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Notes from the Superintendent

Welcome to "Notes from the Superintendent," an online newsletter to the community from Superintendent Neil O'Brien. To receive these notes from the Superintendent as they come out, please click here.

 

March 23, 2018

Dear Friends,

While we can try to control many things in our lives, one that's beyond our reach is time. It just moves forward unabated, regardless of our actions or wishes.

This truth comes home for me this weekend. I am off to Notre Dame with my daughter, Caitlin. It is one of the stops we have in the next six weeks as she decides on where she will attend college next year. It just doesn't seem possible that her 13 years at Port Byron will be coming to a close in a dozen or so weeks. A new house, community, school and so much more awaited us when we arrived at Port Byron 14 years ago. Being a school superintendent and living in the district you lead provides a unique experience for father and daughter that is beyond sublime at times.

In all honesty, I never thought I would be here for such a long time. Most school superintendents stay at a school district for four or five years and move onto a new district or retire. As a matter of record, I am the longest serving at Port Byron in the past seven decades. But, something wonderful happened along the way. Time kept moving forward and Caitlin was enjoying a great education and friendships, along with amazing opportunities to participate in athletics, student leadership and community organizations. She was happy and her relationship with Port Byron school and community were becoming more intertwined every year. Leaving just never seemed to be the right thing to do. As a dad, I was blessed to be in a place where I enjoyed my work and my daughter was doing so well and continued to be happy.

As a dad and due to the fact that our schools are located within one facility, I had a front row seat. I was able to watch my child grow into adulthood during the school day and into the night activities, too. Yes, at times, having your dad as school superintendent is not great when there are conflicts or struggles, but overall it has been a wonderful experience for the two of us. She has availed herself to the great opportunities Port Byron has to offer and now she will reap the rewards by going off to a top university. She leaves Port Byron with nearly three dozen college credits earned at high school. A remarkable number and not unique to her alone. Many of her friends are blessed with a substantial leg up going into college. This is at no cost to our students.

June's graduation looms on the horizon and my own retirement will coincide with the ending of her college years. Both at one time seemed so far away and hard to imagine. But, today both are in the near future and represent milestones that bring smiles to my face. Blessed and fortunate are words that come to the forefront when I do ponder about my tenure at Port Byron. In the end, I need to thank many of you and of course providence, too. The only one I do not wish to thank is time. It moves at too quick of a pace for my liking.

Peace,
Neil

 

March 16, 2018

Dear Friends,

Port Byron buses are on the road long beyond the traditional school day and year. As we expand programs and opportunities for students, the number of miles they travel each year has grown significantly.

The expansion comes from a variety of shifts in programing at both the elementary and secondary levels. The Gates school day and year has expanded with a growing number of students spending afternoon and summers at school. This is even more remarkable in light of declining enrollment. The large number of students attending these programs have been great in assisting our work to support students and their families with learning that is much greater than the traditional 3 R's of yesteryear.

In the West Building, we have been increasing transportation at a record pace to support student participation in merged sports and activities with Union Springs. This doesn't just include driving buses to additional games, but the daily driving for practices, too. This will take another leap forward this spring as we temporarily use Green Street and Weedsport Athletic Fields, along with Union Springs to help offset temporary roadway and parking closures associated with the building project.

While we are thrilled to offer more for our students, we have become aware of some issues with communication. There is a Birnie Bus employee in the office for nearly 10 hours a day to answer the phone to address concerns or needs. This was good enough for years due to the fact we have very few bus runs going beyond this time. But, as stated above, times have changes and we need to make adjustments, too.

This issue came into focus several weeks back when one of our buses in the early evening was extremely late in delivering some of the after-school students. One of our parents was understandably concerned and there was no place or person to get an answer on the cause for the delay. They wrote me a note and acknowledged this is not the first time this issue has come to light.

After spending time reviewing our options, we chose to create an after-hours phone number for transportation emergencies. The answering service is much like those found at doctor's offices. It will not deal with ordinary business that can be accomplished during regular hours, but will be there for issues that need immediate attention. When leaving a message, a copy will be sent to Birnie Bus and Port Byron staff.

The phone number for after-hours is 315-776-6113. We will be adding this contact information to all of our social media platforms, website and transportation documents.

Peace,
Neil

 

March 9, 2018

Dear Friends,

Earlier this week, I was in Albany meeting with state leaders and legislative and executive branch staff members. The highlights of my recent visit include opportunities to discuss legislation regarding school safety, school aid and broadband expansion in Cayuga County.

My visiting the state government leaders comes from my work as a leader in state superintendent organizations. I have been meeting with government leaders for the past decade and have had the unique opportunity to shape public policy with these contacts. I do this on behalf of my colleagues from around the state, but on occasion these contacts can yield specific gains for Port Byron residents.

As you are aware, school safety is the topic of the day. Port Byron has been touched by the recent events and pending legislation aims to address some solutions being put forward by the experts. Since the district has been addressing this issue for more than a decade, we are currently blessed with many of the tools already. Special funding for having an SRO (School Resource Officer), security cameras, controlled access, mental health counseling and staff training are the on the docket. We have been blessed and worked hard to have all of these. We could use additional support, but unlike others in the state, we are currently considered to be a district rich in resources and systems.

As for the lottery issue, state senate is proposing special aid for Port Byron to help with the shortfall. I met with Senator Helming and Senator Flanagan's staff to discuss this issue. We hope that the aid will make it through the negotiations process with the governor and assembly at the end of the month.

Broadband is coming. TDS has started the construction process. It is their hope that by next Christmas due to the fiber wiring they will have in our rural areas they will be providing internet at blazing-fast speeds. I have had recent conversations with state officials and TDS. The process is moving forward as planned. The broadband expansion is one of the items I am most excited about because it helps everyone. Yes, I worked to get the TDS expansion, but I am also aware that Spectrum and Verizon have projects in the planning stages that will benefits residents, too.

In all honesty, I do not really look forward to spending nights in Albany hotels away from home, but when I drive home and realize that I can make a difference for schools across the state and residents of Port Byron it makes it all worthwhile.

