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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 29, 2010

Hundreds protest cuts
GCSD board calls on community to raise funds for school sports

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Most of the crowd of over 250 that packed the school board’s meeting hall on Tuesday night wore red — the school color. Cheerleaders sported red bows. Football players wore red jerseys. Little League players had red caps.

They came to protest a $73,000 cut to sports that took all the freshmen teams but basketball and took the repeat sports, too, most notably fall cheerleading.

The cut was made on April 13 as, in the wake of declining state aid and rising costs for pensions and health care, the board adopted an $87.4 million budget proposal for next year, restoring many of the programs and jobs that had initially been slated for cuts. The final plan cut 40 jobs instead of 80, and kept the tax hike under 4 percent by postponing debt payment another year. Voters have their say on May 18.

Tuesday, the board ultimately decided to stick to its original proposal but to work with sports boosters to raise money from donations so that freshmen sports and fall cheerleading could still be offered next year.

“I don’t want to lose any sports,” Athletic Director Wayne Bertrand told The Enterprise after the board made its decision. “My job is to promote my program.”

The cut freshmen sports are: football and boys’ and girls’ soccer in the fall, and boys’ lacrosse, baseball, and softball in the spring. Additionally, the repeat sports of fall cheerleading and winter track are cut at the junior varsity and varsity levels; those sports are for both boys and girls.

Asked if he thought it was feasible that the community could come up with the funds in time for fall sports, Bertrand said, “It’s a challenge, but I believe the spirit is there to do it.”

Asked about morale among the coaches in the wake of the cuts, Bertrand said, “They’re disappointed. They understand it’s difficult economic times. Many of their colleagues have been laid off.”

Bertrand acknowledged that the message from the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee was that sports should be cut further.

He said of the turnout on Tuesday night, “I think it’s awesome. It shows that athletics is a huge part of the community. It brings a community together….Everything these people said was true. Athletics teaches life skills. When people go back to their high school reunions, with all due respect to my colleagues who teach academic subjects, what people remember and talk about years later is what happened at the big game, what happened on the playing field.”

Unified plea

Each time someone went to the microphone Tuesday night to plead for sports — 18 times in all — the crowd gave the speaker a standing ovation.

“It’s a tradition. It’s a rite of passage,” said Kelly Smith of Guilderland’s cheerleading program. She said that, in 2009, the district collected $18,000 in entrance fees and half of that was for varsity football, helped along by the cheerleaders.

Smith’s voice cracked with emotion as she told the board members that it is their responsibility to do what is best for children “in these hardest of times.”

Rick Rose told the board members, “It’s OK to make a mistake,” and went on to recommend they rectify their mistake by restoring the $3,700 for fall cheerleading.

“No one in this room envies your position,” Gary Appleby told the nine board members.

He suggested that perhaps the cut was made because of “personal prejudice that cheerleading is not a sport.” The cut, he said, “seems to be more symbolic than mathematical.”

Appleby also suggested that other coaches would be happy to each give up $45 each to avoid the cuts.

Don Snyder, a retired Guilderland teacher, who founded the district’s soccer program and coached the varsity team for decades, told a personal story. As a high school freshman, he said, he was shy and didn’t go out for his school’s soccer tam. “The other guys looked bigger,” he said.

The coach took him aside and said, “Son, I think you should come out for this team,” he recounted. “The man changed my life.”

Snyder played soccer through four years of high school and four years of college, playing on a team that won a national championship.

“The story is about the teachers and coaches who impact lives…But the window of opportunity doesn’t exist forever,” he said.

Michelle Coons spoke of the Pop Warner cheerleading program, which has a symbiotic relationship with the school program. Many Pop Warner cheerleaders go on to cheer in high school; the high school students, in turn, serve as coaches for the Pop Warner program. She called the cut “a mistake our community will regret.”

Andrew Genovese spoke of a game his son played in where the two teams “did battle on the field” then shook hands afterward. The visiting players were grateful for the food served afterwards by the Guilderland parents and thanked them.

“Why are we going to limit this experience?” asked Genovese.

He went on to say that, through his job for the state’s Department of Labor, he realizes six people are competing for every job out there and the kind of skills learned through playing sports are “what makes the difference” in getting hired.

Genovese read some of the district’s stated priorities and concluded, “We want to have more teams and more games so kids can have more skills to succeed in the 21st Century.”

Jon Phillips, whose family owns Phillips Hardware, is president of the local Little League. “We put $150,000 in one baseball field,” he said, indicating local businesses and sports boosters have clout when it comes to raising funds.

With cuts in the sports programs, Guilderland’s top athletes may migrate to private schools eager to recruit them.

Joe O’Connor spoke on behalf of Guilderland’s baseball booster club. “You awoke a sleeping giant,” he told the board, adding that there are probably 600 families in Little League.

“Eight hundred,” came the word from the crowd.

Like other speakers, O’Connor said he hadn’t been informed ahead about the cuts. “These families want options…It’s not fair,” he said. “It’s on your shoulders to inform us.”

Jeanne Walsh spoke both as a parent of two Guilderland students and as an executive with the American Cancer Society. The ACS recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity five days a week, she said, and went on to quote an ACS slogan: “Children who live healthy, live longer.”

She noted that playing sports improves mental and social health as well as physical health. For the first time in history, she concluded, youth are living less healthy and perhaps shorter lives then the generation before them.

David Barcomb told how each of his three children, all Guilderland graduates, had benefited from sports. His two daughters cheered in college and now coach — his older daughter, Heather Barcomb, at Guilderland — and his son, now at Cortland College, wants to be a football coach.

