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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 25, 2010

Public and review committee speak out
No one’s happy with GCSD budget proposal — it cuts too much or not enough

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Silently, the school board listened to a dozen testimonials Tuesday night on the worth of the Guilderland educational system.

Parents, students, a college professor, and a teacher’s husband each spoke about what they want to preserve as the board is poised to adopt a budget with significant cuts.

The nine board members have been listening for the better part of a month as the superintendent presented an $87.5 million spending plan for next year to a committee of citizen volunteers for review.

“The collapse of the stock market, the economic recession,” said Superintendent John McGuire in presenting the plan, “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 shaved $4 million to prevent a tax hike of 17 percent. Instead, the proposed spending plan cuts 81 jobs to keep the budget increase at 2.57 percent over this year with a tax hike of 3.61 percent for Guilderland residents.

The citizens completed their review last Thursday and the school board has scheduled a session for next Wednesday, March 31, so board members can express their own views and grapple with the final form the budget should take.

The board has yet to hear if Guilderland’s 12 bargaining units have agreed to a raise freeze requested by the superintendent, and state aid funds are also in flux. Guilderland has based its budget proposal on the governor’s plan to cut $1.3 billion in aid to schools, and expects to get just over a quarter of its funds from the state. However, this week the Democrats in the State Assembly, the majority party, announced a plan to cut just $800 million in school aid while borrowing $2 billion. The lion’s share of Guilderland’s revenues for next year, at 68 percent, is to come from property taxes.

Because of the uncertainty of funds available, the board, at its March 31 session, plans to discuss what it might add back into the budget if more funds become available.

The board will adopt a proposal on April 13 before voters go to the polls on May 18.

Citizens have varied views

The two dozen citizens who served on the budget advisory committee had varied advice for the board.

Donald Britt said he was concerned about the long term and asked the assistant superintendent for business if the district has a five-year plan.

“No, I don’t,” responded Neil Sanders.

“Where are we going?” rejoined Britt.

The school board’s president, Richard Weisz, said it was impossible for the district to come up with a five-year plan because “every year the state changes the rules.”

Weisz said that, when the board signed many of the contracts granting raises three years ago, that was because the state had promised more aid to schools.

“We must do more with less,” said James Denn, stating that the proposed 3.6 percent tax hike was too much in difficult times. He recommended, among other cuts, returning to a half-day kindergarten program. The district had moved to a full-day program last year and, according to Sanders, would still be eligible for nearly $900,000 in transition aid next year even if it reverts to the half-day program.

While a handful of citizens echoed Denn’s sentiments, others spoke passionately in favor of full-day kindergarten. Andi Darrigo called it “something the community is looking for” and said, unlike clubs or athletics, kindergarten impacts every 5-year-old.

The cuts that more committee members spoke against than any other were those made to the special education programs and the programs for at-risk students. Allan Simpson advised restoring some of the 36 teaching assistants cut from the special education programs.

Jesse Feinman, a student on the committee, said that special-education students have little chance for success unless they are nurtured.

“They’re on the edge,” said Darrigo. “I fear those are the kids that will slide.”

Several committee members urged more administrative cuts. Catherine Williams, who said the children at risk would suffer under the current proposal, recommended that the administrators “do more with less.”

A large number of committee members also said they hoped the bargaining units would agree to the wage freeze requested by the superintendent, which would save $1.9 million. Feinman suggested a pay freeze for everyone above a certain salary. He also said that firing teachers should be based on performance and how students grade them.

William Goergen said, “The unions…should step up, be it a freeze or whatever…They’re asking the people in the community to support increases no one else is getting.”

Lisa McLachlan agreed that those in the private sector have been enduring wage cuts, and pointed out the teachers’ contract has a re-opener clause if state aid dips. She advised they accept a wage freeze.

“We are also the state taxpayers and the federal,” she said. “The question really is: When is enough, enough?”

Deborah Marcil said that Guilderland parents and the community had become accustomed to a level of service far beyond what is required. “Now, if you want it, I think you need to be ready to pay for the extras,” she said.

David Langenbach, like several others on the committee, praised the district’s approach of trimming from each segment of the budget rather than gutting any one program. He called it “a pretty responsible across-the-board cutting.”

However, Goergen said, “We have a core value of things we should do for our students…We have to protect that core.” Elementary students, he said, are the most vulnerable.

Donald Csaposs called the budget proposal “a best-faith effort to spread the pain equally.”

He also said, “When times are tough, it’s really easy…to throw rocks to guard your turf,” whether it be to keep from having unacceptable taxes or to protect a program “near and dear to you.”

