April 03, 2007

State aid bolsters area school districts


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Alan Hunter casts a shadow as he speaks to Parker Elementary School sixth-grade students and teachers in a traveling, inflatable planetarium Monday morning. The announced increase to school aid should help keep educational extras like the planetarium supported.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Most area school districts have reason to rejoice at the larger than usual state aid projections released Monday.
Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton said the state is changing the school aid formulas, “driving more money to the poorer districts,” in a process that begins this year and will continue for the next three years.
“It’s still imperfect,” Lifton said, noting that Groton, for example, did not get a large increase but is not a wealthy district. She said she would continue to be part of the discussion on school aid.
McGraw is one district that saw one of the highest increases, at 12.3 percent.
“This is the first good aid numbers McGraw has seen in 13 years. We’ve been withering on the vines,” said Steve Littlefield, business administrator at McGraw schools, noting that maintenance work — such as deteriorating parking lots and roofs — has been put on hold in the past.
Littlefield said the current budget also did give the district a “pretty good increase.” Littlefield said the average increase since the 1995-96 year is about 3 percent.
“My biggest fear about this proposal is the state’s ability to fund it over the years,” said Littlefield. He noted that  mandates, such as the new Contract for Excellence money, can become funded over time.
The McGraw district, as well as other districts such as Cortland and Homer, saw large increases because additional aid was added called Contract for Excellence, which is intended to address certain issues within a district, such as large class sizes or poor graduation rates among students with disabilities.
Lifton said she worked very hard to have this money less restricted in use. Originally the money was to be limited to five different programs, such as pre-kindergarten or after-school programs. Lifton said many schools are already doing these programs and districts should be able to use the money for programs that are working toward improving student success in the district.
Cortland Superintendent of Schools Larry Spring said the increase of more than $2 million in state aid would be dedicated to innovative programs, including reduction of class sizes, which Spring said the district does at the kindergarten, first- and second-grade levels.
Also, restructuring of the middle and high school grades, staff development and increased time, which could mean either lengthening the school day or school year.
He said that the money is also going to be used for hiring special education teachers, but he does not know how many.
He said the state has yet to hand down regulations on how state aid could be allocated.
Spring also said in the governor’s budget the amount for universal pre-kindergarten was “flat,” but there was an infusion of more than $150,000 in the adopted budget — bumping up Cortland’s universal pre-kindergarten funds to $542,898.
Steve Hubbard, superintendent of Cincinnatus schools, said he was still reviewing the aid numbers with the business office.
“We’re not getting as much as I had hoped we would,” he said, but he said he thought the district would see more in this budget than in past years. Overall aid for Hubbard’s district increased 4.3 percent. Hubbard said the district relies heavily on state aid for its budget, with more than 75 percent of the budget coming from state aid each year.
The projections for basic (foundation) state aid for this district increases by more than $510,000. The aid that significantly decreased for the district was building aid, which dropped from $305,555 to $54,009.
Superintendent of Groton School Brenda Myers could not be reached for comment this morning.
Staff reporter Sasha Austrie contributed to this article.



Jury acquits man of rape charges in retrial 

Staff Reporter

After being convicted of the charges in 2002, a former Homer man was found not guilty in a retrial Tuesday of raping and sodomizing his best friend’s daughter.
Charles Stewart, 47, was acquitted of two counts of first-degree rape and two counts of first-degree sodomy, felonies, but was found guilty of first-degree sexual abuse, also a felony, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor.
Stewart was accused of raping his best friend’s 9-year-old daughter on April 22, 2000, after her father left her at Stewart’s home for around 30 minutes to go to Cortland to buy beer.
The girl, who is now 16 years old, testified on Thursday that after her father left her alone with her “uncle Chuck,” Stewart drove her to an unknown location where he raped her and told her if she told anyone he would her hurt.
She said that before getting in the car, Stewart touched her buttocks while she was at his Little York Crossing Road home. It was that incident that resulted in the sexual abuse charge of which he was found guilty.
Defense attorney Peter Pullano argued during that trial that his client could not have committed the crimes because police found no evidence of semen on the girl’s clothes and doctors found no tearing or bruising of her vaginal area.
“It’s an emotional case, there’s bound to be an emotional reaction,” Pullano said during his closing arguments on Monday.
Citing expert testimony from Dr. Ann Botash of University Hospital in Syracuse, Barnhill told the jury during her summations that the lack of physical evidence does not mean the rape did not happen.
As a witness for the prosecution, Botash told the jury on Friday that in some studies as many as 78 percent of children proven to have been victims of sexual abuse show no physical signs.
Barnhill also argued that the girl had no reason to make up the story.
“Does (the girl) have a motive to lie?” Barnhill asked the jury, citing the girl and her father’s testimony when they explained that Stewart was her godfather. “Why would she risk destroying this arrangement, these lifelong relationships? What could she possibly gain?”
Stewart is scheduled for sentencing on June 26.


Budget includes $150,000 for Locust Ave.

