GCSD asks: How do we close a $1.8M gap?

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“Once you get rid of positions,” said Alejandra Marringa, left, a Guilderland parent, “you don’t get them back.” She was concerned about the proposed reduction of teaching assistants in resource rooms where struggling students get extra help. “We’re not eliminating program,” responded Stephen Hadden, special education administrator, during the Jan. 29 “World Café.” “We have something there to build from,” said Hadden.  Even if four TAs were cut (saving $124,000), the program would still fall within State Education Department guidelines. “We can still meet student needs,” said Hadden, adding, “It will require ingenuity.”

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“If you’ve ever been in a first-grade classroom,” Patricia Favitta, a longtime first-grade teacher at Guilderland Elementary, tells Guilderland administrators at a budget forum on Tuesday, “you know they need guidance.” She strongly opposed a proposal to cut all eight first-grade teaching assistants, to save $248,000. She said Guilderland has had a program second to none and that “people are what make us strong.”

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“We’re introducing a new revenue source for future years,” says Michael Laster, the Fransworth Middle School principal, during a World Café budget discussion at Guilderland High school on Jan. 29. “If interested teachers want to be hired by BOCES, we can make that happen,” he said of Guilderland teachers participating in the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services programs; part of the money schools spend on BOCES programs come back to the district the following year in state aid. “Our students would have opportunities that don’t ccurrently exist,” said Laster.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Solemn faces: Lori Tapper, a teaching assistant since 1995, waited till near the end of Tuesday’s Guilderland budget forum to speak up for special-needs students whose parents, she said, may not tell school leaders that they need support; she spoke for them. Behind her is E. James Schermerhorn, the father of four daughters, concerned about the chipping away of formerly rich programs at Guilderland, giving him “a general sense of dismay.”

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“Before we touch the classroom,” Christopher McManus urges Guilderland administrators to look at their own salaries. Since 2009-10, Superintendent Marie Wiles responded, 8.9 administrative posts have been cut. “We simply don’t have any more administrative positions we can reduce,” she said, adding that new state requirements for evaluating teachers had placed added burdens on administrators. Wiles also pointed out that, across all departments, including administrative functions, “Everybody had to find 5 percent” in proposed cuts for next year.

GUILDERLAND — “Still in Peril” was the name of the Guilderland school budget forum, which about 50 residents attended last week and finished up this week.

To close a $1.8 million budget gap, school leaders were asked to come up with 5-percent cuts across the board. Forum participants were given detailed lists and explanations of these cuts and were, in the end, asked for their opinions on what could best be eliminated.

“This is democracy in action,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles. On Feb. 27, she said, “The list of many, many possibilities comes closer to reality.” She will present her budget then, after which the board will adopt a final plan, and voters will have their say in May.

In the last four years, Guilderland has cut 153 full-time posts as it tries to close a gap left by stagnant state aid; declining property values; and increasing salary, health, and pension costs.

Wiles told the gallery last week that she “stole the title” from a regional gathering in protest of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which started in 2010 to help the state close a gaping budget deficit by reducing foundation aid to schools.

“Frankly, that’s why we’re here tonight,” Wiles told the crowd made up predominantly of parents and school staffers.

This Tuesday, in the final session, 11 spoke — mostly parents along with two teaching assistants, two teachers, and a student — on a range of topics as several school board members also addressed a panel of administrators.

“I’m here to advocate for my babies,” said Patricia Favitta, a longtime first-grade teacher at Guilderland Elementary, objecting to the possible elimination of teaching assistants for the first grade. “They are not independent,” she said of her students. “They need guidance.”

Favitta said she worked 10 or 11 hours a day and weekends, too, concluding of the teaching assistants, “They are supporting my kids, not me.”

“Salaries and benefits are things people don’t want to talk about,” resident Timothy Burke told the panel. “It’s what drives our costs…I’ve been railing about this for a decade,” he said.

He also lamented what he termed “sacred cows,” items not listed among the potential cuts like tuition for four Guilderland students to attend the regional Tech Valley High School, designed to serve as a model for hands-on learning.

“This format hides whatever you want to hide,” concluded Burke. He had served on a citizens’ budget advisory committee before the process was revamped four years ago to feature a series of “community conversations” open to the public. “There should be a way to do this more expansively,” said Burke.

E. James Schermerhorn, the father of four daughters, said he moved to Guilderland for the schools and he now has “a general sense of dismay.” He said that his daughter entering elementary school will not be getting the same education as his daughter who is about to gradate from high school.

“We’re nibbling, nibbling, nibbling, and we’re really getting down to the bone,” Schermerhorn said, concluding, “I don’t have a specific to offer you.”

A couple of mothers did have specific concerns about how cuts would affect their children but they also expressed broader concerns about how students in general would be affected. Mary Chew, for example, was concerned about the possible elimination of a guidance counselor as well as cuts to teaching assistants.

