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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 2, 2009

With aid restored, tax hike at 1.5%
GCSD plans $86M budget, adding full-day K

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — With federal funds to replace the aid to schools that New York’s governor had planned to cut, Guilderland is now proposing an $85.6 million budget that would raise taxes 1.5 percent.

Just hours after the state released budget figures to schools, Superintendent John McGuire on Tuesday night outlined the new plan for citizens attending their last budget review session.

“This money is a one-time — likely to last perhaps two years — infusion of federal money,” said McGuire.

The new spending plan adds $632,700 to the draft the committee spent the month of March reviewing. The initial plan counted on a decrease in state aid of $2.7 million and called for a tax hike of nearly 4 percent as it cut 47 jobs.

The new plan assumes full restoration of the $2.7 million, and scales back the use of reserves and the district’s fund balance, while reducing the tax levy. It represents a 2-percent increase in spending over the current budget.

The plan restores five teaching assistant positions, said McGuire, and adds 11.7 teaching jobs for full-day kindergarten, replacing the current half-day program. After hearing the strong recommendations of a committee that had studied kindergarten for a year, the school board this fall had backed the move to full-day if finances had allowed for it. (For the full story, go to www.altamontenterprise.com under Guilderland archives for Nov. 13, 2008.)

The full-day program next year would cost $568,435, McGuire said. This accounts for nine kindergarten teachers; one unassigned teacher to handle overflow, if needed; 1.7 special area teachers; three hours of teaching assistants daily; and added supplies and equipment. There will be some savings by eliminating the mid-day bus runs. The district will not need to build new classrooms to accommodate the program, McGuire said.

The district had initially applied for transition aid from the state, which would have covered the first year of full-day kindergarten, but withdrew the request after the governor proposed such drastic aid cuts.

“Now the question is, if we go back to the state, can we get the transition aid,” said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.

School board President Richard Weisz said that, if the state did give Guilderland the transition aid next year, the tax increase would be less than half a percent.

The school board is slated to adopt a final budget draft in April.

If the budget were to be voted down by district residents on May 19, McGuire said, the school board could put it up for vote again but, if it were defeated again, the district would move to a contingency plan. The board could also pare down the budget for a second vote, or move directly to a contingency plan.

A contingency plan caps spending at 4 percent above the previous year.

“We’re under the cap right now,” said Sanders, adding, “You can’t be any higher than what was voted down.”

“Certainly, you want to respect the voters,” said McGuire.

Varied views

Committee members each had a chance to voice their views on the budget. The majority spoke of the tough economic times. One five-year committee member, David Langenbach, a life-long Guilderland resident, said he likely wouldn’t be here next year.

“I’m probably going to lose my home,” he said.

Others gave personal views as well, often citing their children. One long-time member, Donald Csaposs, who said he had “no dog in this race” as his kids were out of school, commended the members on their fresh views and passion. He also recommended earlier sessions to set budget priorities.

“No one in this district should have to choose between quality of life and quality of education,” said Bill Goergen, who also said he hadn’t been in high school in 55 years.

“The irresponsibility part of this budget is it is not sustainable,” said Rae Ellen Burke. She also said that, with the restoration of the $2.7 million in aid, “We’re right back to that entitlement spending.”

The first citizen to speak was Nick Colovito, who said he had never voted against a school budget. “I don’t hear the teachers step up; I don’t hear the staff step up,” he said, “Maybe it’s time for you — the teachers and the staff — to give back,” he said, indicating a wage freeze would save jobs.

“We’ve been giving to you. Now maybe it’s time we get something back,” he said.

When her turn came, Christine Kenefick, who ran for school board last year but lost without the teachers’ union endorsement, countered, “The teachers do give back.” She described how the burdens increase on teachers as class sizes go up, as more students aren’t native English speakers, and as state mandates require more work of teachers.

Views were also varied on the plan to move to full-day kindergarten.

Elijah Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior, commended McGuire on a “wise and brave” initiative in the move to full-day.

Bernadette Hallam, on the other hand, said she could not support full-day kindergarten “on the back of decreasing education in the middle school and elementary school.” She felt cuts there were disproportional. She also said she couldn’t support the budget, not because the taxes are too high, but because it cuts into the core of the district.

Many spoke in favor of re-instating more teaching assistants. The initial plan had been to cut 27. McGuire has said that nearby school district with comparable results don’t have as many teaching assistants as Guilderland.

“The teaching assistants are bearing the brunt of this reduction,” said Alan Simpson. “Those people, for nine dollars an hour, work awful hard.”

Carolyn Kelly, who has run for school board in the past, said she hoped all the teaching assistants would be restored, both at the elementary schools, and to help special-education students. She said one of the reasons her special-needs children had done so well was because of the assistants.

More than half of the assistants have a college education, she said, and they work for $9 an hour. Kelly called it “an efficient way to help our kids.”

Sharma said that the teaching assistants, who had protested their low wages in December, could “go to any district in the Suburban Council and make more money.” He called for full reinstatement of the teaching assistants with “no ifs, ands, or cuts.”

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