[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]

Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 6, 2008


Assessment has become a political battleground in Guilderland

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — In the wake of last fall’s elections, property assessments have become a focal point of political debate on the split-party town board.

"This is the first year it’s been different," said Carol Wysomski, the town’s assessor, of the town board, which saw two incumbent Democrats lose their seats to Republican new-comers — one of whom ran a campaign centered on unfair assessments. Wysomski has been through six administrations, she said, and she’ll be retiring from her post in July.

"My old boss said, ‘When you start to take criticism personally, it’s time,’" Wysomski said earlier this week of a contributing factor to her decision to retire.

"I’ve been here 37 years — this is the first time they’re using assessments as a game plan," she said of last fall’s campaign.

Two of the clerks in her office are qualified to be the assessor, she said, but neither of them want the job. "You do take a beating," she added of the criticism aimed at the post. Neither Democratic Supervisor Kenneth Runion nor Republican councilmen Warren Redlich and Mark Grimm have anyone in mind for the position.

In January, Redlich proposed having the heads of town departments come before the board during public meetings to answer questions and offer an understanding of what each department does and what it hopes to accomplish over the course of the year, he said at the time. Wysomski was first on his list to appear.

"I got elected on fair tax assessment," Redlich said, and Grievance Day — when residents can ask for a reduction in their assessments — is in the spring, which is why she topped the list. His motion was defeated along party lines, 3 to 2.

"I just feel like it’s a loaded gun," Wysomski said this week of why she chose not to appear when Redlich asked. Wysomski has made presentations about the assessment process to the board in the past, she said, which she would do again.

Every four or five years, since 1980, the assessor’s office has conducted a revaluation of property in Guilderland, she said. Since she became assessor in 1992, she’s done the residential assessments herself and the town has hired a firm to handle the commercial revaluation. For the last revaluation, in 2005, Hafner Valuation Group assessed 486 commercial parcels at a cost of $68,341 to the town, Runion said.

Wysomski uses a New York State Real Property Services program for conducting her revaluations, a program that 90 percent of municipalities use and that costs about $9,000 a year, she said. The value assigned to a property comes from a comparison to five recently-sold properties that are similar, she said, like the system used by appraisers. Guilderland has roughly 1,000 sales a year, which provides a solid base to draw from for comparison.

After she gets the comparison sheets for each home, "We spend a good three to four months just going up and down streets," she said. Someone from her office goes to each parcel and looks at it to make sure the value is appropriate to the home; if something looks off, she adjusts the value.

The next step brings her back to the office, where she generates an impact letter for each resident, which shows the impact rates for school, town, and county taxes and calculates what the current year’s taxes would have been with the new value, Wysomski said.

By February, people have digested their new home values and can come to Town Hall for an informal hearing with Wysomski, where she goes over the comparison sheet that lists the five recently-sold properties that are comparable and people can plead their case for a lower value. She estimated that a quarter of the people she sees during the informal hearings get an adjustment. After the last revaluation, Wysomski saw about 1,600 people, she said — less than one percent of the 12,396 parcels in town.

Then, in the spring, during the statewide Grievance Day, residents can address the board of assessment review, which is made up of five residents appointed to five-year terms by the town board. In 2005, the year of the last revaluation, 495 people grieved their assessments.

Redlich and three of his Suzanne Lane neighbors were among those looking for a reduction in 2005 and he was critical of the way the town handled the crowded Grievance Day at the time. Wysomski attributed the long lines and hours-long waits for hundreds of residents to a crowd in the early morning, which the town hadn’t seen before. Yesterday, Runion said that the town would consider taking appointments for residents on Grievance Day and also might appoint more members to the board so that it could be split, thereby being able to hear twice as many cases in the same amount of time.

"The whole process to me is a hurdle to make people jump over," Redlich said in 2005, explaining that many residents get discouraged by the long wait and accept their assessments. It isn’t typical for the board to grant relief on Grievance Day, Wysomski said, largely because people don’t bring proof of their home’s value with them.

The average assessed value of a home in Guilderland is $212,000, Wysomski said, and the highest assessed value is Crossgates Mall, which is worth $247,302,800. Built in 1983, the mall expanded in 1993 and contested its assessment every year since its addition — except for when it missed a deadline in 2001 — until it reached a settlement with the town and the school district in 2005. Hafner assessed the mall, Wysomski said, "They had given me a low end and a high end. I went down the middle."

