Anonymous ‘vote no’ flyer for GCSD capital project echoes the one from last year

An anonymous flyer very similar in appearance to the one that was created in October 2018 has been circulating in Guilderland since this weekend. It urges people to vote “no” on May 21 and has been handed out and also left at the front doors of homes. 

GUILDERLAND — An anonymous flyer was distributed in the days before the October 2018 vote on a proposed school capital project, and the project was defeated by 58 votes. Now a very similar anonymous flyer is urging voters to defeat the school and library propositions today, May 21.

This vote comes at a time when Guilderland is in the midst of a town-wide revaluation — the first in 12 years — and sentiment against raising taxes is high.

Due in part to the revaluation, when adopting its $102 million budget for next year — 1.13 percent over the current year’s budget — Guilderland estimated in each of the four towns served by the school district, residents will see their tax rates decrease: by 28 percent in Guilderland, and by nearly 8 percent in Bethlehem, New Scotland, and Knox.

The current anonymous flyer is urging Guilderland voters to vote no on the school budget, on the $31 million school construction project, on the $900,000 purchase of nine new buses, and on the $8 million library expansion project (the bond would cover about $7 million since $1 million is from reserves), which it calls a “Massive $144 Million Total.”

The flyer doesn’t mention the $4 million library budget for next year.

Both the library in 2012 and the school district in 2018 had been criticized for holding bond votes independently and so, this time, both scheduled their capital-project referendums on the state-set date for school budget votes, May 21.

Jim Cifarelli, who was handing out the flyers on Monday, said he “felt bad” that the flyer was anonymous but that the people involved in the grassroots organization that produced the flyer were afraid of “retaliation.” He said, “I have a daughter in Guilderland Elementary School, and I want her to have a great school life.”

“That’s outrageous,” was the response from Marie Wiles, superintendent of the Guilderland school district, when told about Cifarelli’s comment about fear of retaliation.

Library Director Timothy Wiles — husband of the superintendent — also criticized the flyer’s anonymity. About the proposed library budget and capital project, Wiles said, “The library has produced a lot of written material and web material with complete transparency, and eight public sessions asking for public feedback.” The creator of the flyer, on the other hand, Timothy Wiles said, “isn’t interested in transparency — they just want to get their way.”

Albany County Legislator Mark Grimm, who represents part of Guilderland, told The Enterprise this week that, in 2012, he had produced a robo-call on a larger library capital project; voters rejected that project, which came before Wiles’s tenure. That $13 million project would have doubled the size of the library; just under a quarter of eligible voters in the town turned out to defeat the proposition, 3 to 1.

Grimm said he had put his name on the robo-call and added that he had had no part in producing the current flyer. Grimm said that he always puts his name on his communications about the vote, as he did in a letter to the Enterprise editor last week.

Science labs and classrooms

For each of the votes listed above, the flyer offers a few points in the form of short phrases.

For example, under the top of the school’s capital project heading, the flyer mentions several points, including, “Science labs don’t need $3 million replacement; they need maintenance!”

Cifarelli said that he took a tour of the high school in February or March and was told that the counters in a science lab are warped. He said they are warped because the counters are supported by a cabinet in the middle, and by posts supporting it beneath the four corners. The posts have long since been taken out, he said. He asked why they haven’t ever been put back.

Wiles told The Enterprise that she checked with Clifford Nooney, the district’s facilities director, and he had never heard anything about posts being removed.

The district isn’t doing its homework to save taxpayers money, Cifarelli said. He cited the example of fumigation hoods in the science labs; they sometimes have problems with the motors, he said. Rather than replacing the hoods, he said, maybe the motors could be repaired. Or maybe a local business could be located that would be willing to donate fumigation hoods, he said, or a government grant could be located.

Wiles said in response, through The Enterprise, “If motors fail, we replace them.”

Finally, Cifarelli said, there is sometimes a lab on the other side of a wall, through a door. The logistics could be worked out, he said, of having students walk through the door and into the lab when they need to. This would be cheaper than building new classrooms that combine labs and classrooms, he said. Also, he had asked students if they had any problems with their science classrooms, and they had told him no, everything was fine.

Wiles said that the students he asked might have been in the classrooms and labs that have already been improved.

There are a total of 12 that have not, and that are more than 50 years old. There are science teachers teaching in classrooms that are not set up as labs, she said; when they want to have students do an experiment, they have to try to set it up at a counter along the wall; it is not big enough to accommodate all students, so some cannot take part.

“So students are missing out on important elements of their program because of the inadequacies of our situation,” she said. Not having access to up-to-date labs “puts our students at a distinct disadvantage to other students throughout the area who are taking the same courses,” Wiles said.

Students cannot just walk out and into another lab room, she said, because there are already other students occupying that other lab.

Curriculum

Marie Wiles brought up one of the lines in the flyer for discussion. It said, “Hundreds of thousands for canned curriculum.”

She said the flyer is probably referring to the 25-year-old middle-school social-studies textbooks the district wants to replace with an online subscription. “It’s not a canned curriculum,” she said. It will serve as the textbook and be a resource to both teachers and students.

“Our faculty is highly skilled at creating engaging learning experiences for children,” Wiles said. “So it is not an accurate representation of what we do here in Guilderland.”

A new series of math textbooks for kindergarten through fifth grade has been chosen, she said, adding that it is also “not a canned program.” It is called “Investigations,” she said, “And it is all about thoughtful learning, learning mathematical concepts, how to be fully able to think mathematically.”

‘Pushing’ votes?

