May 12, 2004

Meeting the candidates and the budget

Last night I went to the Dryden school budget hearing and meet the candidates session. School coverage has been one of the weakest areas on this site, and I figured this was probably the best event to dive into. While both my mother and my mother-in-law served on the Corning school board, I don't know enough about the Dryden district (and just barely live outside of it) to comment in any great detail about school matters, so I'll try to let the pictures tell the story here.

After a brief gathering of board members to get the presentation under way, Vice-President Donna Mott took the stage to present the Dryden Central School District budget.

Donna Mott presents the budget
Donna Mott presents the budget

The Dryden Central School District is facing an 8.71% spending increase, fueled largely by a 17.5% increase in employee benefit costs, a 14% increase in debt service, and an 8.15% increase in instruction costs, reflecting the loss of a grant that paid for three positions last year. (The Dryden Central School District Bulletin contains most of the details of the budget, and has far more detail than I can repeat here.)

Mott's general theme was that the district has been cutting for years, and that this year reflects the district reaching the point where it just can't keep cutting. Externally-determined costs, from mandates to health insurance, are climbing rapidly, and there isn't any easy way to avoid this "year where the chickens come home to roost." The state's STAR program has helped some people, but rising assessments and rising taxes are reducing its effectiveness.

Former school board member Tom Miller, who said he hadn't made up his mind about the budget, requested more detail about their expectations for state aid, noting that the increase in the bulletin looked larger than the $30,000 Mott had mentioned from the governor's budget. $231,000 of that number is building aid, while $100,000 reflects the administration's conversations with legislators and other boards about what the state is likely to provide beyond the governor's budget.

Clint Cotterill brought up assessments, saying he'd "had fifteen people come to talk to me about assessments, and I said they had to pay or leave town." Cotterill emphasized that many of them might well leave town. He also asked about enrollment, down to 1926 from 2260 a few years ago.

Mott and board member Chris Gibbons agreed that the taxes are a growing problem, but an audience member pointed out that as other kinds of taxes have been cut, more of a burden has fallen on property taxes. Superintendent Archambault noted that the state's share of the district's budget has fallen from 60% to 50%. Dryden's tax base also creates a problem, as most of it is residential, with no commercial properties to ease homeowners' tax burden, but it's not poor enough to qualify for many kinds of state aid.

Superintendent Archambault discusses state aid
Superintendent Archambault discusses state aid while board members Chris Gibbons and Donna Mott listen

After the budget discussion, Superintendent Archambault distributed cookies while the candidates assembled and audience members submitted questions. The candidates had brief opening statements, and then had to answer questions from the audience.

Candidates for Dryden school board
Dryden School Board candidates Paul Lutwak, Anderson Young, Margaret DeGaetano, and Russell Kowalski during DeGaetano's opening statement

The discussion was polite - it wasn't exactly a debate, and there weren't any particularly contentious issues to address, apart from general concern over the state of the budget and the continuing delays in the teacher contract. Andy Young joked about being the "voice of experience", with his single year on the board, but all the other candidates are running for the first time.

Paul Lutwak and Anderson Young
Dryden School Board candidate Paul Lutwak speaks while Anderson Young listens

All of the candidates expressed their concern that students receive a solid education and that Dryden stay competitive with other districts in the area. Paul Lutwak suggested a few times that the district needed to look again at its spending, and seek creative ways to save money. He cited his experiences as Director of Information Technology at Newfield, and suggested that perspectives from outside the district would be helpful.

Margaret DeGaetano also cited her experience as a teacher in other districts, and hoped it could bring a different perspective. She also emphasized the potential for bringing more volunteers into the school, from students to older residents to parents. While recognizing that it's hard for people to find time, she felt it was good for both the students and the volunteers.

Margaret DeGaetano and Russ Kowalski
Dryden School Board candidate Margaret DeGaetano takes notes while Russ Kowalski talks about Dryden Lions concessions

Russ Kowalski noted that there are lots of groups trying to get programs started, and that many of them are looking for new ways to fund those programs. He talked about the Lions sharing their concessions proceeds with groups willing to help, and about the town's seed funding for lacrosse.

Everyone hoped that the teachers' contract would be resolved soon, with lots of talk about give and take. Andy Young said that he knew what it felt like to work as a teacher without a contract, and that it takes a toll on everyone involved. Similarly, everyone hoped to be able to take a fresh look at the budget and contribute to new ways to manage spending, and wanted the superintendent to be a leader with strong communications skills.

The Journal has more from the candidates, both in their article on last night's forum and in an earlier piece asking candidates about the budget.

Voting will be at the Dryden Middle School/High School auditorium on May 18th from 7am to 9pm. U.S. citizens 18 years of age or older who are residents of the district can vote.

Posted by simon at May 12, 2004 12:22 PM in
Note on photos