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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 22, 2010

Six vie for four seats, all support $87.4 M budget

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — As the district is buffeted by cuts in sate aid and rising costs for pensions and health care, all six candidates for the school board this year support the $87.4 million budget proposal.

When voters go to the polls on May 18 to decide on next year’s spending plan, they will also decide which four candidates will serve on the nine-member board.

All four of the incumbents are seeking election — Barbara Fraterrigo, a medical practice manager; Emilio Genzano, an engineering and construction manager; Colleen O’Connell, a lawyer and community volunteer; and Gloria Towle-Hilt, a retired teacher.

The two challengers — accountant Allan Simpson and college student Elijah Sharma — both made unsuccessful first runs last year. They both served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee this year and last year.

While school board races do not involve traditional political parties, incumbents O’Connell, Towle-Hilt, and Genzano are running on a single slate. The other three candidates are running as independents.

Maceo Dubose, president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, which in recent years has endorsed school board candidates, said yesterday that the teachers’ union has not yet made a decision on whether it will endorse candidates this year.

The top three vote-getters will each serve a three-year unpaid term. The candidate who comes in fourth will serve for one year, filling out the term left vacant by John Dornbush; he died of cancer last July. In October, the board chose Genzano from among eight applicants to fill the vacant seat until the May 18 election.

All of the candidates agreed that, if the budget were defeated, rather than putting up the same plan for another vote or moving directly to a contingency budget, they would consult with the community and revise the spending plan for a second vote.

They also agreed that, if more state aid were to materialize after the vote, it would be best to divide it, using some to lower taxes, and putting the rest in reserve for the following year.

The issues

The Enterprise asked the candidates to comment on these seven topics:

— Role of a school board member: Candidates were asked who they serve. Certainly, each must balance the needs of many constituencies, but which is the primary one? Particularly if there is a crunch — for example, like now, because of economic tough times and cuts in aid — would their primary allegiance be to the students, the taxpayers, the parents, the teachers, or the superintendent?

— New superintendent: The school board hopes to hire a new superintendent before next fall. John McGuire is retiring on July 1 after not quite three years as superintendent, the shortest tenure of any Guilderland superintendent. Candidates were asked what qualities the new superintendent should have, how important knowledge of the school district or length of tenure is, and what his or her role should be in relation to the school board.

—         Budget: Candidates were asked if they support the $87.4 million budget, and why or why not. They were also asked if there were specific items they would have liked included, or if there were specific items they thought should have been cut. Some of the items current board members debated over include: foreign language, sports, teacher leaders, special education, advanced classes, clubs or co-curricular activities, and timing of the debt payment on the $27 million building project. Candidates were asked, if more state aid were to materialize after the may 18 vote, would they return the money to the taxpayers or put it in the district’s reserves. Candidates were also asked what the school board should do if the budget were voted down.

—  Tax hike: School board members and administrators worked this year to keep the tax-rate hike under 4 percent. The school board president said, “I have always taken the position that a 4-percent tax rate is the third rail in Guilderland,” indicating voters won’t support a budget with a tax-rate hike of over 4 percent. Should programs and jobs continue to be cut next year to keep the tax-rate hike below 4 percent or would constituents be willing to pay more to preserve Guilderland’s traditional curriculum?


— Contracts: Salaries and benefits make up the largest share of the district budget, about three-quarters of expenses. The school board president said last month that, next year, when many of the contracts expire, “We could say, until there’s more state aid, because we can’t afford it, there will be no raises.” Employees would continue to get step increases. Teachers, for example, move up a 23 step system, with the first step at about $42,000 and the top step at about $72,000.  Candidates were asked for their views on this.

—         Full-day kindergarten: Guilderland, until this year, was among the 10 percent of school districts statewide that did not offer a full-day kindergarten program. A divided board included full-day kindergarten in last year’s budget proposal, and the budget passed by a wide margin, which full-day kindergarten proponents took as an endorsement of the program. But this month, as the board looked for ways to add back programs — after the superintendent recommended cutting 80 jobs — the vice president recommended going back to a half-day program to save close to $780,000, rather than delaying debt payment as the board ultimately decided. Candidates were asked for their views on maintaining full-day kindergarten.

—         Teaching assistants: Guilderland employs about 190 teaching assistants, far more than similar districts. The superintendent has said that Guilderland students don’t perform markedly better than those in comparable districts. The $87.4 million budget would cut about two dozen teaching assistants; this is on top of significant cuts to their ranks last year. Some board members have said this decision was made by the administration without enough discussion on how the cuts will change the elementary program and how special-needs students are taught. Other board members have said teachers can handle the change and it will save money. Candidates were asked for their views.

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