year.
So to cut costs, Palmer revealed that school leaders are investigating what classes have large enough student populations to warrant continuation and which don’t.
They’re looking at cutting perhaps 10 percent from sports, office equipment and media line items but not having the effect of turning kids out on the street.
They are planning to add an $82,000-a-year dean of students for grades 5-12, though Palmer was criticized for what many saw as a needless expense. He defended the choice as freeing up the high school principal to focus on education, rather than time-consuming disciplinary matters.
Palmer also said the school is not truly adding an administrator, since the intermediate school is being eliminated in favor of a K-6 elementary and 7-12 high school configuration.
One teacher in attendance said she’d be willing to give up ordering supplies for the next school year, and there was even talk of staff declining a pay increase to make ends meet.
Others at the meeting suggested creating an installment payment program for taxes, improving maintenance and energy efficiency, shortening school weeks, revamping the computer-controlled heating system that leaves some rooms cold and others hot, and reducing the eight administrators currently overseeing T-V’s various functions.
Palmer and Board President Lori Mickelson urged residents to bring these ideas to board meetings (next one: this Thursday at 7 p.m.), though attendees said they’ve stopped coming because two-hour-long executive sessions interrupt the public session.
Mickelson apologized and said such non-public meetings will be saved for the end of the regular board meeting, plus agendas and minutes will be posted on the district’s website at tvcs.k12.ny.us.
As for the finances of the school, “we will do everything in our power to protect those kids and preserve our programs,” she promised. “But on the other hand, we also have a responsibility to our taxpayers.”
Some issues, however, may be out of the board’s hands. Palmer said the state is considering forcing mergers on districts of less than 1,000 students evidence of a state, not just a school, wrestling with deep problems.
“They’re saying the economy won’t hit rock-bottom until December of next year,” Palmer warned.
In the meantime, he urged residents to contact him directly if they hear the kind of worrisome rumors that sparked Thursday’s Q&A. (He can be reached at 985-2262, ext. 5102 or email@example.com.)
“If you ever have a question, please come and see me,” he said. “Circulating rumors in the community kills and hurts people.”