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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 26, 2009

Awaiting stimulus
$85M budget draft in limbo

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The school board and the citizens advising it on next year’s budget are in a holding pattern as they wait for figures on federal aid that may make up for state cuts.

“We’re hopeful we’ll have something by the end of this month,” Superintendent John McGuire said yesterday of solid information on government aid.

Accordingly, a final session of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee has been scheduled for March 31. McGuire hopes to present a revised budget at that time, and the 38 citizens on the committee will have a chance to state their views.

Earlier this month, he had presented an $85 million budget that would cut 47 jobs. The district had anticipated a $2.7 million cut in state aid, as proposed by the governor, and a tax increase of 3.89 percent.

Referring to the federal stimulus package at the March 11 board meeting, President Richard Weisz said, “The upfront requirements will be small…The idea is to make investments now that are long-term paybacks.”

“We’re approaching it very carefully,” McGuire told the board. The district is using a balanced approach, he said, in deciding how restored revenues should be spent.

“We’re working right now to put together some counter proposals...a balanced mix of some modest restorations coupled with some program initiatives...as well as some beneficial input on tax rate,” he said.

McGuire cautioned that the federal funds would be a one-time fix that would last two years. He repeated this advice: “Don’t think, ‘We’re OK now and it’s back to the days of wine and roses.’ That is not the case.”

“We’ll have two years of federal assistance and transition to the brave new world of whatever that brave new world is,” said Weisz.

He said the district will need a long-range strategy committee to decide what should happen when the stimulus money runs out. He noted that several contracts with workers expire in two years and recommended the committee take a collaborative approach with employees.

Board member Colleen O’Connell stressed the point, as she has before, that enrollment in the district is dropping dramatically and said that, even with the federal funds, continued spending at the same level isn’t justified.

“The thing we cannot lose sight of is that the class of 2011 is our last 500-plus class and the current first grade has 325,” she said. “We cannot continue justifying 1,100 employees when your graduating class is approximately 325.”

McGuire responded that the work done so far, and done well, was “very difficult, realizing it impacts people and positions, people we care about, people who do a good job for us. Nevertheless, I cannot as your superintendent bring forward recommendations for positions that we can’t justify.”

The superintendent also said, “The writing is on the wall here from all different directions: our enrollment, the economy, we’ve made a commitment to the community that we’re going to be good stewards of their investment in education. There’s more hard work ahead of us, not less.”

Until firm aid figures are available, the board set aside a report from the transportation department it had asked for when it anticipated cutting the initial proposal on buying new school buses.

The board also discussed the role played by the 38 members of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee.

“There appears to be a notion that CBAC has to approve something...It’s not so,” said board Vice President John Dornbush. The citizen volunteers on the committee serve as advisors, he said, and it is the role of the elected board members “to make those final tough decisions.”

O’Connell noted that, last year, the school board made “a game-time decision” to include a new pre-engineering program at the high school, Project Lead the Way, although “it wasn’t the will” of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee.

She also questioned whether the 38 volunteers, most of them parents, are representative of the community as a whole. “It skews very young,” she said, noting most are parents of young children.

The board also debated whether, for the last committee meeting, the citizens should, as they traditionally have, each individually state their views on the budget or if they should meet in small groups to express their views with the results reported back to the group at large.

The great majority favored speaking individually, McGuire said yesterday.

The school board is slated to adopt a budget proposal in April and voters will have their say on May 19.

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