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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, March 4, 2010
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND A somber crowd listened Tuesday night to the school superintendent present an $87.5 million budget proposal for next year that would cut 81 jobs.
“The collapse of the stock market, the economic recession,” said Superintendent John McGuire, “is coming in the schoolhouse door…School districts can no longer afford everything we’ve had, everything we’ve become accustomed to, everything we would want and like.”
The district team, he said, had to answer the question: “How can we reduce by $7 million and still have something left for our kids?”
In drawing up the plan, administrators assumed there would be no increase in Guilderland property assessments and that state aid would remain as proposed by the governor in mid-January. The district is also counting on $1.4 million in federal stimulus funds, which won’t be available after next year.
In a move the superintendent called unprecedented, the district is talking with its unions about making concessions. And, as another cost-cutting measure, the current budget proposal includes changing guidelines to slightly increase class sizes at the elementary level; small classes have been a hallmark of Guilderland education.
Even with across-the-board cuts, the spending proposal is 2.57 percent higher than this year’s budget. Employee benefits are up 8.6 percent, or $1.5 million, and debt service is up 21.9 percent, another $1.5 million.
The district estimates that the tax rate for Guilderland residents would go up 3.61 percent.
“I have always taken the position that a 4-percent tax rate is the third rail in Guilderland,” said school board President Richard Weisz, indicating voters won’t support a budget with a tax-rate hike of over 4 percent.
He went on about cuts in Tuesday’s proposal, “We have a program that is not consistent with what the community has come to expect in the Guilderland schools….We’re reaching out to see if the staff can make contributions they haven’t before.”
While taxpayers shouldn’t have to shoulder an unfair burden, Weisz said, “I don’t think it’s fair to make the staff the whipping boy.”
Weisz concluded, “The goal with this year’s budget is to make everyone equally unhappy.”
McGuire said that, if no cuts were made, the budget-to-budget increase from this year to next would have been 9.45 percent, which would have meant a tax increase of 16.8 percent; the district never considered that, he said.
If the proposed $87,515,800 budget were to be voted down twice, the district would have to move to a contingency plan, which, McGuire said, under current legislation, would mean cutting another $1.8 million.
Will unions take wage freeze?
As with any school budget, about three-quarters goes to salaries and benefits.
After the two-hour session on Tuesday, McGuire told The Enterprise that the district is working with its bargaining units to see if they will make concessions. “It may take the form, for example, of a salary freeze,” he said. “One bargaining unit has said it would consider wage freezes if others did.” McGuire declined to name which unit.
He said asking unions to open their contracts was “unprecedented” and described the discussion as “collaborative.”
McGuire also described the cuts in aid as “the worst in my lifetime.” After decades in education and three years as Guilderland’s superintendent, he is retiring at the end of the school year. “I will not leave this district in bad shape for the next person,” he said, “We’re doing heavy lifting.”
The administrative team gave each segment of the district target amounts to cut, based on the previous year’s budget so that no one program would be gutted. The high school and five elementary schools, for example, were targeted to cut $840,000, McGuire said, while the middle school was targeted for $510,000.
The 26 volunteers on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee will review McGuire’s budget proposal over the course of the month. The volunteers introduced themselves Tuesday night. Most were parents of current students or of Guilderland graduates several said they moved to Guilderland for its schools; there was also one student and one young alumnus. The volunteers then listened along with administrators and other onlookers nearly 100 altogether to the nine school board members as they asked questions about the spending plan.
The board is slated to adopt the budget on April 13, and the public has its say on May 18.
Last year at this time, McGuire proposed cutting 47 jobs, but then federal stimulus funds restored most of what was being slashed in state aid so such drastic measures weren’t needed. The $85 million budget passed by 58 percent. The stimulus money is good for just one more year. Then Guilderland, and districts across the state, face what McGuire and others call “the cliff.”
Next year, Guilderland’s health insurance premiums are expected to increase 10 percent. And the contributions Guilderland and other districts must make to the teachers’ and employees’ retirement systems will increase drastically since investments on Wall Street faltered. Teacher rates will increase nearly 40 percent and employee rates about 61 percent, McGuire said.
The district plans to take $2.4 million from its fund balance, or rainy-day account, to lower the tax levy. It will also use $820,000 from its reserves.
Guilderland currently has 5,274 students with an average cost per pupil of $16,178.
The district employs 1,038 people, about two-thirds of them full-time. This includes 488 teachers, 519 support staff, and 31 administrators and supervisors. Salaries and benefits this year accounted for about $64 million or 75 percent of the budget.
At the elementary level, where enrollment is expected to increase from 2,191 this year to 2,236 next year, the plan calls for cutting 10.7 teaching positions to save $716,900. This means cutting five classroom teachers by increasing class sizes by two students. Current guidelines call for no more than 22 students in kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classes; that would be raised to 24. Similarly, the guideline would change from 24 to 26 students in third, fourth and fifth grades.
Part-time cuts would also be made in music and art, reading, English as a Second Language, enrichment, and library teaching. Additionally, the foreign language program in the elementary schools would be eliminated.
At the middle school, where the number of students is slated to decrease by four to 1,235, the plan calls for cutting 4.65 teachers to save $311,550. Cuts are to be made in the core subjects, the special areas, foreign languages, special education, and in the program for at-risk students.
At the high school, where enrollment is expected to drop from 1,844 to 1,784 next year, seven teachers are to be cut for a savings of $469,000. These cuts are in core subjects, special areas, foreign language, reading, special education, library, and social work.
District-wide cuts in supplemental and support staff total 54.1 positions, with the biggest hit in special-education teaching assistants at 36.3 positions. Other cuts include 5.5 custodial posts, two secretarial posts, a maintenance mechanic, three bus drivers, and 5.65 monitor posts; monitors now stationed in elementary-school lobbies to check in visitors will be cut.
“The sad reality”
McGuire lamented that a plan to enhance the block schedule at the high school is not included in the budget proposal. “It’s one of the best ideas that we’ve come up with in our district,” he said. “We can’t afford it.”
Also, he said, the co-teaching model at the elementary level won’t be expanded; there won’t be a summer-school program or adaptive classes at the middle school; and the hard-won Foreign Language Early Start program will be eliminated at the elementary schools.
Board Vice President Catherine Barber noted that it took a decade to finally put the elementary school Spanish program in place; everyone had agreed it was wise educationally, but, since it was not mandated, it was put off for years.
“That’s the sad reality,” responded McGuire. “It takes 10 times more time to build a program than to decimate it…This was a damage-control initiative,” he said of drafting the budget.
“We said there would be no sacred cows,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo, indicating that she thought more cuts should be made “on the administrative side.”
“I want to assure you…there were no sacred cows,” said McGuire.
He said of the budget, “It won’t be what we’ve had; it won’t be what we want. But it will work for kids.”
Fraterrigo also asked why police officers would still be stationed in the middle and high schools while door monitors were cut at the elementary schools.
McGuire called the police program “cost effective” because the town contributes to the police officers’ salaries.
Fraterrigo also argued against paying a consultant perhaps $40,000 to study the district’s special-education program, but Weisz maintained it could save money in the long run. The board will discuss that at its March 23 meeting.
Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt said she admired the work done by the staff.
Board member Judy Slack called it “heartbreaking.”
“I know many of the people that had to do this, built this,” said Towle-Hilt.
“This team has been magnificent and inspiring,” agreed McGuire.
Towle-Hilt also said that, in the three years she has been on the board, there has been little chance to improve education. The constant question, she said, is: What can we do without?
McGuire concluded after the meeting, “I think Guilderland is a good example of a community in which difficult times bring people together, focusing on what’s best for our children.”