Csaposs concluded, “We need to get into the middle together and work our way out.”

Public pleas

Tuesday night, about 40 people attended a budget hearing as a dozen addressed the board, some with carefully rehearsed speeches, all in civil tones.

Kristi McCabe, the mother of a special-education student as well as a general-education student, questioned Guilderland’s approach to mainstreaming special-needs students in regular classrooms, particularly with the cutting of 36 special-education teaching assistants.

“What will happen when there is no TA?” she asked.

She argued that many other things — like health-care choices and professional development — could be cut instead. “Let’s cut the icing before we cut the cake,” said McCabe.

Tim and Joanne Ryan spoke in favor of keeping class sizes small. The budget proposal calls for increasing the guidelines at each level by two students per class.

“Twenty-four 5-year-olds in one room for six hours is not effective…What are they going to get?” asked Joanne Ryan.

Her husband said he realized that everyone was arguing, “Do it to someone else,” but he went on, “What you can’t take back is the first year in a school system

Six people made eloquent arguments for teaching German. The budget allows for middle-school students presently studying the language to keep on with it through high school, but German will be phased out, starting next year.

Sarah Jones — describing herself as “a proud member of the sixth-grade German class at FMS” — led the way. She talked enthusiastically about all she had learned about the German culture both in class and in the after-school German Club. She presented the board with a large card, written in German, that she had made with her classmates. She translated for the board: Please keep German for all students. Please don’t deprive my younger friends of the opportunity to take German.

Her mother, Karen Covert-Jones, spoke later, stating how important German is to the 70 middle-school and 70 high-school students who study the language. To offer just three Romance languages, she said, is “a step towards mediocrity.”

She also said her son, who studied Spanish, was influenced by an exchange program with Germany set up by the high-school German teacher, leading him to study for a year in Germany on a scholarship.

Forty percent of scientists in the United States recommend the study of German, she said. The United States, said Covert-Jones, should not continue as if it were its own planet. “Ignorance is not bliss,” she concluded. “Ignorance is the enemy.”

Heather Kumta, the mother of a fifth-grader who planned to take German next year after immersing herself in a summer program, called the cut “a loss for both my family and the community at large.” She said, “Our kids need more…foreign language skills to compete in the global market place.”

The Farnsworth student council president, Cody Ingraham, charmed the board members by speaking to them in German. “I’m assuming none of you understood that,” he said, and then translated.

He proceeded to tell them about the German composers whose pieces he plays in the school orchestra and about the large number of German Nobel Prize winners. He also recited a long list of German-related statistics and accomplishments, such as one out of every 25 people on this earth speak German.

Chris Connor, whose wife teaches German at the middle school, said that cutting German contradicts the superintendent’s intent of balanced reduction since it eliminates the language entirely.

He also said that, while serving in the Army, he was stationed in Germany, and also served in Iraq and Kosovo. Connor decried the “French and Spanish bubble” when there are so many important languages to learn, from Arabic to Chinese.

Foreign languages have been important these past few years, Connor said, to effectively communicate with other nations’ citizens.

Finally, Jakov Crnkovic, a professor at the University at Albany, spoke in favor of German instruction. Having diversity, he said, was a high point of the Guilderland school district.

Raised in Yugoslavia, Crnkovic said that, in Europe, it is common to know three languages. “We have to go in this direction and not backward,” he said.

Peter and Clare Caroll with their, son, Rory, spoke out in favor of the New Visions program, run by the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Peter Caroll said that his daughter had enjoyed the rigorous program as a Guilderland High School senior, helping her with college admissions, and leading to a paid internship working for the state’s attorney general. He said his son had hoped to take part in a New Visions medical program that would further his future career in the field. He asked the board to re-instate the program for Guilderland students.

Kevin Mawson advocated for his son with Downes syndrome and his daughter who will be attending Farnsworth Middle School next year. Mawson said that, as the manager of a local business, he understands the effects of the downturn in the economy, but, he went on, Guilderland needs to provide “a quality education for all children of the district.”

He said the cuts to athletics totaled 2 percent, comparing that to a 15-percent cut for special education.

Mawson implored the board, “I beg of you to make sure the cuts are fair and equitable to all students….We must not forget those with special needs.”

At the end of the nearly three-hour session, Rory Caroll stepped to the microphone — this time, without his parents. A junior at Guilderland High School, he said he was involved in many clubs, which would be cut under the current proposal.

“We’re here to teach people,” he said. “We need to give them these options to further their careers…People need these things to go on to have a successful life…We can’t just take it out on the students.”

(For detailed accounts of Guilderland’s budget proposal, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for March 4, 2010 and March 11, 2010.)

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