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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 1, 2007

FOIL requests unanswered
Murley still on leave, Town Hall still mum

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Three weeks after Guilderland Police Chief James Murley was placed on paid administrative leave, town officials still remain silent.

Supervisor Kenneth Runion said the matter could take days or even weeks to resolve, but that either way, the town has to "work through the process" before information is released.

Some town residents have become increasingly frustrated and say they are entitled to know exactly what their tax money is paying for.

"I would really prefer to leave it as a personnel issue," Runion said earlier in the month amid rumors and speculation over why Murley was put on leave.

Runion did say yesterday that, although the town was "in an investigative phase," that "administrative leave is not punitive or disciplinary in nature."

Murley told The Enterprise earlier this month that he was placed on paid leave Thursday, Feb. 8, but said he could not discuss why. When asked why, the police department’s deputy chief, as well as the town’s supervisor and clerk, all stated it was a "personnel issue," and therefore protected from public disclosure under New York State Public Officers Law.

The Enterprise has sent several Freedom Of Information Law requests to Town Hall asking for various information such as Murley’s attendance record over the last five years, the town’s policies on administrative leaves, and a copy of the letter placing Murley on leave.

Murley is currently receiving his regular annual salary of $96,849.

The Enterprise FOIL requests were denied last week.

Guilderland has "no polices that describe the town’s process for determining administrative leaves, nor do we maintain a list of employees that have been previously placed on leave," wrote Stacia Brigadier, personnel administrator for the town of Guilderland.

Runion cited Murley’s "personal privacy" as the reason for denying the FOIL requests, and said the town has no statistical records of police employee attendance aside from accumulated sick and personal time banks.

"We don’t compile statistical attendance records," Runion said yesterday. "They file leave slips, and those slips have their reason for the leave, which is private information"We don’t have a statistical compilation."

Other departments in Town Hall do file monthly ledger sheets with dates of attendance, Runion said, but not the police department. Runion said Murley’s time bank will be prepared for The Enterprise and Town Hall will send the information today (Thursday).

"That’s the closest we’ve got for statistical information," he said about Murley’s attendance during the last five years. He added that he has never had an excessively absent employee.

Camille Jobin-Davis, assistant director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, told The Enterprise this week that it is entitled to the information it has requested.

"I’m surprised at the lack of detail in their denial," said Jobin-Davis. "Those records should have been provided to you."

Jobin-Davis said that, as a public employee, Murley’s attendance is a matter of public record and that any information deemed "private" in the records should simply be redacted, or removed. She said that also applies to the letter placing Murley on leave.

Robert Freeman, the committee’s director, has issued several advisory opinions over the years on the accessibility of personnel records for public employees. Freeman states courts have found that public employee records which are relevant to performance of their official duties is "a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Both Freeman and Jobin-Davis have said that "personnel issues" are not a valid excuse from a FOIL request.

The cost to the town has also become an issue.

William Klee, a certified public accountant and one-time economic development board member in Guilderland, says the town is footing the bill for the Murley matter on the taxpayer’s dime. (See related letter to the editor.)

"This is strictly a taxpayer concern," he said.

Klee had expressed anger towards the town in 2004 when he wasn’t reappointed to the economic development committee.

Klee ran an estimated cost analysis based on what he called "very limited information" from the town.

Included in the estimate is Murley’s salary, including benefits and his retirement plan; legal fees; overtime paid to police staff to cover Murley’s absence; and internal town cost for an investigation and to facilitate administrative policies and procedures.

The total could range from thousands to several hundred thousand, Kleee contends, but residents still have to shoulder these costs, he said.

The Enterprise has received calls from residents who share Klee’s sentiment.

Runion responded by saying the town has incurred no cost during Murley’s administrative leave.

"If Jim Murley was accruing any legal fees, he would be paying for them himself," Runion said. "We’re not obligated to pay any private legal fees of our employees."

Runion also said that the police department is not using overtime in Murley’s absence and therefore it is not resulting in extra cost.

However, he did say, that, "I cannot comment that there won’t be any cost in the future."

