Response to proposed budget cuts Speaking out for social worker supervisor

Response to proposed budget cuts
Speaking out for social worker, supervisor

GUILDERLAND — As the district works to finalize its $79 million budget for next year, the school board heard last Tuesday from some of those who would be affected by proposed cuts.

Ten people spoke, while more than two score listened from the gallery and occasionally applauded.

Parents and staff at Altamont Elementary expressed concerns about the proposal to cut a full-time social worker’s post to part-time. Social-studies teachers at the high school objected to sharing a supervisor with the English Department. And a secretary at the high school, Dawn Wier, questioned the elimination or revision of a computer-programming position.

In presenting his budget proposal to a citizens’ committee, Superintendent Gregory Aidala had said that, since Altamont Elementary had just under 300 students, fewer than the district’s other four elementary schools, the social worker would work at Altamont just three days a week, and work the other two days at the middle school .

Aidala also proposed hiring a district-wide data coordinator to be involved with all the required testing and to help teachers improve instruction.

Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, told The Enterprise this week that the data coordinator would be a certified teacher and the budgeted annual pay, for salary and benefits, would be $58,000. To keep this from being a "pure increase," Sanders said, the computer operator position in the district office — with an annual salary, not including benefits, of $41,400 — would be cut.

Sanders also said that the budgeted figure for a full-time social worker, including both salary and benefits, is $58,000.

Altamont parents, teachers want full-time social worker

Yvette Terplak was the first of three Altamont teachers to speak to the school board, opposing the cutback; three parents also spoke out in favor of a full-time social worker. Board members did not respond to any of the comments. They are slated to adopt a final spending plan on April 11. Voters will have their say on May 16.
The cut would be "detrimental not only when students have a crisis," said Terplak, who teaches third grade, but in preventative work done by the social worker.
Altamont’s full-time social worker, Heidi Cutler, now regularly visits classrooms, Terplak said, to work on such things as students’ self-esteem and conflict resolution, empowering students to "have inner strength."
"One of the most important jobs"is to help each other be all that we can be," said Terplak.

She said she had witnessed students becoming more sensitive and patient under Cutler’s tutelage and that Cutler promoted safety and self-determination.
"We aren’t really talking about numbers, we are talking about young children," said Annemarie Farrell, another third-grade teacher. She gave "drastically different" examples of how two students with difficulties and their classmates had fared under a part-time social worker and a full-time one.

Under the part-time system, Farrell said, there was inconsistency, many services were fragmented, and no clear plan was ever put in place. Other students in the classroom were severely impacted and the safe learning environment fell apart.
This year, with a full-time social worker, a safe, predictable program was developed for the child involving all of the "team members," Farrell said. "The social worker became the strong tie that held us together," she said. "The class and myself formed a strong bond"The students are connected to their purpose."
Allan Lockwood, a fifth-grade teacher, said that keeping special-needs students in mainstream classrooms reduces costs and benefits students but it "leads to a much more complex school environment."
The full-time social worker is vital, he said, "working in a proactive way with the school-wide population."
She runs school-wide bullying-prevention programs, runs 11 different friendship clubs, runs five "banana splits" groups for children from divorced families, works with students who have individualized education programs, and works with students in self-contained classrooms.

She provides services directly to a full third of the students, Lockwood said.

He named some of the difficulties with which students are coping, including anxiety and mood disorders, bipolar disorder, developmental disorders, physical abuse, divorce, death, custody issues, and depression.
"Crises do not come by appointment," Lockwood said, indicating a full-time social worker is able to deal with them whenever they arise.
Three parents spoke in favor of the full-time post as well. Lori Quay, the parent of a third-grader, said that the social worker had helped her son with a small issue that would have grown. Had there been only a part-time social worker, Quay surmised, her son might not have received help since "his issues are not severe enough."

The need at Altamont, she said, is comparable to the need at the district’s larger elementary schools. She asked the board why the school district wouldn’t want to help with problems before they become severe.
Parent Bridget Brown echoed that theme when she asked the board, "Who receives 40 percent less service"" She answered herself, "The children on the periphery."

