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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 13, 2011

When requirements aren’t complete
School board debates who should march to “Pomp and Circumstance”

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Who should walk across the stage at a Guilderland commencement ceremony?

That was the question debated by school board members last week as the board revises its policy on graduation.

Many districts allow only students who have completed all of their course work to don a cap and gown. But Guilderland has traditionally let about 5 percent of its graduating class that haven’t met requirements — students who need to complete summer school courses in order to earn their diplomas — participate in commencement exercises in June.

Guilderland’s policy states that the school board “authorizes the extension of an invitation to participate in the district’s annual commencement ceremony to all students who are in good standing” — this refers to the student’s disciplinary record — “and who are in a position to complete all graduation requirements prior to August 31st of that year.” The current policy says that implies the student has no more than three courses to complete.

The board’s policy committee recommended changing that to one course to complete.

“A number that have walked across the stage didn’t fulfill their requirements,” said Barbara Fraterrigo, who heads the policy committee. “I don’t think you want to encourage that.”

Board member Richard Weisz countered that he thinks it is “wonderful for all these families…to participate in one of those life milestones.” Weisz said, “To me, it would be sad to have 20 students a year not walk across the stage.”

“My daughter’s heart would have been broken if she hadn’t been able to go with her class,” said board member Denise Eisele.

She explained that her daughter was in Learning Workshop, which offers remedial help to students, and so, to take electives, she had to take two summer classes after graduation, which she had planned on in advance and successfully completed.

Under the policy proposal of just one course, Eisele said of her daughter, “She would have been penalized…She wouldn’t have been able to graduate.”

Superintendent Marie Wiles gave the board a rundown of the numbers from recent years: In 2007, twenty-four students who needed summer-school credit to graduate participated in commencement exercises in June, and six of those ended up not getting the required credits by Aug. 31; in 2008, twenty-four participated, and seven did not get the required credits; in 2009, twenty-five participated, and three did not earn the credits; in 2010, thirty participated, and six did not get the credits; and last June, 13 participated and five did not earn their diplomas.

The board reached consensus that leaving three courses to complete was a physical impossibility since a student can take only two in summer school, but opinions varied on whether it should be one or two courses and on how the new requirement should be phased in.

No one argued for having students complete all required courses before being allowed to participate in the June commencement ceremony.

Board member Allan Simpson, saying he was playing the devil’s advocate, asked, “Why doesn’t the policy and practice go hand in hand?”

Simpson said that students plan their courses far in advance. “You’re behind the eight ball,” he said of a change in policy once courses, including those for summer school, have been mapped out. “It’s not fair to change the rules of the game.”

Wiles said she would consult with guidance counselors and find out how many of the courses taken in summer school after senior year are planned in advance. The board will discuss the policy again at its next meeting.

“A clean audit”

For its state-required independent audit, Guilderland received a report from Bonadio & Co., LLP that it had no material weaknesses, no significant deficiencies, and no instances of non-compliance.

For the first time in several years, the district’s undesignated fund balance — often referred to as a rainy-day fund — was below the 4 percent of the subsequent year’s budget required by state law.

“That basically was a clean audit,” Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders told the school board after Rick Bigham, a certified public accountant from Bonadio, had given his report to the board.

The auditors did recommend improving cash receipt procedures but noted corrective action has already been taken. Advisors for extra-classroom activities are being instructed on bookkeeping procedures.

The audit report notes that in May the district’s $89 million budget passed with 55 percent of the vote. Expenditures in 2010-11, it says, were under-expended by $2.7 million “due in most part to savings in instruction, pupil transportation, special education, employee benefit, and interest expense line items.” A chart shows that 67 percent of revenues came from real property taxes; state sources paid for 24 percent.

The report also states that the district’s total assessed valuation rose by $13 million, or just over 4 percent, in the 2010-11 year, which, it says is “indicative of a strong residential and commercial tax base.”

