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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 23, 2006

Facing federal charge, Wang gets bail

By Saranac Hale Spencer
and Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Jun Wang lost his job this week and may soon lose his Guilderland home.

A microbiologist who grew up in China and has been in the United States on a work visa for 13 years, Wang, 36, was arrested on Friday, charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States.

"I just want my husband home," said Wang’s wife, Yu Zhao, on the steps of the federal courthouse in Albany yesterday afternoon.

After three days of hearings, to determine if Wang was a flight risk or a danger to the community, Magistrate Randolph F. Treece decided, if Wang can post $250,000 in real property, he can be released.

The conspiracy charge comes from violating the 1974 Arms Export Control Act, which is a felony offense.

While Wang’s lawyer, Kevin Luibrand, claims the case has no standing, the federal indictment says that Wang sent two devices to China without the required license.

The indictment describes the device, the Crossbow Attitude & Heading Reference System — AHRS400CC as a "high-performance solid-state attitude and heading reference system intended for airborne applications such as UAV control, Avionics, and Platform Stabilization." It goes on, "The defense weapon uses also include missiles and torpedoes."

The devices are prohibited from export to China without a license from the Department of State, the indictment says. Luibrand told The Enterprise yesterday however, that the Crossbow company also has a branch in China that sells the same type of equipment, and that no crime was committed.

Luibrand further contends that the devices in question were internally labeled with a code by the manufacturer, which marks the equipment as bound for China.

The indictment quotes from an e-mail it says Wang received on or about Dec. 17, 2004, from a person in China requesting Wang purchase a magnetometer and stating, "I have sent you $20,000 today. Careful [and] quickly"I will pay you more later. Give me the result."

"The law does not forbid the company, Mr. Wang, or anyone else from transporting these items. That is the law," Luibrand told The Enterprise.

On Sept. 7, 2005, the indictment says, Wang shipped through the United States Mail, a heading reference system without obtaining the requisite licenses and declaration form.

The indictment goes on to say that Wang shall forfeit "any property, real or personal, which constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the violation, or conspiracy""

It then names his property at 28 Westmere Terrace as being subject to forfeiture.

Carol Wysomski, the Guilderland town assessor told The Enterprise that the Wangs bought their house on May 16, 2005, for $275,000. Wysomski said the property is assessed at $193,000.

"We don’t believe the allegations against [Wang] constitute a crime," said Luibrand.

The hearing

Magistrate Treece gave his decision in Wang’s bond hearing yesterday. Beginning the judgment by saying, "You do pose a danger to the community and you do pose a risk of flight," Treece concluded the decision by granting Wang bond with a long list of conditions. Bond is set at $250,000 to be secured only by real property in the United States.

"At the heart of the government’s argument is the compelling nature of the charges which you face," said Treece, who conceded that initially he overwhelmingly favored the prosecution.

The lawyer for the prosecution, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Capezza, began yesterday’s bond hearing by arguing that neither Wang nor his wife, Yu Zhao, had significant ties to the area – therefore making them a serious flight risk.

Capezza stressed that Zhao is also under investigation, related to the charges against Wang, and, as a result, she is locked out of her computer at the accounting firm where she works. With the loss of Wang’s research job, contracted under Health Research Incorporated, which came on Tuesday, Capezza said that there was incentive for the couple to take their six-month-old baby and leave.

"He has no place to go, no career to pursue, unless he clears himself," said Luibrand, Wang’s lawyer, as he argued for the release of the Guilderland resident. He noted that Wang has been living in the United States since 1993, spending seven years at the University of Illinois to complete his Ph.D., and his permanent resident status has been pending for four years. "He’s got nine years invested in this career. He has every reason to come to court to clear his name," said Luibrand.

Some argument Wednesday went beyond flight risk to address some of the allegations against Wang, who is accused of sending the Crossbow Attitude & Heading Reference System to China without the requisite paperwork.

Luibrand downplayed the charges, citing the fact that Crossbow maintains a website in China that sells the same items to Chinese consumers. He also said that the items Wang shipped are not restricted by Category XII of the United States Munitions List, which is claimed in the indictment.

"In order to be sold illegally," said Luibrand, "It must be specifically designed or modified for military use." The AHRS that Wang shipped to China was not, according to Luibrand.

Capezza maintained that the items shipped to China did in fact violate Category XII because they could have been munitions grade rather than dual use. "What’s really at issue here is the sale of technology," said Capezza.

Assuming that Wang can post the $250,000 bond, he will go home to await the beginning of his trial. He will be subject to electronic monitoring, restricted use of computers, and random searches among other things.

Losing his job

Wang was in federal court on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday as hearings were held on his custody. Wang’s employment status became a central issue to whether or not he would be considered a flight risk, therefore establishing his right to be released pending bond.

