By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND — School leaders say they want to hear from the community on what to cut next.
Coming off three tough budget years, during which Guilderland axed 120 jobs, the district faces a $2.1 million revenue gap for next year.
Department and school leaders were asked to propose 5-percent cuts. That list, of over 70 items, was presented Tuesday night at a forum where attendees were asked for their views.
About $400,000 is in play since the across-the-board 5-percent cuts totaled much more than needed to fill the gap. Hence, choices can be made on which items should stay and which should go.
Superintendent Marie Wiles said the only thing added to the budget proposal for next year is $15,000, which may be reimbursed with aid, to hire a consultant to study “building capacity.” School board members last year had raised the question of closing one of the district’s five elementary schools as enrollment declines.
About 60 people — many of them staff and board members — listened to a sobering budget presentation Tuesday before dividing into six groups. School leaders circulated among the six tables — in what organizers called a World Café — to answer questions on each of six areas: elementary, middle, and high school instruction and staffing; special areas like art, music, business, health, world languages, physical education, and athletics; special education; and support services like building and grounds, transportation, technology, and administration.
Again and again, school leaders said they didn’t like the choices they were forced to make.
Wiles said she would listen to feedback and present her budget on Feb. 28.
“It’s still not done on the 28th,” she said. “That’s the first draft.”
She encouraged the public to go to the district website, at www.guilderlandschools.org, to make their views known.
Voters will have the final say at the polls on May 21. Under the state’s law, new last year, a school district’s tax-levy increase is capped at about 2-percent unless a supermajority of voters, 60 percent or more, passes a spending plan with a higher levy. Last May, Guilderland stayed under the cap, and over 70 percent of the voters approved the $89 million spending plan.
Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders opened Tuesday’s session with a look at a “rollover budget projection.”
“If we carry all our programs, all our staff forward, we’ll have an increase of about $3 million,” said Sanders.
The current budget totals $89,259,860; next year’s rollover budget would be $92,327,420. The lion’s share of expenses, as for any school budget, goes for salaries, slated to increase about half-a-million dollars to $46.6 million next year. The largest increase, of about $2.8 million, would be for benefits, totaling a projected $24 million next year.
On the revenue side, state aid is projected to decrease about half-a-million dollars to $20.6 million. Similarly, local sources of revenue are expected to decrease by about $430,000 to about $1.5 million, and the amount drawn from the district’s fund balance and reserves is to decrease by $400,000 to $2.3 million.
Drawing down reserves further, Sanders said, would be “a short-term solution to a long-term problem.”
In total, revenues would decrease by about $1.3 million next year while expenses increase by about $3 million. The difference of well over $4 million would have to be made up with property taxes. The state-set levy cap, though, limits Guilderland to raising about 2.3 million through taxes; that leaves a gap of $2.1 million.
“There are no good options today,” Wiles told the crowd before they dispersed into their six groups.
She said she was stopped in her tracks when someone had asked her if she supported a proposed reduction.
“How do you support the dismantling of our school?” she asked. “We’re making choices among poor options…It is the difficult work we have to do.”
When Cheryl Ainspan, president of the teaching assistants’ unit, asked about the proposed reduction of eight kindergarten teaching assistants, to save $232,200, Guilderland Elementary School Principal Allan Lockwood referred to the name of the forum, “Tough Options: A first look at difficult decisions,” and said, “The title of the program says a lot — tough decisions.”
Westmere Elementary Principal Beth Bini said, “There’s no doubt there’d be an impact in the classroom.” She went on to say that the kindergarten aids, who would still be available for math, reading, and writing but not for lunchtime or other subjects, help in “building that foundation of social skills”
School board member Jennifer Charron said the elementary schools are “swarming with parents” and asked, “Can you use the parents better and kick them out when they’re in the way?”
Lockwood responded, “A parent does not equate with a trained teaching assistant.”
“We do try to used parents based on availability,” said Bini, noting that many parents work, and to find those that can help consistently is a challenge.
Ainspan asked the principals if the community would accept the cut in teaching assistants. Lockwood said, from the feedback he’d gotten so far at the forum, “Some are saying we’ve had the Cadillac model; maybe we can use a Chevrolet. Others say we need the Cadillac.”
He also said that the reduction in the reading teaching assistance at Guilderland Elementary, to save $55,200, is a result of the success of the kindergarten program and the new Response to Intervention approach of helping struggling students early on, meaning fewer students need extra help in reading.
At Pine Bush Elementary, a cut in reading assistance, to save $30,600, and math assistance, to save $6,050, is proposed because of already adequate staffing.
Additionally, the one-day-a-week enrichment program at the five elementary schools would be cut to save $72,000; clerical help at Westmere’s health office would be reduced to save $2,120; and cafeteria monitors would be reduced at Lynnwood, Altamont, and Westmere to save $12,750.
Middle school instruction
Two options were presented for savings at Farnsworth Middle School, where enrollment is declining.
The first would cut the half-time Instructional Support Team coordinator to save $36,000; cut a sixth-grade teacher to save $72,000; cut bits of sixth-grade art, physical education, health, and consumer science to save $20,675; and restructure sixth-grade technology to save $50,400.
