GCSD board splits on pay

GUILDERLAND — The school board here quickly and unanimously set the tax rate at last week’s meeting, and also unanimously ratified a contract for 186 workers, but was deeply divided over two smaller expenditures.

The board passed, in a 5-to-4 vote, 1-percent raises for a handful of workers with part-time duties. Then, after much sometimes-rancorous discussion, decided, also in a 5-to-4 vote, to stick with reduced wages for substitute teachers.

At least one school board member framed that decision as putting finances ahead of providing for children.

Such deep-seated differences, with a near-equal split, have been unusual for the Guilderland School Board in the last decade.

Both controversial items were first broached at the board’s last meeting, in July, when it elected new leaders.

The incumbent president, Colleen O’Connell, had been out of the country on a family vacation. The board’s longest-serving member, Barbara Fraterrigo, was elected president, 6 to 2, with Catherine Barber and Judy Slack voting for Barber instead.

Allan Simpson was elected vice president, 5 to 3, with Barber, Slack, and Gloria Towle-Hilt voting for the incumbent, Towle-Hilt.

At the July 2 meeting, the vote had been split, 4 to 4, on giving 1-percent raises to part-time employees like the district clerk, tax collector, internal claims auditor, facilities coordinator, continuing-education secretary, and energy manager.

Barber, Fraterrigo, Slack, and Towle-Hilt were for the raise, and Jennifer Charron, Christine Hayes, Rose Levy, and Allan Simpson voted against it.

At the August meeting, Barber argued for the salary increases, terming them “modest” while the jobs for the non-union members are “significant,” she said.

“We have to do it,” said Slack. “It’s disrespectful not to.”

“They’re the public face of the district,” said Towle-Hilt.

“Why are we treating this non-unit group as a unit?” asked Charron. “Why not give merit raises to those who deserve it?”

She also said board members were obligated to spend the taxpayers’ money wisely.

“If we were treating them as a bargaining unit, we would have negotiated a contract,” responded Barber.

Fraterrigo asked if the board had ever given merit raises.

Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, responded that it hadn’t.  “This is a cost-of-living adjustment,” he said.

“Just because in the past we’ve given COLAs,” said Simpson, “that doesn’t mean it’s a right…It’s discretionary.”

O’Connell noted that the cost for the 1-percent raise for the year would be $1,300.

“To me, it’s about the principle,” responded Simpson.

Levy agreed. “As a board, we keep saying, ‘It’s only a little bit’…All these little things add up,” she said, noting that the board would soon be facing another budget gap and possible cuts.

Ultimately, the raise passed, 5 to 4, with O’Connell joining the original four members who had voted for it in July — Barber, Fraterrigo, Slack, and Towle-Hilt.

Barber then proposed rescinding the 5-to-3 July vote that had reduced daily pay rates proposed by the administration for substitute teachers.

Hayes had first brought up the idea of paying substitutes less when the board was developing its 2013-14 budget; the reduced rates were not included in the budget after Lin Severance, the assistant superintendent for human resources, said it would make it difficult to hire subs when competing with other districts that pay more.

At the July meeting, Barber, Slack, and Towle-Hilt had favored the administration’s recommendation, while Charron, Fraterrigo, Hayes, Levy, and Simpson had prevailed with the lower rate.

The administration had proposed a daily rate of $95 per day for the elementary and middle school substitutes; $65 for a half-day rate at the high school; $100 for a full day at the high school; and $170 for long-term subs who fill in for 15 consecutive days for the same teacher.

The measure that passed is $5 less in each of those categories.

Barber wanted to rescind the original vote “as improvidently made,” asserting, “We’ve gone into a big unknown here.”

She said enough substitutes may not be available at the reduced rates and so current teachers with free periods, working under a union contract, would be called upon to fill in at $43 per hour for roughly $300 per day. Since the only reason to reduce the rates was to save money, Barber said, a failure to get substitutes would increase expenditures, making the $5 pay cut pointless.

O’Connell said that new information provided to the board by Superintendent Marie Wiles showed that Guilderland had a 2-percent fail rate in getting substitutes, with a “shocking” fail rate of 4.5 percent at Lynnwood Elementary School.

Offering the lowest-paid sub rate in the Suburban Council, O’Connell said, was unwise. She lamented that talking about “what is best for kids” was not part of the debate.

Towle-Hilt agreed. “The more data we have, the clearer the picture,” she said.

“A day with a substitute not at a level we expect…You may lose teaching time for our students,” said Slack.

The savings, she said, “will prove to be a false economy.”

Fraterrigo noted that the estimated savings, if substitutes were hired at the cut rate, would be $28,000 for 2013-14.

In the end, the same five members who had voted for the $5 reduction in daily pay — Charron, Fraterrigo, Hayes, Levy, and Simpson — voted against Barber’s August motion to rescind the July vote. Although O’Connell joined the three who still supported the administration’s recommendation, it was not enough to reverse the vote.

Tax rates

On Aug. 20, the board unanimously, and without discussion, adopted the tax rates for the $91 million 2013-14 budget passed by voters in May. The school district covers parts of four towns, and taxes are assessed differently in each, according to a state-set equalization rate.

The lion’s share of the district is in Guilderland, and property owners there will pay $60.7 million in taxes. Before the vote, the district estimated tax rates in Guilderland would go up 3.39 percent. Actually, they will go up less than predicted, 2.84 percent, as residents will pay $21.78 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The next largest area is Bethlehem, where residents in the Guilderland School District will pay $4 million in taxes. The tax rate for Bethlehem residents is $20.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The levy is $456,918 for Knox where residents will pay $32.31 per $1,000.

The levy is $304,835 for New Scotland, where residents will pay $20.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

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