Peace,
Neil

 

March 2, 2018

Dear Friends,

Prior to the school break, I wrote about the development of the school calendar. This week I'd like to share why we continue to have a February break, and the logic behind the weeklong recess at Thanksgiving.

February break was born out of the energy crisis in the early 1970s. The break was an opportunity for schools to reduce energy consumption and cost by closing for a week in the winter. Since its inception, the break has been a mainstay at Port Byron despite being eliminated throughout the past decade in other parts of New York state.

I support keeping the February break in school for three reasons. One is simply because of the math. Eliminating the break does not increase instructional time. The state will only aid school districts for 180 days of school. There are no provisions in state law and regulation to increase funding if a school district expands instructional time beyond 180 days. Also, our labor contracts do not permit us to extend the school year without additional compensation.

The other two reasons are more practical. One is best illustrated via a recent exchange with Tammy Palmer of Channel 9 News. When she was at Port Byron covering the news of our efforts to prevent the flu by spraying cleaning disinfectant throughout each room, she asked how long we would continue the special effort. As I explained to her, traditionally, schools have found that flu and other maladies such as lice infestations abate after the 10 day February recess. February break has a salubrious effect on the health of students and staff by eliminating the inevitable spread of bacteria and viruses due to close proximity.

The third reason comes from my years as a building administrator. Our long and dark winters were always difficult on my students who struggled in school. This was especially true of students who have significant discipline issues. Through my experience, I discovered that break acted in a similar manner as the aforementioned elimination or abating germs. The 10-day break at the advent of spring gave students with struggles the opportunity to make it to the end of the year by resetting the proverbial clock. These students needed a break from the routines that led to conflict and trouble. This, coupled with the natural increased daytime light and warmth of spring, helps to lighten spirits.

The recently added full-week break at Thanksgiving also comes from changes in the calendar over the years. Closing school on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is a rather a recent phenomenon that evolved over the past three decades. This closure reduced the week to two instructional days. When we needed to find a suitable day for parent conferences in the Gates building in November (after determining half days were not helpful for parents or teaching and learning) it was a logical choice to hold them on the Monday before Thanksgiving. By adding one more closed day (Tuesday), we could have a weeklong recess and have many of the same advantages that exist when we close for a week in February.

Please remember that in the end the school year is 180 days. Breaks only change the ebb and flow, but do not change the fundaments.

Peace,
Neil

 

Feb. 9, 2018

Dear Friends,

We are in the process of developing the school calendar for next year. The upcoming year will reflect the new regulations from the State Education Department. Before I address those changes in regulation, I would like to offer some background on the calendar development process.

Students are scheduled to attend 182 or 183 of the 185 to 188 professional days that make up the school year. The goal is to ensure students attend 180 days with and also account for the possibly several emergency closure days. We develop the school calendar with other school districts within our BOCES. We must closely align because of shared programs in vocational and special education services.

During calendar development we work to match our breaks with the other districts. Therefore, in the upcoming 2018-19 school year, we will have a Christmas break that will have students return on a Wednesday, which will be January 2.

I project that the year after, in 2019-20 when Christmas Day and New Year's Day both fall on a Wednesday, we will have a two-weeklong break. We also will have the traditional February break and continue our traditional closing for Thanksgiving Break for students with a staff development day/parent conference day being held on the Monday of that week. I believe two other districts in our BOCES will follow suit next year.

Developing a calendar that has students attending school beyond the minimum 180 days, along with several staff development days that are counted for aid purposes, provides us with the flexibility to close school on days like this past Wednesday.

Outside of including some time for weather closures, these added days also permit us to have Gates building’s last day of school a couple days before the last staff day.

These extra days also give us some flexibility to make modifications in the calendar in the middle of the year, so we can preserve spring recess if we were faced with a prolonged closure due to power outages caused by a serve weather occurrence, or similar natural disasters.

The bottom line is that we can only receive school aid on 180 days a year and we build a calendar to support enough leeway to afford us the opportunity to close school for extraordinary reasons without major alterations to the recess weeks.

The new regulations do not change the need for our students to be in school for 180 days, but instead provide districts tremendous flexibility in deciding how much time is devoted to instruction and professional development. The old regulation had very strict rules on when a district could schedule half or quarter days. We generally have eliminated half day staff development, but the new regulations will still help us on a day we might be delayed by an hour in the morning or students are dismissed half way through the day due to an emergency.

We expect the new calendar to be approved by the Board of Education in early March.

Peace,

Neil

 

Feb. 2, 2018

Dear Friends,

What does Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and your child have in common? Neither can afford to be sick for the big game. Tom's is this Sunday in the Super Bowl and your child is Monday in school where he or she needs to be healthy and ready to learn.

How does the NFL and other sports leagues deal with viruses and bacteria? Well, after some illnesses forced teams to be short staffed, sports leagues and teams investigated new cleaning solutions for their locker rooms. While having cleaning crews who used the best and safest chemicals to hand wash locker rooms and other areas was effective, this approach did not stop illness from spreading player to player on some teams. They had to find new cleaning solutions and technology to rid locker rooms of bacteria and viruses.

This new technology is a spraying device that spreads the cleaning chemicals beyond the reachable surfaces of a cleaner. The approach is more expensive, due to the spraying machine, additional labor involved in the process and the cost of the cleaning solutions, but it's been proven to be very effective. After switching to these devices, college and sports teams have made great progress in eliminating bacterial and viral illnesses from spreading from teammate to teammate.

This past fall, when we had an outbreak of the stomach bug, we began to look at how we could improve our cleaning practices in our school. While we continue to be recognized for being one of the cleanest and best maintained school buildings in the area, we can't win the game if our star player, your child, is sick and misses a school day. This led to the district's decision to purchase a cutting-edge spraying device to systematically fight germs.

This past week we hired Chuck Clark, a substitute cleaner who works second shift to operate the special machine. Chuck is one of our superstars that few of you know. He is a retired resident of the district who is a worker and doer, and loves the school district and the kids. Instead of relaxing in retirement, he cuts our lawns in the growing season and works inside when we call him during the winter. We are blessed to have Chuck Clark and Joyce Alfred, another superstar retired worker in the community, to bring their incredible skills, effort and-most importantly-community pride, into their work here.

