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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 15, 2009

As budget cuts loom
GCSD residents share their priorities at community forum

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Twenty-eight residents answered the school district’s call for guidance on what the community values.

As the Guilderland School District faces a cut of $2.7 million in state aid proposed by the governor, it held a community forum Tuesday night, attended by about sixty people— more than half of them staff or school board members.

The 28 residents were divided into six groups, led by facilitators from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, where each discussed six questions posed by the district. The facilitators then reported back to the group at large on their findings.

“This district didn’t get built in a day,” Superintendent John McGuire told The Enterprise after the two-hour session, when asked what he had learned. “The people in this room value the things in this district...They want to safeguard these things. They want us to be judicious,” he said of making budget cuts.

Asked if he had gotten any sense of the community valuing one thing over another, McGuire said he’d have to review the comments before answering.

He had opened the session by quoting the state’s education commissioner, Richard Mills, who, after touring schools in the district, declared, “Guilderland is a beacon of excellence for the region and for the state.”

McGuire said it “deserves our celebration and our stewardship.”

Guilderland has an $84 million budget this year, about 27 percent of which is covered by state aid. The lion’s share — 68 percent — comes from local property taxes.

The proposed $2.7 million cut would equate to 30 school buses, McGuire said, or 42 teaching positions or it would be more than the cost of all the music, art, athletic, and extracurricular activities combined.

”We face difficult decisions, folks,” he told the crowd, which included parents, several students, and residents without children in the schools. “We want and need to have a sense of what you most value in our schools,” said McGuire.

The district’s assistant superintendent for business, Neil Sanders, showed a pie chart that indicated 72 percent of district costs are for instruction. He displayed a bar graph that showed, during the past five years, on average, tax increases in Guilderland were slightly below the rate of inflation.

Governor David Paterson’s budget proposal to cut aid to school districts across the state ranges from 3 to 13 percent, based on district wealth. Guilderland’s cut was the maximum — 13 percent, said Sanders.

If Guilderland’s budget for next year were the same as this year’s, Sanders said, taxes would go up 4.73 percent. If the budget were to increase 4 percent, taxes would go up 10.6 percent.

“Two guys in suits just gave you bad news,” said McGuire before the crowd dispersed into discussion groups. “This is not a time for panic. This is not a time for despair.”

Six questions

“These are personal opinions, so there are no right or wrong answers,” one of the facilitators, Melissa Braham, told her group.

As the groups discussed the six questions, school board members circulated, listening to what was said. Costs weren’t attached to the questions.

Amy Zurlo, the district’s communication specialist who put the program together, said she will post a summary of forum responses on the district’s website in two weeks.

While differing opinions were expressed — one mother, for example, was willing to sacrifice small class size for full-day kindergarten so she wouldn’t have to pay for child care while others in her group said small class size was the foundation of Guilderland’s superior education — the discussions were cordial.

At times, frustration was expressed with humor. One group discussed fiscal planning and what the district should do with its fund balance, often called a rainy-day account. Guilderland currently has an unreserved, undesignated fund balance of $4.4 million, which is about a million dollars over the state-set 4-percent limit.

“How rainy does the day have to be before we use it?” asked Krista Gallup.  “It feels like it’s really raining now. I’m wet.”

A summary of the topics and the reported responses follows:

Class size and staffing: The district has had elementary class sizes ranging from 18 to 24 students and currently has classes averaging between 17 and 22. Participants were asked how the community would react to a range of 20 to 26 if it meant significant savings.

Increasing class size is not a good idea but may be necessary, one group facilitator reported. An increase of two students may be acceptable, depending on what those students’ needs are. Enrollment projections must be considered, she said.

Another facilitator reported her group thought small class size was important and the community would continue to support it.

Another said that small classes were a core value of the district and changing that should be a last resort, while another reported people without children might want savings there.

Professional development: The Guilderland district has traditionally gone beyond what the state requires for in-service training of staff. Participants were asked if they shared the belief that professional development is a vital component for the continued success of the district.

The district could be more creative and save money by doing training through the Internet, by teleconferencing, and by bringing experts to the school rather than sending staff to out-of-town conferences, one facilitator reported.

Another reported that her group thought cutting training would be “penny wise and pound foolish” since much is mandated and it’s not a big expense.

A third said the district may lose teachers if training is cut, but that, if kids take a hit with larger classes, professional development is not off the table.

Facilities: The district has used a preventative maintenance approach in caring for its buildings and vehicles. The participants were asked if the district should spend more in the short term to lower future expenses or forego short-term maintenance to address current needs.

While long-term planning is usually valuable, one facilitator said, the district should look at short-term options, even though that means taking a chance.

Another facilitator said, on spending more now to save later, his group wondered when later comes.

