GCSD adopts $92M budget proposal

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Tech teachers: Imani McNeil, left, and Aiden Provost, students of Tracy Martone at Westmere Elementary School, eagerly join their classmates in showing administrators and school board members, like Judy Slack, at right, how Aurasma, a free app, works — using the camera in a tablet to recognize real images over which videos can be added. (The pointing finger belongs to school board member Gloria Towle-Hilt.) The enthusiasm of the 8- and 9-year-olds’ presentation, at the opening of Tuesday’s board meeting, contrasted sharply with the solemn tone of the rest of the session as board members were unable to meet the public’s requests for restorations to next year’s budget.

GUILDERLAND — After hearing pleas not to cut the hours for kindergarten teaching assistants or for a skilled music teacher, the school board on Tuesday unanimously adopted the budget proposal it had hammered out at a work session last week — for $92.1 million.

There has been little public outcry this year as the district, again faced with reduced aid and a state-set levy limit, continues to make cuts — next year’s spending plan would eliminate roughly 35 jobs. A number of the reductions are driven by the drop in enrollment, which is expected to decrease to 4,887 next year, continuing a downward trend.

Last week, high school students lobbied unsuccessfully to keep the popular X Courses, which combine social studies and English; the cut is to save $93,000.

On Tuesday, the board heard from a bevy of supporters for full-time, rather than half-time, teaching assistants in kindergarten classrooms. The district plans to save $248,000 by cutting half the kindergarten teaching assistants, reducing their daily classroom hours from six to three.

The board also listened to a parent and musician; she spoke against cutting three-tenths of a music teacher’s post at the high school. And the board heard from the frustrated father of a boy who wanted to learn Italian but wasn’t chosen in the lottery for the oversubscribed class.

The board wrestled with these topics for two hours. At one point, the board’s president, Barbara Fraterrigo, asked the assistant superintendent for business, “Neil, how close to the core can we go?”

“We still get updates on how to calculate,” responded Neil Sanders, “I’d hate to fall on the wrong side….I would prefer to have a little cushion.”

The $91.2 million budget proposal is just $12,425 under the state-set cap; if the budget were to exceed that, it would require 60 percent rather than 50 percent of voters to pass — a gamble the district wasn’t willing to take.

Sanders also pointed out that an audit this year by the state’s comptroller found that Guilderland was susceptible to fiscal stress, and urged not dipping into the fund balance.

“I could not recommend that you continue to pull from that,” said Sanders of reserve funds. “It’s a finite resource.”

Prodded by board member Jennifer Charron that it would be just a few thousand dollars, Sanders said, “If I take it away today, it’s not there tomorrow.” He added there are likely to be “difficult budget years ahead.”

Guilderland received $785,180 in restored aid based on the state budget but that was largely eaten up by increased costs for special education. (See the April 3 story, “$92M plan proposed: Added state aid does little to assuage Guilderland budget woes,” at AltamontEnterprise.com.)

School district residents will vote May 20 on the $92,132,900 plan, which has a tax-rate increase of 1.9 percent.

The school district lies in four towns with the lion’s share in Guilderland. The average home in Guilderland is worth $246,500, and that average homeowner would pay an additional $104 in taxes over this year if the proposed 2014-15 budget passes, Sanders told The Enterprise yesterday.

Sanders made these estimates on the tax rates, per $1,000 of evaluation, for each of the four towns: Guilderland at $22.20, Bethlehem at $20.42, New Scotland at $20.42, and Knox at $32.94; Knox has not undergone a town-wide revaluation in years.

Teaching assistants

“We’re going to give the least to the students who need it most,” Amy McFarren, a kindergarten teacher at Westmere Elementary School, told the board of cutting hours for kindergarten teaching assistants.

She said there was a “high level of need” this year with half of the kindergartners at Westmere needing additional support.

“We implore you to reconsider,” McFadden said. “It is not too late to make the right decision.”

Jennifer Krell, another Westmere kindergarten teacher, said that research has shown children learn best in the morning so that kindergarten and first-grade teachers use that time to teach reading and writing and math. This means that sharing teaching assistants — the district has said they will be available for the academic subjects — will not work, said Krell.

The half-time assistance, she concluded, “will not set us up for success.”

Julie Shudt, a fourth-grade teacher at Westmere, said that the state requires a 1-to-10 ratio of adults to children for child care. “We are not merely providing child care but academic excellence,” said Shudt.

Quoting from the district’s mission statement, she said, “Our mission is to inspire all students to be active lifelong learners.”

Alyson Matkin, the parent of a current Westmere kindergartner, cited data from an Arlington, Va. study on cutting all teaching assistants in kindergarten, which, she said, concluded children can’t be left unsupervised so another adult is needed when tantrums or “bathroom accidents” occur.

Testing is administered 1 to 1, she said, and the new Common Core standards have increased expectations “drastically.”

Beth Bini, the principal at Westmere Elementary School, later told the board that scheduling teaching assistants is a “complex problem.”

“It will be a challenge,” she said, noting that many teachers do prefer morning for academic subjects.

Responding to a question from Fraterrigo, Bini said that parents are “absolutely” welcome to help in the classroom and that two of four classes at Westmere use volunteers for a literacy program.

She also noted there is a “plethora of adult support” in classrooms as math specialists and reading teachers “push in.” There is also support for students learning English as a second language and for students with disabilities, including speech therapy, occupational therapy, and learning workshops.

Board member Christine Hayes asked that kindergartners’ progress be tracked to see if results differ with the cuts, to which Superintendent Marie Wiles responded, “Absolutely.”

She went on that the five elementary principals “are all confident it can be done and done well, and our children will not be in harm’s way.”

