79M budget proposal Super says he 146 ll keep tax hike under 5

$79M budget proposal
Super says he’ll keep tax hike under 5%

GUILDERLAND — Based on school-board recommendations, Superintendent Gregory Aidala said Tuesday night that he will fine-tune his $79 million spending proposal for next year to have a tax-rate increase of under 5 percent.
He also said that he will present the board on April 11 with a "Chinese menu" of options to choose from on controversial issues.

The revenue side of Guilderland’s spending plan will become more clear after the state legislature adopts its budget, due on April 1 but often late. Currently, the district is planning on the same amount of state operating aid as last year, about $8.9 million or 11.27 percent of the budget.

The board passed a resolution Tuesday to hire a consultant who will look for additional state aid in the area of special education.
The consultant will "see if there is some aid we might be able to recover," said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.

The consultant will receive 10 percent of that aid, once it is recovered, as payment, Sanders said.
"This is a very complex area of aid," he said, amounting to "a little over $3 million" and involving about 700 students.

Additionally, Aidala said, administrators will take a second look at property assessments, indicating updated numbers on increased property value may decrease the tax-rate hike. The current estimate is that Guilderland residents would pay 5.66 percent more in taxes next year, or $19.39 per $1,000 of assessed value.
"Concern about property taxes can’t be emphasized enough," Aidala told the board members Tuesday night after listening to their recommendations.
To get below 5 percent from 5.66 percent, would take "another $350,000 to $400,00 in swing," Aidala said.
"I remain cautiously optimistic we’ll be able to do that," he concluded.

Requests to restore

Tuesday’s board meeting began with carefully-prepared statements from nine people, each asking the board to restore items to the 2006-07 budget proposal. About 50 people sat in the gallery, listening to the requests, leaving when the budget discussion was over.

Seven parents and a high-school social worker asked that a social-worker post, proposed to be cut, be restored to next year’s budget. The draft budget cuts a full-time post at Altamont Elementary School to three days, since the school has fewer than 300 students. The social worker would work the other two days at the Farnsworth Middle School, replacing a third full-time social worker there.

Several of the parents also were upset that 25 or more teaching assistants, for a total of 150 hours, are to be cut as well.
"We thought we could count on the services of social workers and teaching assistants...We’re very concerned," said Dr. Millicent Eidson, who said her special-needs child will enter the middle school next year.
"I wouldn’t mind paying a higher tax rate for really critical core services," she said.
Another mother, Suzanne Gunther, described her autistic child as "bright, beautiful, and exceptionally smart." Her child does well academically but has benefited from services that helped with her social skills, said Gunther, fostering tools that will be used for a lifetime.
"I don’t want to make it harder on these kids...Let’s not take a step backward," she said.
An Altamont parent, Michael Farry, said that parents whose children now don’t need the services of a social worker or teaching assistant might some day. "No one ever expects tragedy to occur, but it does every day," he said. "All our children must deal with it."

He said he nearly fell off his chair listening to Archie Bunker-like comments made by a member of the citizens’ budget committee that parents should pay for help on their own. (See letter to the editor from Timothy Burke.)

The board also heard from a high-school counselor, Karen Murphy, distressed over the cut of an associate principal position at the high school.
"She has been able to oversee the big picture," Murphy said, and, in overseeing the seven counselors has been "accessible, loyal and committed to us." Without her expert guidance, Murphy said, the counselors won’t be able to maintain the quality and the strength of the guidance program.

Some consensus

While the nine school board members expressed varied views on some specific items, all expressed general support for the $79 million proposal and appreciation for the budget process. The administration presented its plan in six televised sessions to a citizens’ review panel. (See related story.)

The board members expressed support for the decision to spend the money next year to convert bonds for the debt service for the $20 million Farnsworth Middle School expansion and renovation project.

Picking up an idea expressed by Richard Young on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory committee, school-board members recommended, rather than combining the social-studies and English supervisor into one post to save money, the disciplines should be kept separate but money could be saved by having the supervisors each teach courses half-time.
While Peter Golden said it was "a good idea" to have the English and social studies supervisors teach, he also said that the classes at the high school that combine disciplines are so popular that students are admitted by lottery.
If a single supervisor were trained in both fields, he said, "The intellectual synergy would benefit our students."

Board members also supported an idea raised by Bryan Anderson, another citizen on the budget committee — cutting both assistant principals for the two largest elementary schools next year, rather than cutting one post next year and the other the following year.

Varied views

Consensus was not reached on all issues.

Board members were divided — two spoke for each side — on whether English teachers should teach five courses like most other high school teachers rather than the four they teach now. The change would save about $110,000.

The board was divided on the issue last year, too, with the four-course majority ultimately prevailing, citing the richness of the program and the extra time it takes to help students become critical thinkers and good writers.
Aidala did not initially include the issue as one that would be part of the April 11 presentation. When asked about it by board member Barbara Fraterrigo, he said, "The board has to come out and say, ‘This is something we want to do.’ There will be the heat of the feedback."
Aidala said he could make the issue one of the "menu items" for the board to choose from at its next meeting. "I’m leaving it in your capable hands to make that decision," he concluded.
On other issues, Richard Weisz said it was "too much at once" to cut a social worker and teaching assistants. He recommended keeping the full-time social worker at Altamont Elementary next year.

