Ripley Superintendent sees vote a fresh start

RIPLEY — First-year Superintendent William Caldwell viewed the 2018-19 school year as a fresh start in the Ripley Central School District. One that let the past go while continuing to make strides.

“We really just said, ‘new year,” Caldwell said in an interview. “Let’s start over. We’re new.”

Caldwell was appointed last July, following a school year filled with “upheaval,” as he described it. Admittedly, his source of knowledge of Ripley’s situation prior to him arriving was only from information reported in newspaper articles. The upheaval he spoke of involved a teacher being arrested, a teacher’s union protest and the resignation of the former superintendent.

Caldwell declined to comment on the management of the district by the previous administration. However, he believed the district, a year after the community voted down the school budget twice, was in a better place.

The Ripley School Board of Education approved a tentative budget, pending community approval, of $9,399,854. The proposed spending plan is a 2.4 percent increase from the previous year of $9,181,160. The increase totals $218,694 more than the previous year.

The proposed tax levy is $1,888,023, a 1.4 percent increase that equates to $26,532 more than the 2018-19 school year. The increase is also under the state allowed tax cap.

The district is appropriating $339,000 to offset the budget. The proposal, if approved, would leave $581,000 left in the unrestricted fund balance.

The proposed tax levy increase is intentionally well below the tax cap, according to Caldwell. The district could have raised the levy 5.6 percent without needing needing a super majority approval of 60 percent. The increase would have totalled $104,805 if the district chose to raise to the cap, but Caldwell called the potential tax collection “unacceptable.”

“We obviously chose not to do that,” he said.

Caldwell estimated the current proposal will be 31 cents per thousand instead of $1.25 per thousand increase with the tax cap. However, the tax rate is not set by the school. Caldwell said, based on estimations and excluding last year, the proposed rate will be the lowest its been in 20 years at $22.41 per $1,000.

There will be three propositions on the ballot including the budget, bus purchases totalling $189,600 and a proposition establishing a limit on bus pickups with a half mile of the school.

Additionally, an exit poll will be handed out asking the community if they want the district to explore tuitioning kindergarten through sixth grade students to the Chautauqua Lake Central School District. Ripley currently tuitions students in seventh through 12th grade to Chautauqua Lake. At a recent board meeting, a community member inquired about the possibility of sending all students to the neighboring district. The exit poll is nonbinding and is being utilized to see if the community is interested in the possibility.

Last year, the district made the position cuts in addition to equipment cuts in range of $7,000 to $8,000, will bring the district within the contingency budget following the failed budget votes. The 2018-19 contingency budget totaled $9,181,160 which is $28,110 less than the rejected proposed 2018-19 school budget of $9,209,270.

Upon the first vote, the community voted 90 to 91 against the budget. Being defeated by just one vote, the board of education elected to take the same budget back to voters in June. That second vote resulted in the same outcome but with larger turnout. Voting 264 to 106, the community denied the approval of the budget forcing the district to fall back to that year’s contingency budget.

Caldwell said if the current proposal is defeated in the initial vote on May 21, he would likely recommend that the district reduce the proposal a number near the allowed contingency budget of $9,340,744.

When Caldwell was approved at the July 26 board meeting, he said one of his goal’s was to understand why the district was “unhappy with the budget last year.” Admittedly, Caldwell said the reasoning could be a variety of factors.

However, because of last year’s message he recommended the tax levy increase be minimal.

“I felt it wasn’t something that was supportable by our community,” he explained. “Either the vote wasn’t going to support it and financially I felt it was something they couldn’t support.”

Another priority was to prepare Ripley students for the impending school year.

“We have the same charge we have when we start any year,” Caldwell said in July. “We will do the best for our students and prepare them for the next stage of their lives as best we can.”

Now, many months later, he felt the district had done that. With a focus on expeditionary learning, a curriculum method the district adopted several years ago, Ripley has improved its education of students. He praised the efforts of the district staff describing them as “great” and “helpful.”

“I think it’s going very well,” Caldwell said of his first year. “I’m very happy to be here.”

Caldwell promised Ripley staff that he’d complete a cartwheel if the budget passes. But he admitted that if the approval is close, he still has work to do in the community — even more so if the budget is defeated again.

“Please come. Let your voice be heard,” he said encouraging the community to vote.