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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 20, 2010
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND In the wake of threatened state aid, after months of hearing citizens plead and criticize, the school board here got some welcome news on Tuesday night its $87.4 million budget proposal for next year passed with just over 55 percent of the vote.
“I said early on, if everyone’s equally unhappy, we have a chance,” said the school board president, Richard Weisz, commenting on the district’s plan to make across-the-board cuts to keep the tax-rate hike under 4 percent.
The estimated hike is 3.59 percent for Guilderland residents who currently pay $19.34 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Weisz also said he was gratified. “It was a very difficult year for everybody,” he said. “We understand the community had to struggle with the same issues we did.”
Guilderland was among the 92 percent of districts statewide that had school budgets pass on Tuesday, according to information gathered by the New York State School Boards Association. Last year, voters passed 97 percent of budgets; the average passage rate since 1969 is 83 percent.
Guilderland voters on Tuesday also passed a million-dollar bus and equipment proposal by 55 percent.
In a six-way race for four seats on the school board, Barbara Fraterrigo, the board’s longest-serving member, was the top vote-getter. Incumbents Gloria Towle-Hilt and Colleen O’Connell came in second and third. Each of them will serve three-year terms.
Emilio Genzano, who had been appointed to the board in October, was beaten by Allan Simpson, making his second run for the board. Simpson will serve a one-year term. Genzano ran on a slate with O’Connell and Towle-Hilt.
Elijah Sharma, making his second run for the board, finished last.
All six of the candidates supported the budget. The four incumbents were endorsed by the teachers’ union.
The board has nine unpaid members. One of them, Julie Cuneo, last year’s top vote-getter, is resigning; she’s moving out of the district on July 1. Because her announcement came after the deadline for the May 18 election, the superintendent has recommended the board appoint a replacement. Weisz said before the election results were announced that the board has not discussed what it will do. After the results were in, The Enterprise asked his reaction to having a board member ousted; Weisz responded, “Emilio is the fifth…Now we have to pick a new person.”
After the results were announced at about 10:30 Tuesday night, Superintendent John McGuire told The Enterprise, “I am just so pleased that once again the community in this most challenging year has supported the education of children.”
McGuire had originally proposed an $87.5 million budget that would have cut 81 jobs and $4 million in expenses with a tax hike of 3.61 percent for Guilderland residents. The board decided to delay debt payment to add over a million dollars to the revenue side, and so the final plan cut 40 jobs and restored a number of programs. The final plan also includes $220,000 in concessions from the district’s bargaining units.
Next year’s budget of $87,447,715 represents a 2.49-percent increase over this year’s spending plan.
The budget passed in all five elementary-school polling places as did the bus proposition. The margin was a bit narrower than in recent years and the turnout was higher. Last year, the budget passed by 58 percent and 3,417 people voted.
This year, about 500 more people voted; the unofficial tally announced on Tuesday night was 2,176 to 1,777. The town of Guilderland, which makes up the lion’s share of the school district, has about 34,000 residents.
The tally for the bus proposition was 2,115 to 1,767. The district will spend not more than $998,400 reducing its fleet by two vehicles to 114 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. Half of the cost is returned to the district in state aid, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.
On Monday, Guilderland residents received an automated call in support of Fraterrigo and Simpson. Both of them told The Enterprise on Tuesday that they knew nothing about the origin of the calls.
While political robo calls were made last November in Guilderland during town elections, Monday’s call was a first for school elections in Guilderland. Most school-board candidates use primarily lawn signs and flyers to promote themselves, with an occasional newspaper ad.
Political robo calls do not require any type of identification, and are not regulated by federal legislation, according to Mitch Katz, a spokesman with the Federal Trade Commission. The Federal Election Commission does not regulate robo calls either. The FEC regulates political ads on websites and television, and in newspapers and direct mail, according to spokeswoman Julia Queen; if a person other than a candidate funds such advertising, it must be recorded, she said.
“The Guilderland School Board is cutting teachers, ninth-grade sports, and cheerleading while raising your taxes,” said a female voice in the anonymous call to Guilderland homes on Monday. “Raising taxes and cutting services? That’s wrong. And candidates Barbara Fraterrigo and Allan Simpson will do something about it. Forty-six district employees make over $90,000 a year. As families struggle to pay their taxes, the bureaucrats remain. Tomorrow, vote for Barbara Fraterrigo and Allan Simpson for school board. The stakes are simply too high to stay home. Thank you.”
“I was surprised to receive the call myself,” said Simpson on Tuesday. Like Fraterrigo, he said he was running as an independent.
Asked if he were upset or angry that someone paid for calls, using his name without telling him, Simpson said, “No, why would I? They’re asking people to vote on my behalf.”
Asked if he had any inkling who might have paid for the calls, he said, “I haven’t a clue….I can speculate they feel Barbara and I have a lot in common and we’d look out for the best interest of the taxpayers.”
