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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 9, 2009

Full-day K added after much debate
GCSD board adopts $85M budget with half-percent tax hike

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — When school district voters go to the polls on May 19, they will be deciding on an $85 million budget for next year. They will also be deciding whether the district will start a full-day kindergarten program.

That’s the way Richard Weisz, the school board president, sees it.

“If they vote it down, we’ll come back without full-day K...I trust the community to do the right thing,” Weisz told the seven other school board members on Tuesday night after three hours of budget deliberations.

The momentum went from putting off the full-day program because of the recession, to a 4-to-4 deadlock on the issue, and then, finally, to a one-vote majority.

The superintendent’s initial budget proposal, reviewed by a citizens’ committee in March, stayed with the current half-day kindergarten; that first plan would have cut 47 jobs and hiked taxes close to 4 percent. Federal stimulus aid then restored the $2.7 million that the governor had planned to cut, and last week the superintendent proposed a budget that added full-day kindergarten and would have raised taxes 1.5 percent.

Tuesday night, Superintendent John McGuire proposed a final $84,725,450 draft that kept the current half-day kindergarten program. The spending plan represented a 1.08-percent increase over this year and would raise taxes .58 percent. For Guilderland residents, that comes to about 11 cents more per $1,000 of assessed value.

By the end of the night, board members had added one full-time teaching job at the middle school but made comparable cuts elsewhere so the budget total and tax rate remain the same.

Full-day K seesaw

Board members started the session by giving their views on items they’d like to add or subtract from the superintendent’s budget. The first six to speak all supported the full-day kindergarten program but said it shouldn’t be started in such tough financial times.

The seventh to speak, Colleen O’Connell, said she favored moving to full-day but knew there weren’t enough votes on the board to support it.

Weisz spoke last and eventually turned the tide.

In the fall, a committee that had researched the subject for a year, strongly recommend a full-day program. (For the full story, go to www.altamontenterprise.com under Guilderland archives for Nov. 13, 2008.) The school board had backed the move to full-day, if finances had allowed for it.  The annual cost after the first year, which would normally be covered by state aid, would be about $600,000.

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

Weisz said that, if the transition aid didn’t come in next year, the program could be paid for out of the district’s fund balance, and then, when the aid came through the following year, the fund balance could be reimbursed.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders said this was possible but the board next year would have to commit to the plan.

Weisz pointed out that 95 percent of the school districts in the state already offer full-day kindergarten programs. And, while kindergarten is not currently required, Weisz maintained that the state will mandate full-day programs within the next few years.

Because of the federal stimulus money, which would allow the district to cover the third year of the program, before regular state aid has kicked in for the full-day program, Weisz said, “This is the only year we can put it in without a terrible impact on the budget.”

Without the full-day program, Weisz said, the district might stop attracting families, thereby losing resources, and, at the same time, the value of homes could fall, he said.

Weisz asked how many board members would support a full-day program if the tax rate hike were kept at $11 per $100,000 of assessed valuation. He was joined by O’Connell, Denise Eisele, Gloria Towle-Hilt, and Vice President John Dornbush.

“I’m absolutely flabbergasted there’s been that kind of turnaround,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo.

She pointed out that stimulus money is not supposed to be used for new programs, and that state aid, at best, covers 24 to 25 percent of Guilderland’s spending.

“You’re putting that on the back of the taxpayers who are crying out,” said Fraterrigo.

She also said it was “really irresponsible” not to listen to the members of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee.

With operational aid from the state frozen for two years, Fraterrigo said, contracted increases in wages and benefits will have to be absorbed by the taxpayers.

She asked what school board members would tell their neighbors when they asked, “How could you do this?”

Fraterrigo’s impassioned words swayed Dornbush who announced he was changing his vote.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have five votes to change anything,” said Weisz, referring to the legal majority of the nine-member board. The ninth member, Hy Dubowsky, died last month.

“We need Hy,” said one board member, to which Weisz agreed.

Various board members then put forward items they wanted to add to the budget to see if they could get a majority.

Fraterrigo wanted to restore a nursing post but couldn’t get a majority. Next year, one nurse will serve two private schools in Guilderland — Saint Madeleine Sophie and Christ the King. The public school system is required by law to provide services at least equal to those in its own schools. The board’s majority argued that the ratio of students to nurse was higher in Guilderland’s public schools, and that the private schools could hire additional nursing if they wanted it.

Board member Judy Slack, a retired teaching assistant, wanted to restore some of the teaching assistants cut from the elementary-school programs. She, too, failed to get a majority.

The superintendent has said that comparable districts have far fewer teaching assistants and get similar results.

 Guilderland employs over 200 teaching assistants who work largely in two areas — with special-education students, or in elementary classrooms, teaching reading and writing.

Stephen Hadden, administrator for special services, has 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.

The first budget proposed by the superintendent cut 27 teaching-assistant jobs, for a savings of $585,875, Sanders told The Enterprise.

The budget that voters will decide on, on May 19, restores five of those jobs, at a cost of $107,500, Sanders said.

Board member Towle-Hilt, a retired middle-school teacher, wanted to restore two posts to the middle school — one to help at-risk students and the other to provide science enrichment.