Board member Colleen O’Connell pointed out that the Arlington, Va. study was about kindergarten without any support at all and also asked about the level of support at neighboring school districts.

“We are really the only district maintaining kindergarten support,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton. Mohonasen, he said, has one teaching assistant across nine sections; the other districts have none.

Music

Mary Giordano, a parent, performer, and former music teacher, explained to the board that certification to teach music does not guarantee expertise suitable for teaching high school students. She gave an example of, say, a trumpet player who had also gotten certification to teach string instruments, which would suffice at the elementary level, but not be adequate for teaching technique to high school musicians.

Without naming Starr Norman, Giordano described the teacher slated to have her hours cut back as “gifted” and highly regarded across the entire state. She surmised the cutback would force her to look elsewhere and said that any school district would be “delighted to hire her.”

Giordano also said, “We have a strong program, bursting at the seams.”

O’Connell twice referred to the “shocking” numbers Superintendent Wiles had reported on music teachers’ hours of planning time, beyond that stipulated in their contract.

“That’s lost money,” said O’Connell of “excess prep time.”

Lori Hershenhart, the district’s music supervisor, responded, “We do not have piles of music teachers who have nothing to do.”  She said music teachers give eight half-hour lessons in a day, and it is difficult to anticipate from year to year what instruments students will choose to play.

Two years ago, she said, the high school orchestra had 53 members. Next year, more than 100 students have signed up for orchestra, which she termed “a wonderful problem.”

Wiles said after the meeting that “looking at just a handful of teachers” she had found they had an equivalent of three-tenths of a full-time job in spare time and could use that time to teach music lessons at the high school.

In order to realize a savings, three-tenths of the hours of the last-hired music teacher, Starr Norman, would be cut. State law protects seniority. Wiles termed this “a terrible loss,” praising Norman’s breadth of expertise while some music teachers specialize just in voice or just in strings or just in band instruments.

Throughout Tuesday’s board discussion, board member Catherine Barber, herself a musician, pushed for finding the funds to restore that three-tenths of a position, suggesting at one point that part of it could come from the  $12,425 cushion, an idea that was ultimately rejected.

Fraterrigo and Vice President Allan Simpson also looked for ways to make up the three-tenths of a post. Rose Levy suggested, since the proposed budget has five unassigned teaching posts, that three-tenths of one be used for high school music.

Wiles responded, “The beauty of the unassigned is it allows for flexibility.”

Wiles said she would meet Friday with the elementary school principals to work out schedules for having elementary music teachers travel to the high school to teach lessons. If something suitable isn’t worked out, Wiles ultimately promised the board that she would use three-tenths of the coveted five floating posts.

“If we need it, I promise we’ll do it,” said Wiles.

X Courses

“I’m very, very sad to see the X Class go by the wayside tonight,” said O’Connell. She also said she hoped there would be a regrouping next year to bring back the courses.

Wiles responded that the reconfiguration might be in place for 2014-15. “In the light of reality,” she said, meaning, once it was apparent the courses really would be cut, faculty is looking at ways to create project-based, collaborative learning in a different structure.

Italian

Tony Mele told the board that his wife and her family are first-generation immigrants from Italy and he had signed up his child to take Italian at Farnsworth Middle School “right away.” He said he was told the system ran on a first-come, first-served basis and his son was assured a spot in the class.

A few months later, Mele said, after a lottery was held, he was told that his son was assigned to his second choice for a foreign language — Spanish. Mele also said he was told that changing languages in the second year is “highly discouraged.”

“I’m a taxpayer,” Mele told the board, asserting that some district employees have their children attending Guilderland schools although they do not pay taxes in the district.

Sanders told The Enterprise yesterday that 44 children of Guilderland employees are attending district schools this year. “They do not pay tuition,” he said. “We do get state aid for students attending our classes.” That aid amounts to $2,400 per student.

Employees’ children attend with the understanding they will be placed in schools and classes that are not near the limit, so that no new teachers have to be added. “They don’t always get first choice,” said Sanders.

Currently, there are two employees’ children in fifth grade and neither of them selected Italian for next year, Sanders said, so their presence in the district did not affect the chances Mele’s son had of getting into the sixth-grade Italian class.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Barber asked about adding another section of Italian, using funds from cutting sections of other languages as students shift to Italian.

Wiles said that the district has a single Italian teacher, who teaches both at the middle school and the high school and can’t handle any more classes. Wiles also said that teachers certified to teach Italian are “hard to come by.”

Fraterrigo suggested that current staff members should take courses to become certified to teach Italian. She noted that the district pays for part of relevant college courses.

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance said that both the current and former head of world languages had “always encouraged” that.

“It’s really not that difficult,” Severance said of getting certified to teach another language.

“It seems like such a waste when we have the student interest,” said Fraterrigo.

Singleton estimated that fifty-some middle-school students had wanted to take Italian next year but, with one class, only half of them are able to.

“Does the board have the ability to say we want this course taught?” asked Fraterrigo.

Severance said that could involve laying teachers off.

In the past, Severance said, Guilderland had a teacher of another language teaching German. “We thought we were doing the thoughtful thing,” said Severance. “We won’t do that again.”

Referring to Mele’s son, Fraterrigo said, “I just feel badly for the young man and others who want to take this class.”

Board member Judy Slack asked why Mele was told his son was assured a place in the class.

“I don’t know what was said,” said Singleton. “There certainly isn’t a guarantee.” Students identify their top three foreign-language choices, said Singleton, and a lottery is held.

“We can’t put more on this teacher’s plate,” said Singleton, noting that Italian isn’t typically offered in New York State so teachers may be reluctant to get certified for that reason.

“If we keep talking about it,” Severance speculated, “they might work on their certification.”

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