Warmer welcome given trimmed ICSD Budget

by Robert Lynch; June 14, 2024

A box full of “Vote Yes” buttons were scattered about the table at York Lecture Hall. Board of Education members were wise enough not to pin them on—state law, don’t you know.  But others did.  And many of the attendees who donned those buttons and crowded into the room also applauded speakers who spoke.  It was Tuesday, June 11th and a Public Hearing into the  proposed 2024-25 Ithaca City School District (ICSD) Budget, a budget that in recent weeks has gone on a diet.

Rebecca Fisher supports the Re-Vote Budget”: Without it, class sizes would go up; student performance would go down.

This new, now tax-cap compliant $163 Million spending plan will go before voters Tuesday, June 18th. A compact-car version of a revised budget in the Newfield School District will also face voter approval that day.  Each district’s initial try at a budget failed the first time around back on May 21st.  Since then, the Board of Education in each district has cut spending and trimmed tax levies.  Ithaca’s reduction was far more drastic, given its size.  Newfield’s Public Hearing was Monday, the tenth; Ithaca’s was the following night, Tuesday, the eleventh.  This is Ithaca’s story.

“What kind of community do we want to be?” Belisa Gonzales asked the Ithaca School Board on hearing night. The newly-proposed package may be “a watered down version of that which I believe we needed,” she conceded.  But its rejection, Gonzales predicted, will harm the “most vulnerable amongst us.”

Fifteen speakers ate up the first hour of the Board of Education’s five hour meeting Tuesday.  It was the Public Hearing portion of the session, the portion set aside to review the revised budget. Of those who expressed a preference, nine spoke in favor of the new proposal; four remained firmly opposed.

At the last budget hearing—the one that considered the budget that failed—twenty people took to the mic.  And all but one of them had promised to vote “No” when referendum day came.  No doubt, each followed through on his or her promise.  The initially-decided budget lost by a seven-to-one margin.  Most blamed its loss on the 8.4 per cent tax levy increase it carried.  With property reassessments tipping the scales against the Ithaca homeowner, that big of a bite in just one year became too big of a bite for taxpayers to swallow.

But the $5.9 Million in spending cuts the School Board has made since the initial budget’s defeat have slashed the tax levy increase to 2.92 per cent.  Although some program-protecting parents and educators fear the latest cuts will handicap kids’ learning, the optics today look far better than they did a month ago.  Moreover, what the program protectionists feared most on this more recent hearing night was the alternative; the doomsday scenario that would happen if this second budget also goes down.

Albany lawmakers give local educators only two bites of the fiscal apple each year.  A second defeat in June would impose on Ithaca a mandatory “Contingency Budget.”  It would hold the tax levy the same next year as it is now.  But instead of $5.9 Million in reductions from the May budget, the knife would slice deeper, chopping away as much as $9 Million in spending.  A Contingency Budget would put more students in each classroom and leave fewer teachers to teach them.

Heather Beasley is the parent of two kids at Cayuga Heights Elementary.  She favors what’s now called the “Re-vote Budget,” the one that’ll be decided this month.

Heather Beasley, mother of two at ICSD: Voters spoke in May. Now it’s our turn to speak for “programs and teachers and communities.”

“Voters have made a statement,” Beasley stated.  In May, she said, they rejected the first budget and tossed out two of the three incumbent Board members who sought reelection.  That done, Beasley said, it’s our turn:  “And now it’s time to make a statement in favor of our programs and our teachers and our communities.”

Steve Manley Zoomed in.  He’s the parent of three and the treasurer of the Ithaca PTA Council. 

“The public voted no on the previous budget and did so for a variety of reasons,” Manley stated.  “The current budget may or may not respond to every one of (those) reasons,” he acknowledged.  But a Contingency Budget, “will dramatically impact the ability of our schools to provide the extra programs and opportunities that make living in this district special.”

Rebecca Fisher joined those favoring the latest trimmed-down submission, rather than its alternative.  A Contingency Budget, she said, would “increase class sizes, diminishing individual attention for students and adversely affecting academic performance.”

Not all speakers rallied to the new budget’s side.  Leigh Rogers, who’d spoken against the Board’s earlier offering, spoke against this new one as well.

“I’m desperate not to leave my home,” Rogers, a beleaguered taxpayer from West Hill, lamented.  “We’re not just a community of children,” she asserted.  With those words, muted heckling could be heard from the gallery.  Board President Sean Eversley Bradwell had to counsel civility.

“Others will suffer,” Rogers continued.  “Single parents of school children will suffer.  And grandparents, retired people on fixed incomes, will suffer,” she said.

Leigh Rogers: “We’re not just a community of children.” I fear I may have to leave my home.

Rogers fears people like her are being priced out of Ithaca by its high school taxes.  “If things don’t soon change in this company town,” she predicted, “it’s going to be a gated community perfectly fitted to suit our freeloading neighbors on the east side of the lake.”  By that, she was thinking of Cornell University.

“There are no layoffs?” Jim Mann asked with amazement.  He’d prefer some.  He’d spoken against the earlier budget as well. “Our mission here is to educate students,” not to focus on extracurricular activities, he argued.  “We need to run an austerity budget and focus on our core mission.”

The Ithaca District “cannot afford to be all things to all ideas,” Michael Hayes said as the hearing’s final speaker.  The district “needs to develop a trajectory of cutting costs.”  Hayes would return education to the “three R’s.”  He’d also fire the School Superintendent, Dr. Luvelle Brown.  Hayes urged the incoming Board of Education to do just that.

Customarily, Ithaca School Board members respond to public comment as soon as the comment period ends.  Not this time. It was not until after a 40-minute executive session, one wedged between the hearing and the meeting’s regular business, that elected leaders chose to comment. Most hearing attendees had already left.  Eldred Harris took his turn to speak.  He spoke longest.

Eldred Harris, African-American, is the 15-year incumbent who finished dead-last in this year’s seven-way race for three seats on the Board of Education.  He’s among the Board’s a staunchest defenders of robust spending to pay for better programs, especially for students who look very much like him.

In what may have become his swan-song as he exits elected office, Harris took passing swipes at many.  Targets included teachers who decline to innovate; critics who fault schools for poor performance by using outdated data; and most particularly, those now obsessed with keeping taxes low at the cost of slighting students.

“Equity costs money,” Harris insisted.  And equity, he argued, is something “that we are now threatening to completely wipe off of the table.”

Inequity within the Ithaca District, Harris observed, has been a decades-long problem, not something that’s brand new.  “And to make yourself appear that you are now concerned about the issue is both duplicative and it disgusts me.”

Board member Eldred Harris: Leaving, but still watching… and wary of what lies ahead.

Eldred Harris took an all-too-transparent parting shot at one of the newly-elected people who’ll replace him, development executive Todd Fox.

“The folks who rabidly have gone after tax abatements in this community in a profiteering attempt to get in while the getting is hot, to stand at this microphone and debase children, you should be ashamed,” Harris emphasized.

For the record, Todd Fox, while he may have complained of high taxation and sought to add his managerial expertise to the school board’s skill set, has never, to this observer’s knowledge, “debased children.”

“The community, using democratic methods, made it clear that my voice is no longer needed, Harris concluded, acknowledging his defeat.  “But I’m going to warn all of you that I’m going to be watching.”

And then, the sting of Eldred Harris’ defeat—and most particularly, defeat by a man he quite obviously does not respect—became its most evident.

“We built something here that was built for children,” Harris said.  “And folks now with no knowledge are threatening to destroy it by infusing fear and illogic into the conversation.”

Whether hyperbolic or maybe all-too dead-on accurate, Eldred Harris will leave office at month’s end.

****

An issue that got almost no attention at the Ithaca budget hearing Tuesday was the bus proposition.  Rejected in May, just like the budget, the proposition to buy new school buses and other vehicles will face Ithaca’s voters again June 18th.  But just as with the budget, bus spending will now cost less.  This time, voters will decide a $1.6 Million proposition to commit fiscal reserves to purchase two electric school buses, plus two more that run on propane.  The spending and the number of purchases are exactly half of what voters were asked to approve, but rejected, last month.

As the meeting headed into its final, fifth hour, the Board of Education offered its first extended discussion of member Jill Tripp’s proposal—a long shot though it may be—to negotiate with Cornell University to increase from its current $650,000 to $10 Million Cornell’s payment to the District in lieu of taxes.

“How did you come up with the amount of 10 Million?” Board colleague Karen Yearwood asked.

“I made it up,” Tripp candidly replied. She then elaborated.  To Tripp the amount is only about a quarter of what some argue Cornell deserves to pay.

Board member Tripp: The $10 Million? “I made it up.” But it’s only a quarter of what some say Cornell should pay us.

When it comes to Jill Tripp’s appeal to Old Ezra, some might say “Good Luck.” And Tripp foresees no easy task in the uphill climb ahead.  It may be as challenging as trudging up Libe Slope in a snowstorm.

“This is a huge undertaking,” Tripp said of the prospective negotiations.  “And I don’t think for a moment that the School Board is able to take that on.”

Or maybe, District Administration, either.  While Dr. Tripp had proposed Superintendent Brown be tasked to haggle with Cornell, School Board consensus that night favored tossing the task to an advisory committee, one comprised of district officials and community representatives.

“I would not like to see our Superintendent go out there alone on this,” Eldred Harris told those at his head table.  “To go in not necessarily blind, but with a hand out saying ‘pay what you owe,’ would not lead to the successful result we want,” Harris concluded.

Jill Tripp claims other Ivy League universities pay seven or eight figures to their own hometown school districts.  Princeton, she said, pays $4.8 Million; Brown University, $1.3 Million; the University of Pennsylvania, $10 Million. 

Board President Sean Eversley Bradwell raised a complication:  Cornell is a hybrid; a public-private university.  Might the school district find itself negotiating, at least in part, with the State of New York?

The Board of Education may decide how to proceed with  Jill Trip’s initiative at its final meeting of the school year, June 25.  By that time, they’ll know whether they’ll need to go the Contingency Budget route.

