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School psychologist position restored to Ken-Ton budget proposal

Three school psychologists persuaded the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School Board this week to permanently fill a psychologist position that had been slated to be cut from the 2016-17 school budget.

Thomas Horowitz, Janine McDonald and Larry Scott told the board Tuesday night that the psychologists provide vital mental health services to students, especially now as the district prepares to close three schools. They were the only people to speak during a public hearing on the proposed $157.1 million budget that will be put before voters next Tuesday.

“We are among the first people called in to solve behavioral issues, consult staff members and students in times of crisis and grief, like the closing of our schools,” McDonald said.

Scott also questioned the proposed cut, pointing out that the district’s special-education rates, state-mandated responsibilities and percentage of students considered economically disadvantaged – 44 percent – remain unchanged. He also said the department didn’t learn of the cut until April 29, weeks after the board adopted the proposed budget.

The district has 12 psychologists, four are dedicated to working exclusively with students in smaller classes of eight who have severe social and emotional needs. The other eight psychologists work with the general student population.

The position slated to be cut was previously held by a psychologist who resigned, and is now filled by a temporary appointment. The proposed budget includes $887,436 for the salaries of the district’s psychologists, a decrease of $13,443 from this year.

But after hearing from the psychologists, Trustee Bob Dana argued in favor of restoring the position.

“The numbers of students have not changed, the buildings have changed,” Dana said of the school closings. “So the needs, as I see it, in terms of the health care professionals should not have changed, either.”

District finance officials told the board that they would have to shift funds away from other items in the budget to fully fund the position, which was pegged at about $100,000.

Trustee Christopher E. Pashler suggested that they scrutinize money spent on contracted legal services, which is budgeted to rise by $55,000 next year, to $225,000. “I do wonder if we can just hold the line a little bit more with our lawyers and ask them to give us a better rate,” he said.

The board voted in favor of restoring the psychologist position, prompting applause from the audience of mostly teachers.

Later, however, Trustee Todd J. Potter Jr. said he had not voted, asked that his vote be recorded as a “no” and admonished the board for making a decision so quickly.

“What an irresponsible decision that just was – a $100,000 decision you just made without any information, any studying,” Potter said.

Scott was also surprised, but for different reasons. “To have the board hear us and our concerns sincerely, take it seriously, have a productive discussion then take the action to vote on reinstating that position is quite impressive,” he told The Buffalo News. “We’re all thrilled with the outcome.”