The second option would reduce the administration from three house principals to two for a savings of $125,500 and reduce one clerical position to save $44,900.
Of dropping a house principal at the middle school, Mary Summermatter, the current principal who is retiring shortly, said, when asked if it would work, “I guess anything can work. It will be very different and very difficult…We’d be looking at it very differently than when the building was built,” she said, explaining the original concept was to have small communities, each with its own identity and leader within the larger school. “It will be a huge challenge for the new person,” she said.
The new Farnsworth principal would lead the smallest of the three houses in addition to overseeing the entire school. Special education would be supervised by an administrator for grades six through 12.
The rationale behind the reduction is that the middle school, which serves students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, will have 1,116 students next year while the high school, for students in ninth, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, will have 1,724 students with three assistant principals and one principal.
Both options would cut the enrichment teacher post to save $72,000; reduce bits of seventh-grade art, physical education, health, consumer science, and music to save $20,700; and cut a reading teacher to save $72,000.
“It’s not ideal to lose someone but…we could deliver services differently,” said Roy Dumar, middle school supervisor of language arts, social studies, reading, and technology, when asked about the proposed reduction of a reading teacher at Farnsworth.
High school instruction
“It’s not a great choice,” said Michael Piscitelli, instructional administrator for math, science, and technology, when asked about the proposal to eliminate a section of honors algebra to save $10,300. He said he had to ask himself, “Which choice could I do that would hurt the least?”
Other proposals include eliminating one section of Advanced Placement, or college level, computer science to save $10,300; one section of non-Regents Algebra 2 and Trigonometry to save another $10,300; one section of Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA) Biology, one section of Regents biology, and one section of core biology to save $15,450 for each; one semester section of Digital Photo 1, one semester section of Digital Photo 2, and one semester of Manufacturing to save $5,150 for each.
The proposal presented two options for cuts in English. The new contract with the teachers’ union increases the number of classes taught by English staff from four to five, as is typical in most subjects, for the 2013-14 school year.
One option is to cut three jobs, to save $216,000, while restoring the Integrated course to its original intent. Last year, there were twice as many requests as there were places in the single sections offered in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades.
The second option is to cut three-and-six-tenths jobs, saving $259,200, and eliminating the Integrated program.
Patricia Hansbury-Zuendt, the instructional administrator for English, social studies, and reading, explained that the Integrated program, often called X classes, combines English and social studies in a team-taught double-period, first created locally at Guilderland, serving as a model for other schools.
“It’s a wonderful—” said high school Principal Thomas Lutsic, stopping himself mid-sentence as he covered his mouth, and noted his role at this session was not to advocate but rather to present information.
Typically, he said, at each grade level, about 60 students would apply for the class and 30 would be chosen by lottery.
Teachers are feeling a lot of pressure, said Hansbury-Zuendt, with an extra block every two days. “We worried we’ll start to lose the energy and excitement,” she said.
Board member Jennifer Charron said that students need honors courses on their transcripts in order to be competitive in getting into colleges.
“We would rather not do this,” said Lutsic of cutting advanced classes, “but looking at the overall picture…this is one scenario that impacts fewer kids.”
Other proposals are to reduce two hall-monitor posts to save $46,800; to cut a half-time clerk’s post to save $21,280; to modify the summer-school schedule to save $18,340; and to reduce funds for high school clubs to save $14,207.
Nearly 40 clubs would continue to have advisors with stipends; cuts would be made based on the number of students involved, the impact on the school, and the variety offered.
“I’m just heartbroken,” said Tara Molloy-Grocki, a second-grade teacher at Guilderland Elementary, looking at the proposed cuts in music.
“None of it was a good choice,” said Lori Hershenhart, instructional administrator for music.
“You would leave instruments in disrepair?” asked school board member Catherine Barber, a violinist. “That doesn’t seem an efficient way to go.”
“We needed to come up with 5 percent,” responded Hershenhart, explaining that she wanted to save the teaching posts so she cut equipment, repairs, and conferences, for a total savings of about $34,000. “I lost a whole person last year,” she said.
Student ensembles would no longer attend New York State School Music Association evaluations or community events that require funding. Teachers would no longer be paid to accompany students to honor ensembles although students could attend if they paid their own way and had parents volunteer to take them.
Herschenhart also proposed cutting a tenth of a post in sixth- and seventh-grade music, to save $5,150, and half a post for instrumental lessons at the high school, to save $25,750.
Asked if she couldn’t apply for grants, Hershenhart said, “I do write for them but we’re considered a wealthy district.”
“Five percent is a lot more out of a small budget than a large budget,” said Barber.
Sheila Elario, instructional administrator for art, noted that with the current proposal for cuts in art — reducing a section of Ceramics I and a section of Advanced Art I at the high school and cutting a section of seventh-grade art at the middle school, for a savings of $20,600 — 20 percent of the art staff will have been cut.
Proposed cuts to physical education include parts of teaching jobs for dance choreography, dance styles, and sports medicine for a savings of $15,450, at the high school; reducing physical education classes at the middle school because of a drop in enrollment, for a savings of $15,450; and reductions at the elementary schools, also because of enrollment decreases, for a savings of $20,600.