Runion would not comment on how long Murley will be out.

"I know everyone would like to have a deadline," he said, "but you can’t put a timeline on these things. We have to protect the town and our employees."

Views vary on teaching reading

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The most heated discussion at Tuesday night’s school board meeting was in response to heart-wrenching stories three parents told at the last meeting about their sons’ difficulties learning to read.

Tuesday’s meeting opened with a call for unity and ended with a divided vote.

Chris Claus, president of the teachers’ union, started the session by saying a divided board is not good for kids.

Claus, himself a reading teacher, said that being the teacher of a child who fails to thrive as a reader "is a hard and frustrating job."

"For us," he said, "it is equal to the physician whose patient doesn’t get better. And, an unfortunate reality is, some patients don’t get better."

Claus said further that comments made by some board members at the meeting three weeks ago "sent a chilling message of distrust and has provoked fear in teachers and staff of this district."

Claus continued, "This board seems willing and poised to substitute its judgment of an academic program for that of its professional staff." (He submitted his comments as a letter to the Enterprise editor; they can be read in their entirety on this week’s opinion pages.)

Claus urged the board members to abandon politics and restore trust, concluding, "The almost 500 teachers I represent, who serve the almost 6,000 students who will ultimately carry us all, need this from you."

Four years ago, when parents in a group organized by Melissa Mirabile raised concerns about how the district teaches reading, the board decided the matter should be handled by teachers and administrators. Three weeks ago, several board members wanted to get involved, with one, Hy Dubowsky, adamantly demanding answers.

"A broad view"

Tuesday, Superintendent Gregory Aidala said that, in response to board members’ requests for data on reading scores, there will be a presentation at the next board meeting, on March 13.

Aidala also said that, on the English Language Arts test given in January of 2006 to students in third through eighth grades, 85 percent had scored in the top two of four categories.

Also in 2006, he said, 23 percent of students in kindergarten through fifth grade required academic intervention services (AIS); one-quarter of those students received special-education services.

Every year, The Enterprise writes about state-wide test results compiled in the school’s report card. Last May, the most recent report card was presented by Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Nancy Andress with results taken on tests in the 2004-05 school year.

At the elementary level, the state requires scores to be figured by individual schools. Guilderland has five elementary schools. All of the Guilderland scores were above state averages.

At Altamont and Westmere elementary schools, 8 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, an indication of household income. At Guilderland, Lynnwood, and Pine Bush, the percentage is half that.

In English, fourth-graders who met or exceeded standards were 78 percent at Guilderland Elementary, 79 percent at Westmere, 81 percent at Altamont, 87 percent at Lynnwood, and 88 percent at Pine Bush.

Tests for middle- and elementary-school students are graded at four performance levels. Students at the top level, 4, exceed standards; students at the next level, 3, meet standards; students at Level 2 need extra help; and students at Level 1 are deemed to have "serious academic deficiencies."

Middle school students at Farnsworth went through what Andress termed "the middle-school dip." The phenomenon is state-wide.

In English Language Arts in 2005, for example, 67 percent of Farnsworth eighth-graders scored at levels 3 and 4, meaning about a third did not meet standards.

Andress included a chart that showed, in 2002, sixty-seven percent of Farnsworth eighth-graders also scored at levels 3 and 4. Those same students then took the English Regents exam as high-school juniors and 98 percent of them passed.

"Guilderland takes a broad view," Aidala told The Enterprise yesterday, explaining that, rather than using a "narrow cut-off" it provides additional support, beyond what is required by the state, for students who need it.

He also said that the public had "generalized" the problems expressed by the three parents at the Feb. 6 meeting to "the entire reading program."

"Those were parents of children with disabilities," Aidala said of those who spoke to the board. "They have received a great deal of support"Our heart goes out to them"If we have been previously not effective, we will come up with a better plan."

At the next school board meeting, on March 13, Aidala said, results from state tests, similar to those in the annual report card will be presented. Since the state has not yet come up with comparable data from similar schools, Aidala said, the district has collected its own to present.

