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Grand Island Board of Education adopts 2024-25 budget

Sat, Apr 27th 2024 07:00 am

By Alice Gerard

Senior Contributing Writer

The Grand Island Board of Education voted April 16 in a special meeting held at the High School to adopt the district’s $77,932,254 budget for the 2024-25 school year. This followed two days of discussion and debate.

The Board of Education was unable to come to an agreement about the budget at its April 14 meeting. Discussion centered on replacing a retiring kindergarten teacher. The budget, as presented at that meeting, called for the position to be eliminated via attrition. Currently, at Sidway Elementary School, there are 21 classroom teachers for both the kindergarten and first grade levels, not including self-contained special education classes.

Because the board was unable to come to an agreement on April 14, it elected to meet two days later, for the purpose of adopting the new budget. Debate centered on whether to replace the kindergarten teacher, as well as the timing for when to hire a teacher, should the board vote to do so.

Three Sidway teachers came to the April 14 meeting to present a case for replacing the teacher during the time set aside for public comments on agenda items. A group of Sidway staff members stood in support of colleagues as they made their presentations.

The first speaker, Molly Ehlenfield, said, “Our building came together as teachers and support staff to put into words our concerns if this position is left unfilled, and our class sizes increase. With the anticipated increased enrollment of incoming kindergarten students, it became evident how passionate we all are in creating a loving, safe and enriched learning environment for not only our students, but for our families. Sidway is magical, and every family that has had a child here will attest to that.”

“Class size has a direct impact on our classroom environment, a sense of community and, most important, relationships,” said Mariachristina Brockway, the second speaker. “In any given lesson, before the learning even occurs, the classroom environment needs to be well-established and developed. As the number of students increases within the classroom, there are notable differences in the classroom culture. The physical environment feels smaller. The noise level increases, causing disruption. Developing a relationship with each and every child and their families becomes less attainable.”

“As we stand together to honor the commitments of the district’s belief and vision statements, we want to sincerely thank you for allowing us the opportunity to share the importance of class size at the primary level,” Jennifer Reynolds, the third speaker, told the board. “We deeply value being entrusted with Grand Island’s youngest learners and know that we can continue to honor the tradition of excellence in early childhood education with current class sizes. All 21 of our doors are always open, and we personally invite each and every one of you in to experience the magic that only Sidway can offer.”

Ehlenfield mentioned research that had been done on the optimum class size for primary students.

“The highly notable STAR experiments student-teacher ratio identified significant differences in student outcomes in grades K-3 when class size was reduced to 15-17 students,” she said. “Smaller class size allows for individualized attention, increased instruction time, better understanding of our students’ individual needs, increased academic achievement, and improved behavioral performance.”

The current average class size ratio at the kindergarten level at Sidway is 18.7 students per teacher.

Discussion at both meetings centered on potential kindergarten enrollment at Sidway Elementary School for the 2024-25 school year and how many students were likely to be in kindergarten classes, both with and without a replacement for the teacher who is retiring. Also, under discussion was where the funds would come from if a line item were added to hire a teacher.

School Superintendent Dr. Brian Graham asked the board to wait for more data on kindergarten enrollment before deciding on whether to hire a new teacher.

“I know we have approximately 155 children already enrolled in kindergarten because of our very strong universal pre-kindergarten program,” he said. “That’s why I’m asking for people just to give us some grace. Let’s take a look. Let’s monitor. I’ll report to the board weekly what that number is, and we’ll all look at it together. We need to, in my opinion, subtract through attrition, if possible, to protect the fund balance. If we have to move somebody around and hire a teacher, this board has always been amazing to allow us to help kids and teachers.”

Board Vice President Sue Marston pointed out that, if the board were to wait until early August to decide to hire a kindergarten teacher, the process would not need to be changed.

“They will be trained just as if they were hired today,” she said. “Training is not an issue. I will also say that those ladies who got up and spoke are some of the finest teachers here in Western New York. Whether they have 10 children in their classroom or they have 45 children in their classroom, they are going to have magic happen in those classrooms. They’ve had 22 in their classrooms, and they’ve had 15.”

Board President Ashli Dreher said, “I just think that the numbers are high already, based on the data that Mrs. Ehlenfield was citing at the meeting the other night.”

