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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 24, 2011

As GCSD faces $4M gap
Board members pleased with budget process, hold varied views on what to cut

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND  — As the school board gears up for the March 1 presentation of the superintendent’s budget, members said they are largely pleased with this year’s process.

Rather than recruiting a committee of citizens to review the superintendent’s budget, a longstanding practice at Guilderland, the district hosted three forums to get public input on shaping the spending plan before it was presented. Figuring on a tax-rate hike of 4 percent, Guilderland is facing a $4 million budget gap if it keeps its staff and programs the same as in this year’s $87.4 million budget.

In January, about 130 people — most of them parents or teachers — discussed their priorities in small groups without any dollar amounts attached. In February, about 250 staff members and, later that same day, about 180 community members 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. (For the full story, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for Jan. 13, 2011 and Feb. 10, 2011.)

At the board’s Feb. 15 meeting, President Richard Weisz said he was impressed with the “massive turnout” at the forums. “We’re trying to listen to all the comments,” he said. The comments from the forums are posted on the district’s website and scores of additional e-mails have been received as well. Weisz also said rumors were running rampant, and that there is no plan to close a school.

While most of the board members praised the new process, a few made comments on how to improve it next year. Vice President Catherine Barber, the only board member who had opposed switching to the new process this year, said she found it hard to tabulate comments because they were grouped by table rather than by topic.

Colleen O’Connell, who serves on the board’s communications committee, said there will be no public comment before Superintendent Marie Wiles presents the budget on March 1. The meeting, in the high school’s large-group instruction room, begins at 7 p.m.

Attendees will be able to write questions and comments on papers that are color coded for the four quadrants discussed at the forums. A facilitator will group the comments to avoid repetition.

“We’re not guaranteeing everyone can get up at the microphone,” said O’Connell. Each speaker will be limited to 90 seconds or two minutes, she said, noting that people are always welcome to e-mail their comments to the board.

An informal budget hearing will be held in the same place on March 15 at 7 p.m. The school board is slated to adopt a spending plan at its April 12 meeting, and the public will vote on May 17.

Board views on cuts

Board members at the Feb. 15 meeting each gave their views on the budget. The only across-the-board agreement was on increasing class sizes to save money. The board is still split on full-day kindergarten.

Barbara Fraterrigo was absent, but O’Connell read her views. Like several of the board members, Fraterrigo asked for a flow chart of administrators to be presented along with the budget. She called for the elimination of an assistant principal at the high school and a house principal at the middle school while retaining the special education administrator at the middle school. She also advocated cutting the assistant athletic director’s post and stationing just one police officer for both the middle and high schools, rather than one at each school.

“In chess, you never trade the queen,” said Weisz, noting he didn’t know what could be traded when it comes to school administrators.

Weisz, who had pushed for full-day kindergarten, instituted two years ago, said he wasn’t sure the savings of about $600,000 for reverting to a half-day program was correct. He reasoned, since there’s been a 41-percent drop of first-graders who need help, substantial dollars would be saved as well.

He also raised the issue of English teachers teaching just four classes while most others teach five, and said he’d like a presentation on the dollars to be saved with such collective-bargaining changes.

Weisz said the X classes, which combine the study of two subjects are “worth their weight in gold.”

He also suggested looking into borrowing buses from other districts, and advocated the three-tiered model for sports.

Barber said that, in general, consolidation of resources is good, and she favors a three-house model at Farnsworth Middle School. Barber also noted that she was opposed to moving to full-day kindergarten in the first place. She said she had no problem raising class sizes to keep programs.

A musician herself, Barber also said that, if music lessons are cut, it would be “extremely disruptive” to have students getting instruction in the midst of playing in an ensemble. She also opposed cutting enrichment programs.

Emilio Genzano, who headed the group that closed a $60,000 gap last year to restore sports cut in this year’s budget, said the three-tiered sports system is important to the child.

He asked a philosophical question, “How do we get this back…to making our children productive community members?” Genzano went on, “Not every child wants to go to college. Not every child can go the college.” He concluded that, if children are given the basic tools, “The rest will fall in place.”

