Baby-steps toward a stand-alone Minimum Wage

Reporting and analysis by Robert Lynch; July 9, 2024

How does a $24 an hour Tompkins County Minimum Wage strike you?

“I am really excited to see Living Wage legislation actually come to the Legislature.” Theresa Alt, addressing the committee Monday.

It’s not the law yet.  It may never be.  Albany may not allow it.  But a committee of the Tompkins County Legislature, all Democrats, took initial action Monday toward enacting a local law that would set our county apart from the rest of Upstate New York and establish a county-wide Minimum Wage set at some level higher than the $15 an hour that state law now mandates.  Action came at the prodding of workers’ rights groups, Cornell’s service employees’ union and the most liberal of the Legislature’s 14 members.

“This Resolution is not the policy itself; it is not the law itself,” that legislative sponsor, Ithaca’s Veronica Pillar, qualified to her colleagues Monday, “but it is a necessary step, because to craft something that works requires investment of time, both community engagement and legal and other types of research on the back end.”

With one member—an important member—absent, the County Legislature’s Housing and Economic Development Committee supported adoption of Pillar’s proposal, four votes to nothing.  The Resolution encountered no pushback whatsoever.  Had the committee’s fifth member, Republican Mike Sigler, attended, no doubt the afternoon’s debate would have turned far different.

Architect of the initiative; legislator Veronica Pillar.

Heavy on aspirational platitudes, yet lean on substantive impact, Pillar’s initiative falls short of its stated title:  “Implementation of Higher County-Wide Minimum Wage with Local Law Establishment.” The Resolution’s text fails to state what a Tompkins County stand-alone minimum wage might be, when it would take effect, how it would be calculated, or most importantly, who’d enforce it.

As Pillar worded the Resolution, it “directs the County Attorney, County Administrator, and other county staff as needed to collaborate with community stakeholders to develop an effective and sustainable minimum wage policy and draft a local law outlining the specifics of the policy, including the calculation methodology, annual adjustment mechanism, enforcement provisions, and any exemptions or special considerations deemed necessary.”

Yes, that’s quite a mouthful of wiggle-words.

The recommendation could go before the full County Legislature for a final vote as soon as July 16th.

“The minimum income to survive in Tompkins County is considerably higher that (in) many counties in Upstate New York,” Pete Myers, Director of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, told the committee.  “So the cost of living here is out of control, and we don’t need to belabor that point.”

Housing and Economic Development Committee Chair Mezey: “This is just sort of hitting the ball off the tee.”

Monday’s committee discussions and the advocacy that preceded it muddled the important distinction between a governmentally- mandated “minimum wage” and the “living wage” that advocates argue should constitute the true floor of compensation.  A Living Wage provides a paycheck that covers the necessities of life, at least as some might calculate them.

“It’s kinda’ looking like the Minimum Wage (actually, the Living Wage) will increase to around $24 an hour range in November of this year,” Myers said with a wince, his prediction a shocking revelation in itself.  “And potentially we’re looking at a $24 an hour range right now,” Myers cautioned, “and that would be the cost of housing that’s really raising that more than anything.”

Locals traditionally rely on the local Living Wage calculations that Alternatives Federal Credit Union makes annually.  Critics have faulted the Alternatives methodology as being too worker-generous.  Yet no one so far has chosen a different benchmark.

Alternatives last calculated the Tompkins County “Living Wage” at $18.45 per hour last November.  The Living Wage stood at $16.61 the year before.

It’s “kinda’ looking like” a $24 an hour (living) wage this year ; the Workers’ Center’s Pete Myers, addressing the committee.

To people like Myers, the “Living Wage” should stand as the floor.  So should Tompkins County withstand any legal challenge and enact its stand-alone Minimum Wage, expect activists to set $24 as their goal, if not a higher rate.  $24 an hour would stand 60 per cent above New York’s current wage requirement for Upstate.  (New York’s Upstate Minimum will rise to $15.50 next January, and then to $16 per hour in 2026.)

The Workers’ Center Director brought allies with him to the committee meeting.  As many as four of the five he invited were either leaders of Cornell University’s principal employees union, the United Auto Workers, or UAW union officers.  Some 1,200 Cornell service and maintenance workers are covered by the union local.  Contract negotiations come up this fall.  That fact was not lost during Monday’s meeting.  Indeed, Cornell workers’ grievances found themselves inextricably intertwined with the committee’s wider policy deliberations. 

Christine Johnson, Local 2300 UAW President, complained that her Cornell job pays only $28.17 an hour, and yet she’s forced to drive 55 minutes to get to work.  (Note than Johnson’s wage is almost twice New York’s current minimum.)  She said her partner earns just over $20 an hour at Cornell Dining.