###

Back from the Presumed Dead

Enfield resurrects extended terms-of-office laws

by Robert Lynch; June 13, 2024

One would have thought a landslide defeat three years ago had buried the issue once and for all.  It did not.

A campaign sign opposing a 4-year Supervisor’s term; 2021

With one Councilperson voicing a strongly-worded dissent, the Enfield Town Board Wednesday moved to a July Public Hearing a revisited trio of local laws that would extend new terms for the Town Supervisor, Town Clerk and Highway Superintendent from two to four years.  If approved by the Town Board following the hearing, the measures could be placed onto this fall’s General Election ballot, with the longer terms taking effect at the start of 2026, voters willing.

“I think it’s worth looking at again,” Town Clerk Mary Cornell told the Town Board Wednesday.  It was Cornell’s suggestion, advanced in an email to Town Board members only Monday afternoon, which launched reconsideration of the three local laws.  Cornell’s initiative had never been placed onto the Town’s agenda or website prior to the meeting’s start.

“There’d be less campaigning,” Cornell said in defending the longer terms for those three Enfield offices.

“I second that,” Highway Superintendent Barry “Buddy’ Rollins shot up.  Rollins remarked that candidates like him dislike petitioning in the dead of winter, and that some have told him they’re reluctant to run for Town offices when the terms to which they’d be elected remain so short.

The Town Board voted four-to-one to advance the terms’ measures to a July 10th Public Hearing.  Supervisor Stephanie Redmond supported the initiative.  So did Councilpersons Jude Lemke, Cassandra Hinkle, and Melissa Millspaugh.  Councilperson Robert Lynch (this writer) voiced strong opposition.

“Insanity,” Lynch said, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.”  Moreover, he said, resubmitting the laws to lengthen the terms is “tremendously disrespectful” to Enfield’s electorate, who’d dispatched identical measures to the dustbin by wide margins just three years ago.

A ballot proposition in 2021 to extend the Town Supervisor’s term from two to four years lost 238 votes (34.2%) to 458 (65.8%), a 32 per cent spread. 

By slightly slimmer—though still substantial—margins, the proposal to similarly lengthen the term of the Highway Superintendent failed 301 votes (43.2%) to 395 (56.8%).  And the Town Clerk’s term extension lost 292 votes (41.9%) to 405 (58.1%).

Councilperson Lynch reminded colleagues of those lopsided margins and of the troubling message he believes this year’s resubmission sends.

“The political class” says it didn’t like what the voters said the first time, Lynch proclaimed as what he saw was the majority’s message.  So it will ask those voters again and again until they provide the outcome politicians prefer, he said.

“I have mixed emotions,” Councilperson Lemke said as the issue first hit the meeting floor.  Once elected, it’s hard to remove an unwanted person from office, she acknowledged.  Therefore, shorter terms, Lemke said, serve a purpose.  Nonetheless, Lemke added her vote to the Town Board’s majority to move the local laws to a hearing.

 “You may get a different vote this time,” Lemke suggested, defending her support.

To get the three local laws onto November’s ballot, the Town Board would need to approve them at the same July meeting as the Public Hearing is held, unless a special session were to be called.  Clerk Cornell had informed Town officials Monday that the Board of Elections must receive the adopted laws by August 5th to qualify them for the General Election.  After July, the Town Board is not scheduled to meet again until August 14.

A July Public Hearting; the next stop.

And because Supervisor Redmond will be in flight, returning from a vacation during the July meeting, an otherwise unanimous agreement among remaining Board members will be required for the laws’ adoption, given Lynch’s staunch opposition to them.  Deputy Supervisor Greg Hutnik will preside at the July session, but New York law bars a deputy supervisor from casting a vote.

As Wednesday’s debate proceeded, Redmond expressed unqualified support for the longer Supervisor’s term, just as she’d done three years ago when the laws were first advanced.

You come in with “somebody else’s budget,” Redmond remarked concerning the steep learning curve an incoming Supervisor must face in office.

And to Redmond, campaigning door to door is not only an inconvenience to the candidate; it’s also an annoyance to the constituent.

“People are private here in a rural environment,” the Supervisor insisted.  They don’t like people coming to their door, distracting them, and seeking their signature.

Lynch said he’d never heard residents complain about his knocking on hundreds of doors during his prior campaigns.  Redmond countered that she’s heard those complaints, even against Lynch, himself.

“The first two years were scary,” Councilperson Cassandra Hinkle said, reflecting upon her initial months as Councilperson. “Two years is a very short time of it,” Hinkle observed of Enfield’s current election cycles for its Supervisor, Town Clerk, and Highway Super.

And a state-mandated wrinkle will make those forthcoming terms shorter still.  The New York Legislature last year altered election law to transition most terms of local office to even-numbered years.  Should Redmond, Rollins, and Cornell seek reelection next year—or even should they not—their two-year terms would shrink by a single year for just one election cycle to wedge them within the new law.  Their following elections would fall in 2026.

Town Councilpersons’ terms, by contrast, run for four years. Those terms would fall back to three years, but for just one cycle, whenever a Councilperson’s next term of office begins.

As Cornell and Rollins duly noted at Wednesday’s meeting, the local laws they’d endorsed would provide them some limited relief.  If adopted this fall, the extended terms for which they’d run in late-2025 would span three years, not just one.

What about the ‘remove the scoundrels’ argument that Lemke briefly broached in a shorter term’s defense.

“If they’re that bad, you can kick them out,” Rollins countered concerning an unfit office-holder.  Lemke cautioned expulsion is more difficult than it first sounds.

Since the suddenly-advanced terms of office initiative had received not one ray of sunlight prior to the opening gavel of Wednesday’s meeting, public reaction to the Board’s majority action has yet to be gauged.  In the weeks ahead, no doubt, it will surface.

His own opposition aside, Councilperson Lynch stressed he harbors no animosity against Clerk Cornell for having resurrected the terms of office laws.  But he’ll continue to oppose them.

“I will vote against this resolution,” Lynch promised Wednesday night. “I will vote against them in November… and I will likely campaign against them this fall.”

“There was a time when things like this made me angry,” this writer-Councilperson observed after Wednesday’s meeting had ended.  “But now I’m just sad; sad that the will of the electorate has been so ignored.”

###

Posted Previously:

ICSD’s Brown likely to exit in ‘28

by Robert Lynch, June 6, 2024

Though it remained unpublicized as of midday Thursday, Dr. Luvelle Brown, the Ithaca City School District’s sometimes-controversial Superintendent of Schools, will likely step down from that position when his current contract with the District expires in 2028—if not before.

School Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown (at a recent meeting)

Dr. Brown “is not seeking an extension or amendment to his current contract,” a District official stated to online publication 14850 Today on Tuesday, June 4th after its reporter inquired about an “HR [Human Resources] Work Session” the Board of Education had planned for later that afternoon.

”He has committed to serve through June 30, 2028,” the publication further reported the spokesperson as saying regarding Dr. Brown.

The story, though a genuine scoop, has received little or no mention elsewhere since it was posted.

The H.R. Committee’s work session was to be devoted entirely to an executive session.  The online publication implied Dr. Brown’s continuing status was to be discussed in that private committee meeting.

As of late Thursday morning, no news release or other notification could be found on the Ithaca City School District’s complex, multi-layered website concerning Dr. Brown’s status.

Asked to confirm the report, Tricia Beresford, Clerk of the Ithaca Board of Education, Thursday morning said this statement of fact: “Dr. Brown’s current contract is valid through June 30, 2028.”  Beresford directed further inquiries to the ICSD’s Communications Office.

Dr. Brown’s contract calls for the Ithaca Board of Education to provide the Superintendent annual extensions of that contract four years in advance of its termination.  The Board customarily votes on such extensions during June.

Winning candidate Todd Fox; He wanted no extension.

Following its Monday, June 3rd special meeting where it quickly discussed and approved the $163 Million revised 2024-25 Budget to be submitted voters for a re-vote later this month, the School Board recessed for an executive session, the latest of several in recent weeks.  The Monday closed session’s purpose was stated for “discussing the employment history of a particular individual,” a boilerplate phrase used to comply with the state’s Open Meetings Law.

“The work of the Board is done for the evening,” Board President Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell stated as he closed the open meeting.  “We have no clue how long we’ll be in executive session,” he said.  “But there will be no additional votes for the evening, as I understand them.” 

A post-meeting video confirms that absence of any further public action.

In the recent Ithaca School Board election, most candidates stood uncommitted as to whether they’d support further extending Dr. Brown’s contract.  However, one successful candidate, Todd Fox, stated publicly that he would not support an extension.

At several recent meetings, Superintendent Brown has assertively defended his tenure and performance during his years of service, despite recent New York State Education Department reports that found several schools, including Enfield Elementary, and most recently Boynton and Dewitt middle schools, deficient in their student performance.  The middle schools’ performance deficiency among African American students was cited in particular.

Any efforts to end Luvelle Brown’s contract prior to its June 2028 scheduled termination have not been discussed publicly by Board members during open meetings.

In January 2021, Dr. Brown had announced his planned resignation to accept a corporate position.  But he later rescinded that resignation, and the Board of Education at the time allowed the Superintendent to continue.  Annual contract extensions have followed.

###

To Tompkins County Government:

Next Administrator’s pay close to 200k

Tompkins Legislators approve raise; nix tax cap override

by Robert Lynch; June 5, 2024

Just like fixing your car or cutting your hair, the price of running your county’s government has fallen victim to inflation.

The vote: 12-0, as legislators approve the next County Administrator’s boosted salary.

By unanimous votes during each of two meetings Tuesday, Tompkins County lawmakers approved a new, higher salary for whomever it hires to succeed Lisa Holmes as Tompkins County Administrator after Holmes retires at the end of this year.  The new Administrator’s annual pay will approach $200,000.

In the same meeting at which members ratified a committee’s earlier-recommended salary increase, the full Legislature balked at approving a usually-routine local law that would permit next year’s county budget to increase its tax levy above the otherwise unenforceable “Tax Cap” that Albany accountants annually set.