“We owe it to these kids...I will speak for them,” said Towle-Hilt of the need to help struggling students who have been mainstreamed into classes that are getting larger.

After much discussion, she was supported by Dornbush, Fraterrigo, Slack, and Eisele, making a majority. To pay for the $64,000 post, which includes salary and benefits, while not raising taxes, the board agreed to take $32,000 from the technology budget and $32,000 from the budget for professional development.

Mary Summermatter, the middle school principal, smiled broadly and, raising her arms above her head, gave a two-thumbs-up sign when the measure passed.

Towle-Hilt couldn’t garner enough support for the enrichment post.

Finally, O’Connell made one last try at instituting full-day kindergarten. “We are losing a unique revenue stream,” she said.

“I am so torn. I am absolutely torn,” said Dornbush.

It was at that point that Weisz said, if the budget were voted down, the district would come back with a plan that had half-day kindergarten.

“I’m in,” said Eisele.

There were still only four for the full-day plan.

“We have to ask what’s best for the kids,” said O’Connell.

Fraterrigo talked about high school programs getting gutted in future years to pay for kindergarten as state aid declines.

Weisz countered by citing numbers about Guilderland’s falling enrollment, meaning teachers will be cut at the high school, thereby saving money.

“I hate to think we’re asking the community, if you don’t like it, vote down the budget,” said Slack.

“Chemo brain, chemo brain,” intoned Dornbush, who has undergone cancer treatments, as he woefully shook his head, trying to make up his mind.

Finally, he voted for the full-day program, making up the majority.

Philosophical differences

Weisz said that a community forum had made clear that residents didn’t want any one program gutted; rather, they wanted small across-the-board cuts, and the $85 million plan had achieved that.

Esiele, who works as a nurse, made a similar observation in a personal way. She said that she and everyone else who works at Albany Medical Center were told they have to take a 10-percent cut in pay.

She compared that to the Guilderland budget process, built through consensus. “The cuts that need to, have been have been made across the board,” said Eisele. “This budget was beaten out with a lot of sweat and blood by people who know what needs to be done.”

Weisz spoke first about sweeping changes that will need to be made in how public schools view funding — rather than adding what is required for the next year to what was spent in the previous year, Weisz said, school districts will have to use a private-sector model and begin with how much they have to spend, then work backwards.

He pointed out the dramatically declining enrollment in the lower grades at Guilderland and said that, without cuts in staff, the cost per pupil will move from the current range of $15,000 up to $20,000.

“If 75 percent of our spending is compensation and benefits,” said Weisz, “it tells us the community is beginning to say, when we sit down with our staff, we have to change the way we do business.”

“I want this year to be a transition year,” said Weisz.

He recommended taking money from the district’s fund balance to re-instate teaching assistant jobs, allowing time for a shared decision-making process to evaluate the program.

“I don’t want to dismantle our program because we’re afraid of what the future holds,” said Weisz. “At the same time, I don’t want to pass the buck.”

O’Connell countered, “I don’t believe every decision in this district is shared decision-making.” The cut in teaching assistants, she said, is being driven by the budget. “I go back to wants and needs,” she said.

O’Connell cited an e-mail from board member Cathy Barber, describing a former committee of high school English and social studies teachers who were supposed to work out their differences on course loads. The English teachers teach just four courses while the social studies teachers teach five. They came back to the board with a million-dollar proposal where they’d all teach fewer classes and work with students in a writing center — a plan the board rejected.

Towle-Hilt pointed out that some of the stakeholders were missing from that process. “Shared decision-making,” she said, “is when all constituents get together.” Fraterrigo said the board hadn’t given the high school faculty on the committee a bottom-line figure to work with.

“Teaching assistants are part of our instructional model,” said Weisz. “We’re changing our instructional model.”

“I disagree,” said O'Connell, noting, “Some of the teaching assistants are my best friends.”

She went on to say, “You seem to be all implying that the teachers can’t do this by themselves.”

Barber agreed. “Are you saying Demian’s not necessary?” she asked Weisz. She was referring to Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, implying a committee looking at the way reading is taught with teaching assistants would undermine his work.

“I want Demian to be on the committee,” responded Weisz.

“We’re not saying the staff can’t do it,” said Towle-Hilt, stressing that teachers need time to plan for such a “drastic change.”

Weisz said that, before this year, he hadn’t been aware that Guilderland’s model was so different than neighboring districts’. He said Guilderland spends $3 million on teaching assistants while Bethlehem spends $100,000 or $200,000.

McGuire warned that this is likely to be “the first in a series of years when we have to make hard decisions.” He advised taking “some moderate first steps this year” and said, “We need to be careful we don’t further disadvantage ourselves.”

McGuire also instructed the board members as they made proposals about changes they’d like to see in the budget, “As you’re thinking about giving us things we haven’t asked for, please be cautious about paying for them with things we have asked for.”

Barber heeded his words, saying, “I just have a serious problem with re-writing a budget on the fly...We don’t really know what we’re doing.”

“We weren’t elected to rubber stamp it,” said Towle-Hilt.

“Friends, if we don’t start cutting now, we’re going to have to cut later,” said Dornbush. “We’re top heavy in teaching assistants, blessed though they are...If we don’t start now, the cuts will be bloody next year.”

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