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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 6, 2007

GCSD leaders say
Professional development builds a "shared vision"

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Farnsworth seventh-graders shuffled their feet as they walked rhythmically in a circle on the green grass next to the school parking lot.

Their teacher, Keir Aspin, called it "kinetic learning." He was teaching them a dance done by the Iroquois at the change of the seasons to renew life in their fields. He learned about it at the re-creation of a Seneca village, he said, and shared the lesson with his colleagues.

This was all captured on a film made by Nicholas Viscio, Guilderland’s media director, and shown to school board members last week as part of a presentation on professional learning in Guilderland schools.

Another scene in Viscio’s film showed Donna Lawrence’s fifth-graders at Pine Bush Elementary School busy at a variety of tasks in developing a bill for Congress. Children, moving from station to station, could use their differing strengths — ranging from drawing to speaking — as they went about their work.

Lawrence got the idea for the lesson from a workshop. Some years, the final project is a poster; other years, a video, Lawrence said.

"I had to be trained to use technology," she said. "I never had a computer course in college. I’m that old."

High School English teacher Aaron Sicotte spoke about the study groups that had improved his teaching. "It’s not just a one-day affair, but a continual process," he said of professional development at Guilderland. "It’s about building this community."

Nancy Andress, the assistant superintendent for instruction, had started the presentation by telling the school board, "There must be support for teachers who want to take risks."

She also quoted Thomas Sergiovani, who had come to Guilderland, from his book, Leadership in the Schoolhouse: "The idea of making classrooms into learning communities for students will remain more rhetoric than real unless schools become learning communities for teachers, too."

While New York State requires a certain amount of staff development, Guilderland goes well beyond that, Andress said. Its goals are to build a "shared vision" of effective instruction, to allow all staff to grow professionally, and to create "a culture of shared values around instructional improvement that will blend the work of all staff and administrators into a coherent set of actions."

Nancy Brumer, the district’s new staff developer, told the board what her job entails. She said she is a trainer, coach, resource provider, program manager, consultant, task and process facilitator and a catalyst for change.

Andress also went over the costs for professional development, which will total about $706,685 this school year. Grant funds this year total about $53,265, Andress said.

Brumer concluded with a quotation from Albert Einstein: "The deeper we search, the more we find there is to know, and as long as human life exists I believe that it will always be so."

Measurement and money

While school-board members generally sounded appreciative of the report, they were sharply divided over the need to measure the results of Guilderland’s professional development program. There was also some disagreement on the need to pay for the program.

Hy Dubowsky said that professional development was critical for the health of any organization, but he also asked, "What are the outcomes"...Do we have a sense of where we want to go, where we are, where we have been"" He said that should be tied to the expenditure of time and money.

Brumer responded by describing a session she had attended at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, had addressed a cathedral full of teachers, she said. Some things don’t bear fruit until years later, he had said; the Picassos of the world make bright and bold innovations at an early age while the Cézannes of the world plug away and develop over time.

"We can’t measure everything," said Brumer. "Professional development is helping teachers to hone their skills...to reach those Cézannes of the world."

"With all due respect, I disagree," said Dubowsky. "I’m looking for some quantification...We need to show some real-time measurable progress." Having a Ph.D. in program analysis, Dubowsky said, he knows such measurements are possible.

Board member Peter Golden said that Brumer’s assertion that the data showing student achievement is raised by teacher training is "a dangerous place to go."

He said, "You’re looking at a causality that may not exist."

Both Andress and Brumer responded that research had shown a relationship between professional development and student achievement.

Board member Catherine Barber said she appreciated the creative approaches shown in Viscio’s film. "Sometimes things that get kids excited about learning are difficult to measure," she said, suggesting a seed planted now can bloom later.

Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt said she considered the cost, less than 1 percent of the annual budget, a "very small price to pay" for the benefits of professional development.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo asked what she called "a heretical question." She asked why the taxpayers should foot the bill for teachers’ development while those in other professions, ranging from barbers to doctors, pay for their own.