“We struggle financially, and do without a lot of extras,” Johnson said.  Speaking for those she represents, Johnson added, “We need a reset on what is just, fair and good for people who work full-time jobs, pay taxes, and also vote.”

“People are not asking for a lot, they’re just asking to be able to live,” Lonnie Everett, the UAW’s Regional Service Representative, told the committee, “because I watch a lot of folks who are not able to live, and there are folks who are all right with that.”

In line with Everett’s remark, and at Pete Myer’s request, the committee played and streamed to the public—somewhat reluctantly—a four-minute, UAW-produced, Cornell-critical video that stopped nothing short of “Ezra-bashing.”  At least one former Tompkins County official has termed the video inappropriate and biased and argues it never should have been aired before the committee. 

Michael Demo said he works at an (unidentified) local hardware store.   He also joined Pete Myers at the meeting.  “It takes a lot of time and energy when you’re trying to get by on such low wages as we have right now,” Demo complained.  “People have much better things to be doing with their time,” he said.

Michael Demo: My low hardware store wages sap my time and energy. And my friend has no time to sell what she crochets.

Demo mentioned a friend, an “accomplished crochet artist” who “would like to sell more of her work on the side.”  Another would like more time to spend with her children. 

Of course, Demo never brought up the fact that if his hardware store were to close because a higher minimum wage made it impossible  to make payroll, his own less-than-desirable job would disappear, and his pay would drop to zero.  But statements like that never get raised by people like him at events like these.

Yes, the committee meeting demanded Mike Sigler’s input.

But there’s another argument, a legal one; a position that makes all that transpired that day about a local minimum wage perhaps little more than academic.  State law may not allow Tompkins County the freedom it seeks.

There’s a pesky little case called “Wholesale Laundry v. City of New York.”  Tompkins County Attorney Maury Josephson told the committee the case was litigated in the 1960’s and remains Good Law today, reaffirmed as recently as 2006.  The Court of Appeals had held that New York State pre-empts localities from setting their own, higher, minimum wages.  State Government reserves the power all to itself.

“If adopting a local Minimum Wage, keep in mind that that effort would involve, if challenged… an effort to overturn long-standing precedent,” Josephson warned.  Tompkins County, he said, “would be sort of at the vanguard of obtaining this reversal, which is an uncertain prospect.”  Winning such a case, Josephson told legislators, “would involve a substantial expenditure of effort,” both by his office and by County Administration.

Nevertheless, expect some lawmakers, particularly liberal Democrats, to kick the tires of a local minimum wage, if for no other reason than to prove their good intentions.

“It is my duty to help to bring this forward,” Ulysses-Enfield legislator Anne Koreman remarked after seconding Pillar’s initiative. “People deserve to have that right to be able to have a job that pays for your basic expenses and working 40 hours a week to do that and not to have to work two or three jobs.”

Legislator Koreman: “It is my duty to help bring this forward.”

Committee member Travis Brooks likes a stand-alone Minimum Wage as well, yet would first want to know “is this something that can be done before we spend a lot of time figuring out what that looks like.”

“This is not a partisan issue, it’s an issue of justice; of being fair to everybody,” former Ithaca Town Supervisor Herb Engman said at the start of the meeting.

Committee Chair Greg Mezey stressed the tentative nature of what his group that day was passing forth to the full Legislature—and then, maybe on to the experts. 

“This is really just sort of hitting the ball off the tee, and this is not knowing what course we’re playing, what the par is, or what anything is ahead of us,” Mezey reminded everyone.

Without a contrary opinion, a committee of legislators and their friendly allies in the gallery can say and do just about anything.  And that’s what happened in legislative chambers on Monday.  As said, the moment needed Mike Sigler.

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Factions form as ICSD Board rebuilds

The final vote reelecting Sean Eversley Bradwell ICSD Board President (note Jill Tripp and Adam Krantweiss dissented.)

Reporting and Analysis by Robert Lynch; July 2, 2024

Monday, July first, was a terrible day for Todd Fox to be out of town.  Fox, one of two, newly-elected Ithaca School Board members—and arguably its most conservative—couldn’t attend his first Board of Education meeting and be sworn into office.  Moreover, he couldn’t participate in the leadership elections and have his voice heard and his vote counted in the choice for Board President.  As it turned out, Fox could have altered the outcome, and probably would have.

Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, the two-year incumbent Board President, emerged from Monday’s lengthy session to serve as President for yet another year.  But Eversley Bradwell barely prevailed.  He only won on a third ballot, of sorts.  When the incumbent’s name was placed into nomination, the school board split down the middle, with five votes required, but only four votes secured.  Next, Jill Tripp’s name was placed into nomination.  It, too, produced a four-four split. 

Only when frustration took over did two Board members cross-over to support the incumbent President on his second attempt. 

