Super proposes $91.5M budget for next year

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Serious business: School board members take note during last Thursday’s budget presentation. Seated, from left are Jennifer Charron, Judy Slack, Catherine Barber, Vice President Allan Simpson, and Colleen O’Connell.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Superintendent Marie Wiles proposes a $91,497,900 budget for Guilderland next year, which represents a 0.52-percent increase over this year’s spending plan.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“You have to weigh things,” says Demian Singleton at last Thursday’s budget presentation in answer to a question about cutting the hours for kindergarten teaching assistants. The assistant superintendent for instruction, Singleton sits between the other two assistant superintendents — Neil Sanders for business, far left, and Lin Severance for human resources.

GUILDERLAND — “Hard choices” was the phrase most frequently repeated last Thursday night as the Guilderland superintendent presented her $91.5 million spending plan for next year. The phrase was uttered by administrators and school board members alike.

The plan represents a half-percent increase over the current budget and would raise the tax levy by 2.17 percent, just under the levy limit allowed by the state, meaning the budget would pass on May 20 if it garners a simple majority of half the vote.

To close a $1.8 million gap, the superintendent’s plan cuts close to 34 full-time jobs, including eight-and-a-half teaching posts, over nine teaching assistants, and just over 16 support staffers. Guilderland had cut 153 full-time jobs in the previous four years.

The proposal was drawn up based on the state-aid figures in the governor’s budget proposal, which allots $21.3 million to Guilderland, up about $175,000 from this year.  After the state comptroller determined that Guilderland is “susceptible to fiscal stress,” the 2014-15 budget plan calls for using less of the district’s rainy-day funds: $2.6 million of the appropriated reserves and fund balance were used last year, and $1.7 million are to be used this year.

“Stay tuned” was another phrase spoken several times by Superintendent Marie Wiles, in anticipation of potential aid to be added by the legislature. The state budget is to be finalized by April 1.

The superintendent’s presentation was sparsely attended. Except for the administrators at a table in the back of the hall, and the school board members at a table in front of the hall — all of them facing the top district leaders — only about a dozen onlookers sat in the gallery’s many rows of seats. Half of those were elementary-school teaching assistants.

Then, at Tuesday’s school board meeting, one of several opportunities for the public to comment on the spending plan, only one person, a student, spoke.

Amy McGeady, the district’s publicist, said she hadn’t posted the superintendent’s budget proposal online before last Thursday’s presentation, in hopes of attracting more people.

Unlike the early years of the massive budget cuts, which began five years ago with declines in state aid, not only was the hall mostly empty, the mood at the meeting was not one of outrage or panic, but rather of resignation.

“There is nothing joyful about making reductions,” said Wiles. “We try to make the best ones we can.”

“We might not agree with all the decisions that were made,” said board member Colleen O’Connell. “I don’t think anyone can say they were arbitrary or not well thought out.”

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Vice President Allan Simpson asked for a tally of job cuts that would occur through retirement as opposed to “someone being handed a pink slip.” Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance said she would come up with those numbers.

Simpson also said that, with the “district in crisis” theme for recent budgets, he’d like to talk to Guilderland’s bargaining 12 units to see if they would “take a freeze,” or agree to salary increases that equal allowable tax increases. “It doesn’t hurt to ask…to try to get the biggest bang for the buck for our kids,” said Simpson.

“We’re giving raises and giving raises, and then we’re cutting,” agreed board member Rose Levy.

Board member Christine Hayes advised, with negotiations, to “look at the cumulative impact.”

Administrators, in response, pointed to a chart that was part of the superintendent’s budget presentation, showing that professional salaries are to increase 0.9 percent from $35.8 million this year to $36.1 million next year while support-staff salaries are to decrease 1.1 percent from $10.1 million this year to $10 million next year. At the same time, benefit costs are to go up 1.9 percent from $24.3 million to $24.7 million.

Referring to the budget gap, Simpson said on Tuesday, “Most of the million we’re short is because we’re giving increases…You can’t afford to give out more than you’re taking in.”

TA cuts

Initial possibilities for cuts, based on 5-percent across-the-board recommendations, were circulated at an earlier public forum. Among these, a savings of $248,000 was proposed by eliminating all teaching assistants in first grade, and another $248,000 in savings by cutting half the kindergarten teaching assistants, reducing their daily classroom hours from six to three.

