School board votes for cameras not locks

GUILDERLAND — The front doors at Guilderland’s five elementary schools will remain unlocked — for now.

Tuesday night, after months of discussion and deep division, the school board unanimously agreed to the superintendent’s recommendation for safety measures besides locks: adding surveillance cameras and recorders for the schools that don’t already have them and installing swipe-card systems, replacing keys for staff, for the doors that are locked.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the school board resolved another issue that had divided the board for a decade. In the past, the board had several times rejected setting up a committee to study alternative funding — that is, funding other than through taxes, such as through grants, foundations, business partnerships, advertising, or pouring rights.

In a 7-to-1 vote, the board agreed to form a committee of district residents, board members, representatives of the PTA and booster clubs, and administrators to explore plans seeking non-traditional revenue sources.

School security

The tone of Tuesday’s meeting was decidedly more civil, even cordial, compared to the meeting in July where board member Peter Golden had proposed that, if a child were to be harmed by an intruder, an intruder who would have been kept out by a locked door, then one of the board members who voted against the locked doors would be required to inform the family of the tragedy.

Tuesday’s meeting opened with parents speaking passionately on both sides of the issue.
"As a parent and taxpayer, I would like to know exactly what we are trying to protect our children from," said Coleen Knight.
The board is being "coerced" into a security plan that does little to promote safety, said Cheryl Albens, concluding, "A caring and vigilant staff...are the best safety measures Guilderland has."
"The most cost-effective way to keep the school safe is to just lock the doors," said Carolyn Kelly.
Don Hessler said he was "frustrated and disappointed" the district wasn’t enforcing its visitors’ policy, which would increase its liability. "Do the right thing," he urged the board.

Both Kelly and Hessler served on an advisory subcommittee of the district’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Committee that had produced a report with a security plan for the elementary schools.

The matter became a budget issue in April when the board had a lengthy and heated debate before adopting a $76 million spending plan that was ultimately passed by voters.

Members of the subcommittee made a last-minute request in April to fund front-door monitors at the elementary schools; the district’s middle school and high school already had such monitors. The board allotted $60,000 to spend on security.

In June, the subcommittee presented its plan to hire five part-time security monitors for the elementary schools, at an estimated cost of $32,500, and to install magnetic locks with entry buzzers at the main entrance of each school, at an estimated cost of $10,000.

Additionally, a pass-key entry-access system would be installed at three of the elementary schools with the most outside use — Guilderland, Pine Bush, and Westmere — at an estimated cost of $16,500.

The board compromised on hiring just the monitors — after some members expressed concern that locked doors would change the culture of the Guilderland schools — and planned to evaluate response before locking the doors.

At its Nov. 15 meeting, the board, still deeply divided, heard a report on security from the elementary-school principals.
Tuesday, Superintendent Gregory Aidala, in making his recommendation said, "I certainly believe our elementary schools are safe but we should find appropriate ways to make them safer."
He praised the work of the part-time monitors who, he said, created a welcoming atmosphere and were well-received by parents and staff. The locked-door system, he said, has drawn a "mixed reaction at best."
He told the board members it was important to "reach consensus," not necessarily total agreement but to have "a willingness to support the final result."

Aidala proposed spending $11,500 on surveillance cameras for the schools’ front lobbies. Lynnwood and Westmere already have them; recording equipment would be added there.

Second, he recommended a pass-key system be installed in the three largest elementary schools — Guilderland, Westmere, and Pine Bush, at $5,500 each for a total cost of $16,500.

While the front door of each school would remain unlocked, staff would be given swipe cards to enter the building. Such systems are already in place at the district’s middle school and high school.

If the surveillance cameras cost more than estimated, Pine Bush Elementary School would not have a pass-key system installed now, Aidala said.

He also said the elementary-school principals supported his recommendation.

One by one, the board members voiced their support for the superintendent’s proposal.
The real issue, said Richard Weisz, is balancing the cost with the perceived risk. He at first appeared to believe the proposal called for locking the front doors, but, on understanding that the pass-key system would leave the front doors open, he said, "I think the administration has come up with a fair answer...I support the proposal although I do think we're going to need to come up with protocols."

