Plaintive note

Students plead for programs

GUILDERLAND — “I am not my own for I have been made new. Please don’t let me go,” crooned 14 high school kids. Wearing jeans and T-shirts, they faced the Guilderland School board, singing a capella in sweet harmony.

Some in the crowd of about 130 tapped their feet as they listened.

“Please don’t let me go,” sang the choir. “I desperately need —”

“Music,” said Alex Benninger. He told the smiling board members that they had just heard an arrangement of “Meteor Shower” done especially for the high school’s chamber choir by Barrett smith.

“He is a Guilderland music department alumnus who arranged the piece for us after learning all about composition in our AP music theory class,” said Benniger.

And so the board meeting began. Thirty-one people spoke during the televised session, 23 of them students. Their testimonials on what they valued in their Guilderland education and how it had shaped them as worthwhile individuals would make any school board proud.

The tone was plaintive on Tuesday night, though, because the students, along with seven parents and a teacher, were pleading for, and at times demanding that, what they valued in education not be cut.

The superintendent has proposed an $89 million budget for next year that, with reduced state aid, cuts 44 jobs and scores of programs to keep the tax-rate hike to under 4 percent for Guilderland residents. (For a detailed description of the proposed cuts, go online to and look under Guilderland archives for March 3, 2011.)

The board members, who have hosted several community forums as well as an informal hearing on the budget, will meet on April 5 to air their own views on the spending proposal before adopting a final plan on April 12. Voters will have their say on May 17.

In addition to the choir, a half- dozen people spoke out for the importance of music programs, ranging from the worth of instrumental lessons for juniors and seniors to the value of Tri-M, an international musical honor society that has given local concerts at nursing homes and other community venues.

“Music saved my life,” said Joshua Palagyi, who earlier this month played the title role in The Guilderland Players’ The Phantom of the Opera. “I lost my father the year before I came here, freshmen year,” he said. “I struggled with depression.”

He spoke about how the music program had shaped him, teaching him discipline and how to be a team player. The teachers, he said, were inspiring. “Every one of the music teachers means so much to all the kids,” said Palagyi.

After well over an hour of public comment, another student, sophomore Julia Slezak, said how she had listened to students making their pleas for sports or for the high-school television news program. “I’ve taken a taste from every pool,” said Slezak, adding, “It’s sad we have to contemplate cutting any of it.”

Music is what’s most important to her, though. Through tears, Slezak told the board, “If it goes, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. It’s so important to express yourself musically.”

Many concerns

Eight students spoke out for indoor track, the only sport slated to be cut entirely. About 40 people stood up in the gallery to show their support for the sport, which had been cut from this year’s budget, too, but was restored as part of a community fund-raising effort.

Two parents spoke about full-day kindergarten — one who wanted to keep it and the other who wanted to cut it, not because it isn’t valuable but because other programs are more essential.

Parent Mary Derwesh said she represented the students with special needs and their parents who felt uncomfortable speaking in a televised session. She said it was important not to cut the social worker program. “This is not an option,” said Derwesh.

The superintendent’s budget reduces the social-worker staff districtwide from 11 to 10, cutting one job for a savings of $74,000. In presenting her budget, Superintendent Marie Wiles referred to figures from the United States Department of Education, recommending one social worker for every 800 students, while the School Social Work Associates of America recommends one for every 400 students. The new ratio at Guilderland would be one for every 530 students, said Wiles, noting that guidance counselors, psychologists, and assistant principals also offer support.

Derwesh described the social workers as “essential and fundamental resources that they need in order to learn…They are not above and beyond,” she said.

Such a “wrongdoing,” she said of the cut cannot be justified by using national statistics.

Derwesh told the board members, “You cannot take from the most vulnerable.”

Several students spoke personally and passionately about the benefits of sports and particularly of the value of freshman sports, slated to be cut. The president of Ski Club suggested his group could go back to having members pay an advisor.

Two student leaders in the high school’s media programs urged the board to keep funding for the GHS Reporter, not just The Journal, as the broadcast and print media have plans to merge and a grant hangs in the balance.