State money will also go toward replacement of filter in Wickwire pool at Suggett Park

Staff Reporter

Repairs to a county road in Cortlandville and a swimming pool in Cortland are among the local projects that will receive state funds from Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton in the 2007-08 budget.
Lifton (D-Ithaca) arranged for $150,000 to go toward repairing Locust Avenue in Cortlandville. The project costs about $250,000, with the other $100,000 coming from the county, said Don Chambers, county highway superintendent.
Chambers said the money will be used to improve the road’s safety, reduce erosion problems and widen its shoulders.
“It not only has poor drainage and roadside hazards but it is a higher volume road so that puts it higher on our selection list when traffic volume and conditions play a part,” he said.
Chambers said the county also asked for member item funding for South Cortland-Virgil Road, but that was denied.
Chambers said work on Locust Avenue is expected to take place this summer. He said the county anticipated getting money for the road so it has already designed the project in-house.
He said the road will be repaired by county employees.
Lifton also arranged a $100,000 grant to replace the filtration system of the C.C. Wickwire Pool at Suggett Park.
John McNerney, director of the Cortland Youth Bureau, said the pool’s filter has never been replaced and dates to 1946. He said New York sanitary codes require pool water to be recycled four times during a 24-hour period, but the pool’s current filter only allows water to be recycled 2.5 times per day.


Homer looks at revised PILOT

Village Board still wants more time to decide on tax agreement for senior housing project.

Staff Reporter

HOMER — The Village Board is holding off making a decision about awarding a payment in lieu of taxes agreement to the developer of a 24-unit senior housing project under construction at the corner of Cortland Street and Orson Drive.
Over the last week the board had been considering a 15-year PILOT agreement for the project — a shorter length of time than the developer’s proposed 30-year agreement — but decided to back away and gather more information before making any decision.
The board considered two options for developer Two Plus Four Construction, using numbers that had been revised to more accurately reflect the current assessed value of the land, which is $155,000.
Under the PILOT proposal, Two Plus Four would pay an annual payment of $9,600 (or, $400 per apartment unit) that would then be divided among the village, the town and the school district — the village would determine the split.
The developer would also pay the land taxes on the $155,000 assessed property to the town and county, the village and the school. At the standard tax rate, this amount would increase with the expected annual tax increase.
Altogether, Two Plus Four Construction would have a tax bill of $16,470 the first year.
The second option would have the developer pay $14,828.80 under a new state law that grants low-income housing tax subsidies.
The law that went into effect Jan. 1 would reduce the assessment of the $3.5 million project to $334,579.
Trustee Mike Berry pointed out the village would receive more money with a PILOT agreement, and also gain the ability to examine Two Plus Four’s financial books.
But Trustee Genevieve Suits questioned the wisdom of granting a 15-year PILOT, preferring a five-year agreement with the possibility to renegotiate after that time.
She also wondered if the village would be able to build in an annual escalation rate for the payments on each apartment unit in order to keep up with cost of living increases.
Village attorney David Perfetti suggested that the trustees did not have the necessary information to make a decision and should do more research, and the board agreed. The decision will likely be delivered after the release of the tentative assessment rolls on May 1.


1890 House given $109,000 donation from Gibson estate

Staff Reporter

Charles Gibson supported the 1890 House not only in his lifetime but also into his death.
The museum has received a bequest of $109,000 from his estate.
Gibson died on Aug. 25 at the age of 79.
Deanna Pace, director of The 1890 House, said the museum would receive the gift to support its endowment fund, which is invested, when the estate is settled. She said the museum pays part of its operating costs from this fund.
“It gets us closer to the amount we need to be self-sustaining,” Pace said Friday.
“We are very excited about Mr. Gibson’s gift, which has almost doubled our endowment fund,” said Aaron Forrest, treasurer of the museum’s board of directors, in a statement. He noted the interest from the fund pays part of the general operating costs of the museum.
“This is a magnificent gesture, a marvelous legacy for our local community, and we are very proud to be associated with the Gibson bequest. Charlie was a former board member and dear, dear friend of the museum,” said Louis Larson, president of the museum’s board of trustees. “In recent years, the museum has received considerable private support, but a bequest such as that of Mr. Gibson’s is on an unprecedented scale.”
The museum will be able to continue to develop its educational programs, exhibitions and collections, Pace said, noting the museum honored Gibson for his work as a retiring trustee in 2004.
Born in 1927 in Newcastle, Ontario, Canada, Gibson emigrated from Canada to the United States with his family in 1933. He attended high school in Cortland, and was drafted into the U.S. Army during his senior year.
Following World War II he served in Japan and was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant.
After finishing his high school course work, he attended Hobart College, where he earned a degree in economics. Gibson worked as a bank examiner for the federal government, and in 1956, he began his long association with First National Bank in Cortland. Hired as a trust officer, he remained with the bank for 33 years until his retirement in 1989 as a senior vice president and trust officer.
Within the Cortland community, Gibson actively supported many causes and organizations, such as SUNY Cortland and its Alumni Association. In addition he was an avid gardener, antique collector and world traveler.