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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 14, 2011

Unanimous for $89M plan, would hike taxes 3.48%

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — After two hours of proposals and counter-proposals on Tuesday night, the nine school board members adopted an $89 million spending plan for next year by unanimous vote.

The board decided, at the last minute, in a split vote, to include funding that would pay half the costs of freshmen sports with the other half to be raised from the community.

If the public approves the budget on May 17, the tax hike for Guilderland residents is estimated at 3.48 percent. The $88,961,475 proposal represents a 1.73 percent increase in spending over this year’s budget.

If voters defeat the budget, the board can put the same budget up for a vote, put a revised budget up for a vote, or move to a contingency plan. If the budget were to be voted down again in June, the board would be required to move to a contingent budget. The board would then have to remove $260,000 in non-contingent items, said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.

The district currently has 5,236 students and expects a drop of 114 students next year, mostly at the elementary level. The district employs 737 full-time and 327 part-time workers.

Faced with decreased state aid and rising health-care and pension costs, the district hosted several forums where staff and community members could air their thoughts on what should be cut. The superintendent’s budget, presented in revised form last week, cut 41 jobs, mostly teachers’, and a number of non-mandated programs. The budget for this year cut 56 jobs.

Marie Wiles, who became Guilderland’s superintendent in October, made a final proposal Tuesday night, based on what board members had requested the week before. (For the full story on the initial budget presentation, go online to www.AltamontEnterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for March 3, 2011; for the story outlining board views expressed last week, many of which were reiterated Tuesday night, look under Guilderland archives for April 7, 2011.)

“This was a bit of a challenge,” Wiles said. “There is a rich diversity of perspective on this board.”

Her plan made seven restorations — totaling $262,880 — to the budget she had proposed the week before:

— Sixth-grade foreign language for $110,400;

— Sixth-grade technology education, which had been cut in half, for $55,200;

— Instrumental lessons for juniors and seniors for $34,500;

— Stipends for advisors of select performing groups for $20,180;

— Stipends for advisors for six high school groups — Best Buddies, bowling for challenged students, MasterMinds, Natural Helpers, STAR (Students and Teachers Against Racism), and Tri-M musical honor society — for $12,845;

— Stipends for advisors for middle-school groups including Charlotte Awards, Math Counts, Organic Gardening, and Peer Mentoring for $9,785; and

— Fall cheerleading and indoor track, which had been considered repeat sports, for $19,970.

The budget does not restore the cut social worker, so there would be 10 rather than 11 social workers in the district next year. Wiles said it was “never the intent” to cut a social worker from the special-education program, for which fewer than five are required. She reiterated figures showing Guilderland’s ratio, with 10 social workers, of social workers to students would be 1:530 while the federal recommendation is 1:800.

She also cautioned people to “be careful about how we define a crisis,” which she defined as “a child in danger of hurting himself or others.” The district already has in place, Wiles said, “a tremendous amount of resources” such as assistant principals, house principals, counselors, and nurses as well as crisis teams at each school.

Funding freshmen sports half-way

Only one change to Wiles’s proposal garnered enough board votes to be included in the final proposal — funding half the cost of freshmen sports.

Board President Richard Weisz’s proposal to restore some of the cut enrichment programs to the elementary schools didn’t get a second. Neither did Barbara Fraterrigo’s motion to cut the non-mandated sixth-grade health classes.

Two other proposals were defeated with split votes. Both Vice President Catherine Barber and Fraterrigo favored returning to a half-day kindergarten program to save $605,000 next year. Barber and Fraterrigo were also the only two to vote for adding, for $72,200, a teacher and materials to keep the Foreign Language Early Start (FLES) program alive, teaching Spanish in the elementary schools so that it wouldn’t disappear for another generation.

Emilio Genzano towards the end of the meeting proposed funding half the cost for freshmen sports with the other half to be raised from the community.

A year ago, the board’s meeting hall was packed as athletes and sports boosters protested the elimination of repeat and freshmen sports. In the wake of state aid cuts, Genzano had been one of three board members — Julie Cuneo and Colleen O’Connell were the other two — who advocated reinstating freshman sports. Then, at the April 27 meeting last year, when the hall was filled with protesters, Genzano spoke in favor of sticking to the budget that the majority had supported.