Newly-elected, but questioned; Board President Eversley Bradwell

Similarly, deadlock befell the Board in its ballot for Vice-President.  Adam Krantweiss and Garrick Blalock, sitting side-by-side, competed for the honor.  First, a four-four tie for Krantweiss occurred; then the same for Blalock.  The Board considered postponing its decision until a later meeting, one when Fox could attend.  But instead, it voted again… and again.  Krantweiss eventually prevailed.

Such as it went Monday morning in Ithaca High School’s York Lecture Hall.  An organizational agenda, one 30 pages long, but customarily to be raced through at lightning speed, got drawn to a crawl by a leadership stalemate.  The meeting convened shortly after Nine AM, but didn’t adjourn until 20 minutes before Noon.

Still, what a keen observer found as this newly-reconstituted Board hammered out its business were incipient coalitions forming.  Whether those bonds will last, only time will tell.  But with taxpayers having what some would call a temper tantrum back in May, turning out two of the more progressive incumbents in a seven-way race for three Board seats, one senses new philosophical and attitudinal alliances taking hold; one forming on the Board’s traditional ideological Left, the other to the more taxpayer-friendly, pragmatic middle. 

Yes, had he been there, Todd Fox might have made a difference.  Dr. Jill Tripp, the newfound hero of some tax-conscious ICSD budget-cutters and a staunch advocate for spending compromises in recent months, might have been elected the Board of Education’s President had Fox attended.

“What’s the salary for this job?” Eversley Bradwell quipped, after newly-sworn Board member Emily Workman had peppered him with probing questions.  Workman quickly distinguished herself at the meeting’s outset as a particularly inquisitive newcomer.  (By the way, a seat on a Board of Education carries no compensation.)  Workman probed the management style of the incumbent President as if he was in a job interview.  Eversley Bradwell responded with what would later stand as the closest thing to an acceptance speech:

“I hope that I have demonstrated compassion, empathy, understanding, an ability to reach out to further having conversations, taking walks, having coffee, being yelled at, all those things,” Eversley Bradwell answered Workman and her colleagues.  “I hope that I maintain that level of… humanity and compassion for the community.”

The Board had not yet voted when Eversley Bradwell said those words.  The day’s awkward organizational agenda encouraged only one member’s name to be placed into nomination at a time.  Jill Tripp cried foul.

“It’s not feeling like a fair process,” Tripp complained when only the incumbent president’s name was moved, and no one else’s name invited.  “There’s clearly a huge advantage to going first,” Tripp said.

That’s when things changed.  The incumbent’s was still the only name on the floor, but the Board drew to nearly an hour the back-and-forth between competing candidates Eversley Bradwell and Tripp before casting its twin series of failed votes and then finally picking Eversley Bradwell as its choice.

“Do I want to be Board President?  Yes and no,” Tripp said bluntly. (She’s known to be blunt.)  “The ‘yes’ part,” Tripp said, involves communication within the Board itself and with District Administration.

“I’ve been watching and listening closely for two years,” Tripp added, “and I feel like all too often, lately every week the Board finds out about important decisions that have been made that we weren’t informed of.  This is a real concern to me.”

“This is the Board of Education.  This isn’t some satellite advisory board of a special interest.  It is the Board of Education,” Tripp emphasized.

“I’m who I am…. And I generally let people know what I’m thinking.” Rival for Board President, Jill Tripp.

A retired Ithaca Schools’ psychologist, Jill Tripp said she’s sat on five boards, and chaired some of them, during the past 30 years.  Yet she said she’d never before experienced  the “level of isolation” she feels sitting on the current school board nor the “disconnect between the Board and what’s going on.”

(By the way, Jill Tripp never got to the ‘no-side’ of her self-stated dilemma.)

With its first school budget roundly defeated in May, a revised budget approved one month later only after major reductions, a school superintendent declining a long-term contract extension, and two middle schools cited by New York State for their poor performance, one could see the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) in crisis.  Jill Tripp signaled Monday that her elevation to President could help turn the page.

“I think we’ve gotten a clear message that was a long time coming before it was expressed so cleanly on the Board’s first budget votes,” Tripp stated.  “I think to start fresh with someone not so clearly aligned with the current Administration would be an excellent path to take for this Board at this time.”

And what about management style?  As always, with Dr. Tripp, bluntness reigned.

“I’m who I am,” Tripp told those who might choose her.  “I’m pretty vocal.  And I generally let people know what I’m thinking.  And I would continue to do so as Board President.”

Eversley Bradwell acknowledged he’s held biweekly, one-on-one, agenda-setting meetings with Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown.  Tripp would prefer Eversley Bradwell’s role clearly be defined in those meetings as that of Board President, and that members like her at least be provided the courtesy of an after-meeting report.

“I’ve been surprised way too often this year by decisions that have been made without any real Board discussion,” Tripp told the incumbent President.  “And I think that needs to change.”

