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School votes about more than budget

Submitted photo In-person classes at Northern Chautauqua Central School lured students away from Fredonia and Dunkirk.

Northern Chautauqua Catholic School in Dunkirk has been somewhat of an unsung hero throughout this trying academic year across our region. With public districts struggling last summer and early on in the fall to come up with a plan to bring students back to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, NCCS thrived.

Enrollment in September reached numbers that had not been seen in years for the facility that educates those in kindergarten to eighth grade. “With the help of our extremely generous benefactors and through the determined efforts of our teachers, faculty, staff, parents, students and trustees, Northern Chautauqua Catholic School has been in session for every day, face-to-face instruction, for a school filled with children since Sept. 8, 2020,” said Principal Andrew Ludwig. “In spite of pandemic restrictions, we have had a wonderful school year.”

Their gain has been a bit of a loss for some north county public districts.

With parents seeking consistency and a definite plan for learning, some decided to move their children out of the traditional public choice to the only private Catholic School in the county, which comes at an additional cost.

On the outside, success at NCCS did not appear to sit well with the public schools. A rift developed after a group of students who attended Fredonia in 2019-20 were not allowed to swim with the Hillbilly team in the fall. Ludwig, seeking what was best for his students, applied for Section 6 membership but was denied.

Educationally, NCCS was not alone in its efforts to have students in-person since last September. Chautauqua Lake and Ripley also have seen success with the same model throughout the year.

Will these past delays in getting children back in the buildings matter for a number of other districts? We may soon find out.

This Tuesday, residents are asked to weigh in on whether they back a proposed spending plan for their school district. Rarely does the proposal decrease expenses or reduce the tax burden. In the meantime, enrollment is bottoming out in Chautauqua County — and across upstate.

Those who live here appreciate and approve of what their schools were doing — no matter how high the cost. Last year, in the midst of a pandemic that began in March 2020, voters gave their stamp of approval to all plans put forth in record numbers.

With balloting done by mail, there was no doubt in the unwavering support not only at home but throughout New York. Across the state, only six plans were defeated. Locally, Ripley Central Schools had the slimmest margin of victory passing its plan by 35 votes.

Money is not a problem this year. State aid to Chautauqua County schools is increasing by more than $23 million — or almost 9% — for 2021-22. With those big bucks coming in from Albany, maybe residents should consider this year’s vote as a referendum on just how pleased they are with the district and its leadership.

There are reasons to be skeptical. In Fredonia, parents in October and November were frustrated regarding remote-learning plans in the district. They believed there was a lack of urgency to get students back in the buildings. Will they forgive this next week?

In Westfield and Sherman, despite a record amount of school aid coming from Albany, the tax levy will increase. If small districts are struggling with maintaining the levy in a good year, what will happen when aid slows?

How about Dunkirk? With little input from the community — due mainly to the pandemic — the district decided on Tuesday to move forward with a dramatic and drastic reconfiguration that includes a reduction of four elementary schools to three; grades three to six moving to the current middle school and grades seven to 12 being located in the high school.

Here are the state aid figures for schools in 2021-22 and the percentage increase. No district is being shortchanged:

¯ Bemus Point — $6 million, up 2.4% from 2020-21.

¯ Brocton — $12.2 million, up 10.8%.

¯ Cassadaga Valley — $17.4 million, up 5.1%.

¯ Chautauqua Lake — $8.7 million, up 7.1%.

¯ Clymer, $6.2 million, up 10.2%.

¯ Dunkirk — $35.9 million, up 12.1%.

¯ Falconer — $15.3 million, up 19.3%.

¯ Forestville — $8.4 million, up 8.4%.

¯ Fredonia — $13.5 million, up 8.7%.

¯ Frewsburg — $12.1 million, up 7.2%.

¯ Gowanda — $20 million, up 7%.

¯ Jamestown — $73.2 million, up 8.4%.

¯ Panama — $8.7 million, up 3.8%.

¯ Pine Valley — $12.3 million, up 0.2%.

¯ Randolph — $13.6 million, up 4.45%.

¯ Ripley — $7.3 million, up 5%.

¯ Sherman — $7.5 million, up 8.1%.

¯ Silver Creek — $17.1 million, up 7.6%.

¯ Southwestern — $16.9 million, up 13.8%.

¯ Westfield — $10.3 million, up 7%.

In reality, your vote Tuesday is on the proposed financial plan for 2021-22. A traditional “yes” signals satisfaction. A “no” vote, however, makes the school take notice that the residents and students they serve are not happy with the current situation or how the last eight months have transpired.

Judging from last year’s results, districts are obviously not accustomed to dealing with dissension.

John D’Agostino is editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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