Chatham school board talks finances, school closing plan

CHATHAM–The Board of Education heard a presentation last week by Business Administrator Michael Chudy on the financial state of the district and its long-term outlook. He said that if current trends continue, the district could deplete its reserve funds by 2018.

The board began its January 22 meeting by adding a familiar face, when former board President John Wapner was appointed as a member to replace Jim Cartin, who resigned in November. Dr. Wapner will serve until the next annual election on May 21.

Mr. Chudy, whose report to the board showed that the district is facing limited revenues due to reduced state aid and the 2% property tax cap, said that of the school’s current $28.3 million budget, 70% of it is paid by property tax, 23% by state aid, 6% with fund balance, and 1% through other funds, such as Medicaid reimbursements.

Mr. Chudy said Chatham gets less state aid than other districts because of its combined wealth ratio. Chatham’s combined wealth ratio, a number calculated based on income tax returns and property valuations, is 1.43. An average district is 1.0.

He said that the district’s tax returns are only just above state average, but its property valuations are much higher, resulting in less state aid.

His presentation also looked at the number of students in the district eligible for the free and reduced lunch program. Almost a quarter of Chatham’s students receive a free or reduced lunch. Mr. Chudy said that for districts with such a high combined wealth ratio, he normally would see these numbers at 5-6%.

“The assumption with our 1.43 combined wealth ratio is that we don’t need the state aid, that our families are wealthy enough to sustain the higher taxes,” said Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo. “When you look at the free or reduced lunch numbers, there’s clearly more of a strain.”

The board also discussed a report from the Questar III BOCES communications staff regarding the focus groups participating on the district’s facilities study.

The district created four different focus groups–one each for community members, parents, students, and teachers. The groups met January 15 with Questar staff to provide input on the district’s process of exploring the option of closing the Middle School building on Woodbridge Avenue.

Questar staff members Adam Charbonneau and Dan Sherman said that 55 people were invited to the sessions, though only 33 actually attended. Mr.Sherman said the focus group members were asked what they’ve heard regarding the facilities study, where they heard it, what initial reactions they had, and what they would like to know more about before the board makes a decision.

Mr. Charbonneau said the purpose of the sessions was to gauge what public perceptions are about the proposal, find out what misinformation is out there, and to find areas where the district can improve its communications on the topic.

According to Mr. Charbonneau, the participants were generally aware of the district’s consideration of closing the Middle School and most of them were aware of the reasons.

For three years, the district has been considering the possibility of consolidating students into two buildings at the main campus due to financial pressures and declining enrollment. A facilities study was completed last year, which showed that the district could save about $680,000 a year by closing the Middle School on Woodbridge Avenue.

“Their biggest concern was whether the district was doing it the right way,” said Mr. Charbonneau.

Ms. Nuciforo said that frustration can be expected because of the way the district chose to work through the process. She said that instead of choosing to get all of the answers first before letting the public have a view, the district has allowed the process to be very open as school officials work through it.

She also reminded the board that there are many people in the community who are just coming into the discussion.

“We’ve been talking about this for three years,” she said, “but it hasn’t become real to people until now that we’re coming up on the decision at the end of the school year.”

She suggested that a facilities sub-committee look over the report and find additional steps and approaches to recommend to the board for improving the district’s communications with the public.

Student representative Emma Roberts suggested that an informational video about the study may be beneficial.

Board member James Marks said he believes there needs to be more information for the public to see what the district could lose by not closing the school.

“If we vote to keep the building open, what will we need to cut to keep going?” he said. “I suspect it will be a truckload.”

Mr. Sherman commended the district for the way in which the district is conducting the process. He said he’s seen districts wait until there is little time left to tackle the issue and then make significant cuts to their program to keep buildings open.

The board plans to vote on the fate of the Middle School June 25.

In other business last week:

*The board held the first reading of a new policy regarding idling school buses. Board Member Mike Clark said that due to state law, school buses may not idle. The new policy states that buses must be turned off when sitting, except in certain circumstances, such as keeping the bus heated in cold temperatures

*The board approved an agreement with the Columbia County Sherriff’s Office. Ms. Nuciforo said this allows the district to call on the Sherriff’s Office for police services “as a safety precaution in a situation where we feel we may need it”

*The board accepted the resignations of school librarian Laura Herbert and social studies teacher John Gould, both of whom are retiring at the end of the school year. Ms. Nuciforo said Mr. Gould set a record at Chatham with 41 years.

The next board meeting is scheduled for February 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the High School Library. Ms. Nuciforo says the focus of this meeting will be the 2013-14 budget.



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