Board member Katie Apker entered the debate:  “There were some times in the last year that I felt surprised by things,” the second-year Board member remarked.  “Did I miss a memo?  No.  Did I not read through everything? No,” Apker said she’d found herself asking.  To Apker, Eversley Bradwell’s precision and meeting efficiency has come at the price of “open dialogue.”

After a fashion, the roll was called.  Hands were raised.  Eversley-Bradwell lost on the first ballot, four-to-three, with Workman abstaining (an effective dissent).  Then Tripp’s name was raised.  The same four people who’d opposed Eversley Bradwell supported Tripp, and vice-versa.

With the Board at an impasse, Erin Croyle, an Eversley-Bradwell supporter, called for a revote.  She started with her favored candidate.  It broke the deadlock, six-to-two in Eversley Bradwell’s favor.  Jill Tripp and Adam Krantweiss remained in opposition.

Battered though victorious, Sean Eversley Bradwell called the hour’s conversation (maybe, grilling) “necessary and fruitful.”

But sandwiched between deadlock and decision flowed remarks well worth one’s taking note.

Emily Workman, to Sean Eversley Bradwell: “The biggest concern that I’ve heard about you being President is your relationship with the Superintendent…. What would you say to people who have a lot of concerns about the ability to be both objective and a friend to the person that you basically are the boss of?”

Fully-engaged and armed with many questions; Emily Workman, reading her oath of office Monday.

Sean Eversley Bradwell defended his independence and his ability to separate friendship from professional duty.

“I would not jeopardize my professional and community standing as if I’m not able to do what’s in the best interests of young people,” Eversley Bradwell insisted.  “And folks in the community can tell you, and I know Dr. Brown can tell you, that when he’s wrong, I am probably one of the first people to call him, hopefully not with cuss words, but to say ‘no, no.’

Erin Croyle, to the Board: “I think that there’s a fine line between people saying they don’t want—they want new Board representation and the color of someone’s skin.  Let’s be real here, Okay?” (Both Eversley Bradwell and Dr. Brown are African-American; Jill Tripp is white.) 

Croyle referenced recent hate messages and death threats received by the Board President and Superintendent following the recent, perceived racially-exclusive, Students of Color Summit at Ithaca’s schools. “My God, the stuff that they’ve had to hear and we’ve heard part of,” Croyle told colleagues.  “I have no idea how it is to walk in that world, but the hate that they get, and yet Sean still wants to do the job?” Croyle asked rhetorically.

Yes, a pair of coalitions glued together that Monday morning; alliances adhering based on Board members votes and statements:  The traditionally liberal-leaning Ithaca School Board spoke through President Eversley Bradwell, Erin Croyle, Karen Yearwood, and Garrick Blalock.  A more moderate faction led by Tripp, drew in Adam Krantweiss, Katie Apker, and Emily Workman.  This latter group may view Board service as being more critical of the status quo.  Over time, those factions may hold.  Or maybe, they won’t.

More work had yet to be done.  Though she’d earlier expressed interest in serving as vice-president, Jill Tripp was never nominated for second in command.  Instead, Tripp advanced Adam Krantweiss for vice-president.  Like in the race for President, the Krantweiss nomination failed in a tie.  Garrick Blalock was nominated by the other faction.  Again, a tied vote ended in deadlock.

The Veepstakes: Adam Krantweiss (right) reads his oath after Garrick Blalock, sitting at his side, dropped out.

The vice-presidential “impromptu job interview” went quicker than its presidential forerunner.  Blalock at one point questioned whether a “difficult working dynamic” might arise with Krantweiss, a Tripp supporter, working with a Board President he’d opposed moments earlier. Blalock called it a “mix and match” kind of leadership.

Krantweiss allayed Blalock’s fears.  “I don’t feel that (my vote) was a referendum on me thinking that Sean is a bad actor and that I couldn’t work well with him,” Krantweiss replied.

A second round of voting for Vice-President ended the same way as did the first.  Discussion devolved.  Options got floated.   Could the Board have two vice presidents?   Could the vote for Veep be tabled until Todd Fox’s return?   But impasse ended at Garrick Blalock’s initiative.  He crossed over to nominate and vote for Krantweiss.  The resulting five-to-two vote (with Eversley Bradwell abstaining) finally put leadership matters to rest, after nearly two protracted hours that seemed all too long.

What was left of Monday’s reorganizational meeting avoided the indecision that had crippled what had preceded it. 