The Legislature’s failure to muster the needed supermajority to allow the cap’s override provided the latest confirmation that the political class is listening to taxpayer unrest, discontent most vividly expressed by Ithaca City School District voters’ rejection in May of  their next year’s budget by an uncharacteristically hostile seven-to-three margin.

As to the Administrator’s pay, County Commissioner of Human Resources Ruby Pulliam recommended to the Legislature’s Budget, Capital, and Personnel Committee Tuesday afternoon that the Administrator’s starting salary be raised to a high-end limit of $180,000.  “It would give us a competitive edge,” Pulliam said.  “It would also allow us to put our best foot forward and hopefully save some time (in finding a successful candidate).”

H.R. Commissioner Pulliam: A higher salary “would give us a competitive edge.” And $5,000 to move is “astronomically low.”

When Lisa Holmes was elevated from Deputy Administrator to County Administrator in March 2022, Tompkins County “red-lined” the position’s pay upwards to $160,000.  The action placed the salary higher than its otherwise-specified salary grade would have provided. 

And the further increase recommended in committee Tuesday was higher than had first been planned.  A printed Resolution before the Budget Committee would have risen the new hire’s starting pay to between $165,000 and $175,000.  Committee members bumped the high-end number up an additional $5,000 at Pulliam’s request.

Several hours later, when the committee’s recommendation came to the floor of the full Legislature, the revised measure passed with little discussion.

Pulliam advised the committee that pay for successful new employees generally rises by five per cent after nine months in the job.   For Holmes’ successor, that would increase the position’s “work rate” pay to $189,000 annually.

In addition to the higher starting salary, the Legislature Tuesday provided up to $10,000 as a relocation bonus for the new Administrator.  At H.R. Commissioner Pulliam’s request, the committee doubled its relocation allowance from an earlier-proposed $5,000.

“Realistically, that is an astronomically low number,” Pulliam said of the $5,000 relocation package first proposed. 

Pressed later by the committee, the H.R. Commissioner explained that the $10,000 in moving reimbursements would exist as a ceiling, not an assurance.  Expenses would need to be documented, and temporary housing costs would not count toward reimbursement.

“I would hate to advertise a lower salary,” Pulliam told the committee, “and waste a month or two with people who are not getting applications, then starting over to increase the salary.”

Administrator Holmes: She got $160,000. Her successor will get more.

Indeed, those false starts have proven true in the recent past.  After Jason Molino resigned as County Administrator in 2021, the Legislature first bumped up the Administrator’s salary to $160,000 and launched a nationwide search.  But it came up dry on its first attempt.  The search then began its second-round.  That’s when Holmes applied and secured the promotion.

With Lisa Holmes having announced her retirement plans this past April, Tompkins County will again, as it did after Molino left, search nationwide for her successor.  That’s despite a national search’s limited success in the past.  This time, the firm Goodwin Recruiting will seek out candidates.  Goodwin will receive $55,000 for its effort; a fee computed at one-quarter of the first year’s starting salary plus the newly-raised relocation bonus.  Pulliam said the rate is standard for executive head-hunting firms.

When the committee’s recommendation reached the full Legislature, the only question came from Newfield’s Randy Brown, who asked why the head-hunter’s commission was as high as it was. (Legislators Mike Sigler and Deborah Dawson were excused at the time of the Legislature’s subsequent, otherwise-unanimous vote.)

“I’m probably a minority here, but I think this is a little too rich for my blood,” Budget Chair Mike Lane said earlier in committee that afternoon.  Lane noted that a few years ago, under Molino, the Administrator’s pay was only around $140,000.  Then it went to $160,000 under Holmes; and now up to nearly $190,000 next year, nine months after the new hire would take office. 

Mike Lane: The higher pay “is a little too rich for my blood.” he still voted yes.

“I think that’s a pretty fast increase for the County Administrator,” Lane observed.  Nevertheless, the chairman joined in the committee’s—and later the full Legislature’s—unanimous votes. 

Committee member Rich John was similarly reticent, but endorsed the recommendation after careful thought.

“I’m looking at our budget where we came in just under a quarter-billion dollars,” John reminded himself.  “We are a big operation.”  With “the responsibility entailed in that,” he reasoned, “I can live with the 180; actually 189.”

Groton’s Lee Shurtleff recalled that perhaps 25 years ago, Tompkins County was paying its Administrator only $100,000.  With three percent annual increases compounded over those decades, Shurtleff said, what’s being recommended now probably hasn’t kept up with inflation.

“We need the flexibility in order to recruit from the widest pool,” Shurtleff said in support of the salary the committee set.

****

During Tuesday’s committee discussion of administrative pay, Mike Lane took note of the newly-erupting taxpayer revolts. “We’re seeing feedback at school districts,” Lane said, plainly referencing budget rejections in both Ithaca and Newfield over perceived runaway school spending.  So it became ironic that later in the day, Lane proved the most ardent defender of the proposed Tompkins County local law that would override New York State’s so-called “two per cent tax cap” within the County’s own next year’s budget.

Mike Sigler: A vote to override the tax cap “does send a signal,” the wrong one.

The tax cap override has been a routine ritual of government.  The override law has been adopted most every year, yet seldom invoked.   It’s been used only once.  State law requires a supermajority of nine legislators for the local law to pass.  Tuesday, it fell one vote short.  All of its supporters were Democrats.

“I vote against this every year,” Republican legislator Mike Sigler—also a candidate for State Senate— stated proudly.  “And I would like to note that the public is 100 per cent against this.”

“I think it does send a signal that we are open to kind of raising taxes,” Sigler warned of the override.  He said it’s a vote that can be taken later, not now, and done so when the Legislature gets closer to adopting its budget this fall and finds the higher levy necessary.

At a “budget retreat” in late-April, legislators directed Administrator Holmes to keep next year’s tax levy increase no higher than this year’s levy rise of two per cent.  Holmes said that such a limit would force spending cuts, as maintaining current service levels would push the levy up by 5.9 per cent.

“I think the message is out there that we are going to keep our tax rate as low as possible and keep our levy as low as possible, and I want to continue with that message,” Sigler stated.

Before votes were recorded, Sigler left to attend his daughter’s high school music concert.  And while no one expects Sigler would change his mind were Tuesday’s rejection ever to be reconsidered, another absent member’s vote could be in play.  Deborah Dawson was also away that meeting night.  It’s believed she’d support the tax override.  And she could raise the issue again, providing she attends the Legislature’s next meeting June 18th and seeks reconsideration then.

For what it’s worth, Mike Lane complained after the vote that had he known how close Tuesday’s vote would be, he’d have changed his position before the final tally so that he could have sought reconsideration later.

I don’t think this is the year to be dramatically raising taxes,” Greg Mezey, one of only two Democrats to oppose the override, told the Legislature.  “It seems kind of unnecessary to me.”

Mezey stated that in his opinion, Tompkins County can weather “whatever storm may come our way.”  And he also acknowledged that some believe Tompkins County has “in excess of $30 Million” of savings—previous tax collections—in its own fund balance.

“I see no reason to pass this tonight,” Mezey said.

Among those legislators representing Enfield, Anne Koreman voted in favor of the override; Randy Brown opposed it.

###

And to the Ithaca School Board:

Ithaca BOE sends Tax Cap Budget to voters

Ithaca’s Board of Education deliberating, prior to taking its budget vote, June 3rd. Erin Croyle is at far left; Board President Sean Eversley Bradwell is at far right; Katie Apker is on Zoom; Eldred Harris had yet to join.

by Robert Lynch; June 3, 2024; additional reporting June 4, 2024

Whether by happenstance or by intent, the visor on Erin Croyle’s cap blocked us from seeing the emotion in her eyes Monday night.  But it could not hide her words. “We need to make it very clear,” the Ithaca School Board member said, that if we are forced to accept a Contingency Budget, “our schools would be a shell of themselves.”

At past meetings, Croyle, the mother of a disabled Ithaca student and the Board’s leading advocate for spending what it takes to ensure quality instruction, has nearly cried when critics faulted the district’s budget as being bloated, and when Board colleagues agonized over where and how to cut, and cut… and cut even more, just to find a level of school spending and taxation that voters will approve this second time around.

Nonetheless, Monday night, Erin Croyle joined her six colleagues at the meeting table and a seventh on Zoom to endorse and send to Ithaca’s voters June 18th a trimmed-down $163 Million next year’s budget, one that would set projected spending low enough so that its tax levy increase would fall under New York State’s tax cap.

And because the budget would be tax cap-compliant, the resubmitted proposal would require only a simple majority of support to pass, not the 60 per cent super-majority of the electorate that the earlier-rejected $168 Million spending plan would have needed, yet never got.

It would have been a surprise had the Board Monday endorsed anything except the Tax Cap Budget (otherwise known as the “Re-vote Budget.”)  For more than three hours on Tuesday, May 28th, the Ithaca Board of Education had agonized over the budget its voters had rejected. Its members had increasingly coalesced around revisions that would contain the tax levy within the cap and shrink the earlier budget’s 8.4 per cent levy increase, rejected May 21st, to a mere 2.92 per cent.

The $168.9 Million proposal put to Ithaca’s voters in May lost in a landslide, with more than seven out of ten opposing it.  State law permits a school board to resubmit a failed budget only once, whether modified or not.  Recognizing the margin of loss, no one on the Board of Education during its post-mortem meetings has given serious consideration to submitting the exact same budget a second time.  Rather, the issue has been how deeply to cut spending, while at the same time bracing for the stark consequences of a second potential defeat.

Board President Eversley Bradwell: “Not the budget that I want, but the budget I can support.”

Should a revote fail, state law would mandate a “Contingency Budget” for next year.  It would lock-in the next year’s tax levy at the current year’s level.  It would also usher in a host of draconian austerities that scare parent-educators like Erin Croyle. Class sizes would invariably increase.  Equipment could not be bought.  Buildings could be used only for instructional programming, thereby severely curtailing their after-school use.  And extracurricular activities like fine and performing arts could see major cuts.

“There would be nothing after-school except sports,” Croyle warned.  “And extracurriculars would be reduced.  I mean, that’s a terrifying prospect,” she said.