The settlement removed the possibility of litigation for five years, which is on the horizon, and, after that, Pyramid Cos., which owns the mall, may, again, challenge its assessment. Of the taxes that the mall pays, Wysomski said, "It really has been a savings to people in the town having Crossgates there."

Nearby Colonie Center, which dates from the 1960s and is undergoing renovations, is currently assessed at $73,250,000 — that figure doesn’t include Macy’s or Sears, which are owned separately, as is the Macy’s at Crossgates.

"It’s forecasted to go up next year as well," said Mark Swift, a senior appraiser in the town of Colonie, of that mall’s assessment.

Asked about Crossgates’ potential assessment, Wysomski said she couldn’t answer, and Hafner didn’t return a phone call. She said that commercial properties don’t increase as fast as residential properties do.

Right now, assessments in Guilderland are about 20 percent below current sale prices, Wysomski said. "That’s a pretty good indicator you need to do a reval," she said.

"I honestly don’t see it happening in ’09," she said, since there will be a new assessor coming in. "It’ll have to be 2010."



Assessor evaluates 40 years in office

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — After nearly four decades in the assessor’s office, Carol Wysomski is calling it quits.

"There comes a time," she said of her decision to retire, effective in July. "I’m just ready for it." Her husband retired from General Electric in November and they want to see more of the country. "We did South Dakota last year, so we sort of got the itch," she said.

In July of 1971, Wysomski started working at the assessor’s office. "I just went across the hall," said the Guilderland native of her move to the assessor’s. The real-estate office that she had worked for was neighbor to the town assessor’s office and, after she graduated from high school, the town hired her as a clerk.

The first computer came to the office in 1978, soon followed by an overhaul of the assessment process, she said. Together — the switch to computers and full-value assessments — that was the biggest change, and challenge, in her career, she said.

Since 1980, the office has been doing regular revaluation every four years or so, which is something she’s proud of, Wysomski said. After the first year, her office began doing the residential revaluation itself, saving the town about $550,000 — which is what it would have cost to hire a private firm to do the work, she said.

Although Wysomski has the move to being completely computerized well under way, it won’t be final for another few years, she estimates. Until then, the office still has the thousands of index cards, detailing the basics of every property in the town, that were there when she arrived.

Appointed as assessor in 1992, Wysomski has thoroughly enjoyed her time in office, which pays $68,341, she said. "I like the people," she said, adding that she still sees some residents with whom she began working back in the ’70s. She concluded, "I enjoy looking at houses."

Wysomski has been happy with her career, she said, but she’d like more time for other things, too. A few years ago, she began quilting — a craft that her sister-in-law practices and two of her far-flung friends picked up unbeknownst to each other. She tells the story of the accidental quilting circle with great amusement and looks forward to having more time to work on it.

"This is like my second home and family," she said, gesturing towards her co-workers in Town Hall. "That’s what I’ll miss."




By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — No business was conducted at Tuesday’s town board meeting.

It ended abruptly in a 3-to-2 vote, split along party lines, when Democratic Supervisor Kenneth Runion interrupted an argument between Republican Warren Redlich and Democrat Paul Pastore.

"I think this is going nowhere; I’m going to make a motion to adjourn the meeting. Is there a second"" asked Runion, to applause from the dozen residents in attendance. Councilwoman Patricia Slavick, a Democrat, seconded.

Since the two Republican councilmen took their seats in January on what had been an all-Democratic board, conflicts have been frequent.

Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of a meeting that had begun with an anticipated partisan disagreement over the Democratic town clerk’s minutes. Republican Councilman Mark Grimm had emailed the board last month after seeing the minutes from the Feb. 12 meeting; he was concerned that the record had a political tilt.

By law, minutes need only record motions made and votes taken.

"As you know, I have submitted revised minutes," Grimm said at the beginning of the meeting, after Slavick made a motion to accept the previous meeting’s minutes.

He objected that the draft had reduced a substantive argument among board members to a sentence, but given several lines to a resident who had spoken during the public-comment section in praise of the town board’s sidewalk work and admonished the two Republican board members for their behavior. While the minutes quote that criticism, the record of the Oct. 16 meeting, before Grimm was elected, state only, "Mark Grimm read comments," when he had made several points critical of the then-Democratic board, he said.

Runion answered that, when people read comments, they usually give a copy to the clerk to be appended to the minutes in full — Grimm neglected to do so.

"We cannot have a situation where Republican criticism is highlighted and Democratic criticism is omitted," Grimm said. So, to guarantee fairness, he suggested writing the minutes according to Robert’s Rules of Order, the most commonly adopted parliamentary authority for organizations in the United States.