Wiles’s proposal keeps the first-grade assistants at the current level and cuts the kindergarten assistants’ time in half. “This is very difficult,” she said of the cutback from six to three hours a day, stating the teaching assistants would still be available for the instructional blocks.

“It will absolutely require establishing routines,” she said.

After the meeting had ended, the teaching assistants, who had sat together in a row — half of them for kindergarten classes and the other half for first grade — spoke to The Enterprise of their concerns. The six TAs at the meeting spoke as one although none of them wanted their names in print.

They spoke of safety concerns; for example, if a child in a class of 24 is hurt on the playground, if there is no assistant to look after her, the whole class must go inside.

They also said it was unrealistic to think the three hours a day would cover teaching the academic subjects, as planned. They pointed out, too, that needs are increasing as more students who can’t speak English come to Guilderland schools and there are more children with emotional needs that have to be met.

“Lots of the kindergartners are 4-year-olds,” said a kindergarten assistant. “Some of them haven’t been to school before. If a child is crying for Mommy, the teachers can’t spend hours to calm them, but we can work with them.”

Another chimed in, “They can’t put on a coat, or tie their shoes, or go to the bathroom by themselves.”

A third teaching assistant said that the state requires a ratio of 1-to-12 for day-care workers to children in their care. “And a teacher also needs to meet academic needs with twice that many in a class,” she said.

Two of the four questions written on cards by onlookers for administrators to answer at the end of Thursday’s session were about the teaching assistants. In response to the first question, Wiles said the cutback to kindergarten assistants could be revisited if it didn’t work out, and that such re-evaluation is built in to the budget process.

“If it isn’t going well, we’ll change,” she said. “We’ll be trying to drive resources to the needs.”

The second question was about the 32.7-percent reduction in teaching assistants over the last five years, higher than reductions in other categories.

“We started out with the most, over 200 TAs,” said Wiles.

The trend towards dismissal began under Superintendent John McGuire, prior to Wiles’s tenure. He said, in studying the other Suburban Council districts, none of them had nearly as many teaching assistants as Guilderland and their test results were comparable.

In 2009, there were 260 teaching assistants, down from over 300 previously. In 2009, McGuire said that Guilderland spent $3 million a year on teaching assistants, for their salaries and benefits, and had to evaluate if the expense was worth it. “What is the return on our resources?” he asked in 2009. “Are more teaching assistants giving us better results.”

Similarly, questioned by Simpson on Thursday, Wiles said that the five elementary school principals, before making the recommendation, had looked at the performance on state tests at other Suburban Council school districts and found no discernible difference with Guilderland’s scores although the other schools did not have teaching assistants like Guilderland in first grade and kindergarten.

“Our model is the exception, not the rule, even among the most high-performing districts,” said Wiles. She also said the kindergarten teachers “saw this coming” and are already thinking “how do we make this work.”

“I’m not going to say it’s ideal,” Wiles concluded. “It’s not.”

“There is nothing welcome about it,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, “but, you have to weigh things…We don’t have the flexibility to reduce teaching staff, so it falls back on other levels of support. It’s not an easy decision. It’s hard. It’s very hard.”

“Respectful of both sides”

The session started with an overview in which Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders noted Guilderland has 4,925 students and 909 workers, 621 of them full-time. The district employs 436 teachers, 446 support staffers, and 27 administrators.

The enrollment, Sanders said, is expected to decrease to 4,887 next year, continuing a downward trend. A number of the reductions are driven by the drop in enrollment.

Typical of school districts, 77 percent of the 2014-15 expenses are for salaries and benefits.

Sanders displayed a chart of the public’s voting record since the 2008-09 budget, where the approval rate ranged from 55 to 70 percent with half of those years below the 60-percent mark.

The decision was made not to propose a budget over the state-set levy limit, which would require a supermajority — approval by 60 percent or more — Sanders said, since the over-60-percent mark isn’t consistent and taxpayers have an expectation their tax burden will be modest.

“We’re not seeing that broad community support year after year,” he said.

Even though it is painful to make reductions, Sanders said, many of the proposed cuts are because of declining enrollment, reduced student need, or operational efficiencies.

