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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 7, 2010

Nearing the cliff’s edge
GCSD trio says: Reinstate all sports

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Three sports supporters, during the opening round of budget sessions for 2011-12, told the school board not to cut athletics next year.

“The teams that were eliminated need to be reinstated,” Lisa McLachlan, wearing a Guilderland athletics T-shirt, told the board on Tuesday night.

Board members will give their own views on budget priorities at their next meeting, on Oct. 19, before the administration drafts a spending plan that is reviewed in a series of televised sessions by a citizens’ committee. The board will then adopt a final proposal at the end of March, and the public has its say at the polls on May 17.

Last year, with reduced state aid, rising costs for health care and pensions, and a stagnant tax base, the district made a $73,000 cut to sports that eliminated all freshman and repeat sports. Next year, Guilderland, like districts elsewhere, face even stiffer challenges as two years of federal stimulus aid runs out, commonly referred to as a “funding cliff.”

Last year, after months of citizens pleading and criticizing, the $87.4 million budget for 2010-11 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, on election night, commenting on the district’s plan to make across-the-board cuts to keep the tax-rate hike under 4 percent. Rather than gutting any one discipline, the district cut a bit from each. The board had cut about 40 jobs in adopting a spending plan on April 13.

At the next board meeting, on April 27, the hall was packed with sports boosters protesting the cuts to athletics. 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 this school year.

Call for keeping all sports

“There was a lot of confusion last year,” Linda Cure told the board on Tuesday. Referring to the televised April 27 meeting, she said, “It was literally a red sea.” Over 250 people showed up, many of them wearing the school colors, red and white.

Cure said she was stunned that such a big district couldn’t find the money to reinstate sports.

Cure got involved with the Friends of Guilderland Athletics, headed by Emilio Genzano, which raised half the funds needed to re-instate the cut sports. The other half has been or is being raised by individual booster clubs.

Genzano was ousted from his school board seat in the May elections, having said at the “red sea” meeting that it was important to stand by the process that the board has in place. He promised then to work, outside of the board, to raise funds from the community and has since been re-appointed to the school board.

Cure thanked Genzano for “getting us all to work together.” But she said the group was small and many of its members were already involved with booster clubs.

“I know I don’t want to do this again,” said Cure, who has three children, one still in the high school.

Cure called for “a more open budget process” and for openness with upcoming contract negotiations.

McLachlan quoted from the district’s website: “The playing field is an extension of the classroom.”

The cuts to sports saved taxpayers just about $5 per household for the year, she said, adding, “Athletics should not be pay to play.”

She recommended reducing the number of health-care plans that the district offers its employees, which, she said, would save $500,000 in costs.

Athletics would only need 10 percent of that savings, McLachlan said, concluding, to applause from about two dozen supporters, “Let’s stand behind our principles and pay for what’s important for our children.”

Ed Glenning told the board that the “outpouring from the community” to make up for the cut sports funds couldn’t be sustained year in and year out.

“It seems like we always honor the squeaky wheel,” he said. “We’re not managing by fact.”

He made reference to the small number of students who study German and the large number who play sports. The board last year had considered a plan that would phase out the study of German. Over the course of many meetings, students, parents, teachers, and community members spoke of the importance of teaching German, and the final budget kept the program.

“You need to manage by fact,” reiterated Denning, urging that emotion be removed from the process.

Describing himself as a proponent of the sports program, he concluded to applause, “Keep kids off the street and out of trouble.”

Other money matters

The fourth person to address the board at the budget session was Suzanne Czekay, who had read in her transportation newsletter that Guilderland buses service 65 schools. She pointed out that Guilderland has just seven schools of its own and asked why tax money should be spent on busing outside the district.

Weisz referred to the state’s requirement that home districts are responsible for busing the children who live there. (See related story on transportation.)

Later in the meeting, Weisz reminded the community — regardless of how individuals choose to vote — that capping property tax rates is an issue in upcoming state elections.

The board also heard from its new superintendent, Marie Wiles, that Guilderland will be receiving just $30,762 in federal Race to the Top funds. This will be spread over four years, which comes out to about $1,000 a school, she said.

“I’m trying to find a polite word,” she said, finally describing the grant as “modest.”

With that money, the district is expected to, among other things, better prepare graduates for college and work, and implement a new plan for evaluating teachers and principals.

The funds were distributed according to Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, said Wiles. Title 1 is based on poverty counts, which typically favor big-city school districts. Weisz described Guilderland as a “low needs, high resource district.”

Weisz also warned the community against headlines that promise millions to schools. New York State had learned in August that it would get $700 million in Race to the Top funds, with half of that going to the State Education Department.

The Race to the Top funds are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and were designed to inspire states to compete by making progress with four goals outlined in the act: Spending funds quickly to save and create jobs; improving student achievement through school improvement and reform; ensuring transparency, reporting and accountability; and investing thoughtfully to minimize the “funding cliff.”

As New York competed for the funds, the state changed the way teachers and principals will be evaluated next year. Across the state, they will be rated as highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective. The ratings will be determined in part by student growth — that is, by the change in student achievement between at least two points in time.

So, teachers, in preparing students for exams, will be sealing their own fates.

Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for instruction, Demian Singleton, months ago estimated the Race to the Top funds for Guilderland would be modest at around $50,000; he told The Enterprise then, “The tricky part is the state has created a system whereby student achievement will be factored in.”

The state’s current testing system is not based on grade levels so that, for example, a fourth-grade math test evaluates learning students have done since kindergarten.

“The fairness issue is something teachers are very cognizant of,” said Singleton, adding it’s likely more tests will be developed “to measure growth over time as influenced by individual teachers.” There are no tests to evaluate student progress in subjects like music and art, although teachers of those subjects will have to be evaluated, too.

Asked if he believed it is a good idea to evaluate teachers based on student performance, Singleton said, “Plenty of research indicates it’s not. You have so many variables that influence learning besides just the teacher,” he said, naming home life and socio-economic status.

At Tuesday’s meeting, board member Colleen O’Connell asked if it was worth accepting the grant money if it cost more for staff to implement than the amount received.

“We may not have a choice,” replied Weisz of having to implement the new procedures. “It’s too early to say.”

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