Magistrate Treece said in court on Tuesday, "Mr. Wang was a superb employee," summarizing testimony from Monday’s hearing. Michael Nazarko, Wang’s supervisor, testified on Tuesday, that, "Mr. Wang’s employment will be terminated," despite Wang’s good track record. His employers at Health Research Incorporated cited excessive personal use of his computer at work as reason to fire him.

One of the most visited websites on Wang’s computer was ESPN.com, a website with sports news.

"The reasons they fired him had nothing to do with the reasons they said"They were afraid of the publicity and they walked away," Luibrand told The Enterprise.

Luibrand says that the ESPN website was open on Wang’s computer during the NCAA basketball tournament, where it was viewed by numerous other employees who were betting on which team would win. Luibrand continued, saying, Wang is a long-standing and well-respected microbiologist in the science community and he also called the reasons for Wang’s firing, "ridiculous."

The website that sells the Attitude & Heading Reference System is from a California-based company called Crossbow Technology Inc. The palm-sized device, which weighs just under two pounds, is intended for airborne applications and described by the company as a "high reliability, strap-down inertial subsystem that provides attitude and heading measurements with static and dynamic accuracy."

There is no mention of the device’s military or weapons-grade capabilities from the company on-line.

The quiet neighbor

Jun Wang kept a low profile at work as well as in his suburban Guilderland neighborhood where he lives with his wife and baby.

The house is at the quiet end of a dead-end street, Westmere terrace, just off busy route 20 near Crossgates Mall.

"I didn’t even know their last names until I saw it in the paper," said one neighbor. This was echoed by a half-dozen residents who spoke to The Enterprise on Tuesday.

One neighbor was also a co-worker of Wang’s, although he didn’t realize that he lived next door to Wang until the arrest. Working just one floor from Wang, he said of office workers looking at the newspaper, "Nobody even recognized him in the picture."

"They seemed like a nice couple," said Wang’s neighbor, Leam Breslin, who noted the meticulous care they took of their lawn. "They picked every weed out one at a time," he said.

Berry Howe, another resident of the neighborhood, also noticed the Wangs’ lawn. "There was no one living there for a while so their grass was up to two or three feet and he was out there scything it," he said.

The cultural barrier between the Wangs and suburban Guilderland was apparent.

"Nobody on this street ever had anything to do with them," said fifty-five year resident Don Cusick. He spoke fondly of long-time neighbors next door and the area as a whole. "The school bus comes by once in the morning and once in the afternoon and that’s it," he said, explaining that the area hadn’t changed in the time he had lived there.

"They kept themselves to themselves," said Howe of the Wangs. He also speculated that, "He must have a few bucks because that’s the most expensive house in the neighborhood."

Although the Wangs haven’t become part of the neighborhood community — "They were a strange outfit," said Cusick — they were quiet neighbors and, according to Breslin, "They kept a pretty neat lawn."

GPD’s Govel pulls elderly pair from fire

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Two elderly residents were pulled through the window of a burning house at 464 Church Rd. by a Guilderland Police officer yesterday morning.

The daring rescue was performed by Officer John Govel, who sustained a small cut on his hand from the broken window, but there were no serious injuries as a result of his actions.

"Did he save their lives" I would say yes," said Westmere Fire Chief William Swartz.

The main body of the home sustained extensive fire damage and the additions to the home were completely destroyed, Swartz told The Enterprise. The fire was under control within an hour, but continued to smolder throughout the morning.

The fire caused Church Road to be closed to all traffic until 8:45 that morning. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Swartz said.

As the first officer on the scene, Govel broke through the front door, attempting to reach the two residents inside, but was unable to gain access because of the intense fire and smoke, Swartz said. Hearing the couple inside the house, Govel got a hammer from a neighbor and broke out a first-floor window, then called out to them.

Govel first pulled out the female resident, then the male resident, and they waited for the emergency medical service teams to arrive. The man and woman were removed from the burning building within two minutes and the male resident was taken to St. Peter’s Hospital for smoke inhalation and released, police say.

"We don’t want to endanger individuals by entering a burning building unprotected"I think it was a great choice to pull them through the window," Swartz said. Swartz believes that Govel’s swift actions saved the residents from severe danger.

A McKownville firefighter was also treated at a local hospital for a pre-existing condition, according to Swartz.

The fire, which was difficult to contain, caused several fire departments and emergency crews to respond including Guilderland, Westmere, McKownville, Fort Hunter, and Guilderland Center, which was the designated cover company for the other departments.

In split vote
Over neighbor’s objections, zoning board approves variance for restaurant

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Several residents cried after the zoning board, in a split vote last Wednesday, allowed three variances for an Italian restaurant to set up shop in their neighborhood.

The restaurant proposal for 2026 Western Ave. brought out many of the same Guilderland residents from the Cornell and Sumter avenue neighborhoods who attended the previous zoning board meeting. The five-to-two ruling handed down by Chairman Peter Barber, allows Connie Ware to build a 500-square-foot addition to the old Phoebe’s Flower Shop. She is allowed 45 parking spaces, and was given a side-yard variance.