No member of the Ithaca Board of Education had the stomach Monday for adopting a Contingency Budget for the year ahead. But such an austere option remained the only alternative on the table to the tax cap-tied plan the Board ultimately embraced.  A more costly compromise, one that would have hiked spending by 4.1 per cent, an increase in line with the Consumer Price Index, had already been unceremoniously scratched from consideration at the meeting one week earlier.

“This is the community’s opportunity to tell us what they think,” Jill Tripp, the Ithaca Board of Education’s most fervent advocate of fiscal frugality, told Board colleagues Monday.  And Tripp gave the tax-cap limiting “Re-vote Budget” her stamp of approval.

“It’s not a perfect budget,” Tripp acknowledged.  “It doesn’t have everything that I wanted.  And it has some things I didn’t want.  But I believe we’ve come pretty much to consensus on this, and I will support this budget.”

“I think we’re headed in the right direction, and I expect that we’ll continue in the direction that we started on,” Jill Tripp observed.  “So I’ll be voting yes.  I hope you’ll join me,” she said.

Board president Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell came to a similar conclusion.

“It’s not the budget that I want, but the budget I can support,” Eversley Bradwell said, the Board President echoing his almost identical assessment of the budget compromise made nearly a week earlier.

Board member Jill Tripp: “We’re heading in the right direction. I will vote yes.”

Whereas the Ithaca Board of Education strained over budget numbers at its previous meeting, Monday’s decisions came quickly.  It completed its public session in only about three-quarters of an hour.  Seven of the Board’s nine members attended in the High School’s York Lecture Hall.  Katie Apker Zoomed into the meeting.  For reasons never explained, Eldred Harris—like Croyle, a staunch backer of costlier alternatives—joined the meeting only after the Board had taken its key budget votes.

As was discussed in greater detail May 28th, the Re-vote Budget endorsed Monday would eliminate an estimated 22 teaching positions within the Ithaca City School District (ICSD).  When compared with the higher budget that voters rejected in May, a full 39 teaching positions would be cut.

Deputy School Superintendent Lily Talcott told the Board that based on a five-year average, about 58 teachers retire or resign the school system annually.  Therefore, administrators believe the proposed teaching reductions can be accomplished through attrition.

But should a Contingency Budget become the voter-dictated default alternative, administrators have not forecast publicly how deeply instructional staff might be cut.

Yet perhaps the financial numbers give an idea.  The “Re-vote” compromise, embraced by the School Board Monday, would force $5.9 Million less in spending compared to May’s voter-rejected budget.  A Contingency Budget would cut $9 Million from the May submission’s spending total.  

A Contingency Budget would spend $159,864,221, just a fraction of a per cent above this year’s spending level. That budget’s tax levy would remain at this year’s $107,714,290.   The $163 Million Re-vote budget would set its tax levy a bit higher, at $110,862,167.

District Chief Operating Officer Amanda Verba brought one unplanned surprise to the Board of Education’s meeting Monday.  After the district had earlier this year been denied a hoped-for grant to subsidize the purchase of electric school buses, Verba informed the Board that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just awarded the ICSD $800,000 in rebates to purchase electric vehicles.

The district can use $200,000 of the rebate money to reduce the price of each electric school bus it buys.  Not yet knowing of the award, the Board last week trimmed from four to just two the number of electric buses it will ask voters to purchase in the June 18th revote. 

An eight-bus purchase, including the four electric vehicles, had been rejected by voters in May along with the budget.

The rebate money, Verba informed the Board, puts an electric bus’s price equivalent to that of a gasoline bus.  Nonetheless, the Board cannot retract or revisit last week’s action.  So half of the rebate money will have to wait its turn and be applied to the two remaining vehicles next year.

“The reality of the timing of it,” the administrator said, forces the delay.

###

And the decision in Newfield, made earlier:

Newfield BOE cuts “shop” to spare budget

Further, deeper cuts averted for now

by Robert Lynch; May 31, 2024

The Newfield Board of Education took a scalpel, not a meat axe to its once-failed school budget Thursday night.  And when its nearly two-hour surgery had ended, the Board handed voters a pared-down spending plan that would raise next year’s tax levy 28 per cent less than would have the budget voters rejected May 21st by a mere 18 votes.

Spending in the $25,411,093 revised budget that the Newfield Board unanimously adopted Thursday stands only a fraction of a per cent (or $71,318) below that of the budget rejected in May.  Yet it would increase the Newfield tax levy’s increase by only 2.5 per cent next year over that for the current year.  The plan voters turned down last month would have hiked the levy by 3.5 per cent.

How Newfield administrators and the Board accomplished that reduction quelled much of the anxiety that was expressed through comments at a meeting only one week earlier.  Sports programs need not be cut.  Nor would music programs like high school band be eliminated.  Elementary classroom sizes would not necessarily increase.

What would be impacted is a single upper-class-class program; today referred to as “Technology Instruction.”  The old-fashioned term was “shop.”  Though Newfield prides itself with having a large industrial arts area full of modern equipment, the shop will have no teacher next year.  But then, again, it hasn’t had one for a while.

“It has been very difficult to fill,” School Superintendent Eric Hartz told Board members Thursday concerning his efforts to hire a teacher in technology instruction.  Hartz said shop class hasn’t had a permanent instructor for the past three years.

“It has been very difficult to fill.” Superintendent Eric Hartz talking of the “Technology Instructor’s” position now being cut to trim the budget.

So from a personnel standpoint, eliminating the shop teacher is painless.  On the books, the job’s reduction saves the budget nearly $67,000 in salary and benefits.

Board members raised hypothetically some other more draconian cost-cutting measures during Thursday’s nearly two-hour discussion.  But none of them gained traction. At least they won’t until after Newfield’s electorate renders its verdict in the June 18th budget re-vote.

The first-submitted 2024-25 Newfield Schools’ Budget was rejected last month by a relatively narrow margin; 248 votes (48.2%) supportive to 266 votes (51.8%) opposed.  The margin of defeat pales by comparison to that in the district’s northeastern neighbor, the much-larger Ithaca City School District.  On that same day in May, the Ithaca budget went down in flames with more than 70 per cent of voters opposing it.

And other differences stand between the two districts:  Some are quantitative; others are qualitative and more difficult to grasp, unless one (like this writer) had heard the public comments and sensed the body language at post-mortem meetings conducted following this year’s budget defeats in both districts.

At $168.9 Million, the Ithaca City School District’s rejected budget was nearly seven times as large as Newfield’s.  So cutting expenses by eliminating a position or two here and there doesn’t hold the same leverage in Ithaca as it does in Newfield. 

Moreover, Ithaca’s tax hike began at a much-higher starting place.  Ithaca’s rejected school budget had called for an 8.4 per cent annual rise in the tax levy. (It had earlier been proposed as high as 12 per cent.) Newfield’s increase was a mere 3.5 per cent.  So closing a gap through minor cuts in Newfield proves far easier.

But there’s something else.  While public complaints about the initial budgets have arisen in both districts, objections registered in Newfield during two recent meetings have seemed more muted, more nuanced, and to an extent, more balanced.

At Board sessions in Ithaca the afternoon following its failed budget referendum and again May 28th, not one resident stood up to defend its district’s rejected budget.  It was different in Newfield.  At the Newfield District’s two comparable meetings, budget critics and supporters held nearly equal sway.

“Programs here are amazing,” one Newfield parent told her school board Thursday.  “It’s not perfect,” she acknowledged.  “But we can’t get these without spending the money.”

Indeed, of the eleven people who addressed the Newfield Board of Education prior to its Thursday deliberations, nearly as many referenced the problem of school bullying as focused on the budget.

Indeed, when it came to district finances, one of the more frequent Newfield comments—even among some members of the Board—involved an earlier initiative to acquire an electric school bus with its up-front expenditure of about a half-million dollars.  Its cost was to be partially abated through grant money. 

The bus measure lost in the May referendum by a sizeable margin (218 votes to 299).  Neither at last week’s nor at this week’s meetings did the School Board attempt to resubmit the bus purchase for a vote.

Should Newfield’s electorate reject the Board’s latest attempt to secure budget passage, state law requires the Board to impose a “Contingency Budget.”  Such a budget would freeze the tax levy at this year’s level and impose program cuts to keep spending in line with the district’s ability to pay its bills.

“If the 2.5 (percent levy increase) doesn’t pass, you need to think what contingency looks like,” Superintendent Hartz warned.  “Dollar for dollar, it doesn’t look like much,” Hartz stated, “But we lose a lot.”

Glad elementary classroom sizes would not increase. Newfield Board of Education President Christina Ward.

While a contingency budget would lower the tax increase from 2.5 per cent to zero, the personnel and program cuts such a budget might dictate could prove far more painful than the ones engineered Thursday.  Scenarios given greater consideration during the Board’s last meeting, May 23rd included the potential elimination of some or all sports programs, curtailing instrumental music instruction, and/or leaving multiple vacant teaching positions unfilled at the elementary or middle school levels.

But right now there’s no talk of layoffs.

“We’re not cutting anybody,” Hartz advised the Board concerning the technology instructional position.  “We’re looking at someone we can attrition down.”

Although the full-time shop instructor job has remained vacant for years, someone has been teaching a class or two there recently.  But that instructor is dual-certified in Special Education, and the Superintendent plans to reassign the teacher to Special Ed.

And although New York State mandates a certain amount of technology education, District officials plan some work-arounds.  State rules are quite lenient in that area, School Board President Christina Ward stated after the meeting.  Ward said math instructors may help fulfill the mandate.  Keyboarding or what were termed “other classroom integrated curricula/programs” could be employed.

But the technology shop will remain in place. 

“I don’t want to get rid of any equipment in that room,” the Superintendent said, suggesting it may be utilized in some way in the future.  “It’s a very large room,” Hartz said of the tech instructional area.  “There’s a lot of things you can do with that area to do something down the line.”

To close the budget gap, in addition to the shop teacher’s elimination, Newfield’s budget planners Thursday shaved $4,500 in administrative expenses, exacting minor cuts under the categories of Chief Administration, personnel administration, and the legal budget.

A bigger budget cut was broached by the Board at one point, but not carried forward, at least not yet.

