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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 2, 2012

Levy questions schedule changes on behalf of staff, board advised trusting system

GUILDERLAND — The school district estimates it may save about half-a-million dollars by rearranging schedules, thereby cutting some staff.

Guilderland must slash $3.2 million from next year’s budget if it is to stay under the state imposed tax-levy limit; the limit may be overridden with 60 percent of the public vote, a mark the district hasn’t reached since the recession started in 2008. The district is currently at an impasse in contract negotiations with its two largest unions.

Superintendent Marie Wiles has studied the district’s administrative structure and recommended cutting two posts. The district is also using data-driven budgeting for the first time, to match services to actual student need.

Wiles also worked with staff and a consultant to examine schedules and, in December, she proposed changes in the school day, most significantly at the middle school and high school.

At last week’s school board meeting, Rose Levy, the board’s newest member, spoke out for the second meeting in a row, citing concerns that teachers had raised with her about the proposed changes.

Levy said this week she was surprised by other board members’ reactions, and heard from people afterward who had watched the televised meeting. “They thought I was shut down,” she said.

“You had in the paper that I was told to bring my concerns to the next meeting,” Levy told The Enterprise. She said that 25 to 30 teachers contacted her; only a few were from the elementary schools as the changes proposed at that level are small. About half of the teachers who raised concerns are from the high school and the other half are from the middle school, she said.

As Levy continued to itemize the concerns at last Tuesday’s meeting, the school board president, Colleen O’Connell, interrupted her, saying, “I don’t want to hear 25 complaints from 25 teachers.”

“They’re not complaints; they’re concerns,” responded Levy.

Most of the concerns at the high school center on doing away with the advisory period and adding, instead, a shorter activity period at the end of the day. Twelve years ago, when the high school moved to a block schedule, with longer classes that meet fewer times a week, it incorporated the advisory period as part of the school day.

Most of the middle school concerns similarly focus on eliminating the tutorial period. The proposed changes would move the day from the current nine periods to eight, increasing class time from 40 to 45 minutes, and lowering class size from nearly 30 students to 23 to 25 students instead.

Some board members objected to having the concerns raised at their meeting, indicating they should be dealt with at the school level, or with district administrators.

“We have shared decision-making,” said the board’s vice president, Gloria Towle-Hilt, stating that it was undermining administrators’ work to have the concerns aired at the meeting. She also said the concerns had been summarized for the board during the December presentation. (To read an in-depth report on Wiles’s original presentation, go online to www.AltamontEnterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for Dec. 15, 2011.)

“What is the best way for the building to get answers to concerns?” board member Richard Weisz asked Towle-Hilt.

Well into the hour-long discussion, Towle-Hilt said, “Shared decision-making is not easy. It’s a lot easier to make the decision and tell people about it.”

She also asked Levy, “Do you see our role as conduits for teachers?”

Towle-Hilt said, rather, it is the board members’ role to tell the supervisor what they think. “They shouldn’t be using us,” she said of the teachers.

“I’m not being used,” Levy responded.

“We’re trying to be a sounding board,” said Weisz. The program report in December didn’t give him the information he has now, said Weisz, concluding, “We’re launching the airplane. We don’t have the landing strip built yet…A lot of people won’t get on the airplane until they see the landing strip.”

Eventually, the middle-school principal, Mary Summermatter, and the high school principal, Thomas Lutsic, were called to the microphone to answer some of the concerns.

Levy said this week that she met with Wiles on Friday to go over the concerns that teachers had raised. “She suggested a Q and A on the district’s website,” reported Levy. But Levy feels strongly the concerns should be aired in public at school board meetings.

“I wanted to make everyone aware of the concerns,” she said. “I was trying to have a discussion. I wasn’t expecting answers…The board should know the concerns, address them, and then weigh the effect on the kids…It has to be done at a public meeting so parents and the community can see these concerns are addressed.”

She concluded, “I’ll keep asking questions.”

At the high school

Levy and O’Connell visited the high school during its advisory period the day of the Jan. 24 school board meeting and O’Connell reported to the board that she came away with the impression that, as the superintendent had indicated, about 85 percent of what goes on during advisory period is students’ doing their homework.

