GCSD board adopts $102M budget, expanding inclusion, reducing tax rates

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Fifth-grade students in a co-taught classroom at Lynnwood Elementary School took a brief break between activities, back in 2017, to spend a few minutes learning a secret handshake.

GUILDERLAND — The Guilderland Board of Education unanimously approved a $102 million budget Tuesday night that it will bring to voters on May 21.

The budget amount of $102,107,375 is an increase of about $1.1 million, or 1.13%, over the current year’s budget. But in each of the four towns served by the school district, residents will see their tax rates decrease — by 28% in Guilderland, and by nearly 8% in Bethlehem, New Scotland, and Knox.

The district’s levy is $185,426 under the state-set limit.

The biggest addition to the budget is the expansion of the district’s co-teaching model in which special-education teachers and general-education teachers plan and work together in the same classroom, including students of all abilities.

State aid will cover 25.3% of the proposed 2019-20 budget. State aid covered 25.6% of this year’s budget. The state considers suburban Guilderland a low-needs district.

Property taxes will fund $73,338,941 of the budget, which is up $1.08 million, or 1.49% from this year.

In 2019-20, the gap to be funded by local revenue sources like rentals, interest earnings, and tuition is 2.7%, one-tenth of a percentage point over this year’s 2.6%.

The district will use $849,500 from its fund balance, or rainy-day account, the same amount that it used from the fund balance this year.

The lion’s share of the district is in Guilderland, which is undergoing town-wide revaluation. The tax rate for Guilderland properties are estimated with an equalization rate of 100%. Rates will fall from $23.03 this year to $16.54 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, a decrease of 28%.

Parts of other towns are also served by the Guilderland district. Tax rates will drop by nearly 8% in Bethlehem, New Scotland, and Knox for properties in the Guilderland school district. Bethlehem residents will pay $17.40 and New Scotland residents will pay $17.23 per $1,000 next year, the district estimates. Both New Scotland and Bethlehem have state-set equalization rates in the mid 90s.

Knox residents will pay $28.51 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. This is because Knox hasn’t undergone town-wide property revaluation for decades and the state-set equalization rate is 58%.

Board views

Discussions by board members prior to adopting the budget included two split votes on items that board members had suggested adding.

One item was added to the budget Tuesday night — $57,000 for Literacy Lessons at Westmere and Guilderland elementary schools. The vote on this item was 8 to 1, with Benjamin Goes voting “no.”

Literacy Lessons is a program that provides intensive support to students learning English and to special-education students who have specific and significant needs, Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise this week.

The other three elementary schools in the district already offer the program. Board member Barbara Fraterrigo said it is important that all five elementary schools in the district be equitable.

Items that did not pass were adding $40,000 to hire a consultant to help the district come up with a strategic plan, defeated, 3 to 5, and $5,000 to replace a number of desks and cafeteria tables, defeated, 4 to 5.

Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt said the district has been talking about creating a strategic plan for years, but has not been able to do it, and might need someone to shepherd the process along. She would like to see the entire community, including parents, students, and people in the community who don’t have children, work together to build a vision.

Board member Sean Maguire said he thinks that the board needs to develop a strategic plan, but that he did not want to vote to add items to the budget without taking something else out.

Co-teaching and TAs

Probably the biggest addition to the budget, Wiles told The Enterprise, is the decision to expand the district’s co-teaching model to the eighth grade. “For the last three years, we’ve expanded,” Wiles said. The district started co-teaching in the ninth grade a few years ago and then added 10th and 11th grades.

In this model, Wiles said, “We’ve created a classroom where there’s a general-education teacher and a special-education teacher.” This means, for instance, a math teacher and a special-education teacher work in a classroom together, teaching a class of about 20 to 24 students, “some of whom have IEPs,” meaning they follow individualized education programs.

Moving the co-teaching model to the middle school is a challenge because of the house and team structure, according to the superintendent.

Farnsworth Middle School’s population is divided into four houses, and students stay within their house for all core classes. Teams of four teachers handle the core subjects; their classrooms are near one another, and they plan together.

All of the district’s five elementary schools already have some co-taught classrooms, which Wiles said is a function of the makeup of the student body. “We say, ‘We could use a co-taught classroom at GES [Guilderland Elementary School] in the third grade,’ for instance,” she explained. “We might not need one at another building in the same grade.”

The difference between the current model in Guilderland’s elementary schools and the co-teaching model, Wiles said, is that special-education teachers currently are assigned to help various students who have IEPs for a certain number of minutes during various classes, so the teachers push into the classroom and back out. They are assigned a number of different students as well, so they push “in and out, in and out,” Wiles said.

In the co-teaching model, they would be assigned to a class, and would be in the classroom for whole instruction blocks and, importantly, would be able to co-plan with the regular classroom teacher, Wiles said.

“This new model is good for the general-education teachers, the special-ed teachers, and, most importantly, for the kids. The special-education teacher can be more involved in planning and lessons, more integrated,” she said.

General-education students benefit, Wiles said, from having two professionals in the classroom, as well as the intangible life lessons of seeing first-hand that “we’re all different, and we all bring different gifts to the table.”

Expanding co-teaching to eighth grade will require hiring three additional full-time special-education teachers, Wiles said, at a total cost of $244,500.

Connected to this co-teaching model, Wiles said, the district will need to use three fewer teaching assistants districtwide. “We were budgeted for those,” she said, “and we had never been able to fill them.”

Wiles said the district struggled to fill teaching-assistant posts all year long this year. “It’s kind of like bus drivers,” she said.

Teaching assistants in the Guilderland school district are paid less than those in other districts, Wiles said. That difference has a “long history,” she said.

“We used to have far more TAs than other districts around us. I think the numbers may have influenced the way the negotiations went,” Wiles said. While Guilderland formerly had about 300 teaching assistants, it now has about 110, she said.

Wiles added that the district recently started contract negotiations with the teaching-assistant unit.

If the budget doesn’t pass

If the budget were to be defeated on May 21, the third Tuesday in June is the re-vote date statewide, Wiles said. “We could put it out again as-is, or at a reduced amount,” she said.

If the budget were voted down the second time, “then we would have a zero-increase, so we would be looking at some pretty significant cuts,” said wiles. “We couldn’t have any increase.”

“This year, our tax levy is going up $1.2 million, so we would need to find $1.2 million worth of cuts,” Wiles said.

Salaries and benefits are the lion’s share of budget expenses, at 79% of the total.

“But we are a people business,” she said.

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