Pursuing plans to move Staley Elementary School to a Bell Road building, and class-size issues including at Ridge Mills Elementary School, were addressed by school district Superintendent Peter C. Blake at a community dialogue meeting.
Among several other topics during the two-hour-plus session Monday night were budget-related concerns and potential cuts, efforts to curb bullying, staff members who are minorities, and foreign-language instruction in elementary schools.
About 40 people including community members as well as district staff attended the “Dialogue with the Superintendent” gathering in the Strough Middle School auditorium. Blake responded to questions submitted anonymously on cards, and also to questions directly from persons in the audience. Among them:
• Plans for Staley? — Blake said the district aims to “finish up final touches” on a plan to replace Staley Elementary School’s current 620 E. Bloomfield St. facility with an expanded location at the former Clough Elementary School site.
That is based on the state Education Department’s indication that state financial aid would be provided for the move at a feasible rate, Blake told the audience. The district hopes to “have a plan submitted and accepted” by the state over the summer, he said. Voter approval could be sought in a public bonding referendum by December.
Blake three months ago had presented a proposal for building a new Staley at the former Turin Street site of Rome Free Academy; he has said the aging current Staley site has issues including moisture-related concerns, and that funding needed to overcome problems while remaining there would not be as fiscally responsible. In January he also presented the option for a move to Bell Road, and on Monday said the state has responded favorably regarding aid for that option while it has not yet responded about aid for the Turin Street plan. He additionally said many people in the community have questioned the Turin Street proposal in terms of proximity to other elementary schools, while the Bell Road plan would be better geographically.
• Do you share class-size concerns at Ridge Mills? Why have so many special transfer requests for students been permitted there? — Blake said he shares the concerns for several buildings, not just Ridge Mills. A number of questions from the audience continued to focus on Ridge Mills, and Blake said it “probably has seen the brunt of the effect” from special transfers; the transfers involve students’ families getting permission for children to attend a school outside their regular attendance zone. Among the reasons can be to accommodate child-care arrangements before and after school.
Some people in the audience said Ridge Mills is “bursting at the seams” due to overcrowding. One person asked if there was “any way to put a cap on special requests.” Blake said he accepts the requests if there are legitimate reasons, and added he would work with school Principal Michael Flagg to review the matter.
• Impact of possible early childhood program cuts in the proposed 2019-20 district budget? — To help balance the new budget that would take effect July 1, Blake has proposed cutting the Forever Growing pre-school special education program, outsourcing pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds to other community facilities, and eliminating transportation for the pre-K program which would continue serving 4-year-olds.
Blake explained that while programs are grant-funded, the amounts are not adequate and the programs “cost us money” out of the district’s regular budget. He said regarding programs that there is “no reduction we can make...and say we’re better off tomorrow if we don’t have it.” But “when the revenue strain happens,” there is “no way around it.”
• Budget issues with state aid, how to save on wasteful spending, and different approaches such as wage freezes? — The district is entitled to receive about $62 million in the core state Foundation Aid category based on formulas, but instead is slated to get about $49 million for 2019-20 according to the governor’s proposed state budget, said Blake. Pending state legislators’ budget reviews, he said the district has some hopes of receiving about $3 million more.
Regarding spending, Blake said 96 percent of the district’s budget is beyond the district’s direct control on a yearly basis, due to such factors as union contracts along with categories including health insurance and retiree benefits. He said he would argue there is “very little wasteful spending,” and the real issue involves revenues.
As for wage freezes, Blake said “we’ve spoken” about them and he could ask the unions, but “if they’re not willing, there’s not much I can do” based on contracts. Regarding administrators’ salaries, Blake said that “across the board” they make less than other districts of Rome’s size.
• What is being done about bullying including on buses? — It has been the “number-one go-to topic in education” for about the last seven years, said Blake. “I completely empathize,” he commented, adding “if it’s reported...it’s investigated.”
Unfortunately, due to technology a lot of bullying can “go on behind our backs,” said Blake, observing that students often have multiple social-media accounts including many that are kept “secret from families.” The district investigates bullying incidents including for violations of the district’s code of conduct and can discipline students, he said, plus it investigates violations of the Dignity for All Students Act.
• How many African-American teachers are employed? — Blake said he did not know “off the top of my head,” but said the district’s overall minority staff members for all positions are “in the ballpark of 60.” An audience member questioned Blake’s knowledge of the issue, but he said he understands its importance.
• Plans for foreign-language instruction in elementary schools? — Blake agreed being multi-lingual is becoming increasingly important. But he said it is hard to add non-mandated programs amid current financial concerns. The district is looking into ways to provide the instruction using technology such as multi-media portals, he added.