GCSD Super proposes $93.3M budget for next year

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“A bit brighter” is how Guilderland schools Superintendent Marie Wiles described next year’s $93 million budget proposal, which she presented last Thursday. After several years of cutting jobs, she proposed adding a dozen posts.

GUILDERLAND — For the first time since she became Guilderland’s superintendent, Marie Wiles last Thursday was able to present a budget that had a net gain in jobs.

Her $93.3 million spending plan for next year calls for an increase of 12.65 posts — two teachers, one supervisor, and close to five support staff and teaching assistants. To close multi-million-dollar budget gaps, the district, faced with a tax-levy cap and stagnant aid, had cut 227.5 jobs since 2009.

The district has 889 employees, 615 of whom work full-time. Last year, Wiles proposed cutting close to 34 posts. This year, she told the two dozen residents at Thursday’s presentation, the picture is “a bit brighter.”

In past years, Wiles had asked department leaders to suggest 5-percent reductions; this year, she asked for 2 percent but said, “It was harder than any of us anticipated…This is getting harder and harder.”

The spending plan for next year is $1.2 million higher than this year, an increase of 1.28 percent. The bulk of the budget, typical of any school, goes for salaries and benefits, at close to 77 percent.

Since the governor’s proposed $1.1 billion increase in aid to schools is tied to the legislature passing reforms, Guilderland is basing its aid calculations for 2015-16 on the current year, at about $22 million, and is figuring on another $1.5 million from local sources and $1.6 million from its appropriated reserves and fund balance.

“We’re really operating in the dark,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders at last Thursday’s budget presentation.

Currently, the gap is estimated at $130,000, largely because the district is required to pay less for pensions since the stock market has done well.

The tax-levy increase for the proposed budget is 2.99 percent, just under the state-set levy cap. To pass, the budget needs 50 percent or more “yes” votes. A supermajority, of 60 percent or more, would be needed if the district went over the cap.

“We’re very close to the margin,” said Sanders, noting a buffer of just $7,325.

For Guilderland residents, which make up the lion’s share of the district, the tax rate would be $22.49 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, up 65 cents from this year.

The board is scheduled to adopt a budget proposal on April 21 and the public will have its say on May 19.

In addition to the $93 million budget, voters will most likely be voting on two propositions — one for buses and the other to upgrade the high school auditorium and replace lighting on the football field.

On and off the table

At a budget forum in February, citizens combed through 20 pages of possible changes from the current year where more additions than reductions were proposed.

At last Thursday’s presentation, Wiles announced items that are now “off the table,” meaning they will not be cut, including teaching assistants for kindergarten and first grade, and high school electives. “It would have diminished our program,” said Wiles.

Advisors’ stipends won’t be touched and the current assistant-coach posts will remain in place. The late bus runs will also continue and no further cuts in the custodial staff will be made.

“We do need to make reductions,” said Wiles.

These include “data-driven” cuts in math teaching assistants at Westmere and Pine Bush elementary schools; six-tenths of a post in speech therapy; sending students to a regional summer school at Mohonasen rather than hosting a summer school at Guilderland; parts of posts cut in clerical staff, and Spanish and Italian teachers; and contracted bus routes.

Wiles proposed additions at the elementary level in class sections at Lynnwood; teaching assistants at Westmere, Guilderland, and Lynnwood elementary schools; a math teacher specialist; and an English as a Second Language teacher.

Additions to special education programs include a teacher at the middle school and at the high school. At the high school, part-time hours would be added for coordination of the Focus program, for a media post, for struggling students, and for a district wellness coordinator.

Board response

Twenty-three people watched the budget presentation through live streaming, and one asked a question that way. Board members saved the bulk of their comments for Tuesday’s meeting.

Then, the most heated discussion centered on teaching Italian. At the start of the meeting, Rebecca Kobos told the board that her fifth-grade daughter was disappointed not to be able to study Italian as a sixth-grader.

