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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 13, 2011


“Gut-wrenching decisions”
Guilderland forum draws over 130 but few come up with substantial budget sacrifices

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Over 130 people — many of them parents and teachers — answered the school district’s invitation to say what they valued. Monday night’s meeting was cordial, with applause as each group’s priorities were reported, but there was no consensus on what should be sacrificed to bridge a looming $4.2 million budget gap.

A second community session will take place on Feb. 7 before Superintendent Marie Wiles presents a 2011-12 budget on March 1. The public will have a chance to comment during several meetings before the board adopts a final plan on April 12. The public votes on the budget in May.

Wiles told the crowd on Monday that Guilderland, like other schools, was “grappling with what might be the most challenging fiscal crisis in anyone’s memory.”

For this year’s $87.4 million budget, 56 jobs were cut — 10 teachers, 24 teaching assistants, 19 support staff, and three administrators, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders; this kept the hike in Guilderland school taxes at 3.6 percent. The plan last year, under then-Superintendent John McGuire, was to make small across-the-board cuts rather than eliminating any one program.

Seventy-six percent of the budget goes for salaries and benefits. Property taxes cover 68 percent of the costs, while state aid — which was reduced last year and as expected again this year — covers about 26 percent.

Sanders figured that a rollover budget — keeping staff and programs as they are now — with a tax increase of 4 percent would leave a gap of $4.2 million. The average assessment for a Guilderland home is $220,000 and, with a 4-percent hike, that average homeowner would pay $4,584 in taxes next year, Sanders said.

To balance the budget, he said, “will require gut-wrenching decisions.”

Since programs and staffing are “where the money is,” Sanders said, making cuts to things like equipment or field trips won’t close the gap.

The 130 or so participants were divided into small groups, each with a leader from the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services. They were given two sheets One listed the district priorities — that students should be healthy, safe, and engaged; globally aware and connected; and intellectually challenged and academically accomplished.

The other sheet was centered with a picture of a dollar bill and asked this question: “If you only had one dollar to spend, where would you spend it?” Items were listed in four quadrants:

—         Core academic programs (like small class sizes and full-day kindergarten);

—         Enhanced educational opportunities (like athletics and fine arts);

—         Health, social/emotional, and academic support services (like social work and school nurses); and

—         Educational support services (like pupil transportation and custodial work).

There was no option for reducing salaries.

No dollar amounts were tied to the various categories.

“Real choices”

“This is not work for the faint of heart and we truly need your help,” said Wiles. If, for example, someone valued small class size above all, something else significant would have to be sacrificed. “Real choices need to be made,” said Wiles.

For an hour, the various groups discussed the possibilities. At one table, for example, Peter Sparano — who spoke for the importance of foreign language study and accelerated math and science — asserted there was absolutely no evidence that full-day kindergarten improved student performance. In response, Elizabeth Whiteman, a fifth-grade teacher at Pine Bush Elementary School, questioned that assertion and offered anecdotal evidence from colleagues about how better prepared students were for first grade since Guilderland began a full-day program.

Implementing the full-day program two years ago was controversial — the school board had agreed on its academic worth but was wary of the added cost. School board President Richard Weisz had said the budget vote that year would be a referendum on full-day kindergarten; it passed.

The full-day program costs the district about $700,000 more than the half-day program.

Many participants expressed frustration that they didn’t have enough information to make intelligent choices. “The problem is we don’t know what these things are,” said Lisa McLachlan. “We don’t have enough information on who they affect or what they cost so how can we choose?’

At last week’s school board meeting when the board decided to do away with its long-time Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee — where administrators went over the budget in depth for volunteers during four or five televised sessions — Vice President Catherine Barber expressed doubt that the community conversations would provide enough detail for focused questions.

Wiles said this week that the district’s website — www.guilderlandschools.org — will post answers to frequently asked questions.