Chuck has been in every day going from room to room to use the "Clorox Total 360 System" to give us an extra boost in our fight against the flu outbreak. The system uses two cleaning chemicals. One is to kill flu and cold germs. The other is a broad-based antibacterial solution. The process is tedious, labor intensive and needs to be repeated every day since student’s reinfection of the building each day they attend school.

The New England Patriots cannot afford to lose Tom on Sunday and we cannot afford to lose your all-star on Monday. The extra cost is definitely worth it!

Peace,
Neil

 

Jan.  26, 2018

Dear Friends,

Back in the early 1990s, when I was a teacher in Rochester, I thought the best thing to happen every winter was the Buffalo Bills playoff runs and subsequent Super Bowl appearances. No, I was not a fan of the Bills, but I always thought the diversion of football helped alleviate the effects of the dark and cold Upstate New York winters.

Well, we are now entering the magical two weeks between the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl. It would have been great to have a New York team represented in the big game, but I still think we have rekindled some of that feeling in Port Byron with the annual "Souper Bowl" in the Gates Building.

The food drive for the Port Byron Food Pantry combines our great tradition of charity and service along with our enthusiasm for the big game. Students come in with goods and drop them in either a Philadelphia Eagles or a New England Patriots box, depending on who they are rooting for in the big game. It has been a huge success for replenishing the food pantry after the holiday season.

This year we will put some boxes in the Lehn Office so that we can, hopefully, increase donations by attracting more than just the elementary students. While putting food in a box is not the same as purchasing a square in a football pool, the payoff is much greater.

Peace,

Neil

 

Jan. 19, 2018

Dear Friends,

Well, the time has come to deal with the shortfall in state aid due to the lottery issue from several years ago. I wish I could give you an exact figure for what the lottery winnings will cost our community in the proposed budget Governor Cuomo unveiled this week, but at this juncture, I can only give you an estimate. It will take experts at State Aid Planning located at Questar III BOCES to give the exact figure.

The easiest way to express the "cost" of the lottery is to look at similar local school districts and average their increases in school aid in the proposed budget. Jordan Elbridge has $550,000 on the high end. Weedsport has $275,000 on the low end. Cato Meridian was near the middle at $450,000. These figures are increases in school aid that does not include building aid. It is the best metric to use every year to express money to support instruction. Most years, our increase in school aid is closer to Cato’s increase, due to the fact we share many similar community and student characteristics.

The school aid figure for Port Byron next year is a loss of $358,000. Yes, the state is taking away money from us. The cost of the lottery is likely to be somewhere around $650,000 to 750,000 if you look at what similar districts are increasing in school and you add our loss figure.

Again, without the ability to produce a new school aid run from the computer removing the lottery winning, I can only estimate at this juncture the loss in school aid to make us whole again.

We will be reaching out to our friends and representatives in state government to help us navigate this situation. State legislators represent us well and we need for them to push for fairness when they negotiate a final budget with the governor. I did not expect the governor to assist us with his budget, but we have had strong support from Senator Helming’s office along with Assemblymen Oaks and Finch to support Port Byron and take away the penalty of the lottery winning. It would have been nice to see the State Gaming Commission, who oversees the lottery, to assist us since they love to advertise that the lottery money supports schools. They have rebuffed every attempt.

It does not take an exact figure to begin lobbying efforts on behalf of Port Byron. We need to have school aid increases like Cato, Weedsport or Jordan Elbridge to be able to continue the programs for our students. We need to go from negative $358,000 to a positive $358,000 to make us whole. Therefore, a good figure is $716,000 increase from the governor’s proposal.

Please assist our school board members and me by calling, writing, tweeting or sending messages on Facebook to our state legislators to make this happen. It wouldn't hurt to remind the governor we need his support, too!

Peace,

Neil

 

Jan. 12, 2018

Dear Friends,

While the cold and snowy weather has once again found its way to our neck of the woods, I can add a little warmth and sunshine by sharing some great news that will be mostly enjoyed in the warm air found here on a September day or night.

The building project, passed by residents in August of 2016, has received final approval from the State Education Department. In addition, the bids for the project have been opened and they fit into our project budget. Therefore, we are on track to complete the scope of work outlined to the community during the presentations for the referendum.

There are some slight changes that occurred as the project evolved over the past year and a half. One change was to increase the track to eight lanes in the straight away to ensure that we can hold league championships at Port Byron. We also made some additional scope work to improve the Lehn Library and make it more reflective of 21st Century learning in regards to technology. We also eliminated much of the work in the district office, but left in place the controlled access point and some improvements to the heating and cooling system. Otherwise, the project is exactly on target as shared back in 2016.

In the project, we will completely remove the remaining asbestos floors, have a 100% electrical backup generator for the facility, improve HVAC, complete 100% LED lighting inside and outside of the facility, have a full-sized stadium to host soccer, football, track and field, field hockey and lacrosse matchups. We will also have new softball and baseball fields that will have outdoor LED lighting. Security cameras will be installed outside, and Wi-Fi will be available for the enjoyment of the public. We will have baseball and softball electronic scoreboards and a brand-new facility to serve food at outdoor events.

Very exciting news for students, parents, staff and the community. There is really something for everybody in this project. The project will start in March and will be in full swing throughout the summer. It's important to note that the project will cause some major disruptions. We will have to close the Gates Building for part of the summer. The athletic parking lot will be lost for an extended period of time in the summer. In addition to the loss of some facilities, we will have to make some other adjustments this spring to allow the project to begin in March. We will be building a temporary softball diamond in the outfield of the baseball field. Both teams will have to share this spring. We will also have to find another school to hold our spring track. We originally thought we could hold onto the track, but the additional size of the stadium will require us to tear down the existing track in March.

As more information and updates become available, we will continue to share them with you.

While we will have many adjustments to make in the short term, we can look forward to the amazing additions and improvements this project will entail for Port Byron Schools and community.

Peace,

Neil

 

Jan. 5, 2018

Dear Friends,

Did you make a New Year's resolution this past Monday?

If you did, then you are like the other 41% of Americans who did the same. Did you make a plan to lose weight or quit smoking? Maybe, even more simply, you plan to make a modest life change?

