School budget, three candidates OK’d in Rome

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The Rome school district’s first contested Board of Education race in five years saw three seats won Tuesday by incumbent Paul Hagerty plus new candidates Tanya Davis and Lisa Herbowy, outpolling incumbent Larry Posselt and challenger Felicia James-Williams.

In addition, the district’s 2019-20 budget of $116.69 million was overwhelmingly approved by 74 percent of district residents who voted. The turnout of about 1,956 people casting ballots was more than double the 935 who voted last year.

The budget, down slightly from the current $117.9 million spending plan for 2018-19, includes a 4.06% increase in the local property tax levy, the maximum increase allowed for the Rome district based on state tax-cap formulas.

It also includes some cutbacks to help balance the budget and offset state financial aid shortfalls cited by district officials; about 75 positions are to be eliminated through attrition and layoffs, including an estimated 20-25 teacher layoffs, while some programs are to be cut including pre-K special education.

The final impacts including layoffs may be adjusted pending further staff departures or retirements, board President Paul Fitzpatrick said Tuesday night.

District Superintendent Peter C. Blake also has said there may still be opportunities for some additional financial aid that may help relieve some program cuts.

Regarding the budget’s wide margin of approval by district voters, Fitzpatrick said he was “very pleased that voters saw the necessity to move forward, and we certainly appreciate the concern and support of the voters.”

Fitzpatrick added it is “a good budget...the best budget we could possibly put forward” under the circumstances. Blake “did a tremendous job with his budget presentations” to inform the public, he noted. A “no” vote by residents to defeat the budget “would have been disastrous” and would have “set us back to basically a very negative impact for the community,” he observed; if the budget were defeated, options could have included a contingency budget with further spending reductions.

The school district can "hopefully...start in a better position next year" regarding the budget, Fitzpatrick commented.

Fitzpatrick was "thrilled at the voter turnout" regarding the number of voters. When asked what may have contributed to the large increase from a year ago, he said "it could be that we had a competitive election for the first time in five years." He additionally said it could be because there was "a very important budget to vote on and approve." The results "go a long way to show the interest in the school district and the progress we've made...and hopefully we'll continue to make," he noted.

The school district has estimated that it has about 21,000 voters overall.

As for the Board of Education election results, among candidates' reactions:

• Hagerty, the leading vote-getter, said Tuesday night he was happy about his election to a seventh term. He cited "my record...my interest...my experience." The race included "a bunch of good people...good candidates," he added.

• Davis, who will fill a seat that has been vacant following the resignation of Richard Hitchings that was effective last Oct. 1, said Tuesday night she was "really grateful to everyone who voted for me....I look forward to serving the district in a new capacity." She has been a longtime participant in school parent-teacher groups, plus she has served on a number of district committees involving the community.

Regarding her success in garnering the second-highest candidate vote total, Davis said she has "spent the last 15 years building relationships in school and with families" and her understanding of people's concerns "resonated with them."

• Herbowy said today "I am very excited that I was one of three candidates to be elected to the school board and I'm hoping that myself and the other members can work together to see some positive change. I look forward to the future."

• James-Williams today congratulated the candidates who won and said "hopefully, going forward they'll make a difference" for the school district. She said her results were "not bad for a first-time candidate," calling it "a good run."

James-Williams added she may not have been as well known as other candidates, but "I'm out there now." She said plans to "try again" to run for the board, adding "I'll go for it next year."

• Posselt, who had been seeking election to a second full term, said today "I congratulate the successful candidates in the election. I have enjoyed learning about every aspect of the educational system."

He added, "in saying this I answered my questions in the paper in a very objective and factual manner. I publicly stated that we should have cut our budget in the years prior and this was not very popular. The current financial condition of our district is troublesome.

"Our fund balance is down to a minimum amount. Our expenses far outweigh our revenue. Without a serious influx of foundation aid along with contractual changes we will again lay off dozens of district employees next year. I can continue to list an endless amount of factual information. The public needs to get involved long before the end of the budget process."

The board has nine seats overall, with members serving three-year terms including Tuesday's election that involved new terms beginning July 1. Terms are staggered, with three normally expiring in a given year and becoming available for election.

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