In the wake of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead on Valentine’s Day, school safety and mass shootings have been at the forefront of the public consciousness both nationally and locally. The resulting movement for stricter gun control measures led by the Parkland students who survived the attack has spread from coast to coast, and now Valley Central High School students are scheduled to take part in the National School Walkout action on March 14.
At a time to be determined on Wednesday, participating students will walk out of school and remain outside for 17 minutes in memory of the 17 victims of the Parkland massacre. The Valley Central administration noted during the school board meeting on March 5 that the district has met with student representatives about the demonstration, and there have been discussions with local police about closing Route 17K in front of the High School-Middle School complex during the demonstration so that students can walk along the road.
The district will then hold a town hall meeting at a later date with representatives from law enforcement and local politicians to speak with students and teachers about school safety. “It’s important to give students a voice and a place to express themselves,” Valley Central Assistant Superintendent Michael Bellarosa told the board. “This is one of those teachable moments for them, and it’s a really important part of their lives. So I know that walkout has a defiant connotation to it, but really what this is is more like a demonstration that the students will be participating in. They’ll be learning about their First Amendment rights and what their concerns are, and certainly school safety at Valley Central locally. So they’ll be doing some discussions in classrooms, and some discussions about the issue on the national level as well. So it’s a part of their experience that we’re certainly supporting.”
The March 14 walkout is the first in a string of planned nationwide events that have been organized in the aftermath of the latest school shooting, as a massive national March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C. on March 24 has been arranged by the Parkland survivors and a second national school walkout is planned for April 20 to mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting in Colorado.
The district is keeping alert for safety issues after the Florida attack, and Valley Central is reconvening its district Safety Committee. “There’s been an increased police presence, and our School Resource Officers (SRO) have been there in the morning in a car, and I think an additional officer has been over at the High School-Middle School campus,” Superintendent John Xanthis said of the district’s safety efforts. “The other day they had the Madagascar play during the day and a Montgomery police officer showed up walking the halls and making sure the parents came in and people that were there were safe. So we had a police presence, and we had a commitment from the police that they’re going to make more of an attempt to get into the schools and walk through at random times of the day. I’m happy to say we’re one of the few districts left to have SROs. When they cut that program, most schools couldn’t sustain it. But Valley Central has sustained it.”
The district is working closely with the Town of Montgomery police on school safety preparedness, and a New York State Trooper is also being brought in at a future date to speak to high school students about safety. “We have a great relationship with the police and we do a lot of drills, which we take very seriously,” Xanthis said. “We’ve had lockdown drills, active shooter drills. We’re probably going to do more of those kinds of things. At Montgomery Elementary there’s a police presence there in the morning, then at our high school and middle school. We just tell the parents that we do have a plan. We’re always looking at the plan and improving it. It doesn’t just sit on a shelf and collect dust. It’s a living document. We’re very active here in this district.”
The two SRO officers are a consistent presence in district schools, and serve as a deterrent against potential violent incidents. “They’re a cop on the beat,” Xanthis explained of the SROs role in the district. “They’re walking the neighborhood like in the old days, seeing the kids. If things go on where they have to help and investigate something they will, but they’re not there to do any discipline. Visibility is so important, so the fact that people know that you have police there, you would hope they (potential attackers) would not come here. The officers have a great relationship with the kids and they become a fabric of the school.”
The proposed 2018-2019 school budget will be presented to the board by the administration at the council’s next meeting on March 19. But the plan is far from finalized, as the latest figures in the proposed budget show a $816,095 shortfall between the projected revenues and the budget total the district would like to spend. Under the latest numbers unveiled by Valley Central Assistant Superintendent Lisa Raymond during the program budget presentation last Monday, the district has a total proposed budget of $105,211,705 and projected revenues of $104,395,610.
The final state aid numbers are still a wild card in the process, and the district hopes to make up that gap in the coming weeks before presenting the budget to the school board. “We’re looking closely at the recommendations from the personnel auditors,” Raymond told the board. “We don’t want to jeopardize any of our programs. So we’re being diligent in going back to the administrators, looking at what they’re requesting, what the auditors are recommending and seeing if somehow we can work out some of the things where perhaps the people who are retiring don’t need to be replaced. We could have somebody else on staff that could be moved into that and what would be done with that program. So we’re in the process of looking at all of this.”
Trustee Brad Conklin told the administration during last week’s meeting that he’s concerned with the current direction of the budget. “I’m scared,” he said. “When I talk to the board here, we know that any administration, if you gave them $200 million they’re going to find a way to spend every penny of it. I think what we need to ask ourselves here is where are we going? I think we had a gap last year that we had to close with the incentive, and I thought then that we were starting to go down a path that could lead us to problems. Everybody knows what happened in 2013, with the problems of the board relying on reserves for a couple of years, and when the reserves ran dry we had to cut sports, art and music. I wasn’t a part of that, but what I see now is concerning.” Conklin noted that this year’s spending plan marks the biggest one-year budget increase in his tenure with the board.
To stay within the tax cap this year, Valley Central can raise the levy 4.26 percent, a $2,518,548 increase over last year’s budget total. “The big thing is that the $800,000 is the gap in our plan, not the gap in what we’re actually going to do,” Bellarosa said. “So we still have to fine tune the plan.”
Board of Education President Sheila Schwartz told the administration that she’s also worried about aspects of the proposed budget. “Looking at this, we’re going back to a top-heavy administration, that’s what the public is going to say,” she noted. “That’s what they said years ago and we started cutting these positions because people we’re retiring. Now we’re going back and adding all of these top administrative positions as people are retiring.” Xanthis says the district will hammer out the budget numbers in the coming weeks to get to a satisfactory conclusion. “The bottom line is that we can’t keep adding positions,” he said. “We understand that.“
By Ted Remsnyder