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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 29, 2009

GCSD plans $2M more in projects

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Sometimes wishes come true.

Projects that a facilities committee planning school upgrades had referred to as a “wish list” two years ago may soon become a reality.

In November of 2007, voters approved a $27 million project to upgrade Guilderland’s five elementary schools, improve technology across the district, and move the district offices to the high school.

Because of the economy, bids came in lower than predicted and the project now has money to spare.

At the Oct. 20 school board meeting, board members were enthusiastic about adding close to $2 million in projects — all for the same $27 million voters had approved.

Citing the low interest rate, board member Colleen O’Connell described it as “the perfect storm for us.”

She said, “It would be foolish not to do this…We’re getting so much more for our money because people aren’t working.”

Board member Denise Eisele, who had served on the facilities committee that had initially planned the project, said, “All these other projects…really needed to be done.”

“These are things that are not going to go away,” agreed board member Gloria Towle-Hilt.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders said, if the additions are approved at the next board meeting, scheduled for Nov. 4, the plan is to award bids in March, starting work in the summer of 2010, and finishing the project in September.

The additional work — totaling an estimated $1,991,800 — would include roof replacement at Guilderland and Lynnwood elementary schools; toilet upgrades, sidewalk repairs, and drain work at Lynnwood; acoustical tile replacement in the Westmere Elementary School gym; and refinishing the gym floor at Pine Bush Elementary School.

At the high school, work would include resurfacing the track, making concrete walk repairs, replacing lockers and outside doors, and roof replacement. Additionally, a fire-alarm system would be added to a maintenance building.

Board President Richard Weisz noted, “We’re going back to the original list, things we wanted to do that weren’t economically feasible.”

He concluded of the board, “The consensus is, we’d like to get the best bang for the buck we can.”

Budget views

The board members went on to give their views on next year’s budget after hearing from the superintendent about the governor’s proposal for mid-year cuts in aid, which would require legislative approval.

Superintendent John McGuire said that the cuts to schools wouldn’t be equally distributed but rather would be based on district wealth. “Ours is in the range of 9 percent,” he said, referring to the high end of the range. “That’s never good news.”

Guilderland would stand to lose $811,000, he said.

“Right now, we’re monitoring very carefully,” McGuire said, adding, “At this point, it’s a proposal; there’s nothing firm abut it.”

With a current budget of $85 million, the nine board members, one by one, gave their priorities for the budget that administrators are beginning to frame for 2010-11. A committee of volunteers will review the plan in March before the board adopts a final proposal, which the voters will decide on in May.

Eisele spoke of the importance of distance learning so children can actively participate in diverse cultures. She also said, “We need to prepare our students for life, for a career, not just college.” And, she said, she wants to look at practices in special education “to be the very, very best we can be.”

Board member Barbara Fraterrigo spoke of the importance of lifelong learning and said each student should have financial background, know how to do cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and know how to keyboard. “Pecking is so inefficient,” she said.

Fraterrigo also advocated exposing kids to group dancing and exploring distance learning. She called professional development and health insurance “sacred cows” and said, “There can be no sacred cows from now on.”

Fraterrigo also said she is frustrated that teachers were paid “premium dollars” two years ago for added time at the elementary schools but they haven’t been able to use the time to teach because of scheduling problems with the buses not getting the students to school. She also advocated “getting our kids up and moving,” increasing physical education.

O’Connell used a mocking tone to state a frequently heard goal, “Maintain the program we have.” She went on, “I don’t think we need to maintain what we have; we need to evaluate what we have.”

She talked about two similar advanced English courses at the high school and asked, “Is there a continuity of what’s happening? I’m not sure there is…If we start looking critically at it…we need to have a little bit more accountability.”

Second, echoing Fraterrigo’s thought, O’Connell said that the added time for teachers should be to teach. She suggested some of the time be used to meet the state’s mandate for physical education at the elementary level.

Third, O’Connell recommended recruiting a more diverse group to serve on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee.

Vice President Catherine Barber said she wants to keep strong and diverse programs in and out of the classroom — “something for everyone.”

She also said it is important to continue support of teaching foreign languages at the elementary level as Spanish is slated to move into the fifth grade; other languages should be considered, too, Barber said.

She also said that motivated students, not just those identified as gifted, should be able to take accelerated courses in eighth grade.

And, like O’Connell and Fraterrigo, Barber spoke of the extra time in the elementary school day. She said getting students outside is healthy and suggested focusing on how well schools are integrated with walking and biking paths.

Barber also said that, in the mid-1990s, 6 percent of Guilderland students were identified with special needs and now 14 percent are. She wants to understand why.

Board member Julia Cuneo wants to: continue efforts to improve student achievement, lengthen instruction time at the elementary schools, make sure class sizes don’t get bigger, maintain classroom support, and look at an optimal delivery model for special education.

Second, she said, she wants to promote physical and emotional wellness, meet the state mandate for gym time, develop a policy on outside recess, and integrate physical activity into the curriculum. She cited several studies linking academic performance to physical activity.

Third, Cuneo stressed the importance of support technology in all areas of the curriculum.

Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt was “not reaching for wild things,” she said, but rather “reflecting on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

First, she said, the special-education model should be updated to fit new research and changing needs.

Second, technology has “tremendous power,” she said, and the staff needs support and encouragement to use it; technology should be imbedded in the curriculum

Third, on professional development, Towle-Hilt, a retired teacher, said, “The best way for excellent learning to occur is excellent teaching.” She recommended replicating the best practices.

Fourth, she advocated the sort of cooperative project-based learning going on at Tech Valley High School. Towel-Hilt added that she feels strongly about health and physical education, and a transportation study that will shed light on ways to use the extended elementary school day.

Board member Judy Slack said, “We can’t have a tax increase.” Since bargaining units are already guaranteed raises, this means cuts will have to be made, she said.

She also wants to continue: the technology initiative; teaching Spanish in the elementary schools; Project Lead the Way, an engineering program at the high school; and sending students to Tech Valley High.

Slack also wants to consider reconfiguring as the population shrinks and is “very concerned” about the elementary school day. She wants to meet special-education mandates while meeting the needs of the rest of the student population, and she wants to continue professional development for the staff.

Emilio Genzano, who was appointed to the school board at its last meeting, said that reading is fundamental. “Every child’s mind needs to be enriched,” he said. Genzano said he favors a phonics-based curriculum.

Genzano also said that fitness — both physical and emotional — is important. He advocated a “fitness center concept where families are kept together,” and said that parents shouldn’t just send their kids to school but should spend time there as well.

President Weisz spoke last, naming three items.

“We have to try to understand the realities of financing public education,” he said, recommending a study group to develop community consensus.

He also advocated distance learning and continuing to expand the foreign language program at the elementary schools.

McGuire said he would develop a list of “key themes” raised by the board members who will discuss the matter further to reach consensus at their next meeting.

He noted “the big ones” are technology; special education; the elementary school day including the physical-education mandate; and professional development.

“We won’t develop the budget before the next meeting,” he quipped to laughter from the board.

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