Pine Plains school budget controversy continues
PINE PLAINS — The Pine Plains Board of Education (BOE) meeting on Wednesday, March 7, ended with a heated public comment session.Several members of the community stood up to voice their concerns over the preliminary budget proposals.The major issues brought forth were Superintendent Linda Kaumeyer’s salary, the possibility of closing Cold Spring Early Learning Center and the amount of student programs proposed to be cut as opposed to the idea of cutting what many perceive to be a top-heavy administration. The price of going out of district Community member Paul Brandt was the first to speak, referencing a Pine Plains woman who had previously paid the Red Hook School District $10,000 per child to send her children to that district as opposed to Pine Plains.“If we took 100 kids and sent them to Red Hook, we’d save $16,000 per student in additional tuition we have to raise to send them to this district,” he saidBrandt then addressed the numerous students in attendance at the meeting and said, “It costs around $26,000 a piece to send you guys here,” he said.“Maybe we can have a frank discussion on this budget situation. We’re talking about difficult times in this budget coming up, but we’re still raising the budget 2.6 percent. The budget is still going to go up, but we’re talking about budget cuts,” he said.Kaumeyer stepped in to correct the percentage mentioned by Brandt.“The tax levy increase is different from the budget increase,” she said.According to Kaumeyer’s reflections of the meeting on the district’s website, “the budget-to-budget increase under this draft would be 1.69 percent, with a total dollar increase of $466,419.”“Well, I’m incorrect about that,” Brandt said. “But again, the broader picture of looking at how to save, how to make a bold move, how to make a big statement is something we should look into,” he said. Closing Cold Spring The next person to stand up and speak was community member Kate Osofsky.“I was on the committee a couple of years ago to be a liaison between the community and the board. We had always talked in those meetings about rumors that are going around town, and from what I’m hearing there’s no way that the budget is ever going to pass,” she said.Osofsky then brought up the issue of closing Cold Spring and consolidating students into the Seymour Smith Intermediate Learning Center building.“There are constant jokes about Seymour Smith toppling over because all the kids are on one side of the building. It’s even referred to as ‘the morgue’ because it’s completely silent in there. It’s depressing, with no children laughing,” she said.She was also concerned over the lack of space to accommodate events at Cold Spring.“There is no parking at Cold Spring. When the first talent show happened, there was no room in the cafetorium. Seymour Smith would accommodate events much better. We’re now told on permission slips not to bring along grandparents, which isn’t right,” she said.BOE President Bruce Kimball then spoke in regards to closing Cold Spring.“At this point in time, it couldn’t possibly happen by next school year,” he said.Rick Osofsky, local attorney and Kate Osofsky’s father, expressed his concerns.“It should’ve been on the table anyway. What’s so frustrating is that year after year it’s not going to get any better. You just pick away at any program, before you know we’re not going to have anything left,” he said.He also expressed the need for further discussion on the issue. “Apparently there was a study done that suggested this wouldn’t save any money. We did that same study and we saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. Keeping it open is not going to save money,” he said.“The question is would the board address or discuss the closing of Cold Spring school? Yes, absolutely. It’s something we would discuss,” Kimball said. Student speaks on salary issue Stissing Mountain High School senior Brock Sturdivant said he was concerned with salary issues.“I feel that no matter what you cut out of the budget, it will not pass because taxpayers know that the superintendent is making too much money,” he said.Sturdivant also spoke on the limited input students feel they had in the budget process.“I have been here since seventh grade. Since then I have not been asked once what can be done to improve my education for my future interests,” he said.After the meeting, Sturdivant said he felt his time was not being used to further his education.“Tomorrow I have tons of time because I’m sitting in study hall since so many programs have been cut. I’m disappointed with the time I spend in the school compared to the skills I possess. It’s time for a real change,” he said.He also expressed his feelings on the issue of Kaumeyer’s salary.“Legally, no one can give the superintendent a pay cut unless it is the superintendent herself. Many individuals that I know are struggling in this community financially, and they deserve the money they work hard for,” he said. BOE responds “The Board of Education is also very frustrated because year after year for the past four or five years we’ve been getting less and less money in state aid,” Kimball said. We’re talking millions of dollars in cuts from state aid.”Kimball continued to explain the ramifications of the loss of state aid.“Each time those cuts come down from the state we have two choices: either come to the public and ask for an increased tax levy or reduce spending. Year after year we’ve reduced spending by not replacing people who have retired and cutting here, cutting there. There’s just no place else that we find that we can cut without it doing damage, and that’s the problem that we’re facing,” he said.Kimball said the board has looked at options to create a budget that will pass, such as closing Cold Spring and not replacing the middle school principal.Kimball then went on to address issues with the voters’ mentality.“The problem is that if people choose to vote no if one specific thing makes them unhappy, then all they’re doing in essence is saying, ‘I’m going to punish the children of this community because there is this one thing that is making me unhappy.’ If that’s the way you choose to vote on a school budget, then it’s really a shame,” he said.Kaumeyer also spoke to the concerns regarding her salary.“There’s some information that some of you in the audience may not know,” she said. “It was reported that I made public something that I have done for at least a couple of years. I will be donating my entire raise for the 2012-13 school year to charities that will directly benefit the Pine Plains Central School District families and children. There will be some people in the audience who will feel that it’s still not good enough, but that’s what I can do and what I have done privately.”Kaumeyer said she has been urged by members of the community to make the information public because it would affect their views on passing the budget. She then told the audience that she preferred not to talk about herself, but was doing so at the request of others. Final concerns Former board member Karen Orton stood up to address the board on issues raised during the course of the evening.“In response to Ms. Kaumeyer, while that’s really admirable and the district right now needs the charity, it needs to come back to the district and not go to outside organizations,” she said.Orton said taxpayers should be the ones to decide where the money is going as opposed to Kaumeyer.As a member of the Stanford Grange, Orton also expressed concerns that agriculture courses were among some of the programs to be cut from the budget.Both at the meeting and in her reflections piece, Kaumeyer confirmed that this was merely a rumor.“The agriculture courses are not being considered for budget cuts,” she wrote in her reflections.Orton then said she was concerned over the possibility of phasing out a foreign language.“We already have very few electives for our students because we’re small. Will phasing out a foreign language bring people in to buy houses in our district and bring their children to our schools? I don’t think so,” she said. In closing Several members of the audience said they wanted more information made available regarding the budget.Kaumeyer and Kimball both confirmed that materials from previous meeting are available on the school’s website.The board expressed the importance of transparency in regard to these discussions and that any information requested will be provided so long as it is not a violation of the law, such as personnel issues.Kaumeyer said the budget workshops are preliminary and that no final numbers have been made public yet. The next meeting to discuss the budget will be held on Wednesday, March 21, at Cold Spring Early Learning Center at 7 p.m.