Discussion should be recorded, Pastore said, disagreeing with Grimm’s call for different standards of record. Redlich suggested that, in addition to the skeletal model of Robert’s Rules, the town begin transcribing the meetings and posting them on the website. That way everything is included, which could also help address the difficulty that the hearing-impaired have in accessing town meetings.

A discussion about offering closed captioning of meetings was on the agenda — it was, with everything else, tabled until the next meeting.

"I think we need a balance," Slavick said of Grimm’s and Redlich’s suggestions for either Robert’s Rules or transcriptions — Robert’s doesn’t offer enough description and transcription is too much. "I think the way they’re done are fine," she concluded.

While the clerk is required to submit her minutes to the board, it does not have to vote on accepting them, although the Guilderland Town Board customarily votes on the adoption of the previous month’s minutes at each meeting. The Feb. 12 minutes were adopted 3 to 2, again split along party lines.

A public comment period followed the vote on the minutes. Resident Carolyn J. Williams read a statement criticizing the two Republican board members. "Whenever change occurs, there is anticipation of at least an element of continued forward movement," she said. "However, this has not happened." After she had finished, Williams submitted her comments to the clerk.

Next up was Chris Marshall, a trustee in the village of Altamont, who gave comments on the Civil Service selection process with regard to the selection of a new police chief for Guilderland. Long-time Police Chief James Murley retired last year following allegations of misconduct. Marshall, a 25-year veteran of the state’s Civil Service Department, explained during a phone interview on Wednesday that she was concerned that some people didn’t understand the process. She gave a brief overview to the board and took questions from Redlich, who has been critical of the selection process so far.

Runion called Redlich’s behavior uncivil and made a point to apologize to Marshall, as she took her seat and Redlich thanked her for coming before the board.

Pastore then asked Redlich if he thought the Civil Service process for selecting a police chief was not "open, fair, and transparent," to which Redlich answered by using an example of an appointment for a police officer at the last board meeting.

"If the selection of the future chief of police is that the board members — you and Ms. Slavick — interview chief candidates and Mr. Grimm and I are presented with an up-or-down vote on one person, I don’t consider that an open process."

As Pastore began his response, Runion made the motion for adjournment and all six items on the agenda were tabled until the March 18 meeting.

Asked if he plans to end the next meeting if the behavior is similar, Runion said, "It’s taking baby steps. I warned them at the last meeting." Of the next one, he said, "I’ve done what I can, and it’s going to be 3-2 votes."



GCSD super proposes $84M budget

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — With most New Yorkers in favor of capping school taxes, the superintendent here has presented an $84 million budget proposal for next year, with an estimated tax-rate increase of 1.54 percent for Guilderland residents — the smallest hike in at least 15 years.

This represents an increase of 2.2 percent, or $1.8 million, over the current year’s spending plan.

"The budget is the way we support the mission of our schools and educate our children," said Superintendent John McGuire, referring to the district’s slogan to empower its students to succeed in the 21st Century. "The budget is the underpinning," said McGuire.

He became superintendent last fall and was presenting his first Guilderland budget last Thursday. "I look at it as the balancing of an equation," said McGuire, an experienced administrator.

McGuire attributed the "favorable budget" to several factors — "multi-year efforts" and "a very rigorous internal process," in which "a conservative approach" is taken for recommendations on added programs or staff.

Finally, McGuire said, "Never underestimate the power of some luck." He noted that mandated school costs for retirement systems for both teachers and other workers are down, and that revenues for Guilderland’s state aid are projected to be stable.

The budget is being reviewed by 25 volunteers on a citizens’ advisory committee, which will meet a half-dozen times over the next month in televised sessions. The public will have its say on May 20. Most of the volunteers on the review committee are the parents of children in Guilderland schools.

"I hope we can provide you with information that earns your trust and confidence," McGuire told the committee members. He called the process "a commendable exercise in democracy."

Mark Grimm, a Guilderland Town Board member who is serving on the budget committee, said that, when he was campaigning last fall, he visited 9,000 homes and found "the number-one issue" was high school taxes. He recommended paring away the least effective programs, stating, "School taxes are just too high."

At the end of the session, Grimm asked, with the anticipated drop of 109 students, how many teachers would be cut.

Assistant Superintendent for business Neil Sanders said this week that a total of 8.15 teaching positions would be cut.

