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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, Decemer 16, 2010

The community will have a conversation in January about next year’s school budget

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — For a January forum on next year’s budget, the school board had considered presenting key topics and letting the public ask questions.

Instead of that town hall-style meeting, the board will host what member Colleen O’Connell called a “community conversation” in which staff members and district residents break into small groups to exchange ideas.

A tax curmudgeon who wants everything slashed may sit next to the mother of a kindergartner, said O’Connell, and so learn from each other’s views.

“We’re not saying everyone is singing ‘Kumbaya,’” O’Connell conceded, but people will be made aware of a variety of opinions, she said.

The board’s communications committee, of which O’Connell is a member, is also discussing revamping the format of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, which O’Connell termed “a wildly unsuccessful waste of time.”

Traditionally, the superintendent has presented an overview of the proposed budget to a committee of volunteers. In a series of televised sessions, various administrators then elucidate portions of the budget and answer questions from the volunteers. At the last session, the committee members give their opinions on the spending plan.

“It doesn’t engage the community,” said O’Connell, and the input comes too late in the budget process. “When you present the superintendent’s budget, so many decisions have already been made,” she said.

O’Connell also said that, if the school board doesn’t do exactly what CBAC members recommend, “We’re accused of not listening.”

She suggested committee members break into small groups “for a true engagement.”

Board member Allan Simpson responded that one of the things people like about the current CBAC format is that it is televised and they can watch from home to understand the budget. He wondered how small discussion groups would be televised.

Certainly, the television would be different, said O’Connell.

“Let’s be realistic,” said board President Richard Weisz. Board members, he said, “hear a thousand voices.” Some want money spent in one place, others in another, and some not at all.

“They understand in the scheme of things where we come out,” he said.

Board Vice President Catherine Barber said that the budget document can be hard to interpret without help. Cutting back on the presentation might not leave enough time to amply explain it, she said.

“It’s our hope this would open it up to people who haven’t participated before…” said O’Connell of the changed format. “The more different people we get involved in the process, the better.”

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo suggested community members could e-mail the superintendent with topics they would like to see addressed at the Jan. 10 forum.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Extended its contract with Sano-Rubin Construction Company because of additional time needed for three components of the $27 million building project. When work cost less than expected, the school board had added to the project. The district still planned to finish in 18 months, said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, but did not get approval from the State Education Department until August and so couldn’t complete the work as planned over the summer.

For a net cost of $26,289, Sano-Rubin will supervise the remaining work, including roof work at the Guilderland High School and Westmere Elementary School, which is expected to be completed by the end of December; site work at the high school, Farnsworth Middle School, and Lynnwood Elementary School, which has been delayed until next summer; and installation of a photovoltaic system at the high school, the cost of which will be fully reimbursed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The $26,289 will come from the roughly $300,000 left of project money, said Sanders;

— Learned from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton that advanced eighth-grade students will take a Regents Living Environment course rather than the traditional Regents Earth Science course;

— Heard from Singleton that a district-wide Safe and Respectful Schools Committee partnered with Amanda Nickerson, a professor at the University at Albany, to study safety, connectedness, respect, engagement, appreciation of diversity, and self-regulation across the district. The committee was scheduled to meet on Dec. 13 “to identify priority areas and initiate district-wide and local action planning,” Singleton said;

— Discussed whether to hire EthicsPoint Fraud and Abuse Hotline for another year; the rate is going up $110 to $2,310 for the year.

“None of the five calls in the past four years have had any validity,” said O’Connell.

Fraterrigo suggested using a state hotline for free;

— Heard from Superintendent Marie Wiles that four school and community task force teams charged with evaluating a consultant’s recommendations for revamping the district’s special education services met on Nov. 30. Each task force is focusing on one of four topics — entry and exit criteria, organizational structure, professional development, and out-of-district placements. They will report to the ad hoc special-education committee in mid-January, and the school board will hear a full report on Feb. 15.

“The goal is to focus on items that will affect next year’s budget,” said Wiles, who called the Nov. 30 session “a very, very productive 90 minutes together”;

— Reviewed a policy on student records to be acted on later. The policy states that records are available to parents or guardians and to eligible students but are otherwise confidential. The policy also says that directory information — which became an issue when it was released to the teachers’ union for campaign mailings before the budget vote and school board elections — shall only be used by the school district for its own publication purposes;

— Adopted policies on homeless children, encouraging tuition-free enrollment and eliminating barriers; on admission of non-resident students, who must pay tuition and be approved by the superintendent if faculty and space are sufficient; on admission of foreign students, encouraging attendance of non-immigrant foreign high-school students who are part of recognized exchange programs; and on student transportation, which says the board is committed to “a safe and economical transportation system for district students.”

The policy also states, “Students are not entitled to ‘door to door’ transportation. It is the responsibility of the parent, guardian, or daycare provider to ensure safe travel of the student(s) to and/or from the bus stop.” Transportation became an issue this year when a parent wanted his first-grade son picked up in front of his house as he had been last year rather than having to walk a tenth of a mile to a shared bus stop;

— Learned that eight Guilderland students have been selected to play in New York State Honor Bands in March 2011, including eighth-graders Leonard Bopp on trumpet and Therese Giordano on horn; seventh-graders Salil Chaudry playing percussion and Will Wang on clarinet; high-school students Amanda Dame on flute, Jake Benninger on tenor saxaphone, Jon Bintz on trombone, and Halli Travers on alto saxophone; and

— Met in executive session to discuss a tax certorari case and to discuss negotiations with four different units — the Guilderland School Administrators’ Association, the Guilderland District Office Confidential Personnel, the Guilderland Principals’ Association, and the Guilderland Teachers’ Association.

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