Board members Charles Klaer and James Sumner dissented. Both members agreed with neighboring residents that the variances to convert the existing building were excessive and would hurt the neighborhood.

"We are dedicated to being good neighbors, and have taken many steps to ensure this," Ware told the board.

One resident asked the board for a traffic study, but the zoning administrator and chief building inspector, Donald Cropsey, said that the area does not warrant an official traffic study.

Residents speak

"No one has met with us as neighbors during the last two weeks," said Betty Shields, a Sumter Avenue resident.

Another resident echoed similar concerns saying, "My main concern and annoyance with this process, since it is obviously going to be approved"is that we have not gotten a call. That is unprofessional."

During the first meeting, Barber suggested that Ware speak one-on-one with local residents and discuss issues brought up during the public hearing. Ware’s husband, Mitch Ware, told the board he asked his wife not to speak with neighbors because they were acting "hostile," and he said that many neighbors were still acting hostile toward them at Wednesday night’s meeting.

"How many variances can you put on one piece of property before you say enough is enough"" asked another resident.

It was this argument that Klaer sided with.

"This particular applicant is benefiting, I believe inappropriately, from previous variances," said Klaer. "They’re taking advantage"That’s too bad for me and for [neighboring residents]."

"A house, a florist, a restaurant. What’s next"" Asked one angry neighbor.

Not everyone at the public hearing spoke out against the proposed business.

"I think, as a business owner, it would be good for business"I think Connie would bring nothing but professionalism," one local business owner and resident told the zoning board. "I would suggest that you rule in favor."

Another supporter, who lives on Johnston Road and is a 20-year Guilderland resident, said a fine-dining Italian restaurant is very different from a typical restaurant. He added, "The town has to grow" We’d like to see it grow a little bit more," and that he would like to see the restaurant built.

Local residents neighboring the proposed restaurant did not voice a similar sentiment.

"I don’t think we even have a restaurant here in Guilderland with valet parking"If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it," one resident said.

Other neighbors voiced concerns over the proposed bar in the restaurant and removing the Route 20 entrance and creating one on Cornell Road instead.

"I really don’t understand this service bar"I really don’t understand this Cornell Road entrance," one resident question the board.

"Yes, there are a lot of restaurants along Western Avenue that have been here a number of years," Barber explained, saying that Albany County Department of Transportation does not want businesses to use Western Avenue entrances because it slows down traffic. The D.O.T is phasing out Western Avenue access to business along Route 20, according to Barber.

Cropsey told residents that he will call the Albany County D.O.T. to check on the regulations, but said that a Western Avenue entrance would meet none of the department’s requirements at that location.

"Is eight seats a service bar, or is eight seats a real bar"" another resident asked the board, saying she was concerned for the safety of children playing in a neighborhood with a nearby bar and no sidewalks.

Mitch Ware responded to these concerns saying, "The people who will go to our restaurant are further along in life"They don’t hang out in parking lots together." Mr. Ware added that he has spent 18 years in the restaurant business, has opened many restaurants around the nation, and that he knows what type of clientele to expect. Drinks will only be served with dinner or to those waiting to be seated, according to Mr. Ware.

The Wares told residents they will do everything they can to mitigate possible traffic problems in the area and tried to abate their concerns.

"At most, we’ll have 70 seats," said Mrs. Ware. "This does not mean there will be 70 people with 70 cars at 5 o’clock."

"You are going to have accidents," one resident told the board. "Please take that into consideration"

ZBA response

"We are not the town board; we are the zoning board," Barber told residents, who were asking why the area could not be re-zoned to exclude businesses like the restaurant. "The town board looked at this area and denied a re-zone."

Zoning boards serve a quasi-judicial function, interpreting laws passed by the town board.

The restaurant is a permitted use and properly zoned for its location, Barber reminded residents attending the meeting.

"What is over-development"" asked Klaer, who said the neighbors think the restaurant is over-developed for that site. Klaer said the restaurant might be technically manageable on paper, but that is not always the case when it comes to affecting people’s homes.

Referring to Christ the King, Klaer also asked what the impact would be on a neighborhood already dealing with a church doubling in size and a large school associated with it, and he also questioned the off-site parking.

"Off-site parking within 300 feet of the building is just as good as on-site parking," Barber responded, with which zoning board attorney Janet Thayer agreed.

When the decision came down to a final vote, Klaer asked for an amendment to the variances, saying he wanted to look more at the parking situation, but no other member seconded his motion.

"I don’t object to you voting no; everyone votes their opinions," Barber said to Klaer.

Board members Susan Marci, Michael Marcantonio, and Patricia Aikens all voted in favor without giving detailed reasons as to why.

Board member Sharon Cupoli said, at first, she thought the restaurant was a great idea, but then she started siding with the neighbors after hearing their complaints. Cupoli told neighbors that she understands their situation but could not come up with a concrete reason to deny the business’s variance applications.

"I’ve fought the fights for neighborhoods"I have to vote with my heart," said Cupoli. "I have to vote in favor."