Expenditures

Current enrollment at Guilderland is 5,365. Enrollment next year is projected at 5,256, a decline of 109 students, a continuing trend at Guilderland.

The biggest decline (down 79 students to 1,221) is expected at the middle school, followed by the elementary school (with a decline of 38 students, down to 2,124). The high school is expected to gain eight students, bringing enrollment to 1,911.

"Our enrollment has been going down over the last several years," said Sanders, and is expected to continue to decline.

The district employs 700 full-time and 406 part-time workers. Of those, 491 are teachers, 584 are support staff, and 33 are administrators or supervisors.

"We are an educational organization," said Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Susan Tangorre, indicating costs for staff are primary.

Tangorre said that the average teacher’s salary at Guilderland is $60,055. Teachers, who are currently negotiating a new contract, work on a stepped system, where salary increases each year.

Tangorre went over a chart showing that a teacher on the first step earns $40,680. With benefits — which include payments to the Teachers Retirement System and to Social Security as well as 80-percent of the teacher’s health-insurance costs — the district pays a total of $52,568.

A teacher with five years of experience and the state-required master’s degree, a tenure differential, and health insurance for two people costs the district $68,542.

A teacher on the 23rd step earns $72,510 and, with the master’s and tenure differentials as well as the benefits including family health insurance, costs the district $102,783.

This year and next year, salary and fringe benefits are expected to make up 75 percent of the total budget.

"This is very typical; it’s not high," said McGuire. "This is a people-intensive enterprise. If we take the people out of the buildings, there is no school."

Employee salaries, set by contract, are up $1.2 million or 2.65 percent next year.

The proposed budget, said McGuire "maintains our commitment to small class sizes."

At the elementary level, four-and-a-half teaching positions will be cut as well as a little more than one full-time special-area post, for a savings of $347,200 over this year.

Teaching additions include one full-time teacher for English as a second language, at a cost of $62,000; one-and-two-tenths of a reading post for $74,400; and two-tenths of a Spanish teaching post for $12,400.

This is to expand the Foreign Language Early Start program. Last year, Spanish instruction was introduced at the kindergarten, first-, and second-grade levels. Next year, it is to be added to third grade as well.

Classes for kindergarten, first, and second grade are to range from 15 to 20 students. Classes for third, fourth, and fifth grades are to range from 17 to 23 students.

At the middle school, one-and-a-quarter teaching post is to be cut for a savings of $77,500 and the New Start program is being eliminated for a savings of $62,000.

"This sounds harsh," said McGuire of cutting the program for struggling students, but, he said, the program is being reconfigured so it will be "more integrated" and "less self-contained."

A new special-education class is being added at the middle school at a cost of $98,000.

The budget, said McGuire, also continues the district’s emphasis, recommended by the school board last year, on math, science and technology.

Project Lead the Way, a pre-engineering program, will be introduced at the high school and phased in over four years; the cost for next year is $57,540.

Other technology expenses include $36,000 to pay for the tuition for two Guilderland students to attend the regional Tech Valley High School, $20,000 for Internet bandwidth, and $6,800 for a video-streaming service for curriculum.

Also at the high school, the equivalent of one full-time teacher, to serve several different areas, is being added for $62,000, and a high-school reading teacher is also being added for $62,000.

Finally, a new special-education class will be added. "That’s free," said McGuire. "Isn’t that great"" He went on to explain, "This will be a class for students currently served out of district."

District-wide, two unassigned teaching positions will be added for a cost of $124,000.

The budget assumes health-insurance savings of $300,000 will be identified, based on a projected premium increase of 10 percent.

And it assumes that the contribution the district is required to make to the Teachers Retirement System will decrease from 8.7 to 7.6 percent, and similarly, rates for the Employee Retirement System will decrease from 10 to 8.2 percent.

Costs for the federal No Child Left Behind requirements, of between $90,000 and $100,000, are embedded in the budget.

Also, the budget proposes a $100,000 transfer for three high-school projects, which school officials predict will lead to long-term savings. Lights in the two gyms are to be replaced for $50,000 to save $65,000 annually; worn exterior doors are to be replaced for $25,000; and work on the boiler room will cost $25,000, said Sanders.

Revenues

"We are using Governor Spitzer’s proposal at this point," said Sanders on figuring state aid.

This amounts to nearly $23 million or roughly 27.4 percent of the proposed $83,940,600 spending plan. Figures on state aid are not final until the State Legislature adopts New York’s budget. The deadline is April 1, but frequently the state has been late.