During Monday’s meeting, as a score of administrators watched the proceedings, a few of them circulated among the tables and provided answers and background to burgeoning questions. For example, Amy Tubbs was walking by a table where participants wondered out loud about the meaning of “middle school team structure,” listed under “core academic programs.” Tubbs, a house principal at Farnsworth Middle School, described how the team structure was child-centered with faculty for the core subjects able to work together with the same group of students as opposed to the old-fashioned junior-high model.

Varied views

In the end, as each of the 11 BOCES facilitators reported on their group’s priorities and choices, it became apparent that very few had come up with significant trade-offs or sacrifices.

The most frequently mentioned cut was Tech Valley High School. The cost for this year is $12,000 in tuition for each student, which is partly reimbursed with BOCES aid. (The average cost per pupil in Guilderland schools is $16,178.) The innovative regional high school, based on problem-based, hands-on learning, draws on students from area schools and is meant to serve as a model so that those schools, like Guilderland, can replicate the programs.

Last year, Guilderland allowed for the three students it now has at Tech Valley to continue but did not allow for future enrollment.

Another saving that was mentioned several times was to make the transportation system more efficient. The district had hired a consultant several years ago and followed recommendations, even restructuring the school day for efficiency.

Another popular suggestion for cutting was in professional development or teacher training, a segment of the budget that has been cut back in recent years and is subject to state mandates. Several groups recommended letting Guilderland teachers lead the training as a cost-savings measure.

Still another popular suggestion was to cut down on use of paper by using online communication instead. Cutting field trips was another frequent suggestion that doesn’t carry much of a savings.

Consolidation and shared services with other districts were both mentioned several times as was enticing volunteers to work in the schools.

Views varied on athletics, with some saying town teams could fill the gap; on summer school, with several stating it should be only for those who need it to graduate; on teaching Spanish at the elementary level; on high-school Advanced Placement and engineering courses, with some saying they are nice but not necessary and others saying they are essential; on full-day kindergarten; and on the need for extracurricular activities.

In the end, the only solid consensus on what is most valued was small class sizes, particularly at the elementary level. Class sizes this year increased as a cost-saving measure. For kindergarten, first, and second grade, the guidelines moved from 22 up to 24 students in a class. And for third, fourth, and fifth grades, the number of students moved from 24 to 26.

“We want to maintain a balance and not pit one group against another,” said facilitator Matt Leon about his group’s views.

Facilitator John Netzel said his group had this advice: “Look at paying a little more for what we get here because it’s worth it.”

No magic bullet

“Don’t despair,” board President Weisz told the crowd at the close of the two-and-a-half hour session.

He noted that the turnout Monday was about equal to 5 –percent of the typical turnout for a May budget vote.

Weisz invited the crowd to return on Feb. 7 and said that then, after the release of the governor’s budget proposal, a “pencil and calculator approach” will be used.

“We understand that many in the district are struggling to make taxes,” said Weisz, adding that Monday’s session didn’t “appear to be any magic bullet.”

“I’m just heartened there are so many people here,” Colleen O’Connell, the school board member who presented the community-conversation plan to the board, told The Enterprise. She has been on the school board for six years and said she saw “a lot of new faces” on Monday night.

Asked if she was hearing any new ideas, matters that she and other board members hadn’t already discussed, O’Connell said, “I can’t say I’ve learned anything new, but it is reinforcing things I knew.”

She noted that topics the school board had long debated — like full-day kindergarten or teaching Spanish at the elementary level — were “in play.”

O’Connell went on, “This is an additional way to get information out. You’d never have 130 people sign up for CBAC,” she said of the two dozen or so volunteers that have signed up in recent years to serve on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee for an in-depth review.

O’Connell concluded, “I just hope this many people come out on February 7.”

For board member Emilio Genzano, the session was “like a flashback to when we started FOGA.” Hundreds of sports boosters turned out at a school board meeting last spring to protest budget cuts to freshmen and repeat sports. Genzano then headed the Friends of Guilderland Athletics, which raised over $60,000 from the community to restore all the cut sports.

“People are talking about sponsorships and increased revenues,” Genzano told The Enterprise. “It’s the same concept of people coming together and working out ideas. It’s FOGA times 10.”


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