Judy Slack, who was not initially a booster for full-day kindergarten, said she didn’t want to go back to the half-day program, citing the good results. She does not oppose increasing class size.

Slack concluded with a statement on the worth of administrators, who do the work to meet state mandates so teachers don’t have to.

O’Connell, in an attempt to bridge the $4 million gap, came up with a list of cuts that totaled $3.68 million, including cutting enrichment programs. She said the library could help and that Wiles had suggested working with local colleges and universities.

O’Connell also said she wants to keep full-day kindergarten, citing the statistics that define its success, keep the X program at the high school, and keep the three-tiered sports model.

She called having students walk to school to save on transportation costs “a total non-starter” and “not worth the safety.”

Allan Simpson opposed full-day kindergarten and said it was worth exploring an increase in class sizes. He said Farnsworth, like other middle schools, could use the five-teacher team model. He recommended cutting extracurricular activities that don’t draw many students, and opposed, for safety reasons, having children walk to school.

While field trips were one of the items that forum participants most frequently recommended cutting, Simpson said that he had recently been on one. “There’s a lot you can learn on a field trip you can’t get any other way,” he said.

Denise Eisele noted that, at the community forums, many people suggested getting classroom help from volunteers. From her years in the PTA, she said, “We couldn’t get people to volunteer…We beat our heads against the wall.” To count on that, she said, would be dangerous.

She also noted hearing a forum group advocating to cut a school nurse, saying someone else could do that job. A nurse herself, Eisele asked, “Who — the janitor? The secretary?”

Eisele approved cutting the special-education administrator at the middle school, noting that teachers have been handling the conference meetings and it works “beautifully,” while the administrator “was simply facilitating.” She also said she was “OK” with increasing class sizes.

Eisele was the only one to speak in favor of looking at implementing the state transportation standards, which allow high-school students to walk three miles and elementary students to walk two. This would save the district about $387,230 in one year.

Eisele said she had walked two miles to her high school. “What’s wrong with teaching kids how to walk to school, how be safe in their environment?” she asked. Eisele said that, at the last forum, high school students looked “horrified” that they might have to walk to school. “You might have to walk to your job,” she said.

Eisele referenced her earlier comments that Guilderland prepares its students for college but she’s not sure it prepares them for life. “I’m not sure we’re educating the whole child for the real world,” she said.

Gloria Towle-Hilt, a retired Farnsworth Middle School teacher, said that co-curricular activities could make a large difference for individual students.

On the enrichment programs, she said that, 25 years ago, when the program was started, the argument was made that gifted and talented kids would succeed, no matter what but that turned out not to be true.

“I’m on the side of reducing,” she concluded, “not eliminating.”

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Heard from O’Connell that the board’s communications committee is talking about the district’s use of social media and will hear from Barbara Bradley of the New York State School Boards Association about starting a Twitter feed and a Facebook page;

— Heard from Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders about the corrective action plan the district is taking in response to the recent audit by the State Comptroller’s Office. (For the full story, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for Jan. 20, 2011.) The audit found no improper payments, but made recommendations in four areas for claims processing, which the district is following;

— Heard that Linda Mossop, school lunch director, was the runner-up in the PepsiCo Foodservice’s Breakfast Recipe contest for her fruited oatmeal bake. Recipes were judged on originality, appeal to students, ease of preparation, uniqueness of ingredients, nutrition, and taste. The district will receive a $1,500 gift voucher to purchase kitchen and library materials or physical-education equipment;

— Heard from Superintendent Wiles that school board members had their annual meeting with trustees of the Guilderland Public Library, during which they talked about the budget; explored ideas for stronger programmatic ties, particularly if enrichment teachers are cut; and heard about the library’s plan to have a vote on expansion in 2012 (see related story); and

— Learned that Christopher Walsh, a local dentist and parent, is offering free dental screenings for students at Westmere Elementary School. “He just wants to help and inspire other dentists to do similar things,” said Wiles, noting that Walsh is not using the screening to expand his practice, but would make referrals elsewhere.

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