Supporting just The Journal, said junior Emma Platek, would leave the school stuck in “the rut of old-fashioned journalism.” She noted that the board itself televises meetings and is launching Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Reducing co-curricular offerings at the high school and middle school is to save $120,590, affecting 580 students.

“The programs can exist but we can’t fund the stipends,” said Superintendent Wiles at an informal hearing on March 1.

The district currently has a mix of paid and unpaid advisors, Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders said yesterday. “If staff members want to volunteer, we would welcome that,” he told The Enterprise. Wages for the paid advisors currently range from $685 to  $3,670 annually, he said.

Jeffrey Herchenroder, a high-school music teacher, and the only teacher to address the board Tuesday night, questioned the board’s assumption about the need to limit the tax increases.

“Property values in Guilderland are what they are in large part because of the Guilderland School District,” he said, stating that, if a house were moved from Guilderland over the Albany city line, it would be worth 50 percent less.

Herchenroder called Guilderland school taxes “an excellent investment and an excellent return for the money.”

At that, a man shouted from the gallery, “I haven’t had a raise in four years.”

His outcry was a rare dissonant note in an evening of otherwise civil, although often fervent, discourse.

Catherine Schunk, Emma Platek’s mother, told the board that, as a parent and community member, she found it upsetting “our students have to come here and talk about why their club is better than another.”

She concluded, “It’s not good for us as a community.”

President’s view

At the close of the meeting, long after the crowd had cleared, School Board President Richard Weisz said he appreciated all the public comment.

He then cited figures showing how Guilderland’s contribution to pensions had increased from $2.9 million in 2009-10 to $5.7 million in 2011-12.

“We have no control over that,” said Weisz.

The retirement system is governed by the state, but local boards negotiate salaries with workers and pensions are based on those salaries.

Weisz also cited rapidly increasing health-care costs, which totaled $9.2 million in 2009-10 for Guilderland and will go up $1.5 million in 2011-12.

Most Guilderland workers currently pay 20 percent of their health-insurance costs while the district pays 80 percent. The board has attempted to get some control, said Weisz, trying to move to a 25/75 split.

As he has in the past, Weisz cited the Triborough Amendment as a stumbling block.

The amendment to the Taylor Law states it is improper for an employer “to refuse to continue all the terms of an expired agreement until a new agreement is negotiated….” According to the New York State Public Employment Relations Board, the Triborough Amendment requires the status quo of a contract to remain in effect unless it has a sunset clause.

With the Guilderland teachers’ contract, for example, which is currently under negotiation, the step increases would have to be paid, but the yearly raises — 4.4 percent in the third year of the contract — would not. Guilderland teachers progress up a 23-step schedule. A teacher on the first step in 2008-09, the first year of the contract, earned $42,000 while a teacher on the highest step earned $71,909.

Asked if the $89 million proposal includes raises beyond step or longevity increases, Sanders told The Enterprise earlier, “We have estimated the potential impact of salary. We made good-faith estimates of the funds we need in the budget to cover the salaries and benefits.”

Sanders declined to give a dollar figure for the amount, explaining, “We want to negotiate a contract without telling what’s in the budget.” He did say, “We’re not expecting the contracts to settle at the levels they’re expiring at; it will not be the current level.”

Weisz said at Tuesday’s meeting that the only way to make cuts in the budget is to have fewer staff members or have staff voluntarily make concessions.

With the governor’s proposal for a 2-percent property tax cap looming as a possibility in the future, Weisz said, the district won’t be able to raise enough funds to meet the rising pension and health costs without making even further cuts.

Weisz suggested that distraught district residents contact their legislators for changes on the state level.

Weisz also said that Guilderland had stayed close to the 4-percent-of-the budget limit set by the state for its fund balance, its rainy day account, because citizens had demanded it. Other school districts with far larger fund balances are now able to use their reserves.

Weisz concluded of the proposed cuts, “To those students who said it is not fair, they are absolutely correct: It isn’t fair.”

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