At GCSD: Budget, grades, graduation all ‘up in the air’

Enterprise file photo — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Guilderland schools Superintendent Marie Wiles was joyous last spring when both the budget and bond issue passed at the polls. This year, the school budget vote, set by the governor for June 9, will be conducted by mail and much about the end of the school year, and the budget, is still undecided.

GUILDERLAND — “Up in the air” is how Superintendent Marie Wiles described many initiatives now at the Guilderland schools.

“Every bit of every part of the work we do is rethought and needs to constantly be rethought again,” said Wiles.

This ranges from graduation and end-of-the-year awards ceremonies to emptying and cleaning the schools and deciding about summer school. “It’s mind-boggling,” she said.

And then, once this school year is over, there’s next year to think about. “We have to think about the fall — how to social distance in a classroom, how to keep kids six feet apart on a bus, what happens if there’s another outbreak and a return to remote learning,” she said.

While Governor Andrew Cuomo last week announced that schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year, part of an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, he has the extraordinary power with this year’s state budget to make mid-year reductions to school aid. The first of three possible adjustments is to be announced in mid-May.

That leaves Guilderland, like school districts across the state, up in the air in finalizing a budget. Some estimates of revenue shortfalls for the state anticipate the school-aid reduction could be as much as 20 percent. 

The annual budget and school board votes are usually held on the third Tuesday in May but the governor reset the date to June 9 with voting by mail to prevent spreading COVID-19.

The iteration of Guilderland’s spending plan for 2020-21 presented to the school board on April 28 was $103,071,313, just under $1 million more than this year’s budget for an increase in spending of .94 percent.

The spending plan cuts 13 positions and lands exactly at the 2.25-percent levy hike Guilderland is allowed without requiring a 60-percent approval from voters; a simple majority will do.

At their meeting on Tuesday, board members learned of another $88,098 in cut costs that would be realized by, among other measures, combining administrative positions after a retirement (to save $39,070) refinancing debt (to save $20,233), leasing rather than purchasing computers (to save $18,000), cutting in half fees for professional services to address potential facilities needs with the current capital project (to save $12,500), and cutting a tenth of an elementary-school music teacher post (to save $6,800).

Guilderland gets about a quarter of its revenues from state aid. The district had initially anticipated a slight increase in Foundation Aid, the aid that follows every student, as outlined in the governor’s initial proposal but then ended up with no increase in Foundation Aid and a decrease in expenditure-driven aid.

The school board will vote on adopting the budget on May 18. A public hearing is scheduled for May 26, the same date tentatively set to mail ballots. A newsletter about the budget will be mailed to residents’ homes on May 27.

In addition to the school budget, district residents will also be voting on a $983,300 bus proposition.

“April 30 ended the look-back period,” said Wiles. “We’ve been promised a sense of aid by mid-May.” The state’s Division of Budget is doing the calculations and Wiles anticipates there will be “runs” of aid for school districts.

The last time there were severe mid-year cuts in state school aid was a decade ago when Guilderland cut scores of programs and dozens of staff members

Asked, if aid cuts were again severe, if Guilderland would consider reducing salaries of teachers, administrators, and staff, Wiles said, “We’re not contemplating that at this time. We have 11 bargaining units. It would be a heavy lift. Most people aren’t here. How do you negotiate?”

While the district is preserving its fund balance, anticipating tough times ahead, it is also saving money wherever it can, Wiles said. “We’ve been saving money on not being open, which can give us some flexibility,” she said, if there is a state-aid reduction announced in mid-May.

The money saved by not hiring substitute teachers, not paying for bus fuel and upkeep, and not paying for utilities in the closed school buildings is “just shy of one-and-a-quarter-million dollars,” Wiles said.

Once belongings are retrieved from school lockers, Wiles said, “We can start summer cleaning.” By doing the summer cleaning now with regular staff, it will save money from hiring additional staff for the usual summer cleaning, Wiles said.

Cuomo has yet to announce if summer school will be required. If it is required, Wiles said, it will likely be remote.

“A lot of parents will think twice about summer school,” she said, noting she frequently hears from parents, “Enough of the screen.”



Five candidates submitted letters of interest by Monday to run for the Guilderland School Board.

Because of resignations from the nine-member board, five unpaid positions, instead of the usual three, are at play this year. Of the five posts, three are for full three-year terms to be filled by the top vote-getters.

Three of the candidates are incumbents — Rebecca Butterfield, Benjamin Goes, and Judy Slack — and two are newcomers: Luciano Alonzi and Blanca Parker.

Petitions weren’t required this year, according to Cuomo’s executive order.

The Guilderland Public Library Board of Trustees also had five candidates submit letters of interest, three incumbents — Herb Hennings, Mark Keeling, and Phil Metzger — and two newcomers: Marcia Alazraki and Richard Rubin.

Rather than the candidates drawing for their spots on the ballot, the names will be listed alphabetically, said Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

The district needs to submit ballot information by 8 a.m. on May 20, Wiles said.

