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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 10, 2011

At Guilderland
Community advises on hard choices to close $4M gap

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — “Difficult Choices” was the name of the school district’s second forum on closing a $4 million budget gap, and hundreds of people — staff, parents, students, and residents — began making them on Monday.

“We’re at a time of difficult choices and we want all of you to help make those choices,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told a crowd of about 180 on Monday night.

Earlier in the day, about 250 staff members went through a similar process.

“I expected 30 people,” Wiles told The Enterprise of the forum for staff members, which had been scheduled, she said, because, at a Jan. 10 forum, “community members felt overwhelmed” by teachers and other staff members who participated.

Asked if hearing from staff and community members will make it easier to decide on cuts, Wiles responded, “We’ll have a better sense of what the community values. Will the decision be easy? No. We’re choosing between all good things.”

At the January forum, about 130 people — most of them parents or teachers — discussed their priorities in small groups without any dollar amounts attached. This time, they worked from topics in the same four areas — core academic programs; enhanced educational opportunities; health, social, and emotional support services; and educational support services — but with figures provided.

Both sessions were cordial. For example, cuts to sports, a topic that last year had packed the school’s meeting hall as athletes and sports boosters complained about the elimination of freshmen sports from the budget, was just part of the ebb and flow of this year’s talks. Two possibilities were listed: one, to save $69,000 by cutting modified sports, which about a third of the district’s seventh- and eighth-graders participate in, and the other to save $11,300 by cutting ninth-grade basketball, which about 29 students play. Groups were about equally divided Monday night on the modified sports cut, while most favored the latter cut.

“Grim” budget facts

Both the staff and community sessions on Monday began with a presentation by Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, outlining the financial challenges in drafting a spending plan for next year. Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his budget proposal on Feb. 1, so Sanders had solid figures for state aid since Guilderland has traditionally based its aid figures on the governor’s proposal.

With Cuomo proposing an overall reduction in school aid of 7.3 percent — from $20.9 billion to $19.4 billion — Guilderland stands to lose $2.1 million, down from this year’s $22.9 million to $20.8 million. But, Sanders told The Enterprise yesterday, “I had already projected a significant hit,” so his initial estimate of a $4.2 million gap with a rollover budget wasn’t far off the mark; the gap is now pegged at $3.9 million.

Sanders also told the crowd on Monday that, since the state’s fiscal year runs from April 1 to March 31, while the school district’s fiscal year runs from July 31 to June 30, the funding loss will really be felt across two school years — next year and the year after.

Sanders termed the outlook “grim” as he went over “budget facts,” including the recession, the state’s deficit, reduced state aid, the end of federal stimulus funds, the requirement for increased contributions to the Teachers’ Retirement System, the hike in fuel prices, and the possibility of a tax cap.

A rollover budget — keeping staff and programs as they are now — would bring a budget increase of $5.6 million, Sanders said. Figuring in a revenue reduction of $620,000, Guilderland would have to increase its tax levy by $6.3 million. This, Sanders said, would mean a tax-rate hike of  9.8 percent.

If voters approve a 4-percent tax hike, the gap to be spanned — either with cuts or increased revenues — totals $3.9 million.

Cuomo’s proposal for a tax cap is at 2 percent or at the rate of inflation, whichever is less, and inflation is currently 1.6 percent; the cap may be exceeded with a 60-percent majority vote. Last year, Guilderland passed its $87.4 million budget with 55 percent of the vote.

Although the State Senate has already passed a tax-cap bill, even if the Assembly followed suit, the law wouldn’t be applicable until the 2012-13 school year, according to the language in the Senate bill. (See related story.) Sanders said yesterday, “We’re going on the assumption the cap is still a possibility for the 2011-12 budget.” Asked what the gap would be if a tax-levy cap of 1.6 percent were to be imposed, Sanders said it would be $5.3 million rather than $3.9 million.

Asked how Guilderland would make up the additional $2.6 million, Sanders said, “If the tax cap is finalized in the next few weeks, we’ll have to change our thinking.”

The average home in Guilderland is assessed at $220,000. With the 4-percent hike the district is figuring on, that homeowner would pay $4,584 in taxes next year. If the Cuomo tax cap at 1.6 percent were adopted, the same homeowner would pay $4,478, a savings of $106.

Typical of school spending, about three-quarters of the Guilderland budget is made up of salaries and benefits. Projected increases for salaries next year total $1.2 million and for benefits total $2.8 million. The increase in debt service for next year is also hefty — because of Guilderland’s nearly complete $27 million building project — at $1.2 million. The school board last year decided to start the payments next year rather than this year since it was already cutting 56 jobs as state aid was reduced.

School board President Richard Weisz went over this list of projected increases at the end of Monday’s meeting. In answer to the question that had been raised about cutting salaries to close the gap, he said, “We can’t cut their contract unless they agree to it.”

In December, the district was in the midst of or on the cusp of negotiating with half of its 12 bargaining units, including the two largest ones — the Guilderland Teachers’ Association with 494 members and the Guilderland Employees Association with 208 members.

