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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 31, 2008


Use of GCSD directory legal"

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Last spring, in a hotly contested five-way race for three school-board seats, the two candidates backed by the teachers’ union won. The union used a list of addresses of students’ homes obtained from the school district to mail postcards supporting the two candidates and the school budget just before the May vote.

Concerns are now being raised that releasing the directory information was illegal — either in violation of state law that prohibits school districts from campaigning or in violation of a federal act that protects students’ privacy.

Board member Peter Golden asked about the release of directory information at the last school board meeting and was told by the school board president, Richard Weisz, that directory information was only given out to the military as required by federal law, with parents or students who are 18 having a chance to opt out.

Susan Tangorre, the district’s freedom of information officer, agreed. She could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Chris Claus, the president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, which is affiliated with the New York State United Teachers, said yesterday that the GTA had filed a freedom-of-information request asking for the addresses of people with children in the school district before both the 2007 elections and the 2006 elections.

Postcards supporting the union-backed candidates and the budget were sent to those on the lists, he said. In 2006, the GTA supported Richard Weisz, and in 2007 the union supported Colleen O’Connell and Gloria Towle-Hilt.

Claus said he got the idea from a NYSUT workshop that "gave suggestions on being more politically active."

"It’s a great idea to target a group of people with whom we have a common interest," said Claus. "They have kids in school and we teach those kids."

Asked if there is a district policy on releasing directory information, Claus said, "Not that I know of."

Claus went on, "We would not ask for anything improper. We made this as a good-faith request, we believe, in a proper, legal way."

Asked if he thought the mailing was effective, Clause said, "It was more effective than the list of New York State United Teachers in the district"It was much bigger." The NYSUT list was used to phone teachers, said Claus. The list of students’ homes from the Guilderland School District contained just addresses, no phone numbers, he said.

Claus said, "I don’t have a way of gauging the effectiveness."

He said the lists had "absolutely not" been used for any other purpose.

Gregory Aidala, who retired this fall after seven years as Guilderland’s superintendent, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In the midst of the spring election, which he and others called contentious and divisive, Aidala, with the advice of the school’s attorney, stopped three candidates from handing out election flyers at school events, a longstanding practice.

Those three candidates were not endorsed by the teachers’ union; they were running as a slate backed by a group of parents which had been critical of how the district teaches reading.

"We have to maintain the appearance of not permitting partisan activities on school grounds," Aidala said at the time.

One of the losing candidates, Carolyn Kelly, who had filled out and returned a questionnaire for the Guilderland Teachers’ Association but had not received the union’s endorsement, said the day after the election, "It’s unfortunate postcards went out from the GTA on Saturday, supporting their chosen candidates. That’s a huge expense; it obviously worked"I don’t know if any parent can work past that type of machine."

Golden, whose three-year term on the board is up this year, said he has not yet decided if he will seek re-election.

"Since this summer, at the urging of community members, I’ve been trying to learn if the district released any of our family information," he told The Enterprise yesterday. "Our former superintendent indicated that we hadn’t and, at our board meeting on Jan. 23, the administrator overseeing this information also seemed to indicate that we hadn’t.

"Now it appears that the information was provided to the teachers’ union. All I’ve been trying to discover is what was released and whether the district met its obligations in part defined by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

"I just want to be sure parents were given the appropriate public notice that the district was providing family information to the teachers’ union and that parents had the opportunity to say no.

"As I look back, I’m having a hard time understanding the denials that we had released the information when obviously we had."

FERPA

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which applies to all schools that receive federal funds, is to protect the privacy of students’ education records. Under the act, schools must generally have written permission from a parent or eligible student, age 18 or older, to release any information from a student’s record, but schools may disclose directory information, such as a student’s name, address, or telephone number, as long as parents and eligible students are told and allowed a reasonable amount of time to request that the school not disclose their directory information.

