Chatham school budget plan calls for 1.8% tax increase

CHATHAM–The school board adopted a $29,901,041 budget for the 2015-16 school year Tuesday night, which would have a tax levy increase of 1.8%. The board also held a workshop meeting last week, where district Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo addressed the Common Core testing and the district’s response to the “opt-out” movement.

The proposed budget increases spending by $432,612 over the current year. The board voted 7-1 in favor of the plan, with David O’Connor the dissenting vote. Michael Clark was absent. The budget was presented to the board one last time at the April 14 workshop last week adopted at the business meeting Tuesday, April 21. The district expects to receive almost $7million in state aid, $21 million in property taxes, and the rest funded by reserves and other revenues.

The new spending plan includes adding the Middle School mentoring program and a second special education summer school class. The additions of a High School app development course and an 8th grade enrichment course are also included, both at no cost.

Cuts include an part-time French teaching position and reducing the communication specialist from five days a week to four. A reduction of a part-time teaching position of family and consumer science was proposed at the workshop last week, but board members said they felt uncomfortable approving that cut with little time to discuss it. Board President Melony Spock requested the matter be brought to the board earlier in the budget process next year. The reduction was proposed due to declining student population and the number of electives already available.

Since the 1.8% tax levy increase is below the district’s tax cap this year of 2.02%, only a simple majority of voter approval is needed to pass the budget.

“We thought it was a good balance to give some money back to taxpayers as well as recognize that we know what we’re looking at in the future,” said district Business Administrator Michael Chudy last week.

Mr. O’Connor voted against the budget, citing what he said were flaws in the state property tax cap law. He said that by going with the 1.8% instead of the tax cap of 2.02%, the district was missing out on over $40,000 that it cannot recover.

“My concern is that, because of the cap, we never get the opportunity to get that 40,000 back,” he said. “I hate the idea of leaving money on the table and out of program if we can avoid it. Reality is that the 40 grand will not be available next year.”

The Annual Budget Vote and District Election will be held May 19 in the Mary E. Dardess Elementary School gym from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In addition to the budget, there will be three seats on the board up for election. The six candidates running for those vacancies are Sebastion Trienens, Beth Hover, Steve Gilger, Denise Barry, David O’Connor and Wayne Coe.

Also last week, Ms. Nuciforo said that 32%, or 155 students, opted out of the state’s Common Core assessments for English Language Arts. She said that when the school received the letters from parents refusing to let the students participate, calls were made to parents when possible to explain to them the importance of the assessments and how the district uses the results.

Common Core, she explained, comprises rigorous standards developed by the National Board of Governors and adopted by individual states in response to American students falling behind to other countries around the world.

“Common Core raises the rigor of what we’re already doing in school,” said Ms. Nuciforo.

She said the with Common Core, rather than spend time on remembering, understanding and applying, the testing assumes students already have those skills and focuses on analyzing, evaluating and creating.

She said the tests, called assessments, help students prepare for the SAT tests, which have been revised to reflect the Common Core standards. The assessments also help local school districts compare performance with other districts.

Ms. Nuciforo said that the students who opted out of testing were taken to a separate location to do “comparable school work–reading, writing, analyzing and responding to text based on Common Core standards, because that’s what we’re teaching in our classrooms.”

She expressed concern the length of the tests for younger students and the weight test results carry on teacher evaluations. She said another flaw is that not all test items are released.

“I’ve advocated to State Ed officials and legislatures in every form I possibly can,” she said. But she doesn’t believe the answer is opting out and urged for parents to join in advocating change with legislators.

“Refusing to let your students take the test, it sends a message but we’ve got to get past that,” she said at the workshop. “That’s kind of the easy answer, and we need to start focusing on some of these really big issues in terms of making them better tests.”

School board candidate Wayne Coe asked whether there is any risk of losing money because of the opt-out rate. Ms. Nuciforo sanctions would only exist is if the board or school official advocates against taking the test.

In other recent business:

  • The board adopted a proposal to add a to the May ballot asking approval for a second capital reserve fund. Mr. Chudy said there will be an estimated suplus of between $500,000 and $600,000, and the current capital reserve is “maxed out” at over $2 million. He said creating a second fund would help soften the impact on property taxes when the district does future capital projects
  • The board also added a ballot proposition for the student representative, a position the needs to be reauthorized every two years. Board member Chris Kelly asked current student representative Carly Rippel to talk about her role, and she said that she is not only the students’ representative to the board for students who may not have a voice, but she is also the board’s representative to students. She said she listens to what students have to say about board issues and is able to help weed out the rumors that may get “twisted”
  • Last week the board appointed a committee to consider the best ways to improve the board’s community engagement. Ms. Spock said she doesn’t think “pushing out information” is working, and wants to find a way to get more feedback from the community. The committee will also prepare a survey for district residents
  • Mr. Coe said a board committee was not complying with the state Open Meetings Law. But Ms. Spock said the board met last week with Robert Freeman, the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government. She said he told board members that Chatham is doing nothing wrong. “I just want to make it clear. We are doing nothing inappropriate when it comes to Open Meetings laws,” she said.

The Facilities Committee meetings are now open to the public, but member Craig Simmons noted that it sometimes must be closed when certain issues being discussed could compromise safety if disclosed.

The next workshop meeting is scheduled for May 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the High School library.



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