Newfield to Revise, Revote School Budget

by Robert Lynch; May 24, 2024; edited May 26, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” School Business Manager Perry Gorgen answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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