By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — Facing a $2.1 million revenue gap in developing next year’s budget, the school district here has planned another “Community Conversation” — this one is to inspire residents to write letters to government leaders, advocating for more aid and fewer mandates.
The session, titled “Let Us Be Heard: Community Advocacy for a Guilderland Education,” will be held at the high school on Jan. 15.
The session will start with school leaders “painting a picture,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles, of the long-term viability for the education “we know and love here.” A question-and-answer period will follow after which participants will “put the proverbial pen to paper and be heard,” Wiles told the school board at its meeting on Tuesday.
She is inviting high school students as well as staff and the community at large, noting it would be “compelling” to have 1,700 letters from students.
Wiles said that, while the board and district leaders will spend a tremendous amount of time talking, or even arguing, over what should stay and what should go in next year’s budget as aid atrophies and the state has set a tax-levy cap, it is important “to talk to the folks who have the power to make a difference.”
People can sign up for the session online or by calling the district office, said the school board president, Colleen O’Connell. The session will be broadcast on public-access Channel 16 with information on letter-writing posted on the district’s website.
“Letters written from the heart carry a lot more weight,” said Wiles.
In light of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and the subsequent vague threats of violence that circulated at Guilderland before the winter break, Wiles said she wanted to assure the board and the community that “the safety of our students, faculty, and staff is our highest priority.” She said, even more important than learning, safety is “job number one.”
The district has recently reviewed many aspects of its safety plans and procedures, she said, and school leaders have twice met with first responders.
Wiles said she was gratified to hear from Captain Curtis Cox of the Guilderland Police that Guilderland is “miles ahead” of other districts both in its plans and its practice of those plans.
“We will be ever vigilant,” said Wiles.
Bond project ahead?
Having just completed a $27 million project, passed in 2007, to upgrade Guilderland’s five elementary schools, improve technology, and move the district offices to the high school, the school board on Tuesday agreed to establish a committee to consider the district’s next bond project.
The committee will start meeting in late February or early March, on weekdays after school, with the goal of making a recommendation to the school board by June.
The board will then have the summer to “tweak” the plan, as O’Connell put it, with a referendum in the fall.
The facilities committee will look at “the infrastructure needs of the seven school buildings, instructional technology, and health, safety, and security,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.
On O’Connell’s recommendation, the board agreed that two of its members, rather than the one suggested by Sanders, should serve on the committee.
“The facilities committee serves at the pleasure of the board…I want us to be intimately aware and updated, not just because Neil is telling us,” said O’Connell.
She also recommended, and the board agreed, that, rather than the three Parent Teacher Association representatives suggested by Sanders, the committee should have three PTA/community representatives. “Last time, we were fortunate to have a retired architect, which was very helpful,” O’Connell said.
Community members who want to serve on the committee are to submit a letter of interest in the next two weeks. If more than three people apply, the board’s Business Practices Committee will decide who is selected.
The other facilities committee members will be Wiles and Sanders; Clifford Nooney, the director of physical plant management; Joseph Reilly, the director of technology, as well as an elementary principal; a secondary principal or assistant principal; a maintenance mechanic, a representative from the Guilderland Office Workers Association representative; and three representatives fro the Guilderland Teachers Association.
The board also appointed CSArch to provide pre-referendum services at a cost of $18,500.
Architects from CSArch will “guide the committee,” Sanders said, in how to evaluate building conditions and what the priorities are as well as doing preliminary designs.
“They know our buildings well,” said O’Connell who also lauded CSArch for its “collaborative approach,” which she called “somewhat unique.”
In other business, the board:
— Heard from Wiles that the district received formal notification from the state’s education commissioner that its plan for evaluating teachers and principals has been approved. “If we need to fine tune it, we can,” she said;
— Set tuition rates, based on a state formula, for students attending Guilderland who live outside of the district. Primary students would pay $9,278 and secondary students would pay $12,347 for the 2012-13 school year. Sanders said that Guilderland currently has only one out-of-district student;
— Approved an externship agreement with Utica College to provide clinical education for occupational therapy students;
— Declared an AB-Dick printing press that is more than 30 years old to be surplus and obsolete so that it can be disposed of. “Who’s going to buy it — the Smithsonian?” quipped board Vice President Gloria Towle-Hilt;
— Approved two new high school clubs: Deaf Jam, advised by Susan Brown, which Wiles said was to build awareness about deafness, and Huntington’s Awareness Club, advised by Alonna Rudolph. O’Connell noted that Huntington’s was haunting a Guilderland family. She also said she was grateful to educators who are forming new clubs without being paid. “We don’t have the money for stipends,” said O’Connell. “They’re identifying the needs”;
— Approved a contract with the Research Foundation of the State of New York. Researchers will work with Guilderland Elementary School students through Aug. 31, 2014, said Wiles, pairing them with students in Ontario. “They’re interested in looking at how children build knowledge in an online environment,” she said, likening it to Wikipedia, where people join in a place and add content. The foundation is to reimburse the district for costs incurred, up to $5,000, including a stipend for the lead evaluator, Guilderland’s principal, Allan Lockwood.
Wiles called it “a fantastic opportunity.”
Board member Jennifer Charron said she didn’t want to see the project end due to lack of funds. “Keep it under budget,” she told Lockwood.
“No problem,” he responded;
— Approved another research project in which the University of Albany will observe children with autism at Altamont Elementary School learning how to write. The students’ parents have given approval, Wiles said, noting of the researchers, “They’re learning from us…I think it’s a tremendous compliment”;
— Adopted policies on Title I parent involvement, board hearings, board policy, new board member orientation, academic intervention services, limited English proficiency instruction, and disposal of district property;
— Heard O’Connell praise two retiring school leaders — Mary Summermatter, who has been principal of Farnsworth Middle School since 2005, and Patricia Hansbury-Zuendt, administrator for English, reading, and social studies at Guilderland High School, who has worked for the district since 1991;
—Heard from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton congratulations for the fall sports teams that qualified for the 2012 Scholar/Athlete Team Award by maintaining a team average of 90-percent or higher — boys’ and girls’ cross-country, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ volleyball, field hockey, girls’ tennis, golf, football, and girls’ swimming and diving;
— Met in executive session to discuss an appeal of a recent superintendent’s hearing decision, contract negotiations, and a personnel matter.