"Can we find another Piera?" the Guilderland superintendent asked, referring to the district's sole teacher of Italian, Piera Composeo-Iaia, shown here, seated, last May when newly tenured teachers were being celebrated. Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer


Fifth-graders are given a choice of studying Spanish, French, Italian, or German when they enter middle school. Only one class is offered in Italian and one in German. For the last several years, about twice as many students have wanted to take Italian as there is room for, and several more than the class size of 30 have wanted to take German.

The students are admitted by a lottery.

Kobos said her mother, who is Italian, had been teaching her daughter the language, and that many parents want their children to take up Italian. Since the numbers would support a second class, she said, “Let’s look at a viable solution.”

Kobos also noted that, if a student isn’t admitted into the sixth-grade Italian class, he or she doesn’t get a chance to study Italian again until high school.

Board President Barbara Fraterrigo said that, 10 years ago, the board was presented with 700 signatures on a petition saying parents wanted their children to be able to study Italian.  Fraterrigo noted that, for the last few years, 60 kids wanted to take Italian and half of them were turned away; she called it “insane” not to replace one of the Spanish classes with an Italian class.

Wiles responded that certified Italian teachers are in short supply and it would be “a challenge” to find one who would teach just a single class.

Throughout the discussion, the district’s lone teacher of Italian, Piera Camposeo-Iaia, was lauded.

“The young lady is amazing — a gifted native speaker; the students love her,” said Wiles, asking, “Can we find another Piera?” She concluded, “The quality should be as important as the quantity.”

Marcia Ranieri, who heads the World Languages Department, said that Camposeo-Iaia had originally worked for the district as a secretary and spent years earning certification in Spanish, French, Italian, and as an English as a Second Language teacher.

“Now she’s going for her Ph.D.,” said Ranieri. “She’s a hard worker.”

“We understand there is a big interest in Italian at the middle school; that seems to wane at the high school,” said Wiles, noting that so few students wanted to take Italian 4 that it is being eliminated.

She suggested perhaps changing the language program at the middle school so that sixth grade served as “an exploratory year,” where students would study several languages in order to be able to make an informed decision for seventh grade.

“We understand not only is there an intellectual pull but an emotional and family” pull as well, said Wiles.

“Marcia, have we looked for an Italian teacher?” board member Colleen O’Connnell asked Ranieri. “There’s no one that teaches Italian?” asked Fraterrigo. “That just blows my mind.” She said the district should respond to student needs.

“It’s not fair to say we haven’t responded,” said Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, noting the district had started a first-ever Italian program in middle school. “It wasn’t absent controversy,” he said.

Singleton went on, “Can we expand?…We are really the only district in this area with an Italian teacher.” Singleton said there was little incentive for college students to become certified in teaching Italian since so few districts offer it.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Fraterrigo responded. “If you don’t attempt to find a teacher, you’ll never get one.”

“You don’t have to be fluent in Italian to teach sixth-graders Italian,” said O’Connell.

“It’s something we should get done,” said board member Christopher McManus.

“Collectively, we guide you guys,” Fraterrigo told the administrators sitting at the board table.

When asked by Fraterrigo, Ranieri said that she knew of only two other districts that offered Italian — Saratoga and Troy. The Italian teacher at Saratoga just retired, she said, and the Troy teacher is certified in both Italian and English as a Second Language.

“This year, it would not cost the district extra money to put those 30 kids in an extra class,” said Fraterrigo.

“In the next year, you’re still eliminating a section of Spanish,” said O’Connell. “This is budget neutral,” she said, conceding, “It may make our faculty upset.”

Allan Simpson, the board’s vice president, asked if the school district would reimburse its teachers for taking the extra courses needed to get certified to teach Italian.

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance said the current teachers’ contract provides for course reimbursement, “everything but activities fees.”

She said five out of Guilderland’s 22 foreign language teachers were certified to teach more than one language.

“If their job was on the block,” Simpson said, teachers would be motivated to get additional certification.

