GCSD board gives views on what to keep and cut

GUILDERLAND — Facing a $2.7 million budget gap for next year, school board members on Tuesday night gave district leaders their initial suggestions on shaping the spending plan for 2014-15.

The first community forum on the budget, where the public will learn about potential changes, is scheduled for Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. in the high school.

“Build a base budget from our actual expenses,” urged Allan Simpson, the board’s vice president.

Typically, the district has worked from a rollover budget, calculating the costs from one year to the next if all programs and staffing were to remain the same.

Simpson, who works as the director of accounting operations for the State Insurance Fund, said of developing the $91 million budget for 2013-14, “Last year, we were looking for three million dollars, and two million was right there…Make sure the base we’re using is the right base.”

The current budget cut 27 jobs from the previous year and came on the heels of 120 posts lost over the three years before that as Guilderland, like districts across the state, has grappled with stagnant aid and assessments; rising health-care and pension costs; and a state-set cap on the local property-tax levy.

Most of the school board members gave recommendations Tuesday night on what they would like to see maintained next year.

Judy Slack, who is retired from a career as a teaching assistant, spoke in glowing terms of a recent visit to special-education classes. She talked about the “extraordinary importance” of teaching assistants, whose numbers have been cut in recent years; Slack lauded their work and said she hoped more would not be cut.

Gloria Towle-Hilt said her priority was to maintain the breadth and depth of instructional programs. “That is where the gold is,” she said.

Towle-Hilt, a retired middle school teacher, also spoke about the importance of leadership, warning against cuts in administrative posts.

Jennifer Charron, the mother of a Guilderland graduate and a current Guilderland student, highlighted two priorities. First was the music program. “We’ve cut that department too far,” she said, concluding, “We’re a top-rated music district.”

Second, Charron, who has a background in business, said that 192 middle school students, about half of the graduating class, had straight-A averages. “That means kids should be challenged more along the way,” she said, recommending that students be required to petition to be removed from the honors program rather than to be admitted. A number of parents have told her that, by November, “Their kids are totally bored,” said Charron.

Catherine Barber stressed the importance of math, science, and technology for students’ future jobs and recommended increasing “our offerings to get more kids excited about our programs.”

She suggested that, if all students took algebra in eighth grade instead of ninth, they would be able to take an extra year of math.

Barber, a musician as well as a lawyer, concluded by emphasizing the connection between music and math. “Kids who play instruments tend to do better in math,” said Barber.

Christine Hayes, a lawyer turned teacher and a Guilderland graduate, made a half-dozen suggestions, including exploring a relationship with Tech Valley High School; sending students to Hudson Valley Community College’s TEC-SMART, a training center in Malta for semiconductor manufacturing and alternative technologies, carpooling if bus transportation is a problem; and exploring both distance learning and hands-on learning in the community.

She also recommended maintaining class sizes, keeping teaching assistants in kindergarten classes, and continuing to support half the costs of freshmen sports as she commended community fund-raising efforts for the other half.

Finally, Hayes stressed the importance of seeking feedback from the community.

“The people here,” she said of those at the board table, “don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.”

Rather than itemizing priorities, Rose Levy, a family court attorney, listed suggestions on how to save money.

The board, earlier in its meeting, had had a lengthy discussion on whether or not cutting the pay for substitute teachers by five dollars a day had saved money.

The administration had initially proposed a daily rate of $95 per day for the elementary and middle school substitutes, $65 for a half-day rate at the high school, and $100 for a full day at the high school.

If there is a shortage of substitutes, teachers already at the schools, who are paid more, on a union scale, can be called on to fill in.

The superintendent, Marie Wiles, said at Tuesday’s meeting that it was too soon to tell about increased costs but there was general agreement that the policy, new this year, had caused problems. The board has been deeply divided on the issue and two of the original proponents for the pay cuts, Hayes and Simpson, sounded ready to say it hasn’t worked.

Levy said she “still can’t get over” the fact that the district spends about $800,000 a year on substitutes.

She also lamented the $40,000 in tuition to send four Guilderland students to Tech Valley High School, a regional project that is meant to serve as an incubator for and demonstration of cutting-edge hands-on learning.

Levy, the mother of now-graduated varsity gymnasts, also suggested that parents could transports athletes “on small teams” to competitions rather than using buses with drivers that have to wait for hours.

Finally, she urged the board not “spend a lot of time” as it has in recent years discussing cuts to the enrichment program. She urged just keeping it “from the beginning.”

Board member Colleen O’Connell was absent.

The board’s president, Barbara Fraterrigo, concluded the session with her recommendations.

“My whole attitude here is long-long learning,” said Fraterrigo, who works part-time managing her husband’s medical practice and is the mother of Guilderland graduates as well as a grandmother. This includes more training for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, “beefing up our kids’ financial knowledge,” and offering more training in public speaking.”

Fraterrigo also recommended adding another Italian class if enough students were interested, teaching computer programming to middle-school students, implementing distance learning, and considering an International Baccalaureate program to “keep up with the times.”

Her last two recommendations elicited lengthy responses.

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton said Guilderland is not constrained by technology but by “what is being offered” for distance learning which, he said, is “much more needed by rural districts.”

Describing distance learning as “an antiquated approach,” Singleton said students can be “disengaged” looking at a screen and it is not a replacement for quality instruction.

Discussing the International Baccalaureate program, Singleton said, “IB has college credit like AP but is a step above” the Advanced Placement, or college-level courses. He said it has a “sophisticated design” but is “extremely expensive.”

The genesis of the program, based in Geneva, Switzerland, is from a book written by Marie-Thérèse Maurette, Is There a Way of Teaching for Peace?, a handbook for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Michael Laster, new this year as the principal of Farnsworth Middle School, spoke about how, when he was the high school principal at Greenville, that district adopted an International Baccalaureate program.

Contrasting the AP and IB approaches, Laster said that, while an AP course might teach 100 years of history and expect students to be able to remember facts and figures from that century, an IB course would focus on 25 years with great depth and breadth and ask students to project that on to how those 25 years affected the entire century.

Laster said that setting up the IB program was a “multi-year process” and costly but also said, “The benefit to students is great.” About a third of Greenville juniors and seniors participated, he said.

Fraterrigo urged, “At some point, give us a ballpark figure.”

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