Well, maybe we should think through the same prism for our children. What changes could they make that result in positive outcomes? It could be a personal improvement, like eating better or participating in more exercise, but it also could include increasing reading time or improving grades.

New Year's resolutions are not just for adults. They can be a powerful goal process for children too. Everyone needs time to reflect and plan in order to improve. January 1st is a blessing. It gives everyone a time and place to take a pause in life and to reflect.

When we take inventory of our lives and make a plan to improve, then we can truly grow and become better friends, spouses, and parents.

Do not let the "Gift of a New Year" be an unopened present. Take a moment to take inventory of your life and extend it to a family project. We all can make some improvements in our lives and the lives of others with simple changes.

Peace,
Neil

 

Dec. 15, 2017

Dear Friends,

This will be the last eNews prior to the break. When we return from the holidays, we will hear from Governor Cuomo as he delivers his "State of the State Address" on January 3rd.

His address to the state begins the annual budget process for the state and in essence for us, at the local level. If you look at it through the prism of a football game, then his speech would be considered the game's opening kickoff.

In reality, Port Byron's Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Mitchell Toleson has been building the expense side of the budget for the past six weeks or so. Throughout the past six months, I have been meeting with state legislators, executive branch officials and state lobbyists on behalf of Port Byron. All of these activities might be viewed as "preseason" or "training camp" activities. Using the aforementioned football analogy, success often comes from the preparation made during training camps and preseason games - all prior to the opening kickoff.

Mr. Toleson's work is critical on many levels. First, and foremost, we must ensure that we have accurate figures included in the upcoming budget. We currently have multiple-year contracts with our labor units. Mr. Toleson takes each employee and figures out their pay for the upcoming year. He does not simply take a percentage increase and add it to budget line, but instead builds a spreadsheet with each employee calculated separately. He does this because there are slight changes to employees that will impact the bottom line. An employee might have a longevity step payment due to them, or they might be earning additional pay due to completing a master's degree. In every expense category, Mitch takes the time and care to make sure we have real and accurate figures. We do not do estimates to speed up the process.

While completing close scrutiny of the expense lines, Mitch inevitably finds areas in which he finds opportunities to make changes that will help us in our never-ending desire to increase productivity and reduce costs. I cannot not tell you how often I show up in Mitch's office (or he comes into mine) with a question that starts with either, "What if," or "Have we ever thought of." This questioning process has led to some of our greatest discoveries over the years.

Yes, this is the year the winning lottery ticket of several years ago will impact our state aid significantly. My work with state leaders will hopefully result in a solution that will avert harm to the students and community. It is good to hear when I am announced at a meeting in Albany that I am from the school district with the "lottery issue.". This tells me our efforts have produced awareness. The lottery issue is not just about lobbying, but also how we will deal with a shortfall if the lobbying efforts are not fruitful.

Before we make it to the budget season, we have the holiday season to enjoy. I hope everyone has the opportunity to celebrate with family and friends this very special time of the year.

Peace,
Neil

 

Dec. 8, 2017

Dear Friends,

This past week we invited the New York State Police into the high school to perform random drug checks using police dogs. While occasionally the police dogs do find illegal drugs, the act of having the dogs in the school are, at times, much more symbolic than functionary.

Police dogs do not stop drugs from ruining lives nor do slogans on the walls, but they do send a message to our young students that is important for them to experience: What does stop drugs from destroying lives and communities is much more subtle and complex.

Sadly, as my tenure at Port Byron reaches its 14th year, I can vividly remember watching a few young lives destroyed by drugs. I not only see the end result of poverty, crime, and in some cases, death, but I also have the vantage point of seeing the causes that create the climate for such choices to be made.

One such case is very vivid for me. It pains me every day to watch one of my former students fade into the darkness of drug use. I have no power to stop it, and some of the causes that led this former student to find drugs as a relief to pain go back a decade or more and cannot be changed at this juncture. The sad reality is that this former student lives in the margins of life, in a community that does not have enough economic, social or emotional support for undereducated and unskilled adults.

It didn't have to be this way, but that is easy for me to say right now. The former student freely admits it was their fault that they failed to get a high school diploma, but I would say just as freely that it was our fault too.

We do a much better job today supporting students who are struggling then we did a decade ago. Therefore, while the former student takes blame for failing to take advantage of educational opportunities, I feel a sense of guilt, too.

We can help stop the next generation from becoming destroyed by drug abuse. No, not by police dogs and slogans, but rather by dealing with the root causes. We have taken steps by hiring social workers, and working with county mental health counselors and outside agencies, all aiming to provide services to support our students and their families. We have a school resource officer and regularly invite the state police to partner with us at every turn. We provide meals and programming to students 11 months a year. As a result, we have seen our graduation rate climb from 60 to 90 percent over the past decade.

Yes, we are doing more than ever to help students and families, but this does not mean that we can rest on our laurels. We will continue to do our part at Port Byron to help improve the lives of our students. The solutions to ending the pain and destruction of drug abuse aren't simple, but the foundation laid during the elementary and high school years can be life-changing. By the time they are adults, it is too late to stop in many cases.

Peace,
Neil

 

Dec. 2, 2017

Dear Friends,

This upcoming Monday and Tuesday I will be in New York City for a meeting with the Chancellor of New York City Public Schools, Carmen Fariña and to attend a board meeting for Leadership for Educational Achievement Foundation (LEAF).

While I am in New York City, I will also attend a performance of Mozart's "Magic Flute" at the Metropolitan Opera. I will be attending the opera with my mom who will be turning 85 years old in March. The show is a Christmas gift for my mom and I have to share that she is incredibly excited by the opportunity to go to the opera at the MET once more in her life.

The opera is now considered to be enjoyed by educated and wealthy people. This might be true today, but is not true of the opera in history or the history of my family. The opera was enjoyed by the common folk in Europe in the 1800s and my mom's love comes not from some chance or function of personal fortune, but rather from her mom’s desire to make sure her children had the best education that could possibly be provided by schools and family.

My grandmother was a stay-at-home mom. My grandfather quit school in eighth grade to work on the docks in New York City. His father was lost at sea. While they did not have any interest or knowledge of the arts, they did believe my mom and her brothers should be exposed to both the visual and performing arts. My grandmother would take her children, via a subway to Manhattan (she didn't have driver's license), to Broadway shows, the MET and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She believed that a good parent should work to expose their children to the arts and hoped or dreamed that this effort would lead to a love of the arts in adulthood for her children.

