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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 8, 2010

Board says: Put flesh on the bones
Prez proposes no raises next year

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — All nine school board members want to restore some of the jobs and programs the administration proposed cutting next year.

Last month, the superintendent had proposed an $87.5 million budget that would have cut 81 jobs and $4 million in expenses. The proposal also changed guidelines for class sizes, increasing by two students at each level.

The goal, in the wake of state aid cuts, stagnant property values, and rising pension and health-care costs, was to keep the tax-rate hike under 4 percent while shaving spending equally across the district.

“You can lose sight of the forest for the trees,” said the board president, Richard Weisz, at a budget workshop last Wednesday, which was the first time board members, who had listened to citizens review the budget all month, had a chance to express their views.

Weisz said that the superintendent’s proposal was “a step away from what I call a commitment to excellence, a step I don’t think the district should take.”

Weisz proposed adding back in over a million dollars worth of expenditures, including more assistance for needy students and more demanding programs for top students. He, like one other board member, also called for restoring teachers to reduce class sizes.

Weisz proposed paying for the add-ins by postponing the bond placement for the $27 million building project until next year. This would save $1,175,000, he said.

“I’m prepared to gamble a little on the interest rate because it’s paid over 15 years,” said Weisz, noting that the current low interest rates may rise.

Next Tuesday, the administration will present the board with a revised budget based on the board’s recommendations. Superintendent John McGuire said this week that the revised budget keeps the tax hike below 4 percent by postponing bonding on the building project from June to next December. The new proposal still maintains full-day kindergarten, he said, while adding back in much of what board members proposed.

The new budget plan, like the old one, is based on the governor’s proposed reductions to school aid.  Although the State Assembly now has a plan to borrow in order to restore some of the cut school aid, McGuire said counting on that would be “playing with fire.” If more state aid were to come in after Guilderland voters approved the budget, the district could either reduce the tax levy, as it did last year, or put the money into its fund balance or rainy-day account.

In an unprecedented move this year, McGuire asked each of the district’s 12 bargaining units for a wage freeze, which would save $1.9 million. “I do not expect a salary freeze,” he said this week, “but I am getting proposals from a variety of units, all with the intent of contributing.”

The board is slated to adopt a final spending proposal on April 13, and the public votes on May 18.

Next year, Guilderland, like school districts across New York, face more dismal budget prospects, as federal stimulus money will have run out. Weisz said that putting off the debt payments until next year, though, can be balanced by negotiating contracts without raises.

As is typical of school spending plans, about three-quarters of Guilderland’s budget is for salaries and benefits. At last week’s workshop, Weisz said of the bargaining units, “We’re beginning to receive staff concessions.”  He also said that any savings from staff should go to more programming.

“The contracts we’re asking people to revisit this year are over next year,” said Weisz. “We could say, until there’s more state aid, because we can’t afford it, there will be no raises.”

Employees would continue to get step increases. The largest union at Guilderland, with about 500 members, is the teachers’, which also includes guidance counselors, social workers, librarians, nurses, and therapists. The contract for teachers, which runs from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2011, granted 4.7-percent raises the first year, 4.4 percent the second year, and 4.4 percent the third year. Guilderland teachers progress up a 23-step schedule. A teacher on the first step in 2009 earned $42,000 while a teacher on the highest step earned $71,909.

To make up more funds, Weisz also suggested dropping freshman sports for a savings of $57,000; increasing the student-parking fee at the high school from $25 to $50 to raise $20,000 for co-curricular activities; and saving $25,000 in equipment costs.

Two board members mentioned cutting expenses for professional development, to which several others strenuously objected.

Barbara Fraterrigo, the board’s longest serving member, said that, for years, staff development was done in-house by the curriculum director, and that, to save on professional development costs, staff could be trained online through webinars.

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton said that the fund budgeted for professional development “was not a pot of money just sitting there to be lopped off.” A lot of training is mandated by the state and other training is due to contractual obligations, he said.

“When you look at research, the number-one classroom-based impact is the quality of teacher instruction,” Singleton said. “It is not class size. It is not teachers’ aids.”

McGuire also said that training helped in recruiting and retaining teachers.

Only board member Fraterrigo urged administrative cuts. She suggested that the house principal posts at Farnsworth Middle School could be consolidated. Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt objected strenuously, saying the house principals already worked long hours and have no more time in their day. Catherine Barber, the board’s vice president, suggested having an analysis done of administrative duties. “Our enrollment has continued to go down,” but that hasn’t affected the administrative structure, she said.

At last Wednesday’s meeting, the board also approved a $998,440 plan to purchase new buses, which would reduce the fleet by two vehicles to 114. If voters approve the proposition, half of the cost would be returned to the district in state aid.

Weisz called the proposal “a prudent compromise,” meeting about 70 percent of the district’s long-term replacement plan for buses.