Board President Richard Weisz took exception to the question. As a lawyer, he said, he pays out of his own pocket for the professional development of associates at his firm. "The taxpayers are the employers," he said, likening it to his paying for the associates’ training.

Weisz listed four reasons to justify the spending. First, he said, excited students stay in school. Secondly, professional development helps retain staff. Third, student performance is tied to teacher performance. And fourth, it improves staff morale.

Weisz suggested evaluating by looking at comparable school districts without the same level of professional development.

John McGuire, at his first Guilderland School Board meeting as superintendent, said, "I found an advantage to being the new guy." When he was interviewing for the job, he said he asked various contingents at Guilderland, "What do you value"" He said he was consistently told professional development was "a component of this culture they valued."

He also said asking how to get the "best bang for the buck" is a "powerful and timeless" question.

"There are no sacred cows," said McGuire.

Professional development at Guilderland, he went on, is based on field-tested best practices. "We don’t bring slipshod consultants to Guilderland," he said.

McGuire concluded that he looked forward to working "very accountably" on professional development at Guilderland "so it continues to be a lighthouse to our district."

State audit finds adequate controls at GCSD

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — A much-anticipated state audit of the Guilderland School District found few problems, all of them relatively minor.

"Based on the results of the examination," school board President Richard Weisz wrote in a letter to the state comptroller’s office, "the district is pleased with the findings that show overall, adequate and appropriate internal controls are in place to reduce the risk of theft, fraud, and abuse....We are always interested in identifying ways to improve upon our practices and procedures to promote responsible stewardship."

The Office of the State Comptroller began auditing all public schools in New York after flagrant abuse was discovered on Long Island.

The school board’s audit committee met Monday night to discuss the report, which was posted earlier that day on the state comptroller’s website. The committee agreed on a corrective action plan, on which the school board will vote at its next meeting, Dec. 11. The board has 90 days to forward the plan to the comptroller’s office and to the education commissioner, and to make the plan available for public review.

The 21-page audit considered records from July 1, 2005 to Dec. 12, 2006, looking at four areas — cash receipts and disbursements; payment for unused leave; purchasing; and safeguards over loss to computerized data.

Segregation of duties

"We found there is insufficient segregation of duties in the internal controls over cash receipts and disbursements, which increases the risk that District assets may be susceptible to theft, misuse, or abuse and that errors might go undetected," says the report.

"We had one person on staff, for economic reasons, working on this," responded Weisz, audit committee chairman, through The Enterprise. "We’ve been adding part-time employees at a feverish pitch to deal with conflicts of duty."

Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, said that this year alone Guilderland has spent an additional $71,250 on the "auditing line," to meet new state and federal requirements and recommendations. That figure will largely reoccur annually, he said.

"We took some pro-active measures," said Sanders, as the district anticipated "what the comptroller was looking for."

"Some things were stupid, like the stamp," said Weisz, going on to explain that in Roslyn, the Long Island district which was robbed of over $11 million, the treasurer was part of the scandal, so someone else besides a school-district treasurer, has to open the mail and stamp it in.

"We have years of loyal service and have to spend taxpayer money to prevent a risk we never felt was here," said Weisz.

"The reason it’s so obsessive is because the abuse was so outrageous," said Peter Golden, a school board member who serves on the audit committee.

Weisz went on to assert that, in the Guilderland audit, "The comptroller made a factual error...We believe at least two signatures were needed to open and close a bank account."

While the audit reports that the Guilderland treasurer has the ability to "open and close bank accounts," Sanders told The Enterprise yesterday, "We’ve always had another signature for bank accounts." Sanders, himself, is the person who co-signs with the treasurer, he said.

Unused leave

The second flaw reported in the audit is, "District officials have not established policies and procedures to ensure that all leave buyout payments are made in accordance with collective bargaining agreements."