Weisz, the school-board president, told The Enterprise yesterday that he didn’t know if the district had a policy on the release of directory information and he said he wasn’t aware of the school board discussing it. "We’ve got to check and see what happened," he said.

Asked if he thought the release was legal and ethical, Weisz said, "I don’t know enough to answer that."

John McGuire, who just became Guilderland’s superintendent this fall, said notice of FERPA is given to Guilderland parents and students each year in the school calendar.

He cited two district policies that deal with records. The first, on access to student records, which was adopted in 1995 and revised in 2001, lists "rosters and/or directories of pupils," which it defines as "lists of names of pupils by grades," as not available for public access.

This policy is posted at the district’s website along with a statement under "Policies and notifications" that says, "From time to time, school district officials may release student information"for use in school district publications or within school building Web sites, or to the media for public relations purposes." It goes on to say parents who object to the release of their child’s information are to notify the building principal and the district’s communication office "in writing on or before September 15 in any school year."

Yesterday, The Enterprise shared these policy statements with Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government and an expert on freedom-of-information laws, and asked if the school district was correct to release the directory information.

Freeman responded by quoting from the federal regulation: "‘An educational agency or institution may disclose directory information if it gives public notice to parents of students in attendance’"Have they done that""If they haven’t done it, then they haven’t complied with the federal law. That’s the simple answer."

He also said, "I suggest to districts that they establish a policy on directory information so they can disclose"information without fear of violating federal law."

Freeman said, too, that, although FERPA has been on the books since 1974, there is "rampant ignorance" about the act.

After Freeman had gone home for the day, the district office e-mailed The Enterprise the second policy that McGuire had cited, too new to be posted on the district website, on student records regulation. Just one section of that policy deals with directory information. It says that, at the beginning of each school year, the district shall publish in the district newsletter, school calendar and/or district website a notice to parents and students 18 or older of their rights under FERPA and the district policy.

"The policy applicable to the release of student directory information may apply to military recruiters, the media, colleges and universities, and prospective employers," it states. "Subsequent to the annual notification of parents concerning directory information, a reasonable amount of time must be allowed for the parent or student to notify school officials that any or all such information should not be released."

McGuire said that the directory information was given to the GTA on the advice of the school district’s lawyer. "Frankly," he said, "I’m comfortable that what was done was done in compliance with the law and policy."

He went on, "We want to be in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, but also acting in the best interests of our students and community."

He also said, about board members’ seeming unawareness of the policy, "In fairness to the board, policy manuals are voluminous."

McGuire said he will be asking the board to review the current policy. "They may say, ‘Yep, this is exactly where I want to be,’" he said.

McGuire went on, "This, to me, is an appropriate question for anyone to ask"We’ll generate a lot of different opinions."

McGuire concluded, "My feeling is, baseline, you make sure you’re in compliance with the law. Then, beyond that, where do you want to be as a superintendent""

He said yesterday he had not yet formulated his recommendation on the matter.


School board responds to audit with corrective action plan

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND—Responding to recommendations from a state audit, the school board here formally adopted a corrective action plan last Tuesday.

While the school district basically got a good report from the state comptroller on how it handles its finances, the audit recommended establishing written procedures to segregate the duties of cash collection, cash disbursement, reconciliations, and record-keeping. Treasurer’s duties have been adjusted to provide greater separation of duties, which includes hiring a part-time worker to perform bank reconciliations.

The audit also said buyout payments for unused leave time should be clearly stipulated in bargaining agreements and the board agreed they will be.

Also, the policy committee will review the Meals and Refreshments Policy to make sure the language reflects the board’s intent. And, finally, the district is in the process of developing a disaster recovery plan for its computerized data.

Other business

In other business, the school board:

— Heard from Superintendent John McGuire that a contingent including the state’s education commissioner, Richard Mills, and Sir Michael Barber visited Guilderland High School and Westmere Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 11, talking with students and staff.

