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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 13, 2006

"Unprecidented" delay in Burnell murder trial

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Hashim Burnell’s trial for the murder of Todd Pianowski began last Tuesday in Albany County Court, and was then suspended by the judge on Monday in order to consider new fingerprint evidence.

Pianowski was shot to death in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend at 1702 Western Ave. in Guilderland last May.

On Monday, Albany County Judge Steven W. Herrick sent the jury home and adjourned the murder trial until May 1. Herrick told the jury that the prosecutors wanted to admit fingerprints given to them by police, which are believed to be Burnell’s.

The temporary suspension will allow hearings to take place to determine if this newly-discovered fingerprint evidence at the crime scene will be allowed in the trial.

"This is unprecedented in my experience as a trial judge," Herrick said about the three-week trial postponement. The unsequestered jury was strictly warned against reading or watching any news coverage on the murder, or speaking with anyone about the case during the unusually long dismissal.

"You need to have someone else look through the local sections of the newspapers," Herrick told the jurors. "You’re the finders of fact and need to hear the facts from the court and not the media."

Herrick also told the jurors that they were all equals in the case, saying, "I am the judge of the law and you are the judge of the facts."

The trial

The courtroom was a somber scene on Thursday morning as the jury members, made up of eight women and four men, entered. The witnesses stood while the jurors took their seats and Judge Herrick called the proceedings into session. The family and friends of Burnell sat on one side of the court while the Pianowskis and their friends sat on the other.

Dressed in a shirt and tie, while handcuffed and shackled, Burnell was quietly brought in and out of the court each day. He appeared humble, saying very little, and occasionally looking to his family as he walked past them.

"I love you, son," Burnell’s mother whispered as he walked by her. He responded with a soft, "I love you, too," as he was being taken away.

The defense has all along, from the time of Burnell’s arraignment, maintained that Burnell is the wrong man, that he is innocent. At the same time, the Albany County District Attorney’s office has said from the time of the arraignment last May that there is evidence to prove that Burnell robbed and intentionally killed Pianowski.

Eleven witnesses took the stand before last Thursday’s lunch recess, before court proceedings were interrupted. The prosecution brought in small-time drug dealers to testify that Burnell owed them money.

"Basically he dealt coke"I loaned him $300," testified 20-year-old John Blichert of Colonie, who added that his girlfriend also loaned Burnell $300. According to Blichert, Burnell was supposed to buy and sell cocaine with the money, and then give him back "a couple of extra hundred" dollars in return.

Burnell never gave him or his girlfriend the money, but Blichert said it was "not that big of a deal."

However, after the lunch break, there was an unusual delay.

After waiting for roughly 45 minutes, Herrick re-entered the room and told jurors the trial would have to be recessed until the following Monday morning.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, since I last spoke to you"we have conducted some proceedings outside of your presence," Herrick told the jurors. "This is a legal matter"a matter that the court must resolve before we proceed with trial."

The legal matter was precipitated by a call that Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael McDermott received from the New York State Police, saying that police had found a fingerprint match from the crime scene. McDermott and Burnell’s attorney, Joseph Muia, met with Herrick to discuss the discovery of the new evidence.

When court resumed on Monday morning, Herrick told the jurors that the trial must be adjourned once again, until May. The judge explained to the jurors that the new fingerprint evidence would have to be analyzed by both the prosecution and defense, and several fact-finding hearings would need to be held to determine if the prints could be used in trial.

"This case is going to be adjourned for a couple of weeks, that is unprecedented," Herrick said. He told jurors people will want to ask them about the trial, but warned them to "keep the integrity of this process intact."

The charges

Burnell is charged with one count of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, and three counts of first-degree robbery, all felonies.

Pianowski was shot in the head and torso with a .40 caliber handgun on May 5 of 2005, according to the Guilderland Police. At the time, Pianowski was 22 years old and attending Hudson Valley Community College.

He left Guilderland High School when he was 16, his mother said at the time of his death, but then went back to get his General Equivalence Diploma. He was taking business classes, his mother said, and had dreams of becoming a professional bowler.

