You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
top story
Cayuga Centers to cut 120 jobs in Auburn, close residential treatment program

Cayuga Centers is closing its residential treatment program in Auburn and cutting about 120 staff members, according to a press release issued Thursday.

The organization's board of trustees made the decision to end its residential services on Wednesday. The program has lost more than $2 million since July, President and CEO Edward Hayes said.

Records show the program served 147 children from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, but as of Thursday, just 14 were left in the program, Hayes said.

Hayes said he is working with the respective counties where the children are from to get them placed in other housing. They will have 90 days to get placed, and staff will have 90 days before the program officially closes. 

Auburn Enlarged City School District operates a school on the Cayuga Centers campus for those children, but Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo said Cayuga Centers had not notified him of the closure. He had found out through a district staff member at 9:30 a.m. Thursday, he said, and he emailed Hayes to confirm that the news was true. Hayes responded that it was, and Pirozzolo said he is planning to meet with staff and the school board early next week.

The district employs 19 people in the school, and Pirozzolo said he does not see being able to save all of those positions. The positions include teachers, aids and administrative staff.

About two weeks ago the school was serving about 24 children, Pirozzolo said, adding that Cayuga Centers had told him it was hoping to have 30 children in the school by March 1. He did not know that only 14 remained. 

"It's very unfortunate with the closure and the impact and the effect that it has had not only at Cayuga Centers, but the school district and the community as well," he said. "We've been in partnerships with Cayuga Centers for over 20 years, and it's unfortunate to hear this information third-hand, and not directly from Cayuga Centers leadership and board."

The positions Cayuga Centers is cutting include group care workers, unit managers, assistant managers, clinicians, case planners, maintenance and kitchen staff, Hayes said. There are also some cuts in human resources and in the administration that had supported the residential treatment center in different ways.

"Trustees and senior staff members deeply regret having to lay off so many excellent people," said David Connelly, chair of the board, in a release. "They have been working extraordinarily hard, heart and soul, trying to make our residential program work under increasingly difficult circumstances. It grieves us to have to let them go."

Because of the program's residential neighborhood location, "it experienced increasing difficulty attracting youths appropriate for the setting. It has declined to accept sexual offenders, for instance," the release said.

Tax records show that the residential treatment program, which has been part of Cayuga Centers since the 1950s, has 53 beds in four housing units licensed by the state Office of Children and Family Services. Three homes are located on Hamilton Avenue. Two can serve 15 people each, and can be single-gender or co-ed. The third housing unit is a 10-bed facility for girls. The fourth home is located on Franklin Street and can serve 13 youth. It is a co-ed facility. 

The girls-only unit received children referred from OCFS and the other three units accepted children from various counties' social services departments. Hayes said children came from all over the state.

When asked about the future of the houses the center owns, Hayes said "no future decisions or announcements are pending at this point."

Hayes added that changes to youth services also instigated the closure decision. The agency is focusing on foster care services that he said "produce wonderful outcomes at much lower cost than congregate care placement."

Cayuga Centers continues to operate all its other programs in its nine locations in upstate New York, in addition to New York City, Palm Beach County, Florida, and Delaware, according to the release. About 734 positions remain in the agency, of which Hayes said between 150 and 200 are in Auburn.

OCFS said it was notified of the organization's decision to shut down the residential treatment center. 

"The program closure was a business decision made by Cayuga Center's board and was not prompted by an OCFS corrective action plan," the office said in a statement to The Citizen. "Youth in their care who are ready to leave the program will be discharged to their homes. The remaining youth will be transferred to other residential programs with OCFS oversight of the placements."

Superintendent: Port Byron eyes communication changes after student arrest

After a student was charged by state police with making threats on social media last week, the Port Byron Central School District has vowed to improve how it communicates with parents in a crisis.

A letter to parents about the incident and communication strategy was sent electronically around 1 p.m. Wednesday, district Superintendent Neil O'Brien said. Copies of the letter, written by O'Brien, have been mailed out and it is available on the district's website. The letter goes into detail about the situation while admitting the district had made mistakes in communicating with parents along the way.

Late in the day on Feb. 16, state police charged a 12-year-old middle school student with making a terroristic threat, a class D felony. O'Brien had said earlier that day that the district became concerned after seeing an Instagram post created by the student around 7 p.m. on Feb. 15, and informed state police that same night. He didn't disclose what exactly the post contained but said there was "no direct threat to the school or students." Trooper Mark O'Donnell also confirmed that investigators went to the district Friday to confirm there were no tangible threats. O'Donnell said the student referenced the violent film "The Purge" on Instagram.

