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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 17, 2011
At GCSD, Wiles freezes salary
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND More than three hours into a school board meeting filled with talk of tough budget choices, Superintendent Marie Wiles announced she would not take an agreed-upon raise next year.
Wiles started work at Guilderland on Oct. 1 with an annual salary of $175,000 and had been slated for a 1-percent raise next year.
“All of this weighs heavily on me,” she said of staff members’ losing jobs and programs being cut, “and I need to lead as I live.”
The district has hosted several packed sessions as it asks for community response on closing a looming budget gap. Last year, to keep the tax hike around 4 percent, Guilderland cut 56 jobs and passed an $87.4 million budget. Keeping the hike at 4 percent next year with a rollover budget with the same staff and programs would entail cutting about $4 million.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Guilderland School Board president, Richard Weisz, recommended checking with the school’s attorney to set up a template in case others wanted to follow Wiles’s example.
Wiles told The Enterprise after the meeting that she wanted to “lead by example.” Asked if she thought others would follow her lead, she said, “Concessions have to come from individuals. Some individuals have already approached me about making some kind of concession.”
Wiles’s Tuesday announcement came the day after Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is calling for across-the-board cuts to close the state’s deficit, issued a press release applauding the neighboring Bethlehem School District because its top administrators are voluntarily freezing their wages.
“This is a responsible and sensible first step that recognizes the state’s current fiscal condition and I encourage school districts across New York to find ways to reduce costs and put children first,” Cuomo said in his statement, echoing points he made during his budget presentation.
He proposed an overall reduction in school aid of 7.3 percent from $20.9 billion to $19.4 billion. If his plan were adopted, Guilderland would lose $2.1 million, down from this year’s $22.9 million to $20.8 million.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Wiles reported that, in the executive budget, Guilderland was recognized for its “administrative efficiency” by receiving back $191,392 in state aid. Guilderland had been targeted to lose $4.2 million through the gap elimination adjustment but, said Wiles, “Because our cost of central administration compared to our total expenditures was among the lowest in the state, the district was granted additional aid.”
Complaints on raises
Tuesday’s meeting started with several citizens giving their views on next year’s budget and making some points about administrators. Later in the meeting, Weisz went on at length, explaining the board’s position in negotiating a three-year contract with 10 administrators who received a retroactive raise of 3.5 percent and then two annual raises of 2.6 percent.
Before the 3.5-percent was added, annual salaries for the administrators ranged from $75,000 to $107,263. The Enterprise broke the story last week. (For the full story, go online to www.altamontenterprise.com and look under Guilderland archives for Feb. 10, 2011.)
Steve Nagle urged the board on Tuesday to “engage in true zero-based budgeting,” and to analyze the “true educational benefits” of having three house principals and a building principal at the middle school, and three assistant principals, a principal, and a dean at the high school.
He suggested not replacing the high school principal, Brian McCann, who is retiring on June 30; the board accepted his resignation on Tuesday as part of its “consent agenda.”
With contracts up for negotiation, Nagle urged the board to “re-think and re-formulate” even the school day. “Take bold steps to improve the district and not continue with business as usual,” he said.
He questioned the “same-day vote” the board had on the contract for the Guilderland School Administrators’ Association and said, “That ratification does not bode well.”
The federal, state and town of Guilderand governments all understand the need to hold down wages, he said. “The board just didn’t get it,” said Nagle.
Nancy Shulman, the mother of a Westmere Elementary student and a Farnsworth Middle School student, said, when comparing her sixth-grader’s education to her third-grader’s, she could see how budget cuts have had “a concrete and negative effect on her educational experience.”
Shulman, too, listed the administrators at the high school, adding in department supervisors, and said their salaries totaled more than a million dollars. “It just blows me away,” she said, comparing Guilderland to her larger high school on Long Island, which had fewer administrators.
Shulman urged a “thorough analysis of every function,” advocating “nip and tuck” over “amputation.”
