Guilderland School Board adopts $103M budget

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“The wild card” is what Neil Sanders, at right, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, calls the unknown needs the school district will face next year in the wake of the pandemic. Next to him — back when board meetings were real, not virtual — is Superintendent Marie Wiles.

GUILDERLAND — On Monday night, the Guilderland School Board members, meeting remotely, adopted a $103 million budget for next year by a vote of 6 to 0.

Voters will also be deciding on a $983,000 bus proposition, which would buy seven 66-passenger buses and one 60-passenger bus that has wheelchair stations.

And they will be voting on five school board candidates for five seats with the top three vote-getters earning full three-year terms. (See related story and profiles.)

Voters will receive ballots in the mail, which must be returned to the school district by June 9.

The proposed $103,032,695 spending plan does not exceed the state-set levy limit and so a simple majority vote would pass it.

“We are right at our maximum allowable,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders. That maximum is $74,990,996 to be levied in property taxes.

The spending plan cuts 13 positions and is just under $1 million more than this year’s budget.

“Unpredictable” and “unprecedented” were two frequently used terms as board members and administrators had a lengthy discussion about what might be added or subtracted, ultimately restoring an assistant coach for the gymnastics team and adding a fourth floating teaching position to fill in where class sizes become higher.

To balance those additions, the board cut a teaching-assistant post and agreed to take the remainder from the district’s fund balance, to keep from going over the levy limit. 

At the end of the last fiscal year, an audit showed the district’s appropriated fund balance was at 4 percent of the budget, the limit allowed by law, or about $4.1 million, Sanders told The Enterprise. Additionally, the district has reserves totaling $6.1 million, he said.

Guilderland gets about a quarter of its budget revenues from state aid.

A new aid category called “pandemic adjustment,” money from the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act is meant to equal the funds cut from state education aid — $1.5 billion — to make schools whole.

Guilderland’s budget proposal includes $195,000 in pandemic funds.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, as part of this year’s state budget deal, was given the extraordinary power of making cuts to aid mid-year. The Guilderland School Board had waited to vote on its budget proposal until after the promised new numbers in state-aid were released by the state’s Division of Budget. None were forthcoming, so Guilderland proceeded with numbers based on the same Foundation Aid it received last year.

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.

At Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Marie Wiles called the current budget proposal “a reflection of really a worsening financial condition in light of the outbreak of the pandemic and the subsequent economic impact in the state and some pretty dire financial predictions.”

She went on, telling the board, “So we have brought forward to you a budget that we feel is able to maintain all the services and programs to our children that is within the tax cap … in preparation of what is likely to be a couple of more difficult years going forward.”

Board Vice President Barbara Fraterrigo proposed adding the extra floating teacher position, saying that the children most affected by the school shutdown caused by the pandemic are in poverty, without internet, and not getting the school services they had relied on. To place them in a large class, she said, would be detrimental.

Fraterrigo also proposed keeping the assistant coach for gymnastics, citing safety and gender equity since it is a female team.

Board member Ben Goes had a long list of cuts that he had come up with, which he called “fat,” meaning in the previous five years those budget lines hadn’t been fully used.

“Our budget was unsustainable moving forward before COVID,” he said, adding that, with state aid being flat or perhaps reduced, the board should look at what programs could be reduced.

Goes said his goal with the cuts was to restore the old guidelines for class size since that is what feedback from the community had shown was wanted.

The proposed budget increases class size in Guilderland’s five elementary schools, by one student at each level. For kindergarten through second grade, classes now each have 18 to 23 students; next year the upper limit would be 24. For third through fifth grades, classes now have 21 to 25; the upper limit next year would be 26.

When Goes proposed cutting textbook funds, unused in the past, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton responded that any remaining textbook funds were transferred to aidable spending categories and, further, that those textbook funds also supplied classroom libraries.

When Goes recommended reducing the spending for office supplies, Sanders responded, “We’ve not added anything for what school may look like next year,” meaning, for example, gloves, masks, and disinfectant may be needed by office workers. Sanders called what may be needed next year “the wild card.”

When Goes suggested reducing the spending for fingerprinting of new employees, which can cost between $99 and $105 each, according to Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance, Severance said that masses of workers may not return and the district would be “starting all over again and finding new staff members.”

“I think it’s the unpredictability that is the challenge here, trying to plan for something that we don’t really know what it’s going to look like or what our needs are going to be,” said Wiles. “I do think we’re going to need more resources, not less as we open the school year.”

“What I’m trying to go after here is the fat,” said Goes.

“I think the frustration, Ben, is we don’t know if it’s fat or not,” said board member Gloria Towle-Hilt.

The board did accept Goes’s suggestion to reduce the number of unassigned teaching assistants from four to three, saving a little over $37,000.

“We have not been able to fill all the TA positions,” said Wiles, speculating that, as the district in the fall is “wrestling with social distancing,” a teaching assistant may not be able to be added to a classroom.

That proposal was passed, 5 to 1, with board member Judy Slack, a retired teaching assistant, voting against the measure.


Tax rate

The Guilderland School District serves parts of four towns with the lion’s share of the district in Guilderland. Tax rates vary among towns because each town is responsible for its own assessment so the state applies an equalization rate to ensure that properties of equal value pay the same amount.

In Guilderland, which just completed a townwide revaluation, the equalization rate is 100 percent and the tax rate for next year’s budget, if it passes, would be $17.14.

Bethlehm has an equalization rate of 95 percent and the tax rate would be $18.04.

New Scotland has an equalization rate of 92 percent and the tax rate would be $18.63.

Knox, which has not revalued property in decades, has an equalization rate of 56 percent and the tax rate would be $30.61.


Voting by mail

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus at polling places, Cuomo issued an executive order that balloting for school board budgets and elections of board members will be by mail.

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 will have a drop box at the district office, at the back of the high school on School Road in Guilderland Center.

Voters who want to drop off their ballots will push a buzzer to be admitted to a locked vestibule where they can drop their ballot in a box, Sanders said, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays through June 9.

The ballots will be counted manually on June 10 through 12. The counting will take place in the high school gym and will be livestreamed, Sanders said.

The length of the count, said Sanders will depend on the volume of mail.

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