Having meaningful conversations is essential, rather than top-down directives

The Guilderland School District website (www.guilderlandschools.org) has posted a schedule of additional meetings on the district's building capacity study and delayed the Sept, 20 focus-group discussions until Nov. 1.

— A new meeting is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 29, to introduce the building-capacity study to those who may not have been able to attend the June community meeting.  Scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Guilderland High School, this informational session will feature an overview of the study process as well as a brief summary of the final report.

— The application deadline for the focus-group membership has been extended.  The website states, "In order to have wide participation from across the entire district, the focus group meeting date has been moved from Sept. 20 to Nov. 1 and the application deadline for it has been extended to Oct. 1.

— A community "conversation" related to the study is also scheduled for Nov. 6, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Guilderland High School.  Additional program details on this session have not been provided. 

— The district invites community feedback anytime via email studyfeedback@guilderlandschool.net, through phone calls, or in person, at the meetings.

I encourage you to apply for the focus groups, attend additional meetings, and reach out to your elected board of education representatives through email or face-to-face meetings. The more you are involved, the more viable the solutions will be.

I also encourage the board of education and the district’s administration to have conversations publicly about the process before the sessions in the fall.  District outreach to engage the community to learn about the study; how it has unfolded over the last several weeks; and what effects its proposals will have on the entire district's schools, parents, and the children is essential.

As I have mentioned several times already, I believe that the district has a responsibility to begin to answer these questions now rather than wait three more months to have additional meetings and to answer questions that were posed many months earlier.

The public already has raised issues about the process itself, and asked that apparent errors in the report be corrected.  Many parents continue to have issues about the limited choice of recommendations, and, most telling, their effects on the whole district.

An Altamont community group (saveguilderlandschools.org) has invited all board members to attend community events this summer for informal conversations about the report and its implications.  I hope board members will accept their invitations.

It simply is not sufficient to limit dialogue solely to posting email correspondence or wait several months to hear from citizens when opportunities for meaningful interactions have been offered for dialogue now.   Expanded group conversation is important.

At the June 26 school board meeting, The Altamont Enterprise reported that member Colleen O'Connell asked, “Why do we care about 30 or 36 people more than what we hear in community conversations?”

It is important to broaden the conversation for sure, but quality conversation should be proactively sought.  I am uncertain how "wider participation" will occur in the rescheduled focus groups just by changing the date to Nov. 1, unless the focus group membership and numbers will increase from the original 30 participants and the focus is not limited only to the options presented in the original report.

Perhaps the new additional meetings for Sept. 29 and Nov. 6 are intended to achieve wider participation.  Let's hope that the "conversations" are more than the largely rote presentation provided in June.

Several school board members at that meeting commented on the length of the consultant's presentation that pushed questions to the end after some in the audience had left.   The Altamont Enterprise's report on the meeting noted,  "Board member Catherine Barber called the hour-and-three-quarters evening presentation 'rather lengthy,' and O'Connell surmised most in the audience had read the report, stating, 'To have it read back to us...I thought it was inappropriate.'”

In my memory, the last time there was a discussion about facilities capacity and utilization, it started with a discussion among a broad community group that had no preconceived notions and certainly did not start with specific options laid out for it by a consultant.   All possibilities were on the table, and suggestions came out of the process that covered a broad range of options to deal with initiating efficiencies.

This time, the district retained a consultant first who came up with specific recommendations before the community had any chance for in-depth discussion.  The district originally charged the consultant to find efficiencies to address revenue shortages in the "next three years."   That charge resulted in his very specific recommendations to close schools and change grade-level structures.

These outcomes seem somewhat limited from the general charge described in the report, unless the charge was modified at some point after the original charge was given.  I am not suggesting that there is a pre-established agenda.   But it leaves a broader question why the district didn't start with a clean slate and engaged a broader audience in the conversations first.

These topics are important to discuss with a wider audience for sure.  We need to engage together so that the process is validated as shared decision-making, not solutions imposed from above without real and substantive community input.  I am encouraged that the school board and administration will add more sessions, as long as they are true dialogue and not lectures on a lengthy report or discussions limited to the report’s options only.

Spending valuable public time summarizing a report which has been read and commented on for some time already and which certainly will be analyzed more by the time of the additional sessions three months from now is not what we should expect.

The district should operate in the spirit of decision-making and collaborative governance that once was a hallmark of the Guilderland Central School District.  What made GCSD a successful regional educational model should not be replaced by a top-down process of doing business with little or token input.  Let's hope that the former rather than the later is what happens.

If you have any questions, or seek more information on this issue or about the village of Altamont in general, check out our village website (AltamontVillage.org) or email me at AltamontMayor@aol.com.

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