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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 23, 2009

Five run for three GCSD board seats, differ on $85M budget

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Five candidates are vying for three Guilderland School Board seats in the May 19 election. Petitions to run were due on Monday.

For the first time in more than a decade, the candidates are divided in their support of the budget.

The two incumbents — Richard Weisz, the board’s president, running for a fourth term, and Denise Eisele, running for a second term — back the $85 million spending plan unanimously adopted by the board. If voters pass the budget on May 19, taxes would increase .58 percent, or 11 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for Guilderland residents.

The three challengers — Elijah Sharma, Allan Simpson, and Julie Cuneo — are not promoting the spending plan. All three of them served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, which first reviewed a budget that would have cut 47 jobs and hiked taxes close to 4 percent. Then, the federal stimulus package restored the $2.7 million in aid that the governor had planned to cut; the final school budget included some restorations and pared back the tax increase.

Simpson, an accountant and father of two Guilderland students, is urging residents to vote down the budget to send a message to the board; he wants to see no tax increase at all.

On the other hand, Cuneo, a nurse practitioner and the mother of four young children, said she cannot support the $85 million budget because she believes — with the larger class sizes and cuts in teaching assistants — the quality of education will suffer.

Sharma, a Guilderland High School senior who helped galvanize widespread support last summer for two high school teachers protesting their transfer to the middle school, said at the time he would start a campaign to vote down the budget unless the board made certain concessions. He later said that was unwise in tough economic times. And this week, he said that people upset over the board’s behavior last summer could vote for him, rather than vote down the budget, to send a message to the board. Sharma wouldn’t say whether he supported the budget or not, but said, rather, it was a matter of individual choice.

Both of the incumbents maintain the board behaved appropriately in the midst of the summer protests over the transfers. Weisz, a lawyer with two children who have graduated from Guilderland, said the decision to transfer teachers was an administrative one. Eisele, a nurse with six children, said that last summer, protesters were “screaming at the top of their lungs” and it was appropriate to meet in executive session where anyone could talk in a “non-confrontational way” and the board listened for “as long as anyone wanted to talk.”

Voting history

There have been two periods since the Guilderland school district was centralized in 1950 during which school budgets have been voted down — once in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. In both cases, a citizens’ group founded by Edward Breitenbach pushed for lower taxes.

In 1971, 1973, and 1976, the board put up reduced plans after the initial budgets were defeated at the polls. Voters passed the reduced budgets in 1971 and 1976, but rejected the 1973 reduced plan. Consequently, the board declared a contingency plan, and voters passed three out of seven non-contingent items, for school buses, transportation, and athletics.

In 1993, after a $40 million budget was defeated, with nearly twice as many people voting as usual, the board broke the budget into three propositions and shaved about $160,000. The shaved budget was soundly defeated while the propositions for sports and transportation passed.

The Concerned Parents and Taxpayers of Guilderland, Breitenbach’s group, which had campaigned against the budget, pushed for the board to cut costs by renegotiating contracts with teachers and administrators. That didn’t happen. Sean O’Neill, who was then president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, said at the time, “It’s not our plan or policy to re-negotiate agreements that were fairly and openly agreed to.”

Ultimately, the board adopted a $39 million contingency plan for 1993-94, leaving Guilderland students with essentially the same programs the board first proposed, and taxpayers with nearly the same costs.

The next year, the board put up a $44 million budget, and eight candidates ran for three board seats. Three of the candidates were backed by CPAT and three were backed by CREATE (Coalition for Responsive Education And Tax Equity), a group formed to rally support after the budget defeat. The three CPAT candidates were elected and the budget was soundly defeated by a record number of voters. The board made substantial cuts to the budget and it passed on the second vote.

In 1996, the tide turned — on just four votes. The $49 million budget passed by the narrowest margin in the district’s history. Voting was also close in the seven-way race for three school board seats. The CPAT candidates, in addition to campaigning against the budget had also made “parental rights” an issue in the wake of protests over a high school assembly on homophobia.

The three candidates who supported the budget and who also supported the high school’s holding the assembly on homophobia were elected. The three CPAT candidates came in fourth, fifth, and sixth. A seventh candidate, who was not aligned with either group, trailed distantly.

In 1997, the board unanimously adopted a $52 million budget proposal — the first unanimous vote in several years.