He said he was willing to accept some cutbacks in teaching assistants, stating that assistantships had grown like grass. He applauded the administration for having the courage to reign them in.
Weisz supported having the high-school English teachers teach just four courses instead of the five most other teacher are responsible for. He called the rich English program one of the "core beliefs of Guilderland."
Weisz supports the current salaries and benefits for staff. "Good quality teachers are expensive," he said.
Board Vice President Linda Bakst said, "If cuts are made...they will affect students...I don’t believe there are simple solutions."
She called the labor contracts reasonable, stating, "You don’t get something for nothing."
Referring to comments made by some citizens on the budget committee, Bakst said, "Those who look to test scores as a measure of success are misguided." Guilderland students, she said, are empowered to succeed.
Referring to a recent transportation study on ways to save money, Bakst said that middle-school and high-school students "can walk a bit."

She suggested finding out if an analyst for test data could be hired through BOCES rather than by the district to save funds.
On the social-worker post, Bakst said, "If there is money, I would restore those cuts...We need to do a better job of mobilizing what’s in the community and being a clearinghouse."

Thomas Nachod said it is critical to restore the social worker at both Altamont and Farnsworth.
"We’ve worked hard to get a safer environment," he said.

John Dornbush also supports restoring the social-worker positions.
While he supports foreign-language instruction at the elementary schools, Dornbush said, "I don’t see it this year. Sorry."

Cathy Barber said having a six-tenths social worker at Altamont Elementary would keep the ratio the same as having a full-time social worker at the larger elementary schools. She said that she understood Altamont’s concerns, though, and was also concerned about the ratio at the middle school.

Barber said she could support the cuts in teaching assistants since the recommendation came through the special-education department.
As a violinist, she concluded that, if schools don’t spend money on the cultural arts, "We could find these opportunities are gone."

She also said that the funds spend on front-door security monitors at the elementary schools equaled what the district used to spend on cultural arts.
Colleen O’Connell said the nine people who spoke to the board at the start of the meeting were "obviously sincere, obviously passionate."
But she said their comments were in "marked contrast" to views expressed by citizens on the budget committee.
"What is best for all the kids," said O’Connell, "is that this board passes a budget that will pass the first time."
If a school budget is defeated twice at the polls, a state-capped budget is adopted, which O’Connell referred to as a "dire consequence."
On the social-worker position, O’Connell compared the enrollment at Altamont of 279 to that of Guilderland elementary at 585 and said, "The need of 279 kids is different than 585." She also said Altamont should consider itself fortunate to be "a nice cozy small village school."
Peter Golden said of the citizens’ committee, "The basic message I got was, cut taxes, change nothing."
He went on, "There’s got to be a common ground."

Golden supported maintaining the four-course load for English teachers and said it was a privilege not just for the students but for the teachers. Giving examples of dedicated teachers in different fields who devote many extra hours to their work, Golden said he would like to see joint writing programs between the departments with enough extra hours that kids could be helped in different disciplines with their writing.

Golden also said he could support the social-worker cut if there were the same standard, and he would like to see data.
"This search for the common good has not been much fun," he said. "It’s exhausting."

He praised the district administrators for working 12 to 14 hours a day and went on to read his thoughts about the common good.
"Remember the elderly couple on your street...probably living on a fixed income," Golden urged. He said those without children benefit from good schools because their property values increase.
He urged putting aside narrow interests and to see ourselves as part of a larger community, and concluded, "Please recall how much you value your community or you wouldn’t live here."
Barbara Fraterrigo said the time will come when the "luxury" of English faculty teaching four courses won’t be sustainable. They "will have to bite the bullet," she said.

Long a proponent of teaching foreign language in the elementary schools, Fraterrigo said the board could be leaders by at least starting that program next year, perhaps just for kindergartners.
"We are not preparing our kids for the 21st Century if they do not have those skills," she said.
Fraterrigo supports keeping three full-time social workers at the middle school. the board debated the issue long and hard three years ago, she said. "the needs are still there," said Fraterrigo. "We’re just going back in time."
She also said she hoped the district could continue with the full-time social worker at Altamont. "if you catch problems when children are little, you don’t have to face it later," she said.
She concluded on the possible result of a budget rejected by voters, "contingency is dire...We don’t want to go there."

Finally, President Gene Danese gave his views.

He began by saying he’d like to keep the tax hike below 5 percent although he didn’t know if that would be possible.

More revenue would be needed before the social-worker post could be restored, Danese said.
He also said it was inevitable that English faculty would have to teach five courses. He called it " matter of equity" and recommended doing it this year.

Without more revenues, Danese concluded, he couldn’t see adding anything.

More Guilderland News

  •  In those first 10 years, it seemed no one dared go above 30 miles per hour, “which we enjoyed, especially living on Main Street,” said Altamont resident Mya Sullivan, but over the past year, she has begun to see drivers flying down Route 146. 

  • 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.  

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