“What else is there on our budget we can look at?” Board member Jeremy Tenwolde asked late in the discussion. “I’m throwing out a straw man,” he said, “Do we need three building principals?”

Currently, Newfield employs principals at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.  Board President Ward later explained that the district had all three positions filled prior to COVID.  It merged middle and high school administration during the pandemic, but then restored three-person supervision thereafter. 

But with budgets now tight, the three-principal issue returns for reconsideration.

Talk of an administrative cutback drew Board member Shana Claar into the discussion.  Claar, who passionately defended Newfield’s program at last week’s meeting, drew from that emotional well once more.

“I don’t know how we could have less supervision,” Claar reasoned, the Board member taking note of the parent-expressed public comments about in-school bullying. “I have seen a lot of improvement when it comes to taking children’s emotional well-being into account.”

“Having a principal in all three schools wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t have behavioral issues,” Claar told colleagues. “How do we show concern for the emotional and mental health of students when there’s less oversight?”

Shana Claar will depart the Newfield School Board next month.

The Board’s Shana Claar (with Jeremy Tenwolde): Administrative oversight shows “concern for the emotional and mental health” of students.

Tenwolde backed away from his straw man suggestion about administrators and changed the subject.  “I do hear from teachers.  In my mind, a happy teacher is a better teacher.”

Board Vice-President Timothy Payne advanced another possibility.  He questioned about possible reductions among non-teaching staff.

Superintendent Hartz shot down that idea. Hartz said positions like cleaning staff are already drawn thin.

To make the proposed tax levy increase in the revised budget equal an even 2.5 per cent, the Board at the last moment withdrew $493 from its fund balance.  That reduction will not hurt.  Yet, still, Newfield’s financial cushion—its fund balance—has limits.

“We totally have less than a million dollars to our name right now,” Hartz cautioned, referencing a fund balance that barely climbs into the seventh digit.

And while he was talking frugality and thrift, Hartz countered those who might criticize his own pay check.

“People think I’m making a Billion dollars.  I’m not,” the Superintendent said.  He rattled off his annual pay these last four years.  A document posted on the District website lists Hart’s salary for 2024-25 at $157,480, plus $52,262 in benefits.

Revised personnel numbers that administrators shared at Thursday’s meeting revealed they anticipate at least nine vacancies at the close of this school year.  Four of those positions would be at the middle school, now two in the music department, two in special education, and one at the high school.  With the technology position presumably one of the nine, Thursday’s Board action means the remaining eight openings can be filled, presuming applicants are found—and of course, barring any further austerity a contingency budget might later demand.

Meeting one week earlier, the Superintendent had forewarned that leaving vacant positions open could raise class sizes at the lower grades, increasing 15-17 student classrooms to 20 students or more.

As she left Thursday’s public meeting to enter an executive session, Board President Christina Ward credited the avoidance of those classroom increases as among the evening’s better accomplishments.

Newfield voters ballot on their revised budget June 18th.  A Public Hearing on it is set for Monday, June 10th.

###

Now, the Ithaca School Board story:

Recast ICSD budget to hover levy below Tax Cap

The “Vote to Revote;” Ithaca’s School Board May 28th sends a modified budget and bus purchase package to a June referendum.

by Robert Lynch; May 29, 2024; expanded reporting now posted.

While it left details to be resolved later, the Ithaca Board of Education late Tuesday strongly signaled that a revised Ithaca City School District Budget (ICSD), to be submitted voters June 18th, will carry a tax levy increase no higher than the New York State tax cap, an increase well under that of the initial nearly $169 Million budget Ithaca voters resoundingly rejected one week earlier.

Not a happy budget night: Erin Croyle; she wanted more; must settle for less.

Near the end of a more than three-and-a-half hour public session, the Board (with one member excused) voted unanimously to put before the electorate next month the trimmed-down budget, together with a modified bus purchase option, one only half as costly as the package that was also voted down in last week’s referendum.

“It meets what I was looking for, and it meets my understanding of what many of our public correspondents (community members) have been looking for,” School Board member Jill Tripp, this year’s chief ICSD budget hawk, said as her colleagues coalesced around a $163 Million revised spending plan, one that would hike the tax levy only 2.92 per cent.  Its spending would rise 2.79 per cent over the year.

“So I’ll just say, to be brief, that I would support the revote option under the tax cap,” Tripp told colleagues.

Tripp’s endorsement, if carried forward to a final School Board show of hands next week, could prove critical.  Many Ithaca School District voters respect Jill Tripp’s fiscal frugality.  They listen to her words.  And Dr. Tripp’s support could drag many more votes the revised budget’s way.

By contrast to the “tax cap option” given the most serious consideration Tuesday, the proposed budget Ithaca’s voters rejected at the polls May 21st would have raised the tax levy 8.4 per cent.  And an initial proposal offered by administrators earlier would have boosted the levy by more than 12 per cent.

Some Board members—most notably Eldred Harris and Erin Croyle—grumbled about the cuts necessary to make the new budget work.  The “Revote Budget” as it’s being called, would cut an estimated 22 teaching positions from those at present, or 39 teachers from what the rejected budget would have supported.  Administrators predicted all cuts would be absorbed through attrition.

One top-level administrator would also be eliminated, the position’s identity not specified.

The Board will reconvene in a week—probably Monday, June 3rd— to finalize the revised budget’s details.  Members Tuesday resisted their only likely alternative, a so-called “Contingency Budget.”  It would have cut spending still deeper.

Two Board members—Adam Krantweiss and Garrick Blalock—opposed resubmitting the bus purchase measure in any form, Blalock fearing its mere presence on the ballot could sink both propositions and force the ICSD into state-mandated austerity.

Board Pres. Eversley Bradwell on the “Revote Budget”: Not a budget I want, but “an absolute budget that I can support.”

As they haggled over details during the final hour of their meeting—as 11 PM came and went—the revised transportation proposition would now buy only half as many buses as previously proposed.  Instead of four electric buses, the District would purchase two; and instead of four “ultra-low emission propane buses,” it would buy just two.  The proposition would tap only $1.6 Million from a capital reserve fund, not the$3.2 Million that voters had rejected May 21st.

And although it would normally have gained top-billing at any other meeting, the Board also welcomed a late-filed Resolution submitted by Board member Jill Tripp that would direct the Superintendent to negotiate a “memorandum of agreement” with Cornell University to pay $10 Million to the ICSD annually in lieu of taxes.

In accordance with its procedure, the Board, as its final order of business, accepted Tripp’s proposal, but laid it on the table for action at a future meeting. 

Tripp, a frequent advocate of increased Cornell support of the School District, stated in the Resolution that the university’s support would formalize the “mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship” between Cornell and Ithaca’s schools.

Cornell voluntarily contributed $650,000 to the ICSD in 2023 (up from $500,000 the year before), according to a report last August in the Cornell Chronicle.

Seventy-one percent of those who participated in late-May’s high-turnout Ithaca School District election voted against the $168.9 Million dollar proposed budget and the double-digit tax levy hike it would have carried.  They also voted out of office two of three Board incumbents who’d sought reelection.  A half-dozen of those presumed disgruntled voters appeared before the Board of Education Tuesday to continue their critique.

One of the critics; Jim Meehan: We didn’t give you “a blank check.”

The Board’s public speaking rules prohibit referencing employees by name. Yet none too subtly, several speakers focused their attention on the person at the top, School Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown.

“This Board is a lame-duck board,” Michael Hayes asserted.  Hayes urged the Board delay any vote on extending Dr. Brown’s four-year contract until new Board members assume office in July.

Last month’s vote was a “signal,” speaker Megan McDonald reasoned.  “It’s time to look for a new leader with a different set of skills,” she insisted.

“That budget was out of line, and it had no definition behind it, like we were giving you a blank check,” speaker Jim Meehan told the meeting.

Once the public had spoken, the Board’s budget defenders—most notably, Erin Croyle and Eldred Harris—took their turns at the mic.  15-year incumbent Harris, African-American, was among those voted off the Board last month.

“You want to talk about a contingency budget?” Harris asked, “I want to talk about kids who don’t see a way out, hitting people over the head on the Commons.”  Harris continued, “You want to talk about a contingency budget?  I want to talk about less of our students going on to college; less being prepared for the workforce.”

Eldred Harris talked of a community—our community—that finds itself “caught in a terrible middle.”  Tax-abated developments stand on one side; rising poverty on the other.  And “to put this on the heads of children is abnormal.” Harris said.

Departing Board member Eldred Harris: “You want to talk about a Contingency Budget? I want to talk about kids who don’t see a way out.”

“We are not immune to inflation,” Erin Croyle responded to the community’s cost-conscious budget critics.  And reflecting on a recent New York State evaluation that faulted Enfield Elementary as well as both of Ithaca’s middle schools for poor performance, an emotion-bound Croyle declared, “Our schools aren’t failing the students, our society is failing the students.”

No member of the Ithaca School Board Tuesday night had the audacity to resubmit to voters the same budget as they’d rejected by a more than two-to-one margin a week earlier.  And although they never voted their formal rejection, Board members tacitly cast aside an option administrators had earlier offered.  It would have tied a trimmed-down budget’s increase to the Consumer Price Index.  The “CPI Budget” would have hiked spending by 4.1 per cent and the tax levy by nearly five per cent from the current year.

“The clear message that was sent,” Board President Sean Eversley Bradwell said, opining on the voters’ verdict, “was not lost on anybody.”  And with those words, he steered colleagues away from the CPI Budget and toward the less-costly one, its levy in line with the tax cap.

And to underscore the Board President’s preference, when District Chief Operating Officer Amanda Verba presented to the meeting her PowerPoint, she’d already scratched a line across the “CPI Budget.”

“A CPI Budget is not tenable at this time,” Eversley Bradwell said.  Others on the Board might have thought differently.  But no one chose to lobby in its favor.

The tax cap-tied “Revote Budget” will demand administrators cut $5.7 Million in spending from the budget rejected in May.  A “CPI Budget” would have required $3.8 Million in cuts.  The more austere “Contingency Budget” would impose a $9 Million reduction.