  • Almost routinely, the Board of Education authorized formation of a “Resource Exploration” committee.  Its primary objective, as Jill Tripp had proposed in late-May, is to squeeze up to $10 Million annually from Cornell University as payment to the Ithaca School District in lieu of taxes.
  • The Board delayed, probably futilely, the designation of The Ithaca Journal as its official newspaper for publishing legal notices.  As with other units of local government, ICSD members complained about the Gannett paper’s lack of local news coverage, and even its inability to mail its papers to residents on time.  State law may require the designation, nonetheless.
  • And the Board of Education continued for another year, but agreed to revisit within months, the long-standing, albeit controversial, policy of providing district-paid cell phones to select school employees.  “This has been kind of an annoyance to me for a while,” Jill Tripp complained.  “I believe that the cell phone expenditure in the district is unwarranted and redundant,” Tripp said.  Expect the policy to undergo review in committee this fall.

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Updated: Enfield barn-apartments burn; occupants safe

As they fought it: Enfield firefighters battle the flames at 363 Hines Road, Saturday. (Photo courtesy of EVFC.)

by Robert Lynch; June 30, 2024, updated July 1, 2024

[Note: As of Tuesday evening, July 2nd, Enfield Fire officials could not yet officially determine the fire’s cause.]

A major fire on Hines Road at mid-morning Saturday fully engulfed and destroyed the converted barn-turned-residence of John Rancich, a prominent Enfield property owner and landlord.  The cause of that fire remains under investigation.

Flames from the mid-morning blaze spread quickly as firefighters from Enfield and multiple departments labored futilely during a severe rain and wind storm, hampered in part by limited supplies of water. Rancich and residents of three apartments in the building escaped uninjured.  One firefighter battling the blaze sustained injuries serious enough to require brief hospitalization.  Two more firefighters were treated for their injuries at the scene.

The leveled property is at 363 Hines Road, Enfield.  Rancich was reportedly not at home when the fire was first detected.

What little remains; the fire scene late Sunday morning.

In an updated statement issued late Sunday, Enfield Fire Chief Jamie Stevens reported, “The hospitalized firefighter was transported to the hospital for minor treatment and released from the Emergency Department shortly after.”  The Chief continued, “All personnel with reported injuries were cleared to return to work before Enfield cleared the fire scene.”

“At 10:41 (AM), Enfield Fire and Bangs Ambulance were requested to a reported fully involved structure fire,” the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) reported in a statement posted late Saturday.

“Deputy Chief, Bailey Stevens, was the first to arrive on scene followed shortly thereafter by 661 Fire Chief, Jamie Stevens. 661 Fire Chief was notified by dispatch while en route that the police officers on scene reported a fully involved structure fire.” Chief Jamie Stevens stated in his Sunday update.  

“The Chief requested mutual aid from Trumansburg, Newfield, and Mecklenburg,” the Fire Chief continued.  “Upon arrival Deputy Chief, Bailey Stevens, confirmed the fully involved structure fire and requested mutual aid specifically water supply/tankers from Danby and West Danby. All companies listed were present after request.” 

Stevens also corrected earlier anecdotal reports that had suggested a tenant’s puppy may have first alerted sleeping victims to the danger and that the animal was later lost to the flames.

“The tenants reported that a son had woken to the smell of smoke and woken the father,” Chief Stevens said late Sunday.  “That is when they began evacuating. No puppy was reported to EVFC until later in the day.”

“We were informed that the puppy was last seen running into the field nearby and thus unaccounted for during our operations by the puppy’s owner,” Chief Stevens later statement reported.  “A Facebook post made Sunday stated the puppy had returned unharmed,” the Chief related.

Fire officials did not name the building’s owner or tenants.  However this writer, based on his personal knowledge and his on-scene inspection, confirmed Rancich as the building’s owner and its principal occupant.  Names of the tenants were not immediately disclosed.

The EVFC’s statements declined to indicate the cause of the fire or whether it might have been affected by the stormy weather.  One neighbor said fire investigators remained on the scene until at least 1 AM Sunday attempting to identify the fire’s origin.

Social media postings Sunday indicated firefighters were hampered by bad weather in fighting the Rancich fire, as they were by the need to haul water to the scene. Noxious fumes emitted by some of the building’s burning contents also complicated firefighting efforts.  The barn’s metal roof posed problems as well.

What’s left is only what wouldn’t burn; a metal sculpture outside the Rancich barn.

“Having a good water supply in rural areas simply isn’t guaranteed,” Enfield Board of Fire Commissioners Chair (and former Enfield Fire Chief) Greg Stevenson said Sunday.   “It takes knowledge and hard work to supply many thousands of gallons of water for a large fire.  I appreciate all of the companies and their members that came together to make this work,” Stevenson added.

Newfield, Trumansburg, Mecklenburg, Danby and West Danby Fire Companies provided mutual aid to assist Enfield firefighters Saturday morning. 

Enfield’s Fire Company also credits Bangs Ambulance, the Red Cross, the Tompkins County Sheriffs’ Department, the Tompkins County Fire Coordinator and the Tompkins County Highway Department. 