Pianowski and his girlfriend, Lauren Parker, had dated for five years, his mother said; they lived together in the 1700 Designer Apartments at 1702 Western Ave., in the middle of the three-floor complex.

Parker returned to the home they shared at 2:30 p.m. on May 5, Guilderland Police Chief James Murley told The Enterprise at the time, and confronted the killer.

"He held a gun to her head," just before he ran out of the apartment, Murley said.

Murley told The Enterprise then that he believed the shooting "was a drug-for-money deal."

A massive search from several different agencies then ensued.

Around 10:30 p.m. that evening, the Colonie Police saw Burnell’s car; they stopped him and arrested him for second-degree murder.

Burnell had spent time in prison before. In 2001, when he was 16, and lived with his parents on Lone Pine Road in Guilderland, he was charged with burglarizing a home on Benjamin Street, a felony, which was plea-bargained to a misdemeanor.

From April of 2002 to May of 2004, Burnell served time at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility. Two years after his release, Burnell, then 19, was arrested by Guilderland Police for driving without a license, criminal impersonation, and possession of marijuana.

Burnell is currently in the Albany County Correctional Facility awaiting the resumption of his trial.

"It is my intention to resume this trial on May 1," Herrick told lawyers on Monday. "Your going to have to gear up." The trial will begin at 10:30 a.m.

Domestic dispute leads to arrest

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — A heated domestic dispute on Saturday ended, police say, with the husband barricaded in his home and his wife locked outside.

Guilderland Police responded to a call about a verbal dispute at 6348 Hawes Rd. in Altamont, between Salvatore J. Fusco and his wife. According to the police report, officers found Fusco’s wife outside of their residence saying that her husband destroyed property within the home and had locked her out.

When attempting to interview Fusco, the report says, officers discovered pieces of furniture against the home’s doors, barricading himself inside. The report continues, saying, Fusco would not respond to officers and that police had to close their roadway for nearly two hours on Saturday afternoon.

Investigator John Tashjian of the Guilderland Police Department was eventually able to speak with Fusco after several previous attempts, the report says, and convinced him to come out.

There were no further incidents once Fusco was in police custody, according to the report. Fusco was arraigned before Guilderland Town Judge Denise Randall and an order of protection was issued against Fusco by his wife. Fusco is charged with fourth-degree criminal mischief and second-degree obstructing governmental administration, both misdemeanors.

$79 million proposed budget
Tax-rate increase predicted at 4.2 percent

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — After months of debate and public discussion, the school board unanimously adopted a $79 million budget proposal Tuesday night.

The revised plan, if passed by voters on May 16, would mean an estimated tax-rate for Guilderland residents of $19.12 per $1,000 of assessed value — 77 cents more than this year.

While the proposal represents a 4.41-percent increase in spending over this year, the tax-rate hike is 4.18 percent.

"The budget presented is under the contingency cap," said Superintendent Gregory Aidala, as he explained the plan to the board. He was referring to a state-set cap applied to school districts where budget proposals have been defeated twice at the polls.

"If the budget is defeated, we actually spend more money"" asked board member Richard Weisz.

"I say that as a point of fact," responded Aidala, stating he did not want to hold it over voters’ heads.

"I think it’s only fair to let voters know that the consequence of a ‘no’ vote," said Weisz, is the cost could be higher.

While this is technically correct, said Chuck Szuberla, a spokesman for the State Department of Education, that is not the intent of the cap.

"In the old days," he said, when budgets were voted down and districts moved to contingency plans, voters had to approve spending on such items as field trips or interscholastic sports, Szuberla said; now those items are all included, he said, in the capped budget. "Almost everything is a contingent expense now," he said.

Asked if a district faces restrictions on its spending, other than the dollar amount, if it adopts a contingency plan, Szuberla said that equipment purchases are limited.

This year, the state-set cap limits the budget increase to less than 4 percent of the previous year’s spending, he said. However, items like debt service, tax certiori, and enrollment, over which a district has no control, can affect the formula, Szuberla said.

The capped budget was meant to give voters relief after they had defeated a spending plan. But, in the case of a district with a proposed budget that is lower than the contingency budget cap, Szuberla said, "If the budget is voted down, the board can adopt a contingent budget, but it would be bad PR to adopt a higher budget; it would be like spiting the voters."