“It’s a matter of timing,” Trustee Glenn Bobeck said. “It’s not a matter of whether to hire a teacher or not. The numbers were not above class sizes that we’ve had in past years. We’ve had higher class sizes in both kindergarten and first grade. I believe we should delay that decision, not make a decision now and have the ramifications of that going forward so we don’t have to, next year, figure out how to lay that person off or lay off multiple staff.”

Trustee Sherry Steffans said she didn’t feel that the school district should wait before hiring a new kindergarten teacher to replace the retiring teacher.

“We are not asked every day to question something,” she said. We don’t work as teachers in this district. There are things that they (the teachers) understand that we may not. When we are asked something, I think that we should take it into serious consideration.”

Marston said, “They (the teachers) will be happy, whether we do it (hire a teacher) now or if we do it in August. They just wanted their concern to be heard, and they were happy that they were heard. They know that we will put a teacher in.”

“It’s just a powerful statement that they definitely have passionate feelings about it to be here, to express that,” Dreher said. “And Sue was right. We were listening, and they appreciated that we were listening, for sure. I just think 18 is high already, and that’s where I’m coming from.”

Trustee Jay Grover pointed out, “We’re not laying anybody off. We’re delaying perhaps hiring a replacement, depending upon how the numbers come in. If we were to wait until August, the budget transfers would need to be made then, anyways. At that point, a lot of things might change.”

Marston expressed concern about hiring a teacher too early in the process: “What happens in August if we don’t need (the new teacher)? If we don’t need that teacher, do we lay (the teacher) off and say, ‘Sorry, we didn’t need to hire you?’ We are hiring a teacher without the numbers.”

Trustee Joy LaMarca asked, “Are there teachers in kindergarten or first grade who are going to be close to retirement? Let’s say worst case scenario. They have to go to second grade or third grade but then, we have a couple teachers retire. I think of that, and I think of the numbers. I kind of think about a lot of things, a lot of different scenarios. I definitely see both sides.”

Graham said, in the next two years, “we could see upwards of 17 or more teachers retiring because they’re eligible.

“Amongst those 16-17 teachers are some elementary teachers,” he said. “So, if we do hire a teacher now or in August, there will more than likely be elementary retirements. At that point, we would have to decide if we’re subtracting through attrition, or are we shuffling people around?”

According to Robert Merkle, assistant superintendent for school business and finance, “A lot of factors could change. We might get more state aid. If we wait, we’ll have a little more flexibility. We’ll have more data.”

That data will include the amount of state foundation aid for the Grand Island Central School District from the delayed New York state budget, which was approved April 21. The deadline for the state budget was April 1.

The budget, Merkle pointed out, “is a living, breathing thing. If we change it now, we have to make a decision of where (the funds are) going to come from.”

The cost of hiring a full-time kindergarten teacher would be $100,000, which includes salary and benefits, Merkle explained. To keep the budget balanced, items removed from the budget included software and equipment repair.

LaMarca suggested, in the future, the board research areas to cut from the budget.

“It’s too late for this year,” she said. “Look at other expenses. I keep seeing the line item ‘other.’ Obviously, you’re looking at retirements and saving costs there, but administrative expenses? Is there a way that somebody can tackle that? And say, what can we reduce everywhere so everyone is getting that kind of reduction to protect our fund balance? We don’t want to end up like the other districts. I fully understand that, but I think we have to cut costs in other areas, not just in attrition of personnel.”

Western New York districts that are laying off staff include West Seneca, which plans on reducing its staff by 50 positions, including the layoff of 29 employees; and Hamburg, which plans to lay off 20 employees, including 13 teachers.

The vote to adopt the school budget, which includes replacing the retiring kindergarten teacher, was six in favor, with Glenn Bobeck abstaining.

Graham commended the board’s debate during the budget adoption process.

“For those of you who are watching today, this is the work of the board,” he said. “And probably the most important work is to build a fiscally responsible budget. That’s why there’s debate. We welcome the debate. We welcome the discussion. At the end of the day, that is the work of the board.”

Trustee Danielle Bruno said, of the process, “I don’t think it’s a bad decision, but I think it’s a hard decision.”

“I think a hard decision isn’t necessarily a bad decision,” Dreher said. “I want to thank everyone for your comments and your perspectives. I understand everyone’s perspective, and I respect everyone at the table, and I definitely respect Dr. Graham.”

A public hearing on the budget will be held May 13; the vote on the budget, a proposition for the purchase of vehicles and an election of trustees is scheduled for May 21.

Upcoming: a detailed look at the 2024-25 school budget.

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