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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 6, 2011

“Everything is on the cutting block”
With $4.2 million budget gap, GCSD asks the community what it values

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — On Tuesday, the school board, in a split vote, decided to revamp the way that citizens shape the school budget.

Rather than having volunteers commit to reviewing the entire spending plan in a series of televised sessions, the board is inviting anyone who has an interest to participate in two “community conversations” to state their priorities, and then, after the superintendent has presented a plan, to raise questions and concerns and express preferences.

The first session is on Monday.

“The more people understand everything is on the cutting block and there’s no sacred cow…at least they would feel they were engaged earlier,” said board member Colleen O’Connell who outlined the plan as a member of the board’s communication committee.

From the outset, Guilderland is anticipating a $4.2 million budget gap.

This year’s budget, which eliminated about 40 jobs, totals $87.4 million. Neil Sanders, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, explained to The Enterprise how the $4.2 million figure was arrived at. “It’s based on a rollover budget,” he said, meaning programs and staff for next year would remain the same as this year.

On the expenditure side, he said, “We already know pension and health insurance costs are increasing.” Also, he noted, there will be increased debt payments because of the district’s nearly complete $27 million building project, which upgraded the elementary schools, improved technology throughout the district, and moved the district offices to the high school.

On the revenue side, Sanders said, the federal stimulus funds have run out, and state aid is being figured at the reduced rate given this year.

About three-quarters of the school budget pays for salaries and benefits. Several contracts, including the one with teachers, are currently being negotiated. Sanders said the rollover budget did not include raises, except for increases that would be required by the Taylor Law’s Triborough Amendment; this means, if a contract can’t be agreed upon, the former contract still applies, including the annual raises.

Given those assumptions, even with cutting $4.2 million, Guilderland taxpayers would still see a 4-percent increase in their taxes, Sanders said. In recent years, the school board has kept the tax hike to under 4 percent with the thought that, if it were higher, the budget might face defeat at the polls.

If Governor Andrew Cuomo were to be successful in passing his plan to cap tax increases at 2 percent, Guilderland would have to cut even more. To override the tax cap, Cuomo’s plan calls for 60 percent of the vote. Last year’s Guilderland school budget passed with about 55 percent of the vote.

Replacing CBAC

On Monday, Guilderland residents along with school staff are invited to participate in what the district is calling a “community conversation.” While a similar session was held last January, this year’s will launch the new budget-building process to replace the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee.

“CBAC is a reactive process,’ said O’Connell. “It doesn’t allow the public in to see.”

O’Connell said that the district’s new superintendent, Marie Wiles, had told the communications committee that her impression of CBAC is that it isolates programs rather than looking at the entire spectrum from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The Budget Review Committee, as it was initially called, was launched because of budget defeats in the 1970s. The district had been centralized in 1950 and it wasn’t until the 1970s, when Edward Breitenbach organized a citizens’ group to protest high taxes, that budgets — in 1971, 1973, and 1976 — were voted down. The committee sessions provided a format for complex budget issues to be explained and understood; it also re-established citizen trust in administrators who were willing to answer questions and explain priorities.

In the 1990s, Edward Breitenbach, this time with the help of his son, Joseph, established another citizens’ group that successfully campaigned against the budget and pushed, unsuccessfully, for the school board to cut costs by renegotiating contracts with teachers and administrators.

In the midst of several budget defeats, the board revamped the review committee, giving it an advisory role along with its new name. The thrust was to get citizen input earlier and to take into account the views of citizen advisors before the board adopted a final plan. In recent years, the sessions have been televised and the format has been tweaked as the superintendent has acted as a master of ceremonies, entertaining questions throughout the process.

“Is there a compelling reason to change the process this late in the game?” asked the board’s vice president, Catherine Barber, at Tuesday’s meeting. She cast the sole dissenting vote on the new plan. Barber noted that the district’s calendar was published with the CBAC meeting dates, and she said she appreciated the information that came from the committee sessions, which was useful for the public.

Barber also worried that, without specific presentations on various parts of the budget, the public would not be well informed enough to ask meaningful questions. “Mind-numbing or not,” she said of the CBAC format, “the presentations focused questions on particular areas of the budget.”

O’Connell said that Monday’s session, which will run from 7 to 9 p.m. at the high school, will begin with a short film, giving an overview of the problem, then district priorities will be reviewed, and Sanders will give a PowerPoint presentation on “economic factors we’re facing.”

Participants will then break into small groups, as they did last year, to answer a series of questions. Facilitators from the Board of Cooperative Educational Services will run the groups and present their responses at the end. The session will be televised.

Fifty people have signed up so far, O’Connell said, and as many as 100 can be accommodated. Another community conversation will be held on Feb. 7.

On March 1, Wiles will present the superintendent’s budget. This presentation, in previous years, was made to the budget advisory committee, to volunteers who were committed to reading the entire document and attending the sessions exploring it. This year, the presentation will be “open to all,’ said O’Connell.

Board meetings in March will allow time for comments on the budget before the board adopts a final plan on April 12. The public votes on the budget in May.

“I think it provides better information to people because it links it to priorities,” said board member Gloria Towle-Hilt of the new procedure; Towle-Hilt is a member of the communication committee that developed the plan. “This engages the community earlier,” she said. Referring to the scheduled CBAC sessions, she said, “It’s an opportunity to mold things rather than those four days — boom, boom, boom, boom.”

Also, in response to Barber’s concern that, without the in-depth CBAC presentations, citizens wouldn’t have informed questions, Towle-Hilt said that people could consult the district’s website for budget information “to fine-tune their questions.”

Board members Judy Slack, Denise Eisele, and O’Connell, all of whom serve on the communications committee, said that the committee had talked about the change for several years and, said Eisele, the time was right with a new superintendent.

“We were stuck,” said O’Connell of the former superintendent leaving and then an interim superintendent filling in.

Last year, some on the communications committee had pushed to limit the CBAC participants to various categories so as to have a broad spectrum of interests represented while other board members strenuously objected and said anyone who wanted to should be able to volunteer.

Eisele said at Tuesday’s meeting that many people on CBAC had narrow, specific agendas while, at the same time, school board members heard from many others in the community with different views. “It was two separate processes,” she said, stating that those serving on CBAC didn’t necessarily represent the community at large.

O’Connell said that letters are being sent to a wide range of community groups about the Jan. 10 and Feb. 7 community conversations. Anyone who wants to attend may fill out a form on the district website — www.guilderlandschools.org — or call the district office at 456-6200, ext. 3102.

The board’s president, Richard Weisz, said it was always a frustration, on the first day of CBAC, to be given a wall, meaning a budget that was already drafted, leaving opportunity only to chop little holes in it. What he liked about CBAC, though, Weisz said, was that, similar to the House of Commons, “Anyone can ask a question.”

“If the dialogue is heated, that is healthy,” said Weisz.

“We don’t just want public comment. We want public dialogue,” agreed board member Barbara Fraterrigo.

Wiles said that the community conversations would help establish what is valued and will “raise awareness early in the process of all those areas that could be changed.”

When she makes her March 1 budget presentation, Wiles said, she will highlight “areas where we’ll make changes.”

In essence, she’ll be saying to the community, “Based on what we heard in January and February, here’s where we are, tell us what you think,” said Wiles. “Then we have two weeks for a second bite of the apple…recognizing we’re not going to be able to do everything we hear.”

Wiles concluded that the new procedure is “the epitome of shared decision-making.”

“We want to make decisions that reflect what is important to the community,” said the superintendent. “The only way…is to let them tell us.”

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