No clearer statement of Board sentiment than Administrator Verba’s PowerPoint slide: The “tax cap” becomes the starting point. Contingency is the alternative.

The Tax Cap budget will require only a simple majority to pass in the June 18th referendum.  The CPI Budget, like the one previously rejected, would have required 60 per cent approval.

Aside from the 39 teaching positions pared from the earlier budget to support this new one, cost-cutting options administrators propose in the tax cap-tied Revote Budget include a suggested 17-student minimum class size at the elementary and/or middle and high school levels.  It’s a limitation that could restrict some upper-class course offerings.

Other economies include a 22 per cent reduction in administrative labor costs, and what Verba called “vacancy control,” pausing the filling of many vacant positions.

“In terms of the executive team, there will be fewer of us,” Verba and Deputy School Superintendent Lily Talcott made clear.  Names were not mentioned.

This current year, ICSD has budgeted seven administrators within its topmost ranks.  The revised budget would cut them to six.  The District currently has 581 teachers in its budget.  The “Revote Budget” would trim them to 559.

****

“While this is not a budget I want, this is an absolute budget that I can support,” Sean Eversley Bradwell said of the tax-cap limiting option, admitting quite clearly, that the perfect to him cannot be the enemy of the good.

And if the “Revote Budget” were to go down June 18th, state law would mandate a Contingency Budget take its place.  That’s an option the Board President would clearly disfavor.

“I would feel alarmed as a community member well outside of my Board role if we were at a Contingency Budget,” Eversley Bradwell stated.  Of such a budget, he cautioned, “I understand the long-term impact probably for a generation.” 

Expect the School Board to finalize its budget decision at a special meeting, now scheduled for Monday, June 3rd.

###

The previous Newfield story:

Newfield to Revise, Revote School Budget

by Robert Lynch; May 24, 2024

Tompkins County’s lesser-publicized school budgeting crisis meandered its way toward potential resolution Thursday night.  It took place in Newfield.

No, Newfield’s budget defeat in Tuesday’s referendum did not even come close to the taxpayer-driven tsunami of a rejection the Ithaca City School District’s budget also suffered that same day.  But a loss is still a loss.  And Thursday, the Newfield Board of Education addressed its own, much more closely-drawn taxpayer turndown.  It sought a solution.

The school board found that job difficult.  For more than three hours, its members questioned staff, weighed alternatives, and agonized amidst fatigue and indecision.  And by the time they’d adjourned shortly before 10 PM, the seven servants the district had elected to guide its schools still hadn’t decided exactly what to do.  All they’d decided was to put before the electorate June 18th a revised budget of some sort, a budget that might cure enough of the ills of the one rejected by a mere 18 votes two days earlier to secure the support needed to pass. 

And as members saw it, a pared-down, voter-approved budget is something better than a bare-bones “contingency budget” that state rules would otherwise impose upon Newfield should nothing else be done.

“Do we have to make a decision tonight?”  Board President Christina Ward asked late in the meeting, questioning whether the Board needed to identify specific items to cut before members went home.

“No,” School Business Manager Perry Gorgen answered.

“What stuff are you willing to cut?” departing Board member Shana Claar asked colleagues.

“I feel we do not have any prior significant input as to why people are unhappy,” member Jeremy Tenwolde remarked, his view reflective of the evening’s lack of a firm programmatic march forward.

Tuesday’s Newfield budget loss was narrow, much narrower than the drubbing Ithaca’s much more expensive school budget had received that same day, May 21st.  The Newfield Budget lost 248 votes (48.2%) to 266 (51.8%).  Ithaca’s had failed by a margin of more than two-to-one.

Superintendent Eric Hartz: Tasked with setting priorities. Cutting each unfilled teaching slot saves $85,000. How many can we risk?

In the Newfield referendum, a separate proposition, one that would have bought a school bus and a van—the bus either all-electric or diesel-powered—also lost, but by a much-wider margin, 218 votes to 299.  Under the proposition’s wording, the bus purchases might have cost the district $556,000 upfront, yet obligated taxpayers only to about $234 thousand because of anticipated grants.

Although the School Board Thursday briefly discussed seeking a revote on the bus, it later killed the idea through its own chosen silence.  It took no vote on the bus proposition’s resubmission.  After the meeting, Board President Ward confirmed that the  inaction meant the purchase was dead.

As the School Board left the budget matter Thursday, it will reconvene in one week’s time, on Thursday, May 30, to decide the extent to which the earlier-rejected $25.48 Million budget will be cut, and also what programs or people may need to be eliminated to accomplish that reduction.

Though Board discussion was often informal and hard to follow, Ward explained later that it had tasked Business Manager Gorgen and School Superintendent Eric Hartz to present the Board May 30th various cost-cutting parameters to produce a projected tax levy increase of between 2.5% and 3.5%.  The budget that voters had rejected Tuesday carried the higher, 3.5 per cent levy boost.

Ward acknowledged that the Board may choose to stray outside the general parameters she’d just specified, though presumably any deviation would stray only to the low-side of that range.

After Tuesday’s budget rejection, Newfield’s only alternative to a budget resubmission would be a state-mandated “contingency budget.” Such a budget would curtail expenses further and keep next year’s tax levy no more than this year’s level, $7,181,075.  Newfield’s rejected budget would have raised taxpayer obligations to $7,432,413.  District spending would have risen by even more, climbing by four per cent.

If the Newfield budget revote on June 18th were to fail, the contingency budget would kick-in regardless.

Newfield’s budget challenge pales by comparison to Ithaca’s.  The Ithaca City School District (ICSD) proposed budget of nearly $169 Million, voted down May 21st, would have hiked ICSD’s spending by 6.5 per cent and the tax levy by 8.42 per cent.  Cost-cutting options eyed by Ithaca School Board members at a committee meeting Wednesday would have throttled-down tax levy increases to the three-to-five percentage point range.

But if Newfield’s Board must trim expenses, where should it start?  Superintendent Eric Hartz suggested that one starting point might be to leave unfilled one or more teaching positions expected to fall vacant this summer.  Administrators have identified two such positions in the elementary school, two more at the middle school, two in special education, and two in the music department.  

Cutting positions at the elementary level, Hartz said, could raise class sizes there from the present 15-17 students per room range to as many as 20-22.  Cutting teachers at the middle school, he warned, could eventually lead to higher dropout rates.

And if music positions at the high school are cut, the Superintendent warned, “That will be a loss of program… there will be some things lost.”

Given State Education Department vocal music mandates, Hartz reasoned that cuts “will more likely be on the band side of it.”  Worst case:  band could be eliminated.

Figures presented the Board indicated that eliminating each identified teaching position would save $85,000 annually in pay and benefits.

And what about interscholastic sports?  Administrators have left eliminating sports offerings as a possibility, especially were Newfield to resort to a stripped-down contingency budget.

Under a contingency budget, “you can still have a sports program,” Business Manager Gorgen told the Board, “But whether we will be able to afford a sports program is an open question.”

Business Manager Perry Gorgen: With Contingency, you can still have a sports program, but can you afford it?

Elimination of Newfield’s preschool special education program was also cited as a possible place to cut.

Newfield’s meeting drew a dozen and a half attendees Thursday.  They included Tompkins County Legislator Randy Brown.  Brown apologized for not having had time to vote in the referendum.  Had he done so, it appears the budget’s loss would have been reduced from 18 votes to 17.

“I would have voted for the budget because of the kids,” Brown said during privilege-of-the-floor comments he gave near the start of the meeting.

Brown offered a suggestion he said might improve the budget’s prospects.  “I would hope that there would be a much closer connection to the community,” Brown said.  “I drive by and see the school empty half the year… It’s gotta’ be known, this is the place to be.

“Open up the District to more and more people,” Brown urged. 

Newfield Board of Education rules permit the public to comment at both the beginning and the end of meetings.  Thursday, residents were heard at both ends; their remarks sometimes spirited; occasionally personal.  Small community grievances gained a foothold for airing.  One man expressed concern that his candid criticism of the budget had been removed from a Newfield Community Facebook page (one not overseen by the school district.)  He cried censorship.

“I would like to see some reduction in the levy,” Randy Brown remarked during his own second and final speaking opportunity.  Brown suggested a compromise levy increase of one per cent be struck.

But if there was a single, most-emotional moment during Newfield’s arguably overly-long meeting, that moment was owned by Shana Claar, a two-year Board incumbent and a candidate who finished as the odd-person out in this week’s three-way election for two Board seats.  Having lost, she’ll leave the Board within weeks.  An apt observer could draw striking parallels—both emotional and philosophical—between Claar and another parent-educator, albeit from a different place; Erin Croyle, a young mother who sits on the Ithaca Board of Education.

Shana Claar, like Croyle, had wanted her budget to pass.  It did not.  When the Ithaca budget was publicly pummeled by taxpayers at a hearing earlier this month, Erin Croyle nearly cried.  Thursday night in Newfield, it was Shana Claar’s turn.

An emotional Shana Claar: If we cut too deeply, “we will lose so much.”

“When I brought my children back here, it was because of the programs,” Claar said, holding back tears.  “If we don’t provide the programs for students, they’ll move out,” she predicted.  “This school is the heart of the community, and if we can’t provide what they need, we will lose so much.”

If Shana Claar was drawn to emotion, Superintendent Hartz was driven to anger.  His was anger directed not to Newfield’s taxpayers, nor at the Board of Education, but to the State of New York. 

The Superintendent said Albany has yet to provide him a straight answer to his funding questions, important questions this year given the just-enacted changes to aid formulas made within the state budget.

And those who live locally and pay to educate Newfield’s students, Hartz said, have good reason to be angry as well. Their wallets have been drained excessively; funding formulas are anything but equitable.

“I feel horrible to taxpayers,” Hartz said.  “The whole system is broken.”

The next piece in that broken system occurs June 18th.  That’s when Newfield votes yet again on its school budget. Likely, so too, will Ithaca.

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(Correction:  An earlier version of this story had erroneously stated that the resident accusing censorship was referring to a comment of his posted, then removed, from a Newfield School District Facebook page.  A District official informs this writer that the Newfield District does not maintain an active Facebook page, and that the resident was referring to comments made on a Newfield Community Facebook page maintained by private citizens.  This writer regrets the error.)

