School Board Meeting Summary for February 27, 2017

Birchwood Students First – “Fifty Nifty United States”

Birchwood Principal Deb Berndt introduced fifth grade teachers Ellen DiRienzo and Amy Isenhart and several students, who shared Responsive Classroom strategies they are learning and their work as part of this year’s States Fair unit. The Responsive Classroom focuses on social skills and community-building, and the teachers frequently integrate this learning with academic instruction. Students demonstrated how they greet each other and other ways to make sure everyone feels included. Students shared some of the interesting facts they learned about the states and their own projects, which combined research, writing and creativity in the form of a feature article, state t-shirt and original slogan. This year marked the 20th annual Birchwood States Fair!

Smart Schools Investment Plan Public Hearing

Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra, Jr. and Edward Alston III outlined the district’s plan to use some of its Smart Schools funding from the state to replace the aging video surveillance system across all district schools. This represents the first phase of the district’s Smart Schools Investment Plan. Niskayuna’s portion of the Smart Schools funding is $1.49 million. The purchase and installation of 220 cameras and seven network video recording servers will cost about $487,700. Dr. Tangorra said the camera replacement project is aligned with a larger focus on safety across the district. Mr. Alston said that the new system will provide higher resolution video, better coverage, an improved user interface and a longer time period that video is archived. Repair and replacement of the current system is no longer viable or cost-effective. As part of the presentation and in response to questions, Mr. Alston outlined the camera selection process, the technical capabilities of the system and the broader plan for maintaining and expanding the system in a sustainable manner.

The draft Smart Schools Investment Plan Phase I is available on the district website. Feedback can be submitted to Following a 30-day comment window, the plan will be finalized and submitted to the State Education Department. The district is hoping for state approval in time to begin installing cameras in the fall of 2017.

Transportation & Food Service Program Presentations

Board meetings this year are again featuring presentations from each academic level and area of operations as a prelude to the formal budget development process. The purpose of this is to discuss needs and priorities in advance of budget decision-making.

Transportation Department

Bill Garrison of the Transportation Department highlighted department staffing numbers and information about the bus garage on Hillside Avenue, which has evolved as a hub for shared transportation services with area districts. Last year, the department transported 4,350 students to 64 locations, including private schools and outside placements, for a total of nearly 750,000 miles. Mr. Garrison outlined plans to replace 10 buses next year, including 2 full-size and 8 smaller buses, as part of the long-term replacement plan. He also shared a variety of initiatives that the department is working on from expanding shared services to upgrading maps and integrating transportation information with PowerSchool. Following the presentation, there was some discussion of the idea that greater consolidation of bus stops would be more efficient, but would represent a significant change for parents and students. Dr. Tangorra said that any decisions to consolidate stops would require considerable advance planning and notice.

Food Services

Director of Childhood Nutrition Suzanne Wixom presented the department”s ongoing initiatives and priorities. The district welcomed some new cooks this year, including Glencliff’s Antonio Bargallo, who Ms. Wixom introduced at the meeting. A Nisky Nutrition Committee has been working to raise awareness about the importance of nutrition and identify ways to improve offerings in the future. Ms. Wixom said the department continues to test new products and collaborate with students on menu planning. Staffing and the lack of equipment are ongoing challenges. The district is currently investigating the potential to re-enter the National School Lunch Program to receive federal reimbursements that could help address the current operating deficit of the district’s School Lunch Fund. An improved financial position could lead to investments in kitchen equipment, which has been identified as a department need.

Communications Plan

Communications specialists Stephanie Hunter and Matt Leon presented the district’s communication plan for the year and the progress to date. The plan is based on data that suggests a need to raise more awareness about district strategic initiatives and reinforces the considerable value that the community places on education and our schools. They discussed a variety of aspects of the plan, including communicating about the capital project and the District Strategic Plan, the growing use of video, engaging parents and community through social media, the implementation of School Messenger and a new website that is under development. Moving forward, they said that additional capacity in the Communications Office would benefit efforts to keep the community informed, provide more coverage of school activities and events, and celebrate the success of our students and schools.