The quiet child, the shy child, the sloppy child all need a link, she said.

A lower socio-economic bracket, Brown said, often indicates the need for a social worker.
She concluded, "To quote our illustrious Dr. Aidala, ‘Children are our community’s future.’"
Finally, Debra Schiffman, an Altamont parent and a school social-worker herself, said, "Kids are coming to school with many more issues than they used to"Schools have to make up what they’re not getting at home."

Social-studies teachers want to keep their super

At a February school-board meeting, English teachers had objected to combining the jobs of English and social-studies supervisor into one. It was one of three recommendations for administrative cuts, totaling about $185,000, made by Aidala; one person would oversee 41 social-studies and English teachers, saving $85,000 in salaries and fringe benefits next year.

At last month’s meeting, several board members expressed their support for the English teachers’ views. Last year, a split board rejected a budget proposal that would have required the English teachers to teach five courses as most high-school teachers do rather than four, which is to allow for supervision on in-depth analysis and writing.
Ninth-grade social-studies teacher Jonathan Mapstone told the board about his "incredible department."

He related its work to two of the district’s priorities — understanding and appreciating diversity and development of citizenship. The first, he said, is part of the everyday curriculum and the second is a focus in 11th and 12th grades.

In the last four years, Mapstone said, his department has lost 1.3 teaching positions; the average load for social-studies teachers, who teach five courses, is 105 students although many have up to 145 students.
He described "a largely untapped reservoir of interest" that could be used to develop exciting electives, such as in Asian studies, the history of war, or modern Africa. With a class-load of four, and more teachers, such electives might be developed, he said.
Mapstone described social-studies courses as being "on the cutting edge" and in demand by students.

Despite facing obstacles, social-studies teachers at Guilderland get excellent results, said teacher Matthew Nelligan.

The state requires students to take four years of social studies courses and to pass two New York State Regents Exams. At Guilderland, 80 percent of all students who took the United States History and Government Regents Exam achieved mastery level by scoring at least 85 percent, the number-one rating in the building, he said.

Nelligan also said that 98 percent of the students who took the Global Regents Exam passed and that the mastery rate was 67 percent.

Out of the 12 districts in the Suburban Council, Guilderland had the highest mastery level on both the Global Regents and the United States History and government Regents; the passing rate on both tests was 98 percent.

The social-studies curriculum features research, writing, and critical thinking, said Nelligan.
He spoke of the constant changes world-wide and nation-wide. "We have to address those tough topics and put them in context," said Nelligan. Without naming Julia Fitzgerald, he said the current supervisor does an "excellent job."
"As teachers, most of us are unaccustomed to singing our own praises," said social-studies teacher Peter Schwan.
He read a number of touching "unsolicited notes and letters from students."
"This year," said one, "my complete turnaround as a student as much as a person are your accomplishments as much as mine."
Another student wrote to thank his teacher for making government more than "boring old white men."
"If you ever see my name on a campaign poster," wrote another, "you’ll have only yourself to blame."
Schwan concluded that the current situation has made "us feel like what we do is irrelevant in this district."

More Guilderland News

  • The use variance request was made by John Polk and and his wife, Rebecca Stump, to allow for up to six chickens on their nearly 20-acre Bozenkill Road property. 

  • In a Jan. 5 letter to the Surface Transportation Board, village attorney Allyson Phillips writes that Altamont is opposed to CSX’s attempted acquisition of Pan Am Systems because the running of a 1.7-mile-long train twice per day over the Main Street railroad crossing would leave parts of the village inaccessible to emergency responders for as long as 10 minutes.  

  • The biggest factor in the revenue jump is the state’s commitment to make Foundation Aid to schools whole. “It looks like that three-year phase-in, at least from the governor’s perspective, is going to happen, so that’s tremendous news for our school district and school districts throughout the state,” Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, Neil Sanders, said on Tuesday.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.