June 21, 2007

‘Opportunity to be extraordinary’

Teacher tells Cortland Alternative High School graduates that they have choices to make.


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Nikki Mastronardi, left, and Kaththea Miller prepare for their Cortland Alternative High School graduation ceremony Wednesday night at Corey Union on the SUNY Cortland campus. Ten students picked up their diplomas.

Staff reporter

Ten Cortland Alternative High School graduates walked down an aisle in the Exhibition Lounge Wednesday night at SUNY Cortland during the Cortland Alternative High School graduation in a ceremony of laughter and some tears.
Seven of the 10 students are planning to attend college in the fall and one plans to start in January. The other two plan to work first and then go for further training or school.
All are planning productive lives. But that was not always the case. At this small school where teachers become an extension of family to the students, many students said during their graduation speeches that they had been following the wrong path.
Kaththea Miller, 20, said a Marathon teacher labeled her “unteachable.” She dropped out and went back to school at Cortland High School, but continued to struggle. Deaths in her family and knee surgery in ninth grade distracted her from her studies.
The oldest graduate, she said that when she entered CAHS in September 2004 she was shy. Miller told the staff and her fellow students what each meant to her. Miller said she now plans to attend Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks and major in culinary arts, specifically baking and pastry.
Tiffany Crowley, 18, said she used to get into fights at Cortland High School and had hoped to drop out at age 16. She was arrested in 10th grade and put on probation.
“That’s when … I started making good decisions,” she said, noting that one of those decisions placed her at the alternative school. Despite the death of her grandfather, grandmother and her sister being sent to jail this school year, she persisted with the help of teachers and classmates.
“It’s just a big family here at the alternative school,” said John Schlenker, who had attended Homer schools. He said he was bored at his home school. He said his path was a “long, rough road” that included switching schools and dropping out of CAHS and then returning. Now he’s planning to attend Onondaga Community College in the fall. “I’m ready,” he said.
Brian Fay, an English teacher, said he had been stuck on what to tell the graduates until he reflected on what Horace Mann said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
“We have the opportunity to be extraordinary,” said Fay. “The choices are ours.” He said that is what life is about — making choices, saying that most people choose to give up when they do not quite reach extraordinary. He urged graduates not to have this “I can’t” mentality. “You can still be extraordinary. Life is not over.”
Two students planning to attend college received awards during the ceremony. Joseph Lamenting, 18, a DeRuyter student, received the $500 Thomas A. Clark Scholarship. The Harvey Kaufman Rotary Scholarship for $400 went to Schlenker, who also received the Homer Lion’s Club Service Award for $300.
Also graduating in the CAHS class of 2007 were the following students: Melissa Francisco, 18, who had attended Cincinnatus; Curtis Galaska, 18, Cortland; Anna Harrold, 18, Cortland; Nicole “Nikki” Mastronardi, 17, Cortland; Michael Sampson, 19, Cortland; and Brittanie Reid, 18, Tully.



