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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 17, 2011

Faced with budget cuts
Kids speak out for music, German, indoor track

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — An informal budget hearing on Tuesday night functioned largely as an endorsement of valued school programs that are slated to be cut.

Among the 26 speakers, 11 students stepped to the microphone to tell with poise and passion about the worth of indoor track, of learning German, and of being in musical groups at the middle school.

In the wake of reduced state aid and increased costs for pensions and health care, Superintendent Marie Wiles has proposed an $89 million budget for next year that would cut 44 jobs and scores of programs. The district’s goal was to close a $4 million budget gap while keeping the tax hike under 4 percent. (For the full story on the proposal, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for March 3, 2011.)

The board is slated to adopt a spending plan on April 12; the budget goes to public vote on May 17.

“Guilderland has been looked upon as a heaven for the kids to grow up in…To take away our rights of opportunity is equal to a sin,” said high school student Malcolm Nelson, a member of the indoor track and field team, slated to be cut. “We need to work as a whole to save our foundation — education and opportunity.”

His teammate, Anthony Toffenetti, said indoor track “made me physically and mentally fit, kept me out of trouble.” He excelled and went to state competition. Although he’ll graduate this June, Toffenetti said he was concerned for other students. “To deny them the opportunity to improve their lives is wrong,” he said, “and I’m morally opposed to it.”

“Music is my sport,” Abby Dennis, a student at Farnsworth Middle School, told the school board and administrators. She said she gets up an hour early to be part of the select band and choir, which rehearse before the start of the school day.

“Cutting them would be painful for kids like me,” she said, concluding of herself and her fellow musicians, “We’re stressful non-belonging children.”

With these words, warm laughter rippled across the crowd of about 100. Most comments were greeted with a smattering of applause.

The crowd fell silent when Jack Buttridge, who is in the stage band and the jazz ensemble at Farnsworth, said, “I only actually have a few reasons for getting out of bed.” He said that last year, he was bullied, and the music took his mind off that.

The band and ensemble, he said, also allowed him to meet “a lot of new people” who communicate through music. They are now his friends.

“I’m a German student,” a sixth-grader at Farnsworth, Joe Giordano, told the board towards the end of the televised two-hour session. The language program for sixth grade is not mandated, and is cut in half, to 20 weeks, by the proposed budget. “I love German,” said Giordano. “To take that and cut it in half would be like cutting my life in half.”

Parents weighed in, too. Thomas Henderson, the father of a Tech Valley High School sophomore, was relieved to learn current students from Guilderland could continue to go to the regional school, which was designed to form a model for hands-on education. No new Guilderland students will be sent.

Another father, Don Paratore, whose daughter, Jackie, is a Guilderland cheerleader, said, “I cannot imagine Friday-night football without cheerleaders.” He described the crowd’s favorable reaction at a recent competition at Disney World, where Guilderland claimed first place at the National Championships.

Fall cheerleading is being cut as a “repeat sport,” since cheerleaders also cheer at basketball games in the winter. Paratore said, “Take away the fall, they’re not going to be as good as they are.”

Indoor track is also labeled a repeat sport although several athletes told the board that the spring track program doesn’t offer the same options. Also, they said, the entire sport is being cut unlike other sports that are just losing freshman teams.

Last year, a crowd of about 200 packed the school board’s meeting hall to protest the cutting of freshman and repeat sports. Sports boosters then rallied and raised funds, roughly $70,000, from the community to restore all sports for this school year.

At Tuesday’s hearing, six athletes — Dejana Harris, Abby Marco, Gabby Del Bene, and Anna Pickett as well as Nelson and Toffenetti — spoke about how important the indoor track and field program was for them, and Paratore spoke about the cheerleading, but there was no large organized movement.

Several speakers asked how community members would go about raising funds to restore a variety of cut clubs and programs. Wiles said a list of the dollar amounts that would be needed could be provided.