Positions restored and revenues added

The final version of the Guilderland budget proposal — at $78,974,545 — is about $74,000 less than the superintendent’s original proposal. It restores several of the most contested positions and relies on additional revenues from the state, from assessment growth, and from reductions in health-insurance costs.

The superintendent’s first proposal had cut a social worker, taking some hours from Altamont Elementary School, which is smaller than the district’s four other elementary schools, and some from the middle school.

The final proposal, for an added cost of $80,000, restores the post so Altamont Elementary will have a full-time social worker and Farnsworth Middle School will be the same as this year. Many parents and staff members had spoken in favor of restoring the post.

The final budget proposal also reinstates separate English and social-studies supervisors at the high school. Members of both departments had spoken in favor of this. The cost for the restoration is $85,000.

The revised proposal also adds more high-school foreign-language instruction for $8,900 and athletic trainer services for $26,500.

The final plan keeps in place the cut of 25 teaching assistants as originally proposed. But it adds three six-hour unassigned teaching assistants, at a total cost of $46,080, to be used only if the need arises, said Aidala.

"Even though we are restoring some of the positions," said Aidala, referring to the social worker and high-school supervisor posts, "I don’t want to mislead the public they are forever...We have listened to public comment and to feedback from the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee."

The committee reviewed the original plan during a half-dozen televised meetings, with 20 members stating their views in the final session.

On the savings side, the new plan calls for cutting both assistant principals at the elementary schools next year, for a gain of $100,000. The original plan was to cut one next year, and the second the year after.

Also on the savings side, the district expects to spend $220,000 less than originally planned on health-insurance premiums.

The district is now expecting $600,000 more in state aid, Aidala said. Although the state legislature has adopted New York’s budget the governor has veto power until midnight on April 12, Aidala pointed out.

Also, Aidala said, the district re-examined increased town assessments of properties within the school district. In Guilderland, the increase in assessments has jumped $5 million from an expected $10 million to $15 million now.

About the state-aid estimates, Aidala said, "I don’t think we’re being reckless. We’re trying to take a conservative approach."

Board member Colleen O’Connell said she would like to ask members of the citizens’ budget committee who were "on the fence" or against the original proposal to reconsider in light of the final proposal.

O’Connell urged them, if they now supported the spending plan, to "come out and say so in public."

"I like the budget," said board member John Dornbush, just before the board’s unanimous vote. He said the final proposal maintained programs while decreasing the tax-rate hike, keeping it under the 5 percent requested by the board. "I think it’s something we can all get behind and the community can support," said Dornbush.

Health insurance

The school board has focused on health-insurance this year as annual costs for coverage have doubled in the last five years to $8.2 million.

The superintendent’s original budget proposal included $300,000 of savings in health-insurance and the final plan includes an additional $220,000 in savings over what was originally projected.

At the urging of Peter Golden, a board member, new this school year, who initiated discussion on health-insurance costs, the board Tuesday reviewed a health-insurance report before adopting the budget.

The report, presented by Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, was prepared by the District Health Insurance Committee, made up of representatives of the district’s 11 bargaining units, along with Sanders and Susan Tangorre, director of human resources.

The district offers four different health-insurance plans with four different providers; employees pay 20 percent of the cost and the district pays 80 percent.

The committee recommended continuing the two Blue Shield plans and the Express Scripts self-insured prescription drug coverage with no change in benefits; the rate-renewal increase ranged from 6.5 percent to 7.9 percent.

The committee also recommended continuation of the Mohawk Valley Plan health-maintenance organization with mandated changes imposed by the carrier; the rate-renewal increase is 9.1 percent.

Sanders called the committee’s final three recommendations "win-win opportunities."

First, the committee recommended a change in plan design for the Capital District Physicians Health Plan, moving from the AvidCare 20 plan with a $20 office-visit co-pay, to the AvidCare 25 plan, with a $25 office-visit co-pay. The rate renewal would decrease 5.3 percent.