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And previously, with the Ithaca District:

Board eyes cuts after big budget loss

No-increase “Contingency” among three options weighed

by Robert Lynch; May 22, 2024

Ithaca Board of Education President Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell stated the obvious at one point in Wednesday’s discussion:  We could submit the same budget, he acknowledged, “which would not be wise.”

No, it likely wouldn’t.  A proposed $168.9 Million Ithaca City School District (ICSD) Budget for 2024-25 took a whumping in Tuesday’s high-turnout annual ICSD election.  The budget, replete with its projected 8.4 per cent increase in the tax levy, lost voter support by a margin of greater than two-to-one; 2,059 votes in favor, 4,916 opposed.

Companion ballot propositions that would have bonded up to $125 Million for a laundry-list of capital projects and separately dedicated $3.2 Million in reserve funds to buy both electric- and propane-powered buses also failed by sizable margins.

Wednesday night, one day after the decisive rejections, the School Board regrouped.  It met, as the law requires, to certify Tuesday’s election results.  But members also took the opportunity to mull over in committee what to do next.

The certification meeting took just three minutes. But a Finance Committee session that preceded it dragged out far longer than scheduled.  It consumed more than an hour.  With most every board member in attendance, it effectively became a committee-of-the-whole meeting; one where members could both lick their wounds and also plan what to do next.

“What exactly am I certifying?” Board member Garrick Blalock asked as others placed the perfunctory certification motion on the floor.

“We may not agree with the results, but we need to vote,” Board colleague Karen Yearwood answered.

Certifying Tuesday’s election results. That was the easy part. The Ithaca Board of Education, May 22nd.

As far as next-moves, the Board made clear Wednesday it’s reading the electorate’s wishes.  Board members’ presumed verdict: the rejected budget would have raised spending too high, and with it the tax levy.  Even though the Board had trimmed spending and taxes in recent weeks from the plan administrators had first proposed, the budget put to voters would still have hiked spending by 6.5 per cent from the current year, and the tax levy even more, by 8.42 per cent. 

This year’s rapidly-rising property assessments, which have tended to inflict pain disproportionately on individual Ithaca homeowners, have only deepened the dreaded tax bite.

“We have a lot to do,” Ithaca Schools’ Chief Operating Officer Amanda Verba began her presentation to the Finance Committee Wednesday.  And with that, Verba guided the committee to three potential fallback options.  It’s expected that one of those three—or perhaps an amalgam of the alternatives—will be placed before ICSD voters in a second referendum on June 18th

New York State sets the re-vote date, should any district require one. And to comply with the law, the School Board will need to finalize any revised budget by June 4th.  The Board plans to meet on the matter next Tuesday, May 28th.  After this Wednesday’s meeting, President Eversley Bradwell said he may even call a special session before that date.   And if a final plan can’t be agreed-to by the 28th, another special meeting shortly thereafter could follow.

“These are not the only options,” Eversley Bradwell cautioned the Board after Verba had outlined her three suggested revised budgets.  But no member appeared eager to depart radically from the well-defined options the financial expert had presented.

Each would cut spending significantly from the budget that voters just rejected.  The most generous among them would restrict spending increases to that of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).  It would cut more than $3.8 Million from the rejected budget, but still increase outlays by 4.1 per cent from those of the current year.  Its total spending would be $165 Million. The so-called “CPI Budget” would raise the tax levy by 4.85 per cent, down considerably from that of the budget rejected.  Nonetheless, as this option’s levy increase still exceeds the state’s tax cap, it would require a 60 per cent super-majority to win approval.

Verba’s mid-ground choice would key the levy’s increase to the tax cap, thereby requiring only a simple majority of over 50 per cent to pass.  Its $163.2 Million in spending would climb 2.91 per cent above that for the current year.  Its tax levy would rise just 3.1 per cent from that of this year.  It would cut more than $5.7 Million from the budget just rejected by voters.  The “Tax Cap Budget” would reduce the levy increase by more than half from what the just-rejected budget would have imposed.

The third of Verba’s options would never need to be placed before voters.  And should any trimmed-down intermediate option fail at the polls June 18th, this “Contingency Budget” would be forced on the District anyway by state law.  The “Contingency Budget” keeps the tax levy rock-solid with that of the current year.  The levy would not rise, but spending would inch up a bit, by eight-tenths of one per cent. 

A Contingency would slash proposed spending greatly, cutting it $9 Million from what had been put to voters this week, a 5.37 per cent spending decrease.  If Board members stand averse to any of the options presented Wednesday, this stood as the one they hated the most.

A contingency budget would be “catastrophic.” Erin Croyle (pictured previously)

“A $3.8 Million reduction is serious; a $5.7 Million cut is serious; a $9 Million cut is beyond serious,” Eversley Bradwell reacted.

“Contingency would be catastrophic,” Board member Erin Croyle stated.  Yet she said the other options would be bad as well. At a meeting in mid-April, Croyle was the only member to oppose as too stingy the budget placed to Ithaca District voters this week. Instead, Croyle would have offered up School Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown’s initial submission, a nearly $171 Million budget with a tax levy hike of 12.14 per cent.

Croyle argued Wednesday that cutting the budget too deeply could affect her district’s ability to make good on plans to raise teacher pay significantly during future contract negotiations.

“We see a mass exodus of high-quality teachers,” Croyle warned.

While the $125 Million capital initiative could also see resubmission to the electorate at some future time—potentially later this year—that resubmission cannot by law come as quickly as the budget revision can… and must.

“Proposition 3 (the $125 Million capital plan), it has its own timetable,” Verba said.  “We must wait 90 days to go back to the voters.” 

Among the many capital investments the Ithaca District might undertake with its requested capital bonding over the next decade, replacement of the Bostwick Road Transportation Facility has become the firmest project identified so-far.  Board members remain inclined to support bus garage replacement.  But because of the timing restriction that precludes the bonding proposition’s immediate resubmission, the Finance Committee took little time Wednesday weighing its resubmission prospects.

However, the Board did discuss—with no immediate consensus—whether, and if so, how, to bundle the bus-purchase proposition together with the revised budget in the June referendum.  Voters had Tuesday rejected, 2,980 (43.5%) in favor to 3,830 (56.5%) opposed, spending $3.2 Million to buy up to four electric buses and up to four more ultra-low emission propane buses, plus purchase a few other vehicles.

Two schools of thought emerged Wednesday regarding bus purchase bundling.  Some members feared the second proposition could drag down the budget once again.  Others argued it was best to re-work the lesser proposition—perhaps lessen the number of electric buses requested—and avoid the $40,000 expense of holding a separate referendum later.

“To focus the public’s attention on one vote (just the budget), wouldn’t we be better off?” Blalock asked.

“At some point in time, the district is going to have to play catch-up,” Eversley Bradwell countered, the Board President maintaining that delaying bus purchases this year would only impose added expense during years to come.

With the bus-bundling issue left unresolved, it could return as a focal point during next week’s meeting.

Yet coupled with the depth of budget cutting that faces the Ithaca School Board is the question of Board micro-management in making the painful cuts that will likely occur within the days and weeks ahead.  Does the Board assume oversight, or does the Board leave it to Administration?

“What we have heard loud and clear is that this District would like to find some administrators cut,” member Jill Tripp firmly stated. 

Jill Tripp: The voters have said loud and clear that they want some administrators cut.

Member Eldred Harris reminded Tripp that leaders have repeatedly advised the Board and public that cuts would come first to administration as those they pay trim staff to satisfy Board-ordered reductions.

“I don’t need an answer tonight,” Tripp responded, “but I’m not very happy that we send it (namely, the prioritization of personnel cuts) back to staff.”

“I would rather not sit at the table and push against individual positions,” Harris rebutted.

“The public does not understand the trade-offs we are facing,” Blalock remarked.  The public, he cautioned, sees “a big army of administrators,” an army which may not actually exist.

Eversley Bradwell said he’d rather not get “too specific” concerning staff cuts, suggesting it may be a topic better left to an executive session.

Eldred Harris, first elected to the Ithaca Board of Education in 2009, finished last among seven candidates in Tuesday’s race for three Board seats.  Harris’ sadness and frustration surfaced for a brief moment during the Finance Committee meeting he chairs.  Eldred Harris strongly supported the budget that voters rejected Tuesday along with him.  He faulted tax-conscious taxpayers for thinking of themselves before they consider the students Ithaca must educate.

“They don’t have the community’s best interests in mind,” Harris started openly.  “They have their pockets in mind.” 

Harris fears the consequences which the voter-directed budget cuts—cuts likely to be finalized within days—will inflict.  “We all made our beds,” Harris said.  “We’re going to lie in them.”

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Posted Previously:

The Fields amidst the Fuss

Ulysses Planners’ pushback nearly derails Ag. District add-on

Reporting and analysis by Robert Lynch; May 10, 2024

“Our opposition… is not an opposition to agriculture in the Town of Ulysses.”

Ulysses Town Planning Board Chair Pete Angie.

“To over-zone and overregulate farmland, I think, is to the detriment of our community.”

Tompkins County legislator Greg Mezey.

Looks like farmland to me. The field at 1618 Route 89, newly-added to Tompkins County Ag District #2.

A once-in-every-eight-years renewal of an Agricultural District is the yawner of a news story reporters relegate to the bottom of the pile, should they even cover it at all.  But this one proved different.

This one—the renewal of Agricultural District Number 2 on the west side of Tompkins County—plunged the Tompkins County Legislature into 35 minutes of back-and-forth debate Tuesday night.  And though Ag District 2 covers tens of thousands of acres and spans five towns, including Enfield, the only point of contention Tuesday was just one little parcel; a miniscule 62-acre slice of hayfield and woods within a mile of Cayuga Lake, land its owner wanted to add to the District’s protective status, but almost couldn’t.

Yes, the fields lie within the Town of Ulysses, the tightly-zoned Town of Ulysses.  And to the cynical observer, the answer is, “That figures.”