BOCES aid for Guilderland, based on Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal, is down $226,802 from last year to $849,266. The Board of Cooperative Educational Services allows schools to use shared services with a certain amount of funds being returned to the school district the following year. The governor’s proposal gives less to wealthier districts.

"We certainly would like BOCES aid to be restructured," Sanders said this week. "It’s disheartening," he said of the cuts to promised aid.

But, Sanders noted, "State aid has gone up overall." Last year, Guilderland got $22.4 million in state aid, which made up 27.2 percent of the budget.

Other revenues come from tuition, building rentals, and dividends and interest earned.

Just over $57 million is to be raised through the local tax levy.

To lower the tax levy, $1.5 million will be used from the district’s fund balance. A fund balance, McGuire explained, is "our savings account, to offset emergencies."

The budget also assumes there will be an increase of $20 million in property assessments in the town of Guilderland.

McGuire presented a list of Suburban Council schools, minus the names of the districts as a "professional courtesy," he said, that showed the average true-value tax rate this year at $15.53 per $1,000 of assessed property value; Guilderland’s is slightly below average at $15.41.

Saratoga taxpayers pay the least, with a true-value rate of $11.06 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, and East Greenbush taxpayers pay the most, at $18.34 per $1,000.

At the same time, Guilderland’s cost per pupil, at $15,306, was above the average of $14,937.

While the lion’s share of the Guilderland School District lies within the town of Guilderland, small portions fall within three other towns.

The district is currently projecting that, if the proposed budget were passed, Guilderland residents would pay $19.45 per $1,000 of assessed value next year, an increase of 29 cents per $1,000.

This means the owner of a $100,000 house would pay $1,945 in school taxes, up $29 from this year.

Bethlehem residents would pay $16.92 per $1,000, an increase of 26 cents over this year.

New Scotland residents would pay $16.47 per $1,000, an increase of 25 cents over this year.

And, Knox residents would pay $28.45 per $1,000 of assessed value, an increase of 43 cents over this year.

The rates vary according to a state-set equalization rate to compensate for varying assessment practices.




By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — In a split vote, the school board here adopted a moratorium last Thursday on releasing student directory information.

One lawyer, a state expert, says it’s a moratorium on nothing, while another, the school’s attorney, says the moratorium will provide a useful time-out to clarify policies.

Superintendent John McGuire recommended the moratorium after board member Peter Golden raised concerns that releasing students’ addresses to the teachers’ union before last year’s school-board election 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.

The teachers’ union used the list for the last two elections to mail cards in support of candidates and the budget.

Thursday’s vote was split, 5 to 2, with two board members absent.

The board has a policy that it won’t take action on an item at the same meeting in which it is proposed, but will wait until the next meeting to vote, unless six of the board members agree to proceed.

Golden brought up this policy in the midst of a heated discussion, but the vote was taken anyway, without six members having agreed to it.

"I came to complain about breaking a policy and they broke another policy," said Golden after the meeting.

The moratorium states that review of the district’s current policies "reveals some areas in which amendment and/or clarification about such information would be prudent and appropriate." The moratorium allows the school district itself "to use such information as appropriate" and "to include distribution to the media as appropriate, under existing policies."

The moratorium was "effective immediately, including pending requests" and is to "last until such time as there is further board action."

"It’s a moratorium on nothing," said Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government and an expert on the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

"Absent a valid policy," he told The Enterprise this week, "the school district could not disclose anyway." The district’s two policies that refer to directory information, Freeman said, do not comply with the law.

He went on, "I don’t think two wrongs would make a right."

Asked about the argument that releasing parents’ addresses was not the same as releasing a roster of students, which district policy forbids, Freeman said, "If the suggestion is that disclosure of parents’ names is consistent with the law, the district, in my opinion, would be mistaken. The federal regulations define personal information as anything that would make students’ identity easily traceable, including the names of parents."

He continued of the school board members and administrators, "They could have known and, in my opinion, should have known....It’s like they’re trying to make it look like what they did was OK. They’re trying to justify the disclosure...The action was inconsistent with law to begin with."

District lawyer’s view

Jeffrey Honeywell, the school attorney whom several board members and administrators have said advised the district on releasing the information, said this week he has no "current recollection" of doing so.

He has, however, been "very involved" since it became an issue, he said. The district’s current policies, Honeywell said, allow for the release of names and addresses. "Teachers’ associations often ask for that kind of information," he said. "We routinely advise that they FOIL it."