McGuire said that the commissioner graciously suggested "Guilderland is a beacon of excellence" and he was interested in replicating work at Guilderland across the state;

— Accepted Ricoh Corporation’s $20,638.80 bid for 840 cases of copy paper, which was about $100 lower than the only other bid, from W.B. Mason;

— Agreed to participate in a cooperative bid for the purchase of Chevrolet Suburbans to transport students.

"This is an opportunity to leverage some buying power," said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, adding, "We still have the right of refusal";

— Agreed to establish the Gregory J. Aidala Scholarship Fund to recognize two graduating students who maintain an 85 average, participate in service learning activities, and plan to attend college to pursue a major in education.

Aidala retired last fall after serving as Guilderland’s superintendent for seven years.

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo said that most academic scholarships are given to students who have an average of 90 or above.

Board President Richard Weisz responded that Aidala wanted to expand the number of eligible students and that, from Aidala’s perspective, there are valuable students who don’t do better than 85.

"Having raised one of those," said Weisz, "I know what he’s talking about." He then thanked the Aidala family;

— Accepted Bill Maffia’s donation of a desktop scanner and two musical instruments — an alto sax and a recorder;

— Appointed five volunteers to the Citizens’ Budget Advisory committee — newcomer Yayin Chu-Reimer, and returning members Anderson Bryan, Donald Csaposs, Karen Keane, and Mark Owen.

"If you’ve been reading the papers lately, we need a lot of help," said Weisz, appealing to others to join the committee, which listens to administrators present next year’s budget over a half-dozen televised sessions, and offers comments;

— Agreed with Fraterrigo’s suggestion to write a letter objecting to the New York State School Boards Association’s support of an initiative to put a tax on all Internet sales, with the proceeds earmarked for education.

Fraterrigo, who attended the recent NYSSBA convention, said, "None of this was even mentioned." She called the tax regressive.

"Whenever I hear ‘funds dedicated to education,’ it’s smoke and mirrors, folks," said Vice President John Dornbush.

"The timing is bad," said board member Hy Dubowsky, noting that, with the sluggish economy, the added tax would do "exactly the opposite of encouraging people to spend."

Weisz urged McGuire to write that the board was "disappointed."

Board member Denise Eisele asked, "Can we use a stronger word than disappointed""

"Shocked" and "appalled" were suggested;

— Heard praise from both Eisele and board member Catherine Barber for music teacher Shannon deFrancqueville, who was given tenure. Eisele said she worked well not just with general-education students but with special-education students, too, offering "another avenue to reach these kids." She applauded her "for being very creative";

— Heard from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Nancy Andress that Guilderland’s first Parent and Child Wellness Fair will be held on Feb. 27 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the high school. The free event will feature over 40 vendors along with music, food, sports, and wellness demonstrations;

— Learned that Farnsworth Middle School science teachers Jennifer Ford and Alan Fiero have been awarded a grant for $25,370 from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board to expand and improve the study of local biodiversity with a focus on the rare Pine Bush ecosystem; and

— Met in executive session to discuss a student issue.


Extra! Extra!
Altamont elementary launches the Free Read


By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Maddie Kuon is an always-stirring girl of action.

When she watches TV, she jumps rope at the same time.

"She’s the fastest kid in her grade," says her mother, Terri Standish-Kuon. When her school, Altamont Elementary, has its annual fun run, said her mother, "The boys compete to see who can beat her."

No one has.

"It’s a gift," said her mother. "Maddie floats."

She also writes. "I write in a journal at night," said 9-year-old Maddie, a fourth-grader. But she never had a chance to write for a newspaper, until this year.

Audrey Pafunda, an enrichment teaching assistant at Altamont Elementary, started a school newspaper, The Altamont Free Read. The 16-page January issue was put out by a dozen fourth- and fifth-graders.

Maddie wrote an editorial for the paper that begins, "I’m writing this column because I think girls and boys should play on the same teams, especially when they’re playing on the school playground. I propose that we have mixed teams. This would encourage all kids to work together and not worry about what other people think."