A third facilitator said her group recommended consolidating more bus stops and, for schools like Altamont, Pine Bush and Lynnwood, having aids or parents walk children to and from school.

If you don’t maintain what you have, you’ll spend more later, a fourth facilitator said, summarizing her group’s views. Overall, Guilderland doesn’t overdo and doesn’t have “a lot of bells and whistles,” she said.

Each item has to be weighed individually, said a fifth facilitator, with the focus on preserving as much as possible for the classroom.

Athletics and extracurricular activities: Through sports, clubs, and activities, the district strives to offer students a chance to find their places outside of the classroom. Residents were asked if the community would be more willing to support an across-the-board cut to out-of-class programs or the elimination of programs with the fewest participants.

It would be best to cut the same percentage of funding from each program and students should be involved in the decisions on what to cut, said the first facilitator. Also, he said, rather than individual, competing booster clubs — some with more backing than others — there should be a community-wide booster club to fairly distribute funds raised to all programs.

The diversity of programs offered is really important in Guilderland, said a second facilitator. Her group advised looking at what is available elsewhere in the community and maintaining what isn’t available elsewhere.

A third facilitator said her group pointed out how important extracurricular activities are to college admission and also noted that, in tough times, school sports and music programs offer something to the entire community.

A fourth facilitator said his group was reluctant to have parents pay for activities because it would limit participation to those with money. Also, he said, because participation in sports and other activities improves student achievement and graduation rates, his group said this is not an area to cut.

Cuts need to be equitable, a fifth facilitator said. Extracurricular activities aren’t a big part of the budget, she said, as clubs raise money and teacher advisors would still want to be involved even with lower stipends.

Non-mandated programs: The community has supported programs that aren’t required by the state, such as college-level courses at the high school, enrichment projects at the middle school, and, recently, foreign language classes at the elementary schools. Participants were asked if the community would continue to support these.

Such programs develop the whole child and that’s why people move to Guilderland, the first facilitator said. She also said that her group had mixed feelings on the recent program to introduce elementary students to Spanish — some thought it was important to keep adding grades to the program as planned while others felt it was an area to cut.

A second facilitator said her group believed that people in the community will have an extreme view either way.

Advanced Placement courses shouldn’t be cut to free funds to help struggling students; AP courses are important for getting into good colleges, a third facilitator said of his group’s views.

While such programs may not get as much press as football, they make Guilderland Guilderland, a fourth facilitator reported. But others in his group felt the community might say, these should go; they’re not as important as the three Rs.

“These touch everyone,” a fifth facilitator said of the unmandated programs.

Having such programs as add-ons, not part of the school day, would diminish them, the sixth facilitator said. Her group suggested partnering with other schools or colleges for the advanced courses.

Fiscal planning: The district has a large fund balance and a number of reserves to stabilize the tax rate despite fluctuating revenues. If the current economic turmoil takes years to play out, participants were asked if the community would support a multi-year approach to using district reserve funds, although that might mean slightly higher tax increases, to avoid peaks and valleys in the tax rate.

The first facilitator said his group was nearly unanimous in believing that, as long as the district could communicate to the public its intent, it should use the multi-year approach to avoid peaks and valleys in the tax rate.

This topic generated the most conversation in his group, said the second facilitator. It’s time to start using the fund balance, he said, although the district shouldn’t use so much that it would compromise security. Many in the community will be angry, his group felt, if the district doesn’t dip heavily into its fund balance.

Tap into savings but don’t drain them, a third facilitator advised. His group also believed that perhaps the district had been too conservative in the past.

A fourth facilitator said her group was impressed with the district’s fiscal planning and transparency and believed a multi-year approach was needed but that the fund balance should be tapped.

A fifth facilitator said her group felt it was important to educate the public and understand the process.

Last words

The board’s president, Richard Weisz, told the crowd at the end of the session that he expects the superintendent’s budget will reflect many of the thoughts expressed Tuesday night.

McGuire will present his budget to a citizens’ advisory committee in March. Typically, after a half-dozen televised sessions, during which citizens can ask questions of administrators presenting parts of the budget, the citizens state their opinions in the final session.

Weisz said that this year, the committee might use an approach similar to that in Tuesday’s forum with small-group discussions.

In the end, the board will adopt a final draft and the public will have its say at the polls in May.

Weisz said of the school board’s role, “There are numerous conflicting priorities and, in the end, someone has to make a decision.”

He also said, “We are not widget-makers. We think education is a trust the community has given us...creating the future, one kid at a time.”

Weisz also urged residents to write to their state representatives, asking them, “If you can’t give us more money, can you at least roll back some mandates?”

He went on, “It’s not our goal to take the governor’s cutback and transfer it to the property owners.”

Weisz concluded, to applause, “We may disagree on where we wind up” but the first step is to get on the same page on what the problem is.

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