Vice President Linda Bakst said the proposal would improve surveillance without locking front doors, which is impractical.
She wondered what training would allow a monitor to "spot an evil-doer" and so prevent him from being buzzed into the building. "I am skeptical of that," she said.
"A public school is not analogous to a private home," Bakst went on. She also asserted, "I don’t think we’ve heard data that even what we’ve done so far has made us safer."
She also said, "I think we are in compliance with our visitors’ policy." And she stated, "We will be sued, no matter what we do."
Cathy Barber, a lawyer, said there had been "a lot of rhetoric about liability." Because school security is a discretionary function, she said, the district wouldn’t have liability without a special duty. So, Barber said, having the locked-door system may actually increase liability. "People can sue you for anything," she said, "but it doesn’t mean they’re going to win."

Barber also said that the cameras will not be obtrusive and they could determine if theft or vandalism were going on in the schools, which could be a bigger problem than intruders.
Golden said, "Let’s get back to the original issue." He recommended a formalized process to check the visitors’ policy. The superintendent responded that the board’s policy committee will discuss it at its next meeting.

In the end, Golden voted for the superintendent’s recommendation.

Thomas Nachod, the only other school board member who, in July, had voted with Golden against having just the monitors, was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Colleen O’Connell, who had opposed locking public schools, supported the superintendent’s proposal but was critical of the way it had been arrived at.
"What a flawed process this has been," she said.

The subcommittee, she said, was made up of parents who joined because of their own safety issues and the subcommittee was not balanced. She pointed to the citizens’ committee that reviews the district budget as one that is balanced since critics are invited to join.

The next step in the flawed process, O’Connell said, was when $60,000 was added to the budget at the last minute for school security without being vetted by the citizens’ budget committee.

Then, she said, two PTA’s still have not had security presentations as the school board had required.
"What has scared me the most is how uninformed some people have been," said O'Connell. While people who subscribe to The Altamont Enterprise were informed, she said, not everyone reads the weekly newspapers. "We have to do a better job of communicating these issues," she said.

Barbara Fraterrigo, who supported the superintendent’s proposal, maintained, as she has all along, that locked doors are the safest system.
"We probably will get there," she said.
Another option would be using the remaining money for the buzzer system, she said. "It doesn’t mean we have to lock doors immediately," said Fraterrigo.

She asked the Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders about the costs. He said the district could look at running wires for the doorbell system.

She also said the subcommittee was not a pre-selected group and it welcomed anyone.
"It has certainly improved the district and the safety of the kids," said Fraterrigo. "We can carry the conversation further."
John Dornbush said the superintendent’s proposal "strikes a fair balance between the competing interests...It’s responsive and responsible."
President Gene Danese called it "a workable option" and he said it "serves as a starting point for our discussions next year."

Alternative funding

A discussion that has gone on for a decade finally ended in a vote Tuesday that reflects the changing times and the change of board members.

Linda Bakst was the lone hold-out for what once was the board majority’s position.

She has long opposed private funding for public schools — on both philosophical and practical grounds.
In casting the sole dissenting vote Tuesday, Bakst said that studying alternative funding is "not a fruitful use of our resources" and that it would "open up a can of worms."

She recommended two amendments to the proposal — one passed, the other didn’t.

The first was to require representation on the committee from the booster clubs and the PTA.
"I think it’s important to include these groups; they are raising funds alternatively," said Dornbush.

Bakst has frequently asked for an analysis of how much money volunteer groups already raise in the district and she has questioned how many fund-raising groups a community can support.

That motion passed unanimously.

Her second motion was that the committee’s report, due on June 30, not be written by the administration.
"If this initiative is to have any success, you need other people to come forward and take the bull by the horns," said Bakst. "I really don’t think it is wise for them to do the legwork."
"There is no way board members are going to know enough without asking the pros," said Golden.
"I don’t see how we can divorce the administration from some role," said Weisz, who has for years pushed for the formation of a committee. "It’s a collaborative process...The purpose of the committee is to see what is out there."
"Let me speak for the administration here," said Aidala. "We’ll do the best we can. If we feel we’re overburdened, we’ll speak up."

Ultimately, only Bakst and Danese — who has also pushed for years to explore alternative funding — voted for the amendment to limit the administration’s role; the other six board members opposed it.

Weisz then outlined his views on how the committee should proceed. He said Aidala should come up with a meeting date and publicize it, much as is done with the citizens’ budget committee.

At an organizational meeting, assignments will be given and different teams will be approved, Weisz said.

Weisz said he would like to find 30 or 40 alternative methods of raising money throughout New York State and then determine which to explore.

He said he would volunteer to be president because he had said he would but that the group could pick its own leader.
"If only four people show up and there’s no community support," Weisz said, he would concede alternative funding won’t work since community support is necessary.

Aidala said that, at the board’s next meeting on Dec. 13, he will provide an outline of steps to be followed.

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