PROPOSED CUT? — A Birnie Bus school bus is shown stopped at the corner of West Thomas Street and North Madison Street as part of its route. Rome City School District officials are considering elimination of busing for pre-schoolers as part of its deliberations to bridge a potential multimillion dollar budget gap for the 2017-18 school year. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

Proposed cuts draw objections at BOE meeting

Published Mar 18, 2017 at 4:10pm

Proposed cuts of busing in the pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, and of a tutorial center for suspended students, drew objections from several speakers who addressed the Board of Education.

The board on Thursday night heard from four pre-K program staffers and one recent retiree, plus two parents who urged that possible changes to the program be reconsidered; among concerns, they said busing cuts could significantly reduce its enrollment. They also read aloud about seven letters of support from parents who emphasized its value, and they submitted further letters.

In addition, two tutorial center staffers emphasized its importance for helping troubled students, and warned that a proposal to place them in another existing program would not be successful.

Budget considerations

Board President Paul Fitzpatrick responded that the school district’s proposed 2017-18 budget, for which the program changes are being considered, is “still a work in progress” and subject to further evaluation.

He said “I want you to know” there is “a caring Board of Education and a caring superintendent,” and they “took everything you said to heart.” He also thanked speakers for “your caring attitude and letters” presented. One of the speakers, Joan Fitzpatrick who is a retired district teacher and a substitute tutor at the tutorial center, is Paul Fitzpatrick’s wife.

The board “will be discussing all of this you’ve been telling us tonight,” added Paul Fitzpatrick. The board’s finance committee will further review the proposed budget Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the district office, 409 Bell Road.

Among efforts to balance the 2017-18 spending plan, the board last week supported eliminating busing for the pre-K program at a savings of $140,000. It also supported cutting the tutorial center program for suspended students, and instead making greater use of a separate after-school tutoring program for other students, at a savings of at least $350,000 including busing plus several other expenses. With those revisions, the proposed 2017-18 budget totals about $115.2 million, up from the current 2016-17 budget of $113.7 million.

Before speakers addressed the board, Superintendent Peter C. Blake said that based on recent indications from Albany regarding financial aid for schools in the upcoming 2017-18 state budget, some of the district’s budget factors are “looking better than originally predicted.” The Rome district conceivably might receive an additional $300,000-$400,000 increase in state aid beyond what previously was proposed, he commented. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2017-18 state budget proposal is currently under review by legislators, for the fiscal year beginning April 1.

Among pre-K program supporters

• District Director of Early Childhood programs Nancy Kristl asked the board to “please reconsider the proposed cut to pre-K busing for 4-year-olds.” Many parents are not able to transport students to the program because of their work schedules, or they may be at lower-income levels and cannot afford transportation, she said.

The pre-K program for 4-year-olds serves about 300 students, said Kristl, with about 220 at the former Clough school at 409 Bell Road including around 90 percent who are bused. The other approximately 80 students are at community sites affiliated with the program, and parents provide their transportation, she said.

If busing were cut, Kristl predicted enrollment would “drop from 300 to 150.” She also noted the district then would be providing busing for a new pre-K program for 3-year-olds, but not for the longstanding program for 4-year-olds. The district last fall was awarded a state grant for the 3-year-olds program including busing, from a funding application written by Kristl. The program for 4-year-olds also is state-funded, but state money for the transportation portion has not kept pace over the years and the district has been supporting the busing, she explained Friday.

Regarding the program’s benefits, Kristl said they include academic, social and emotional factors for students, noting various skills and academic concepts that students learn. Statistics show that pre-K students are less likely to be held back an extra year in kindergarten, and they also achieve higher attendance levels in upper grades, she said.

• Pre-K teacher Sandy Gallagher said “we’re not glorified babysitters;” she outlined math, English and reading skills that are taught plus the social aspects.

“I beg you....Please don’t take busing away from our program,” said Gallagher. Noting the district says it does “everything in the best welfare of children,” she asked the board to keep that in mind with the busing.

• Parent Jennifer Hughes of Sulphur Springs Road in Lee said that as an in-home daycare provider she has seen a “huge change” for pre-K students between the “beginning of the year and the end of the year.”

For her son, it will be “his turn” to attend the program, she said. But if there is no busing, he would not be able to go. The busing cut would be “a huge loss to the whole community,” she said.

Tutorial center speakers

• Heidi Piersall, one of the coordinators at the center, said it serves about 35-45 students on average and has 12 tutors including four in special education.

Under the proposed change, the tutorial center students instead could go to an after-school program at Rome Free Academy that currently serves students needing help to be eligible for extracurricular activities; it would be extended to a two-hour program for tutorial center students. But Piersall said a big issue with putting the students “all together” would be possible altercations, observing that some of the tutorial center students are suspended because of fighting.

Whenever she goes to RFA graduations, Piersall said, she typically sees about 15 students who were in the tutorial center program. If students are no longer transported for the tutorial program, she predicted about 85 percent of students would not attend it.

• Joan Fitzpatrick said the center helps students to “be successful once they’re back in regular school.” They are “not criminals....They are students who made mistakes in judgment,” she commented.

Putting the students in the after-school program at RFA would be “absolutely not a viable substitute,” said Fitzpatrick. She said the setting would not be conducive for 1-on-1 tutoring the students currently receive, plus would “put them right back in the environment they need to get away from.”

Fitzpatrick asked the board to provide a “viable plan to replace it” if doing so.