Honeywell, with the Albany firm of Girvin & Ferlazzo, went on to say that portions of Guilderland’s current policies "could be read to be inconsistent with each other" so, when McGuire asked him if it would be prudent to have a moratorium while the policies were evaluated, he said yes.

The idea behind the moratorium, he said, is: "Let’s take a time out, see what we want to do, get the language matching in the policies, and then move forward from there."

A district can choose what directory information it wants to release and can "somewhat limit the party that can have access," said Honeywell, such as internally or to the media. "They need to make that choice," he said.

Honeywell said he does not think "the existing policies are crystal clear" but, he went on, "If you look at the notices the district posts on its website or in its student handbook, the district intended for the information to be declared directory information...and it’s available to people who requested it so long as it’s not a malevolent purpose."

Honeywell concluded, "I disagree that the policy was clear it should not have been released...I do agree the policies need to be clarified."

The Enterprise asked Honeywell if the release of addresses to the teachers’ union before a school-board election runs afoul of decisions by the state’s education commissioner that school officials can neither actively encourage nor tacitly permit anyone else to use district facilities or channels of communication to engage in promotional activities, and that school boards are accountable for how district facilities and resources are used and must avoid even the appearance of impermissible partisan activity.

"Assuming the information is FOILable, the purpose to which the information is used is irrelevant," Honeywell responded.

"School districts by law and by constitution cannot spend their funds to advocate one way or another," said Honeywell. But the resources of a group like a teachers’ union or a PTA, he said, aren’t subject to the same restrictions.

A taxpayers’ group opposing a school budget could FOIL the same information, said Honeywell.

"You’ve got a clear line," said Honeywell, between releasing the information and how the group who obtains the information uses it.

Honeywell said that prohibiting candidates from handing out election flyers on school grounds — as Guilderland did last spring — was an unrelated matter "from a legal point of view." He said, "That’s separate from what should or can the district allow its property to be used for."

Dangling FOILs

The Enterprise broke the story about the use of directory information on Jan. 31, the same day that Timothy Burke, a vocal school-district resident who serves on the citizens’ budget advisory committee, says he talked to the superintendent about the release of information to the union. Burke subsequently filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the same directory information the union had obtained and wrote to the Enterprise editor on Feb. 11 that his FOIL request is being manipulated.

Burke says he was told that the school board would enact a moratorium before his FOIL request was answered and says he was being "stonewalled" as the district delayed answering the Feb. 7 request until then.

Susan Tangorre, the district’s Freedom of Information Law officer, said last week that the Times Union had also filed a request.

Guidance needed"

Barbara Fraterrigo, who voted against the moratorium along with Golden, cited the district’s current policy (1120) on access to student records, which says "rosters and/or directories of pupils," defining them as "lists of names of pupils by grades," are not available for public access.

"We can deny the FOIL requests without putting a moratorium on it," said Fraterrigo.

Fraterrigo also suggested an amendment to the moratorium, which was voted down, that the district seek expert advice before proceeding.

"We really need some guidance on our rights and responsibilities," she said. "We’re going in blind." Only Golden and Fraterrigo voted for the amendment.

The district’s position, as expressed by McGuire and board President Richard Weisz at the last board meeting, was that the district had acted on the advice of its attorney and was in compliance with the law.

Fraterrigo said the lawyer’s letter had phrases like "it appears" and "with the information I had at hand."

Fraterrigo also brought up circumstances of the last election. The teachers’ union had endorsed Weisz in 2006, and Colleen O’Connell and Gloria Towle-Hilt last year. O’Connell and Towle-Hilt were running as a team in a hotly-contested election against Fraterrigo and two other candidates who were endorsed by a parents’ group critical of the way the district teaches reading.

Those three candidates were stopped by Superintendent Gregory Aidala, who has since retired, from handing out election flyers at school events, a long-standing practice. "We have to maintain the appearance of not permitting partisan activities on school grounds," Aidala said at the time.

In the five-way race for three seats, Towle-Hilt came in first, followed by O’Connell, and then Fraterrigo.

At last Thursday’s meeting, Fraterrigo questioned the combination of giving the teachers’ union the list of students’ addresses and the "sudden, and I mean sudden, prohibition" of flyers handed out by the candidates not backed by the union.

Like Fraterrigo, Golden recommended turning down the FOIL requests based on current policy. At the last meeting, Golden had alluded to inconsistencies between Guilderland’s policies, stating he agreed with Policy 1120.

