Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tom Burns, BOCES Supt. Interview

BOCES Superintendent Tom Burns was interviewed this week at Clarkson University's WCKN studio as part of  North Country Matters: Strategies to Maintain Educational Solvency in Fiscally Challenging Times - Long-Term Solutions for School Reform. Mr. Burns discussed  a number of topics. Among them:

~ LOCAL SOLUTIONS: Problems facing North County schools will, in all likelihood, have to be solved locally.

~ LEARN FROM MORE SUCCESSFUL EDUCATIONAL SYSTEMS: School leaders would be wise to look to highly successful school systems to see how they are achieving such success. Among them...Finland, Shanghai, and Canada.

~ MAYBE THE PROBLEM IS NOT THE MONEY: The US is outspending other countries in education but not outperforming them.


~ HEALTH INSURANCE AND PENSION COSTS: Supt. Burns noted that schools will soon have more retirees than active employees which will present serious financial problems for districts because they are contractually obligated to pay health insurance for retirees. (Health insurance currently costs about $20K annually for family coverage.) School district in this region also pay most of the cost of health insurance for active employees. Tom also discussed the need for NYS to have systemic reform in regards to enormous growth in the cost of pensions.

~ REDESIGN CONTRACTS: Mr. Burns also discussed the need to"redesign the work force and labor contracts because existing contracts were designed in the 1960's and 1970's when demographics were very different."

Take a look at the interview. Mr. Burns has much more to say that is important for the public to know.

*  The interview was made possible by Donna Seymour (AAUW), Dan Dullea (Clarkson University) and the students in his Communications class.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

What will PCS do with $379,000?

According to the most recent State Aid runs, Potsdam Central will receive $379,000 more in the approved New York State budget than in the Governor's proposal.  Great news, but how will the spending plan change?

It is important to remember that the budget cuts put forward by administration are still $181,000 short, so that means there is just under $200,000 to use for putting back some of the cuts.  If past history is replayed, the Board of Education members will tell the Superintendent, privately, what their individual favorite programs are and those will be re-instated.

Of course, what should happen is that the traditions of the community and the needs of the students should be considered and positions should be re-instated reflecting those concerns.  It is not too late to have an influence.  Let your Board of Ed members know what is important to you and your children or grandchildren.  The next Finance Committee meeting will be on April 9th.  The budget will be more or less finalized by then, so don't wait!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

PCS: Cuts by Attrition?

    It has been reported that the Superintendent and BOE at Potsdam Central are considering cutting teachers in music, math, special education, physical education, and elementary...all through attrition.   The BOE, working with the Superintendent, should have made a plan for what to cut and why.

     Let's face it, cutting by attrition is the easy way out. Happenstance [certain teachers being old enough to retire] is no guiding light for personnel cuts. Planning for the future of the district's children should not be driven by random retirement announcements.
    The need to close a $1.2 million budget gap at the PCSD is surely a significant problem. Are there other options to cutting so many teaching positions?

  ~ Magnet School:  If the plan included looking into making the PCSD a magnet school for both music and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), then it would make no sense to cut music and math teachers...thus diminishing the programs at just the time that they should be shored up. Magnet schools can accept students from outside the district so creating a magnet school could bring students (and the state aid dollars that follows them) to the district.
~ Transportation: At the first public forum, where the public was invited to discuss the district's fiscal problems, the notion of using a private company for transportation was examined. Members of one group wanted to know what savings would be realized if the PCSD went in this direction. Has the financial impact of such a change been discussed by the BOE? Other districts have gone in this direction.

~ Renegotiate Health Insurance Contributions: Have the BOE or Superintendent suggested approaching the teachers' union to see if they will consider contributing more to their health insurance costs? A small sacrifice when dealing with this $5.3 Million expense, might save teachers' jobs and protect student programs. Negotiations can be re-opened at any time if both sides agree. Did anyone even ask?
    For those who think it is not fair to ask for this concession, consider the fact that the PCSD contribution rate to the teachers' retirement system has gone from 2.52% (of total payroll) ten years ago to 16.25%  of total payroll for next year. So, for 2013-14, this will cost the district $1.2 Million. District officials cannot do anything about this huge pension bill but they can approach the union about the $5.3 Million health insurance bill.