Student clears some hurdles on way to CAHS graduation

Staff Reporter

Michael “Mickee” Sampson II, 19, has his act together.
He lives on his own in McGraw, works overtime most weeks at a fast food restaurant and works at a construction job, and still managed to complete his studies at the Cortland Alternative High School, despite facing another hurdle — the death of his father in December 2005 from heart disease.
Ten students graduated from the school Wednesday night. The small high school pairs all students with a teacher who becomes the students’ family group leader. The family-type support helps students overcome personal hurdles on the path to graduation.
Sampson said during an interview before graduation that he had moved around a lot between the homes of his father, who was sick, and his aunt, both in Cortland.
He said he grew up without his mother, who lives in Greene. His aunt, Caterina “Trina”Griffin, a 1990 graduate of CAHS, raised him, Sampson said. “She had been more of a mother than my real mother.”
Griffin, a single mother of three sons, said she was granted custody of Sampson and his brother, Joseph, six years ago when they were in foster care. Joseph graduated from CAHS in the class of 2005.
She said CAHS is a great program. “The teachers are like family.” Before turning to the alternative school, Sampson had been attending Cortland High School, but found the school too big and teachers didn’t seem to care. His guidance counselor recommended the alternative school.
“Just from my visit I knew I was going to come here,” said Sampson, who visited the school in fall 2004 and started attending in January 2005.
He said he likes the environment at CAHS — being able to call teachers by their first names and being friends with them. “It made it easy to pay attention. They proved to you that they cared and they want you to pass,” he said.
Sampson moved out on his own in August when he got a full-time job at Arby’s on Route 13 in Cortland and he finished his studies in January after taking economics during the summer.
“Mikee’s attitude has changed dramatically because of his life experiences, CAHS and Caterina Griffin, his aunt,” said Jeff Gambitta, Sampson’s family group leader and the social studies teacher at CAHS. “He has accepted responsibility for himself and is a role model for all the other students at CAHS.” Gambitta said the school strives to get all its students to take responsibility for themselves and learn to deal with problems using their own strength.
CAHS Principal Karen Clark said besides being a terrific role model, Sampson has “a great demeanor and personality.”
“Lots of times I had to kick him in the butt,” said Gambitta. “It was not all hugs.”
But, Wednesday night, it was a lot of hugs — and kisses.
“Jeff has become a second father to me,” said Sampson, who gave Jeff a big hug during graduation.
Sampson said business math was one of his favorite course. “I used to be really bad in math. Steve Brown — I sat in his class and it just seemed easy,” he said of the math teacher at CAHS.
In roasting the graduates, Brian Fay, the school’s English teacher told Sampson, “When I think of you, I think of Adobe Photoshop.” He said Sampson can make that program do anything, even making hair grow on Fay’s bald head.
Gambitta said he would like to see Sampson accomplish another goal — “reconciling with his mother so she can be a more positive influence in his life. That will be his next hurdle.”
“He’s become accepting of his past situation,” said Griffin. during the reception for the graduates. It’s made him a better person.”
During his senior speech, he did say he unconditionally loves his mother. “That just melted my heart,” Griffin said. “That’s part of his life he has to continue to work on.”
At the ceremony each graduate gives a rose to the person who has encouraged the student the most. Sampson handed his red rose to Griffin.
“Three years ago high school looked too much. Now college looks too easy,” said Sampson in his speech.
Sampson plans to continue his education at Tompkins Cortland Community College where he plans to major in graphic design. “I love anything to do with art,” he said. Gambitta also said he plans to major in business so he will have a double major. Sampson said he eventually wants to own his own graphic design business.
“I’m ready for the next step,” Sampson said.


IDA backs tax deal for biodiesel plant

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The Cortland County Industrial Development Agency gave preliminary approval for a 10-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement for a planned soybean crushing and biodiesel production facility in Polkville.
The agreement is expected to save Empire Agrifuel, the company running the facility, about $1.3 million in county, Cortlandville and McGraw school district property taxes, sales taxes and a mortgage recording fee during that period.
The agency’s board voted 3-1, with Mike McMahon, Tom Gallagher and Stephen Compagni voting for the agreement, John Reagan voting against it and IDA Chairman Paul Slowey abstaining from the vote.
IDA members Frank Suits Jr. and W. Stephen Harrington were absent.
A final vote on the PILOT will take place following an environmental review of the facility and a public hearing for the project, for which a date has not yet been determined.
IDA attorney John Sidd said the board would need a “reasonable basis” to reject the PILOT during the final vote.
Slowey said he abstained from the vote because he may be working with the soybean facility in some capacity, though he declined to say how.
McMahon, however, said he has an interest in the project, having just bought a tractor-trailer for the purpose of hauling material to the plant. McMahon, a dairy farmer, couldn’t be reached today for further comment.
Sidd said this morning he is not sure if McMahon had a conflict of interest in voting on a tax break for a business he will be working with.
He said he will look into whether a conflict of interest took place in the coming weeks.
Reagan said he did not have enough information about the investment Empire Agrifuel intends to make in the community, including the wages its workers will be paid.
“It’s just not that detailed to me, the application,” Reagan said.
Gallagher wanted to know why a PILOT agreement was being considered, and McMahon said it could make the difference between the project succeeding and not succeeding.
Gallagher voiced hesitation about awarding a PILOT, saying he thought the IDA sometimes awarded PILOTs too freely.
Mason Somerville, a SUNY Morrisville professor who heads Empire Agrifuel, said later in the day he’s not sure the PILOT itself will make or break the project, but that it gives investors more confidence in the project, which is crucial.
He said he is working on getting at least $2 million in private equity, or money from individuals, a requirement for bank loans for the project. He said he is optimistic that will happen, and only two of the twenty-some investors he’s talked with have rejected the project.
“I told them I anticipate getting the (PILOT) benefit,” Somerville said.
The $15.3 biodiesel facility is expected to be up and running within the next 14 months. The facility will be the first oilseed and biofuel processing plant in the state, and is intended to further advance upstate New York as a leader in renewable energy and increase market demand for state soybean and eventually canola growers.