That being said, it should not shock you that I was taken to museums, ballets, operas and Broadway shows as a child. The only change in the narrative is the fact my mom and dad were college-educated and we took a train instead of the subway. Nothing else changes with the story. My mom thought that she owed her children the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the arts.

On Monday, I am off to the MET. Opera is not my favorite. I would much rather be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in the Impressionism Rooms) or at a Broadway show. But, it is not my gift. It is a gift for my mom and I guess a thank you present, too. I will be reminded of all the gifts I received as a child while being able to watch my mom being absolutely enthralled with Mozart's last opera.

In reality, this is the true essence of a Christmas gift.

Peace,
Neil

 

Nov. 17, 2017

Dear Friends,

This past Tuesday was a special day for the school board. As part of School Board Appreciation Month celebrations, we invited board members to spend a day with the staff and students.

Many years ago, I was apprehensive about having the school board come into school for the day. I know I should never feel this way, but in all honesty, we were not always functioning at a level that would demonstrate a sense of pride or accomplishment.

This past Tuesday was a smashing success and I barely spent any time with board members during the day. My lack of time with them was not a sign of disinterest, but rather a confidence that the staff, students and principals would shine. The board saw everything because our staff welcomed them into classrooms, meetings, and administrative assignments. They opened their classrooms without hesitation, which is again a great sign that we are proud of our work.

The board reported back that they were amazed and heartened to see the work the staff was engaged in to help individual students. While we have staff and student presentations at board of education meetings, there is no way these presentations can truly demonstrate the work to its fullest extent. The board also saw some moments that were away from the classroom that showed that we are in a very good place as it relates to school climate, student interactions and nontraditional learning. What I mean from nontraditional learning is the fact they were able to see students use technology to engage in their studies without direct instruction from a teacher, but rather in a supportive environment where they could work at their own pace.

This isn't the first time the board of education has visited the school to walk the hallways, come into classrooms to see instruction and to spend time talking with students and staff. We have done it many times over the years. The visits give us both an opportunity to take stock and pride on the great improvements that have occurred over the years. It also reengages the school board in a desire for further growth and improvement.

The success we have enjoyed over the past decade or so is due to the fact we have had a school board that has the courage and conviction to lead and work as a team with the staff and administration.

School board celebration festivities are really an opportunity to say thank you for their time and commitment. What better way to do so this by having them enjoy a day in the life of Port Byron School District.

Peace,
Neil

 

Nov. 9, 2017

Dear Friends,

There are magical moments that make me appreciate the wonderful people who have worked and supported Port Byron for decades. One of those moments occurred this past week when I took two special men out to breakfast at New Hope Mills on York Street.

The two men are Ron Crowell and Gino Alberici. They were teachers in the classroom and on the football field for decades at Port Byron. Their lessons transcended curriculum in business or social studies, but rather life and living. They have long since retired from teaching (early 90s). While their time in the classrooms or the sports fields of Port Byron might have passed, their love of our students and community has not. In addition, the lessons they taught still resonate in the boys of yesterday who are the fathers of our students today. I have been there many times when parents share with me the magical moments they had as students at Port Byron in the 1980s. They speak with reverence of how Ron and Gino shaped their lives and gave them the fortitude and guidance, which have enabled them to be positive citizens along with loving fathers and husbands.

The breakfast was an opportunity to say thank you and to plan another time for us as a community to celebrate. The 'thank you' is because Gino has been quietly donating money to Port Byron to support its students. (Don't tell him I wrote about it because he does not want a spotlight shone upon it. He just wants to give back to a place that made his life whole.)

The other part is to plan to celebrate once again both men for their efforts in bringing pride and swagger to Port Byron. With a little luck, both gentlemen will continue to have a strong bill of health in September, when we will rededicate the field to Gino and press box to Ron at our new stadium.

As I said, a morning breakfast with these two gentlemen is truly a treat. They represent the rich tradition we have at Port Byron. Never forget the special people who worked tirelessly on your behalf.

Peace,
Neil

 

Nov. 3, 2017

Dear Friends,

I am off to Albany on Sunday once again to continue my efforts to find a solution to our lottery issue.

The lottery issue is one I raised several years ago after we had a $42 million winner in our district. At the time, when I raised the issue, some community members questioned or, more honestly, had doubts that a winning lottery ticket could impact school finances. Well, we are now heading into the budget year, which will incorporate the winnings into our community income for the purposes of calculating state aid. We will likely lose close to a half of a million dollars unless we have some legislative solution.

The ironic part of the story comes from the recent $105 million winner from Homer. Before it was announced, I was approached by intermediaries about the issue. Lottery winnings are a time for celebration, but also a time for concern for schools. Personally, I am hoping the New York State Gaming Commission will take a proactive position to forestall this issue from occurring again. Lottery is supposed to help schools, but I guess the commission doesn't read newspapers.

Outside of lottery issue, I will lead superintendents from around the state on a host of other issues critical to education. The continuing issues of school aid formulas and how they are not fair or fully funded will be a primary issue for us to work on. In particular, school districts like Port Byron or Auburn are not funded to the amount they should be by law. Port Byron is short changed by $1.4 million a year. This is accomplished by distorting the aid formulas every year.

Besides school aid, we will work on many other issues that impact students and schools across the state. Every year for the past decade, I have gone to Albany to work on these issues with colleagues from around the state. I am thankful for the opportunity and also the ability to have access to decision makers in the legislative and executive branches of state government.

Hopefully, these relationships will provide relief for Port Byron taxpayers this upcoming budget year due to our luck in winning a lottery jackpot.

Peace,
Neil

 

Oct. 27, 2017

Dear Friends,

It is hard to believe, but next week will be the beginning of the winter season. While the weather still seems a tad bit too warm to be talking about my dreaded four letter word, "snow", I can assure you that we are working to prepare for the inevitable.

