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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 19, 2012

Catherine Barber
By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Catherine Barber served three terms on the school board — in each election garnering the most votes — before retiring last year when she was the board’s vice president.

After a year as an outsider looking in, she’s decided it’s time to run for a fourth three-year term.

Barber first became involved in the schools because of her two children; she represented the Guilderland Baby-sitting Cooperative on the citizens’ budget review committee before her daughter was even old enough for school.

Barber’s son, Gregory, is now a freshman at Columbia University.

Her daughter, Elizabeth, is about to graduate from the State University of New York College at Geneseo, where she majored in English and international studies, and is now considering a career in journalism. She spent a summer in HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phnom_Penh" Phnom Penh reporting for The Cambodian Daily. And she was in Egypt to study when the revolution erupted; she wrote about it for the Times Union, where she had been an intern. She’s now studying Arabic and wants to specialize in the Middle East.

“It’s not so easy to leave the school just because your kids graduate,” said Barber. She’s plenty busy with two careers: She works as a lawyer “of counsel” at the law firm where her husband, Peter, is a partner, and she plays the violin for the Schenectady Symphony.

“I get concerned the education available to the kids now and in the future might not be the same as it was for my kids,” said Barber of her motivation to run again.

She said it was “interesting to spend the year with no children in school and no official position.” She attended budget forums and watched meetings “as a citizen.”

“I was a little disappointed in the Community Conversation format as a substitute for the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee,” said Barber. One goal she has, if elected to the board, is “to encourage the board to do something different.”

With the current process, she said, questions aren’t asked and answered in a public format. “In certain ways, the Community Conversations seemed almost too controlled,” Barber said, stating the questions were “pre-determined” and then, “moderators put the answers in a pre-determined format.” She concluded, “It didn’t really replace an in-depth format.”

Also, she said, without inside information, she found it “challenging to interpret all that information on the website.” Barber said, “You need explanation and a chance to ask questions.”

She concluded, “I’d like to find creative ways to deal with the budget without negatively affecting students. I don’t think we can lay people off indefinitely to control labor costs.”

Asked about her primary allegiance as a school board member, Barber said, “I’m most concerned about the students and the quality of education they’re receiving. The students are the reason the whole system exists. Obviously, we have to provide their education at a reasonable cost the taxpayers can support.”

Barber supports the $89 million budget proposition. “In the end,” she said, “the board and administration did a good job of trying to keep important programs. Some of the opportunities are getting narrowed a bit, but overall they did a good job under difficult circumstances.”

She was happy the enrichment program was retained, since it was important to a lot of people, and she was surprised that there weren’t more cuts to sports. She noted the reduction of the assistant athletic director as the only sports cut.

If the budget were to be defeated, Barber advised re-working it for a re-vote to avoid the Draconian measures imposed with a contingency plan.

On whether, in the future, the board should go over the tax-levy cap to preserve programs, Barber said, “It depends on who you are. I’d be willing to pay more myself…We’re starting to lose so much…But, if you ask someone unemployed or underemployed, they can’t afford it.”

She concluded, “It really would be tough to justify going over unless the circumstances were dire.” She noted that Guilderland budgets in recent years hadn’t passed by as much as 60 percent and said, “It’s a good idea to stay under.”

On negotiating contracts, Barber said, “It’s hard to justify raises. The step [increase] is about 2 percent. And the Triborough Amendment requires employees continue to get their steps even when the contract has expired.

“If you give a raise, the money has to come from somewhere. With the tax cap, it means lay-offs…You don’t want to lay people off.”

On restructuring the school day, Barber said, the change in the high school gave more flexibility for students to schedule classes. “But I recognize that a lot used to happen during advisory,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how they reconfigure without that period.”

Barber said she was disappointed with the way the middle-school situation unfolded. She noted that the superintendent had started during the summer to talk about restructuring the day, and then the matter was addressed again at the Community Conversations. “Then, all of a sudden, ‘Nope, can’t do that.’ It seemed rather abrupt,” said Barber.

“The 11th-hour opposition by the union,” she said caused a scramble that created larger classes at the middle school.

“I understand it was a last-minute restructure,” she said. “I don’t think it’s good to have very large classes…The whole situation seemed like not such a good thing.”

On state tests, Barber said, “In general, there is way too much emphasis on tests. It has the unfortunate consequence of narrowing curriculum. So much is riding on these tests, it causes an over emphasis — the content of the test becomes a good part of the curriculum.”

Barber concluded, “Tests are important as an evaluation tool to see if a child is learning what is being taught. But, she said, the current model of so many high-stakes tests causes a lot of stress for teachers.

She cited a New York Times article that described parents with doctoral degrees in the humanities who took a third-grade language arts test. After reading a story about two tiger cubs besot with sibling rivalry, the test-takers were stymied by the first multiple-choice question, which asked what the story was mostly about.

“They couldn’t agree,” said Barber. “It was too ambiguous.”

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