"I’m an athlete," Maddie said when asked what inspired her to write the editorial. "I love to run and play games outside...I play soccer and softball, and I dance. I hope, when I’m older, to do track and field."

But something bothered Maddie in her years, since first grade, at Altamont Elementary School. On the playground, she writes, "boys and girls team up against each other too much. They’re rarely on the same teams."

She also writes, "Girls are awesome athletes!" and goes on to state some girls are as strong or stronger than boys, and some are as fast or faster than boys. "Finally, girls are smart, so they can help with the logic involved in games," writes Maddie.

She concludes, "Next time, when you’re out on the playground, think about who you’re playing with and how you can make a difference. If a girl asks to play on your team, and it’s an all-boy team, give her a chance. Let her play! It could make a big difference for everyone."

Maddie said this week that her editorial made some boys she knew realize what was happening. Since there’s snow on the ground and no playground sessions, she said, it’s too early to tell if her words will make a difference.

But, she noted, "In my classroom, it’s been working well." Boys and girls are playing a domino-stacking game together, she said.

Maddie has already thought up an editorial idea for the next issue of The Altamont Free Read. She’s going to advise kids in the lunch room to stop teasing each other and eat their lunches instead.

She’d like to be a teacher when she grows up. "I love hanging out with kids," said Maddie.

"Learn by doing"

The January issue of The Free Read is packed with news of school events, including interviews with students and descriptions of class activities. One class, for example, is learning to sing the preamble to the Constitution.

The paper also features a book review, math problems and puzzles, and news of a student basketball team and a Brownie party at the Altamont Free Library.

It also has two advice columns: "Just ask JAC!" by Jo Ann Mulligan, Abby Foreman, and Carrie Rose Mulligan, and "A Guy’s Mind" by Mike Malone and Nick Hilt.

Pafunda said the first issue was so popular that more and younger kids are requesting her help to get involved.

Pafunda had taught English to seventh-graders at Voorheesville for eight years, starting a seventh-graders’ newspaper there, so she knows that it is not only "good practice for writing" but, she said, "It brings the kids together as a community."

She left teaching because her daughter, Danielle, was ill and needed her care. Her daughter and her son, Nathan, are now grown; Nathan is an evaluator for the Department of Welfare in Pittsburgh and Danielle is a published poet who has studied and done translations "all over the world," her mother said.

"I always wanted to work with elementary-school children," said Pafunda. She began at Guilderland as an enrichment teaching assistant at Westmere Elementary, where she also started a school paper, and then moved to Altamont.

The first Altamont paper was put out by a dozen students, working largely after school. "I told them, ‘Guilderland High School has an award-winning paper. This is where you start,’" said Pafunda.

She teaches her students how to find a timely story of general interest and how to write a news lede.

"We go over the stories line by line...I ask, ‘Can you think of another word" We’ve used this word three times,’" said Pafunda. "It’s a long process."

Pafunda assembled the stories herself, adding computer graphics, running off extra issues on the school’s copying machine.

"Teachers and parents loved it. The kids are really excited about it — all buzzing," said Pafunda of the PTA-sponsored project. "I didn’t know it would be that big a thing."

She went on, "I want it to be for all the kids, not just the few who write really well."

The next edition will come out in February or March. "I’m so excited about the lead story," said Pafunda. Third-graders interviewed the school’s principal, Peter Brabant. "The kids had a good interview with him — so funny and interesting. They wrote a three-page story. It’s awesome."

Pafunda enjoys seeing the reaction to printed words. After Maddie Kuon’s editorial ran, Pafunda said, "Kids came over and talked to her. I said, ‘That’s what we’re supposed to be doing — making people think and changing their ways of doing things.’

"She was on fire with that," Pafunda recalled of Kuon writing the editorial. "She sat with me for an hour one afternoon and hammered it out."

Pafunda concluded of teaching students through news writing, "You learn by doing, not by people talking about it."


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