Before we talk about winter, I feel it is necessary to take a step back and remark that this could have been our last fall playing football and field hockey on the grass fields located behind the building. We will not know for sure until this spring, but it is possible that both sports, along with soccer from our merged teams with Union Springs, could be playing in our new stadium in September. In order for this to happen, the state education department will need to complete its approval process for the project by December. In addition, we will need to have successful bids in February.

The reason I say we have entered the new season is in terms of sports and the behind-the-scenes work we do in preparation each year. Girls modified volleyball practice started this past week and varsity winter sports are set to start soon. We also have played our last outdoor games and meets at Port Byron. The other signs that we are switching over to the new season is the fact that letters are going out to parents in the elementary school in regards to our after-school program.

The work behind the scenes includes annual tasks like winterizing the outdoor bathrooms inside the sports boosters building. We also have completed some work on our boilers, which will hopefully ensure a heating season without any interruptions. We have multiple boilers, which gives a margin for issues in case we have a minor problem in the winter. We also have completed some additional projects while the weather was warm and dry this fall. We have painted the lines in our parking lots and crosswalks to enhance safety for an instance.

The other work that we have done is to update our emergency phone systems by testing both the parent and staff lists. At the upcoming board meeting we will approve a contract with the Town of Mentz for providing some salt and plowing to augment our own crew's work. Sometimes, I am not sure people realize the stress winter can put on our maintenance staff. We operate a school facility that welcomes community use. One of the costs of being open for the community is a never-ending need to clear parking lots and sidewalks. Our facility is open seven days a week in the winter. We have the fitness center opening at 5:00 in the morning and most nights have games, practices and other activities until 9 or 10 p.m. As a matter of fact, we are experimenting with a "C" shift in the winter on weekdays for some of our cleaning crew, therefore becoming 24 hours a day for the work week.

While we prepare for the worst, I will always pray for the best. No snow except for Christmas Day!

Peace,
Neil

 

Oct. 20, 2017

Dear Friends,

Once in a while when I am writing to you, I will switch hats and wear my parent hat instead of my superintendent hat.

I am a child of the 20th century. My education and training was designed for me to be successful in the previous century. I have spent the last two decades trying to keep ahead of the rapid changes found in society and more importantly the economy. In some ways, I am a visitor in the 21st century.

My hope and desires for my children is to be successful in the very different economy and world of today. This is where my father hat and superintendent hat come together. Both of my daughters will be in college next fall. My eldest daughter, Maggie, will be working on her graduate degree at Columbia University in New York City. My youngest, Caitlin, has been spending the last several weeks finishing up applications for college. In both cases, I feel fortunate to have children who have taken advantage of the educational program and great teachers we have at Port Byron to prepare them for opportunities to attend some of the best colleges and universities in the country.

The preparation and opportunities my daughters have enjoyed will simply be keys to open a proverbial door to enter the new century. In order for my daughters or any child from Port Byron to enjoy the bounty found in this century, they will need more than keys, but also a burning desire to be lifelong learners who are willing to adapt to the constant changing economy that requires its employees to learn new skills. To this end, this is why we are in the process of changing how we instruct our students. The days of the three R's (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) are of a distant past. Today, our students walk around with computers in hand. They are learning the 5 C's of the 21st century: Creativity, Critical thinking, Collaboration, Cooperation and Communication. These are the skills we want to teach beyond the old fashion three R’s.

The question I have for myself as a dad - and one that I think you should have for your children - is how we can assist them so they can be successful in both school and life. I can only dream and hope that my two daughters work and live in communities that are vibrant and that they get to experience opportunities that my parents and I never had.

Peace,
Neil

 

Oct. 13, 2017

Dear Friends,

As I write this week's eNews, I am reminded of the late comedian, George Carlin who when I was a child had a famous routine featuring "the seven dirty words that you couldn’t say on television." I think there was an eighth four-letter-word that couldn't be spoken, too. The word was lice.

The reaction and dread that people have with head lice is understandable. It is a parasite that wreaks havoc because once introduced it's often difficult to remove from a household. When I was a child, a student suspected to be carrying active head lice, or louse eggs (nits) would be removed from school immediately. It was called the "no nit" policy. The student could not return until they went through several lice removal steps at home and the house was deloused. Lice or nits were treated in similar fashion to a communicable disease where a person was to be immediately quarantined.

Over the past decade or so, the federal government and the state education department have been pushing schools to end the age-old "no nit" policies. As a matter of fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states on their website:

- Students diagnosed with live head lice do not need to be sent home early from school; they can go home at the end of the day, be treated, and return to class after appropriate treatment has begun. Nits may persist after treatment, but successful treatment should kill crawling lice.

- Head lice can be a nuisance but they have not been shown to spread disease. Personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school has nothing to do with getting head lice.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) advocate that "no-nit" policies should be discontinued. "No-nit" policies that require a child to be free of nits before they can return to schools should be discontinued for the following reasons:

- Many nits are more than a quarter-inch from the scalp. Such nits are usually not viable and very unlikely to hatch to become crawling lice, or may in fact be empty shells, also known as 'casings.'

- Nits are cemented to hair shafts and are very unlikely to be transferred successfully to other people.

- The burden of unnecessary absenteeism to the students, families and communities far outweighs the risks associated with head lice.

- Misdiagnosis of nits is very common during nit checks conducted by nonmedical personnel.

I am writing about this topic because the district over the years has shifted its policy to meet this new thinking. If and when an issue like head lice surfaces, our school nurses and social workers will assist the affected families so that the issue is not only eliminated, but also prevented from spreading to other students.

While a nuisance, head lice do not pose a public health risk. A healthy child will not be excluded from school due to an active case of head lice or the presence of nits. Children identified by the school nurse as having an active infestation of head lice will be sent home at the end of the day and their parents will be informed by the school nurse of their condition and advised to begin treatment.

If you have questions about lice or are in need of assistance, please contact our school nurses. Working together we can make lice a manageable nuisance.

Peace,
Neil

 

Oct. 6, 2017

Dear Friends,

This past Wednesday we had a busload of students from the West building travel to New York City to attend either a Broadway musical or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In some ways, I consider this to be one the best field trips we offer each year.

