By JENNIFER HILL • Special to AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – Oneonta High School students may be happy to hear that there won’t be any summer school this year, but Superintendent Joseph Yelich sees it as a bigger problem.
“We used to have 200 students attending summer school, but it’s now down to 50,” he said. “Some kids will go the first day of summer school and not show up after that. It costs $150,000 to run the program.”
The Oneonta City School District’s 2019-20 budget, to be voted on next Tuesday, May 21. The proposed budget is $41,117,590 – an increase of $1,675,174 – with a 2.34 percent increased tax levy.
The proposed budget cuts out summer school this year and sharply reduces programs for students who need them the most: those with special needs and those from low-income households.
The Distance Learning and Alternative GED programs will be eliminated. The Incarcerated Youth and Work Based Learning programs will each have one full-time teacher instead of two.
The program eliminations and cuts will allow the district to hire two kindergarten teachers and increase therapy services, especially speech therapy, which Yelich said are the district’s “most pressing needs.”
“Our numbers are growing, which is promising,” Yelich said in an interview last Friday, May 10. “But our kindergarten kids’ needs are accelerating. More of them have significant delays academically and socially when they begin school.”
He continued, “For some of the kindergarteners, the first time they’ve interacted socially is their first day of kindergarten,” he said. “Up to 40 percent of our kindergarteners are coming from families that are in such financial and emotional duress, parents that are working two jobs at minimum wages, they can’t prepare their kids for kindergarten.”
In a separate interview, Cooperstown Central School District’s Superintendent Bill Crankshaw also said many children entering kindergarten were suddenly even less prepared for school.
The two additional teachers will increase kindergarten sections from six to eight. To hire the teachers, however, the district had to eliminate a full-time position in the Work Based Learning Program, which provides special education classes. One of the two teachers in the program will split her hours working in Work Based Learning and the other special ed program for students with IEPs.
However, Yelich said he expects summer school to return in 2020. He blamed a sharp increase in health insurance costs, low participation in some of the programs, and inadequate funding from the state as the main reasons for the cuts.
Yelich also cited inadequate funding from the state as a major factor in having to cut programs in order to increase the number of kindergarten classes. He said the reason OCSD does not receive enough State Aid funding is because the New York State Education Department has determined the district has is average to above average in wealth.
But that classification is based on Oneonta’s property wealth, 52 percent of which is not taxable. That amounts to “$1.1 billion is not taxed,” according to Yelich. “We cannot be a wealthy district if our poverty rate is 29 percent.”
Yelich said he had worked with State Senator Jim Seward and former Assemblyman for years to try to get the state to change its qualification of the district, but so far, to no avail.
“I’m very sensitive to what Superintendent Yelich as expressed to me,” Seward said. “The formula the state uses for State Aid funding amounts does rely on property wealth and the state uses outdated data.”
“The two college campuses and beautiful churches are tax-exempt and are on over half of Oneonta’s property,” Seward explained. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen the city’s poverty increase over the past decade while the state continues to use data from the 1980s.”
Seward said he would hold meetings with New York’s Education Department and OCSD leaders in the coming year to have the district’s funding classification that more accurately reflects Oneonta’s poverty status today.
“But we obviously won’t be able to impact the current budget,” Seward said.
Voting on Oneonta City School District’s 2019-2020 budget will take place next Tuesday, May 21, 12-9 p.m. at the Foothills Performing Arts Center on Market Street in Oneonta. For more information, go to www.oneontacsd.org