“Our opposition is not in opposition to the land being farmed,” Ulysses Planning Board Chair Pete Angie told the Legislature Tuesday, May 7th.  “It’s not an opposition to agriculture in the Town of Ulysses,” he continued.  “It’s really because we want to maintain the unique zoning that protects that area.”

Planning Board Chair Pete Angie: “We want to maintain the unique zoning that protects that area.”

Farmer William Holtkamp and the Tompkins County Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board got their way that night, but not with unanimity. 

The County Legislature eventually approved the renewal of Agricultural District 2 with the adjustments the Farmland Board had recommended.  The vote was nine-to-four.  Before that, legislators rejected, five-to-eight, an amendment that would have struck Holtkamp’s 62 acres from those the Board had recommended be added to the District. 

Ironically, Ulysses’ Anne Koreman, the legislator in whose district the controversial farmland lies, was excused from Tuesday’s meeting.  In committee, Koreman had opposed the land’s inclusion.

The fields Holtkamp owns at 1618 Route 89 are open and wide, gently sloping, seemingly nothing more fragile than you’d find anywhere else in Tompkins County.  But at the heart of the Ulysses Planning Board’s opposition is the fact that the property lies within the Town’s Conservation Zoning District, one in which buildings are limited to  3,500 square feet in size and 32 feet high.  Were Holtkamp to build a barn or a silo, that could spell problems.

Where it sits; the newly-added Holtkamp parcel is shaded in green.

“This person has owned this property for a long time, he pays taxes on it, and he wants to continue to work (the land) the way it is,” Newfield-Enfield’s Randy Brown, the Legislature’s representative to the Farmland Protection Board, told legislators in defense of the land’s inclusion. “We felt that it was the right thing to do because the owner should have preference over the zoning that came after-the-fact.”

The Conservation Zone is quite obviously Ulysses’ attempt to protect its most cherished natural landmark, Taughannock Falls, and the parkland that surrounds it.  But one cannot see the Falls from Holtkamp’s land, nor can one see his farm from the Falls itself.  It’s doubtful whether a Falls visitor could hear the farmer’s tractor or his cow, providing he had one there, let alone smell the bovine’s manure.

Yet the doomsday denizen of dreadful industrial agriculture and the evils it might inflict crept into the Legislature’s discussion on whether to deny the 62 acres addition to the Agricultural District.

“Once you put it in the Ag District, it stays there for at least eight years,” Lansing’s Deborah Dawson, a former village Planning Board member, told fellow legislators.  “If somebody comes along in two years and wants to put 1,000 head of cattle or 1,000 pigs on that property, which is a whole different kettle of fish from what you’ve got now, they can do that.  And that’s what concerns me.  And I suspect that’s what probably concerns the Planning Board.”

But for this particular land, hundreds of cows at a feeding trough or swine wallowing in mud seem unlikely, at least for the time being.  Crystal Buck, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Farmland Protection and Ag Marketing Educator, told the Legislature that right now the Holtkamp tract is locked into a multi-year “Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.”  It means the land can be harvested for hay, but farmed for little else over much of the next decade.

Legislator Brown: The owner came first; the zoning arrived later.

“He wants to protect the farmland, that’s his goal,” Buck said of the farmer’s intent.

Assessment Department records indicate that of the 62 acres, approximately 41 are tillable, 19 acres assigned to woodland.  This year the land was taxably assessed at $600,000.  Presumably, an Ag Exemption applies.

Nothing else within Ag District Number 2’s four corners registered a whimper of concern at the County Legislature that night.  District 2 encompasses some 67,000 acres within Enfield, Newfield, Ulysses, Danby and the Town of Ithaca.  As recommended by the Agriculture and Farmland Protection Board, this year’s revisions added 1,229 acres to the district and subtracted 466.

But what transpired at the Legislature Tuesday night—and what occurred earlier in discussions within Ulysses—provides a snapshot at the larger picture.  It’s the tug-of-war between anti-regulatory rural libertarian zealots and the anxiety-prone residents who encroach from elsewhere.  It’s a conflict not confined to Tompkins County’s northwestern-most town.  It manifests itself in the Town of Caroline’s controversial march to embrace rural zoning, and also in the Town of Enfield’s latest initiative to rewrite its Comprehensive Plan.

“The nature of the Town is changing,” Supervisor Stephanie Redmond advised the Enfield Town Board she presides over Wednesday, just one night after the County Legislature took its vote on Ag District 2. 

Prodded by both Redmond’s and Enfield Councilperson Jude Lemke’s concerns, the Town Board Wednesday directed it solicit membership in a citizens committee, of open-ended number, to consider Comprehensive Plan revisions.  The current Plan was adopted only four years ago.  It stresses the need to preserve Enfield’s “rural character.”  Dan Walker, Chair of the Enfield Planning Board, said earlier this month that in his opinion, Enfield’s Comprehensive Plan only needs minor tweaks, not a full rewrite.

But back to Ag District 2: “The local jurisdictions are best situated to understand what the local needs are in their communities, what the zoning should look like, what the local resources are,” legislator Dawson apprised her colleagues before their vote.  Dawson cautioned that the Farmland Protection Board can make recommendations “from a pretty narrow focus.”

Deborah Dawson: In a nutshell, Planning Boards know best.”

But do six Planning Board members huddled in a room know more than do the rest of us?  Planning Board members are unelected volunteers, not necessarily land use professionals.  Neither when the Ulysses Planning Board last December 19th voted unanimously against the Holtkamp land’s inclusion, nor the month before when Crystal Buck outlined what might change, did any member of the public take to the podium to offer comment.  Planners’ vote in December followed about 25 minutes of free-wheeling banter; members citing this and that, but not with any clear focus.

Board member Rebecca Schneider at one point defended her objection by warning of the “salami tactic.”  Slice off pieces of a natural area bit by bit, she warned, and pretty soon it’s all gone.

“There’s steep slopes there, vulnerable soils, there’s a lot of creeks and (it’s) very close to the water,” Board Chair Angie advised the County Legislature as he spoke at this more recent meeting.  “Zoning has been created for that zone to help conserve it,” he said.

With the Ulysses fields’ new inclusion in Agricultural District 2, its owner will find it easier to fend off, if not override absolutely, the Town’s restrictions that apply in the Conservation Zone.

The override is not absolute, Buck assured legislators.  We work under a “collaborative conversation” with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets,” she advised.  But when push comes to shove, all agreed, Ag and Markets then pulls rank.  The Ulysses’ maximum building size in that zone is 3,500 square feet.  By contrast, Ag and Markets’ maximum is 20,000.

A farm’s joining an Ag District “gives up a lot of control,” Board Chair Angie insisted.  “It also gives up a lot of protections,” he said.  “The idea of what’s unreasonably restrictive zoning is very different in the mind of Ag and Markets than it is in the Town of Ulysses.”

Could you hear the cow moo here? Doubtful.

But Dryden legislator Greg Mezey, perhaps the evening’s most passionate advocate of keeping the Ag District the way the Farmland Board had proposed it, posed the counter-argument.

“I’m just curious, how many head of cattle or how many pigs can we put in a 3,500-square foot barn?” Mezey asked.  “Is the Planning Board equipped to know that?  Are they farm experts?  No, Ag and Markets is.”

And Mezey advanced the debate to address a broader question, a question which each town government deserves to ask itself.  Who calls the shots here?   Mezey’s observation followed Dawson’s statement that the Ulysses Town Board had chosen to “acquiesce” on the property’s controversial inclusion.

“So… the elected level of government, which is the Town Board, does not oppose this being added,” Mezey noted. “I don’t think we’re going over a local jurisdiction because the Town Board hears the advice of their advisory board, the Planning Board, takes that into consideration, and decided not to act on that. And they are the elected officials for the community.”

Deborah Dawson would beg to differ; to give the Planning Board deference, unelected though it may be.

“The Town Board acquiesces,” Dawson acknowledged.  “But I will tell you as someone who’s sat on a Planning Board that disagreed at times with the Trustees of the Village, that that happens, because the Town Board, the Board of Trustees do not laser focus on land use the way Planning Boards do.”

Mezey: So the elected Town Board does not oppose this being added . That’s not going over anyone’s head.

Yet the dividing line between “laser focus” and personal prejudice can prove narrow in local government.

Had William Holtkamp lost his bid for Agricultural District admission, he could still have gone to Ulysses’ Board of Zoning Appeals for a variance to build that proverbial larger barn.  He could have continued to enjoy the Agricultural Exemption that reduces his land taxes.  And of course, he could still farm.  And even within the District, if ever the farmer sold off a piece of his land for a residence, that residence would need to comply with Ulysses’ Conservation Zone rules.

“I think farmland should be protected,” Greg Mezey said.  “We have an incredible and increasing food insecurity issue,” he observed.  “And to over-zone and overregulate farmland, I think, is to the detriment of our community.”

“I don’t think we need to be as restrictive as we are on potential farmland,” Mezey said.   And “I think it’s really important to know and just get out there very clearly that the local elected Town Board does not oppose this being added to the Ag District.”

Democratic legislators Dawson, Travis Brooks, Amanda Champion, and Shawna Black would have amended the Ag District resolution to deny the Ulysses farmer his Agricultural District request.  So, too, would have Republican Mike Sigler.  Sigler had a different worry.  His was that circumventing planning boards could strengthen State Government’s hand in advancing industrial solar installations, a looming interloper to his Town of Lansing.

The Ulysses Planning Board, the December night it voted on Ag Dist. 2.

“I don’t want to see the State come in and  kind of roll-over local regulators,” Sigler said. “And I would think this would kind of open the door to that.”

But Mike Lane of Dryden would put farmers like Holtkamp in a different category than solar operators.  And he would view the Ulysses Planning Board’s excess caution as overblown and unjustified.

“I don’t know of any group that’s more careful about protecting land than our farmers are,” Lane said.  “On the whole, they provide the green space that we love about our county.”

“I think if we had a food producer that wanted to come in and generate food and jobs and economic benefit to our community in a responsible way, we should allow that,” Mezey said.

Or mow hay.  That’s what’s done every summer at 1618 Route 89.

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