Champ proposes budget with 3.31% tax increase, possible return to in-person learning after spring break


Pelham Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ proposed a $80.2 million preliminary budget for the 2021-22 school year with a 3.31% tax increase at the board of education meeting Wednesday. She also said the district is considering starting full in-person learning after spring break based on current cases at the secondary schools, the vaccine roll-out, warmer temperatures and more outside opportunities.

The proposed tax increase is composed of 1.7% for the operating budget and 1.61% for the capital budget. The total rise meets the state tax cap. The statewide baseline cap is 1.23% this year, the lowest since 2016, while Pelham’s capital budget and other exclusions boost its permitted increase to 3.31%.

Spending increases $3.6 million, or 4.67%, in the spending plan. Residents will vote on the budget May 18 following school board workshops, board adoption of a recommended budget and a public hearing.

Salaries and benefits for district staff members comprise approximately 76% of the budget, including contractual salary increases and higher pension and health insurance costs. Contingency funds are maintained at 2%, with an increase in state building aid. State and federal aid increased this year by 7.8%, in comparison with the 7.71% last year. The budget presentation can be found here.

Along with the budget proposal, Champ discussed the full in-person reopening plan in a presentation. After meeting with local and state government officials, speaking with members of the community and holding the first reopening schools task force meeting, Champ said the district is looking to the possibility of fully reopening after spring break ends April 5. Weekly surveillance testing in the secondary schools has begun, testing 5% of students including 20% of high-risk athletes. The district is organizing testing in elementary as well, and Champ encouraged parents to start signing up students.

“We’re very pleased at this point, based on the information we’ve been given,” Champ said. “We’ve tracked that about 50% of our entire staff should be fully vaccinated by the time we return from spring break.”

The New York State Department of Health has a distancing rule of six feet for schools. However, the district is creating its reopening plan with three-feet distancing, in the event there is a change by April.

Champ’s presentation included results from the family reopening survey sent out to parents recently. The survey results showed that even with a three-foot distance, a majority of parents would choose full in-person learning.

To achieve reopening the schools need more space or shortened distancing requirements. To reduce distancing, the administration is assessing spacing, with major concerns being classroom space and lunch periods, as some classrooms cannot fit the full number of students.

“At the secondary schools, we’ve got a lot more challenge around meeting that three-foot minimum,” Champ said. “We’ve got bigger students, and we’ve got higher enrollment, so we’re at more of 50% to 65% of rooms that don’t fit the three-foot threshold. It’s much harder at the secondary level to determine who is going to be virtual and who is note. We had a higher percentage of students indicating they would stay remote.”

Champ said “there is going to be a diminished experience for those students who are in full virtual, just by nature of the teacher’s attention.”

The board discussed requests for air purifiers in classrooms if the volume of students increases.

Jim Hricay, assistant superintendent for business, said for around 250 classrooms and other spaces, an order of 300 air purifiers, averaging of $500 to $600 per unit, will cost around $185,000 for the district. Champ said there was a lack of desks at the secondary level, since seating modifications required the moving of classroom desks to the cafeteria. For schools to fully open, alternate seating methods will need to be put into place in the lunch rooms.

A longer period for arrival and dismissal as well as expansion of the bell schedule will be implemented. While the district is looking to use outdoor space for alternative room for classes, the decision of what will be done on rainy days is still being discussed.

“If we were to open the doors tomorrow, I just worry that at the elementary level, we’re going to close more classes then we’ve closed right now,” said Board President Jessica DeDomenico stated.

In a full reopening, students would be brought back in a phased approach, starting with the youngest grades at the elementary level, then middle school and high school phased in grade by grade.

“I’m thrilled that we’re moving in this direction for this school year,” DeDomenico said. “But I feel very strongly that as quickly as we get through these decisions, that we move on and ensure that we’re well positioned for the fall and that we’re considering every option.”

The next board of education meeting is scheduled for March 24 and can be viewed on YouTube Live.