O'Brien expanded on aspects of the incident in the letter, saying the student joined the district on Feb. 12. O'Brien said in the letter the boy was introduced to the school like other students, "with oversight and guidance" from the school counselor and principal. Staff communicated with the new student's mother several times in an effort to figure out how to best support the student and his family, the letter said.

On Feb. 15, issues rose between the boy and his fellow students and "alarming images" were found on social media, O'Brien said in the letter. He added that the district contacted state police swiftly, keeping with the district's emergency response plan, and deferred to the police's judgement.

After being informed by state police on Feb. 16 that there was no immediate threat to students and staff, O'Brien posted a note on the district's Facebook page "to reassure students and staff that everyone would be safe at school on Friday," he said in the letter. That Facebook post was deleted before noon that day because the student was identified in the post's comment section and false information was being included in the comments.

During that day, O'Brien's letter continued, students were being interviewed by two investigators, "indicating an investigation was still being conducted." After the interviews were finished, O'Brien released a different document explaining the incident to parents.

The district's administration was "shocked" about the arrest, the letter continued, adding the district wasn't notified of the charges ahead of time, O'Brien said in the letter.

O'Brien said it was a "misstep" to say on social media that police had determined there was no viable threat. He also laid out ways the district can learn from this, saying he will use the district's system that sends calls and text messages to parents in the future.

He said the district will continue to adhere to its code of conduct, which says a superintendent's hearing must be done before a student can come back to the school. Such a hearing can apply suspension for up to one year. The letter also noted the state's charges have been filed in family court.

Additionally, the letter said the district's board of education wants the BOCES regional safety expert to review the district's safety plan. Internal meetings have already been set up ahead of the district presenting its preliminary findings to the board at a March 8 meeting, the letter said.

"Our first order as an administrative team is to develop a more robust crisis communication plan that clearly identifies when to communicate during an emergency situation, as well as what channel(s) to use," O'Brien said in the letter.

He also said that the district will use this situation to examine how it can better acclimate new students and families to the district, and to  work to have "a better understanding of their specific needs prior to enrolling."

In an phone interview with The Citizen Thursday, O'Brien said he has received positive responses since the letter to parents went out. He said he understands parents' concerns, adding "school safety is the most important thing" for him as both an administrator and a father. He said the district's approach to communication in emergencies will evolve while "being cognizant that we have to be mindful of privacy also."

Sheriffs: Put armed officers in all schools

The New York State Sheriffs' Association has a proposal aimed at boosting security in schools.

Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts, who serves as president of the New York State Sheriffs' Association, said Thursday that the 2018-19 state budget should allocate funding to have at least one armed school resource officer in every school.

There are roughly 6,750 public and private schools in New York. The sheriffs' association estimated the cost would be "roughly equivalent" to hiring an additional teacher at each school. A specific dollar amount wasn't provided.

Virts admitted hiring armed SROs to staff each school would be "an expensive undertaking."

"But we owe it to our children, and their parents, to provide a safe place for education to take place," he said.

Some schools already have SROs. The Auburn Enlarged City School District, through a program administered by the Auburn Police Department, has SROs in schools. But there isn't one officer for every building. According to the department's website, there are four officers who are assigned to the district's seven schools.

Other school districts have SROs, but local funding has been a challenge. Cash-strapped local governments are sometimes forced to reduce or eliminate SRO programs.

That's why Virts argues that the state should provide funding to support SROs.

"We spend many millions of dollars to protect a relatively small number of judges across the state, as we should," he said. "Surely we can also find the money to protect our most defenseless people — the children we send off to school each day."

Virts' proposal came one day after President Donald Trump held a listening session with survivors and families affected by the Parkland shooting. A gunman entered the Florida high school and killed 17 people, most of whom were students.

Trump has suggested several proposals, including arming teachers, to increase school security. The National Rifle Association, a leading gun rights advocacy group, has called for more armed security personnel in schools.

There are other ways schools could bolster security. The state sheriffs' association said it has advised schools on controlling access to buildings and assisted with lockdown exercises. Several schools are enrolled in the organization's Rapid Responder program, which provides law enforcement agencies access to information about the school's infrastructure and layout.

While there are many alternatives, there appears to be agreement among sheriffs that placing SROs in every school would be the ideal solution.

"Sadly, many times when law enforcement arrives at the scene of a school shooting, everything is over and all the police officers can do is help the survivors," Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy said. "With an armed officer on duty in the school, such an attack may be deterred, or at least terminated quickly and hopefully without loss of life."

top story
Weedsport deputy mayor's title removed, officials mum on reason

WEEDSPORT — Weedsport Trustee Chris Lukins was removed as the village's deputy mayor, but officials are not saying why.

