September 29, 2007


Local districts try to mesh new preschool funding with programs


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Victoria Strobeck paints a picture at her easel at the Universal Pre-Kindergaten class at the Cortland YMCA Tuesday morning.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Although the state increased funding for the Universal Pre-kindergarten Program this year by $146 million, a 50 percent increase, local districts are finding it challenging to increase the number of students who can be served.
Four schools in the area offer pre-kindergarten — Cincinnatus, Cortland, Groton and Marathon. This is the first year Marathon has offered the program and it is done at Appleby Elementary. Shelley Warnow, elementary principal at Marathon, could not be reached.
At Cincinnatus, the district started with one pre-kindergarten class for the 2001-02 year with 18 students, and although funding was not available, added a second classroom in 2004-05, said Elementary Principal Renee Carpenter. She said currently the program serves 40 students and is at capacity.
The additional funding was used for the current program, which has two teachers and two assistants, she said.
Brenda Myers, superintendent of Groton Schools, said the district added 12 slots for pre-kindergarten this year, but it was challenging to use the aid because it only covers a half-day of prekindergarten, with about $4,000 per student in aid.
She said the district had to form an agreement with Head Start to allow children to have a full day of prekindergarten.
“Our hope was to get $8,000 per child,” Myers said of the new aid. “At some point will not be able to handle the cost,” she said.
Myers said transportation is an issue for half-day programs because Groton is a rural district and many parents work, so the Groton district partially funds the full-time program.
This year $20,000 was budgeted for the program for 20 available slots at the Groton Elementary School. That helps pay for full-time certified teacher Jennifer MacDonald, and support staff.
For Cortland, space is the issue, said Judi Riley, assistant superintendent for pupil and personnel services. The district could now serve up to 155 students with the funding the state offers. It has 114 children enrolled in the three-hour universal pre-kindergarten. In 2006-07 the maximum enrollment possible was 118. The district started the program when it was first offered in 1998-99. Then the state funded 23 children with $72,400 in aid.
The district has two classes within district buildings, one each at Randall and Smith elementary schools. There are seven additional sites. Riley said some sites have added one or two children.
Community day cares, such as the YWCA and YMCA, work with the district to provide services at all the sites. Riley said the sites offer wraparound services so parents can opt for a full day of service. There is a fee to parents for services beyond the three-hour universal pre-kindergarten, and in some cases the agencies provide scholarships.
Riley said the district received $169,000 in additional aid this year on top of the $374,000 received last year. She said the additional money will allow the district to do some outreach to make sure it is reaching as many children as possible with the program. She said another site would be looked for if additional parents want the service for their children.
The state money also funds another position, that of literary specialist, Riley said. Paula Thoma, a retired principal in the Dryden district fills that position and will also act as a liaison with kindergarten.
Riley said the district was also able to add two afternoons for registered nurse services so health and wellness can be addressed.
“It’s grown every year since it started,” Riley said of the program.
Riley said the half-day funding works for the district because of the many community partners and the communication between the UPK and kindergarten teachers. Riley said last year was the first year the district started tracking data of UPK students separately from other students to see if their academic success is higher. No comparative data is available yet.
MacDonald, Groton’s prekindergarten teacher, said while the district has not tracked student progress from its program, teachers are saying they can tell which students have been in the program, which is activity-based.
MacDonald, who has taught prekindergarten at the district for eight years and was previously at Newfield for 15 years, said Groton’s prekindergarten provides “opportunities for children to develop social competency, language and literacy skills, math awareness and science skills, which are the foundation for growth and learning at the elementary school.”
MacDonald said the children learn math by interacting with objects, such as sorting objects or even using their bodies to create patterns, such as by clapping or snapping their fingers.
MacDonald said the school also evaluates each child and provides intervention services, such as speech therapy, at the elementary school for any child requiring help.
“Children learn best when given many opportunities to discover, explore, be challenged and problem solve,” said MacDonald.
According to a release from Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the funding this year allows at least 134 new school districts to provide prekindergarten programs for the first time and the 248 districts already offering these services will be able to expand enrollment. Overall, more than 22,800 additional New York children will have access to prekindergarten classes.
But, not all schools are able to use this additional aid.
Doug Larison, district superintendent of schools in Homer, said the lack of space is why Homer does not offer prekindergarten. He said last March voters approved a building project that would include adding more classrooms to its elementary schools. Homer has an elementary school in the village and in Truxton.
“We hope the money will be there when the new classrooms are built,” he said of the additional allocation for prekindergarten. Larison said the district did a study back in the 1990s that showed there was a need for prekindergarten, but there was no suitable location for implementing universal prekindergarten. He said the district would need three or four classrooms to provide the program.
Despite not having the space for the program, Larison said every year there is an allocation for universal prekindergarten included in the state aid computation for the district. The district does not receive this money.