“I have absolutely no knowledge of any automated calls,” Fraterrigo said when The Enterprise called her on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m a one-person campaign.” She said the last time she had spoken with Simpson was on the day the candidates’ petitions were due.
Fraterrigo also said that she hadn’t been actively campaigning in the last two weeks because she was dealing with a family medical crisis.
On being read the automated message, Fraterrigo said, “That’s incredible. This was the toughest budget any of us ever faced. It broke my heart to cut the things we cut. You can’t vote down a budget for one item.”
She went on, “We had to raise some taxes or it would have been gutted even further. Next year will be worse than this year,” Fraterrigo said, alluding to the end of federal stimulus money.
Hundreds of sports boosters came to the school board meeting on April 27 after the board had adopted its $87.4 million proposal, which included cutting most freshmen sports and fall cheerleading. Fraterrigo had argued that money should be taken from elsewhere to restore the cut sports, but then she ultimately voted with the majority to leave the budget proposal as it stood and, instead, ask the community to contribute to restore the cut sports programs.
“If the budget is voted down, there are no guarantees that sports will be put back in,” Fraterrigo said on Tuesday afternoon. “I would never, ever advocate voting down the budget; that was carefully crafted by all of us….I publicly advocated for the budget and continue to do so.”
Fraterrigo said she wished she had been consulted before such a call was made. She added, “What amazes me about the message is they didn’t mention Elijah Sharma who supported athletics.”
Sharma said on Tuesday night that he wished he had been included in the robo call. He noted that Save Guilderland Sports, a group that formed in the wake of the failed protests, supported him as well as Simpson and Fraterrigo.
“While fundraising is one option to support our sports programs, the second option is to show up on May 18th and vote against the proposed budget,” says the website for Save Guilderland Sports. It concludes in capital letters, “Vote for sports! Vote no on the budget! Vote for Fraterrigo, Simpson, and Sharma!”
At the April 13 school board meeting, Cuneo had advocated not cutting freshmen and repeat sports; she was joined by O’Connell and Genzano not enough for a majority. At the next meeting, on April 27, when the sports boosters filled the hall to protest the cuts, Genzano asked where the money would come from in the already-adopted budget proposal; he said the process should be respected and he would look for alternatives.
“I thought it was very chilling,” O’Connell said on Tuesday night of the robo call. “The message was so one-sided…The fact that there was no attribution, no way to refute it, I found it very frustrating.”
Asked if she thought the robo call had an effect on the vote, O’Connell said, “I don’t know. But Barbara was the top vote-getter.” And, she noted, Simpson ousted Genzano.
“I find it distasteful,” O’Connell concluded of the robo call.
“I’m always pleased when the community can generate candidates,” said McGuire, when asked his response to the election results. He noted that there are many districts across the state where the elections are uncontested.
Weisz had a different reaction. “I was a little surprised only six ran,” he said. “Because the challenges are so great, I thought more would want to be involved…We had six quality candidates. I’m sure we could have had 60.”
These results are based on the tallies from the five elementary-school polling places announced on Tuesday night.
Barbara Fraterrigo came in first with 2,474 votes, or 19.5 percent. She came in first in Altamont, Guilderland, Lynnwood, and Pine Bush, and finished fourth at Westmere.
Fraterrigo has been on the school board since 1997; she works part-time, helping to manage her husband’s medical practice. Her children, Guilderland graduates, are all grown.
Fraterrigo has voted with the minority on several important issues over her last term. This year, she was one of three school board members who voted to cut full-day kindergarten next year rather than postpone debt payment.
Earlier, she was one of three members to vote against McGuire’s appointment as superintendent; she favored a younger candidate. She also was one of three board members, in the midst of student protests over the transfer of two popular high school teachers to the middle school, to vote to examine and evaluate the superintendent’s decision to order the transfer.
Asked on election night for her reaction to her victory, Fraterrigo said, “I love what I do. Over the years, people get to know you and that you’re there for the kids as well as the taxpayers.”
When she ran three years ago in a field of five, Fraterrigo came in third, behind Towle-Hilt and O’Connell. Asked why she thought she had done better this time, Fraterrigo said, “We were all in the same boat with the budget. The only difference was I wanted to allocate $53,000 to bring the sports back. That still isn’t a dead issue”
Gloria Towle-Hilt came in second with 2,356 votes, or 18.6 percent. She ran second at Altamont, Lynnwood, Pine Bush, and Westmere, and came in third at Guilderland.
A retired Farnsworth Middle School teacher, Towle-Hilt is completing her first three-year term.
“I wouldn’t be running for a seat if it was not for the Guilderland community’s desire to provide a solid education for its kids,” Towle-Hilt said during the campaign when asked which constituency would be her priority. “Without the kids, there is no need for a board of education,” she said, and, similarly, there is no need for teachers, staff, or administrators.
Colleen O’Connell garnered 2,333 votes or 18.4 percent. She came in first at Westmere and third at Altamont, Guilderland, Lynnwood, and Pine Bush.