Without teaching assistants and a guidance counselor helping her, Chew said, her son “would fall through the cracks.” She said, “I can’t do it all at home; I’ve tried.”

Joanne Capone, a teaching assistant, said her own two children got into their first-choice colleges and have done well. Her children were successful, she said, because “they had support along the way.”

Lori Tapper, a teaching assistant at Lynnwood Elementary School, said that, 15 years ago, she worked one-to-one with a student and now “four or five more kids are clustered on.”

She concluded, “Sometimes, I think kids with special needs, it’s harder for their parents to come to meetings like this and say, ‘We need this support.’ I believe they do.”

Deborah Hoffman, a Guilderland parent, echoed those sentiments. While many speak out for sports or music, she urged administrators to “not forget the students who are a little bit different.”

Cody Ingraham, a high school senior, spoke last, on behalf of his younger brother. He praised the work of retiring enrichment teacher Deborah Escobar who developed strong programs at the middle school and said, “I hope those programs don’t weaken.”

The gap

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders last week outlined a projected rollover budget, which would keep staff and programs at Guilderland the same for next year, resulting in a $2.7 million increase over this year’s $91 million spending plan.

The lion’s share of increases would be in salaries, at nearly $1 million, and benefits, at about $1.6 million. Typically, about three-quarters of school budgets go to pay for staff salaries and benefits.

On the revenue side, Sanders based his calculations for state aid on the governor’s budget proposal, which increases Guilderland’s aid by about $175,000 to $21.3 million for next year.

Andrew Cuomo, unveiling his $142 billion plan last month, proposed an $807 million — about 4 percent — increase in education aid for next year, $608 million to be provided to districts as formula-based aid; high-need districts would receive over 70 percent of the 2014-15 allocated increase.

Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, called the proposal “austere” and noted the Educational Conference Board, a coalition of the state’s major educational organizations including NYSSBA, reported schools would need a minimum state aid increase of $1.5 billion just to maintain current programs; the state’s Board of Regents had requested an increase of $1.3 billion.

The week after the governor unveiled his budget, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a not-for-profit think tank, released a report pointing out that, statewide, the median salary for teachers had risen by 10 percent from 2008-09 to 2012-13.

“These increases were driven in large part by automatic, ‘step’ raises linked to seniority,” the report says, noting that the state’s Triborough Amendment requires districts to pay step increases even after union contracts expire.

Median salaries also went up, though, because many districts facing budget gaps cut their least experienced teachers who were also the lowest paid.

The report, “What’s driving K-12 school costs?” by the Empire Center, also says that schools in 2012-13 were still employing almost as many professional staffers as 12 years earlier although enrollment had decreased by more than 284,000.

Guilderland’s other major revenue sources, as outlined by Sanders, show a decrease for next year with local sources of revenue down by about $69,000 to $1.5 million, and a decrease in the district’s use of its fund balance and appropriated reserves of about $750,000 to $24.5 million.

This means the tax levy would increase by about $3.5 million, up from the current $65.8 million.

The state-set levy limit is $1.7 million, leaving a budget gap of $1.8 million.

Guilderland could go over that limit only if the budget were to pass with a supermajority, or at least 60 percent of the vote, rather than a simple majority of over 50 percent.

The state comptroller has devised a method to measure fiscal stress in districts and municipalities across the state. Based on data from 2012-13, Guilderland, often thought of as a wealthy, suburban district, is among the 13 percent of districts statewide that the comptroller has designated as being fiscally stressed.

In a report released on Jan.16, Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli categorized 12 districts — out of 674 across New York — as being under “significant fiscal stress,” 23 were under “moderate fiscal stress,” and 52, including Guilderland, were “susceptible [to] fiscal stress.”

The remaining 587 districts received no designation.

“While low-need districts are often considered wealthy, resource-rich communities, they are also prone to fiscal difficulties — with 9.6 percent of these districts experiencing fiscal stress to some degree,” states DiNapoli’s report.

The two major problems for Guilderland, according to the comptroller’s calculations, were its low fund balance and its lack of cash at the end of the year, Sanders said.

As district enrollment declines, Guilderland has contracted to have a study done on the use of its buildings. Changes in building use — such as, giving a hypothetical example, closing a school — won’t affect next year’s budget, Sanders said, but may affect future years.

The district passed a $17 million referendum in November to upgrade infrastructure, security, and technology at its seven school buildings, which will lead to a $17,000 savings in security measures for next year, Sanders said.

Possible reductions

Wiles stressed several times, “Nothing is a done deal.”

Off the top, school administrators identified $550,000 in savings, most of it from cutting five elementary class sections because of declining enrollment. Other savings were realized in such categories as materials, consultants, conferences, and equipment repair.

Leaders had also identified $600,000 in additions to be considered along with a possible $2,300,000 in reductions. The school district’s website posts lists of the potential reductions along with a description of the reasons and the impact.