Weisz cited the 1982 Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which requires that the terms of a contract continue if a new one hasn’t been agreed upon, so, for example, if a contract specifies a certain annual raise, that raise will continue until a new contract is in place.

Weisz also said, “We have no control over pensions” except to have fewer employees. “We value our staff,” he said.

Calling this “one of the worst financial economic downturns in history,” Sanders concluded on Monday night, “It requires tough choices and difficult decisions that no one in this room wants to make but has to make.”

He said that any meaningful reduction would have to come from programming and staffing because that is where most of the money is.

Wiles stressed to the crowd, “The list you will see is a list; it is not the list…These are not district recommendations; they are not done.”

Wiles will present a budget — the list — on March 1. The public will then have a chance to comment during several meetings before the school board adopts a final plan on April 12. The public votes on May 17.

Wiles concluded, “You’re here to tell us as clearly as you can what you as a community value…so we know your heart.”

Setting priorities

As the leaders of the various discussion groups reported their groups’ priorities, differences between those in the staff forum and the community forum emerged.

“Some of the staff members walked in maybe a little bit defensive and protective,” said Lin Severance, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, describing the session with staff members to The Enterprise. “We really tried to help them understand, these are not the recommended cuts. These are areas the community asked us to look at…These were things we had control over, not negotiated or mandated items.”

Severance went on, describing the session, “The conversations were amazing. There was great dialogue among teachers and staff members, providing information to each other….The room was a quiet hum of work. The energy ramped up when it was time to report out. All the best brains were thinking on this problem — exactly what we wanted.”

Severance kept a tally of each group’s priorities during the staff session, on which the following list of the big-ticket items — those over $200,000 — is based:

Full-day kindergarten: Reverting to a half-day program would save $605,000. Ten staff groups wanted to keep the full-day program while two groups wanted to explore it further. At the community forum Monday night, only two groups supported keeping the full-day program while several favored cutting it, and the majority wanted to consider it further.

Data from the district states that 41 percent fewer Guilderland first-graders needed academic and behavioral support after attending full-day kindergarten;

Class size: The majority of staff and community groups favored increasing class size by one student in third, fourth, and fifth grades, which would save $469,200. The projected average size would be 21.5; the current range is 17 to 25;

Tutorials at the middle school: The district would save $276,000 by having five-teacher rather than four-teacher teams at the middle school. In the new plan, each teacher would oversee five instructional periods and the tutorial period would be eliminated. While residents favored this cut, staff did not;

Class sections at the high school: Based on declining enrollment, with 72 fewer students projected, classes in foreign languages, English, math, and social studies would be cut to save $220,800. Most groups of both staff and residents favored this cut;

Enrichment programs: By eliminating enrichment in kindergarten through eighth grade, the district would save $277,900. The residents were split on this cut, with slightly more opposing it, while the staff favored it. Currently, half of students in the upper elementary grades participate in enrichment workshops, and about 400 middle school students participate;

Non-mandated sixth-grade courses: Eliminating foreign language, health, and technology courses would save $276,000, which the majority at both forums felt needed more discussion;

Walking to school: State law allows high school students to walk three miles to school and younger students to walk two miles. Guilderland currently sets the eligibility at two-tenths of a mile for elementary students, half a mile for middle-school students, and one mile for high-school students. It would save $387,230 to move to the maximum allowed by law; about 1,765 students would not be eligible to ride a school bus. The majority of the groups at both forums opposed this cut, citing safety concerns.

On cuts that would save less than $200,000, there was strong support at both forums for keeping social workers and for keeping teaching assistants, particularly if class sizes were increased.

Approval was nearly unanimous for eliminating the instructional administrator for guidance ($51,770), removing personal appliances like coffeepots and microwaves ($45,000), reducing district office clerical staff ($40,080), cutting the number of late bus runs ($23,700), limiting summer school to students repeating courses ($32,652), deferring facilities and energy efficiency improvement projects ($100,000), purchasing less technology equipment ($100,530), eliminating the teaching of Spanish at the elementary schools ($69,000), cutting field trips ($40,000), eliminating Tech Valley High School tuition ($36,000), eliminating Italian I at the high school ($27,600), eliminating the eighth-grade studio art course ($13,800), and offering eighth-grade accelerated science during the school day ($39,900).

The staff was divided on cutting a special-education administrator ($87,830), on reverting to a three-house model at the middle school ($114,140), on eliminating elementary library typists ($87,980), on reducing teacher leader appointments ($136,340), and on reducing nursing services ($47,100) while the people at the Monday night session largely favored those reductions.

Both groups were divided on reducing classroom-based science support at the high school ($186,300), and on eliminating music lessons at the high school ($103,500)

Residents are encouraged to weigh in with their own views on the district website, which will also carry a full report on the forums.

As she observed Monday night’s session, Severance commented, “These folks are invested. This community is very respectful. They listen to each other and learn. I love this process.”

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