~ One less Principal: Can the district get by with two principals? Given that the district is losing its middle school principal, it seems like the right time to consider cutting a principal position and saving a teaching position (and maybe a part-time position, too). Not replacing the middle school principal has been discussed by the BOE. It would take some backbone to make such a cut; the easy decision is to  just lose teaching positions to attrition.

~ Re-configuring AAK: To the credit of the BOE, they have discussed this idea but their decision to send it to committee is the equivalent of burying the idea...death by committee. Board members Stone, Hobbs, and Tubett recognize that the resignation of Principal Cruikshank is dovetailing with on-going Board discussions of reconfiguring AAK. Re-structuring how the PCSD delivers education may be essential if  the district wants to protect the education of students. While many parents are worried about any reconfiguration of AAK, parents in the 1990's were equally convinced that moving 5th grade students from Lawrence Avenue to AAK would result in dire consequences for those students.

    Isn't it time to see the overarching plan driving personnel cuts at the PCSD? Isn't it time to look at big ideas instead of bleeding our teaching retirement at a time?


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Upcoming Finance Committee Meetings

Spending plan discussions will occur on the next two Tuesdays for the Potsdam Central School District.  On the 19th, the Finance Committee will meet to review the current spending plan draft, fund balance and reserves.  The meeting begins at 6:00 PM in the High School library.  There is an opportunity for public comment.

On Tuesday, the 26th, there will be a public forum on the spending plan prior to the regular Board of Education meeting.  This meeting should be of interest because it is expected that the New York State budget will be finalized and municipalities will know exactly how much money will be received in State Aid for 2013-14.  The meeting begins at 6:30 PM in the High School Library.  Generally all members of the public who wish to speak are allowed at a public forum.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Furor at the Middle School!

Wow!  The community forum at the A.A. Kingston Middle School this evening had teachers and parents strongly protecting their turf.  Apparently, the Board of Education discussion on Tuesday night about possibly re-organizing the grades in the Middle School flew through the grapevine.  Organizers of the event expected to need four tables for discussion groups but needed eight with all of the late registrants and walk-ins. 

In my opinion, it was not an open minded group.  I may have missed something, but I don't believe that any table reported out that their participants had any interest in discussing re-organization of grades 5-8.  My table had members who were so vehement about the issue that my position, that considering re-organization compared to other choices has merit, was squashed with a diatribe lasting several minutes.  It felt as if my children were in Middle School again and I was listening to Middle School teachers deny that my children were being bullied in their school, and certainly not by a teacher.  There may be some merit to the current Middle School philosophies of recognizing and fostering individual differences or fostering communication and cooperation between parents, teachers and students but, in my opinion, they were not being modeled at my table.

Not all discussions at my table were so negative. There was some agreement that it is not fair that music is taking another hit and athletics is unscathed.  The group thought that there should be some cuts in that area.  They were not happy that there are 26/27 students in grades 4-6.  There was agreement that more reserve money should be spent.  Many thought that a school merger was a viable option, if another school could be talked into it.  Considering that so many participants had a stake in the school, it wasn't surprising to me that they are willing to go to the max with a tax levy increase.  Several tables reported the same opinion about the tax levy.

It will be interesting to observe how strong the Board of Education will be with their plans to consider the re-organization of grades 5-8.  It is very difficult to stick with an unpopular idea, especially in the face of organized opposition.  Tonight's meeting was just the beginning.   

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Principal Vacancy at PCS

As of July 1, Potsdam Central School will have a principal vacancy.  This is an interesting situation for the Superintendent and Board of Education because they have made a point of not filling the teaching vacancies which will be open for the next school year.  It seems as if this is an excellent opportunity to consolidate administration, as well as re-align the grades in the middle school. 

According to the Powerpoint presentation given at the Community Forum on February 25th, eighteen (18) teaching positions have been lost from 2009 to 2013.  For administration, there has been a loss of one half-time Dean of Students on the academic side.  The presentation states that 40% of the Buildings & Grounds Superintendent and 40% of the Food Service Director are also administrative cuts, but those positions are not directly tied to academics.  It makes more sense to compare them against the Support Staff cuts, which account for the loss of more than twenty-two (22) positions.