“This district, in the late eighties, early nineties tried the experiment of starving itself on buses, and then they all went bad at the same time,” he said.

The proposition is to buy six 66-passenger buses at $106,500 each; two buses that hold 24 and can accommodate wheelchairs at $66,500 each; three 30-passenger buses at $53,800 each; two minivans at $19,000 each; and a pickup truck at $27,000.

The vote was 8 to 1, with Emilio Genzano dissenting.

Each of the board members took turns expressing his or her views on what should be added back into the budget. Except for Weisz, none of them had mapped out a precise strategy to make up for the added costs, but almost all of them said they favored Weisz’s plan of delaying the bond payment. Most also agreed with cutting back on either modified or freshmen sports and with increasing the fees for parking to help pay for co-curricular activities.

Board members most frequently discussed the following seven items for inclusion in next year’s budget:

Full-day kindergarten

Last year, the district started a full-day kindergarten program. It is slated to get about $900,000 in transition aid from the state for that, which it can keep whether or not it continues the full-day program.

McGuire said this week that, since the board hadn’t directed the administration to revert to half-day kindergarten, the administration has made no estimate of the cost savings; one board member put it at $700,000.

Weisz, who last year convinced the rest of the board to include the full-day program, said he favors keeping it. “Two-and-a-half hours of kindergarten is essentially child care,” he said. “A full-day K is education.”

“Last year, as Dick put it,” said Colleen O’Connell about Weisz, “the school budget was in part a referendum on full-day K.” She noted the budget passed by a wide margin. O’Connell favors keeping the full-day program and believes that, in the long run, it will reduce special-education costs.

Fraterrigo favored returning to a half-day program. Although she said full-day kindergarten was a great program, she went on, “We lived very successfully without it.” Screening could point up children who have deficits, she said. It is important to save now, she said, because “next year, we’ll be in a bigger hole.”

Board members Julie Cuneo and Emilio Genzano both said they were undecided about whether to return to half-day kindergarten or keep the full-day program.

The other board members were silent on the issue.

Teacher leaders

The superintendent’s original proposal called for cutting the district’s teacher leaders.

McGuire said this week that reinstating the stipends for teacher leaders in kindergarten through 12th grade will cost $136,340, which is included in the new budget proposal. The new proposal does not include $43,000 for substitute teachers to staff classrooms while the teacher leaders are at meetings, he said.

Towle-Hilt, who is retired from teaching social studies at the middle school, said at Wednesday’s workshop she was the district’s first teacher leader in the 1980s.  She said that teacher leaders are “crucial to articulating the program” and went on, “Unless we maintain a strong curriculum piece, we are going to undercut everything.” She suggested keeping the stipends for teacher leaders but saving on costs by having them meet after school so that substitute teachers don’t need to be hired.

Judy Slack, who is a retired elementary teaching assistant, said that her “first concern” was keeping teacher leaders at the five elementary schools. She agreed they could meet after school to save on costs for substitutes.

Weisz wants to keep the teacher leaders at the elementary school.

Fraterrigo also argued for keeping the teacher leaders who are “in the front lines” but not hiring substitutes.

Foreign language

The superintendent’s original budget called for phasing out German, starting at the sixth-grade level next year, and also cutting out entirely the Foreign Language Early Start program in the elementary schools.

Currently, a Spanish teacher visits classrooms for 20 or 30 minutes each week in kindergarten through fourth grade. The district had planned on adding a grade level each year.

McGuire said this week that restoring FLES from kindergarten through fifth grade would cost $201,000 to pay for three teachers. Restoring FLES to just the fourth and fifth grades would cost $67,000 for one teacher.

To restore the German classes that were to be cut at the middle school for incoming sixth-graders would cost $26,800 for four-tenths of a teaching post. (The original plan was to let current German students continue their studies but to phase out the program in both the middle school and high school entirely as those students moved through the system and graduated.)

To restore all the middle school and foreign language cuts would cost $80,400 for one-and-two-tenths’ teaching posts, McGuire said.

Towle-Hilt said that the public had spoken clearly to her about foreign language study and she would like to continue FLES and teaching German.

“I’ve really responded emotionally to the pleas on the part of the German community,” said Denise Eisele, who said she’d like to maintain foreign languages.

Rather than cutting German, Genzano recommended reducing two sections to one.

Slack said she was “very touched by the number of people speaking out for German” and she also recommended keeping FLES at least in fourth and fifth grades, noting it was “a hard-fought battle to get it.”

Barber strongly favored keeping FLES and read from the district’s philosophy in adopting the program. She said it served as a model for districts across the state and urged, “At least keep the upper grades.”

She also noted a high level of interest in German among fifth-graders, eager to study the language next year.

Weisz favored no cuts in foreign languages. “The world that our children will live in is multi-cultural,” he said.

