GCSD is in desperate need for a real conversation among all constituencies

To the Editor:

So. Altamont Elementary School has been saved. The battle is over. The red shirt folks prevailed in their fight to save their neighborhood school. Time for some victory celebrations, then back to life as usual in the Guilderland Central School District, with everyone caught up in the start of the school year and other fall activities, right?

I think not.

There were neither “winners” nor “losers” at last week’s Guilderland School Board meeting. The building closure recommendations in the Seversky Study may have been set aside for the moment, but the core issues that face the school district remain.

As Superintendent Marie Wiles indicated, whatever the school board did or didn’t do last week, the Guilderland Central School District continues to face three clear challenges in the immediate future: declining enrollment; excess building capacity; and limitations on funding capacity.

While I agree with the superintendent on the reality of each of those three items, I would add one more to the mix. The district must also deal with a population that has historically lacked sufficient knowledge of and interest in its affairs to effectively take charge of its destiny in the manner that best reflects the desire and the capacity of the greatest possible number of its residents.

It was made clear at last week’s meeting that there is a real need for a broad and deep discussion about the future of the school district, and I can certainly agree that such discussion is of great significance, not only to those residents who are or may become parents of students in Guilderland’s schools, but also to the broader community that pays such a significant share of the school taxes that fund the district’s operations.

The element of such a discussion that has been consistently lacking in the quarter-century plus that I have lived in Guilderland is broadening the scope of the conversation beyond the families directly and immediately impacted by school board decisions.

The most recent effort at a discussion of the district’s future began with a study commissioned by the district. The study was performed by someone from another area of the state, with no real knowledge of local conditions and local thinking.

It consisted largely of data compilation (a task that I think should have been within the capacity of District staff at no additional cost to the taxpayers, by the way), then an analysis of the data in sterile, statistics-driven fashion, without reference to the historic thinking of the community about the way it prefers to see its schools operate. The result was, to me at least, utterly predictable.

I believe that good community planning (and isn’t a school district, after all, a community?) starts with finding out what the community’s sentiments are. This can be a tedious process; it’s hard to get folks motivated sometimes, and a lot of the wishes that community members may articulate may well be legally impossible or fiscally unrealistic. No matter.

These situations should be regarded as teaching opportunities, moments when the public can be made aware of the real-world limitations with which the school district must contend. They also represent opportunities for district administrators and school board members to get a finger on the pulse of the community.

Caught up in the struggle to deal with the often crushing burden of dealing with federal and state educational bureaucracies, people involved in district governance can too easily lose contact with those elements of the community that they don’t have to deal with except at school-budget time.

I have no magic solutions for the problems that the Guilderland Central School District, like other districts across the state and nation, are dealing with. The only notion I would advance is for the desperate need for a real conversation among all constituencies within the district in order to establish shared priorities and to identify ways to properly fund their attainment.

These are the same conversations that are taking place among villages, towns, and counties across New York. They involve potentially painful subjects such as service sharing and consolidation, both of which carry the risk of job losses and reduction in the level of local control. The alternative to the discussion, though, is the eventual imposition of “solutions” from higher levels of government that may be even less palatable.

It’s time for us all to talk, and even more importantly, to listen to one another. I hope to see the folks who wore the red shirts involved in the conversation, but you can leave the shirts home for these sessions, because the subject matter will be much broader. It absolutely needs to be.

Donald Csaposs


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