Sumner said that he studied the issue for two weeks and tried to look at both sides of the argument. Eventually, he said, he sided with residents and voted against the motion.

Klaer also voted against the motion, saying that he doesn’t believe residents were getting a fair deal and that variances were being exploited.

Barber made several suggestions to the Wares, including: putting up private stops signs in their parking lot; having employees park furthest away in order to free up spaces for customers closest to the building; eliminating parking closest to Cornell Avenue; replacing the chainlink fence in the back with a six-foot stockade fence; moving the covered Dumpster 15 feet away from its current location; and including as much landscaping as possible.

Other business
In other business, the zoning board:

— Unanimously approved the parking variance and 25,000 square-foot conversion of the old Price Chopper at 1881 Western Ave. into a multi-use office building; and

— Listened to a variance request by Ronald Carlisle of 1475 Western Ave., to allow additional signs to be placed at T.G.I. Friday’s at Stuyvesant Plaza. The variance request asked to allow four signs with a total area of 317 square feet. The maximum amount allowed is two signs with a total of 50 square feet.

The drastic difference between the two numbers are a result of miscommunication between Cropsey and Carlisle, and the board voted to continue the application until the next meeting on March 29. Members of the McKownville Neighborhood Association were present to voice concerns about the sign variance and adequate pedestrian access to the plaza.

Response to proposed budget cuts
Speaking out for social worker, supervisor

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — As the district works to finalize its $79 million budget for next year, the school board heard last Tuesday from some of those who would be affected by proposed cuts.

Ten people spoke, while more than two score listened from the gallery and occasionally applauded.

Parents and staff at Altamont Elementary expressed concerns about the proposal to cut a full-time social worker’s post to part-time. Social-studies teachers at the high school objected to sharing a supervisor with the English Department. And a secretary at the high school, Dawn Wier, questioned the elimination or revision of a computer-programming position.

In presenting his budget proposal to a citizens’ committee, Superintendent Gregory Aidala had said that, since Altamont Elementary had just under 300 students, fewer than the district’s other four elementary schools, the social worker would work at Altamont just three days a week, and work the other two days at the middle school .

Aidala also proposed hiring a district-wide data coordinator to be involved with all the required testing and to help teachers improve instruction.

Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, told The Enterprise this week that the data coordinator would be a certified teacher and the budgeted annual pay, for salary and benefits, would be $58,000. To keep this from being a "pure increase," Sanders said, the computer operator position in the district office — with an annual salary, not including benefits, of $41,400 — would be cut.

Sanders also said that the budgeted figure for a full-time social worker, including both salary and benefits, is $58,000.

Altamont parents, teachers want full-time social worker

Yvette Terplak was the first of three Altamont teachers to speak to the school board, opposing the cutback; three parents also spoke out in favor of a full-time social worker. Board members did not respond to any of the comments. They are slated to adopt a final spending plan on April 11. Voters will have their say on May 16.

The cut would be "detrimental not only when students have a crisis," said Terplak, who teaches third grade, but in preventative work done by the social worker.

Altamont’s full-time social worker, Heidi Cutler, now regularly visits classrooms, Terplak said, to work on such things as students’ self-esteem and conflict resolution, empowering students to "have inner strength."

"One of the most important jobs"is to help each other be all that we can be," said Terplak.

She said she had witnessed students becoming more sensitive and patient under Cutler’s tutelage and that Cutler promoted safety and self-determination.

"We aren’t really talking about numbers, we are talking about young children," said Annemarie Farrell, another third-grade teacher. She gave "drastically different" examples of how two students with difficulties and their classmates had fared under a part-time social worker and a full-time one.

Under the part-time system, Farrell said, there was inconsistency, many services were fragmented, and no clear plan was ever put in place. Other students in the classroom were severely impacted and the safe learning environment fell apart.

This year, with a full-time social worker, a safe, predictable program was developed for the child involving all of the "team members," Farrell said. "The social worker became the strong tie that held us together," she said. "The class and myself formed a strong bond"The students are connected to their purpose."

Allan Lockwood, a fifth-grade teacher, said that keeping special-needs students in mainstream classrooms reduces costs and benefits students but it "leads to a much more complex school environment."

The full-time social worker is vital, he said, "working in a proactive way with the school-wide population."

She runs school-wide bullying-prevention programs, runs 11 different friendship clubs, runs five "banana splits" groups for children from divorced families, works with students who have individualized education programs, and works with students in self-contained classrooms.

She provides services directly to a full third of the students, Lockwood said.

He named some of the difficulties with which students are coping, including anxiety and mood disorders, bipolar disorder, developmental disorders, physical abuse, divorce, death, custody issues, and depression.

"Crises do not come by appointment," Lockwood said, indicating a full-time social worker is able to deal with them whenever they arise.