The Rancich residence, visited by this Town Councilperson in recent years during his various campaigns, was well decorated with a rustic interior.  It contained stuffed game and other memorabilia.  Neighbors report a large concrete vault on the barn’s premises reportedly protected some of Rancich’s possessions.

The Saturday fire totally destroyed the barn-apartment complex and all its remaining contents.  It also destroyed one vehicle seen Sunday parked outside.

How to help: Enfield neighbors have begun efforts on social media to secure clothing and other items to aid the displaced victims.

A donation table has been established for clothing and food supplies at Stoneybrook townhouses in Enfield Center.  Donations may be dropped off at the Stoneybrook office or at the apartment of BrennySue Worrell Riley, apartment #11 in the complex. “They lost everything, so food items could help (as well as clothing),”  Riley stated Saturday.

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Posted Previously:

CMC’s $1.5 Million “Mission Impossible”

Tightened deadlines and Albany’s roadblocks may redirect County cash

Wasn’t it a shopping mall, once? CMC’s Lansing complex where the Crisis Stabilization Center would situate.

by Robert Lynch; June 24, 2024

Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) the largest recipient under Tompkins County’s Community Recovery Fund, faces a likely loss of $1.5 Million in grant money after a legislative committee Monday gave the hospital corporation a drop-dead deadline it will likely fail to meet.

And should CMC push past the newly-set, late-August date for securing required New York authorizations, the federally-supported funds surrendered could be gobbled up by other applicants, principally by those that lost out in prior funding rounds, including two applicants from Enfield.

“They have optimism that they can get their necessary state permission by the end of the year, but it’s far from a sure thing,” County Legislature Chair Dan Klein, who also chairs the Legislature’s Community Recovery Fund Advisory Committee, informed his committee Monday.

“They have optimism that they can get state permission, but…” Legislature and Recovery Fund Committee Chair Dan Klein.

But year’s end is not August.  And August 30th was the deadline the Advisory Committee set later in Monday’s meeting for CMC to secure the necessary approvals to allow its project to proceed.

“I think there is virtually no chance that they will get permission from the state by August 30th,” Klein acknowledged, his assessment based on a meeting he’d attended with CMC officials one week earlier.  “I just think there’s virtually no chance,” Klein said.

Standing as the most ambitious—and expensive—endeavor among the more than 50 that snared Community Recovery funding through legislative action in December 2022, the CMC project, officially requested by CMC’s umbrella group, Cayuga Health Systems, would establish a “Crisis Stabilization Center” in vacant space at the Shops at Ithaca Mall.

As represented to funding officials in its application, the Stabilization Center would “provide 24/7 mental health and substance use crisis support and safe, effective, evidence-based care in a non-restrictive environment.”

But CMC has encountered problems persuading state bureaucrats to approve what it wants.  In an opaque, jargon-laced presentation to a legislative committee last September, Cayuga Health CEO Martin Stallone suggested that what Albany preferred was something more akin to a “full-blown psychiatric emergency room,” as opposed to a crisis stabilization center. Stallone then made it clear to the committee that the two are not the same.

Neither Stallone, nor anyone else representing Cayuga Medical Center or its parent organization attended the Monday committee meeting.

The Recovery Fund Committee’s late-August deadline comes amid the realization that federal rules which govern Recovery Fund distribution dictate that all awards are to be “obligated”—that is, contractually finalized—by this December 31st.  The funding source, Washington’s American Rescue Plan (ARPA), dictates the deadline.

CMC’s Stallone, first alerting Tompkins County to its problems, last September.

Imposing a similar—though not identical—stipulation, the Recovery Fund Committee also Monday conditioned a much-smaller $74,000 grant to Khuba International, a communal farm in Danby, to the requirement that Khuba secure preliminary site plan approval from the Danby Town Planning Board by late-August, and then advance to final site plan approval by October 31st. Khuba may need a zoning variance too.

The goal behind both deadlines is to prevent Washington from clawing back from Tompkins County any unspent ARPA cash.  County administrators cautioned they need time—preferably several months—to reallocate any forfeited grant awards.  And the larger the forfeited amount, the more time they’d need.

Two so-far unsuccessful Enfield applicants, the Enfield Community Council (ECC) and the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC), vigorously tendered applications in earlier funding rounds, but always fell short of receiving any Recovery money, of which $6.5 Million was allocated. 

Under their most recent revisions, the Community Council sought $146,000 to replace a dilapidated modular addition to its Community Center with a “Mental Health and Community Services Wing;” and the Fire Company has proposed a minimum $50,000 for various capital improvements.  The Fire Company fell just under the cut-off  line in the most recent funding round.

While there’s no assurance that either the ECC or the EVFC would secure funding should CMC (and/or Khuba International) fall from the current list, that possibility remains.  And should Cayuga Health forfeit its more significant amount, either Enfield agency’s hopes would brighten considerably.