The flyer also said, “Administration pumping the vote with planned family events at the schools during voting hours (with FREE Ice Cream for voters!)”

Cifarelli said that Kim Blasiak, a PTA member, had told him that it was not the district offering ice cream at the schools; it was the Parent Teacher Association.

Cifarelli said he was “pretty sure that PTA has the administration’s blessing when they plan events.

Wiles responded that the PTA does not need to ask the district to approve its planning. “They can make their decisions largely autonomously. They’re our partners, but we don’t control the PTA,” she said.

Cifarelli sent a copy of the minutes of PTA Council meetings from March 18 and April 29. Wiles spoke at both. On March 18, for instance, she said that “the hope is every building will hold some sort of event to encourage families to come out and vote.”

On April 29, she said, for instance, that two mini-videos on topics of science labs, safety, and infrastructure have been created with teachers and students “to promote the capital project.” Wiles said that in the videos students and teachers talk about “why the capital project is important to them” and that the videos, when edited, will be “posted all over very soon.”

An exit survey of voters on the capital project in October 2018 showed that approval rate among parents of current Guilderland students, at 84 percent, was significantly higher than the approval rate among survey-takers who said they do not currently have students in the district’s schools, at 52 percent.

Cifarelli told The Enterprise that the anonymous flyer was not the only last-minute one. He said the district made a lengthy color flyer recently — he called it “a book” — and said that the New York State Teachers’ Union, or NYSUT, also produced a one-page flyer.

The district has always produced a budget newsletter at this time of year, Wiles said. It has an obligation to provide information to the community about what it proposes, she said. “If you look closely at our newsletter, it’s information, it’s not persuasion. We are very careful to make sure we’re not telling anyone what to do; we’re just telling them information about what’s in the ballot and why.”

She added about the NYSUT flyer, “I have no control over any other flyer. The newsletter is the only district flyer.”

A New York State Department of Education official told The Enterprise that the department could not comment about the rules governing what parent-teacher associations or school districts should or should not do regarding elections, because the education commissioner may be required to rule on an appeal.

Rules for districts and PTAs

The Enterprise spoke with two representatives of the New York State School Board Association, spokesman David Albert and general counsel Jay Worona, about the proper role of a school district and a parent-teacher association in an election.

Worona pointed to a seminal case from 1986 in which the highest court in New York State’s three-tiered system, the Court of Appeals, ruled in Phillips v. Maurer that a board of education must not exhort voters to vote in a certain way in an election. Worona said that the Wheatland-Chili school board had taken out an ad in the Pennysaver for about $86 that included several lines urging voters to vote yes on a budget and bond proposal.

The Commissioner of Education has historically said, Worona noted, that there is “absolutely not a problem” with a school district putting out its narrative about what a school budget or proposal is supposed to accomplish.

School districts are not limited in their ability to inform the voters about the efficacy of what they’ve proposed, Worona said. “There’s a real fine line there,” he said, but providing facts about the intent of a proposal should not be confused with exhorting the public to vote a certain way.

School-board members or other district officials, he said, are only prohibited from exhorting people to vote a certain way when taxpayer dollars are being expended, Worona said. So if a school-board member encounters a resident in the supermarket and urges her to vote “yes,” that may have some appearance of impropriety, but it’s not a problem legally, because no taxpayer dollars are being spent.

There is no problem with serving ice cream to voters, he said, unless ice cream is provided only to those who voted a certain way, or inviting only certain types of voters, such as parents with children in the schools, to have ice cream.

“You’re rewarding people for the act of exercising their franchise — you’re not rewarding them for voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or whatever,” Worona said. It would be a problem if, for instance, a school-district sent out information about a budget or a proposal only to certain types of voters, such as those with children in the school.

About the PTA, Worona said, “The PTA is not the school district. The PTA is a volunteer organization that parents decide to support. It is not funded by taxpayer dollars.” The PTA is free, he said, to urge people to vote and to be “aggressive” in its efforts to get people to vote “yes,” as long as the PTA does not use taxpayer money to communicate that message.

The library

Timothy Wiles said of the flyer, “There is a reason we need libraries in a world like the one we’re living in today — people are all too willing to spew misinformation and not cite their sources.” He asked rhetorically how credible someone is who refuses to sign his or her name to materials intended to persuade others.

Wiles was reached by phone Monday at an all-day event called “Ask Me Anything,” in which he sat at a table in a meeting room, to speak with library users about any questions or comments they had on any topic. On Tuesday, he reported that 13 people had come in over the course of the day on Monday, and that it had been “really enjoyable to chat with voters and answer their questions.”

About the flyer, Wiles told The Enterprise that the library has provided a great deal of written material and web-based material on the budget and capital project for many months and has held eight public sessions asking for public feedback. “Whoever created this flyer isn’t interested in transparency,” he said. “They just want to get their way.”

With regard to specific points mentioned about the library in the flyer, Wiles addressed the flyer’s claim that “The library runs far from capacity.”

“I guess the creator of the flyer hasn’t been to events where you have to sit in the hallway because the room was filled to capacity,” Wiles said, “and probably hasn’t had the experience of not being able to find a parking space, something that is often reported.”

He took exception to the use of the term “private nooks” used in the flyer for one of the improvements the capital project would create. He said, “They’re not meant to be private; they’re meant to be cozy.”

He concluded of the flyer’s author or authors, “If you want to have an effective voice as an anti-tax advocate, choose an attack that is fact-based. This person is uninformed, and he wants to make other people uninformed, which is the opposite of what we do.” 

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