Three parents spoke in favor of the full-time post as well. Lori Quay, the parent of a third-grader, said that the social worker had helped her son with a small issue that would have grown. Had there been only a part-time social worker, Quay surmised, her son might not have received help since "his issues are not severe enough."

The need at Altamont, she said, is comparable to the need at the district’s larger elementary schools. She asked the board why the school district wouldn’t want to help with problems before they become severe.

Parent Bridget Brown echoed that theme when she asked the board, "Who receives 40 percent less service"" She answered herself, "The children on the periphery."

The quiet child, the shy child, the sloppy child all need a link, she said.

A lower socio-economic bracket, Brown said, often indicates the need for a social worker.

She concluded, "To quote our illustrious Dr. Aidala, ‘Children are our community’s future.’"

Finally, Debra Schiffman, an Altamont parent and a school social-worker herself, said, "Kids are coming to school with many more issues than they used to"Schools have to make up what they’re not getting at home."

Social-studies teachers want to keep their super

At a February school-board meeting, English teachers had objected to combining the jobs of English and social-studies supervisor into one. It was one of three recommendations for administrative cuts, totaling about $185,000, made by Aidala; one person would oversee 41 social-studies and English teachers, saving $85,000 in salaries and fringe benefits next year.

At last month’s meeting, several board members expressed their support for the English teachers’ views. Last year, a split board rejected a budget proposal that would have required the English teachers to teach five courses as most high-school teachers do rather than four, which is to allow for supervision on in-depth analysis and writing.

Ninth-grade social-studies teacher Jonathan Mapstone told the board about his "incredible department."

He related its work to two of the district’s priorities — understanding and appreciating diversity and development of citizenship. The first, he said, is part of the everyday curriculum and the second is a focus in 11th and 12th grades.

In the last four years, Mapstone said, his department has lost 1.3 teaching positions; the average load for social-studies teachers, who teach five courses, is 105 students although many have up to 145 students.

He described "a largely untapped reservoir of interest" that could be used to develop exciting electives, such as in Asian studies, the history of war, or modern Africa. With a class-load of four, and more teachers, such electives might be developed, he said.

Mapstone described social-studies courses as being "on the cutting edge" and in demand by students.

Despite facing obstacles, social-studies teachers at Guilderland get excellent results, said teacher Matthew Nelligan.

The state requires students to take four years of social studies courses and to pass two New York State Regents Exams. At Guilderland, 80 percent of all students who took the United States History and Government Regents Exam achieved mastery level by scoring at least 85 percent, the number-one rating in the building, he said.

Nelligan also said that 98 percent of the students who took the Global Regents Exam passed and that the mastery rate was 67 percent.

Out of the 12 districts in the Suburban Council, Guilderland had the highest mastery level on both the Global Regents and the United States History and government Regents; the passing rate on both tests was 98 percent.

The social-studies curriculum features research, writing, and critical thinking, said Nelligan.

He spoke of the constant changes world-wide and nation-wide. "We have to address those tough topics and put them in context," said Nelligan. Without naming Julia Fitzgerald, he said the current supervisor does an "excellent job."

"As teachers, most of us are unaccustomed to singing our own praises," said social-studies teacher Peter Schwan.

He read a number of touching "unsolicited notes and letters from students."

"This year," said one, "my complete turnaround as a student as much as a person are your accomplishments as much as mine."

Another student wrote to thank his teacher for making government more than "boring old white men."

"If you ever see my name on a campaign poster," wrote another, "you’ll have only yourself to blame."

Schwan concluded that the current situation has made "us feel like what we do is irrelevant in this district."

School board poised to set up its own health-insurance committee

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Most school board members want to create a committee on health and other insurance.

Vice President Linda Bakst presented a motion to the board last Tuesday in the wake of criticism, initially raised by board member Peter Golden, of the current system where a committee made up of representatives from the district’s bargaining units proposes plans for health-care coverage.

Health-insurance costs for Guilderland, which have doubled in the last five years to $8.2 million, have come under board scrutiny this year.

"The board needs to develop its expertise," said Bakst in making her proposal.

"The intent of the Board committee is not to supersede the existing district-wide Health Insurance Committee process," says Bakst’s motion. "Our objective is to create a conduit through which ideas and information can be discussed between the board and the district office team, and subsequently shared with the district-wide Health Insurance committee."

While board members Barbara Fraterrigo, Colleen O’Connell, Thomas Nachod, Peter Golden, and President Gene Danese stated support for the motion, Catherine Barber, John Dornbush, and Richard Weisz had some reservations. The board plans to vote on the matter at a future meeting.

Barber said that subjective board opinion "should not drive our process." She said the current process is governed by contract and the board should get a legal opinion on its role.

"We need to comply with a lot of laws...that it’s our duty to know about as board members," said Barber.

"The only thing we’re changing here is the dynamics of how we learn," said Fraterrigo, who made a proposal of her own; Bakst said Fraterrigo’s ideas could be incorporated into her motion.

"To continue in willful ignorance is destructive," said Golden.