Homer teen acquitted in air gun case

Staff Reporter

A Homer teen was acquitted in Cortland County Court Wednesday of one remaining count of endangerment after being originally charged with multiple counts of felony assault for shooting fellow students with an air gun in the parking lot of Homer High School.
Jurors said after the verdict was read that they believed the incident should have been handled by school authorities only and didn’t warrant an arrest.
Zachary Walter, 18, of 17 N. West St., was found not guilty of endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. He admitted to shooting another student in the face with a Crossman Airsoft gun in May 2006.
Walter and another student, Terry Elwood, were indicted on assault charges in August after shooting several students with the gun.
Those charges were dismissed in November after County Court Judge Julie Campbell — who also presided over this week’s trial — found that none of the teens shot, including the student in trial case, were injured.
The endangering charge was the only count on the original indictment that was not thrown out and pertained to one student who was under 17 years of age at the time. The other students were too old to be covered by the statute.
Jurors Jessica Houle, 21, of Harford, and Kristen Cobb, 20, of Cincinnatus, said they believe Walter made a mistake when he shot the students, but that they don’t think the act should have ever been criminally prosecuted.
“It’s child’s play,” Cobb said.
Houle said she agreed with the prosecution that the shooting could have been dangerous, but that she did not believe Walter intended to hurt the other student when he shot him with the air gun. Houle said that according to Campbell’s instructions on the law, Walter would have to have “knowingly” put the other student in danger in order to be found guilty of the crime.
The case generated a yearlong controversy that began when Walter and Elwood shot fellow students with the air gun and were suspended from school for 14 weeks as well as being arrested.
Throughout the trial, much of the debate between defense attorney Randolph Kruman and Assistant District Attorney Wendy Franklin surrounded the question of whether the gun was a toy or a dangerous weapon.
Houle and Cobb said after hearing all the evidence they believe the gun, which is battery operated and shoots plastic BBs, falls somewhere in between.
Kruman, Walter, and Walter’s father, Gary Walter, all said they are relieved the trial is over, adding that they don’t believe that the ordeal should have gone as far as it did.
Gary Walter said that the ongoing proceedings since the arrest show that Franklin and District Attorney David Hartnett unjustly pursued the charges against his son. He said he believes the district attorney’s office wanted to see Zachary Walter and Elwood in state prison for the act.



Supervisor: Cortlandville won’t be part of flood study

Staff Reporter

Town Supervisor Dick Tupper reiterated the town’s unwillingness to participate in a flood mitigation feasibility study at a regular Town Board meeting Wednesday night.
On Tuesday, Common Council members and county Legislator Carol Tytler (D-3rd Ward) had said that they felt development in Cortlandville was at least partly responsible for spring and early summer flooding in the city in 2005 and 2006.
They indicated they would continue to pressure the town to participate in a $20,000 feasibility study to determine whether a detention pond near the city waterworks on Route 281 would slow down water entering the city via Otter Creek.
The county and city are splitting the study’s cost.
“That work they’re doing over in the Otter Creek area has no effect on Cortlandville whatsoever,” Tupper said Wednesday, pointing out that the town had sought more money from the county sales tax revenue just last year to cover infrastructure improvements such as this.
The town wanted an additional 1 percent of sales tax revenue, but the county rejected the proposal because other towns and villages were concerned about losing revenue.
Tupper said it’s “inappropriate for them to blame” Cortlandville for water that flows out of the many surrounding hills and townships and naturally congregates in the valley.
Town Board member Ron Rocco said that part of the problem is buildup within the creek bed, and that the state Department of Environmental Conservation should allow dredging.
The town is very concerned with stormwater management, Tupper said, and the town is currently trying to pass zoning ordinance amendments with maximum lot coverage allowances of 50 percent in some areas and 70 percent in others (an extra 5 percent would be allowed with a variance).
“We probably have more detention and retention plans than anywhere else in the county,” Tupper said.
Cortlandville is already working with the county to alleviate flooding problems surrounding Perplexity Creek in the Starr Road area, and has spent $17,000 on a study of the problem and some design work while the county has commissioned two studies; Tupper said that Mayor Tom Gallagher has been included in discussions about installing a detention pond, and funding a study to determine feasibility.
And, Tupper pointed out that the town is hoping for a $150,000 grant to help pay for the $300,000 it would cost to extend public water and sewer service to the planned $4.1 million first phase of the Finger Lakes East Business Park, coordinated by the Cortland County Business Development Corp./Industrial Development Agency.