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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 21, 2010

GCSD board states priorities for next year’s budget

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — “I know there are a lot of people…who are afraid of this year’s budget,” the school board president, Richard Weisz, said at the close of Tuesday’s board meeting, during which board members stated their priorities for the 2011-12 budget.

He said of the current $87.4 million plan, which passed with 55 percent of the vote, “We certainly didn’t please everyone.” But, he went on, the board learned along the way.

As the district faces many of the same hurdles as last year — decreased state aid, increased health care and pension costs — as well as the end to federal stimulus funds, Weisz said the road ahead should be viewed as a “challenge” rather than a “disaster.”

“We’ve come together to meet challenges before,” he said. “I want people to have confidence.” Guilderland, he said, uses a process that he thinks will work if people get involved.

“You solve problems working together,” he concluded.

Board member Gloria Towle-Hilt, who was absent, provided a written proposal, backed by several of the seven board members present. She pointed out that, since so much of budget revenues are unknown, a list of priorities should be developed by first identifying all “required” programs and then prioritizing non-mandated services. She also recommended charting all cuts made over the last five years, and said cuts should be made as a percentage across all areas.

“The programs and services we have supported are all valuable,” Towle-Hilt wrote. “I do not want to be in the position of again having to say that ‘this program is more valuable than that program.’”

Weisz listed four priorities — restoring cuts to the Foreign Language Early Start Program, which began Spanish instruction in the elementary schools; keeping the two-year-old full-day kindergarten program; creating a distance learning program by teaming up with BOCES or other school districts; and helping people to understand the budget process.

Guilderland holds a series of televised budget workshops in March during which citizen volunteers review the budget presented by the administration and state their opinions before the board adopts a final plan. Voters have their say in May.

“A lot of people have a false impression of what we’re doing and how we’re spending their money,” said Weisz.

He suggested that the budget forum, which the district has held in January for the last two years, be structured like a Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee session, addressing specific issues, rather than as a philosophical discussion.

“We have a smaller pot of money,” said the board’s vice president, Catherine Barber. “We have to do more with less.” She said that the board needs to know in detail what effect cuts will have.

While Barber said she agreed with Weisz that FLES and distance learning were good things, she was not as excited about continuing full-day kindergarten.

Board member Denise Eisele said she is very much in favor of teaching foreign languages and she called the University at Albany’s plans to cut its French, Russian, Italian, and classical language programs “tragic.”

Eisele also said that communication about the budget should be “simple.” She called the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee “a confusing format” and recommended changing the way the message is delivered so that it is understandable and not caught up in “teacher-ese.”

Board member Judy Slack said she liked Towle-Hilt’s ideas and said, “We sort of have to look at the whole picture and be fair to everyone.”

Slack concluded, “We want to do what’s best for the kids…with what we can afford.”

Board member Colleen O’Connell repeated what she said was “the smartest comment made at CBAC last year” — You can’t cut 5 percent from every program because it’s not a level playing field.

She also said that, in her six years on the school board, there had been no cuts in athletics. “There have to be no sacred cows,” said O’Connell.

Sports supporters have raised funds to make up for the $70,000 cut from this year’s budget, which eliminated freshmen and repeat sports. O’Connell recommended that, if sports cuts are made in the future, the community pay for assistant coaches while the district pays the salaries for head coaches, who decide on team members, so that it wouldn’t look like a donation buys a place on a team.

O’Connell agreed with Weisz on distance learning but called FLES “a bit of a luxury” and said it would be unrealistic to bring it back.

She supports full-day kindergarten and overall, O’Connell said, “My goal is not very lofty — to maintain current programs as best we can.”

Board member Allan Simpson said, “It’s important to involve the community up front very early.”

Although a night is set aside each fall to hear public input on the budget, Simpson said it should be a standing invitation. He noted the large turnout “when we woke up the athletic community.”

“The most important thing is we need to maintain the quality of education…We have fewer dollars to spend,” said Simpson. “We just can’t offer everything like we have in the past. Times have changed.”

“I’m a firm believer in process…Athletics has taught me that,” said board member Emilio Genzano.

Genzano heads the Friends of Guilderland Athletics, which was formed in the wake of the budget cuts to pay for half of the funds cut from athletics.

Freshman athletics should be reinstated, said Genzano.

He said that working with eight booster groups was a revelation. While at first each group was interested in maintaining its own sports, lacrosse did care about football and football did care about baseball.

“When it came down to the individual kid, they did care,’ said Genzano.

He recommended such “cross-training” for the community at large, so that, for example, supporters of the music program and supporters of athletics could see the worth in each.

Genzano concluded that it is important to get “the community in a cross-training mode to understand what we do and what had to be done.”

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