Dornbush said to learn by listening to presentations made to the committee, "All we have to do is get invited."

"The ultimate reality is...Guilderland is not going to solve the health-insurance crisis that is plaguing...the country," said Weisz.

He said the board’s committee would undermine the district’s tradition of shared decision-making "because we’ll be there all the time."

Weisz said, "I don’t want to break something that’s working."

He also said that it could lead to a breakdown in communication. "You lose an element of trust," said Weisz.

"I don’t want to fold my tent because it’s everybody’s problem," said Nachod of escalating health-insurance costs.

He also said, "We’re not getting in the way at all of the bargaining process."

Peaceful School Bus

In 1999, fifty-eight referrals were made to the Lynnwood Elementary School principal, James Dillon, about problems on school buses. Over the past three years, an average of 10 referrals have been made.

Seven years ago, Lynnwood, under Dillon’s guidance, launched the Peaceful School Bus program; now other schools in the district are incorporating some of its principles.

The program is based on building a positive connection between staff and bus riders, Louisa Lombardo, a social worker at Westmere Elementary, and Jocelyn Zimmerman, a team leader at Lynnwood, told the school board last Tuesday.

The children who ride each bus meet as a group in the school several times a year. "It really holds children accountable" and celebrates "the fact they have resolved many problems," said Zimmerman.

In a video produced by Nicholas Viscio, Dillon comments that school buses, with their high seats, and lack of adult supervision provide "the worst possible conditions for behavior." The bus drivers, he said, have been the "beneficiaries" of the Peaceful School Bus program.

"It helps the kids learn to govern themselves, not to be dependent on the adult authority," he said.

Lombardo said that Westmere Elementary started the program two years ago and now spends much less time dealing with bus problems. Before, she said, students wouldn’t even know the names of their bus drivers; the program has created strong relationships.

"What makes a good bus ride"" Lombardo asked, answering herself, "Relationships, relationships, relationships."

Other business
In other business, the school board:

— Heard from Timothy Burke, a member of the citizens’ budget advisory committee, that the board has to take a more "active approach" with the district’s health-insurance committee.

"New York State property owners pay the highest taxes in the country and we’re overburdened," he said;

— Clarified eligibility for health-insurance benefits upon retirement for district office administrators by adopting an amendment that says the retiree may elect after at least one year following retirement to discontinue benefits "with the proviso that such member has the right to have health insurance benefits reinstated at a later date due to the spouse predeceasing the employee";

— Authorized the district to participate with BOCES in a cooperative bid for intrusion and access control systems.

Neil Sanders, assistant superintendent for business, told The Enterprise that Guilderland will use the money it has left for elementary-school security — $27,500 — to get camera-surveillance systems for the schools that don’t have them (Guilderland, Pine Bush, and Altamont) and also anticipates having enough money to install card-swipe access systems in three or possibly four of the elementary schools.

Because the purchase is being made through BOCES, Guilderland will get back 60 percent in aid, said Sanders;

— Postponed a decision to buy eight-tenths of an acre of land along Route 20 next to Guilderland Elementary School. Last year, the district executed an option-to-purchase agreement with the YMCA, which owns the land. The option runs until June of 2007 and the price for purchase is set at $175,000;

— Adopted policies on visitors to the schools and on the musical-instrument program;

— Agreed to meet on April 24 at 8:30 a.m. in the district office library to vote on the 2006-07 BOCES budget and BOCES board election;

— Heard from Superintendent Gregory Aidala that "Motivation," a video produced by a team of high school students and Viscio, director of media services, won the J.P. Morgan Chase Multi-Media in the Classroom Awards competition, part of the Celebration of Teaching and Learning to be held in New York City on March 24 and 25.

Ten videos were selected and each school will win $1,000.

"Motivation," a 21-minute, wide-screen production, documents a field trip to New York City where students are assigned to produce news-story packages on the impact of the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and learn lessons in self-discovery.

The students are: Sean Balogh, Carina Engelberg, Scott Friedman, Kristen Jorgensen, Benjamin Gorenstein, Sean Gallagher, Kerrin Moon, Tara Nelson, Maggie Olson, Katie Steinmann, Daniel Capobianco, and Sarah Bolognino. Gorenstein and Olson graduated in 2005;

— Heard that the Guilderland High School Orchestra will present "A Renaissance Feast" on Friday, March 31, at 6 p.m. at the Italian-American Community Center, featuring singers, dancers, jugglers, and jousters.

