Mark Boshnack. The Daily Star - Oneonta. 12/30/2004.

Retiring superintendents, budget woes, standardized testing and building projects were just a few of the issues that many local educators dealt with in 2004.


There has always been turnover in the top position at area schools. But few school administrators say they remember so many superintendents announcing their retirements during any one year.


As of August, in the two area Board of Cooperative Educational Services that include more than 30 schools, six superintendents had announced they were leaving by the end of the 2005 school year.


This included Oneonta City School District Superintendent James Piscitelli and Unatego Superintendent Rex Hurlburt, as well as the heads of the Norwich City School District and Oxford, Greene and Sherburne-Earlville central schools.


Later in the year, Jefferson Central School Superintendent Ed Roche announced that he would be stepping down after 21 years with the district.


In December, Worcester Superintendent Maureen McNolty resigned her position to be closer to her family.


In addition, the 2004-05 school year started with an interim superintendent named to fill a vacancy in Roxbury and new superintendents at Walton and Charlotte Valley central schools.


Delaware- Chenango- Madison-Otsego BOCES Superintendent Alan Pole said the situation will not improve any time soon.

 

"People will continue to retire in fairly significant numbers over the next few years," he said.


Marie Warchol, district superintendent at Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES, said the turnover is a local and statewide issue.


Because the state retirement system allows eligible employees to retire in their mid-50s, she said, the problem will get worse as the baby boomer generation retires.


With the aging population, "there will be a number of superintendents who will leave at a time of tremendous challenge," she said.


With capital projects and labor relations as traditional concerns, "I think we will have a lot of work with new superintendents and school boards in order for them to be successful," she said.


What makes matters worse, Warchol said, is the decline in the number of applicants for openings. Because of the demands of the job, people are reluctant to pursue that kind of career, and "the pipeline is not there" for new applicants, she said.


"I think we have the potential for concern over the next several years," she said.


An annual issue that schools deal with is the late state budget, and 2004 was no exception.


After lawmakers earlier in the year pledged an on-time spending plan, the 2004-05 budget was the latest on record. This left superintendents to build their budgets with no solid numbers on how much state aid they would get.


Making matters worse this year was the decision on the lawsuit from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The suit requires the state to give billions of dollars in state aid to New York City schools. The question of what that will mean for state funding in the future was left unanswered in 2004.


By the time the aid figures were released in early August, it was too late to affect most spending plans, with most school budgets having been passed in May.


At Andes Central School, Superintendent John Bernhardt had expected a decrease because of Gov. George Pataki’s earlier proposal, but the school received a 5.13 percent increase.


"It’s a pleasant surprise, which will be helpful," he said in August. "We would hope it would make next year’s budget a little bit easier on taxpayers."


The average school tax hike in 2004 was 7.75 percent.


Since the state Board of Regents said in the late 1990s that it would raise standards for students, performance on state tests has been regularly reported each year.


With federal requirements for yearly testing under No Child Left Behind legislation, the concern is only expected to increase.


In January, superintendents voiced concern over the NCLB provisions. While they supported the idea behind the legislation, they were worried about how it is being carried out.


Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School Superintendent Samuel Shevat said, "We have yet to see the kind of federal funding that it will take to bring all levels of students to educational levels it requires."


The act’s requirements that all teachers be certified in their field and standardized tests in grades 3-8 were also cited as concerns by other superintendents.


Seventeen area schools received good news from state test results in February when they were named among the most-improved based on results from English language arts and math in 2003. At South Kortright Central School, Superintendent Benjamin Berlin said of the results, "It took us four years of hard work."


In the Oneonta City School District, where Greater Plains Elementary School was included on the list, "We put constant pressure on improving curriculum," Piscitelli said.


Poor results on the Math A Regents exam in 2003 led the state Education Department in November to ask schools for comments on restructuring how the subject is taught on all levels. Area math teachers were planning meetings to respond.


"I’m delighted it will be done," Carol Kiehn Kirkey, chairwoman of the Oneonta City School mathematics department, said in November. "It’s clear they heard our complaints with the current math program."


Violence in schools has long been a concern. A state issued report in December on the problem, under the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, was an attempt to create a uniform way of reporting incidents in 10 categories, including possession of drugs, alcohol use, weapons possession and theft.


But the report was not without its problems for local educators.


State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a press release, "the data are frequently inconsistent and misleading and must be used with caution."


Without more specific definitions about what constitutes a violent or disruptive incident under penal law, school officials will find themselves making decisions similar to a criminal court, the report said.

The lack of clear definitions left wide swings in the numbers reported by schools.


Morris Central School Superintendent Michael Virgil said the information was "a little misleading." Until the rules are standardized, every school will have a different interpretation of what to report, he said.


Several incidents of violence that were reported will probably make next year’s report. These include bomb threats at Cobleskill-Richmondville High School in October, which led to two 14-year-olds being arrested.


At Downsville Central School, a pupil set off a homemade bomb that filled a bathroom with smoke in November. The school’s notification of parents of the situation in December led to a new policy there.


At Sidney Central School, the case against a former school employee who allegedly roughed up a student after classes in October is ongoing. Marsha Ward pleaded innocent to charges of second-degree harassment and endangering the welfare of a child in November.


Providing the right environment for learning is a concern for schools.


In the Oneonta district, bids were open in May for the Year 4 project, which includes renovations at the four elementary schools.


At Sidney Central School, much of the work to complete a multi-year building project at all five campuses was completed. Work still continues on certain aspects of the high school project.


At Laurens Central School, a project that would include improvements was turned down twice by voters. The vote in December for a $15.1 million project was defeated 559-509. The vote in June on a $15.9 million project was defeated 584-527.


A group called Concerned Citizens for Laurens campaigned against the issue before the first vote in June. A second group was formed to support the project after the December vote. Both sides were willing to talk about how to move the plan forward after the second defeat.


The administration had not said how it hoped to resolve what has been a divisive issue in the community.


A vote on an $18.7 building project at Worcester Central School was delayed in June by the board of education to allow more time for community input.


With changing enrollments, a couple of schools began projects in 2004 to see how to meet future needs. In Oneonta, an enrollment study had its first public meeting in December to see how to rezone the district’s four elementary schools to meet populations from new single-family housing.


At Sidney Central School, committees have been looking at dealing with declining enrollments for much of the year. Their findings were presented to the board of education during a December meeting. Proposals include closing one or possibly both of the elementary school outside of Sidney.


Action by both districts is expected in 2005.