O’Connell also reported that Levy had asked Principal Lutsic, if money were no object, would he favor the proposed new schedule and he said he would. “The word it keeps coming back to is flexibility,” said O’Connell.

She concluded, “There are some people who would like to cling to what we have.”

Levy told the board she came away with a different perspective. “I was surprised and amazed with how much goes on during advisory,” she said of the hour-and-a-half long period.

Students told her they’d have to choose among clubs, extra help, and sports if everything were moved to the after-school period. The advisor for the high-school newspaper, she reported, said that, if The Journal were made into a credit-bearing course as has been proposed, you wouldn’t “get the kids who really want to be there.”

Lutsic told the board that the high school leadership team started looking at schedule changes this summer and, once school started, the building cabinet met twice a month rather than its usual once a month.

“We’ve been reaching out,” said Lutsic of himself and other administrators who have talked with faculty. “This has moved a lot faster than people are used to…You’re not going to please all of the people all of the time…. We’ll have to adjust as we go.”

Lutsic also said that the flexibility of the new schedule would allow for more student choice as well as more balanced class sizes.

Wiles estimated that this re-distribution could cut four or five jobs, saving about a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

Board member Denise Eisele said that she had two children with special needs go through Guilderland High School and said of her daughter, “She found her advisory very frustrating…They played games and hung out.” Eisele called it a “100-percent waste of time, “ and said, “There was no education going on.” She concluded, “It isolated them.”

Later in the discussion, Eisele also said, “I like the idea of choice.” Making choices, she said, is “a mature adult concept,” and students have to learn they “can’t do it all.” For example, she said, athletes may have to choose between playing their sport and joining a club.

O’Connell responded that, if the rules are enforced, and sports practice starts at 3:15 or 3:30 p.m., students should be able to do both. “I have learned we’re underutilizing the time after 2:25…We’re paying people to be there,” she said.

At the middle school

At Farnsworth Middle School, Levy said, teachers are concerned that contact time between teachers and special-needs students would be reduced.

Wiles said instruction wouldn’t look the same but stressed, “We absolutely have to meet the mandate of the IEP.” She was referring to the Individualized Education Program, which is mapped out for each special-education student.

Summermatter said that a group of special-education teachers has been working on answers to concerns that have been raised and will present them to the leadership team.

Demian Singleton, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, said that Farnsworth special-education teachers have been looking at programs in a way that is long overdue “to start thinking about the ‘I’ in IEP.” Singleton said it’s “opening up eyes to different ways” of providing help.

He concluded, “Before, it’s always been, ‘This is your program regardless of what individual needs are.’”

Levy told The Enterprise this week that teachers told her the tutorial period is used for research and group projects and for developing relationships with students. “They hold town-hall-type meetings in keeping with the middle-school philosophy on topics like bullying,” she said. “Teachers are very concerned that, without that extra contact time, some kids will fall through the cracks.”

Some teachers told her they’d rather have the larger class sizes than lose the tutorial, Levy said.

“There are concerns that, while it may save money now, down the road it will cost more as test scores go down and intervention is needed,” she said. “These aren’t teachers who are afraid of change or opposed to more work, but they felt it would not be good for kids.”

“People are afraid of the unknown,” Summermatter told the school board. “We have to do something new.”

Levy asked Summermatter if the middle school schedule would have been changed if it weren’t for the budget crunch.

“No,” responded the principal. “We reconfigured the day five years ago for more teacher contact time….” But she conceded, “It’s an expensive model.”

The new schedule would cut four-and-a-half posts, saving roughly a quarter of a million dollars.

“That’s the sad reality of it,” said Summermatter. She likened the current schedule to “the Cadillac model,” and described having to drive a lesser car recently while hers was in the shop. She had to roll down the windows, rather than push a button. “But it got me from Point A to Point B,” she said.

“The most expensive item isn’t always the best,” said board member Allan Simpson.

“It’s so hard to change,” said board member Judy Slack. “You know what you have works.”

“Our teachers are over-achievers…They want to make sure they’re providing the best possible environment for learning,” said Summermatter.

Simpson concluded that the scheduling changes would save half-a-million dollars.

“But at what cost?” asked Levy.

“Just because you’ve spent more money doesn’t mean you get a better product,” responded Simpson.

— By Melissa Hale-Spencer

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