Board of Ed OKs $122.6M budget

Members approve 8-1 sending plan to district voters following long, and sometimes bitter, debate

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After a long and at times stormy debate that saw some Board of Education members lash out at one another, the board has adopted a proposed 2020-21 school district budget that has no local tax levy increase and would maintain programs including no staff layoffs.

The board voted 8-1 Wednesday night to adopt the $122,607,537 spending plan, which seeks to take into account the many uncertainties caused by COVID-19 and allocates about $11.9 million from the district’s fund balance/savings and reserves to cover a projected deficit. Final approval by school district voters will be sought in a June 9 election.

Voting against the budget proposal was board member Tanya Davis, who expressed concern about the fund balance usage; frustration with the district administration’s 1,000-page response to her request for more information; and objections to what she said were condescending questions from other members about the cost of her request.

Davis in turn received fiery responses from board members John Leonard and Joseph Mellace, who questioned her views and understanding of the budget and asked for specifics of how she would revise it.

Later during the meeting, held on a remote virtual basis, Rome Teachers Association Vice President Christina Steurrys spoke to the board about the meeting’s lack of decorum for a public session. Board President Stephen P. Hampe replied it was unfortunate that tempers flared, and that some members of the board spoke “rather harshly.”

The exchanges began after district Superintendent Peter C. Blake gave a presentation on the proposed 2020-21 budget, which is up about $5.9 million from the current 2019-20 budget. He said it will help the district get through a year of unknowns due to COVID-19, such as requirements for socially distanced education and busing plus possible future state financial aid reductions that can be accounted for unless they reach massive levels in the 20%-plus range; the district may have to consider mid-year cuts if such aid reductions occur.

Davis, reading from a statement, said “I’m angry and I’m frustrated,” adding she was confused by “months of unclear information” regarding the budget. She commented that frequently when she asks questions, “I have been disparaged, not gotten complete responses” or been accused of “digging too deep” and “getting into the weeds.”

Davis said she had asked the district administration last week for additional information regarding a five-year analysis that had been presented for year-over-year budget expenses. Among information she sought were employment numbers for teachers, administrators, clerical and custodial categories over that period. She later said the information and trends it showed could help the district prepare for the next five years.

Instead of what she said could have been 20 numbers on a piece of paper, Davis said that Wednesday she received “on my doorstep” 200 pages per each of the five years, which also was sent to the other board members. The district’s use of resources to print and distribute it was appalling, she said, adding that providing the raw data was “an attempt to make me look unreasonable.”

Other board members have “questioned with condescension” the cost of her request, Davis said. She added “if only these same concerns” about cost were expressed in “the bigger picture of our budget.” Davis said the district could be put at risk in future years if it exhausted its fund balance now. She also read aloud a letter from former board member Jennifer Geiger, who questioned some of the budget preparations.

Board member Paul Hagerty then addressed some of the financial data and made observations about the spending totals per year, commenting “I don’t disagree” that “somebody could have pulled these numbers’” for Davis if that was what she was seeking.

Leonard then said “I want to thank Tanya for grandstanding, and reading Jennifer’s letter.” Commenting “I want to use the crystal ball” they seem to have to determine what’s going to happen in the future, he said he did not think they understood what the budgeting process is.

“We don’t know...what’s going to happen” in 2020-21, said Leonard, citing the district’s financial challenges caused by COVID-19 including possible future major aid cuts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He said it did not matter now what happened over a five-year analysis, adding that COVID-19 has “changed everything.”

Leonard said that if someone has an idea for revising the budget, then "just say it" and "be brave enough" to say they want to cut areas such as teachers or administrators. At a previous meeting, he said, he asked Davis "what do you want to cut" specifically. He later referred to "hearing a lot of chirping" about what should or shouldn't be done, but "I'm not hearing any ideas."
 
Mellace then noted he was echoing what Leonard said. He commented "you can talk all you want in generalities....and try to take the populist view" that the board is not doing its job or the superintendent is not being transparent enough. He said of Davis "I still don't understand what exactly that you're looking for."
 
Mellace added it "seems to be a common theme," not just with the budget, "there is an endless amount of documents you're looking for." But "you never seem to want to make a decision," he remarked.
 
Mellace also said there have been plenty of opportunities to ask for information throughout the budget process that has been going on for months. He commented "because you're slow to understanding these things" is not the board's fault.
 
When Davis tried to respond, Mellace said "Tanya, I sat here and listened to you" reading a prepared statement and "now you can sit and listen to me" for a few minutes.
 
Mellace said money could have been saved in the budget through various cutbacks, but "you said 'no.'"
 
Regarding the 1,000-page document that was delivered, Mellace said he went through it, adding he did not spend time preparing a statement and "I didn't whine about it." He also said "clearly you have an agenda against him," referring to Blake, and said "congratulations, you got your 'Peter-bashing' in today."
 
Davis later disputed statements indicating that she had sufficient time previously to ask questions about the budget. She said she mentioned a series of questions in February but was told then it was not the appropriate time at that stage.
 
Before the budget vote Wednesday night, some of the other board members said the budget posed concerns but was the best that could be done under the current circumstances.

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