A second, later policy exists, Policy 5500, which says that, at the beginning of each school year, the district shall publish in its newsletter, school calendar, or district website a notice to parents and students 18 or older of their rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the district policy.

FERPA requires schools to have written permission from a parent or eligible student, 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 the school not disclose their directory information.

Split board

The discussion became personal and heated before last Thursday’s vote.

"Because of that little trick you played " Weisz told Golden, the district’s resources had been used the last few weeks.

"You can’t have a moratorium on a law," said Golden.

"Sure you can," said Weisz, who is a lawyer.

"It’s clear it says we don’t give it out," said Golden.

"It says we do," said Weisz.

"We don’t agree," said McGuire. He reiterated the district’s position that the directory information was released in accordance with the district’s policy and the law.

"Our policy prohibits the release of student rosters," said board member Catherine Barber, a lawyer who heads the policy committee. "That’s not what was released." She said that, with the FERPA notice, addresses were clearly releasable under federal law.

"Directory information is defined by us," said board Vice President John Dornbush. "That’s what the policy committee is going to address."

"What interest do you think you’re serving"" board member Colleen O’Connell, who is also a lawyer, asked Fraterrigo and Golden. "Our lawyer said there was no violation of New York State or federal law."

Fraterrigo responded by citing cases where school boards had followed advice from their lawyers and ended up in legal trouble.

"Let’s be honest, Barbara and Peter," said Weisz. "You’re asking the board to admit we made a mistake. Our position is the policy itself allowed for the release."

"We’re all human," said Fraterrigo. "We make errors. You admit them and move on."

"If you vote against the moratorium, you’re saying the former superintendent...did a bad thing," said Weisz.

Golden cited a decision by the state’s education commissioner that school district resources cannot be used in an election, not even the e-mail system.

Weisz called the vote. Barber, Dornbush, O’Connell, Towle-Hilt, and Weisz voted for the moratorium. Fraterrigo and Golden voted against it. Hy Dubowsky and Denise Eisele were absent.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Accepted resignations from two of the district’s top four administrators — Nancy Andress, the assistant superintendent for instruction, and Susan Tangorre, the assistant superintendent for human resources.

Andress is retiring at the end of August, and Tangorre is retiring at the end of October. Both have worked or the district since 1993.

McGuire said Andress had contributed "beyond measure" and that Tangorre gives "100 percent-plus every day";

— Adopted the 185-day school calendar for next year. The first day of school is Sept. 4 and the last day is June 25; and

— Accepted Daniel Thuener’s donation of two bass drum sets.



State Farm grant for $25K will re-tool school’s Pine Bush restoration projects

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — After a decade of work involving middle-school students in restoring the globally-rare Pine Bush, teacher Al Fiero has a new source of funds.

Last Thursday, the State Farm Youth Advisory Board presented Farnsworth Middle School with a $25,370 service-learning grant.

Fiero and another Farnsworth science teacher, Jennifer Ford, applied for the money to expand and upgrade the school’s current hands-on program.

The money, said Fiero, will go to rebuild the greenhouse, which is stocked with native plants; it will pay for "restoration field trips" to the Pine Bush; and it will help fund the summer program, during which student volunteers guide community visitors through the native plant garden in the school’s courtyard and through the butterfly house.

As the students learn about biodiversity, they also educate others. In addition to the school garden, they help maintain native plant gardens at local nursing homes.

After years of practice with other species, Fiero is on the cusp of having students breed and raise the endangered Karner blue butterfly. With native lupine to feed the butterfly, the plan is to re-introduce the Karner blue to its natural Pine Bush habitat, where numbers have flagged in recent years as development encroaches.

"We need a little refurbishing after 10 years," Fiero told The Enterprise. "This will help us put it back together."

Asked about the unusual amount of money in the grant, which is typically in round figures, Fiero said, "I put together a wish list; that’s what it added up to."

Fiero and Ford worked on the application during their professional development time, he said.

Their proposal was one of 44 chosen from among 360 applications from throughout the United States and Canada.

The State Farm Youth Advisory Board is a group of 30 youths, aged 17 to 20, chosen through a competitive process to lead and oversee the $5 million service-learning initiative.




By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Karem Ullah has known great loss and yet expresses gratitude.

He left his war-torn native Afghanistan when he was too young to remember and moved with his family to Pakistan. "My father died in 2005," Ullah, now 16, said.