"Overall, the district will save in excess of $350,000 while employees will save almost $100,000 based on our 80/20 cost-sharing ratio," Sanders said.

He also said that employee savings will more than compensate for the additional $5 co-pay.

Second, the committee recommended offering CanaRx, a new prescription drug plan option for active employees and retirees at no cost to the district.

"The drugs available from Canada are much cheaper," said Sanders. "Participants in this plan would order a three-month supply of brand-name drugs for a zero co-pay....Overall the savings for the employee is the elimination of a co-pay while the savings for the district is the lower drug costs."

Third, the committee recommended pursuing a health-insurance buyout for employees who chose not to take the district’s health-insurance plan. Some, for example, are covered through their spouse’s insurance plans.

"Up to this point, we have offered all eligible employees access," said Sanders. "We recognize to pay people a minimal amount, we would save on the premium."

The deadline for making a decision on whether to offer the buyout is May 5, Sanders said. "We’ve started the process of meeting with the associations. You need to have a certain number of participants to make the program viable," he said.

Golden asked about the anxiety level of workers over health-insurance coverage and Sanders said he thought it had lessened. Golden said he was particularly concerned about retirees, and asked if they felt safe.

Tangorre said, "Part of that safety net comes from communication." Workers will be informed of the new options, she said.

The board debated at length whether it should accept the committee’s report in a separate vote or endorse the recommendations, as it has in the past, by simply adopting the budget. In a split vote, 5 to 4, the board decided to simply adopt the budget.

"We’re arguing about semantics," said President Gene Danese, just before the split vote, "when all we have to say is the health-insurance committee did a really great job...I really don’t want to argue anymore."

School spending plan settled, but issues still loom

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — While the school board Tuesday adopted a budget proposal that will form the blueprint for next year’s curricula, board members discussed several matters that had been raised as part of the budget-building process and will continue to be issues.

These include how best to teach writing, starting study of foreign language at a young age, and the analysis of test results. All of them have budget implications.

Superintendent Gregory Aidala proposed forming a committee to discuss courses taught in the English and social-studies departments at Guilderland High School. Last year, he had proposed English faculty members each teach five courses, like most high school teachers, rather than four, which supporters say allows for extra richness in teaching writing.

The final budget proposal for next year keeps the English course load at four; moving it to five would have saved $116,000 in salary and benefits.

Faculty from both the English and social studies departments spoke to the school board about the proposal to merge the supervisor’s post as a cost-saving measure. Both departments strongly opposed that, and other issues were raised as well.

Aidala said the committee, made up of members of both departments, could discuss integrating writing skills across English and social studies to come up with a better plan to benefit students.

"Good writing doesn’t only take place in English," he said.

Board member Richard Weisz said the committee should not just focus on who teaches four classes and who teaches five but on broadening writing and cultural skills.

He said he was intrigued by comments from social-studies teachers on electives they could teach.

"In a good budget year, we could add a social-studies position," Weisz said.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo, long a proponent of teaching foreign language in the elementary schools, said, "Our budget situation is never going to get any better."

She said that, without early foreign-language instruction, the district is not fulfilling its goal to prepare students to succeed in the 21st Century.

A committee several years ago had studied the issue and made a strong recommendation to begin teaching Spanish in the elementary schools, but budget constraints kept the board from doing so. Currently, Guilderland students start foreign-language study at the middle school.

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Nancy Andress said she thinks early foreign-language instruction is very important, but she went on, "This would have been a disastrous year to try to implement it because of the testing."

Andress said the demands of curriculum on Guilderland teachers affects their time in the classroom. She also said the prospect of state-required full-day kindergarten must be considered; Guilderland currently offers half-day kindergarten classes.

Finally, referring to a recent transportation study that suggested a longer elementary-school day would help with creating efficient bus schedules, Andress said, if the school day is lengthened, that may allow time for foreign-language instruction.

"As long as there’s a light at the end of the tunnel," said Fraterrigo. "I just don’t want to lose it," she said of early foreign-language instruction.

Fraterrigo then raised the issue of the computer operator cut from next year’s budget and replaced with a more-expensive analyst to help interpret data from the state-required testing.

