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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 15, 2010

Teachers give up day of pay
Budget set at $87.4M, cuts 40 jobs instead of 80

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Spontaneously, after the school board voted unanimously to adopt an $87.4 million budget proposal, the long row of administrators lining the back of the meeting hall burst into applause. They clapped a long while.

Tuesday night’s vote had capped three hours of back-and-forth discussion as the nine board members deliberated over what to include in the spending plan while keeping the tax rate down. They ultimately added back in about a million dollars worth of cut programs and services, which will be paid for largely by shifting debt payment to the following year.

The board also accepted about $220,000 in concessions from bargaining units, including wage freezes from administrators and a day’s pay from each teacher.

If voters approve the budget on May 18, the estimated tax-rate hike is 3.59 percent for Guilderland residents who currently pay $19.34 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Tuesday’s session started with Maceo Dubose, president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, telling the board that proposed cuts would “dismantle our carefully designed, educationally sound programs.” He went on, “Much time, energy, and money will be lost trying to regain what we once offered our students.”

Dubose, on behalf of the teachers’ union, urged the board to reconsider the severity of cuts to special education, to teachers and teaching assistants, and to raising class sizes. “You are the gatekeepers of the exceptional programs we offer here in Guilderland,” he told the board.

The original $87.5 million budget proposed by Superintendent John McGuire in March would have cut 81 jobs and $4 million in expenses with a tax hike of 3.61 percent for Guilderland residents. The final proposal, based on recommendations by the school board and by instructional leaders, will cut about 40 jobs and restores a number of programs.

“Unprecedented” concessions

With state-aid cuts, stagnant property values, and rising pension and health-care costs, McGuire had asked each of the district’s 12 bargaining units for a voluntary wage freeze. If the district’s 1,038 employees had all agreed, it would have saved $1.9 million. Seven of the 12 units — representing about 700, or 70 percent, of the district’s employees — offered concessions, totaling $220,000.

The largest unit, the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, with about 500 members, agreed to have each teacher give up one day’s pay. Dubose told The Enterprise that the vote was a close one. “It’s what the majority decides that matters,” he said. He estimated the furloughs would total $160,000.

Chris Claus, who was president of the GTA before Dubose, said that the larger community should join the teachers in volunteering a day’s pay on top of their tax bills.

“I urge the board to get behind this idea,” he said. “Stand and be counted. One day’s pay. Challenge your neighbors. There is nothing to lose, and much to gain.”

McGuire told The Enterprise that the teaching assistants, another large unit with about 190 members who are bearing the brunt of the job cuts, offered two days’ pay. “We suggested one day,” McGuire said, “because, by missing two superintendent’s conference days, they would fall short in professional development.”

Two units agreed to a salary freeze — the central administrators and their management confidential support staff. The central administrators are the assistant superintendents for business, instruction, and human services. McGuire said it would have been “hollow” for him to include himself since he will be retiring at the end of the school year.

Additionally, he said, the Administrators’ Association, including principals, assistant principals, and instructional administrators, agreed to increase their contributions to health insurance.

McGuire, who has been an educator for four decades, called the concessions “unprecedented in my experience.”

Deferring debt service

The bulk of the financing for the add-ins, though, comes from postponing the debt service on the $27 million building project from June until December for a savings of $1.15 million. School board President Richard Weisz first proposed the strategy at the board’s March 31 meeting and continued to advocate for it on Tuesday.

The board’s vice president, Catherine Barber, however, argued that shifting the burden to the following year was not wise. Federal stimulus funds will run out after next year, she said, and the district will start with a 5.2-percent tax hike. She advocated making restorations by returning to a half-day kindergarten program, which would save about $777, 310.

“It’s impossible to tell whether your kindergarten model matters at graduation,” she said, stating research on the value of half-day versus full-day kindergarten is inconsistent and contradictory.

Board members Barbara Fraterrigo and Judy Slack agreed with Barber.

The other six board members agreed with Weisz who had argued for implementing the full-day program last year, and saw the budget vote as a referendum on full-day kindergarten. “I think the public has spoken,” he said Tuesday night.

Weisz also said that some of the factors causing the budget crisis this year, like health-care costs and a dramatic increase in pension contributions because of Wall Street’s faltering, may not come into play next year. He also had said that many of the district’s labor contracts end next year and could be negotiated without raises.

“Fortune punishes the reckless but it also favors the bold,” Weisz said Tuesday night.

“It’s a roll of the dice,” said McGuire. He went on about the administration’s original plan to start the debt payment in 2010-11. “We were trying to level the risk…and do our fair share of the heavy lifting this year…I realize how seductive this is,” he said of postponing the payments so the extra $1.15 million could be spent on programs. He added, “I won’t be at this table next year.”