Severance said another useful certification would be for teaching ESL students. Guilderland has a growing population of students who need this and, at the same time, the state is increasing its requirements that schools have more ESL teachers. A foreign language teacher, Severance said, generally needs a review of her transcript and just one additional class to be certified as an ESL teacher.

“I feel like we are letting certification of our teachers dictate our offerings instead of student desires,” said O’Connell.

“What would it take for us to direct you guys?” asked Fraterrigo.

“I think we’ve been directed,” responded Wiles. She said that, first, administrators would “map it out”; second, they would consider costs; and, third, “Can we find a qualified person to do this?”

Bus prop

Also on Tuesday, the board heard from Danielle Poirier, the district’s transportation supervisor, about a $1,125,000 proposition to buy 11 buses and a plow truck.

Currently the district has 114 buses, she said; three of them are not used and are “due to be surplussed,” meaning sold as surplus. Of the 11 buses in use, 76 are full-sized; 32 are small, holding 28 or 30 passengers; four are mini-vans; and two are Suburbans.

The buses travel 75 routes a day.

“We ask for new buses every year because we need them,” said Poirier, noting the district is short of its plan to replace buses every 10 years.

Currently, a 12-year-old bus has traveled 140,000 miles, she said, and the average mileage on the 11-year-old buses is 127,000.

She said the older buses are “very costly to maintain,” reporting they cost 84 cents a mile while a new bus costs 26 cents a mile to run. Later, Simpson said this comparison was skewed and purchase cost should be figured in for the new buses. He also asked if it would be cheaper to lease buses.

Poirier said that, to rebuild an engine, a kit alone cost $14,000 to $17,000 plus an additional 40 hours of labor.

She also noted the state’s Department of Transportation inspects the buses every six months and no rust is allowed. Since the bus garage isn’t equipped for bodywork, sometimes buses with rust are sent to a body shop to be fixed, which Poirier termed “very costly.”

Poirier recommended the district purchase six 66-passenger buses for a total of $680,000; two 66-passenger buses with chains for the Helderberg routes at a cost of $235,000; two 30-passenger buses at a cost of $109,000; one 24-passenger bus at a cost of $65,000; and one 24-passenger wheelchair bus at a cost of $36,000.

State aid covers about half of the cost of Guilderland’s bus purchases.

Clifford Nooney, superintendent of buildings and grounds, told the board about the need for a new plow truck at a cost of $36,000. This would replace a 1997 Suburban that had initially served as a school bus.

“It’s currently in sickbay,” said Nooney. “It’s paid its dues…We’ve pretty much squeezed every penny out of it we can…The front seat’s currently covered in eight layers of duct tape.”

Prop to upgrade auditorium and field lights

Another proposition the board is considering is for $1,160,000 to upgrade the high school auditorium. A similar proposition was narrowly defeated in the fall of 2013.

Guilderland put up two propositions at that time. The $17.3 million bond to upgrade the district’s seven buildings and improve security and technology passed by 53.2 percent of the vote while the $846,300 plan to upgrade the auditorium and field lighting was defeated by 50.8 percent.

Currently, Wiles said during her budget presentation, students cannot see their work in the auditorium because the lighting is poor; seating is not up to the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act; repair parts are no longer available for the seats; and the control systems for on-stage lighting and sound are substandard.

Wiles said last Thursday there are safety and liability concerns for the wooden light poles and lights on the football field. The base of each pole was buried 28 years ago and their condition can’t be determined, she said. Each pole supports more than a ton of light fixtures, suspended 60 feet in the air.

Sanders told the school board on Tuesday that, if the projects were passed and submitted together, the district would get 65 percent, or $750,000, in state aid. The auditorium upgrade, by itself, could be aided because it is inside, Sanders said, while the field lighting, if it alone passed, could not get state aid because it is outside.

He also said the $17.3 million bond project will have workers at the schools over the next two summers and doing the proposition projects at the same time could make the bidding more cost effective.

“No matter what happens, you should take down the lights,” said McManus. “If you’re that nervous.”

He acknowledged this would end nighttime football games and said, “It’s almost like Chicken Little.”

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