Tickets are $24 for a full-course dinner or $16 for a student buffet;

— Learned that Gloria Towle-Hilt, a Farnsworth Middle School social-studies teacher leader, was selected as Outstanding Middle School Social Studies Teacher by the New York State Council for Social Studies and was honored at a March 3 dinner in Rye, N.Y.;

— Heard that Farnsworth Middle School will hold its Wellness Day on March 29 this year;

— Learned that on Saturday, April 1, the Guilderland High School PTSA will hold its Third Annual silent Auction to benefit college scholarships and student enrichment programs. It will be held at the Western Turnpike country Club from 6 to 9 p.m.. Tickets are $23, and include dinner;

— Heard congratulations for 17 Guilderland High School students whose work was selected for the 2006 High School Regional Juried Art Exhibition — Aaron Betancourt, Chelsea Bush, Chris Duffy, Allyson Einbinder, Jessica Endres, Elena Cruz-Allen, Alison Dubois, Lee Anna Fitzgerald, Fiona Hickey, Jaclyn Kerschner, Emily Kurzon, Miranda LaMorte, Jessica Martin, Anthony Martini, Tara Nelson, Shera Sonenberg, and Claire Stankus.

The show, in College Park Hall at Union College, runs through April 15; and

— Met in executive session to discuss teacher performance review and a student issue.

To save money
Bus study urges changing bell times

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Changing bell times — when schools start and end their days — was the biggest change recommended by a consultant who studied Guilderland’s transportation system with an eye to saving funds.

"I don’t want to do it just to save bus money," said school board member Colleen O’Connell, as board members stated their first reactions to the report last Tuesday. O’Connell said the change would have to have "an educational component."

Board Vice President Linda Bakst said she looked at it as a good opportunity "to open that discussion." Several years ago, the board listened to a student’s request to start high school later, and looked at research stating adolescents needed more sleep.

"We’ve heard the evidence on that issue," said Bakst.

The 21-page report prepared by Transportation Advisory Services consultant Christopher Andrews recommends changing the order in which the high-school, elementary-school, and middle-school days begin and end, or lengthening the day for the elementary schools in order allow runs with fewer buses, thereby saving money.

Christine Sagendorf, the district’s transportation director, told the board that the department had talked about changing bell times before, especially at the middle school, and had also talked about consolidating bus stops.

She termed them "things the board has to look at."

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, who had recommended hiring Transportation Advisory Services, called the analysis "a helpful process to go through."

He told The Enterprise this week, "the report validates what we’ve done in our transportation department. There are no glaring omissions or weaknesses."

He also said that some of the recommended changes without cost, such as realigning clerical duties or updating software, were likely to be done soon while others would have to wait.

In November, the school board voted to contract with Transportation Advisory Services for a study after comments were made during budget discussions that the district should look at privatization. TAS, based in western New York, founded in 1987, has done transportation studies for over 400 school districts and agencies in 16 states, Sanders told the board. Guilderland paid TAS $9,850 for the 90-day study and report.

Privatization not recommended

In January, officers of the local union that includes bus drivers and mechanics expressed concerns to the school board. President Bruce Shank said the union was hurt by discussions of privatization and that workers give their "heart and soul" to their jobs.

Since learning about the study, Shank said, some of the employees had started seeking other jobs, which could result in a loss of drivers.

He asked why the district would have built a new bus facility two years ago if it planned to move to private contractors.

Shank also pointed to the district’s record of 90 percent or more buses passing the required inspection by the state’s Department of Transportation. He asked how the safety of buses would be affected with others doing the repairs.

"Our current staff is deeply committed to doing the best job possible every day," said Shank.

The TAS report does not recommend general privatization; it does recommend partial contracting.

"Contracting in general is viewed as an option for schools that are having difficulties managing their transportation department," writes Andrews. "In most case, it is a matter of outdated facilities, aging fleets, or labor discord. Guilderland is not faced with any of these challenges."

TAS recommends Guilderland continue to provide transportation for public-school students, but contract out special-needs and non-public runs.

The report also recommends that Guilderland share out-of-district transportation whenever possible, continuing to work with the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services and neighboring school districts.

"For example, Voorheesville might pick up Guilderland students on the way through the district, headed towards a non-public school that serves students from both districts," the report states.

"Where efficiencies cannot be gained by doing this," Andrews writes, "we recommend that the district consider these runs for contracting."

During the 2004-05 school year, Guilderland transported about 5,978 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 5,414 were transported to the seven school buildings in the district — five elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school — while 429 were taken to 35 private or parochial schools and 135 were transported to special-needs facilities. Ninety-three route vehicles were used.

Guilderland also provided a large number of sports and field trips using district-owned vehicles, the report says. These services combined cost the district $6,635,643 for the last school year.

Labor and facility recommendations

The report recommends evaluating other sources of funding for sports and field trips. Like sharing out-of-district runs, this is termed a long-term priority, meaning it would take 31 to 90 days to accomplish.

Andrews reports that sports and field trips cost Guilderland $135,301 last year. "Given that these costs are not eligible for state aid, we recommend that the district evaluate other sources for funding these programs," he writes.

Some districts have booster clubs or parents’ groups pay for such trips while others have negotiated limits on driver pay for trips, establishing a flat field-trip rate, lower than the regular pay scale, for any work outside the assigned home-to-school runs.

Other labor changes recommended by TAS include: realigning clerical positions, purchasing trip-scheduling software, using monthly activity reports, purchasing a new time clock, and improving driving recruitment by offering referral fees and signing bonuses.