Answering concerns

At the start of the hearing, Wiles went over six topics that she said had raised the most questions and concerns. She reiterated her views for maintaining the district’s two-year-old full-day kindergarten program. Two citizens later said they favored returning to a half-day program, freeing money for programs that had proved their worth, while two others spoke of the value of a full-day program.

Wiles also went over the role played by school administrators, overseeing “a very complex organization” with 5,236 students and 1,064 faculty and staff members in nine buildings. Her budget proposes cutting 1.6 administrative posts, bringing the total down to 29.4.

Wiles presented a chart, detailing the proposed job cuts by category — roughly 30 teachers, six support-staff members, half of a nursing job, and seven teaching assistants in addition to the administrative cuts.

Wiles also explained the reason her proposal keeps three levels of sports — modified, junior varsity, and varsity — while eliminating freshman sports. She said freshman sports had the fewest participants and that, statewide as well as regionally, there were many fewer freshman teams.

While she conceded that community programs were offered at the modified level, they are “pay to play” and many are “off-season,” said Wiles. Also, in school programs, there’s an educational focus with sports. “We try to teach life lessons,” said Wiles.

Wiles also presented lists of middle-school and high-school clubs and organizations that would be kept and that would be cut. The lists are posted on the district’s website, at www.guilderlandschools.org, along with details on the six topics Wiles addressed.

“The programs can exist but we can’t fund the stipends,” said Wiles.

The proposal keeps the Farnsworth musical, which involves three stipends; the student council, yearbook and Future Cities at two stipends each; and honor society and television news at one stipend each. Stipends are for all other advisors, totaling 22 organizations, including for several sports clubs, the school newspaper, the select band and choir and the stage band.

At the high school, two advisors for each class are maintained along with two for the National Honor Society, three for yearbook production, and four for the school musical — one each for the producer, the director, the conductor, and the set designer. Six other stipends are maintained; one each for the fall play; the International Club; the Key Club; the student government; the Student Recognition Program; and The Journal, the high school’s newspaper.

The budget proposal cuts 33 stipends for groups ranging from Art Club to Mock Trial.

Last year, students successfully petitioned to have stipends restored after co-curricular cuts were proposed.

Finally at Tuesday’s hearing, Wiles described in detail the plan to reduce science classroom-based support at the high school. The current system, she said, is “a very expensive way” to deliver extra help, which students could still get during advisory or after-school activity periods.

Range of concerns

Two of the speakers at Tuesday’s hearing urged the board to forego raises for faculty in order to keep more programs.

In addition to the Farnsworth students who spoke in favor of keeping the current foreign-language program and co-curricular music programs, several parents spoke in support of those programs, too.

 Walt Jones said his son is now a student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. “I’m certain he would not be there without the FMS performance groups,” said Jones. Those groups are where kids jumped from playing notes to making music, he said.

His wife, Karen Covert-Jones, tried to pin down Wiles on what Farnsworth students would be doing during the time when language instruction was cut.

Wiles responded that teachers were looking at “creative ways” to adjust the schedule and “maximize time.” She agreed with Covert-Jones, “If all this means is study hall…it’s an unwise cut.”

Chris Connor, the husband of Farnsworth’s German teacher, spoke about the need for Americans to learn foreign languages, something Guilderland had excelled at. He said that, when he served in Iraq, lives were lost because Americans didn’t speak the language.

Farnsworth Spanish teacher Fran Gorka said it would be “a huge mistake to dismantle the foreign-language program which many in this community…have fought long and hard to build.”

She spoke of the need to create global citizens and said, “with crises the world over, I know we all recognize this importance…We can’t talk the talk and then walk away from an esteemed foreign-language program.”

Two speakers — the parent of a seventh-grader and a long-time school clerical worker — expressed concerns about eliminating a house at the middle school, which would cut a counseling and secretarial post.

Sandee Piculell, a clerical staff member for 16 years, said how concerned she was with misinformation accepted as fact. “Community members, please ask questions,” she implored as her voice quavered with emotion, urging administrators to share information.”

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