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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 23, 2009
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Richard Weisz, the president of the school board, is seeking a fourth term. “It’s because the stimulus package gets done after two years,” he said of the federal aid that will save schools from dramatic state aid cuts this year and next.
“It’s a chance for a transition to a brave new, possible cold, world,” he said. He added that, during his next three-year term, “Almost all of our contracts expire.”
Weisz is in a good position to help the district through the transition, he said, because of the work he does.
A partner in the Albany Office of Hodgson Russ, LLP, Weisz said he has represented a lot of debtors and has worked with commercial restructuring. “I represent companies in distress,” he said, describing it as “a resource allocation problem.”
He went on about his role on the school board, “I value shared decision-making and collegiality, which has marked our school community.” He also said, “I’m good at developing consensus. I want to build consensus on how to proceed with diminished resources and still provide quality education.”
Weisz pointed out, “I was one of the first people to talk about fund balance and to look at trying to reduce the tax rate...On a business level, Guilderland is a financially conservative operation.”
Tax increases have lessened since he’s been on the board, Weisz said.
Weisz went on, “I have a commitment to public education. I like to think I have a fair approach. This year, the board listened to a lot of constituent groups...That’s what it’s all about. Ain’t it grand we have a chance to watch as elected officials make decisions?”
Weisz bore the brunt of criticism for the school board during the packed meetings last summer as the board met in executive sessions to hear about two transferred teachers in private, while the crowds in the meeting hall objected.
“Sometimes it goes with the territory,” Weisz said this week of coming under fire. “Anyone who’s done trial work has learned you can’t take things too seriously....The community will judge,” he concluded.
Asked which constituency he’d primarily serve, Weisz responded, “I honestly don’t think you can answer that question. I’ve tried to balance providing for everybody.”
Using his own upbringing as a touchstone, Weisz described how he is attuned to both the students’ needs and taxpayers’ burdens.
“I grew up in a poor family,” he said. “I could go to the public library and public school for an education. My parents struggled to get their first house and struggled to pay taxes.”
And, he added, “I respect teachers.”
In regard to last summer’s protests, Weisz said, “The way it was handled was the right way, considering the teachers chose to make it an issue. I always thought it was an administrative function,” he said of the decision to transfer the teachers.
“In the private sector,” Weisz went on, “being transferred from one branch to another without a cut in pay is not a big deal.” In the current economic climate, he said, most people would be grateful just to keep their jobs.
Weisz went on, “I’m certainly willing to entertain a policy discussion on whether we should discuss personnel issues in private or public.”
He favors keeping the discussion in private, Weisz said, “because people say the darnedest things” and it could be “unnecessarily hurtful.”
“We followed our policy,” he said, of having the talks in private last summer.
About bullying in school, Weisz said, “We have work to do. The whole world has work to do.”
He went on, “We have a number of programs we use to get people to look at others with respect and without using labels...We encourage those who are being bullied to let teachers know, and we encourage those who observe bullying to help stop it.”
Weisz concluded, “I think our programs and policies are moving in the right direction.”
On the budget, Weisz went over a number of changes he had proposed to the board adding a second enrichment teacher at the middle school, re-instating teaching assistants in the second grade, and keeping a full-time nurse in the private schools.
“I wanted to cut more out of the equipment budget,” said Weisz.
“I got kindergarten,” he said of the move to a full-day program, which he talked a majority of the board into voting for.
“The public got to see eight people discussing the budget in a transparent way,” he said of the televised session where the board adopted the $85 million plan.
If the budget were voted down, Weisz would recommend taking the full-day kindergarten out of the spending plan.
He pointed out that this is the third year in a row that the budget proposal is “substantially lower” than a contingency budget would be.
On teaching assistants, Weisz said, “I wanted to have a year to study it. The facts are not refutable.” He itemized them: Guilderland does have more teaching assistants than other districts, he said, adding, “We pay them in a different way.” He concluded, “We can’t say our kids do better.”
He had told the school board that shared decision-making is important in Guilderland and the decision to cut 22 teaching assistants was not made in that way.
The board rejected his idea of waiting a year to make the massive cuts while a committee studies how it would change the program.
“I’m going to try and push for that committee anyway,” said Weisz this week.
On contracts, Weisz said there are six ways in which the staff is compensated a progressive step system where workers earn more each year, raises on top of the steps, continuing education that the district pays for, a variety of health plans, a system where workers pay 20 percent of insurance costs and the district pays 80 percent, and finally a mandated pension.
“There are going to be changes in some or all of those six,” Weisz said.
He also said, “Once you have a contract signed, I don’t think it’s right to go back and ask them to give up something.”
Weisz pointed out that Guilderland’s contracts also already have “a circuit breaker” so that if taxes are to be raised over a certain amount, the contract is automatically opened up to re-negotiation.
On adding full-day kindergarten, Weisz said, “I think we did the right thing...I urged the board to do it because I believe it will be mandated.”
He also said that, without the full-day program, young families may choose to live in neighboring districts instead of Guilderland, which would have a negative impact on the value of homes.
“Educationally,” he went on, “I think the earlier we intervene, the better.”
To solve inequities in student performance, Weisz recommended early intervention.
“We have to convince kids and families of all economic levels that education is valuable but that it requires commitment,” said Weisz.
He likened education to a three-legged stool, with the legs being students, teachers, and parents. “All have to buy in that education is valuable,” said Weisz. “I think that’s a challenge for public education.”
Weisz, who grew up in Malone, the son of a homemaker and a salesman, said, “My first job out of college, I made more money than my dad any year of his life.”
Even though his parents didn’t have money, Weisz said, “The whole thing was I was going to college; we didn’t know how.”
Weisz went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for a bachelor’s degree in physics and then went on, after working two years, to earn a law degree from Albany Law School. His sister followed a similar pattern, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in psychology. She currently directs juvenile justice for the state of Nebraska.
“There was complete buy-in that education was valuable,” said Weisz of his family’s approach. “We had to make a commitment and work at it,” he said of himself and his sister.
Weisz said he could remember the excitement he felt when he could read to his parents as they had long read to him.
Weisz has carried on that approach with his own family. He is married to Diane Rosenbaum-Weisz; they have two children, both Guilderland graduates.