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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 18, 2010

Anticipating cuts in aid
GCSD hears variety of views on tough choices

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The community conversation was largely cordial Feb. 11 as about 80 people — mostly parents and school staff — talked in small groups about a series of four questions meant to guide the district as it faces tough choices in the years ahead.

“At most private companies, people have agreed to take pay cuts rather than have colleagues lose jobs,” said Stuart Fass, an Altamont dentist, alluding to the fact that the lion’s share of school budgets goes for union salaries. “Unions won’t stand for that,” he said, which “goes against human nature and team spirit.”

At another table, Allan Simpson, an accountant who ran a close race for school board last year, countered a suggestion that students participating in extra activities pay for them: “That’s not the foundation of public education,” he said.

At yet another table, Elijah Sharma, a recent Guilderland graduate who also made an unsuccessful run for school board last year, answered a tablemate’s recommendation that the district spend all of its fund balance now with the hopes next year may be better.

“Using the rainy-day fund, hoping it will get to the light at the end of the tunnel and continue business as usual, we’ll still have the same problems,” said Sharma. “It shouldn’t be used as a Band-Aid. We need a larger solution.”

“My school taxes are so disgustingly high,” said Jennifer Charron. “A lot of us lost huge amounts of money in property values, but we’re still paying the high taxes.”

A year ago, Guilderland planned to slash 47 jobs after state aid cuts of $2.7 million were proposed but then federal stimulus money, good for this school year and next, largely filled that gap. Guilderland’s current budget is $85 million.

In December, when Governor David Paterson announced his budget proposal, he said, “Wall Street, a pillar of New York’s economy, has suffered a series of unprecedented shocks. The financial services sector, which accounts for 20 percent of state tax revenues, may never be the same.”

Paterson went on to talk about the deep recession and job losses, stating his budget “begins the difficult process of fundamentally reevaluating both how we manage our government and what the state can afford to spend in a time of plummeting revenues. It seeks shared sacrifice from all New Yorkers and includes reductions across virtually every area of government.” School aid is no exception.

In January, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office analyzed the effect on schools once the $2 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act runs out in 2011-12. Without the federal funds, districts across the state, on average, would have had to raise taxes by 8 percent or slash services, the comptroller’s office concluded. When the federal funds run out, school districts like Guilderland will be left with hard choices.

Richard Weisz, the president of Guilderland’s school board, pushed to hold a session that would involve the community in making those choices.

He said that he was “delighted” with the outcome. “I hope this will be a continuing conversation,” Weisz said.

Asked if he’d heard anything at the session that the school board hadn’t already considered, Weisz said that wasn’t the point. “It’s getting people to focus on the challenge,” he said. “To educate the community and have the community talk amongst itself, and understand there are a variety of views. There is no one right way.”

Next week, volunteers on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee will begin reviewing the administration’s proposal for the 2010-11 budget, which the public votes on in May.

Weisz distinguished the Feb. 11 session from the annual budget process because it took a longer view, not immersed in specific figures. He hopes to hold a similar session on June.

“I believe in dialogue,” said Weisz.

Amy Zurlo, the district’s public information specialist who organized the event, said a summary of the discussion will be posted on the district’s website.

Four questions, many answers

After hearing a financial overview from Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders, participants in the Feb. 11 session broke into small groups, each led by a staffer from the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, to discuss four questions:

— Should a majority of the fund balance be used to make up for aid shortfalls?

A fund balance, capped by law at 4 percent of a school district budget, is money carried over from the previous year. The school board may designate a portion to lower taxes; the remainder — the undesignated fund balance — is used for emergencies.

Additionally, districts may set aside money in specified reserve funds. Guilderland has such funds for workers’ compensation, tax challenges, repairs, capital projects, and unemployment claims;

— Should local property taxes be raised to make up for cuts in aid?

The current tax rate for district residents who live in the town of Guilderland is $19.34 per $1,000 of assessed value. This means that a Guilderland resident who owns a $100,000 home pays $1,934 in school taxes. The tax rate in 2005-06, after Guilderland went through town-wide reassessment, was $18.35 per $1,000 of assessed value;

— Should programs and services be cut to make up for the lost funding?

Participants were asked to consider class sizes and the student-teacher ratio, and also to think about whether the district should continue to support non-mandated programs such as college-level courses at the high school, enrichment opportunities, elementary foreign-language classes, field trips, psychological services, athletics, extracurricular activities, expanded art and music programs, and additional adult classroom support;

— Should other cost savings and efficiencies be explored?

Participants were told about energy efficiency improvements the district has made as well as cooperative bidding and purchasing arrangements. They were asked to discuss centralizing bus stops and consolidating routes as well as relying more on electronic communication and less on paper.

Weisz said he was struck with the suggestion at one group that computers could be replaced every five years rather than every three.

As the Guilderland superintendent, John McGuire, circulated among the tables, he listened in on one group that was having trouble coming to consensus and quipped, “You don’t have unanimity of thought? Oh, c’mon.”

“The community doesn’t speak with one voice,” said the group’s leader, Deborah Bush-Suflita. “What do we agree on?” she asked.

“The solution needs to be a long-term plan, not a short fix,” said Derrick Kopp.

“The solution is not in taxes,” added Fass.

“Not entirely in taxes,” amended Kopp.

“But it doesn’t sacrifice the quality of education,” chipped in Amy Salamone.

“We have to provide for all,” said Karen Covert-Jones.

Later, at the close of the two-hour session, as each of the BOCES group leaders reported to the gathering at large what had been discussed, Bush-Suflita said her group wanted to keep the quality programs without shifting the burden to the taxpayers.

“There’s the rub,” she said.

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