The trip is extremely popular for our students. Tickets sell out literally in minutes. Our students jump at the opportunity to enjoy the arts in New York City, along with some sightseeing and dinner in midtown Manhattan. The popularity alone of the opportunity to enjoy the arts in New York City makes me happy and thrilled as an educator.

On another note, I am excited because we are able to take advantage of state aid and grants to make the trip extremely affordable for our students. As a matter of fact, the price of admission to the museum or the Broadway show was completely absorbed by the school district. The fact our students can experience the culture of New York City for so little money is beyond noteworthy.

The staff who go each year and endure the bus ride that starts at 4 a.m.and does not end until after midnight also need to be part of the remarkable story. We are blessed with passionate teachers who want our students to have educational experiences outside of the classroom. They are willing to go beyond the school day or classroom to ensure our students have the best learning opportunities. Our students have not just viewed art in New York City, but also Rome, Italy and Barcelona, Spain in the past year, too! This could only happen with staff willing and wanting to give our students the best education.

In the end, we want technology, field trips and a talented teaching staff to instill in our students an appreciation and desire to go beyond the geographic limits of the district to explore the diversity and fine arts found in cultural centers in the United States and the world.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 29, 2017

Dear Friends,

What a great day we had today. Television cameras, happy and excited students along with tons of school pride. This all occurred before the sun rises in the east.

Channel 9 News' morning show broadcasted live from our high school today as part of their "Friday Morning Lights" series. The opportunity to showcase our students and programs was a very special treat. This is especially true for a small rural school district in the Syracuse television market.

We are thankful to be asked and always try to assist news outlets to the best of our ability. We do this when the news is good, but also when the story is not-so-good, too. As a recipient of the public's trust, we try to make sure that we use all the tools available to share the news of the district in an honest and forthright manner. I believe this effort is rewarded because we develop great working relationships with the media. Therefore, when they look for help on a story or a school to highlight we seem to get called more often than the size of our district would dictate.

I know that reporters and editors read our weekly eNews, Facebook posts, and tweets. This constant stream of information does provide them with ideas for stories and instills a thought to use our school and students in an upcoming story. In addition, we respond to press requests during off hours. We operate pretty much on 24/7 basis in providing information to stakeholders and the press using social media platforms and email.

It is days like today that garner collective smiles from adults and students alike. We all love to have our individual school work on the refrigerator and I would suggest being on television as the highlighted school district would be similar for an organization.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 22, 2017

Dear Friends,

The upcoming capital project that residents approved in August 2016 has some features that will enhance the facility as a community center. One of the features that has been discussed is the inclusion of a series of generators, which would power the facility using natural gas in the event the buildings lose electricity. This will allow the facility to become a Red Cross shelter during a disaster. It will also allow us to remain open during a school day if there is a power interruption.

On the back side of the project are additional items that will help us in our goal to open up the facility and infrastructure for the community to enjoy. The sports complex will have lights, Internet access and security cameras. The lights and security cameras will allow the facility to be used during the evenings for school and community events. The Internet access points will continue our efforts to make the facility a community asset. Every day our public wireless is opened up for the community to enjoy after the elementary school day is over. The high-speed Internet students and staff use during the day should be a community asset and not just a school one.

One of the other items that we have been making progress on throughout the past several years is changing our lock system from keys to electronics. One reason is community-based. By having the cameras and door locks, we generally have a facility that can be left open with little adult supervision. This gives us the change to have community activities on nights and Saturdays. Many schools have to limit access because the fear of theft and vandalism.

The other feature of the electronic locks is the ability to put the facility into a lock down mode instantaneously. I, along with the administrative team, have an app on our iPhones that locks all the electronic doors. The doors can only be opened by administrators unless released by the app. This feature has been promoted as the best way for a school to go into a lock down when a dangerous perpetrator is in the facility. It is our plan to have all doors to be fitted with electronics by the time we conclude the upcoming project.

Port Byron Schools' transformation into Port Byron Community School and Center is a process that will continue for years to come. The upcoming project is just another step in that direction.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 15, 2017

Dear Friends,
One of the many items that surfaced during this year's school board retreat was a request for me to discuss in great detail at Board of Education meetings specific areas of operation or programming. The reason for this request comes from two different perspectives. One, of course, is the long tenure of my time as superintendent. Many things just happen because it has become part of the fabric of the district during my time as superintendent. It is just good practice to give a review of areas that are settled to ensure they are still meeting our needs. The other reason is the fact our school board has several news members and they wish to have as much practical knowledge as those who have served on the board for almost two decades. Therefore, reviewing areas to ensure they meet our needs and mission statement along with a desire for newer school boards to learn about areas of the district in greater detail have led me to pick several areas to examine this year.

At last night’s Board of Education meeting, I chose the BOCES classrooms located at Port Byron. Throughout our facility, we have four such classrooms that serve special education students from Port Byron and surrounding school districts. The fact we have these classrooms comes from our commitment we made to BOCES to have a continuum of programing for students from kindergarten to graduation who have various disabilities. This means the students can stay in our district their entire 13 years as a student even if they do not physically live in the district.

Not all school districts house BOCES special education classrooms. We have become one of the districts because we believe it is in the interests of all of our students. First of all, we have Port Byron students being taught in these BOCES classrooms. They are fortunate to be able to go to their "local" school and receive an education from a BOCES teacher and related services. As indicated above, the student from surrounding areas can also have the feel of being a "local" student since Port Byron is the only school district they may ever attend.

Our students in general education also benefit from having BOCES classes located here, too. They learn many life lessons by having classes side by side with students with disabilities. Personally, I think one of the best moments of last school year was the crowning of the king and queen at the junior prom. The queen was a very special student who actually lives in Weedsport, but has been with us for years in our BOCES classrooms. The fact our juniors selected her to be queen of the court at the prom demonstrated our kids were learning a lot more at school than the three "R"s.

On the operational side of the equation, these BOCES students, by law, should be taught in the least restrictive environment, which is at a public school and not at a BOCES center. We receive a nominal $5,000 payment for each class we house. This hasn’t changed in two decades. The teachers and support staff work for BOCES and not Port Byron. We provide general classroom opportunities for the students to learn along with the other services found in a school district.