Yet repurposing the CMC grant could challenge legislators, committee members, and the County’s consultant.

“If we have to reallocate $74,000 from Khuba, that’s one process,” Klein told the committee.  “If we have to reallocate $1.5 Million (from CMC’s application) in two months, that’s a different process,” he warned.

“I do hope they come through with it, but I think the timeline’s tough,” Newfield-Enfield legislator Randy Brown, a committee member, said of CMC’s effort to win state support.  Brown had opposed the Stabilization Center’s funding during the late-2022 awards.  He said Monday he’d done so, in part, for fear of the turmoil that a circumstance like the present one might create for those frozen out of the process.

As to current CMC negotiations with Albany, “It’s a little complicated,” Dan Klein observed, his thought cut short by a power failure that prompted a five-minute suspension of the meeting.

After the break, Klein continued:

“Cayuga Health Systems may have some other plans of what they want to do with the Crisis Stabilization Center, and I’m not sure that that’s public information,” he cautioned. “I’m not sure it’s relevant, exactly,” he added.

“What we do know is that they don’t have permission from the State yet for the project that we authorized,” the Legislature’s Chair said of Cayuga Health’s approval status.  “And they’re optimistic that (CMC) can get it by the end of the year, but we’re maybe a little less optimistic,” Klein conceded.  “And either way, we should put in a safety rail in case they don’t get (approval) in time.”

Ready and eager to snatch any crumbs from Tompkins County’s table; ECC President Cortney Bailey

Nevertheless, CMC’s failure to meet its time-sensitive federal deadlines may not spell the Crisis Stabilization Center’s demise.  Cayuga Health pegs the Stabilization Center’s total cost at $9 Million. Funding will flow from other sources, although CMC has regarded County Government support as an essential component.  At least one committee member hinted Monday that he’d be open to some other form of County subsidy later.

“This is desperately needed,” Lansing Republican Mike Sigler said of  the Stabilization Center.  “Whether we give it to them now or give it to them later, I think it has to get done.”

As inevitably occurs when more than four dozen applicants all feast at the same table, a few walk away.  And a relatively meager amount of cash has found itself washing out of the awards process in the past few months.  The fallout stands at just over $26,000 at present, much of it forfeited by the Alcohol and Drug Council when it went out of business. 

The committee set up a procedure Monday to reallocate the unspent funds.  It’s a process that will involve the full Legislature voting in August.  In fact, the EVFC, as one of the five runners-up, will be asked if they can make the small sum work.

Meeting federal deadlines with room to spare stood out as a key concern of the Recovery Fund Advisory Committee Monday.  Although ARPA rules don’t require financial books to close until December 2026, the committee directed applicants to spend their awards by April of ‘26 and voucher the bills by that August.

True, 2026 is an eternity away.  And what’s more immediate in the minds of many is writing those contracts and securing key approvals—like the one CMC presently lacks—by the end of this year, or preferably sooner.

As far as the Enfield Community Council is concerned, timing should be no problem, providing, of course, that someone downtown puts ECC on the funding list.

“If we’re approved, I’ll have that modular addition leveled in 48 hours,” Cortney Bailey, President of the ECC, told this writer months ago when CMC’s problems first came to light.  Said Bailey, “That’s how long it takes to order the dumpster.”

###

Previously posted; the budget votes:

School Budget Crises Averted

Ithaca, Newfield approve revised budgets; ICSD bus prop. passes too

by Robert Lynch; June 19, 2024

Some might say “What a difference a month makes.”  Others might put that differently: “What a difference a tax cut makes.”

A sign of shifting political winds. The budget passed.

In revote referendums Tuesday, voters in both the Ithaca and Newfield School Districts reversed earlier defeats of their respective next year’s budgets and approved both.  In Ithaca, the lopsided margin of victory registered even stronger than the landslide defeat given a higher-priced, higher taxing budget back on May 21st.  In Newfield, a budget that had lost by 18 votes in May, won by more than 100 votes after educators trimmed it down by some $71,000.

Ithaca’s school voters also endorsed spending $1.6 Million from a reserve fund to purchase four school buses plus a few other vehicles.  Two of those buses would be electric.  In Newfield, the school board chose not to resubmit a once-defeated transportation proposition, one that might have included an electric bus.

As for the budget vote, the Ithaca City School District’s (ICSD’s) retooled proposition passed Tuesday 4,979 votes (74.1%) in favor to 1,736 (25.9%) opposed.  The Ithaca outcome marked a stunning reversal from the seven-to-three margin of drubbing voters had given the first-submitted budget in May.

The ICSD bus proposition passed Tuesday, 4,593 votes (68.6%) in favor, to 2,104 votes (31.4%) opposed.  The bus purchase option was exactly half as costly as the $3.2 Million proposition advanced a month earlier.  The first measure would have bought eight buses, not just four. In each instance, half the purchased buses would be electric.

