October 20, 2003

Cornell Connects With Ithaca Schools

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Physically, a mile seperates Cornell’s clocktower from Ithaca High School’s gymnasium. That’s the distance between North Campus and Collegetown, West Campus and the Dairy Bar and Willard Straight Hall and the College of Veterinary Medicine. But, physical space and psychological distance are two very different things.

In fact, relations between Cornell and the Ithaca City School District have important consequences for both Cornell students and students in the school district.

The Ithaca City School Board includes members that have close connections to Cornell. Several have spouses on the faculty and one is a professor emeritus, but none are directly employed by the University.

According to Chuck Bartosch, the president of the school board and the “point-man” for relations between Cornell and the school district, the link between the two academic institutions is divided into three categories; taxation, what Cornell can do for the school district, and what the school district can do for Cornell.

The issue of taxation is prevalent because as it stands, Cornell pays no property taxes of any kind, even though it is the largest landowner in the district. Many families, therefore, who are living in Cornell housing and sending their kids to the local schools are in effect avoiding school taxes. This situation applies to faculty-in-residence families, as well as graduate student families. Bartosch estimates that the amount of revenue made if these “tax avoiders” did pay taxes amounts to about $650,000. Consequently, Cornell annually donates about this amount in an effort to match the loss in tax revenue. Last year, Cornell reduced their voluntary donation and the amount fell shy of this $650,000 figure. Bartosch is anticipating the funding to increase for this year.

“The donation is pretty vital to the school budget,” Bartosch said.

He estimated that the donation pays for about 11 teachers, or the equivalent pay of every teacher in one elementary school. The donation amount is determined when Cornell develops its budget later this year.

The second facet of the Cornell-school district relationship is what Cornell can do for the school district. Bartosch mentioned that there are many ways that Cornell, with a relatively small amount of money, can participate in programs that are extremely beneficial to students in the school district.

Bartosch cited many examples of specific outreach programs including such subjects as animal science, nanotechnology and textiles. Some of these programs include hands on activities and trips to university facilities.

Another outreach program which current students might be more familiar with is the new student reading project. Last year Cornell donated hundreds of copies of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Many high school English classes incorporated Frankenstein into their curriculum. Along with this, a lecture series was organized in which distinguished Cornell faculty gave talks to the high school student body.

Bartosch said he is impressed by the increasing trend of outreach by members of the Cornell community. This fall at a meeting of the Ithaca Public Education Initiative several members of Cornell’s outreach group were present.

“In the last few months there has been a change of emphasis [toward increased outreach],” Bartosch said.

Highlighting one of the dilemmas faced by the district, Bartosch said, “people want to help but don’t know how.”

In response to this problem, a brand new database is being worked on where teachers in the school district can post requests for certain projects or activities with which the Cornell community can assist. On the other end Cornell faculty can post activities that they think might be appropriate for the school district. This way both sides can communicate with each other using technology to bring them together in a way that wasn’t possible before.

The third facet is what the school district can do for Cornell. Bartosch pointed out that obviously Cornell has an incentive to have a good school district in its area because that is a large factor for attracting faculty.

Another way the school district helps Cornell is in a practice called coordinated hiring wherein if someone is hired by Cornell with a spouse who does not have a job in the area, the school district will take measures to get the spouse a job. This provides yet another incentive for attracting good faculty.

Many graduate students at Cornell are involved in grant projects with organizations such as the National Science Foundation. Some of these research grants make it a requirement to use some of the funding to be used for community purposes. The school district, often at its own expense, coordinates some of these projects making it possible for grantees to fulfill their requirements. These collaborations also provide a great way for students to learn as well.

With all of this collaboration and interaction, according to Bartosch, the Cornell community largely stays out of school board affairs. In the elections for both the school budget and for members, overall turnout is extremely low at about 13 percent. Bartosch said he would welcome participation by students in the elections and for students to give input on the issues that the board faces.

“One of my personal goals is to broaden the participants in the elections,” Bartosch said.

Archived article by Ted Van Loan