Westmoreland BOE passes amended proposed budget calling for 2.0 percent tax levy increase

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WESTMORELAND — Westmoreland Central School Board of Education adopted a proposed 2020-21 school spending plan Tuesday, May 12, with a reduction in the impact on the local share as compared to the budget previously presented in April.

A resolution was unanimously passed by board members to amend the previous spending plan and adopt a 2020-21 budget of $23,134,441, which is a $251,312 increase compared the budget adopted during the April 21 meeting. Because of COVID-19 shutdowns that particularly impacted schools, the state pushed back original deadlines for a proposed budget to be adopted by Boards of Education, as well as mandatory deadlines for public hearings to be conducted on spending plans.

“The budget adopted two meetings ago was still a work in progress,” explained Superintendent Rocco J. Migliori. “We (Westmoreland, as well as school districts across the state) were still waiting to see what we’d get in state aid and also during that time, we were anticipating that we’d be going back to school this year."

The board adopted the first plan to keep with original adoption deadlines established by the state Education Department. But Migliori indicated during the April 21 regular meeting that with deadlines pushed back due to the pandemic, board members, including members of the Finance Committee, still had time to review the preliminary spending plan and make adjustments before a final draft was officially adopted and presented to district residents for a vote.

Members of the Finance Committee went back to review lines of the proposed budget and they, with the assistance of Business Administrator Mark Kennedy, found about $376,000 that was not spent this year due to a “savings” from schools being shut down, Migliori explained. Funds originally earmarked for substitute teachers, heating and electricity, paper/mailings and from spring sports, which were cancelled for the season, were then allocated toward next year’s budget.

That allowed the district to bring down the local share, or tax levy (amount to be raised by taxes), to a 2.0 percent increase, the superintendent said. The $22.9 million plan originally adopted back on April 21 called for a 3.99 percent increase in the tax levy.

“That’s very good news,” said board member Steven Bulger in response to finding the unused funding. He also commended members of the Finance Committee and Kennedy for “going through the budget line-by-line” to see where more savings could be found. Board member Pamela Murphy also thanked the committee for its work.

A public budget hearing, to be conducted online via the district’s website, will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 26. The regular board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. and adjourn for the hearing.

A vote on the proposed 2020-21 budget will be held June 9 by absentee ballot, Migliori said. Also included on the ballot will be the election of two board members — both incumbents Steven Bulger and Denise Szarek.

In other business:

• A resolution was unanimously adopted by the board to approve the Kestrel Construction Manager contract for the 2019 capital project. Migliori reminded everyone during his comments that the capital project was approved by public vote last year so that it would have no impact on next year’s budget. Capital reserves also paid for the local share of the project, so there was no impact on taxpayers, he said. Kennedy reported that the first pre-construction meeting was held May 5, and a meeting will be held May 19 to discuss the construction schedule. Because of the shortened school year, contractors will be able to start work on July 1, with social-distancing mandates and other work requirements set in place, the business administrator said. With no one inside school buildings, contractors can “socially distance” themselves “and get a head start” on work, he said. Kennedy did report that it would be the responsibility of the district to ensure that work areas were clean and sanitized. Initial work is to include roof and boiler replacements.

• Board of Education Member Pamela Murphy received a Board Achievement Award from the New York State School Boards Association for her hours of commitment and service.

• High School: Principal Joshua Saxton reported that he has been meeting weekly with senior class advisors and class officers to make accommodations for events cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus shutdown. The senior prom has been tentatively rescheduled for Aug. 8. Senior Awards Night will continue on June 8, but be conducted virtually online. As for the weekly discussions with students, “One thing was that they definitely wanted to see all their friends get their diplomas, they said that is what would hurt most if we did it virtually” or if it didn’t happen, Saxton said. Advisors and officers are now discussing the possibility of holding an outdoor “drive-by” graduation where students receive their diplomas by car, the principal said. So far graduation would keep to its original date of June 19. Updates will be posted on the school district’s website, www.westmorelandschool.org.

As for seventh and eighth grade awards or National Junior Honor Society induction, as well as 9-11 grade awards and National Honor Society inductions, those will be held in either September or October, Saxton said. Efforts are also being organized to ensure students who borrowed Chromebooks return them to the school in exchange for them coming in to retrieve any property still left behind in lockers. Seventh grade orientation night will be split into two nights in order to adhere to social distancing requirements — Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. More information will also be posted on the district website concerning parents’ scheduling of parent/teacher conferences.

• Upper Elementary: Principal Stephen Polera said he and teachers reviewed the school’s grading policy and what report cards would look like for the end of the year, as well as what parents could expect for parent/teacher conferences. A “Moving Up” ceremony is scheduled for online June 18 where students will share what they are hopeful and thankful for, the principal said. Third grade orientation will be a family barbecue, tentatively being planned for the last week of August that will give students and parents an opportunity to also tour classrooms.

• Primary Elementary: Principal Mary Anne O’Connell said parent/teacher conferences are being scheduled for the last week of May and first week of June. There will be a Kindergarten Moving Up Parade for the community at 5 p.m. June 17. Plans are also underway in retrieving borrowed Chromebooks and textbooks from pupils, as well as allowing an opportunity for children to retrieve their “snow pants and other items left behind.” Kindergarten screening will be held Aug. 20 and 21. No date has been set yet for kindergarten orientation, although it would be held either the first or second week of school, O’Connell said.

Following presentations by each school principal, board members, including President John Acee, commended them for “keeping everyone engaged” and for their “flexibility and resilience" in online learning. For example, middle schoolers have been working with Erin Gruwell and her Freedom Writers group with weekly writing/lesson themes, such as hope, respect, etc.

• Director of Pupil Personnel Services/Curriculum K-12 Kevin Healy said he is working with principals and teachers on a “seamless transition plan” that will blend this school year into next. There are plans for professional development in tracking student development while teaching remotely around technology. Teachers will be updated on what they need to be aware of (as for teaching remotely) by Sept. 1.

• At the beginning of the meeting, board member Katrina Bratge repeatedly asked that board members review the minutes from the April 21 meeting, stating that they inaccurately depicted her statements made about reviewing individual line items within the proposed 2020-21 budget, to possibly include cuts to teacher and board member conferences, as a means to “trim” the budget so that the district could possibly reduce its proposed 3.99 percent tax levy increase. At first Bratge requested that the minutes be amended, but at the end of the May 12 meeting, when a resolution for the amended proposed budget calling for a 2.0 percent tax levy increase was passed, she rescinded her request.

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