His father had returned to Afghanistan. "A person died, so he went to the mosque to share with the relatives," he said. His father was killed there by a bomb blast.

Ullah came to America last year and lives now in Guilderland with his mother and siblings. He spoke words of gratitude last Friday to American soldiers who were wounded while in Afghanistan or Iraq.

"Soldiers really help us and they protect our country from any danger," Ullah told the veterans who had gathered at Albany’s Crowne Plaza. "Even though it is a very hard and very dangerous job, they still do it. They are not forced to do it but they choose to do it for others. They want their country to be safe and they want to do well for others. We should be proud of them and that we have such wonderful, brave people in our country."

His essay had been chosen to welcome the Wounded Warriors, soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious permanent injuries, to a weekend of skiing and snowboarding, hosted by STRIDE.

Ullah said he was "kind of nervous" before he read his words and he was glad his teacher, Susan Lafond, was with him.

He concluded by telling the soldiers about themselves: "They always live in the dark to keep others in light. They have left their families and their homes just for us. Although I am from Afghanistan, I don’t live there anymore because of war. I lost my father in Afghanistan and we left our country a long time ago. After a long time, American soldiers came, and now they are helping those people who are still there...I really appreciate their help with my country."

Afterwards, Ullah said, "They clapped."

"He got an immediate standing ovation," said his teacher. "I got goose bumps."

Ullah enjoyed talking to the soldiers, he said. "I feel good because some of them had been to Afghanistan so they were talking to me about my country."

UN at GHS

Ullah has three brothers and three sisters, he said. He helps his two brothers who work in a pizza store to support the family. A freshman at Guilderland High School, Ullah would like to continue his studies to become a computer engineer, he said.

Although he misses his friends in Pakistan, he has enjoyed meeting students in his English as a Second Language (ESL) class, who come from China, Korea, Poland, and Ecuador. He is very fond of his teacher and said that she inspired him to write his prize-winning essay.

Lafond, a Spanish and French teacher, began teaching ESL classes at Guilderland in 1999. "The students are a delight," she said, adding, "They need 200 percent of your time."

She gets involved in her students’ personal problems, helping their families whenever she can. Lafond has met parents for conferences in restaurants where they work or in their homes. "Sometimes, they have nothing, really no furniture," she said. "Sometimes they have not applied for free or reduced [price] lunches. They’re grateful and don’t want to make waves."

Often, the students need to translate for their parents, who don’t speak English.

Lafond uses "a lot of acting, song, and dance" in her classes, she said, to reach students who speak many different languages. Ullah’s native language is Pashtu, she said; he joined her class last April.

Educational levels also vary. "They may have gone to school," she said of her students, "but it’s not a First World education."

She also uses a Smartboard, a touch-controlled screen that works with a projector and a computer, to reach her students. "A picture is worth a thousand words," said Lafond.

She showed her class footage from a previous Wounded Warriors weekend, where soldiers with amputated limbs were learning to ski. "The kids were taken with the idea of soldiers who were wounded doing this," said Lafond. Her students identified with the persevering soldiers. "They, too, had a challenge to overcome and didn’t give up," she said. "It was very motivating."

Kate Mosier, whose husband, Timothy, was killed in Iraq, was part of the committee that read the essays, said Lafond. Mosier came to school to meet with Ullah before he was chosen. "The essay moved her," said Lafond.

Ullah’s brothers couldn’t get time off from work to take him to the Crowne Plaza, said Lafond. "I said, ‘You’re going.’ I picked him up and took him over."

She returns the admiration for her student that he expresses for her.

"He’s very intelligent," said Lafond. "He works very hard. His average is 80 to 90. He’s studious. But his humor will come out in my class...I make fun of myself all the time." Seeing their teacher this way, Lafond said, "It makes them take risks. And you grow when you take risks."

Her classroom is like home for many of her students. They open up. That’s how Karem Ullah could write "from his heart" in his essay, Lafond said, quoting her favorite line about soldiers: "They live in the dark to keep others in light."

She’s been to Ullah’s real home. "I popped over during Ramadan with cake to eat after sundown," she recalled. Lafond doesn’t speak Pashtu and Karem’s mother doesn’t speak English.

"We didn’t know a word the other was saying, but we understood each other," said Lafond. "He comes from a good family, with good values." She went on about her students’ families, "They may not know our language or much of our culture but they bring good blood to our district."

Karem Ullah had this to say about having his essay chosen to welcome the Wounded Warriors: "I was proud of myself."


[Return to Home Page]