“Giving administrators a raise this year is just ludicrous,” said Timothy Burke, stating that the raises come at the expense of lay-offs.
He lamented watching programs being dismantled so people can retire with higher pensions.
“My 2-year-old is not going to get the same services your children got,” Burke told the board members. “A big part of that is salaries…That’s the biggest nut here.”
He urged making sacrifices to hold on to jobs.
“We still have some work to do, educating the public on legal restraints with collective bargaining,” said Weisz. Bargaining, he said, means that each side sometimes gets some of what it wants and some of what it doesn’t want.
As he had at a Feb. 7 community budget forum, Weisz cited the 1982 Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which requires that the terms of a contract continue if a new one hasn’t been agreed upon, so, for example, if a contract specifies a certain annual raise, that raise will continue until a new contract is in place. They can’t strike, said Weisz, and we can’t change their compensation until we have a new contract.
“Why can’t we freeze wages?” Weisz asked, answering himself, “Because it is against the law.”
The school board, he went on, has no role in setting pensions.
Since health-insurance costs are growing at a rate that, Weisz said, “is not sustainable,” the board has decided to move from the current model, in which Guilderland employees pay 20 percent of their health-insurance costs and the district pays 80 percent, to a model where employees pay 25 percent and the district pays 75 percent.
Some school districts pay 100 percent, he said, and the governor is trying to get a 17-83 split.
About $10 million of Guilderland’s roughly $90 million budget goes for health-insurance costs, said Weisz.
“So how do you approach your staff when you can’t make them take a cut?” he asked. “The answer is, you bargain.”
As a concession during last year’s budget development process, the 10 members of the Administrators’ Association agreed to pay 25-percent of their health-insurance costs this year.
Under the contract, for the second and third years, the association members agreed to pay 21 percent of their health-insurance costs while the district pays 79 percent. And they’ve agreed to begin the next contract with a 22-78 split.
“With any agreement, there has to be trust…” said Weisz. “If you don’t have the trust…you’re not going to negotiate.”
Wiesz said that Guilderland generally doesn’t use outside negotiators, but rather district administrators, which saves money.
“We’re very sensitive to the frustration you’ve heard tonight,” he said.
The school board meets, as the law allows, in closed session to discuss contract negotiations. “When we meet in executive session, we have a pretty direct discussion,” said Weisz. “First, the board works out a number…It goes back and forth…there is no pre-ordained number.”
Recent negotiations, he said, have included a “tremendous amount of clean-up” or clarifying of the language. Once a contract is ratified, Weisz said, it will be posted on the school district’s website.
On why the school board voted at the same meeting that the ratification first appeared on its agenda rather than at the following meeting, Weisz said that the decision to ratify is typically reached at 11:30 at night. “Do we come back two weeks later?” he asked, referring to the next meeting date. “Our practice has been to vote that night as a sign of respect to the bargaining unit.”
Guilderland contracts do not traditionally include job-protection language, Weisz went on, as staffing needs change depending on class sizes. Losing people, he said, is “a sad thing.” A ratification doesn’t mean everybody has a job, he said.
Making a final point, about the possibility of re-opening contracts, Weisz said, “I believe, when you cut a deal, you cut a deal for better or worse.”
The New York State School Boards Association released results of a poll this week that showed an “overwhelming majority” of school board members believe their districts should ask unions to re-open contracts to freeze wages or make health-care concessions as Cuomo proposed.
In December, Guilderland was in the midst of or on the cusp of negotiating with half of its 12 bargaining units, including the two largest ones the Guilderland Teachers’ Association with 494 members and the Guilderland Employees’ Association with 208 members.
“We understand we’re in a difficult situation,” said Weisz.
He noted that, with computers, the state requires districts to develop and report all sorts of information. “Do we have teachers come out of the classrooms to do it?” he asked, explaining that, when administrators do such work, teachers are free to teach.
“We like to think we’re striking a fair balance,” said Weisz.
He also said that “administrator” had become a nasty word and concluded, “We’re all in this together.”