Barcomb noted that the $73,000 cut affects over 220 students. “If this was brought out early on, you would have seen a groundswell,” he said.

Alluding to the suicide of student Andrea Guido on Oct. 8, 2009, Dustin Maguire, a varsity football player, said the school was “lost and broken.” Of the homecoming game that followed her death, he said, “The Dutchmen team did not play that game; the Dutchmen community did.” The outcome showed that “standing amid the rubble would be a stronger community,” Maguire said.

“Find me a school with more pride than GCSD and I’ll show you 2,000 students that disagree with you,” he said.

“Please don’t take our sports away,” he implored the board.

Katie Nagy, the mother of three cheerleaders, said, “Cheerleading is synonymous with football,” stating it had been a tradition at Guilderland for 50 years. “Is cheerleading not the essence of school spirit?” she asked.

Like others, she named the many awards, including national honors, the Dutch cheerleaders, under the direction of Coach Patty Palmer, have garnered.

“Kudos to Patty Palmer,” she said as the crowd responded with cheers.

Mary Kate Nagy was up next, her ponytail in a red bow. She told of coaching the Pop Warner cheerleaders and spoke of the “strong bond formed between us and the young cheerleaders.”

She also said, “The cheerleaders give our school a good name throughout the town.”

Alexis Sprio, who hopes to return as a varsity cheerleader next fall, said, “Our boys are disappointed and embarrassed they’re losing us.”

She said that football season is a time of bonding and preparation so that the squad doesn’t have to start from scratch for the basketball season.

She noted the team has been national champions for four years in a row and concluded, “We’re always ranked on top. We’ve got the heart and the time to prepare.”

Alyssa Poskanzer and Sidney Relyea came to the microphone together. Poskanzer said that she felt more comfortable coming to the high school as part of a team. Relyea said she joined Pop Warner in the eighth grade and, as a freshman at Guilderland High School, was on the junior varsity cheer team.

Anna Appleby said that in her eight years as a cheerleader she has learned about teamwork, dedication, and time management.

Finally, Carolyn Kelly, president of the high school’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association, said she was having a difficult time advocating for the budget because of the athletic cuts.

Board debate

At the April 13 meeting, Julie Cuneo had initially been the only board member who advocated reinstating freshmen sports; she was then joined by Emilio Genzano and Colleen O’Connell — not the majority needed.

This Tuesday, Barbara Fraterrigo regretted the decision and said she really hadn’t had time at the last meeting to understand the impact of the cut.

Although the board, by law, cannot change the total expenditure it had adopted, Fraterrigo wanted to re-allocate funds to reinstate the $73,000 for sports.

“Where are you going to get that money from?” asked Genzano. He went on to say, “April 13 was a tough vote for me personally…We have to respect this process…I will look for alternatives. This isn’t over.”

“Everybody sitting here is committed to doing the best for kids,” said Gloria Towle-Hilt. She agreed with Genzano, “We need to respect the process.”

The process involved a month-long review of the budget by a committee of citizen volunteers.

Towle-Hilt said she wanted to clap with the crowd for the speakers but concluded, “We can’t do everything any more.”

Towle-Hilt agreed with O’Connor’s idea that a sleeping giant has been awakened. And she suggested it would pull people together.

“We’re putting process over people,” argued Fraterrigo. “We were blindsided.”

Denise Eisele said the board members had listened to administrators and citizens and to each other, and that the final proposal “reflected how carefully we listened.”

“I think we have to uphold the process,” she said.

Superintendent John McGuire quoted an old saying: “Never waste a good crisis.”

“I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Throw out the budget,’” he said. “There must be a way we can work together.”

He recommended that school administrators meet with community sports leaders to “find our common vision.”

Colleen O’Connell said that, although she had voted on April 13 to keep the $73,000 for sports, “I honor my colleagues.” She recalled a session of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee when it was made clear that the sports budget was being cut just 2 percent while the budget for special education was being cut 20 percent.

“People were so upset we were taking from our neediest…That’s what forced Wayne’s hand,” she said of the district’s athletic director, Wayne Bertrand.

Judy Slack spoke of the “passion and hope” she had heard from parents and kids, and said the district could find other ways to fund sports with their support.

Cuneo said that, like Fraterrigo, she had been surprised by the sports cut and felt she hadn’t had all the information that was needed. “It was shocking to me,” she said.

When the board on April 13 re-instated the co-curricular clubs and other activities, but not sports, she said, “I felt it was unfair.”

She went on, “I don’t mind opening something that was a mistake.”

Cuneo concluded, “If we can raise $80,000, let’s do it…I don’t want to be the first Suburban Council school not to have freshman sports.”

“I thought this budget represented one of the toughest choices we ever faced,” said Richard Weisz, the board’s president. “I still don’t think passage of the budget we proposed is guaranteed.”

He asked about charging each student a $50 fee to play sports, and was informed by the assistant superintendent for business, Neil Sanders, that is not allowed by law. “You can’t pay to play,” said Sanders.

Ultimately, the board agreed, by unanimous vote, to work with local youth sports groups and booster groups to try to raise the money to pay for freshmen sports and fall cheerleading.

“I respect your process,” said Jon Phillips, the Little League president, from the gallery. “You’ve got to have a unified front to move forward.”

He spoke of how the Little League had raised $30,000 in one night as a benefit for a player diagnosed with cancer.

Particulars for the fund drive, once they are established, will be posted on the district’s website.

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