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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 12, 2009

“What about walking?”
School board questions need for new buses

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The transportation supervisor’s annual presentation on the need for new school buses did not meet with the usual approval last Tuesday. Instead, she was peppered with questions by school board members looking for ways to cut costs as they face a $2.7 million reduction in state aid.

“Every year I support this but we’re in a new paradigm shift,” said board President Richard Weisz.

Transportation Supervisor Christine Sagendorf will return to the board with more data.

She had proposed buying five 66-passenger buses for $512,500, three 22-passenger buses wheelchair buses for $197,000, and three 28-passenger buses for $168,000.

At the same time, Building and Grounds Supervisor Clifford Nooney recommended buying a pickup truck with a plow for $36,000. So the bus and equipment proposal totaled $913,000.

In May, when voters decide on next year’s school budget, they also vote on a separate bus proposition.

The district, Sagendorf explained in a PowerPoint presentation, has 5,300 resident students who are transported to Guilderland’s seven schools in a three-tiered system.  Additionally, 35 students are bused to private schools, 33 to special-education placements, and five for vocational education.

Guilderland has a fleet of 116 buses with 91 buses covering 88 routes. One bus is used for testing and there are 24 spare buses.

Sagendorf said that use of the spare buses varies throughout the year. They are used for athletic events, preventative maintenance, state-required inspections, and body shop work, she said.

“Your car can be full of rust and they’ll still pass inspection,” said Sagendorf, noting that the state’s Department of Transportation requires school buses to pass inspection twice a year. The comprehensive inspection takes an hour or two and no rust or body damage is permitted.

“I just can’t believe we need 24 spares,” said Weisz. He also said, “I’d like to find the mileage for every vehicle we’re using.”

Weisz also said he was “completely confused” about why decreasing enrollment doesn’t result in fewer buses. Sagendorf had said that there is “no direct relationship between number of students and number of buses.” She went on, “It has to do with geographic considerations and distribution of students.”

For example, she said that, if there were 50 fewer students across 10 routes, the average impact would be five students per bus.

“The future of public education,” said Weisz, “is such that we have to identify what is necessary for student instruction and what is nice for student instruction.”

He noted that the number of buses has increased while the number of students has decreased.

“People may have to get up earlier,” said Weisz.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo asked if, with the earlier start to the elementary school day, a two-tiered bus system could be used.

“We’re looking at what benefit it would be,” responded Sagendorf. “In most cases, it becomes more costly because you’re increasing the fleet and the number of employees.”

Board member Colleen O’Connell stressed the drop in enrollment, stating that in five years the high school enrollment will have declined from 2,000 to 1,400 and said that, with fewer students down the line, “every bus does not need to be replaced.”

Sagendorf responded that upgrading spare buses to meet state requirements might in the long run prove to be more costly than buying new buses.

Board member Denise Eisele said that children in her neighborhood are all picked up at their doorsteps.

Only high school students have bus stops at the end of streets, said Sagendorf.

“What about walking?” asked John Dornbush, the board’s vice president. He joked that he had walked to school uphill both ways.

Sagendorf said that walking distances are determined by board policy. Guilderland’s current policy allows elementary students to walk a quarter of a mile, middle school students to walk half a mile, and high school students to walk a mile to school. State law allows students in kindergarten through eighth grade to walk two miles to school, and students in high school to walk three miles.

“If you decide to do that,” said Superintendent John McGuire, “I’m changing my phone number.”

Other business

In other business, the school board:

— Reviewed a proposal for next year’s school calendar with 182 days of instruction in which classes would start on Sept. 9 and end on June 25.

O’Connell lodged her annual objection to having the April vacation cover Easter week rather than being the third week of April.

“We’re not Saint Guilderland High School,” she said.

McGuire said he’d pass on the objection to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which sets the regional calendar;

— Heard feedback from board members on a recent community budget forum attended by 30 residents. While board members liked the idea of the forum and the way it was run, several wished more residents, and a more diverse group, had attended.

“There weren’t specific proposals at that meeting,” said Fraterrigo. She said of the board, “We have to look at the entire picture...Cuts are going to have to be made.”

“Nobody wants to cut anything,” agreed board member Judy Slack. “They say it’s a rainy day...but they don’t want to slash and burn.”

“We have a big selling job to do wherever we wind up,” said Weisz. “People are potentially unrealistic in thinking we can put all this in.”

McGuire said that what he heard at the forum was “a lovely affirmation people do value” what Guilderland schools do, and there was a message of “balance...so we don’t eviscerate our programs”;

— Heard about a meeting with library trustees. Because of the recession, the Guilderland Public Library has put on hold its plans to renovate and expand.

“In difficult economic times, the use of public libraries goes through the roof even as resources are dwindling,” said McGuire. “We’re not in this alone.”

 “I was so struck by how much they need more space and more facilities and yet they can’t ask the community,” said Slack;

— Discussed a policy on allowing campaigning by school-board candidates on school grounds. The policy committee is divided on the policy, which was adopted on a trial basis before last year’s election.

For decades, school-board candidates had handed out fliers and introduced themselves at school functions until the practice was halted by then-Superintendent Gregory Aidala.

Catherine Barber, a lawyer who heads the policy committee, said handing out flyers on school property is “not appropriate under the existing law.”

O’Connell, who is also a lawyer and a member of the policy committee, said the practice was constitutional and legal.

Fraterrigo said not re-instituting the now-expired policy would be limiting free speech.

The board will discuss the matter further before voting on it; and

— Met in executive session to discuss a student issue and a personnel issue.

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