The village's board of trustees voted Feb. 14 to release Lukins from his duty as deputy mayor, which was a position appointed to him by Mayor Jean Saroodis in April.

The removal followed a special closed-door meeting held Feb. 8. At the Feb. 14 meeting, village trustees said an issue with the Feb. 8 minutes prevented them from being approved, and the village has refused to make them public, possibly in violation of the state's open meetings law.

"I know you all have read (the Feb. 8 minutes). There are some very strong concerns with the way they're worded, and no vote was taken," Saroodis said to the board during the Feb. 14  meeting. "I personally can't see how we can approve the minutes on Feb. 8."

"That's fine," Lukins said, suggesting that like other meeting minutes the board could make amendments before voting to approve them.

Saroodis said that she was advised by two attorneys not to approve the minutes, and Lukins' request to vote on the minutes "was totally wrong.

"In this case this was an executive session, so the minutes should have been correct ... and not done like that," Saroodis said. "If (the board) votes to approve them, it's putting the village in not a very good position."

Lukins made a motion to go into executive session, saying if the minutes were taken in an executive session the board should discuss them in an executive session.

"We're not going into executive session right away," Saroodis said, looking down at the table in front of her.

"There's also been some other issues that have taken place, and those issues we will go into executive session on. But before they do that, I have to do something that doesn't make me real happy. And I don't know if it's been done in the village before. But I'm sure, and I have minutes and I have paperwork and I have laws, to release you, Chris, from your duty as deputy mayor. I hate to do it, but I have to do it," Saroodis said.

Lukins responded with a calm "OK."

Saroodis said she needed a motion to accept that action from the board. After a long pause, Trustee Chere Perkins made a motion and Steve Sims seconded it.

"And it's all legal?" Sims asked.

"I have everything right here, you can read it, you can read the whole thing," Saroodis said. "I have the paperwork, actually I can give you all copies."

Saroodis prompted the board to vote on the motion. Nearly two minutes passed before the board said it was ready to vote.

Lukins abstained and the motion to remove Lukins' from his duty as deputy mayor passed with no opposition.

The board then went into executive session with village attorney David Thurston, clerk Jeannine Powers, and Greg Gilfus, officer in charge of the village's police department.

The executive session lasted well over 90 minutes, and the public meeting that resumed afterward was two minutes long.

"We need to appoint someone to work on the situation we talked about," Saroodis said.

"I don't have the time. I would nominate (Trustee Harry Hinman). I don't feel I'm ready for that. A combination of I don't have time, A, and B, I don't have the experience," Sims said.

Attorney Thurston interjected, saying that he didn't believe an action was needed, adding that "it might shake itself out by tomorrow."

"So, that's that," Saroodis said, and the meeting adjourned.

Immediately following the meeting, Lukins pursed his lips, looked down and nodded a "no," when asked for comment.

Neither Saroodis nor Thurston offered further comment, and they both stayed behind to meet with Lukins privately after the meeting.

A day after the meeting, Thurston said he "cannot offer any comment at this time," and was "honestly not sure" when he would be able to speak about the matter.

The Citizen contacted each trustee this week to seek further information about what took place at the meeting. Hinman said he could not comment, while Lukins, Perkins and Sims did not respond. 

"It's just a hush, hush thing," said Cayuga County Legislator Christopher Petrus, whose district includes Weedsport, in a phone interview on Monday. He added that he's been trying to get more information, but "people just keep saying it's a personnel issue."

"There is nothing criminal," said Gilfus, the officer in charge of Weedsport's Police Department, in a Thursday phone interview. "It's all internal employee issues. ... It's not a police issue."

New York state's open meetings law states that minutes "shall be available to the public within one week from the date of the executive session." But Powers, the village clerk, said that she could not provide a copy of the Feb. 8 minutes when The Citizen requested them Tuesday. She said that once the minutes are approved, they will be published on the village's website.

A state official who monitors and advises on government transparency issues said the Feb. 8 minutes should be available to the public.

"It doesn't matter if they've approved them or not," said Kristin O'Neill, the assistant director of the state's Committee on Open Government. "There is nothing in the law that says the minutes have to be approved. There is something in the law that says they need to be made available."

Because the minutes were taken in an executive session, O'Neill said that, depending on what the person taking the minutes included, the village could redact any information that legally does not need to be made public given that an explanation is provided for the redaction.

The state Freedom of Information Law outlines what is required to be made public: "any action that is taken by formal vote which shall consist of a record or summary of the final determination of such action, and the date and vote thereon."

In a phone interview Wednesday, Saroodis said "I'm still going to say no comment because (the Feb. 8 minutes) are not approved.

"It's a confusing situation right now," Saroodis said. "I'm sure there are a lot of questions out there."