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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, Ocotober 27, 2011

Budget conundrum: Can GCSD innovate its way out of a $3M shortfall?

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The challenge facing the two score people who met Tuesday at the high school was to find innovative ways to educate kids as funding shrinks.

Last year, hundreds of people turned out for community forums to discuss their budget priorities. Superintendent Marie Wiles said the lower turnout Tuesday was “probably expected.” She explained, “We’re not talking numbers yet….”

Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, did supply some numbers. The tax levy for the current $89 million budget, that is, the amount raised from local property taxes, was about $62 million. The maximum allowable tax levy for next year under the new state law — which sets the limit at 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower — would be $63.6 million, Sanders calculated.

He described a rollover budget for next year — in which staff and programs would remain the same — and projected that would cost $92.7 million, a $3.8 million increase over this year’s spending.

Since aid is expected to decline, this would leave Guilderland with $66.9 million to raise in property taxes — several million dollars over the limit set by the new law.

The law, however, has what the governor has called a “built-in relief valve”: If 60 percent of voters approve a budget, the levy limit does not apply.

“School districts can put forth any amount of tax-levy increase,” said Sanders. “There is no magical number we can’t exceed.”

If the proposed budget is not approved by the required margin, the district has three choices — putting the original budget up for vote again, putting up a revised budget, or adopting a contingency budget that levies a tax no greater than the year before. If the budget is voted down a second time, there can be no tax-levy increase.

Sanders noted that this zero-percent tax limit is more severe than the current system. “Under a defeated budget, you…cannot go up a penny,” said Sanders.

If Guilderland were to adopt a contingent budget next year, the tax-levy limit would be $62 million.

The last time Guilderland voters passed a budget with more than 60 percent of the vote was in 2008, before the recession.

“We’ve had a couple of difficult years,” said Sanders, noting that 96 staff positions were cut in the past two years, and that class sizes have been increased while programs have been reduced.

The new formula is in effect until at least 2016-17.

“We need to think differently”

Superintendent Wiles said Tuesday’s program was meant both as “a reality check” and a philosophical discussion.

“We need to think differently about how we educate our kids to meet the different demands of the 21st Century,” she said.

About 50 staff members have signed up for a similar session today, said Wiles.

Part of Tuesday’s forum, organized by Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, used technology typical of that in a Guilderland classroom, he said. Attendees were asked to use their smartphones to answer three questions as true or false. The results were instantly tabulated and projected on a screen in front of the room.

The questions were to highlight that the so-called “2-percent cap” does not apply to individual property tax bills, but rather to the levy, and that there is no “tax cap” in effect for next year.

“There is no cap or limit on property tax increases, only thresholds for voter approval,” the attendees were told.

Wiles had started her presentation with a panel that showed a chocolate-chip cookie, a jet engine, Scotch tape, a ballpoint pen, Hostess Twinkies, a Monopoly Game, and antibiotics.

Before the participants broke into small groups for discussion, Wiles asked for their thoughts on the pictured items.

It turns out they were all invented in the 1930s. “There’s never been a bleaker time,” she said of the Great Depression, continuing, “There’s inspiration here…We’re smart people. We can invent our own chocolate-chip cookie…We need to.”

Varied views

With that challenge, the participants dispersed into seven groups, each led by a facilitator from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“All those inventions in the ’30s happened when there was no technology,” Rose Meyers, the mother of children in the district, told her group. She suggested that, rather than stressing technology, it would be better to have students “get in the community to make things better.”

Others in the group noted that every decade has its share of inventions.

Mary Giordano focused on the cuts made to the foreign-language program last year and expressed her concerns that this year, due to the cuts, several teachers are teaching languages outside of their areas of certification.

“That’s part of the real world,” said Daniel Rucinski.

“This is no different than a business,” agreed Tom McGuire of workers having to take on tasks they aren’t trained for.

“Our community conversations only focus on 25 percent of the budget,” said Linda Cure, noting many of the costs are either mandated by the state or required by labor contracts. “The teachers’ contract has not been renewed,” said Cure. “Our school board has to take a hard look at it.” She said lots of districts have step increases only, with no raises beyond that. “I know many people not getting raises and having to pay more health insurance,” said Cure.

The facilitator, Nanette Morges, tried to steer the discussion to suggestions for change, asking how the group felt about solving the foreign language problem, for example, by using Rosetta Stone or other online instruction.

The school board members, at their last meeting, had supported stressing technology and long-distance learning.

Christine Capuano responded, “I’m concerned we are jumping on the technology bandwagon.” She said her husband teaches online courses and it is not the same as learning from classroom teachers.

McGuire chimed in that his son had a bad experience taking an online algebra course over the summer.

“You’re not getting the discussion; you’re not getting the feedback,’ said Capuano of online instruction.

Cure suggested that using smartphones the way the forum participants just had could “be fun and interesting.” She said, “It sounds crazy because kids are not supposed to use their phones” in school.

“Are we trying to find out how to save $6 million?” asked George Korchowsky, who described himself as “a numbers guy.”

Referring to Sanders’s presentation, he said, “It looks like a 7-percent shortfall.” He said that the cost of infrastructure is high and suggested consolidating schools.

“Do you think your education is the best model for today’s learners?” asked the facilitator, Morges, of the participants in general.

“The whole Regents thing makes no sense to me,” said Cure, noting she grew up in a state without required exams like the Regents. She dislikes the focus of teaching to the test.

Sandi Worona, a teacher, raised concerns about the Common Core State Standards that will be required in every state, she said. “Our textbooks are no longer going to be viable,” she said.

She and Meyers both agreed that the increasing class sizes at Guilderland make it harder to teach and learn.

At the end of the session, the group reassembled to hear a synopsis from each of the facilitators. Morges reported that her group discussed integrating technology like texting in the classroom, and that technology should enhance learning but not replace teachers.

Other facilitators reported a lot more work is needed to embrace change, people feel stymied by mandates, specific models are needed to react to, a broader group is needed for a community conversation, existing resources should be used differently, after two years of cuts the community is ready to look at doing things differently, parents are willing to volunteer in classrooms and work with kids over the summer, technology is not a panacea, regulatory systems form real barriers, and there needs to be a push to go beyond the tests.

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