Mental health in schools discussed at Cortland BOE meeting (Videos Included)

Cortland Enlarged City School District BOE meeting.

The Cortland Enlarged City School District Board of Education (BOE) hosted a packed meeting Tuesday evening at Randall Middle School.

The agenda included presentations about Randall students, a recent population study, and the budget for the 2023-24 school year, but it was clear from the sea of purple Cortland United Teachers Union (CUTU) shirts that most attendees were there for the Audience Participation portion of the meeting, during which teachers and staff expressed concerns over a lack of support, which has led to at least one resignation.

Cortland’s next BOE meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. March 14 at the Kaufman Center. Meetings are open to the public and are also live streamed via a link on the district website.

Mental Health Crisis

Cortland Enlarged City School District BOE meeting.

Prior to the opening of the Audience Participation portion at the top of the meeting, BOE member Lori Megivern recited the Board Norms, which include “assume good intentions,” and added that “there are no gotcha moments on a team” in anticipation of what the public was about to hear from the teachers and staff who were there to speak.

Barry elementary kindergarten teacher Julie Ciotoli spoke first, outlining the need for increased mental health staff in all school buildings. She requested that teams including a school psychologist, counselor, social worker, behavior specialist, resource officer, and an assistant be established, adding that recommendations from various committees on that topic had “gone by the wayside” when it came time for the BOE to act on them in the past. 

Ciotoli shared that not only are the K-6 students not having their needs met, second-hand trauma is being experienced by students and staff who witness an increasing number of trauma-related behaviors, “as a parent, my child has come home scared.”

Zoe Walters then spoke, identifying herself as one of the two school social workers who had recently resigned and as a mother of two graduates of the district. (It was clarified via an anonymous source that the other resignation could not be directly linked to the situation brought before the BOE at this meeting.) 

Walters revealed that Cortland has less mental health staff this year than it had before the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to her caseload going up by 500%. In addition, dealing with an increasing number of crises with aggressive and violent student outbursts would often cut into her mandatory sessions with students. Staff are dealing with suicide assessments and completing assessments with Child Protective Services on a weekly basis while resources are being removed or not made available.

Stephanie Passeri-Densmore, who has been teaching at Cortland since 1993, spoke on what she viewed as “dangerous proposals” at the junior high school which involve reducing the number of teams and school counselors. The changes would mean an increase in class sizes, something Passeri-Densmore says has been shown in multiple studies to make learning more difficult for students, which is not the goal for staff at Cortland.

Jaime Francey-Henry, teacher and Union President of CUTU, put the staffing shortages into perspective when she stated that seven mental health support staff members had resigned in the past year and a half. While some staff had been replaced and one intern position had been created, the additional positions repeatedly requested by CUTU had not been created. She stated that federal funding had been made available in recent years to address these exact concerns, and while it is understood that the funding is temporary, other districts had found ways to create the needed positions. 

Josh Michael-King is a long-term substitute and older brother to two students at Cortland. He applauded the staff who were present at the meeting and said that as someone with experience in other districts, the problems in Cortland are not isolated. He asserted that one-third of the staff would be leaving by the end of the school year and that students are already forced to pick and choose between required classes due to a lack of staff, and that the BOE “can’t keep sitting back and waiting for things to happen…and for the government and state to help.”

Per BOE guidelines, the board does not directly address or respond to any public comments made during the audience participation segment of the meeting outside of thanking participants for their time.

The public comments portion of the meeting can be viewed below:

Tiger Paw Awarded

High School Science teacher Nicole Latham presented a Tiger Paw Award to fellow science teacher Rebecca Johnson, citing Johnson’s dedication and deep caring for her students and colleagues. Latham credited Johnson as making the rockets launch, dissections happen, and planetarium possible.

Randall Students Present

Randall Middle School students leading the Pledge of Allegiance at Cortland's BOE meeting.

Several Randall Middle School students were in attendance at the meeting, leading the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem when the meeting was called to order. One woman, who did not identify herself, interjected during the audience participation portion of the meeting to suggest that it would be “more appropriate” that the students be allowed to do their presentation so they could leave without hearing about the staffing issues, which the BOE allowed.

Students spoke about and presented a video which showcased the various clubs at Randall Middle school, thanking the board for supporting the organizations. Students participate in activities that range from art, band, and chorus to Friendship, Safety Patrol, and Library clubs. Randall also has a Student Council and a School Store where students practice real world leadership and communication skills.

Population Study

Education Consultant Deb Ayers of Castallo & Silky LLC presented her population of Cortland Enlarged City School District via Zoom. Ayers reported that K-12 enrollment had decreased from 2,351 to 1,850 over the past 6 years, and is expected to continue to decrease by another 16-17% by the 2029-30 school year. 

Some factors behind these changes include decreasing NYS and county populations, as well as an aging population who are leaving child-raising age.  Private and Charter schools have also taken a toll on numbers in the district. While there is some hope for a possible bump in population from the Micron Plant planned for Onondaga County, Cortland is not likely to see effects from that until the “latter half of the decade,” when employees begin working after the facilities are built. 

Budget Presentation

The final presentation of the night was regarding the 2023-24 Budget. The district is currently considering a tax increase around 1.89%. However, part of the presentation examined how the district had “left money on the table” in the past by not increasing the tax rate to match the allowable tax cap. Had the district always raised the rate to the maximum allowed each year, they would have brought in approximately $10 million more in revenue. 

With the district still facing a $3.2 million deficit, the BOE is considering trying to gain a super-majority vote in May to exceed the tax cap, as opposed to the simple majority of 50% + 1 vote they would need to pass the usual budget. The next budget presentation will take place during the March 14 meeting.