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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 11, 2010

In wake of  $4M trim
Board blasted on proposed school cuts

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — A beleaguered school board heard protests Tuesday night over proposed budget cutbacks and also heard a request for about $1 million worth of new school buses. Additionally, board members learned about changes to Regents exams being considered by the State Education Department, which could shift costs to local school districts.

The Doyle family turned out in force with father, Patrick, and son, Edmund, protesting the phase-out of Guilderland’s commitment to Tech Valley High School. The proposed $87.5 million budget for next year allows for the three Guilderland students now at Tech Valley to continue, but does not allow for future enrollment. The cost is $12,000 for each student, which is partly reimbursed with BOCES aid. The average cost per pupil for students in Guilderland schools is $16,178.

The innovative regional high school, based on project learning, draws students from area schools and is meant to serve as a model.

“It brings culture and creativity to the community,” said Edmund Doyle, an eighth-grader who said he’d like to be able to apply to the school.

His sister, Ava, a fourth-grader at Guilderland Elementary School, spoke of the importance of learning Spanish. The proposed budget eliminates the teaching of foreign languages at the elementary school, saving the cost of 2.8 teachers, or $187,600.

Thomas Adam, a father with two young children in Guilderland schools, also spoke in favor of keeping the elementary foreign language program, noting how easy it is for young children to learn a language.

Michael Schaffer, a Guilderland High School junior, presented the board with a petition he said was signed by over 650 students, asking that stipends for club advisors not be cut as proposed.

“Cutting our clubs is not an acceptable loss,” said Schaffer.

He outlined district priorities that clubs fulfill — clubs that foster eco-literacy, for example, or groups like the international club and events like the cultural fair that allow collaborative work and acceptance of diversity.

Calling the end of funding for middle-school club advisors a travesty, Schaffer told the board the district would raise “a generation of students to not go above and beyond.”

He said he could address the board with such poise because of his work with the mock trial group of which he is president.

His classmate Sarah Soneberg also spoke of the worth of co-curricular activities, and suggested funds could be raised through such means as television advertising or placing logos on school uniforms and venues.

Finally, Timothy Burke, who had served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee last year, said that the move to full-day kindergarten had little support from the committee. He chastised the board for starting such an expensive program this year, saying it showed “an awful lot of arrogance” on the part of board members as if they thought, “We can keep doing what we want to do.”

The board needs to admit it made a mistake, he said, arguing that the money can be better spent elsewhere.

(For a full account of the board’s discussion and decision to add full-day kindergarten, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for April 9, 2009.)

Changes to Regents

The governor’s budget proposal reduces state aid to its education department by 15 percent, Superintendent John McGuire told the school board on Tuesday; this leaves only 7 percent of its funding from the state, with the balance to be made up in federal funds or from fees. He likened the situation for the State Education Department to that of local school districts since both now have to make cuts.

Consequently, the department is considering scaling back on the statewide Regents exams administered to high-school students. Without cutbacks, the testing program could cost over $40 million. The state’s Board of Regents, which governs education, first came up with exams in 1865 as entrance tests for students wanting to attend high school. In 1878, the first high school Regents exams were given in five subjects — algebra, philosophy, geography, American history, and Latin.

Currently, students are required to pass five Regents exams in order to graduate from high school — integrated algebra, called Math A; United States history and government; global history and geography; comprehensive English; and any one science Regents. To receive an Advanced Regents diploma, students must pass additional science and math exams and a foreign language exam.

 Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton gave an overview of “late-breaking” proposals.

Paper-based scoring may be discontinued, meaning the district would pick up the printing costs, he said.

While the exams would continue to be translated into Spanish, translation into other languages like Chinese, Russian, and Korean, would be halted, meaning a significant cost to Guilderland, which would have to translate on its own for students who speak English as a second language, Singleton said.

August and January exams may be eliminated, leaving only June exams, Singleton said, which would make it more difficult for students.

Exams in social studies could be “essentially annihilated,” said Singleton, and three out of four science exams could be eliminated along with two out of three math exams as well as foreign language exams.

“Would we have our own school tests?” asked board member Colleen O’Connell.