The report also says the district was aware of several circumstances “that could significantly affect its financial health in the future.” These include an increase in health insurance and retirement costs; an expected deficit in state government finances; required increases in contributions to the retirement systems for teachers and for other employees; and the 2-percent tax levy cap combined with the 2-percent limit on increase in STAR (School TAx Relief), which will result in further decreases in revenues.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Presented awards to recognize the outstanding work of seven employees: Deanna Barney-Sischo, a Pine Bush Elementary teacher with a can-do attitude; Judy Carnavos, a tireless  middle-school math teacher; Mary Helen Collen, the district’s data coordinator who works with patience and dedication; Janet D’Arcangelis, a caring and hard-working Guilderland Elementary teaching assistant; Jane Davis, a special-education teacher at Pine Bush Elementary who makes her students feel safe and secure; Clifford Nooney, the director of physical plant management who has made staff more productive and schools more energy efficient; and Kate Tymeson, a Guilderland Elementary teacher who helps make technology accessible to all.

“This is not an easy time to be involved in public education,” board President Colleen O’Connell told the honorees. “It’s easy for public education to be a whipping boy.” So, she concluded, “It’s important to take time out to recognize our best.”

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Lin Severance said of the 34-year tradition of staff-chosen honorees, “It’s a tradition that makes us feel good, honors our best, and inspires us all”;

— Heard from two residents out of about a dozen who submitted comments on budget priorities for 2012-13. Jeff Cohen, the father of two high school students, said, “Music should have the same priority as math, science, or English…Please, please, please keep music where it should be — front and center.”

Nancy Schulman said she was “very disappointed” that more wasn’t cut from administrative costs as opposed to children’s programming, and that busing could be done more efficiently. She also lamented cuts to the enrichment program calling it “a sliver of what it was”;

— Agreed to accept proposals for refunding bonds. “We have the opportunity to refinance debt, resulting in fairly significant savings,” said Sanders. “Interest rates have gotten much, much lower.” Sanders said that early estimates showed an interest savings as much as $750,000 over the life of the bonds;

— Approved a trip proposed by high-school German teacher Hanna Hickey for April 2012 where students will spend two weeks in Germany, traveling and attending classes as part of the German-American Partnership Program. “She has met all of the requirements of our new, revised policy,” said Wiles. The board adopted a new policy on field trips and travel, following regulations from the state’s education commissioner, that trips be tied to the curriculum of credit-bearing courses;

— Heard from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton that Sarah Jones, a student at Farnsworth Middle School, won the grade six through eight Student Research Award from the State Archives for her entry, “From Yalta to the Cold War.” She will receive a cash prize and certificate at an awards ceremony on Oct. 25 at the Cultural Education Center in Albany;

— Heard from Singleton that David Soares, Albany County’s district attorney, delivered 25 backpacks for needy students, and praised Guilderland’s commitment to safe and respectful schools. Working with Victory Church in Albany, Soares distributed nearly 1,000 backpacks filled with school supplies to Albany County schools as part of the “Enough” anti-violence campaign;

— Heard from Sanders that a certified inspector had completed a required semi-annual report on asbestos at each school building and “found no change in any material condition”;

— Heard from Superintendent Wiles that she attended the fall summit of the New York State Council of Superintendents in Saratoga last month. She called comments made by John B. King Jr., the education commissioner, “inspiring.” Wiles reported his comments on the new state-required Annual Professional Performance Review, which includes evaluating teachers and principals based on student test scores: “We must do this as fast as we can but as slow as we must.” Wiles concluded, “He gave us license to make sure we do it right”;

— Heard from Wiles about an Oct. 3 meeting to set district priorities, which was a follow-up to a similar meeting in May, both led by Singleton. In “two work-intensive hours,” a new mission statement was developed; Wiles declined to share the statement, however, since it still needed “wordsmithing,” she said. The former mission statement was, “Empowering all students to succeed in the 21st Century.”

“These are challenging times…but they are also times of tremendous opportunity,” said Wiles. “I think we’re up to the task”; and

— Met in executive session to talk about tenure recommendations, a tax certiorari case, and negotiations for non-instructional supervisory and other management personnel.

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