The report also recommends tying maintenance software into the fuel pumps and widening the entrance gate to the bus yard.

Saving money

The TAS report notes the average cost-per-mile for eight surveyed area school districts is $3.09; the average cost-per-student is $617, and the average cost-per-route is $40,299.

Though the report notes that factors like area covered, size and age of fleet, and bell times can vary widely, it states, "But the fact that Guilderland falls on the high side of all of these comparisons is a good indication that there is room for improvement, and implementation of some of the recommendations in this report should result in improved cost control."

Andrews’s report goes on to state, "The ‘easiest’ way (operationally, not politically) to reduce transportation expenses is to reduce services. This can be achieved by requiring students to walk to school up to the maximum allowed by state regulations," which is two miles for elementary and middle-school students and three miles for high-school students.

"Given the size of the district, the lack of sidewalks in many areas, and the high level of service that the parents are accustomed to, this would likely cause quite an uproar," the report concludes.

A similar option is to have fewer bus stops, the report says. Currently, the district’s policy is two-tenths of a mile for its youngest students, a half-mile for those in grades five through eight, and one mile for high school students. "According to state regulations, it is the parents’ responsibility, not the district’s, to ensure that their children get to the assigned bus stops safely," writes Andrews.

Changing bell times

Another option, he writes, is to expand bell times, allowing runs with fewer vehicles.

Currently, district bus routes operate nominally on a three-tiered system. High-school students are in the first tier. Their day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 2:25 p.m. Elementary students are next, starting school at 8:10 a.m. and getting dismissed at 1:55 p.m. Middle-school students are last, starting at 8:50 a.m. and getting dismissed at 3:20 p.m.

Andrews writes of the current schedule, "Tight bell times increase the need for additional buses to complete the routes in less time." He notes that Guilderland has a middle school with one of the latest bell times in the area and that Guilderland’s five elementary schools have the shortest educational day, of five hours and 45 minutes while the average length is six hours and 13 minutes.

Schools in the area with more than 5,000 students like Guilderland, are triple tripped, while those with under 5,000 students are double tripped, says Andrews.

"Although the district considers itself triple tripped," he writes, "the tight bell times...have the effect of negating the cost benefits of triple tripping, because...tight bell time increase the need for additional buses to complete the routes in less time."

Under "true" triple tripping, Andrews writes, the entire fleet makes three trips throughout the district, transporting students in different grade levels at different times.

The reason most schools transport elementary students last in the morning is that the high schools and middle schools are typically zoned district-wide, as they are at Guilderland, meaning that the buses must cover the entire district to pick up students. After completing these runs, the fleet can then be disbursed to the smaller elementary zones to transport their students.

"In Guilderland," Andrews writes, "the buses traverse the entire district for high-school students, then have 40 minutes to separate into the elementary zones, then have 25 minutes to again traverse the entire district for the middle-school students. Given the shortest elementary-school day, in the afternoon, the district is again unique in having the elementary transported first.

"These factors," he concludes, "result in an inefficient use of drivers and vehicle." He recommends that Guilderland use routing software to develop three possible route configurations:

— Continued triple tripping with the same length of day, but the order changed to high school, middle school, then elementary schools;

— Continued triple tripping with a longer elementary day, with the order changed to high school, middle school, then elementary schools; and

— Double tripping by combining grades six through 12 students into one bell time.

"It’s doubtful that double tripping would be the most efficient," Andrews concludes, but it’s worth considering if the first two options can’t be implemented.

Making history visible

By Matt Cook

ALTAMONT — With the recent donation of a bronze plaque to the Altamont Free Library, the Altamont Community Tradition has kicked off a program to increase public awareness of Altamont’s historic buildings and encourage their preservation.

"ACT has been focusing on historic preservation for the past year," said ACT board member Linda Cure. "One of the things we wanted to do is highlight the historic district in Altamont."

The citizens’ group is offering plaques, for about $140, to owners of the 38 homes and buildings in the historic district, between Thacher Drive and the old train station, the future site of the library.

Each building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The plaques are each 7 inches by 11 inches, oval-shaped, with beveled edges and black backgrounds. They include the date of construction of the building, and the name of the builder or the person for whom it was built.

The library’s plaque for the train station names the Delaware & Hudson Railroad Co. as the original owners in 1897.

Homeowners don’t need to gather the information for the plaques, Cure said; ACT will do it for them.

"We go through the records," Cure said.

ACT will be consulting with the village historian on the project, Cure said.

The idea is, Cure said, if homeowners and neighbors learn more about the history of their homes and their neighborhood, they will be more interested in preserving that history.

This is phase one of the project, Cure said.

"If the program does take off, we would look into the possibility of expanding the historic district in Altamont," she said.

Already, Cure said, ACT received calls from people interested in purchasing plaques. For more information, she said, call ACT at 861-6939 or 861-0243.

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