Sports cut

The final budget proposal also cuts $73,000 in athletics, eliminating almost all freshmen sports and repeat sports.

Athletic Director Wayne Bertrand said that currently 46 percent of Guilderland’s high school students play a sport, which is 12 percent over the national average. “That will take a dip next year,” he said. “Some kids are going to have broken hearts.”

When pressed, he “guesstimated” that 60 percent of the 228 freshmen-team athletes would be absorbed into junior-varsity rosters.

Bertrand also said that sporting events are good for the community. “It has a great community appeal. It elicits great pride,” he said.

Board member Colleen O’Connell said that a letter from Mary Schmitz “made a lot of sense,” arguing that it would be better to cut modified sports since middle-school students can play in community leagues.

Bertrand disagreed, saying the middle-school program takes into account both physical and social development, providing “a good, safe, and healthy foundation.”

Board member Julie Cuneo argued alone at first for re-instating freshmen sports.

Although Weisz didn’t agree with her stance, he encouraged her to pursue her point, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson’s thought: In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

Eventually, as Cuneo raised the matter again and again, two other board members — Emilio Genzano and O’Connell — came to favor keeping freshmen sports, but the majority prevailed and the cut was made.

Slack said that some members of the community felt sports hadn’t taken as heavy a hit as other areas.

Restored jobs and programs

The final budget proposal re-instates teacher leaders and stipends for co-curricular advisors at both the middle school and high school; high school parking permits will increase in price from $25 to $50. The adopted budget adds three teachers to keep class sizes down at the elementary schools.

And, it adds four-tenths of a teacher to keep German at the middle school and 1.2 teachers at the high school for foreign languages. While it cuts the teaching of Spanish in the earliest grades, it maintains the Foreign Language Early Start program by hiring a teacher for fourth- and fifth-graders. It also adds back in a half-time teaching post for college-level courses at the high school and it maintains three before-school earth-science classes at the middle school.

After board members and community members raised concerns about severe cuts to special-education programs, the final budget includes the current middle-school special-education supervisor and adds back in five special-education teachers, one at each elementary school, so the district can continue its co-teaching model where special-needs students are clustered in regular classrooms. The budget also adds back in half of the cut teaching assistants in learning workshops — three at the middle school and four at the high school. And it restores five teaching assistants at the elementary school learning workshops.

(For a full description of board members’ views on these items and their costs, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for April 8, 2010.)

In a related matter, the board voted, 8 to 1, to hire the Futures Education Group for $45,000 to review the district’s special-education programs. McGuire said the cost would have no impact on the budget; it will be paid for with federal entitlement grant money.

“They’re ready to go,” said McGuire, who had urged the board at its March 23 meeting to start the study immediately since it could lead to cost savings.

Cuneo, who had served on the committee that made the recommendation, was the sole dissenter in Tuesday’s vote.  At the March 23 meeting, she had recommended waiting until the fall to evaluate special-education services since budget cuts would bring about drastic changes in the program. She also advocated an internal review before hiring an outside consultant. (For the full story, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for April 1, 2010.)

Finally, the budget re-instates the half of a nursing position that was slated to be cut at the middle school. Board member Denise Eisele, a nurse herself, argued vehemently for the re-instatement. She listed many of the ailments suffered by current Farnsworth Middle School students, ranging from five diabetics to 186 students with asthma.

The series of split votes on expenditures and revenues ended in a unanimous vote on the $87,447,715 spending plan.

“They listened”

“Your goal of restoring programs for the kids has been met,” said Weisz. “Now the work begins…We have to explain the budget, and sell people on voting.”

Cuneo thanked the workers for their concessions and said she also respected those who didn’t want to make concessions.

After the applause subsided and the crowd of about 70 had dispersed, Dubose told The Enterprise he thought the outcome was positive. “Instead of 80 jobs, we’ve lost 40,” he said. “Teacher leaders are vital. Teaching assistants are vital.”

Asked about the teachers’ morale, he said, “I haven’t witnessed anybody arguing or feeling demoralized.” He went on to say that both he and his wife work for the district and pay Guilderland taxes as well. “Many of our teachers live in the community and are taxpayers,” he said. “It shouldn’t all be on teachers. We should all make a contribution.”

“The budget represents the best thinking and sentiments of every constituency in our school community,” McGuire told The Enterprise after the meeting. “What has served us well is being very forthcoming and transparent from the beginning. We have reached out to every constituency. There have been no secrets.”

Karen Covert-Jones, whose daughter studies German at the middle school, had spoken out as had her daughter about the importance of continuing to offer German. Covert-Jones said she believed speaking out had made a difference. “They listened,” she said.

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