While expressing remorse in having to eliminate jobs, Anibal Soler Jr. today said he is excited over the public’s approval of the Batavia City School District 2020-21 budget and the capital project that will result in a new playground at Jackson Primary School.
The district’s first-year superintendent also said he is looking forward to a revised commencement event on Saturday, June 27 that will feature four or five outdoor mini-graduation ceremonies at Batavia High School on State Street.
“It’s a good outcome for us,” Soler said in regard to Tuesday’s absentee ballot tabulation on the $51.4 million spending plan that passed with 1,489 “yes” votes compared to 862 “no” votes. “We worked hard; it was a tough budget season. Obviously, we had to make some tough decisions.”
Soler said it was difficult laying people off, but admitted the district “had to right some things” in light of its – and the state’s – current financial situation.
“I appreciate the community for supporting our budget with a zero percent tax increase, which is important given the economic crisis caused by the pandemic,” he said. “And we still don’t know what the future will look like as people go back to work.”
Batavia’s budget could be subjected to cuts down the road since Gov. Andrew Cuomo has specified different measurement periods through the end of the year in regard to the state budget. Any revenue shortages incurred by New York State likely will result in reduced state aid to local governments and school districts.
Soler said he hopes for the passage of a federal stimulus package to provide funds to the states, but, if not, the district did include a “pandemic adjustment” line in its budget.
“We hope there’s no impact but we won’t know until the governor makes a decision on his budget,” he said.
Jackson Project Passes by 198 Votes
The superintendent said he is happy that Jackson Primary School will be getting an age-appropriate playground and restroom renovation after residents passed a capital project referendum by a 1,277 to 1,079 vote.
Funded by capital reserves, the $619,151 project will cost the district about $60,000 after state aid is appropriated – and it does not affect the tax levy.
“I’m excited that the kids got an age-appropriate playground as we continue to make Jackson Primary a premier primary school in our region,” Soler said.
He also said he was pleased that three current board of education members – Alice Ann Benedict, Barbara Bowman and Tanni Bromley – will be returning.
“To have consistency on the board always helps us as we continue to work together and implement the mission and vision of our district,” he said.
Soler also responded to questions about the abolished positions and layoffs, public comments criticizing changes in the reading program at the Middle School, and administration’s relationship with the Batavia Teachers Association.
Administrators to be Reassigned
He said that two administrative positions – coordinator of assessment & instructional services, and the other in technology -- were abolished and those two employees will be reassigned to fill two vacant assistant principal positions.
“That was a decision of the board to protect building level administrative positions versus district level – in terms of people who were at a higher level,” he said, noting that the district has two assistant principals at both the high school and middle school and one at both John Kennedy Elementary and Jackson Primary.
Soler did not disclose the names of the new assistant principals or where they would be assigned, only saying that the board of education is scheduled to approve the transfers at its June 22 meeting.
“We’re looking at making sure there are strong teams on every campus, and we may move our assistant principals across the four buildings to make sure we have a balance of talent, also gender, things of that nature,” he said. “There is a plan for reorganization that will be shared publicly once the board approves the assignments.”
Soler said that although the district abolished or eliminated about 33 positions, only about seven teachers were laid off after the district learned of retirements and resignations.
“And recently a special ed teacher told us they are moving out of state, so that will bring back one that was laid off,” he said. “We believe we will chip away, and hopefully, depending upon attrition and retirement and moves, potentially we will have nobody laid off at the end of the day.”
Changes in Approach to AIS Reading
Academic Intervention Services is a program for students challenged in reading and math. Soler said the district is modifying the way it delivers these services.
“Our elementary teachers have been doing the (AIS) math, so they’ll just pick up the reading,” he said, adding that New York State regulations allow for elementary teachers to provide instruction in AIS math and reading. “In the past, they had reading specialists. But we don’t necessarily need a reading-certified person to deliver AIS. An elementary certified teacher can deliver this to the kids.”
Soler said AIS is only for pupils who have been identified as needing additional support.
“We will be able to give kids what they need,” he said. “Yes, we changed our approach a bit but we believe we can still deliver high-quality programming. Plus, we protected all of our electives, which we know kids love – art, music, physical education, things of that nature.”
Lessons Learned During Budget Process
Soler acknowledged some missteps in dealing with the Batavia Teachers Association, which was asked (and refused) to take a pay freeze to avoid layoffs and, later on, voted against a proposal to change the start and end times of the school day.
“I think it was a tough process, and they didn’t know me and they still don’t necessarily know my approach or my focus,” he said. “So, I think that some things may have been miscommunicated given the fact that I came in January and the budget process started a month or so after that. In hindsight, I learned some lessons for myself on communication and trying to get the word out.”
He said he heard “a lot of negative feedback from people assuming that reading was eliminated.”
“We didn’t completely eliminate reading; we did reduce it,” he said. “And those were people who didn’t have 25 kids in their class, or 22 kids; they were supplemental supports.”
Soler said he hopes there isn’t any lingering animosity with the teachers’ union.
“I appreciate them even exploring the scheduling as an option of (cost) savings. That didn’t work out but we’ll continue to work through those conversations and maybe down the road we can re-explore that,” he said.
Graduation Under the Willow Tree
The governor’s mandate that graduations be limited to 150 people have quashed the district’s plan to have commencement at Van Detta Stadium.
“We have more than that graduating (165), so our high school principal, Mr. (Paul) Kessler, has developed a plan to kind of have smaller, micro-graduation ceremonies all on the same day,” Soler said.
The new arrangement is to have 30 or so seniors with their parents and some staff taking part in the smaller graduation ceremonies – in front of the high school under the willow tree that has been the backdrop of numerous commencement exercises in the past.
Soler said the first one will start at 11 a.m. Each ceremony will run for about 45 minutes and will be followed by a 30-minute intermission to allow for people to leave and the new group to enter. Each student will be allowed to invite a maximum of four family members and/or friends.