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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 6, 2010

What happens if the GCSD budget is voted down?

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — What if Guilderland School District residents vote down next year’s budget on May 18?

Last week, as the board, faced with hundreds of protesting sports boosters, debated whether or not to add back in money for cut sports, the school board president, Richard Weisz said, “I thought this budget represented one of the toughest choices we ever faced. I still don’t think passage of the budget we proposed is guaranteed.”

This week, he elaborated, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for the board of education or the school district to take a positive vote for granted. It’s a tough year. We’re cutting programs, raising taxes, and laying off people. It’s a very difficult menu.”

He concluded, “Nobody is getting what they want this year.”

If the $87.4 million spending plan is voted down, the board would have three choices: It could put the same budget up for one more vote; it could revise the budget and put it up for a public vote; or it could move directly to a contingency budget with a state-set cap.

All six of the candidates running for school board, four of whom are incumbents, have advocated the second course of action — listening to the public and revising the budget for a second vote.

If a school budget is defeated for a second time, the board must, by law, move to a contingency plan.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders told The Enterprise this week that the contingency budget would have to be $1.8 million less than the current proposal.

The current school tax rate for Guilderland residents is $19.34 per $1,000 of assessed value. If the $87.4 million budget proposal passes on May 18, the district estimates that Guilderland residents would pay $20.04 per $1,000, meaning a resident with a $100,000 home would pay $2,004.

If the district were to go to a contingency budget, Sanders estimated for The Enterprise that the tax rate per $1,000 would be $19.43, an increase of .48 percent over this year. That means a Guilderland resident with a $100,000 home would pay $1,943 — or $61 less — in taxes under a contingency plan.

Asked if the administration had given any thought to what further cuts might be made to meet the contingency cap, Sanders said, “We would have that discussion with the board.”

Earlier defeats

There have been two periods since the Guilderland School District was centralized in 1950 during which school budgets have been voted down — once in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. In both cases, a citizens’ group founded by Edward Breitenbach pushed for lower taxes.

That was markedly different than this year when there is no organized group lobbying against the budget. All nine board members voted for the $87.4 million spending plan and all six of the candidates in the May 18 election support the budget.

The cuts made by the board this year were because of a drastic reduction in state aid as well as increasing costs for health care and pensions and contractual obligations. The board was determined to keep the tax hike under 4 percent. The hike is estimated at 3.59 percent for Guilderland residents who currently pay $19.34 per $1,000 of assessed value.

In 1971, 1973, and 1976, the board put up reduced plans after the initial budgets were defeated at the polls. Voters passed the reduced budgets in 1971 and 1976, but rejected the 1973 reduced plan. Consequently, the board declared a contingency plan, and voters passed three out of seven non-contingent items, for school buses, transportation, and athletics.

Twenty years later, in 1993, after a $40 million budget was defeated, with nearly twice as many people voting as usual, the board broke the budget into three propositions and shaved about $160,000. The shaved budget was soundly defeated while the propositions for sports and transportation passed.

The Concerned Parents and Taxpayers of Guilderland, Breitenbach’s group, which had campaigned against the budget, pushed for the board to cut costs by renegotiating contracts with teachers and administrators. That didn’t happen. Sean O’Neill, who was then president of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, said at the time, “It’s not our plan or policy to re-negotiate agreements that were fairly and openly agreed to.”

This year, in an unprecedented move, the superintendent, John McGuire, asked all 12 of the districts bargaining units for a wage freeze. If the district’s 1,038 employees had all agreed, it would have saved $1.9 million. Seven of the 12 units — representing about 700 or 70 percent of the district’s employees — offered concessions, totaling $220,000.

The largest unit, the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, with about 500 members, agreed to have each teacher give up one day’s pay. GTA President Maceo Dubose estimated the furloughs would total $160,000.

The teaching assistants, another large unit with about 190 members who are bearing the brunt of the job cuts, offered two days’ pay. “We suggested one day,” McGuire said earlier, “because, by missing two superintendent’s conference days, they would fall short in professional development.”

McGuire told The Enterprise this week that, rather than cutting an instructional day for students, the teachers and teaching assistants will attend one fewer superintendents’ conference day.

Two units agreed to a salary freeze — the central administrators and their management confidential support staff. The central administrators are the assistant superintendents for business, instruction, and human services.

Additionally, the Administrators’ Association, including principals, assistant principals, and instructional administrators, agreed to increase their contributions to health insurance.

Ultimately, in 1993, the board adopted a $39 million contingency plan for 1993-94, leaving Guilderland students with essentially the same programs the board first proposed, and taxpayers with nearly the same costs.

The next year, the board put up a $44 million budget, and eight candidates ran for three board seats. Three of the candidates were backed by CPAT and three were backed by CREATE (Coalition for Responsive Education And Tax Equity), a group formed to rally support after the budget defeat. The three CPAT candidates were elected and the budget was soundly defeated by a record number of voters. The board made substantial cuts to the budget and it passed on the second vote.

Tide turned

In 1996, the tide turned — on just four votes. The $49 million budget passed by the narrowest margin in the district’s history. Voting was also close in the seven-way race for three school board seats. The CPAT candidates, in addition to campaigning against the budget had also made “parental rights” an issue in the wake of protests over a high school assembly on homophobia.

The three candidates who supported the budget and who also supported the high school’s holding the assembly on homophobia were elected. The three CPAT candidates came in fourth, fifth, and sixth. A seventh candidate, who was not aligned with either group, trailed distantly.

In 1997, the board unanimously adopted a $52 million budget proposal — the first unanimous vote in several years.

In the years that followed, budgets passed by increasingly larger margins as the review process was revamped to allow more citizen input. CPAT no longer put up slates of candidates. In recent years, while some candidates have campaigned together in pairs or trios, all of them, until last year, have supported the budget.

Last year, the two incumbents supported the budget and the three challengers did not. The challengers each ran independently, not as part of a slate. Julie Cuneo, who was elected (see related story), did not back the budget because she believed the quality of education would suffer with larger class sizes and fewer teaching assistants. Allan Simpson opposed the plan because he favored a budget with no tax increase. And Elijah Sharma wouldn’t say last year whether he supported the budget or not, but said, rather, it was a matter of individual choice.

This year, both Simpson and Sharma, who are running again, as well as incumbents Barbara Fraterrigo, Colleen O’Connell, Gloria Towle-Hilt, and Emilio Genzano — the last three running on a single slate — all support the $87.4 million spending proposal.

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