Three run for three school board seats

GUILDERLAND — Two incumbents — Allan Simpson and Judy Slack — and newcomer Christopher McManus are running for three seats on the school board. No one else turned in petitions by Monday’s deadline.

All of them support the $92 million budget, which district residents will decide on, on May 20, along with the election.

And all of the candidates have close ties to the district: Slack is a retired teaching assistant, Simpson is married to a teaching assistant, and McManus is married to a teacher.

All three also have children currently in or about to be in the Guilderland schools or who are graduates of Guilderland.

When Slack and Simpson ran three years ago, the race was also uncontested — with four candidates running for four slots. In 2012, four candidates ran for three seats, and last year three candidates ran for three seats.

The fall-off in candidates came after more than a decade of contested — sometimes hotly contested — school board campaigns.

Last year, candidates opined that perhaps voters were satisfied with their work and saw no need to challenge. Or, others speculated that, with reduced aid and a levy cap, the school board’s work — cutting rather than building programs — has become arduous. As one put it, “The work we’re doing isn’t glamorous; it’s tough.”

This year, McManus said he was disappointed there will be no race. “It’s like going down on Christmas day and all your presents are unwrapped,” he said.

He went on, “It’s important to get new faces and new blood. I wish people would get involved.”

Simpson, a four-year member of the board, said he can understand why few people run. “People’s lives are busy,” he said. “People know it takes time and effort to be on the board of education.”

The unpaid school-board posts carry three-year terms; nine members serve on the board.

The issues

The Enterprise asked the three candidates about their reasons for running and what they wanted to accomplish, and also asked for their views on these six topics:

— Role of a school board member: Candidates were asked who they serve. Certainly, each must balance the needs of many constituencies, but which is the primary one? Particularly if there is a crunch — for example, like now, because of economic tough times and cuts in aid — would their primary allegiance be to the students, the taxpayers, the parents, the teachers, or the superintendent?

— Budget: Candidates were asked if they support the $92 million proposed budget, and why or why not.

They were also asked if there were specific items they would have liked included, or if there were specific items they thought should have been cut.

Candidates were asked, too, what they thought of the budget process where, for the fourth year, an in-depth budget review by a committee of volunteers was replaced by community forums before the budget was drafted during which residents, parents, and staff talked in small groups.

Finally, candidates were asked what the school board should do if the budget were voted down. If voters defeat the budget, the board can put up the same budget for a vote, put up a revised budget for a vote, or move to a contingency plan. If the budget were to be voted down again in June, the board would be required to move to a contingent budget, which would require the tax levy not be raised at all from this year.

—  Tax hike: A tax-levy cap has been in place for three years. If a school district goes over the state-set cap, 60 percent of the public vote is needed to adopt the spending plan. Candidates were asked if programs and jobs should continue to be cut next year to keep the tax-levy increase below the state-set cap or would constituents be willing to pay more to preserve Guilderland’s traditional curriculum?

— State tests: Standardized tests now carry more weight than ever, as the state requires that teachers be evaluated, in part, by their students’ test results. At the same time, last year New York State started testing students on recently adopted Common Core Learning Standards and counting the scores despite objections from New York State United Teachers, which originally agreed to testing for teacher evaluation in order for the state to receive federal Race to the Top funds. Guilderland this year selected what the superintendent termed “state of the art” rubrics paired with classroom observations for the 60 percent of teacher evaluation that is locally determined.

For students’ progress to be measured at the end of the year, there had to be a baseline at the beginning. For grades and subjects where standardized tests were not already in place, Guilderland, like other districts, scrambled to find tests in time to meet looming state deadlines. Guilderland settled during the prior school year on tests from Northwest Educational Assessment.

The board heard objections from teachers about those tests when they were first administered in the fall of 2012. Administrators worked with teachers over the summer to develop Guilderland’s own measures rather than relying on the outside tests and will continue to develop more local measures.

In January, the school board heard that 20 Guilderland teachers were deemed “developing” and were required, under the new system, to have Teacher Improvement Plans, known as TIPs. “We have teachers on TIPs that have no business being on a TIP,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told the school board.

Candidates were asked: How should Guilderland proceed?

— Declining enrollment: District enrollment in the last six years has fallen off from 5,895 to a predicted 4,887 for next year. The age of residents in the town of Guilderland, the lion’s share of the district, according to 2010 census data, shows that the 0-to-5 age group is smaller than the 6-to-11 group, which is smaller than the 12-to-17 group, meaning it is likely school enrollment will continue to decline.

The district hired a consultant to study the matter, who has not yet submitted recommendations although he has collected much data. Guilderland has five elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school.

Candidates were asked if the district should close one of its elementary schools and, if so, how it should be decided.

— Contracts: Salaries and benefits make up the largest share of the district budget, about three-quarters of expenses. In light of the rising costs for pensions and health care with the simultaneous cuts in aid, candidates were asked if school employees whose contracts are being negotiated should get raises above their step increases or should they get any raises at all.

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