“We need to be respectful of both sides of the equation,” said Sanders. “It’s difficult for people financially…We’ll put forth a more modest proposal.”

Wiles noted later in the meeting, in response to a question from the gallery, that, under the governor’s proposal, if a municipality, like a school district, exceeds the state-set levy limit, the community would no longer be eligible for property tax breaks. She also noted that the recent capital project “just barely passed.”

“It’s a high-stakes gamble,” agreed Sanders, pointing out that, if the public votes down the proposal twice, taxes revert to the previous year’s level.

“Not permanent happy news”

Working from a long list of cuts in six categories — elementary level, middle school, high school, special areas, special education, and support services — that the public had considered at an earlier forum, Wiles gave a point-by-point explanation of what would be eliminated. (These are itemized at the district’s website, guilderlandschools.org; and the original proposals are explained in a Feb. 6 Enterprise story online at AltamontEnterprise.com.)

Wiles said that nearly a third of the cuts, 31.7 percent, totaling close to $570,000, came because of decreasing enrollment or line-item reductions.

Ten percent, saving about $178,000, came at the elementary level, largely because of cutting back on kindergarten teaching assistants.

Another 14.6 percent would be cut at the high school, saving about $262,000. This comes from pushing class sizes to their upper limits in science to save $46,800 and math to save $26,200 by cutting parts of teachers’ jobs.

It also means restructuring the popular X Courses to save $93,000; Wiles called these classes “resource rich” since two teachers — in social studies and English — are used. “A goal is to preserve as many electives as possible,” she said.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, high school senior Josh Shafer was the only person to comment on Thursday’s budget proposal. He spoke out in favor of the X program, telling the board he doesn’t normally speak at meetings. “I never really cared enough,” he said. Shafer took courses in the X program for three years and said, since he struggled in English but loved history, they were great for him. He also said that having both a social studies and English teacher was essential.

“I want all kids at the school to have the same chance I did,” said Shafer.

At Thursday’s presentation, Wiles said no high school guidance counselors would be cut. “We need all seven,” she said although she warned the matter may have to be revisited in future years. “This is not permanent happy news,” Wiles said.

After prior heavy cuts, the middle school, Wiles said, would have a good year with an increase of 10 percent for close to $182,000. This includes adding 2.4 teaching jobs for  $182,200 to meet a jump in sixth-grade enrollment, and paying $42,000 for BOCES enrichment mini-courses as the long-time enrichment teacher retires.

Cuts for educational support services came to 17.1 percent for a savings of about $625,000. Wiles lauded the supervisors of maintenance, technology, and transportation for finding efficiencies that create savings, allowing the district to preserve academic programs.

This includes energy savings totaling $250,000; savings from contracting out-of-district bus runs; delaying computer replacement to six years; and reviewing contracts with BOCES with the idea, Wiles said, of “Let’s not buy things we don’t really use.”

Special education lost 17.1 percent for a savings of about $308,000, and special areas lost 1.7 percent for a savings of about $31,000. This includes cutting the ice-hockey team, which is struggling for players, Wiles said, and the junior-varsity golf team. The assistant coaches will be retained.

Wiles said she strove for a balance across levels, categories, and job classifications.

She noted that, in the last four years, 58.9 teachers’ jobs, or 11.9 percent, have been cut; 48.4 teaching assistants, or 32.7 percent have been cut; 6.2 administrative or supervisory posts, or 20 percent, have been cut; and 32.5 support staff or 9.6 percent have been cut.

Student needs are put first over the long run, Wiles said.

No cuts are proposed in the administration next year, she said, because school leaders have been cut so close to the bone. In answer to a question about the need for three assistant principals at the high school when there has been a decline in enrollment, Wiles said that demands have “increased to unprecedented levels.”

She said that administrators’ duties with assessments and the new Common Core standards “have grown exponentially.”

Wiles also said that students have “a lot more needs than they used to have,” and that those at-risk students and their problems fall to administrators to solve. Finally, Wiles said there is a heightened need for safety and security in school buildings, which also comes under the purview of administrators.

“We really do look and listen and read every piece of feedback,” said Wiles. She noted the public would have a chance to comment at upcoming school board meetings before the board adopts a proposal on April 8.

“None of us like the reductions,” said board President Barbara Fraterrigo, “but you guys really did listen to the community.”

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