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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 26, 2009
“Cruel and inhumane”
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND After weeks of listening to citizens review an $85 million budget proposal for next year, school board members gave their views Tuesday night.
Although the district had anticipated a $2.7 million cut in state aid, as proposed by the governor, the superintendent has said that may be restored through the federal stimulus package. The federal aid would be for just two years, Superintendent John McGuire has said, so shouldn’t be allocated for new programs.
“I really think it’s cruel and inhumane what the state of New York is doing,” said board member Denise Eisele.
President Richard Weisz countered that the state budget deficit is $16 billion. “They don’t have the money either,” he said.
Weisz also said, “This is the year the economy stopped. This is the year people are crying out to us in a way they never have before.”
Although about three-quarters of the budget goes for salaries and benefits, set by the board through contracts, Weisz and other board members lamented Tuesday that they control only 1 percent of the budget.
Some of the cuts have been fueled by a drop in enrollment. Overall, Guilderland is expected to have 5,252 students next year, 71 fewer than this year.
“Everything that’s being left out is important to someone,” said board member Cathy Barber. “I’m concerned about the impact of the taxes.”
The $85 million plan would increase taxes an estimated 3.89 percent. Several board members said they would like to keep that increase to less than 1 percent.
The 38 members of the citizens’ committee that has been reviewing the budget for a month will have a chance to speak their minds at the final session on March 31. The board is slated to adopt a proposal in April and voters will have their say on May 19.
Board members’ comments focused on a handful of issues, several of which McGuire said he wanted to clarify at the end of the session:
Equity among school levels: In addition to cutting 27 teaching assistants, the budget proposal cuts 17 teachers, a bus driver, a nurse, and a supervisor. The district is predicting that enrollment will be down 28 elementary students next year and 50 high school students, while the middle school gains seven pupils.
The budget calls for cutting elementary teachers by 6.5, middle-school teachers by 7.8, and high-school teachers by 2.7.
The middle school, said Colleen O’Connell, is taking “a heck of a hit,” losing so many teachers while adding pupils. It is also losing an enrichment teacher and a program to help struggling students. She said that, while enrollment is down at the elementary level, the budget adds to its new foreign-language program, and the high school, losing 50 students, is taking “the smallest hit of all,” losing only 2.7 teachers and adding to its new pre-engineering program.
Gloria Towle-Hilt, a former middle school teacher, said she was bothered by the “drastic” middle-school cuts. Barbara Fraterrigo called it “a devastation of the middle-school program.”
Cutting 27 teaching assistants: The budget cuts teaching assistants in reading and writing programs at the elementary level and also cuts assistants for special-needs students. Stephen Hadden, administrator for special services, said some assistants at the middle and high schools who now work with one special-needs student will be working with two next year. At the elementary schools, he said, special-needs students will be grouped in the same classroom.
Guilderland teaching assistants had staged a protest in December as, at an impasse in contract negotiations, they said they are paid significantly less than their counterparts in other local districts.
Towle-Hilt said she was concerned the cuts would change a successful model. “To make that change based on a money figure bothers me,” she said.
Fraterrigo agreed. “The board never discussed whether we wanted to dismantle the current reading-writing program,” she said. Without teaching assistants, she said, students won’t get the same individualized attention.
Judy Slack, a retired teaching assistant, said she agreed strongly, and that the cuts of teaching assistants were “pretty dramatic.”
Weisz said that shared decision-making shouldn’t be suspended because of tough times.
McGuire intimated that Guilderland employs far more teaching assistants than comparable districts and, he said, while Guilderland compares “pretty well” with similar schools, “We don’t outperform those that have nowhere near this number of staff.”
If he made a proposal for 200 positions, adding 5 percent in local taxes, and students would perform about the same as districts without those positions, McGuire asked, “How do you think that proposal would fare?”
Spending on technology: In a March 19 letter to the Enterprise editor, Elijah Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior and a member of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, said that the district was cutting in the wrong areas, and should keep teaching assistants by making do with old computers. He tallied up five equipment expenditures totaling $204,000 which he termed “luxury spending,” and urged spending those funds on teaching assistants instead.