“We have to respect this process…I will look for alternatives,” he said then. “This isn’t over.”

He lost his election bid last May. Asked on election night if he thought his stance on sports is what caused his defeat at the polls, Genzano said he had no regrets. “You speak your mind,” he said. “You do what you think is right.”

When Cuneo resigned to move out of town with her family, the board appointed Genzano to fill the seat until this May’s election; he is running again.

Meanwhile, Genzano headed a group called Friends of Guilderland Athletics, which raised roughly $70,000 from the community to restore all of the cut sports.

This year, except for the indoor track athletes who turned out in force to speak up for their sport, there was no public outcry about the cut sports.

Genzano was the only one to even mention freshmen sports as the board members stated their priorities last week. This Tuesday, he said that funding two sports — fall cheerleading and indoor track 100 percent — was unfair to the others and what had been done as a community.

Funding the other sports — freshmen football and boys’ and girls’ soccer in the fall; boys’ and girls’ basketball in the winter; and boys’ lacrosse, baseball, and softball in the spring — would cost roughly $48,000. Genzano recommended including half of that in the budget, perhaps spending less on fuel and equipment repair.

Several other board members said that strategy would be unwise. “You’re on a fool’s errand,” said Judy Slack to Genzano, indicating fuel costs were likely to increase.

Genzano said that his idea of the school district’s mission was “first and foremost” to teach academics. The next step, he said, was to educate “the whole child” with co-curricular activities like sports or music.

“In my opinion,” said O’Connell, “select music groups are academic.” While students might not receive a grade, she said, the groups’ rehearsal sessions are part of the school day.

“We don’t want to pit music and sports against each other,” said Barber, long a proponent for music.

“Are they going to have anyone to play with?” asked Gloria Towle-Hilt of freshmen teams.

Wayne Bertrand, the district’s athletic director, said that, among the Suburban Council schools, only Averill Park and Columbia are cutting freshmen teams.

“Is this the only reduction in athletics?” asked Towle-Hilt.

Wiles said that the short answer was yes.

At the start of the session, the board had approved memorandums of agreement with the two, out of 12, bargaining units that had agreed to make concessions to help with the budget crisis.

The Administrators’ Association, which has 10 members, including special-education administrators, middle-school house principals, high-school assistant principals, and an assistant physical education director — agreed to a $10,575 salary concession.

And, secondly, the Instructional Administrators’ Association — which has eight members, including two middle-school supervisors (for language arts, social studies, and reading and for math and science), two high-school supervisors (for English and social studies and for math and science), and four district-wide supervisors (for physical education, health, and athletics; and for art; for music; and for foreign languages)— agreed to each give up three days of pay next year, a $9,558 salary concession.

The $10,575 concession had already been figured into Wiles’s budget proposal, but the newer $9,558 concession had not.

Fraterrigo suggested putting those funds towards freshmen sports, leaving roughly $14,000 to be made up in the budget.

“We’ve still got to get to zero,” said Allan Simpson who had advocated restoring items only if something of equal cost could be removed.

Fraterrigo responded that he could have gotten to zero if he had supported a return to half-day kindergarten.

“What better use of concession money for employees than to give opportunities to our kids,” said Weisz, who also thought restoring elementary-school enrichment programs was important.

“The community spoke last year; they want it,” said Genzno of the cut sports. “What message are we sending if we do two but not the rest?” he asked, referring to the repeat sports — fall cheerleading and indoor track — which Wiles had already restored for $19,970.

Ultimately, the board voted, 5 to 4, to add $24,000 to pay half the costs of freshmen sports; the calculation was made that the $9,558 concession would pay for part of that. Genzano, Barber, O’Connell, Fraterrigo, and Denise Eisele voted for the measure with Towle-Hilt, Simpson, Weisz, and Slack opposed.

Eisele said yesterday on the reason for her vote, “I think it’s reasonable to say, ‘We’ll put in half; you come up with half.’ I like that compromise.”

Some sports boosters said earlier that they were exhausted from last year’s fund-raising efforts. The Enterprise asked Sanders after Tuesday’s meeting what would happen if the other $24,000 couldn’t be raised in time, and which sports would be funded. Sanders said the matter would be referred to the board to decide.

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