County must hike pay of election commissioners

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The county will have to pay both of its election commissioners $29,967 for this year, a Supreme Court judge ruled this week.
The salary is $3,600 more than the Legislature intended to pay the commissioners through the passage of a recent local law.
Supreme Court Judge Kevin Dowd ruled the county did not have the right, by passing a law last December, to set both commissioners’ salaries at $26,384, as doing so would reduce Republican Commissioner Bob Howe’s salary in the middle of his two year term.
Dowd ruled that, for 2007, the county must pay Howe’s 2006 salary of $29,967, which had been based on his 10-year longevity in the position.
Because of a state law that the commissioners’ salaries be equal, the county must also raise Democratic Commissioner Bill Wood’s 2007 salary — in 2006 Wood was paid $25,616 because it was his first term in the position — to match Howe’s, Dowd said in the ruling.
The local law removed the election commissioners from the county’s management compensation plan, which raises county employees’ pay based on longevity.
That law, which set both commissioners’ salaries at $26,384, was passed in response to a complaint from Howe and Wood that their uneven salaries, due to the longevity pay, did not comply with state law.
The day after the Legislature passed the law however, Howe and Wood sued the county, claiming that Howe’s salary could not be reduced mid-term, and that Wood should be paid retroactively to match Howe’s salary for 2006.
Dowd’s ruling does not state that the county owes Wood retroactive pay for 2006, but focuses on 2007, after the commissioners’ were removed from the management compensation plan.
By that same logic, Dowd’s ruling also does not address whether paying the commissioners for longevity, with an equal base salary for both positions, was legal, instead focusing on the decision to remove the commissioners from the management compensation plan and, subsequently, reduce Howe’s salary.
Howe, who took the lead on pushing the county to even the commissioners’ salary, said this morning that he felt Dowd’s ruling “vindicated” his original intent to even the commissioners’ salaries.
“In following election law, I thought I was correct in asking that both commissioners be paid the same,” Howe said. “I know there were people who asked ‘why is he doing this,’ but I did it because it’s the law and I was willing to take consequences, good, bad or indifferent.”
Attorney Greg Gates, who represented the county in the case, said that he felt Dowd’s decision upheld the county’s intent in passing the local law.
“When the Legislature acted in 2006 to take them out of the plan, that was entirely proper,” Gates said.
Gates said that the county had conceded that it shouldn’t have decreased Howe’s salary mid-term, and that any decision on the commissioners’ salaries beyond 2007 would fall to the Legislature.



Bank robber sentenced to 11 years in prison

Former Rochester private school teacher stole $16,000 from Tompkins Trust Co. Bank on Church Street in Feb.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — A former Rochester-area schoolteacher was sentenced to 11 years in state prison and three years parole Friday in Cortland County Court for robbing a city bank with a loaded gun in February.
“As difficult as it is, I am ready to face my punishment for my crimes,” said Michael Bohn, 41, of 232 Cobb Terrance Road, Rochester, during his sentencing. “I stand here deeply ashamed for those crimes I committed. I take full responsibility for what I did.”
Bohn entered the Tompkins Trust Co. branch at Clinton Avenue and Church Street on Feb. 1 with a loaded .44-magnum handgun and demanded money.
He pleaded guilty on Aug. 14 to first-degree robbery, second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, and third-degree grand larceny, all felonies, and endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor.
As a part of the agreement, County Court Judge William Ames said he would not sentence Bohn to more than 12 1/2 years in prison. He could have been sentenced a maximum of 25 years.
Prior to receiving the 11-year sentence Friday, Cortland County District Attorney David Hartnett had asked the court to give Bohn 12 1/2 years for his crime.
“Bank robberies in Cortland County are not a frequent occurrence,” Hartnett said during sentencing. “I think the court needs to send a message to Bohn and the people of this community. This is the type of behavior that is not tolerated.”
City police, alerted by a passerby, caught Bohn coming out of the bank with the gun and the nearly $16,000 in cash in a blue Gap shopping bag and arrested him in the bank parking lot without incident.