She won a third three-year term on Tuesday.
A mother and lawyer, O’Connell describes herself currently as a community volunteer.
O’Connell currently heads a board committee that is spearheading the search for a new superintendent; McGuire is retiring on July 1.
“The most important quality in a new superintendent is someone who truly believes in shared decision-making, someone who knows how to work with people in groups, someone who can build consensus and has educational vision,” she said during her campaign. “We do not need a top-down manager. That, to me, is non-negotiable.”
On Tuesday night, O’Connell said, “I’m very grateful to have been re-elected. I look forward to serving with my colleagues.”
She said that she was disappointed her running mate, Genzano, hadn’t been elected. “I think Emilio has done an outstanding job in his brief tenure,” said O’Connell.
She speculated that his defeat was tied to his strong identity with the sports community as he has long been involved with Pop Warner football and started a program for players with handicaps.
After it was clear on Tuesday night that Simpson had won over Genzano, O’Connell briefed him on the work of the superintendent search committee and invited him to attend the upcoming sessions before he takes office in July.
Allan Simpson finished fourth, receiving 2,088 votes or 16.5 percent. He finished fourth at Altamont, Guilderland, Lynnwood, and Pine Bush, and fifth at Westmere.
He will fill out the one year left in John Dornbush’s term. Dornbush died of cancer last July.
An accountant, Simpson said during his campaign that he would bring a needed perspective to the Guilderland School Board.
“The board is made up of predominantly lawyers and others not involved predominantly in the business world,” he said. “I have 30-plus years of business experience… To me, the most important thing is we’re going through unprecedented difficult economic times,” he said. “I would bring my knowledge of accounting and business and my analytic skills to the board.”
Last year, Simpson made his first run for the board, coming in a close fourth in a five-way race for three seats. In that first run, he campaigned against the budget, advocating a 0-percent tax hike. The budget ultimately passed and the board approved a tax rate with no increase.
On Tuesday night, Simpson said, “I’m just happy to be elected.”
Asked what he attributed his win to, Simpson said, “I have no idea. I campaigned like I did last year. I walked the soccer fields and attached literature to people’s mailboxes.”
He concluded, “It might be people are looking for a change.’
Asked what his goals are as a school board member, Simpson said, “I just want to lay back and see what the process is. I want to be a learner.”
Emilio Genzano came in fifth with 1,952 votes or 15.4 percent. He finished third at Westmere and fifth at Altamont, Guilderland, Lynnwood, and Pine Bush.
Genzano, who had lost school board elections in 2001 and 2002, was one of eight men who vied for appointment to the seat left vacant by Dornbush. In October, the board appointed him to serve until the May 18 elections.
The assistant vice president for engineering and construction at Albany Medical Center, Genzano said his background in construction is unique among the board members.
He said Tuesday night that he was grateful to have served on the board. “I learned a great deal,” said Genzano.
Asked if he knew why he was defeated, Genzano replied, “If I did, I would have won.” He doesn’t know if he’ll run again, he said.
At the April 13 school board meeting, Genzano had been one of three board members who advocated reinstating freshman sports. Then, at the April 27 meeting, when the hall was filled with sports boosters, protesting the cuts to freshman sports and fall cheerleading, he spoke in favor of sticking to the budget that the majority had supported. As Fraterrigo said she regretted the cuts and argued for re-allocating funds to reinstate sports, Genzano asked, “Where are you going to get the funds?”
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.”
He is now serving on a committee with sports boosters to raise funds in the community.
Asked Tuesday night if he thought his stance on sports is what caused his defeat at the polls, Genzano said he had no regrets. “You speak your mind,” he said. “You do what you think is right.”
Elijah Sharma finished last with 1,476 votes or 11.6 percent. He came in sixth at all five polling places.
This is Sharma’s second run for school board and he said Tuesday night, “It’s disappointing for me. But it’s exciting that the budget passed and that Allan Simpson made it.” Both Sharma and Simpson had served on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee for the last two years.
Sharma went on, “I’m really excited that Mrs. Fraterrigo is the top vote-getter. I think that’s awesome.”
Sharma campaigned this year against bullying and for environmental stewardship as he had a year ago during his first run for school board. Last year, as a senior at Guilderland High School, he described himself as the first openly gay candidate to run for the school board. He had served as a trainer for the National Coalition Building Institute and supported the schools’ anti-bullying programs.
Sharma was one of the student leaders in the summer of 2009 when protesters objected to two popular high-school teachers being transferred to the middle school; one has since left the district and the other has returned to teaching at the high school.
Sharma is now a student at Hudson Valley Community College and plans, after completing his two years at Hudson Valley, to transfer to the University at Albany where he will major in political science.
He said on Tuesday he was pleased that at least the number of votes he received this year was about the same as last year and he hadn’t lost ground. He wants to run for school board again next year, Sharma said.
Next year, he will be the student member of the HVCC board of trustees, he said, and he believes it will provide good training for being a school board member.