In reviewing the program, I shared that we are proud and happy to be one of the BOCES centers for inclusion. It provides educational benefits for students with disabilities and the rest of the student body. We are also proud of the fact that BOCES employees have also shared that we are considered one of the best centers in the area. We work very hard to include BOCES employees into the fabric of the district. We do not separate them in a way to make them feel like they are guests or outsiders. The downside is the money. We, along with several of the other districts in the BOCES who have the preponderance of these classrooms housed in our districts, have raised the issue that rent should be more commensurate with the costs.

The benefits outweigh the costs for students inside and outside the BOCES classes. Some of the lessons in life could not be taught without our "special" students.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 8, 2017

Dear Friends,

For the past 13 years, the weekly eNews has been sent to parents and community members to share news about the district and its two schools. The purpose of sending this weekly update is twofold. One is to provide general news such as events or activities that are occurring in the schools. The second purpose is to inform stakeholders on issues impacting education, the district or the community. We try to blend the two to keep the eNews fresh and interesting.

In keeping with the eNews' missions, I am happy to report we had a great start to the school year. Big news items included distributing Chromebooks in the West building, which was highlighted on WSYR (Channel 9), and the football win in the Carrier Dome created very positive feelings in the district to start the school year. The positive feelings were also felt inside the school district due to the fact the staff had put forth tremendous time and energy to ensure students would have a great start to the school year. One example would be Labor Day. Two dozen or so staff members were at work on Labor Day. Coming to work on a day off demonstrates a remarkable commitment to our students and the district. We are truly blessed with a staff that is incredibly talented and hard working. On behalf of the students, parents, and of course the district, I wish to say thank you!

The other part of the weekly eNews is to inform. This week, I would like to share our enrollment numbers for the new year. We have 875 students in K-12 with an additional 53 students in UPK. The reason we separate the two numbers is because UPK is paid for by a grant from New York state. The students in the program are not included in any of our school aid formulas.

The fact we will be below 900 students is not a surprise, but does remind us of the trends that we have been discussing for the past decade. The declining enrollment will continue until it reaches a total enrollment number in the range of 760 or students. We can predict this due to the fact that most of the elementary school grades are in the range of 50-70 students. As a matter of fact, we have quite a few of the early grade levels in the low 50s. On the other hand, the junior and senior classes in the high school are around 90 students per class. This should give you a sense of the changes that are still to come.

The decline in enrollment has been a conversation in the eNews over the past decade, along with being front and center in the strategic planning of the school board. We have been working on many fronts to make sure that programming and opportunities for students does not diminish with smaller enrollment figures. In addition, we have been successful to plan our finances and staffing levels well ahead of time to minimize negative consequences from the declines in enrollment.

If you have a topic that you think would be interesting to discuss in the eNews, drop Ms. Podolak, Mr. Jorgensen or myself an email. We are always looking to find new material.

Peace,
Neil

 

Sept. 1, 2017

Dear Friends,
The district's continuous commitment to finding ways to improve for its students and community members has led to changes every year, and this year is no different.

One of our biggest changes already in place this school year has to do with school supplies. For several reasons, we are in the process of eliminating many traditional supplies that are often included on supply lists and purchased by families.

The biggest reason, of course, is to address the fact that many families are facing challenging times and we need to find additional ways to support them. The district already provides necessities like food and dental care for many of our students, along with academic support like free Advanced Placement courses and Cayuga County Community College accredited classes for students who qualify and computers for students to take home. Eliminating the need to purchase some school supplies is just another positive step in the direction of providing greater support for our students and families.

The other reason is economics. We have a new resource from the state that allows us to buy the supplies at wholesale prices. Elmer’s 4 oz. glue is 50 to 60 cents at local stores on special sale this week. We buy it for 33 cents. Savings like this means that we are spending a fraction of what families would be spending for supplies. It just good economics for us to do it. The reality is that we have been buying some of these items anyway due to the fact that not all students would come with them on the first day of school. Purchasing such items has not taken away from how we support our supplies for teachers or programs.

In the end, it is just another step in the right direction for our students and community. Sometimes they are baby steps, but the goal is always to keep finding new ways to improve the learning experiences for our students and to support families in the process.

Peace,
Neil

 

August 22, 2017

Dear Friends,

September marks the start of a new journey for students and educators. It is a time to begin anew with energy and enthusiasm at the opportunities to learn and grow.

Personally, this will be my 30th year working in public schools and my 14th as Port Byron CSD superintendent of schools. Even with the long tenure of time, I still feel the rush of excitement and anticipation for the new year. It will be a watershed year for me due to the fact my last child, Caitlin, will graduate this spring. Therefore, this September is a beginning for me, but next June will be an ending in more ways than one.

The upcoming school year has some exciting new initiatives that represent our commitment to continue to finds ways to help our students become successful citizens in the 21st Century. The most obvious is our 1:1 program in the West building. Every student will have Chromebook computer to assist in their learning at school and home. In order for us to integrate the technology into instruction, our teachers have been working with Michael Dingman, a technology integration specialist from the Central New York Regional Information Center (CNYRIC) this summer.

The hiring of two social workers, one for each building, also demonstrates our commitment to helping students and families outside of the classroom. The greatest teaching and technology will not make a difference if students and families are over-burdened with social, emotional or financial issues. It is our goal to make better connections with the service providers located in Cayuga County so that we can assist families and students.

Outside of the big and apparent changes are many subtle behind-the-scenes work that is as important to ensuring student success. We recently launched some significant new curriculum work in the high school that takes advantages of Gates Foundation funding through a partnership with a charter school organization in New York City. As a matter of fact, a team of our teachers went to New York City this summer to work with some of the trainers and fellow teachers.

During the coming weeks, Mrs. Podolak, Mr. Jorgensen and I will discuss in our eNews columns the many educational, operational and personnel changes the district is experiencing this school year. In addition, please make sure you "like" our Facebook page (facebook.com/PortByronCSD) and follow us on Twitter (@PortByronCSD) to receive district updates and building information.

The district calendars are in the mail and should arrive in the next couple of days. The calendar is filled with great information to assist you throughout the year. West student schedules will be in the mail later this week and will be available online in the SchoolTool portal late Wednesday afternoon.

I look forward to welcoming everyone to the first day of school.

Peace,
Neil