Fraterrigo said she has heard from many workers who are dependent on the computer operator.

"I know Greg says they should solve their own problems," said Fraterrigo of the superintendent.

"I don’t quite say that," interjected Aidala.

He went on, "Change is very difficult....We believe we can provide the level of service needed to support our staff."

The new position is a higher priority, he said, and the district can’t be "cavalier" in its spending, just adding a new position.

The state expects testing data will be used to plan instruction, Andress said.

"When you look at the knowledge...that’s required, there’s no one here who can do that," she said. "We really need someone with a different type of expertise."

"If we have to have all this testing...if it’s being stuffed down our throats," said board member Colleen O’Connell, "let’s make the best of it...so it can have some meaning in the curriculum."

Other business
In other business, the school board:

— Watched and applauded for Motivation, a 21-minute award-winning video created by Guilderland High School students with the help of media director Nicholas Viscio. Members of the Media Club and The Journal traveled to New York City for a day to interview those passing by the area near where the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

Students recognized were: Sean Balough, Sarah Bolognino, D.J. Capobianco, Mike Dellarocco, Carina Engleberg, Scott Friedman, Sean Gallagher, Ben Gorenstein, Kristen Jorgensen, Kerrin Moon, Shaun Moore, Tara Nelson, Margaret Olson, and Kathryn Steinmann.

The video won the J.P. Morgan Chase Multi-Media in the Classroom Awards competition, part of the Celebration of Teaching and Learning held in New York City on March 24 and 25.

Ten videos were selected and each school was awarded $1,000.

Motivation will be aired on Channel 16.

Capobianco urged the school board members to keep the video in mind as they made budget decisions,

"My education here has"been completed by the opportunities outside of the classes," he said. "Make sure that motivation stay there with the faculty. Make sure it’s not just about the test scores";

— Appointed election workers for the May 16 budget vote and school-board elections;

— Learned, from Andress, that Marie Eoff, Westmere Elementary School nurse, has been elected co-president of the Capital Region School Nurse Association;

— Heard congratulations for Guilderland High School students who won awards at the annual Media Arts Festival held at Niskayuna High School.

Alison Dubois took first place in both web design and graphic design.

Dave Banan took firs place in color photography.

Jessica Enders took second place in web design and Benjamin Zucker took second place in black-and-white photography.

Maryna Artemenko took third place in digital fine art and Steve Twardzik took third place in black-and-white photography.

Miguel Bendana competed in computer-based animation; and

— Heard that a workshop from parents will be held on April 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Farnsworth Middle School — "Internet — The Information Super Highway — What Parents Need to Know to Keep Their Children Safe."

Fletcher teaches telling real stories

By Matt Cook

GUILDERLAND — After a few years of lugging a bag of other authors’ children’s books around New York City, Ralph Fletcher decided he’d like to carry some books of his own.

In his early thirties, with a master’s degree in hand from Columbia University, Fletcher went to work for the Teachers College Writing Project, helping teachers across the city develop new methods for teaching writing. The books in his bag—from authors like William Steig, Cynthia Rylant, and Katherine Paterson—were meant as examples for the teachers, but they turned out to be inspiration for Fletcher.

"I fell in love with the books," Fletcher told The Enterprise. "I started to realize that writing for kids could be an honorable thing to do."

For the first few years of writing, Fletcher said, "I got a lot of rejection slips."

"They said, ‘You’re writing more of a lesson than a real story," he said.

Children, Fletcher said, aren’t looking for morals when they read; they want to be told a tale. Once he got the hang of that, he started to find success.

At 38, Fletcher published his first book, I Am Wings: Poems About Love. He followed that up with over 30 more books, from picture books to novels, some quite popular with his young readers. His latest, Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid, is a memoir about growing up in a large Catholic family in Marshfield, Mass.

On a visit to Guilderland Elementary School Tuesday, Fletcher read the students a portion of Marshfield Dreams. Called "Eating the World," the chapter describes Fletcher’s brother’s habit of consuming anything he could get his hands on, which ultimately landed him in the hospital to get his stomach pumped.

His brother eventually got over that phase, Fletcher writes, but, he wrote, "For a long time, the idea of trying to eat the world stayed in my mind."