Fraterrigo, a long-time ardent supporter of FLES, said that studies show students improve in other subjects when they study a foreign language.

Two board members, O’Connell and Cuneo, urged cutting FLES. “It’s too thin a program,” said O’Connell, stating more than 20 or 30 minutes a week is needed to do it right, which the district can’t afford. Cuneo suggested that, at 30 minutes a week, Spanish could be taught as an after-school program. Both said they would continue it for the students who had started.

Special education

The superintendent’s original budget made massive cuts to special education, including the elimination of 36 teaching assistants and of the special-education supervisor at the middle school. (The special-education students district-wide were to have been equally divided among three special-education supervisors.)

McGuire said this week that the middle-school supervisor post costs $111,600.

He also said that the new plan for the board’s consideration next Tuesday includes the restoration of five special-education teachers for $335,000 and five teaching assistants for learning workshops at a cost of $124,000.

Weisz said last Wednesday that $900,000 was too much to pull out from teaching assistants for special education. He also said the Farnsworth Middle School academy and summer school need to be restored.

 Towle-Hilt opposed the massive cuts to special-education teaching assistants. “We can’t pull out that essential support for our most vulnerable learners,” she said.

She also opposed the proposed cut to a special-education administrator in the middle school.

Slack said learning workshops should continue to be staffed by teaching assistants, which also gives classroom teachers a respite from needy children.

Colleen O’Connell said it is essential to restore teaching assistants to the learning workshops.

Cuneo said that special-education cuts are her biggest concern. Also, with no middle-school administrator for special education, she said, “Things will be falling through the cracks.”

Fraterrigo also expressed reservations about the drastic cuts in special education.

Genzano said he’d like to see a 30 to 35 percent restoration of teaching assistants. He also said that eliminating the special-education coordinator at Farnsworth would “destroy” management.

Advanced classes

The superintendent’s original budget cut Advanced Placement and Syracuse University Project Advance classes at the high school for which students can earn college credits.

McGuire said this week that the proposed new budget put back in a half-time teacher to teach college-level classes for $33,500.

Weisz last Wednesday called for the AP courses to be restored.

O’Connell, however, said, “I think we need less offerings, not more.” Courses such as a sixth year of French shouldn’t be offered, she said, if fewer than 10 students are interested.

Cuneo wants to continue AP classes.

Fraterrigo said that if AP classes are cut along with foreign languages and music, Guilderland “will be a skeleton.”

Co-curricular activities

The superintendent’s budget cut all stipends for advisors to co-curricular activities at the middle school and some stipends at the high school, based on the principal’s recommendations.

Full restoration at the middle school would cost $84,660 and at the high school, $72,000, McGuire said.

Denise Eisele spoke passionately last Wednesday of the need to offer activities for the kids who don’t get to participate in other things. She said her son was in a community-based skills (CBS) program at the high school that meant a lot to him. Physically and cognitively, he can’t play sports but he was able to bowl on the CBS team.

She also described a best buddies program that pairs special-needs kids with typically developing kids. “Last Friday, they had a best buddies prom at Parsons,” she said. “These are kids that probably aren’t going to go to the regular prom. But they went to the prom and they had a great time.”

“Co-curriculars are crucial for kids across the board,” agreed Towle-Hilt. She suggested that some clubs could meet as part of advisory periods, during the regular school day, so that teachers wouldn’t have to be paid stipends.

Slack called co-curricular activities an important part of education, and Fraterrigo called them “an absolute must.”

Barber, a violinist, said that music had taken “a hard hit.” While the large ensembles, band and chorus, would continue as part of the school day, smaller groups, slated for elimination, should be a priority to keep, she said.

Weisz called for the restoration of the high-school and middle-school drama clubs, honor society, student council, and music groups including the jazz ensemble and stage band.

O’Connell wanted to “restore as many co-curriculars as we can” and said the decisions on which ones should be made by the principals at the high school and middle school.

Cuneo said the costs for co-curricular activities are very small but they provide enormous opportunities.

Genzano said he’s like to reinstate half of the money for co-curriculars and leave it to the groups to raise the other half.

Middle-school nurse

The superintendent’s original budget cut the nursing staff at the middle school from two to one-and-a-half for a savings of $18,040.

Eisele, who is a nurse, opposed the cut, saying nurses are burdened with many mandates and also must handle emergencies.

Cuneo, a nurse practitioner, said many people don’t understand the job of a school nurse, which involves a lot of mandated record keeping. She, too, opposed the cut.

Barber recommended at least getting a clerical assistant if the nursing cut is made at the middle school.

 Fraterrigo said, if the reduction is due to new software making the nurses’ jobs easier, the cut was OK, but if it would reduce hands-on work with students, the post should be restored. “Our kids’ safety is really important,” she said.

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