Superintendent’s Report

Board Policies – Last year, the Board began transitioning to a new policy manual, guided by the Erie 1 BOCES Policy Service. Dr. Tangorra said that by the end of this year, he expects that the Board will have finished its work on all required policies. It will then need to establish a plan for identifying non-required policies to work on to complete the transition to a single policy manual. Dr. Tangorra credited his secretary, Cynthia Gagnon, with keeping this process on track.

July Reorganizational Meeting – Due to a scheduling conflict with the original date, the Board will hold its annual reorganizational meeting on Friday, July 14.

Pupil Capacity Study – Dr. Tangorra had previously shared a proposal from an outside consultant to develop enrollment projections and conduct a pupil capacity study to inform future plans. The Board will discuss this proposal at its next meeting.

Potential Partnership in China – Dr. Tangorra recently had a follow-up conversation with the Beijing-based Wisdom Education Group about the provisions the district included in a draft partnership agreement that Wisdom and Niskayuna are working on. Wisdom indicated that the district’s requests were acceptable, but that it would need at least three current Niskayuna teachers to go to China each year for the partnership to work. Dr. Tangorra emphasized the importance of Wisdom being involved in this recruitment effort if the partnership moves forward. A representative from Wisdom will be in the district to meet with interested teachers this spring.

Tax Levy Limit

Director of Business and Finance Carrie Nyc-Chevrier provided an overview of the multi-step state formula that determines the district’s tax levy limit for next year. Based on the formula, the district’s limit for next year is 2.08 percent, which would provide approximately $1.1 million in additional local tax revenue. Dr. Tangorra said that this is what he will be incorporating into the draft 2017-18 budget that he will present to the Board on March 14. Based on the Governor’s budget proposal, officials are not anticipating a significant increase in state aid.

School Calendar for 2017-18

The Board approved the 2017-18 school calendar. Dr. Tangorra said it includes 181 instructional days for students in grades 9-12 and 180 days for grades K-8. The calendar can accommodate up to four snow days. Teachers will return on August 31 and the All Faculty and Staff Welcome Back will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 5, with classes beginning after that. The calendar is available on the website here.

Summer School Planning

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Lauren Gemmill shared some planning that is taking place for summer school this year. The district has had its own middle school summer school program the past two years. Prior to that, students attended a regional summer school program at Schenectady. Although participation in the in-district program has been somewhat higher, it has remained relatively low compared to the number of students encouraged to attend. For this summer, Ms. Gemmill suggested returning to a regional middle school program at Schenectady and establishing an in-district kindergarten readiness program. This would provide some incoming kindergarten students with extra support and experience in school prior to the start of the year in September. Elementary principals have noted an increase in recent years in the number of students who would likely benefit from such a program. This program would run for one month in the summer and serve approximately 24 students. Both Ms. Gemmill and Dr. Tangorra noted that this proactive step could prevent the need for greater interventions in the future. The Board was supportive of the kindergarten readiness program, and suggested continuing to explore options for middle school summer school.

The conversation expanded to a broader dialogue about student supports and appropriate placements. This included various aspects of the high school self-selection process, ranging from concerns about student stress to the desire for students to be in the academic setting that will benefit them the most. It was agreed that this was an important and complex conversation that should continue in the future and include the input of others.

Board Policies

As part of the transition to the new policy manual, the Board adopted the following policies: Policy 7210 – Student Evaluation, Promotion and Placement and Policy 7240 – Student Records: Access and Challenge.

A first read was held for Policy 7611 – Children with Disabilities and Policy 7615 – Least Restrictive Environment.

Additional Notes

  • The Consent Agenda was approved as presented.
  • Pat Lanotte encouraged members to complete a survey that the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA) is conducting to identify advocacy priorities.