In the Newfield District, figures released Tuesday night showed its revised budget passing 387 votes (59.7%) to 261 (40.3%).

Boards of Education in each district will meet Thursday night to certify their school systems’ respective results. Each meeting is expected to be short and perfunctory.  Had budgets failed, the boards might have agonized—potentially for hours—over how to cut spending in line with the “Contingency Budgets” that state law would have mandated each adopt.

A Contingency Budget is, effectively, an austerity budget by a different name. Whenever school budgets fail in a second referendum, state law mandates the Boards of Education cabin spending so that the forthcoming year’s tax levy does not surpass the one for the current budget year.

Unease, as the compromise was being hammered-out. Ithaca School Board members Erin Croyle and Jill Tripp, May 28th.

In Ithaca, administrators had warned that a Contingency Budget would have forced $9 Million in spending cuts compared to the budget first placed before voters in May.  By comparison, the so-called “Re-vote Budget,” adopted Tuesday in Ithaca, will prompt cuts of only $5.9 Million.

True, teaching and administrative positions will be lost in the trimmed-down budget adopted by Ithaca voters Tuesday.  But most cuts, administrators have predicted, will come through attrition.  Had a Contingency Budget been mandated, personnel rosters would have been cut much deeper with layoffs possible.

The Newfield budget just-approved, accomplished much of its economies through the elimination of a single, now-vacant instructional position, a “technology” (shop) teacher serving the upper grades.  Newfield administrators had eyed other teaching vacancies for elimination, both at the elementary/middle school levels as well as in music education, had contingency budgeting become necessary.

What likely enabled passage of the ICSD budget was the tax levy.  It plummeted from that of the budget that was rejected in May. 

The May budget had calculated a year-to-year tax levy increase of 8.4 per cent.  The “Re-vote Budget” voters ratified Tuesday would have raised the levy by only 2.92 per cent, an increase slightly below the (arguably arbitrary) “tax cap” that Albany accountants set.  Since the revised budget stands tax cap-compliant, its passage by the electorate required only a simple majority, not the super-majority necessary when districts ask voters to override a tax cap.

The adopted budget in Newfield will increase the tax levy next year by 2.5 per cent.  The earlier-rejected budget would have hiked that levy by 3.5 per cent.

The tax levy, as opposed to the tax rate, is viewed as the better gauge of a budget’s taxpayer impact.  With property assessments rising, a tax rate can remain stable—or even fall—while actual tax bills rapidly rise. 

With Tompkins County residential assessments climbing markedly this year, watchful homeowners warned that raising the tax levy too much could price them out of the community.

The adopted Ithaca Schools’ budget totals just over $163 Million dollars.  The plan rejected in May had totaled $168.9 Million.  A budget draft first advanced by administrators over the winter and early-spring would have climbed spending to as high as $170.9 Million and hiked the tax levy by 12.14 per cent.

Still undecided—and left undiscussed in these latest deliberations—is the fate of a $125 Million, decade-long Ithaca School District capital investment initiative that was also rejected at the polls in May.  By law, according to administrators, the capital spending cannot be submitted for a revote until 90 days after its defeat.  Tuesday’s stunning budget turn-around could prompt the Ithaca Board of Education to resubmit the capital plan for voter reconsideration later this summer or fall.  Board members could trim the plan and its total before they do.

“Contingency would be catastrophic,” Ithaca School Board member Erin Croyle told a Board committee meeting one day after voters had rejected the May budget.  Croyle was never truly happy with the compromise, cut-down, revised version eventually resubmitted voters.  But she saw it far better than the state-mandated contingency alternative.

No doubt, a sigh of relief. Newfield School Superintendent Eric Hartz

There’d be “nothing after-school except sports,” should the contingency alternative have come to pass, Croyle warned at a later meeting.  It’s a “terrifying process,” she said at the time.

Newfield budget crunchers had said at their own budget meeting that the district’s entire sports program might need to be eliminated should its district resort to contingency.  Alternatively, perhaps, there might have been no instrumental band.

Taxpayer-conscious Ithaca School Board member Jill Tripp can be credited with pulling various factions together to support the ICSD $163 Million compromise that secured voter approval this week.  She also backed the half-as-large proposition to buy the electric buses.

“It’s not a perfect budget,” Tripp acknowledged at the Board’s June 3rd session.  “It doesn’t have everything I want,” she stated.  But, “we’re heading in the right direction “ 

Each district’s Board of Education could have imposed a Contingency Budget by its own initiative, thereby bypassing a second referendum.  But neither board chose to do so.  No doubt, based on Tuesday’s results, most of their respective members are glad they’d remained optimistic.

###

Earlier, a week before the vote:

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.

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“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.

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