By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
FONDA -- Students and parents turned out in droves Tuesday night, determined to make known just how they felt about the Fonda-Fultonville Board of Education's decision to eliminate the school psychologist position, a position held by Dr. Michael J. Fraser, a man many described as vital to both the school and the community.
Fraser's was one of two positions eliminated by the district as the result of financial troubles that came to light late last year.
Good news, however, was also delivered on Tuesday, coming in the form of the board's decision to reinstate the district's spring sports program, which was originally slated to be cut.
That news was met with a round of applause, but the joy was short-lived as, one by one, students and parents stood to express their dismay about Fraser's imminent departure.
"I'm appalled you put a price on life," said Ron Smith, a district resident. "You're doing a total injustice by getting rid of this man."
"I'd have no idea where I'd be now if it wasn't for that man," said former student Seth Blowers. "The man's been here for 19 years and for you to just throw him out like that is disrespectful in my eyes."
Many were concerned about the effect a lack of a school psychologist on premises will have on the emotional well being of students, especially those with special needs currently partaking of Fraser's services.
"I'm sick about it," said one mother whose son is in need of the additional services. "Kids need the opportunity to transition."
"If it weren't for Doc Fraser, me and my kids wouldn't be breathing for the last two years," she added.
Others were angry that the decision was made in what they perceived to be a rash manner and without taking into account public sentiment.
"This board has failed this community," said resident Kathleen Georgia.
"You didn't have the decency to let us know," said another resident.
Still others questioned the resources the school district said it will provide to help fill the gap in services created by Fraser's elimination, which include distributing the work amongst other school counselors and the part-time BOCES psychologist that will remain, as well as a collaboration with St. Mary's mental health services.
It was the students, however, who made the most emotional pleas for Fraser's return.
"He's the reason I'm here today," one student said through tears. "He saved my life."
"We need him," she added, accusing the board of putting "the mental and emotional health" of district students "on the line."
"Losing Dr. Fraser now, we don't have anyone to rely on," said another, adding that the district was "taking away somebody we've built a bond with."
In light of the public's response, F-F Board of Education President Linda Wszolek said she could not rule out the possibility that the decision to eliminate Fraser's position could be revisited.
"Everything can be rethought," said Wszolek. "We do not take your comments and then throw them aside."
The staff reductions are part of a cost savings initiative unveiled by interim Superintendent Ray Colucciello on Tuesday, a plan that is expected to save the district the approximately $500,000 it needs to balance the budget for the coming year.
A routine audit conducted late last year revealed that the district's fund balance had been significantly depleted as a result of unexpected expenses in health insurance and reductions in state building aid reimbursements.
Several of Colucciello's recommendations were addressed in actions taken last month by the board of education, including the closing of the swimming pool for the remainder of the school year, modifications to retiree health insurance, changes in special education placement and refinancing of the district's long-term debt.
In addition, Colucciello recommended the elimination of the late bus run and alternative education slots, the transfer of some unused special education funds and the reduction of two staff positions, both Fraser's and that of a business education teacher.
The additional recommendations were officially approved by the board during Tuesday night's meeting and will take effect Friday.
All told, Colucciello estimates that those measures will save the district approximately $440,000.
The remaining $60,000 in cost savings are associated with the reinstated sports program.
The reinstatement was made possible thanks to an agreement reached with team coaches and the teacher's bargaining unit in which members agreed to volunteer their services.
Services are also being donated by Robert Brown, owner of Brown Transportation, who agreed to provide transportation to all away athletic contests for the spring sports season free of charge.
"The generosity of everyone who came forward and said 'we want this to happen' made this possible," Colucciello said Tuesday night.
Colucciello described the half million dollars in budget reductions as "Step 1" in a three step "Financial Stability Plan" he's developed.
The second step involves developing a budget for the coming school year "that will maintain stability, build fund balance, and provide programs the students need and deserve that the community will support," according to hand out made available at Tuesday night's meeting.
Step three will be to "provide the fiscal projection for the district for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years."