"Guilderland Central School District is deeply committed to helping all of its students," Aidala told the school board on Tuesday night.

He also said the district believes that, more than any particular method of teaching reading, what is "critically important" is the quality of teaching. The district has, for that reason, stressed "professional development" or training for its teachers, he said.

"Our teachers expect students to be successful readers," said Aidala, and those who struggle with reading are supported and nurtured.

Different views

Towards the close of the two-hour meeting, as the board prepared to adjourn to an executive session to discuss a half-dozen different topics, members were divided over whether or not to discuss reading.

Administrators had prepared information on the services received by the three students whose parents had complained to the board at its last meeting.

Board member Peter Golden objected, saying that no one on the board was qualified for the talk. Calling it "bizarre," he said, "We’re not going to do it justice."

He proposed amending the motion for executive session to exclude the discussion of the three students. Dubowsky seconded the motion.

"We had three parents raise some specific issues," said board Vice President John Dornbush. "I’m afraid the impression was left that the board doesn’t care, the board doesn’t know, that somehow the district has failed these students."

Dornbush said he wanted to know what the district had provided.

Board member Denise Eisele said her concern all along has been in the overall effects of the reading program, not about just the concerns raised by the three parents. "Is it meeting the needs of the kids" Can we do better"" she asked. "I honestly don’t think I have any business looking at these three students."

Board member Cathy Barber said that the students couldn’t be discussed in public so, if information weren’t shared in executive session, the board wouldn’t have it at all.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo said she had tried, on her own, to do research on teaching reading. She referred to Claus’s opening comments that none of the board members were experts on reading and said she’d like to postpone the discussion on the students until after the March 13 presentation on reading.

President Richard Weisz said he agreed with Dornbush. "My hope is that parents feel the board cares about the children," he said.

He noted that the three parents had not talked to the board in executive session but had made the "difficult decision" to talk in public.

"I think we owe it to the children to hear what the staff had been doing," said Weisz.

Referring to Steve Hadden, the administrator for special education, Dubowsky said, "You can parade Steve or any expert in front of me...I wouldn’t know what they were telling me."

Like Eisele, he said his interest was general and not in three specific individuals.

"Didn’t you hear the parents say they felt the district failed the children"...Don’t you want to hear what the district did"" asked Weisz.

Dubowsky replied that there should be give and take and the parents should be at the executive session, too, so the board members would be objective listeners.

Dornbush said the bigger issue is evaluation of the reading program, which is "done constantly" and will be done again.

He then went on to explain the process by which an individual education plan is developed for a student. A committee on special education, which includes teachers, experts, parents and a parent advocate, work out a plan for a student to follow. That’s where there is discussion, modification, and give and take, said Dornbush.

"Let’s stick to our work," said Golden, and then called for a vote.

Weisz allowed board member Colleen O’Connell to speak first. She cited one of the parent’s comments that the board had failed his child. She also scolded Dubowsky for using the term "parade" in reference to Hadden, stating that it showed Dubowsky’s lack of civility.

Weisz then called for the vote on Golden’s amendment. Only three of the board members — Golden, Dubowsky, and Fraterrigo — supported it. The other five — Barber, Dornbush, Eisele, O’Connell, and Weisz — opposed it, meaning the three students would be discused in executive session. Board member Thomas Nachod was absent; Weisz had said earlier that he was "stranded in Atlanta."

The board then voted to adjourn to executive session, with only Golden voting "nay."

Planet Beach heats Western Avenue

By Jarrett Carroll

GUILDERLAND — Although it’s cold outside, inside of Planet Beach tanning salon on Western Avenue is a different world.

The old jewelry store in the 1800 Western Ave. Cosmo’s Plaza has been transformed into the glitzy tanning and spa salon.

Customers are greeted by a warm orange-themed décor and the soft glow of specialty track lighting as they walk through the doors of Planet Beach. Everything in sight is immaculate; the equipment is immediately sanitized by the friendly staff who work there.

Ten sleek rooms are named after various planets and celestial objects; each contains a different tanning or spa treatment apparatus.

