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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 11, 2010

Plans community forum
GCSD gears up for budget challenges

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — “Good organizations, when faced with challenges, pull together, take stock of their mission,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told the school board at its meeting on Nov. 3.

Wiles has been Guilderland’s superintendent since Oct. 1 and is facing a number of challenges — a current $87.4 million budget that cut about 40 jobs from the year before, the end of federal stimulus funds this school year, the threat of reduced state aid again next year, increased health-care and pension costs, and upcoming contract negotiations with teachers.

Great organizations, Wiles said, resist the urge, which is human nature, to hunker down and protect their own. Wiles stressed the need to work together.

In meeting recently with school principals and with the directors of athletics, transportation, and facilities, Wiles said, “We didn’t even talk about money. We talked about priorities we can agree on that make Guilderland, Guilderland.”

These included maintaining the rich program of study available to diverse students; staying on the cutting edge with innovations; and, she said, “Perhaps most important, commitment to the whole child; every child is important to us.”

Wiles recommended Guilderland think of itself as a school district and not a district of schools.

In the weeks ahead, Wiles said, she will be looking with each administrator at how the current budget is working — for example, are teachers struggling with larger classes or with clusters of special-needs students in regular classrooms. She said they will “brainstorm about ways to think differently on getting the results we want.”

Finally, the administrative team will present a budget to a committee of citizen volunteers for review in March. The school board will adopt a final plan that will go to the voters in May.

“I’m energized and excited about what the possibilities are here,” said Wiles.

Fact-based forum

Also at last Wednesday’s meeting, the board made plans for a January public forum on the 2010-11 school budget.

For the last two years, the board in January has posed a series of philosophical questions for community members as well as faculty, parents, and staff to discuss in small groups before reporting their ideas — all without any dollar figures attached — to the group at large.

This year, the board is planning what member Gloria Towle-Hilt called “a series of presentations on big topics that constantly come up…so it’s educational, so everybody’s operating from the facts.” She said this may “dispel some falsehoods.”

Some of the “hot-button topics” school board members mentioned that could be  discussed at the forum include special education, transportation, health insurance, contract negotiations, the role of administrators, and athletics.

“Do the homework ahead of time or CBAC is meaningless,” said board member Barbara Fraterrigo of the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee.

Board President Richard Weisz said attendance could suffer on a cold winter’s night if people who came to the forum were just expected to listen rather than share their views. He suggested participants select two topics, listen to a presentation on each, and then be part of a small-group discussion.

Towle-Hilt suggested, instead, that everyone listen to the presentations then the audience members can ask questions “so we all hear them.”

Fraterrigo recommended taping the sessions so people who don’t attend could view them.

And Vice President Catherine Barber advised putting information online before the January meeting so people would be informed.

The Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which facilitated the January forums at Guilderland for the last two years, will work out the details, said Wiles.

The meeting will be held on Monday, Jan. 10, from 7 to 9:30 p.m.; if the weather is inclement, the forum will be held instead on the next night, Tuesday, Jan. 11.

Other business

In other business, the board:

— Heard from Timothy Burke, who has served on the budget review committee in past years, that a consultant’s report on Guilderland’s special-education programs shows that much is done to pacify parents rather than being based on reaching outcomes, which he called “morally bankrupt.”

Referring to upcoming contract negotiations, Burke also said, “The status quo at this point is a good thing”;

— Agreed to meet with Wiles for a three- or four-hour “retreat,” with hopes of getting Charles Dedrick, the BOCES superintendent who worked on the search for Wiles, to act as a facilitator at the meeting;

— Agreed to pay $750 for more access to policy resources at the New York State School Boards Association;

— Heard from Barber that a theme that emerged during the recent NYSSBA conference was “Out of adversity grows opportunity.” She said the question was asked, since the cost per pupil in New York State is so high compared to the nationwide average, if New York is getting its money’s worth.

“So, if you put coal under pressure, you get a diamond?” asked Weisz;

— Heard from Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton that Farnsworth Middle School has received a Learn and Serve Grant of over $13,000 for its Pine Bush and organic garden curriculum. The grant will support Alan Fiero’s Butterfly Station program, which had over 3,000 visitors last summer; will extend the breeding program for the endangered Karner blue butterfly; and will improve organic food production at the school’s garden, overseen by teachers Tim Fry and Jennifer Ford, which donated 3,000 pounds of food to the Interfaith Council Food Pantry this year;

— Learned that Graffiti, Guilderland High School’s literary magazine, won three awards at the 2010 Empire State Student Press Association’s annual conference at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School: Gold for Most Improved Publication, Silver for use of Type/Image, and Bronze for Photography;

— Accepted a viola from Mark Chevalier; and

— Met in executive session for a negotiations update and to discuss a personnel issue.

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