Cutting five assistant coaching positions would save $18,735 while cutting the varsity gymnastics team would save $11,147 and cutting the junior-varsity golf team would save $4,122. Only four gymnastics teams remain in the Suburban Council Regan Johnson, the administrator for physical education, health, and athletics, wrote in his proposal, while the junior varsity golf team has had only nine to 12 members over the last five years and most would likely play at their country clubs.
Cuts proposed for World Languages include a section of German 7 at the middle school, two sections of Spanish 3 and eliminating Spanish 1 at the high school — for a total savings of $41,200.
“Of the pile of bad choices we had to pick from, eliminating Spanish 1 was the best,” said Marcia Ranieri, instructional administrator for World Languages and Cultures. She explained, since most students complete their first year of Spanish at the middle school, the high school course typically enrolls fewer than 10 students who could instead take Italian 1 or Spanish 2.
Finally, reducing a half-year business elective was proposed to save $5,150.
Stephen Hadden, special education administrator, said, “A lot of the reductions are because fewer students need services.”
Students with special needs supported by consultant teachers in a clustering program are expected to decrease to 16 students at Altamont Elementary School and 20 students at Pine Bush Elementary.
Cutting a teacher at Pine Bush would save $72,000 and cutting four-tenths of a teaching post at Altamont would save $20,600. This would result in a caseload of 10 to 11 students per teacher.
Students graduating to Farnsworth will be absorbed into programs there, and fewer students need services because of the new emphasis on early intervention.
Similarly, the proposal is to cut 5.6 teaching assistant jobs to save $162,400 as students moving to middle school are less likely to need one-on-one help.
Savings are also projected in Board of Cooperative Educational Services — $214,559 due to attrition, and $56,500 because two students will leave BOCES programs; one will graduate early and the other will return to a district program.
Two proposals not due to attrition are having the district create a special-education class for six students with social emotional needs, contingent on their parents agreeing, for $36,373, and contracting for physical therapy services for $9,025, for greater flexibility.
“We’d have a lot more control,” said Hadden of the district’s starting its own class for the elementary students with social emotional needs since now the program can shift from place to place.
About 13 percent of the district’s students are identified as having special needs, he said.
Peter Brabant, the principal of Altamont Elementary, said that half of Altamont’s identified students moved in this September or later.
“I think it’s a sign of the times…We’re a good district and respond well to kids with needs,” Brabant said, indicating that families move to Guilderland for the services.
Hadden noted that Guilderland also provides services and support to students at Saint Madeleine Sophie, a school run by the Catholic diocese, which has recently grown from two to eight students. Guilderland bills the districts where the students reside so, financially, “It’s a wash,” he said.
Guilderland also gives special-education support to two home-schooled students, Hadden said.
Building and grounds, tech and transportation
A bright spot in an otherwise somber evening was news of a projected savings of $182,000 in utilities.
“We did very, very well,” said Clifford Nooney, the district’s director of physical plant management, on competitive bidding for utilities and energy efficiency efforts.
Additionally, Nooney proposes saving $22,350 by cutting a half-time custodial post at Westmere Elementary, and $44,700 by eliminating a full-time custodial post at Farnsworth. In both cases, work assignments would be redistributed.
Another $8,350 is to be saved by reducing the courier’s job from 12 months to 10, reassigning mail distribution duties to maintenance staff.
The district also plans to save $32,070 by using the free e-mail system included with Google Apps for Education, discontinuing its use of GroupWise.
“Google Apps, I love it,” said Tara Molloy-Grocki.
At the same time, Joseph Reilly, technology director, proposes saving $14,590 because the district has transitioned to SchoolTool, a web-based student administrative system, meaning the former server-based system can be discontinued.
Danielle Poirier, the transportation supervisor, proposes cutting a bus mechanic post, which is currently vacant due to a resignation, to save $54,600, and eliminating three drivers to save $102,330. The runs were cut this year and existing drivers can meet the needs, her proposal says.
When a BOCES facilitator asked his group how the community would react to the proposed cuts, Sandee Piculell a long-time secretary at the middle school who is co-president of the Guilderland Office Workers’ Association, responded, “My concern is the community will overwhelmingly support this. They see the numbers and not the true impact…They see certain things as fluff.”
Once the group reassembled as a whole at the close of the two-and-a-half hour session, two participants had questions. One man asked for guidance on ranking the “laundry list” of proposed cuts.
“We prioritized the reductions that would have the least impact on students,” Wiles responded. “We listen to you…We try to weigh those values that represent the Guilderland community.”
“We kind of have to talk about the drivers…how we deal with collective bargaining and taxes,’ said Timothy Burke
Wiles said a synopsis of responses to the six areas will be posted on the district’s website.
She concluded by reiterating a theme from the last community conversation on the budget, making a call for advocacy on behalf of the district.
“If you’re angry, frustrated, sad, feeling this is just bad…you have to write the governor,” said Wiles. “He holds the key….If you’re tired of looking at cuts like we’re tired of looking at cuts, pick up your pen, boot up your computer.”
She concluded, “Please keep the pressure up. Apply the pressure to the right place.”