In the years that followed, budgets passed by increasingly larger margins as the review process was revamped to allow more citizen input. CPAT no longer put up slates of candidates. In recent years, while some candidates have campaigned together in pairs or trios, all of them have supported the budget.

This year’s campaigns differ from those in the 1990s because the challengers who don’t support the budget are not part of a slate. They are running as individuals, as are the incumbents.

Sharma has described himself as the first openly gay school board candidate and has raised issues about harassment against gay students. In this week’s interviews, all five candidates expressed support for the district’s anti-bullying campaign.

Over the years, endorsements from the teachers’ union have made a difference in the elections. This year, Maceo Dubose, president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, said the executive committee met on Tuesday and decided to send questionnaires to all five candidates “to see where they stand on certain issues related to the school district.” If the union decides to support one or more candidates, he said, “We will ask how we might help them.”

The three-year school board posts are unpaid and the three highest vote-getters will serve on the nine-member board.

The issues

The Enterprise asked the candidates to comment on eight topics:


— Role of a school board member: Candidates were asked who they serve. Particularly if there is a crunch — for example, because of economic tough times or because of a controversy over personnel issues — would their primary allegiance be to the students, the taxpayers, the parents, the teachers, or the superintendent?


Decision-making process: Turmoil rocked the school district last summer as protestors filled the meeting hall demanding to be heard, after two popular high school teachers objected to their transfer to the middle school. The board met in closed sessions to hear about the situation and, ultimately, in a 2-to-7 vote, decided not to investigate the superintendent’s decision to transfer the teachers. The superintendent said the transfers were part of an effort to improve a hostile work environment while one of the teachers claimed he was being targeted for his conservative views.

Candidates were asked how the matter should have been handled.


Tolerance: The district launched an anti-bullying campaign in the fall of 2003 but some students, particularly gay students, have complained that they are harassed at school. Candidates were asked if there is more the district should be doing to prevent harassment and, if so, what.


—         Budget: Candidates were asked if they support the $85 million budget, and why or why not. They were also asked if there were specific items they would have liked included, or if there were specific items they thought should have been cut. Candidates were also asked what the school board should do if the budget were voted down.


— Contracts: Salaries and benefits make up the largest share of the district budget. Several members of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee have said that raises for teachers should be reduced to control costs. Candidates were asked for their views on this.


—         Full-day kindergarten: Guilderland is among the 10 percent of school districts statewide that do not offer a full-day kindergarten program. Moving from the current half-day program to a full-day program would cost about $600,000 a year, although the first year would be covered by transition aid from the state. A committee that studied early childhood education for a year strongly recommended a full-day program, a recommendation the board endorsed if finances allowed. A divided board included full-day kindergarten in the budget proposal. Candidates were asked for their views.


Inequities in student performance: Students from low-income homes in Guilderland do markedly worse than their classmates, according to data compiled by the district in its annual report card. The annual presentation to the school board on government-required tests has not addressed scores broken out along gender, economic, or ethnic lines. But the differences are most pronounced between economically disadvantaged students and their classmates. (For example, 42 percent of economically disadvantaged Guilderland students scored at levels 3 or 4, the top two levels, for fourth-grade English, compared to 83 percent of those who were not disadvantaged. Only 3 percent of the economically disadvantaged students scored at Level 4, the top level, while 12 percent of the students who were not disadvantaged scored at the top level. Six percent of Guilderland students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator they come from poor families. For the full story, go to www.altamontenterprise.com under Guilderland archives for Sept. 25, 2008.)

Also, while previous generations of girls were impressed with a stereotype that boys did better at math and science, girls, for the most part, are scoring better than their male counterparts in all subjects. And, across the grades and subjects, Asian students, by and large, score higher, sometimes by a lot, than their white or African-American counterparts.

The candidates were asked what, if anything, should be done to correct these inequities.


—         Teaching assistants: Guilderland employs about 200 teaching assistants, far more than similar districts. The teaching assistants also say they are paid significantly less than their counterparts in neighboring districts. The superintendent has said that Guilderland students don’t perform markedly better than those in comparable districts. The $85 million budget would cut about 22 teaching assistants. Some board members have said this decision was made by the administration without enough discussion on how the cuts will change the elementary program and how special-needs students are taught. Other board members have said teachers can handle the change and it will save money. Candidates were asked for their views.

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