The Guilderland School District has 25,000 registered voters to whom it has to mail paper ballots, which Wiles termed “a massive undertaking.”

The Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services is coordinating the printing of ballots, working with Fort Orange Press in Albany. Each school district will be responsible for paying for its own ballots, Wiles said.

“Qualified voters” are decided by school districts and Guilderland voters earlier determined that, in addition to being a United States citizen and being 18 or older, a qualified voter must have been a resident of the school district for 30 days before the vote and must be registered to vote either through the school district or the Albany County Board of Elections.

Residents may still register to vote through the county, either by mail or remotely, or through the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles website.

Ballots must be received, not just postmarked, by 5 p.m. on June 9. Guilderland may put a drop box for ballots at the district office, located at the high school, Sanders said.

The ballots will be counted manually on June 10 through 12. “It could take a day or two or three,” said Sanders, depending on how many people vote.

“This election,” he noted, “is going to be much different.”



How students will be graded for their work since schools closed on March 13 is also “up in the air,” Wiles said. “We’re still sorting through that,” she said.

Since schools were closed, Guilderland teachers have been using two acronyms to evaluate students’ work: DEL for Demonstrated Evidence of Learning and NEL for No Evidence of Learning.

“We extended the time for third-quarter work to be submitted,” said Wiles. “We want to give students every opportunity.”

Principals are meeting on Monday to further discuss how grading is to be handled, said Wiles.



Wiles reported at the  school board meeting on April 28 that Guilderland High School Principal Michael Piscitelli is adamant about having a graduation ceremony to celebrate the seniors. Wiles noted at the meeting that, for some students, this is the most important milestone ceremony of their lives.

“Now that the official proclamation has been made, it is important that we focus on making the best of a bad situation and continue to try to create positive memories for our graduating seniors,” Piscitelli wrote in a letter to students and parents, posted on the school’s website, after Cuomo announced schools would remain closed.

Piscitelli wrote that junior and senior awards will still be given out and a virtual Junior/Senior Awards Ceremony is being planned for the end of May to be broadcast in early June.

The senior class officers and advisors have purchased yard signs and plan to distribute them on May 29, Piscitelli wrote.

About graduation, he wrote, “As we are in the very beginning stages of making plans,  and I want to hear parent and student feedback, I have created a thoughtexchange, an online forum, for you to share your ideas. Here’s the link to participate:”

Wiles said on Friday that the district currently has three reservations at venues for graduation ceremonies.

The first is the original reservation for the SEFCU arena at the University at Albany for June 27, which now seems unlikely given the prohibition on large gatherings.

The second reservation is for June 20 at the Jericho Drive-in in Glenmont. Attendees would stay in their cars, with the seniors wearing their caps and gowns, and they would watch videos of speeches on the big screen.

“There would be no use of restrooms,” said Wiles. “We’d have to tell people, ‘Please don’t have anything to drink for two hours before,’”she said, laughing at the absurdity.

“We thought we met social-distancing parameters,” said Wiles, adding that doubts have now been raised.

Finally, Wiles said, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy had reached out to school districts to say protocols may be in place in a few months for gatherings at the Times Union Center. “So we just made a reservation for the TU Center in August,” said Wiles.

She went on, “And then there’s Option D, to make the whole thing virtual.”

She concluded, “A lot depends on the guidance from health officials and the governor. It’s still up in the air. But we absolutely want to make sure we do something to make it special for students.”


Going forward

Asked about her thoughts on the governor’s announcement this week that the state will work with the Gates Foundation to develop a blueprint “to reimagine education in the new normal,” Wiles said, “On the one hand, we’ve had complete disruption, which lets us look at opportunities to do things differently, better.

Wiles said every educator she knows is ready to embrace worthwhile changes.

But, she went on, speaking as both an educator and a mother, she doesn’t embrace the notion that “technology is the answer to everything.”

Wiles said, “The essence of learning comes from the relationship between a teacher and a student. If you are 5, 6, 7 years old, how do you establish that relationship with your teacher remotely?”

She asked the same question of students who are learning English as a new language and of students who have disabilities.

“So much in education is about a relationship,” Wiles stressed.

She described her own 12-year-old son as a “good kid” who is doing his school work for hours each day.

“At 5:30 last night, I finally got off my second-to-last call and Ben asked for help with math … I sat with him for 40 minutes as he watched a PowerPoint,” said Wiles.

Her husband reported that Ben had been doing school work the entire day. “He stared at a screen all day; he didn’t take a break,” reported Wiles. That evening, as he struggled doing his math remotely, Ben said, “Mom, I’m getting a headache.”

Wiles concluded, “I have no idea if he’s learning or just getting assignments done.”

She said she hears from many frustrated parents, often with children younger than her own or with several children.

“If Bill Gates has all that figured out, God bless him,” said Wiles.

She concluded, “Technology is a tool just like a pen or a pencil or a protractor is a tool. The tool isn’t the learning.”

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