This is the perfect time to look at the logistics of consolidating the grades under the supervision of two principals.  The savings of having two administrative offices instead of three could allow for the reinstatement of needed teaching positions.  The current fiscal situation of the school district demands a serious look at this option.  Let's hope that the Superintendent and BOE give this option the serious consideration it deserves.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Potsdam Central: A Magnet School?

The financial crisis facing Potsdam Central (and so many other districts) is resulting in discussions of ways to re-organize schools to save money and to protect the education of students. It might be just the time for the PCSD to look into becoming a magnet school.

According to, "...magnet schools are distinct from other public schools because they offer specialized academic focuses or themes...they are open to students outside the normal school district boundaries but offer rigorous, yet competitive, programs to attract high-caliber students."

It only makes sense that the BOE at Potsdam Central should be discussing the possibility of making PCS a magnet school for music. The district's strong music program, coupled with its proximity to the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, makes the PCSD an ideal location for a music magnet school. The district could shore up its viability (Supt. Brady stated at a recent forum that the district is about 2 years from insolvency) by attracting students from outside the district boundaries.

Additionally, it makes sense for the PCSD to become a magnet school for STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). The school district's proximity to Clarkson University - renowned for its work in STEM subjects - makes the notion of having a magnet school for STEM at Potsdam Central an obvious choice.

"NY Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing to establish 10 new programs modeled on Pathways in Technology Early College High Scholl (P-TECH) , the IBM-backed school in Brooklyn that takes students through high school and  two years of college with the goal of meeting the demand for workers with the right skills for high-tech jobs." See:
 According to the article, there would be one new school based on this model in each of 10 economic development zones around the state. Why not make PCSD the model for our economic zone?

It's time to plan for the future instead of constantly reacting to circumstances that are thrust upon us. The PCSD has two enormous assets - SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University. Imagine the PCSD as a magnet school for both music and would take the school district to another level, attract students from the region, and might go a long way to addressing fiscal problems and improving educational offerings.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

PCS Superintendent Interview

The Potsdam Central School Superintendent was recently interviewed about the fiscal problems facing the district. See:

The interview was made possible as part of North Country Matters, a local video magazine produced by WCKN under the direction of Dan Dullea of the Center for Excellence in Communication at Clarkson University.

Potsdam Central finds itself facing a $1.2 million budget deficit for next year. Among the fiscal facts facing PCS - some based on the Governor's proposed budget:

  • Health Insurance Costs: Rising to approximately $5,300,000.00 next year - an increase of 13.2%
  • Pension Costs: For Teachers - rising to approx.   $1,274,000.00  - an increase of 29.4%
  • Pension Costs For CSEA     -  rising to approx.      $600,000.00  - an increase of 23.8%  
  • The Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) will provide an additional $310,421 to the district.
  • Categorical Aid: (transportation, BOCES, building) expected to decrease by $280,269
  • 2% tax cap (unless superseded by a 60% majority)
  •  The federal sequester: which will impact the district by $60-$70K next year

 Many thanks to Donna Seymour (from AAUW), and Dan Dullea and his students (from Clarkson University) for their efforts to share important information with the public.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

7th and 8th grades to the High School?

The most senior Board of Education member of Potsdam Central was quoted recently as saying that moving the 8th grade to the high school was a short term scenario, a one year proposition.  Based on numbers produced for grades 7-12 class sizes for the next five years, this is not true.  In fact, it is not until 2017-18 that the number of students in those grades is greater than they are this year.  And then, the number of students projected, 569, is far fewer than what the high school building was designed to hold (700-800).  See the projections here: 2012-2018 PCS Grades 7-12 Projections  After the site opens, click on 7-12 Projected Enrollment or review any of the other documents listed.

Another interesting document put together by High School Principal Chambers demonstrates that there is plenty of room for the 7th and 8th grades in the high school.  This document is called "High School Room Usage" at the same link.  According to this document, there are six vacant classrooms in the high school. Mrs. Chambers qualified discussion of this document by saying that it was put together quickly and may not reflect the best configuration of teachers.  Nevertheless, it is clear that there is space for two additional grades at the high school.