Owner Frank Dessingue says the tanning industry has evolved over the past couple of decades; he invites former tanning salon connoisseurs to take another look.

"People will come in and say they used to tan 20 years ago," said Dessingue. "They’ll stop by and ask, ‘So, what’s changed since then"’"

"Everything," Dessingue answers.

As a result of better science and better technology, said Dessingue, tanning and spa salons have become not only safer, but more effective and efficient.

The golden rule to smart tanning, he said, is never to burn. A "base tan" is your best protection against harmful ultraviolet overexposure that leads to sunburns, he said.

He also cited the advantages of ultraviolet light when used at safe-exposure levels, such as the healthful physiological and psychological benefits like vitamin D intake and increased serotonin production in the brain.

"Business has been good so far," Dessingue said about opening in early January.

For the shy customer who doesn’t like the gym-like atmosphere of some spas, Planet Beach offers spa-quality treatments in private rooms without the need of an attendant, Dessingue said.

Most of his customers are working professionals — quite a few are men — who not only use the tanning booths, but use the spa treatments, too.

Dessingue’s salon has two expensive machines which are part of the spa treatment program at Planet Beach, with more machines on the way.

The Hydration Station, is a large machine that resembles a space shuttle; it combines infrared heat, dense steam, enhancing LED (light-emitting diode) color spectrum lights, oxygen science concentrates, and a relaxing massage.

The concentrates are lotions made of pharmaceutical-grade botanicals; mineral extracts; and vitamins A, E, and C.

"Your pores are going to open up and exfoliate that outer layer of skin and then this stuff gets infused into your skin," Dessingue said of the 20-minute process.

The Lumiére, uses an LED redlight therapy, not ultraviolet, and a topical skin-care application to repair damaged skin and help remove scarring.

"It is specifically designated for your skin, particularly your face," said Dessingue. "It’s the new alternative to Botox treatments or skin peals,"

The light therapy clears the user’s skin and repairs blemishes, according to Dessingue.

"The intensity of the light activates the topical solutions. It then creates new cells and boost the collagen production," Dessingue said. "It is the same technology that is used medically for burn victims."

Dessingue runs the salon with his wife, Randi. Planet Beach was founded by Stephen Smith in 1995 in the uptown district of New Orleans.

Planet Beach in Guilderland also offers non-ultraviolet tanning and a variety of skin-care lotions and products in addition to tanning beds and spa treatments.

The Dessingues say they are planing a grand opening at their store, which will include introductory deals and packages, later this month.

Prices vary for individual treatments but reduced prices are available for package deals. The Hydration Station and Lumiére treatments start at $40 a session, but go as low as $20 a session with certain packages.

Tanning packages go from $8 to $12 and are good for three tans a piece.

They do have monthly memberships, Dessingue said, which start at $20 and go up to the complete $149 package, which gives access to all of Planet Beach’s equipment for the month.

Memberships and package deals are good at any Planet Beach location in the world, said Dessignue, which is good for out-of-state students.

"The one thing you’re responsible for by being a national franchise is that you have to abide by stricter guidelines," said Dessingue. "It really makes the difference in the experience."

Final note for Smith’s Navy life

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Most soldiers carry a gun; Wes Smith carried a trombone.

He joined the Navy band in 1968, during the Vietnam War, and went on a six-month deployment to the Philippines on the USS America. He played shows from the Hong Kong Hilton to venues in New Zealand.

A cousin of his, Rusty, thought the gig sounded so good that he, too, joined the military. Rusty was put on a refueling tankard and ended up putting oil into the USS America. "We were halfway around the world and I bumped into my cousin," said Smith. "We just waved back and forth to each other."

In 1972, Smith went into the Navy Reserve until 1977 when he switched into the Army National Guard, the 199th Army Band out of Peekskill, which is the oldest National Guard band in the United States, he said. Now Smith has reached the mandatory retirement age, so he’ll be putting away his uniform.