In an excerpt from his novel Spider Boy, Fletcher read about Bobby, a Midwestern boy and arachnid enthusiast who moves with his family to New Paltz, N.Y. and tries to fit in at a new school. Though he’s bullied by some of his classmates, Bobby comes up with creative solutions to his problems.

"I think that growing up is learning when to walk away and learning when to stand up for yourself," Fletcher told the Guilderland students.

When pressed by the children, Fletcher admitted that his favorite among his works is Fig Pudding. Drawing heavily from Fletcher’s own life, Fig Pudding describes a year in the life of 12-year-old Clifford Allyn Abernathy III. Like most of Fletcher’s books, it combines humor with the drama of family life.

When asked where he gets his ideas, Fletcher said he sometimes takes them from his life, sometimes from research, and sometimes they emerge through the writing process.

His novel, Flying Solo, about a sixth-grade class that decides to run itself after the teacher doesn’t show up, was inspired by a news item Fletcher saw. A character in it who persistently labels statements as "fact" or "opinion" came from a trying car ride with his son who did the same thing for five hours, Fletcher said.

"Sometimes, my kids will say things like that and I’ll say, ‘I can use that in my book,’" he told the students.

Fletcher continues to teach writing and to teach the teaching of writing. He’s written books on the subject and conducts seminars. He espouses the writing process—keeping notebooks, revising—not just the end result, in an attempt to demystify the work of a writer.

He showed one of his writing notebooks to the classes on Tuesday. It contained ideas for an unfinished story on a boy who challenges the world’s best poker player to a game in which words replace chips.

Writing, Fletcher explained, isn’t as hard as it looks.

"You just have to get used to being patient," he said.

ZBA gives green light to car-wash plans

By Jo E. Prout

GUILDERLAND — Colonial Car Wash on Western Avenue received another use variance last week from the zoning board of appeals here.

The zoning board approved the area variance and site plan review for Colonial Car Wash with a vote of 6 to 1, with board member James Sumner voting against the proposal.

Sumner said that the review did not include a satisfactory traffic design. The project allows only a right turn out onto Camp Terrace, which intersects Western Avenue. Sumner questioned how customers would drive east out of the site.

Chairman Peter Barber said that the project gave drivers reasonable ways to get to Western Avenue. A right-turn-only on Camp Terrace would give people the safest way out, he said, but the project did not eliminate all traffic problems.

Neighbors were concerned about sediment that accumulated at the car wash, and the lack of a privacy fence. Last week, one family told the board that the proposal took care of their concerns.

The board approved the proposal on condition that grit and debris be removed from the site immediately, and not stored or dumped for storage and drainage on the property. The board also required the erection of a six-foot stockade fence along the automatic car-wash bay, the addition of streetscape trees and landscaping along the berm, and snow removal from the site.

Victor Caponera, Jr, the attorney representing Colonial Car Wash, said that the project has included raising the berm, removing pavement, eliminating vacuums from the rear, reducing the number of car-wash sites from six to five, and reducing off-site light spillage.

"We feel that, based on the changes we have made, "it would certainly be a benefit to the town," Caponera said. "This is a better project than what’s there now."

Other business

In other business, the zoning board:

— Approved a request by Allan Sholtes of Foundry Road for a storage shed and a carport. Sholtes needed an area variance because the two sites fell within the required setbacks due to his steep, wooded backyard;

— Approved a request by Henno and Susan Karmo of Terry Avenue for a one-foot area variance to expand their kitchen;

— Approved a request by Aldo Vignolesi for a special-use permit to open a pizzeria in Cosimo’s Plaza on Route 20; and

— Approved signs for Marini Builders for the Saddlebrook neighborhood, the Walgreens on Western Avenue, Adirondack Tire Center on Western Avenue, and Prescribed Realty on Carman Road.

The board continued applications by Nicholas St. Louis for Nextel Place on Western Avenue, and Fifi Gifford for Fifi’s Frocks and Frills on Western Avenue. Both applicants asked for signs with changeable text.

"We don’t allow changeable copy," Barber said. "We approve a fixed sign."

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