Clearly, this information refutes the perception that moving one or more grades to the high school is a short term scenario.  In fact, it may make the most sense of all of the configurations being recommended.  Class sizes are higher at the elementary school and all agree that smaller classes are ideal in the grades where students need to learn important skills to be successful in higher grades.  A.A. Kingston Middle School was built in the 1970's when our community's school age population was booming.  That is no longer the situation and the smart thing to do is to downsize. 

PCS BOE Needs a Philosophy

Something odd has happened this year with Potsdam Central Schools Strategic Budget Plan.  Many of the cuts to programming seem to be based upon who is retiring this year.  That may not be in the best interests of the students who will be affected by those cuts.  The Board of Education needs to decide what its philosophy will be regarding our student's education and now is the time to do it.

Specifically, there are two elementary teachers, a physical education teacher, a high school math teacher, a music teacher, and a special education teacher retiring.  Administration is recommending , in the strategic budget plan, not replacing any of these people.  What this means is that a teacher assistant will be monitoring a locker room, class sizes in the elementary classes will be 26 in grades 1-4, and the music program will be further dismantled.  In addition, in the scenario reviewed at Thursday's Finance Committee Meeting, there is no longer any discussion of  reducing extra-curriculars, including sports. 

Is this what the Potsdam community wants for the education of its students?  The Board of Education isn't saying much these days publicly.  They ask questions, but now is the time to commit to what is best for our kids!

Friday, March 1, 2013

PCS: Fiscal Dilemma

One of the most notable discussions held at the Potsdam Central Community Forum this week was the idea to move 5th & 6th to the elementary school and to move 7th & 8th to the high school. The public seems very open to ideas that will save money and help preserve programs for students.

The Superintendent and the Finance Committee have discussed the feasibility of reconfiguring AAK. As reported by the superintendent, one such change could result in a $779,158 savings. Long-time residents of Potsdam recall the days when the high school had about 180-200 students per grade. Now that number is down to about 100-110 students/grade. There is space at both Lawrence Avenue and the Potsdam High Schol (PHS) to make such a reconfiguration possible. Given that the district is facing a $1.2 million dollar deficit for next year, it appears something significant must be done.

It is time to stop talking about whether or not to cut sports or extra-curricular clubs - nickels and dimes - in a budget that is over $25 million. It is time to discuss real savings by examining the cost drivers.

At the forum, Mr. Brady presented a power point entitled, "Community Forum: Session 1" [available online at the PCSD website]. He reported that health insurance will cost the district $5.3 million next year. Additionally, teacher pensions will be up to $1.2 M (up 24.9%) and Employee pensions (CSEA), will be approximately $600,000 (up 23.8%).  Ten years ago, the employer contribution rate to the Teachers' Retirement System (TRS) was just over 2% of total teacher salaries. It is now going up to 16.5% of total salaries.

Governor Cuomo's representatives are saying that localities have had a role in their own fiscal approving contracts they cannot afford. School districts declare that State aid cuts  to schools and lack of mandate relief by legislators are the culprits. Both observations are correct.

It was reported in North Country This Week that the United University Professors (UUP) - meaning the profs at SUNY Potsdam (and the rest of the SUNY system) are close to a deal on a contract that the UUP Chapter president said helps the fiscally distressed state without hurting students. It was reported that the UUP will agree to no wage increases for 3 years and a 2% in the 4th year. Professors earning over $40K will pay 31% of their family health insurance premium. When employees share in the burden of escalating costs, like health insurance, they are invested in collaborating on ways to get the best benefits for the most reasonable dollar. By contrast, the Canton School District, agreed to a much more generous deal (3.5%, 3%, 3%, 3% raises over four years and health insurance contributions that won't reach 10% for four more years.) A puzzling deal considering how close Canton district officials declare they are to insolvency.

Would PCSD superintendent Brady and union teacher union officials consider re-opening negotiations in order to address the huge cost of health insurance premiums? It is a question worth asking.

It was revealing that so many community members at the PCSD Forum this week spoke very seriously about the possibility of closing the AAK building to realize cost savings. What the community didn't discuss was the additional possibility of encouraging Supt. Brady to approach the teachers' union to reopen negotiations to save teacher jobs and protect the education of students. It is something we should all be asking of school officials.