Towle-Hilt said she was “sensitive” to Sharma’s comments on people versus technology, wondering if the district could wait a year or two to replace a five-year-old computer. O’Connell called the technology budget “too rich.”
Barber asked about the district’s replacement plan. Joseph Lorenzo, technology specialist, responded that, when he came to the district a decade ago, computers were eight, nine, or 10 years old. A plan was adopted to replace them every five or six years, reducing repairs and increasing the programs the computers can run.
He said of teachers, “They are not technicians; they want things to work.” He also said, “It’s not really equipment, it’s technology tools,” and he said that “technology is center stage” with the district’s priorities.
When it comes to technology, Vice President John Dornbush said, “If you’re not keeping up, you’re falling behind and that’s not serving our students.”
At no point in developing the budget, McGuire said, “was there ever a scenario where anyone chose equipment, supplies or any thing over a person.” The goal, he said, was always to preserve programs while being cost-effective for taxpayers.
He concluded, “I would not put a budget in front of you that I thought hurt kids.”
Social worker at Altamont Elementary School: The budget draft cuts this full-time post by 40 percent. At the start of the meeting, parent Krista Gallup and retired Altamont teacher Yvette Terplak urged the board to keep a full-time social worker at the school.
“Crisis is often unpredictable,” said Gallup, adding that in the recession stress on students is greater.
Eisele supported keeping a full-time social worker, as did Colleen O’Connell. Towle-Hilt said she was “sympathetic.”
Tech Valley High School: Guilderland now has two students at the experimental high school and is slated to send a third next year. Since the BOCES tuition has decreased from $18,000 to $12,000, three students would be able to go to Tech Valley High School next year for the cost of two this year.
Eisele said she would “have to be convinced” of the worth of the program, and O’Connell and Barbara Fraterrigo said they would like to see evidence of its success.
Vice President John Dornbush called Tech Valley High “a very worthwhile experiment” with a hands-on approach that could serve as a model. He pointed out the program is “aidable” through BOCES and the cost is comparable to the $9,500 the district spends for each of the 72 students who attend vo-tech programs.
Weisz said that Tech Valley High is an experiment and he would like to see where it goes.
Full-day kindergarten: The budget draft does not include extra funds to upgrade the kindergarten program from half-day to full-day. The school board had backed the move this fall, if finances had allowed for it. The annual cost after the first year, which would be covered by state aid, could range from about $600,000 to over $800,000.
At the start of the meeting, Carrie Stanley told the board she spoke on behalf of “a bunch” of parents in favor of full-day kindergarten and cited studies showing children did better socially, emotionally, and academically with a full-day program.
“I don’t want my child left behind,” she said.
Eisele said, if the federal money came through, she’d back the full-day kindergarten program. Fraterrigo said that the all-day program, after the stimulus money was no longer available, would be “on the back of the taxpayers.” She recommended a separate proposition on the issue to “let the voters decide.”
McGuire said that, using federal money for the full-day program would take care of the lag in aid the second year, when the state bases funding on the previous year’s use. He called it a “unique opportunity.” From the third year on, there would be full aid for a full-day program, he said.
Weisz said that, while full-day kindergarten is “educationally valid,” he would put it in the budget only if the state mandated it so stimulus money could be used.
Five courses for high-school English teachers:An issue that caused contention between the social studies and English departments several years ago was broached by board members again Tuesday night. English teachers, who say their workload is heavy because of writing assignments, teach four courses while other high-school teachers are responsible for five.
“If second-graders have to give up teaching assistants, I think our English teachers can teach five courses,” said O’Connell.
Slack, a one-time English teacher, said that was “probably a good idea.”
And Towle-Hilt, too, mentioned adding a fifth course to the English teachers’ load to save money.
McGuire said that the budget drafters looked “in detail” at requiring English teachers to take on a fifth course. He said their contract had “very specific” language on compensation and enrollment criteria that made this unfeasible.