The auditors assert, "We determined that during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 fiscal years, the District paid 16 employees, including instructional and non-instructional staff, a total of $32,368 for unused vacation leave upon separation from the District, even though these payments were not authorized in the respective collective bargaining agreements."

"Our contracts said you could accumulate so many days. At least eight contracts did not state, ‘And we will pay you for these days,’" Weisz said, adding that the payment was understood by both the district and the employees. "We’ll put in language to reflect what we’ve already been doing," he said.

Also, Weisz said, the auditors found a miscalculation of a day-and-a-half for one employee’s leave buyout. "We’ll have two different groups do the math separately," he said.

He added, "We hated to spend money where the cost didn’t justify the savings...The question is: How big a fly swatter do you use""


While the auditors found Guilderland’s internal controls over purchasing were "appropriately designed and generally operating effectively," they also asserted, "District officials did not always follow the policy for providing meals and refreshments at events."

During the audit period, Guilderland spent about $16,700 for food at various events.
"We determined," said the auditors, "that for 29 out of 39 district-sponsored events, the district did not comply with its own policy for providing food. This practice resulted in expenditures of approximately $7,300 for meals and refreshments that were not in compliance with district policy."

The report cites an example of an annual picnic the district holds at the start of the school year. "The district paid $4,000 for two picnics during the 18-month period," says the report.

In a letter to the auditors, Weisz responded that, for the annual cookout at Tawasentha Park, board members and district administrators volunteer to cook for about 400 attendees at a cost of about $5 per person. "The picnic offers the Board of Education the opportunity to engage in informal sharing with individual staff members, welcome new staff, and show appreciation for their extra efforts and the many hours staff spends volunteering their time throughout the year for the benefit of students."

Weisz told The Enterprise after Monday’s audit committee meeting, "We’ll put the staff picnic in our policy."

The auditors’ report also says, "On five occasions, the district authorized the purchase of meals and refreshments from the School Lunch Department totaling $318. Those purchases did not meet the criteria set forth in the district’s policy because attendees were not prevented from taking time off for food consumption due to a pressing need to complete district business at hand."

Weisz said that the board’s policy committee will review the policy to see that practices are consistent with intent. "We’ll just try to clarify our policy so there’s no issue," he said.

Safeguarding records

"Finally, we found that the district has not developed a formal disaster recovery plan for its computerized data," says the state audit. "Thus, the district’s computerized data is at risk in the event of a disaster or severe computer system malfunction."

"I couldn’t find any templates," Sanders told the members of the audit committee on Monday night. He surmised this was due to the fact that high-school disaster recovery plans would contain sensitive information, like phone numbers. "Idaho was the only state I found with any information," he said.

"Maybe if we found [a school that suffered] a disaster, we could call them," said Golden.

"We did have a disaster," said Weisz.

The district handled a minor emergency about a year ago, Sanders told The Enterprise earlier; the district’s server went down so Guilderland used servers at the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services to do its payroll.

Sanders said that data is archived from the district office — it’s backed up every day — and stored off-site at Farnsworth Middle School.

If data at both places were to be destroyed, he said, BOCES would have a copy of the data and BOCES is currently working on its own backup plan, reaching out to other BOCES across the sate.

Sanders noted at Monday’s meeting that the comptroller’s office doesn’t supply a template for, or any guidance on, creating an emergency plan. Jeffrey Pitkin, one of two citizens who serve on the committee, said creating a plan "takes a lot of effort" and suggested a consultant might help.

"The experts know," he said, "They have the template" and could modify it to fit the district’s needs.

There are hundreds of such businesses, Sanders noted.

Weisz said it should be done by BOCES or by the Suburban Council school districts working together.

Superintendent John McGuire noted that working through BOCES would save the district money, since funds get returned in BOCES aid.

"We’re being cited for something nobody has"" asked Colleen O’Connell, a school board member serving on the audit committee.

"Correct," responded Sanders.

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