“I’m assuming,” answered Singleton.

“What happens to the concept of a Regents diploma?” asked O’Connell, also asking about an Advanced Regents diploma.

“Great questions, no answers,” responded Singleton.

Replacement buses

Board members praised Christine Sagendorf, the district’s transportation supervisor, for a detailed report on Guilderland’s transportation needs.

Sagendorf said that a consultant hired by the board in 2006 to look at the efficiency of the transportation department concluded buses should be replaced every 10 years, or seven large buses every year.

Because of tough budget times, Sagendorf said, the district had gotten away from that and the department had “stretched out” the number of years it used a school bus so that it is currently 22 buses behind in the replacement plan.

Sagendorf outlined three proposals, and recommended the one that was the middle in cost — at $998,400 — and would reduce the fleet by two vehicles to 114.

Half of the cost is returned to the district in state aid, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.

The proposal, to be voted on by the board at its next meeting on March 23, is to buy six 66-passenger buses at $106,500 each; two buses that hold 24 and can accommodate wheelchairs at $66,500 each; three 30-passenger buses at $53,800 each; two minivans at $19,000 each; and a pickup truck at $27,000.

“We’re in desperate need of smaller units,” said Sagendorf, explaining that the district transports about 420 students to private schools as required by law.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo recalled that, last year, Sagendorf had said how expensive maintenance is if buses aren’t regularly replaced; she asked if there had been any expensive repairs.

Head mechanic Mitchell Karkner said that one repair cost $8,000 for bodywork. “We’ve extended these bodies…They get to a point where there’s a structure problem,” Karkner said.

Sagendorf told The Enterprise yesterday that the $8,000 worth of required work was for a bus with of re-sale value of about $2,000, indicating that timely replacement pays off in the long run.

In response to a question by board member Gloria Towle-Hilt about a plan to cluster older students at bus stops in neighborhoods, Sagendorf said that, in the first year, travel decreased by 70,000 miles.

School board President Richard Weisz said people often comment that they see nearly empty school buses. “A lot of times the rosters are larger,” Sagendorf responded. “Somewhere in the three-tiered system, the bus is filled to capacity.” Usually, that is at the elementary level, she said. At the high school, buses are often overbooked to 80, she went on. “We just pray the first day of school that we have enough room on the bus.”

“You’ve coped well with the stretching…of the replacement plan…in some challenging times,” said McGuire.

Other business

In other business, the board:

—         Heard a detailed report from Singleton on the state-mandated Response to Intervention initiative, which is to help struggling students early on, reducing the number of students to be identified as needing special-education services;

—         Learned from Singleton that a committee of parents, teachers, administrators, and staff reviewed the district’s shared decision-making plan, which the board is slated to approve on March 23;

—         Heard that Melissa Abbasi, a sixth-grade teacher at Farnsworth Middle School, is one of six recipients of the Honoring Earlier Educators Award. Yunjee Kang, who now attends Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire nominated Abbasi, her middle-school teacher, for the award;

—         Heard that, on Thursday, March 18, at 6:30 p.m., Nick Page, a Boston composer, will serve as special guest conductor for a “Community Celebration of Song” as choirs from grades four to 12 perform;

—         Learned that six teams qualified for the 2009-10 Winter Scholar/Athlete Award, meaning each team maintained an average of 90 percent or higher — girls’ basketball, ice hockey, girls’ and boys’ cross-country skiing, boys’ swimming, and gymnastics;

—         Heard from Weisz that petitions for school board candidates, with 68 signatures of eligible district voters, are due in the district office by April 19 at 5 p.m. The election is on May 18;

— Approved 25 change orders on the building project, adding a total of $89,106 to accommodate unforeseen conditions encountered during construction;

— Gave conceptual approval, as requested by the town, to lower the speed limit on Presidential Way, a road located near Farnsworth Middle School;

— Heard from O’Connell that the audit committee, which she chairs, had interviewed the three firms that responded to a request for proposals. The committee will recommend that the board appoint, at its March 23 meeting, the The Bonadio Group, its current auditor and the least expensive of the three.

“We feel they’ve always been on the cutting edge,” said O’Connell; and

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

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