Music has been part of Smith’s life since he was a child. In the fourth grade, he started playing on his father’s old horn. "He had a trombone he wasn’t using, so I did," he said. He’s still got that trombone as well as the one that he used in the service.

After the war, Smith spent 28 years teaching music in the Albany City schools, and, since he’s retired, he’s been going back to teach there every once in a while, he said. He likes to watch the progress that his students make, from being able to put the instruments together to being able to play songs, he said.

His whole life, Smith has been playing in churches and orchestras. Once he filled in for the Utica Symphony and ended up playing the trombone for Ella Fitzgerald, he said.

"I think when you’re a musician," said his wife, Linda, "you never have to worry about being bored."

No contest
Aylward, Marshall run for trustee

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Chris Marshall and William Aylward, who are running for village trustee on a slate that Mayor James Gaughan orchestrated, have been campaigning the old-fashioned way, they say. Despite being the only two candidates on the ballot for the two open seats on the village board for the March 20 election, they’ve been sending out campaign pamphlets and going door-to-door.

The two decided to run together when Gaughan introduced them, Aylward said. Marshall, who is new to politics, said that she decided to team up with long-time-incumbent Aylward after Gaughan introduced the two because she thought it would be to her advantage. "I am, in contrast, much more unknown," she said, comparing herself to Aylward, who served as Altamont’s mayor in the 1970’s and has since been a village trustee. He is also a former Guilderland Supervisor and currently an Albany County legislator.

Although she has very little history of participating in government herself, Marshall said that one of the common goals she shares with Aylward is getting citizens more involved with village government. She suggested that the village start sending out a newsletter, as recommended in the comprehensive plan, to get people more involved, or spiffing up the village’s website.

On their shared campaign flier, the first thing that Aylward and Marshall promise is to, "Work in harmony to achieve results for Altamont residents." Marshall is planning to replace Trustee Harvey Vlahos on the village board. Vlahos has a history of being at odds with the rest of the board — he is often the only member to raise questions prior to voting on an item. His term will expire this spring and he won’t appear on the ballot, although he hasn’t ruled out a write-in campaign.

Aylward is a retired Guilderland social-studies teacher, active in local politics for decades. Marshall, who is originally from Buffalo, moved to the Albany area when she got a job in the state Civil Service Division and has lived in Altamont for 20 years.

Both candidates named the comprehensive plan as the biggest issue for the village in coming years. Trustee Dean Whalen, an architect, headed the committee that formed the plan and Vlahos served on it. Neither Aylward nor Marshall were involved with creating the village’s new comprehensive plan, which took over a year to complete.

"Obviously the comprehensive plan is going to be the big issue," said Marshall when asked what her platform is. "Now that its adopted," she said, "it needs to be actualized."

Aylward also said that a lot of what the village will be dealing with in the next few years will involve the comprehensive plan. "It deals with the wholeness, the totality of life," he said of the plan.

Both candidates also mentioned sidewalks as something the village should deal with in the next few years. Marshall, who lives in the suburban Kushaqua development, would like to have Altamont’s developments connected to the village center by sidewalks and Aylward would like to fix the sidewalks that have fallen into disrepair on some Altamont streets.

Fixing the roads and drainage around the village was former Mayor Paul DeSarbo’s legacy, Aylward said. Marshall likes the direction that Gaughan is taking the village in. Both Marshall and Aylward agree that Gaughan’s administration has done well in handling the village’s water-shortage problems. Under his administration, a suit was settled that allowed the village to buy land where water had been discovered during DeSarbo’s tenure. The new well is to be on soon.

Marshall said, in addition to adding water to the village system, Gaughan has done well in building a sense of community. She named two examples — the farmers’ market by the train station in the summer and the Pigtacular; the Pigtacular was a program created by the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce that encouraged businesses and organizations to decorate statues of pigs which were auctioned off for charity.

Looking after Altamont’s senior citizens was named by both candidates as being another positive aspect of the current administration. They would both like to see more services for Altamont’s youth, too, which is something suggested in the comprehensive plan.

"We are attentive to the seniors," said Aylward. "We should be attentive to the youth."

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