With a total of $2.9 million in play and a gap of $1.8 million to close, Wiles told the crowd last week, “You have the role of figuring out that $1.1 million.”

The forum participants were divided into six groups. School leaders in six areas circulated among the groups to answer questions and concerns about proposed cuts.

Some of the largest potential cuts at the elementary school include reducing eight teaching assistant posts in kindergarten to save $248,000, and eliminating all eight teaching assistants in first grade to save another $248,000. A proposal for adding a reading-support job would cost $78,000.

At the middle school, one of the biggest changes would be that, rather than having an enrichment teacher, the district would get services from the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services for both elementary and middle school. Because of increased enrollment at the middle school, a sixth-grade core subject and special area teaching posts would be added for $182,000.

At the high school, a guidance counselor could be cut to save $85,800; a job offering reading-teacher support could be cut to save $78,000; and eliminating a course that integrates English with social studies would save $93,000. To save $46,800, teaching posts could be reduced, bringing science class sizes near the upper limit set by current guidelines.

For special education, cutting elementary teacher posts could save $124,800 while cutting a high school teacher would save $78,000. Restructuring the school-to-work program would save $24,600 and reducing non-mandated teaching assistants in resource rooms at all levels would save $124,000. Adding teaching-assistant support in self-contained classrooms at Lynnwood Elementary, where students from across the district go, would add $62,000.

In special areas like art, business, music, sports, and languages, cutting a section of advanced art would save $26,200; reducing a half-year business elective would save $6,550; reductions to instrumental lessons and music tech could save $26,000; eliminating varsity ice hockey would save $7,000; eliminating junior-varsity golf would save $3,600; and cutting assistant coaches in various sports would save a total of $22,100. In world languages, reducing middle-school and high-school courses because of shifting enrollment would save $52,400 while adding English-as-a-second-language teacher support would add $78,000.

For support services, such as buildings and grounds, transportation, technology, and administration, reduced utility costs would save $248,150; eliminating two bus-driver jobs would save $73,200; cutting three bus attendant posts would save $89,700; contracting for five out-of-district bus routes could save $127,000; reducing BOCES technology services would save $22,240; reducing technology and consulting services would save $26,000; and cutting part of a clerk’s job would save $20,400.

The district also proposed some shared programs.

One is to develop an enrichment program, contracting through BOCES, for both elementary and middle-school students. The elementary program had been cut and, each year for the last few, parents have fought to save the middle-school enrichment teacher post. The longtime enrichment teacher is retiring after this year.

A second proposal for sharing is to participate in a small consortium of area high schools to use point-to-point distance learning for sharing electives by using existing technology equipment and infrastructure. The first year, this would involve between 10 and 30 Guilderland students, it was estimated.

Finally, a regional summer school is proposed.

Reflections

Asked yesterday what she gleaned from the two citizen sessions and how it might shape her budget, Wiles said, “I think people are passionate about our programs.”

She noted the two issues of primary concern she heard at Tuesday’s session were teaching assistants at the elementary level and electives at the high school. From last week’s session, she noted interest in the integrated programs at the high school — where, for example, English and social studies are combined — is “very powerful” and she said she also heard concerns about cutting assistant coaches. 

“Beyond that, what I’m hearing most,” Wiles said, “is people appreciate an opportunity to weigh in and have a clear sense of what is on the table.”

This year is different than her previous years at the helm because more than a million dollars of proposed cuts were listed that don’t have to be slashed while still coming under the levy limit.

“I feel good we have lots of options to choose from,” said Wiles.

She went on about the possiblility of the legislature restoring funds to education, “I’m eternally optimistic.”

Asked about the Empire Center’s assertion that step raises help drive school costs with a 10-percent increase in median teacher salaries over the last four years, Wiles said of Guilderland, “The steps are there...Our step increase is well under 2-percent,” she said explaining steps vary and Guilderland is “1.5-ish with current demographics.”

Asked if the district would ever negotiate contracts with no steps, Wiles said that would be “a goal” and “a tremendous accomplishment.”

She said it could only be done with additional revenues. “You have to weigh how much is it worth,” she said, adding, “The step schedule is beloved.”

Wiles concluded, “It’s all a balancing act...Mr. Burke’s point is right on...The vast majority of our costs are connectedd to peole, as they should be...A school district is less effective if there aren’t enough people.”

Asked if lower wages wouldn’t enable the district to hire more employees, Wiles said, “The trade-off is too difficult for some. We do our best to negotiate agreements that are fair to employees and respectful to the community that has to support them...I know folks feel unappreciated. That’s not the case. It’s very emotional; it’s very personal.”

Noting that she started her teaching career in 1988 on an annual salary of less than $17,000, Wiles called it “mind-boggling,” considering the norm and expectation for teachers’ salaries now.

“It’s the elephant in the room,” she concluded.

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