Budget improves, but test protest vexes Hudson

HUDSON–City School District Superintendent Maria Suttmeier proposed a $45.4-million budget for the 2015-16 school year at the District Board of Education meeting Monday, April 13. The proposed spending plan, she reported, would lift the district out of “fiscal distress,” but nothing can lift it out of “focus”—a label for schools judged to fall short of success—until at least 95% of 3rd through 8th graders start taking state English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests.

The board has until April 27 to approve the proposal, with revisions if necessary. The budget will go before voters May 19. Next month’s ballot will also include the election of candidates for two open seats on the Board of Education–one for a five-year term and the other for one year. Those interested in running must file a petition with Board Clerk Frieda Van Deusen, Hudson High School, 215 Harry Howard Avenue by April 29.

The superintendent’s budget proposal contains:

  • A 1.75% tax levy increase
  • More gym hours at the John L Edwards Primary School (JLE)
  • Eliminating a high school business teacher position
  • Hiring new teachers for English as a Second Language (ESL), foreign languages and math
  • A reserve fund and an appropriated fund balance large enough to meet recommended amounts for the first time in years.

Uncertainty remains because negotiations with the collective bargaining units representing teachers and aides have not yet concluded.

The proposal calls for next year’s spending to be $45,477,000, an increase of about half a percent over the current year. The tax levy would bring in $21,469,000, which amounts to 47% of anticipated revenues, about the same percent as the current year. The 1.75% tax levy increase is the maximum percent increase allowed for the district this year under the state property tax cap formula, unless a supermajority of district voters were to approve a larger increase.

State regulations suggest 120 minutes of physical education per week in primary school, but currently JLE pupils get only 70 minutes per week. The budget calls for reassigning a teacher from gym-and-health to gym-only and hiring another teacher for health. This will give JLE pupils weekly over 100 hours of physical education, though still less than 120-hour recommendation.

Dropping the high school business teacher “is a tough cut for me,” Ms Suttmeier admitted, because it was she who, in her first year as superintendent, resurrected the business department. But experience has now shown that too few high school students take business courses to retain those classes. The superintendent said students see other paths are more promising for the 21st century.

The proposed budget calls for hiring two new ESL teachers. Ms. Suttmeier said that the district really needs three additional teachers trained in that field to meet new state regulations, but added, “We can afford only two. Maybe we can hire a third next year.”

For the first time in years, the budget’s appropriated fund balance will reach 4% of the total, the minimum percentage the district needs to avoid being labeled “fiscally distressed.” In recent years that balance has been lower than 4%. In addition, the budget will contain a $531,000 reserve fund that can be used to address circumstances such as workman’s compensation. “It feels good not to be in fiscal distress,” said Board President Peter Rice.

Meanwhile, with state ELA and math tests set to begin this week-Superintendent Suttmeier reported that the parents or guardians of 43 students in 3rd through 6th graders, and 42 students in 7th and 8th grades had “refused” to let their children take the standardized tests, despite urging by school officials that the students participate. As a result, she said, “We will not make 95% participation. We will not get out of ‘focus.’ It’s a little disconcerting. We are lobbying the state to get us out of focus, but it’s beyond our control.” A 95% participation rate for standard tests is one requirement for shedding that label.

Not taking the tests, Ms. Suttmeier continued, makes students less ready for what comes next. In high school, “if they want to graduate, they can’t refuse to take the Regents,” she said.

Sharon Hart, a junior high English teacher who led a curriculum workshop for board members before their regular meeting, said at the meeting, “I believe in the Common Core,” adding, “I hope its standards are here to stay. I think these standards are lifelong skills.”

“The only problem with the tests is that they’re too long,” Ms. Hart said, describing how she prepares her students to score as high as they can on tests, sometimes giving them practices with a timer ticking.

Board member Maria McLaughlin asked, “With all the test preparation, do you also give your students serious literature to read?”

Ms. Hart answered affirmatively, pointing to her plan for “four units” a year of reading a novel and tying it to pertinent themes, such as child labor. She has the class analyze each book so thoroughly that some years they end up doing only three of the four planned units.

In addition, Ms. Hart said, in class, instead of her reading to her students, “They read to me.”

Also at the meeting, the superintendent reported that Friday, April 10, district schools did open, reducing spring break by one day to compensate for an extra snow beyond the allotted number. She said attendance was low.

The next Board meeting will be Tuesday, April 21, at 7 p.m. at the Hudson High School library, a departure from the usual Monday meeting day.

 

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