Added state aid does not assuage budget woes

The Enterprise — Melisa Hale-Spencer

X Course supporters — from left, Amelia Bell, Elijah Clemente, Sarah Castagne, and Thomas Fortune — solemnly listen to the Guilderland School Board discuss a $92.1 million budget proposal for next year that would, as a money-saving measure, change the courses they love. “It’s my home outside of my home,” Fortune said as he and the other three students passionately addressed the board about the classes that combine social studies and English.

GUILDERLAND — The day after the state settled on its final budget, with a much-ballyhooed $1.1 billion increase in aid to education, the school board here faced a hard reality: Not much had changed.

The $785,180 more that Guilderland is to receive in aid — an addition to the governor’s proposal on which the superintendent based her original spending plan for next year — is largely eaten up by increased costs for special education.

The board is slated to adopt a budget proposal at its next meeting, on April 8, and the public will have its say on May 20.

Unlike in previous years, in which a last-minute restoration of some state funds allowed board members to make proposals on what programs or positions they would like to reinstate from the list of proposed cuts, this year there was little leeway — just $12,425.

Superintendent Marie Wiles — faced with a $1.8 million budget gap — had in February proposed a $91.5 million spending plan for next year, which would cut 35 jobs. Under that plan, the tax rate would have gone up 2.17 percent, with the amount to be raised by property taxes set at $66.9 million.

The revised budget is set at $92.1 million and still cuts 35 jobs. The tax-rate increase would be 1.94 percent and the levy is set at $66.8 million; that is below the state-set levy limit by just $12,425, which means a simple majority vote of 50 percent would be needed to pass the plan. Had the district gone over the state-set levy limit, a vote of 60 percent or more would have been needed.

The levy limit decreased because Guilderland got an additional $149,160 in building aid, which affected the formula used to determine what is commonly called the tax cap.

Guilderland’s other aid increases were: $54,000 in private excess cost aid for students with disabilities in outside placements, and $582,020 in foundation aid and gap elimination adjustment restoration. The GEA, as it is called, was instituted as a temporary measure when David Paterson was governor to close the state’s budget gap but has continued since.

Costs increase for special education

The new budget proposal, for $92,132,900, includes two separate increases in special-education costs.

First, there is a price adjustment — an increase of $235,400 — for Board of Cooperative Educational Services. On March 14, the Capital Region BOCES informed Guilderland and the other districts it serves of a roughly 20-percent increase in its special-education fees.

Guilderland anticipates 43 students will use those services next year.

Through an internal review, Wiles said, BOCES discovered the tuitions were insufficient to cover actual costs. Some programs went up in cost as much as 36 percent and others went down that much, she said, calling it “a very large swing.”

“It is a significant hit,” said Wiles of the $235,400 increase for Guilderland. “At this point, there really isn’t anything we can do.”

Several board members expressed outrage or concern.

Christine Hayes asked about the timing, which she called a “ big inconvenience” since the announcement came after Guilderland, and other districts, had already drafted budget proposals.

“The timing is unfortunate,” agreed Wiles, explaining, “They couldn’t go another year dramatically under-funding programs.”

Wiles said, since enrollment had dropped in the BOCES special-education programs, and since the expense is divided among the students, the cost for individual students rose. Also, she said, as BOCES staff was cut, the least senior staff was let go, leaving the more experienced and more expensive staff.

“All of those things combined were a perfect storm,” Wiles said.

Board Vice President Allan Simpson said it was unfair for BOCES “to have a monopoly” and asked, “What can we do to come up with another solution?”

Wiles said that area superintendents met last Thursday and she proposed having a regional conversation on developing “a cost-effective sustainable program.”

“I thought BOCES was supposed to be the regional approach,” commented board member Colleen O’Connell.

Simpson also said that BOCES should have had a “good cost accounting system” in place to “tell them what their costs are.” He concluded, “If they have to do a catch-up, shame on them.”

“They aren’t trying to make our lives miserable,” responded board member Judy Slack. “They are just trying to make it balance.”

The second increase, of $243,600, in special-education costs is because one student is being added — up to 43 instead of 42 — and because six students will stay in their current programs.

Stephen Hadden, special education administrator, said that the original projections, made in November, indicated those six students would be moving into less restrictive, and therefore less costly, programs.

Instead, the programs that it now looks that they will be staying in are “richer,” with more staff, said Hadden.

“It’s still kind of a work in progress,” he said. “We have final meetings next week.”

Wiles said that, in drafting the current budget proposal, a “worst-case scenario” was used.

Board President Barbara Fraterrigo asked if there might be an influx over the summer.

“That’s a risk,” Hadden answered. He said that last summer six students with special needs moved into the district, although that is not typical.

Hadden concluded, however, “We usually attract students with significant needs.”

Little leeway

“It took away anything we thought we had to play with,” Fraterrigo said of the special-education increases.

Indeed, the meeting had started with public comment, in which a parent, Karen Covert-Jones, had had spoken against the proposed cut of a half-time music teacher post, citing problems with scheduling lessons and with too-large classes. The cut would save about $39,000.

This was followed by heartfelt pleas from four high school students to maintain the current X Courses, which combine the teaching of social studies and English. The budget proposal calls for restructuring the popular courses to save $93,000; Wiles had previously called these classes “resource rich” since two teachers — in social studies and English — are used.

Sarah Castagne, an exchange student from Germany in the Youth for Understanding program, told the board she loves her 11X class, which “creates a special community.”

“It was the first class where I knew everyone’s name,” she said, lauding the meaningful discussion fostered in a small group.

Thomas Fortune said, “It’s my home outside of my home.”

He said class trips helped with bonding, and stated, “I don’t get enough from teachers in other classes.”

Elijah Clemente, a junior, said that the proposed restructuring would “greatly affect the integrity” of the X Courses. “Teachers won’t have one-on-one time with each student,” he said.

Clemente concluded to sympathetic laughter from board members, “This is the only class I can say I’m looking forward to going to every day, even though it is still school.”

Finally, ninth-grader Amelia Bell said the 9X class has given her, a teenager in upstate New York, “a real connection” with teens around the world.

She gave the board a petition signed by 200 who backed her views.

However, after working through all the numbers — “The money is really, really tight,” said Fraterrigo at one point — the only addition to the superintendent’s original proposal that the board entertained was Wiles’s suggestion to add two unassigned teaching posts at a total cost of $156,000.

Wiles had included three posts in her first draft; this would bring the total to five.

The current year’s budget included 4.45 unassigned teaching posts, all of which were used, Wiles said.

“That’s at the top of your wish list?” asked O’Connell.

“That’s the only thing on my wish list — given what we have to work with,” responded Wiles.

The unassigned posts, she said, “really help us solve problems district-wide.”

For example, if a particular grade gets an influx of elementary students over the summer, as happened at Westmere last summer, a teacher can be added.

Parts of teaching posts can also be assigned at the high school when, for instance, more students sign up for a particular course than anticipated.

As the high school principal, Thomas Lutsic, filled in the board about sign-ups for electives, he echoed Wiles’s sentiments. “Unassigned give us freedom to make moves as we get information in,” said Lutsic.

At the close of the session, Fraterrigo suggested, if the district, on its final review of special-education placements, were to realize any savings, the money should be spent on further unassigned teaching posts.

She concluded, “That’s a nice thing to have in the bank.”

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