To the Editor:
Last week, The Altamont Enterprise published a letter from a Guilderland resident who expressed his opinion that the Guilderland Central School District community conversations are not an effective form of community engagement in the budgeting process.
In particular, the author of the letter said that the district did not listen to the input gathered from participants during these events and that the format did not allow community members a chance to challenge materials presented by school leaders.
The letter also inaccurately stated that Guilderland used federal stimulus monies to start up the district’s full-day kindergarten program in 2009 against the recommendation of the Citizen’s Budget Advisory Committee. While not the crux of this response, I believe it is important to correct this inaccurate information.
First, the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee was about evenly split in its opinion about the initiation of a full-day kindergarten program.
Second, when the board of education decided to implement the program on the unanimous recommendation of the district’s Early Childhood Advisory Committee, the district did not use federal stimulus funds to implement its full-day kindergarten program.
However, the district did receive a conversion aid payment of $799,095 from New York State in order to make the move from a half-day to full-day program. This aid is offered to all school districts on a one-time basis, meaning the district would be ineligible to receive this aid a second time should it ever eliminate full-day kindergarten and try to reinstate it in the future.
New York State recognizes the importance of early education programs like full-day kindergarten. In fact, the first recommendation in the Education Action Plan recently released by the Governor’s New NY Education Reform Commission is to “strengthen the academic pipeline from pre-kindergarten through college.”
Since full-day kindergarten was first implemented at GCSD in the 2009-10 school year, the district has seen significant increases in the numbers of students meeting reading benchmarks in grades 1 and 2 as well as significant decreases in the numbers of kindergarten and grade 1 students referred for review for special-education services. In short, our program is working for our students and it is working well.
We also believe that our community-conversation model is working well. Three years ago, the district made a conscious effort to shift the focus of its traditional community involvement in the budgeting process from a line-by-line analysis of the mostly completed budget to an open-ended discussion and review of the budget while it is being developed.
Under the community-conversation model, participants are given an opportunity to learn about the issues driving the need for changes in the budget, are asked for their reactions to those potential budget changes before any final decisions are made, and are encouraged to share their priorities and values with school leaders.
By design, community conversations include more people in the district’s budget process than ever before — since the district’s first community conversation in 2010, literally hundreds of people have attended one or more meetings.
Parents, teachers, students, senior citizens, business owners and community members with no particular affiliation to the district have all shared their unique perspectives on where the district should focus its time, attention, and resources.
In a community as large and diverse as Guilderland, reaching consensus on any topic can be a challenge. Community conversations provide a forum for community members to hear about the priorities of their friends and neighbors and try to find common ground.
While it is impossible for the district to enact each and every one of the recommendations we receive during these events — especially when many of the suggestions we receive conflict — we do carefully consider all community feedback. We do listen to you and your voice does make a difference.
To that end, I would like to personally invite you to join us for our second community event of the school year, scheduled for next Tuesday, Jan. 15. While not a “community conversation” in the traditional sense, since attendees will not be breaking into small discussion groups, the event will take a closer look at how the fiscal pressures of declining state aid, increased costs, and an overall loss of local control for public education are affecting the school district.
“Let Us Be Heard: Community Advocacy for a Guilderland Education” will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Guilderland High School large-group instruction room and is open to all school community members.
What might GCSD look like next year? What might it look like in five years? These questions, as well as how community members can play an active role in the answers through advocacy at the state level, will be addressed as part of the program.
The evening will begin with a brief presentation on how changes in federal and state school funding have affected the school district in recent years, and how these factors are expected to shape the district in the future. Attendees will then be invited to take part in a town-hall style question-and-answer period with school leaders.
The latter part of the evening will focus on advocacy, and how community members can stand up for education by contacting their elected officials. State leaders have a responsibility to adequately and equitably fund education, and participants will have time to work on letters asking those leaders for education support both now and in the future.
We hope that you will be able to join us for this important meeting about the future of our schools. If you plan to attend, kindly R.S.V.P. either by phone at 456-6200, ext. 3102 or by visiting our website at www.guilderlandschools.org.
Dr. Marie Wiles,
Editor’s note: On April 7, 2009, in a split vote, the Guilderland School Board approved funding full-day kindergarten as part of an $85 million budget, which passed that May.
Richard Weisz, who was president of the school board at the time, convinced the board on April 7 to move to a full-day program for 2009-10, arguing, in part, that federal stimulus money would allow the district to cover the third year of the program, after the state’s conversion aid was used and before regular state aid kicked in. “This is the only year we can put it in without a terrible impact on the budget,” he said at the April 7, 2009 meeting.
Superintendent Wiles responded this week, “We used the stimulus money for reading teachers. I do not believe any was used for the kindergarten program.”