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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 7, 2011

With $288K more in state aid, board discusses what posts, programs to restore

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — It looks like the school board will adopt a budget proposal next week with a tax-rate hike of about 3.5 percent for Guilderland residents.

On Tuesday night, two board members pushed for a 3-percent cap while the others said that would mean not restoring programs the public had pleaded for.

In light of adjustments made to the superintendent’s March 1 proposal for an $89 million plan with a 4-percent tax hike — most notably a restoration of $288,243 in state aid — school board members took turns Tuesday night, stating what programs they would like to keep.

Superintendent Marie Wiles said that one bargaining unit — the Administrators’ Association, which has 10 members, including, special-education administrators, middle-school house principals, high-school assistant principals, and an assistant physical education director — had agreed to a $10,575 salary concession.

Earlier this year, the board sparked controversy when it ratified a three-year contract with the Administrators’ Association, which added 3.5 percent to the 2009-10 base salaries in the current school year and raises of 2.6 percent for each of the following two years.

The district has asked for concessions from each of the board’s 12 bargaining units, both the ones with which it is currently negotiating and the ones that already have contracts in place.

Towards the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Richard Weisz, the school board president, said, “I am sad and disappointed we didn’t get more response from some of our larger units.”

The board is now in the midst of negotiations with the Teachers’ Association, the district’s largest unit with 494 members, including teachers, guidance counselors, school social workers, librarians, registered school nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists. The next biggest unit is the Employees’ Association with 208 members, including cooks and cashiers, food-service helpers, bus drivers and bus aids, building maintenance mechanics, auto mechanics and bus garage helpers, custodial workers, groundskeepers, and a messenger.

Weisz likened it to sharing a restaurant meal and dividing up the check at the end. “We split up the check,” he said. “Someone with one of the nicest meals at the table should have thrown a couple of bucks in.”

Without concessions, he said, there would be “less for the kids and fewer teachers.”

“I feel sorry for Dick,” said Timothy Burke, a frequent critic of the board, speaking during the public comment period at the close of the meeting. “He was such an advocate for the unions.”

The proposed budget includes roughly $1 million to cover the status quo of a contract, like step increases, if a new contract is not settled upon, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders. It also includes money for raises beyond that, although Sanders would not reveal how much, explaining to The Enterprise earlier, “We want to negotiate a contract without telling what’s in the budget.”

Burke said Tuesday night of the unions’ not stepping up with concessions, “Unions are creating a burden that will end up costing kids, programs, and their jobs.”

The $89 million budget Wiles had proposed on March 1 cut roughly 44 jobs. With a 3.9-percent tax hike, Guilderland residents would have paid 79 cents more per $1,000 of assessed valuation in their taxes or roughly $20.83 per $1,000.

The $88,684,155 budget that formed the baseline for Tuesday’s discussion cut roughly 41 jobs and would mean a tax hike of about 3 percent.

Adjustments to the March 1 budget included a decrease of $300,000 in projected health-insurance costs and an $83,000 decrease in salary costs because of the retirement of highly paid teachers being replaced with new teachers at lower salaries.

Also, in addition to the restored state aid, there was a surplus of $155,000 from the recent construction project.

If voters defeat the budget on May 17, the board can put the same budget up for a vote, put a revised budget up for a vote, or move to a contingency plan. If the budget were to be voted down again in June, the board would be required to move to a contingent budget.

The contingent budget would have to be less than 1.92 percent of the current budget, said Sanders. The contingent base would be $82.8 million to which funds set aside for tax challenges, debt service, and charter school expenses would be added back in for a total of just over $90 million.

“Currently, we’re already below the contingent budget cap,” said Sanders.

What to keep

Board members on Tuesday praised this year’s budget process during which staff and community members attended forums where they met in small groups to discuss what programs should be cut. The process replaced a Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, during which volunteers reviewed the superintendent’s budget proposal in detail in a series of televised sessions before giving their opinions.

Board members listened this year to public comments — largely from students and parents arguing for the worth of programs slated to be cut — and said they received more e-mails and letters than ever before.

Their comments on Tuesday, from the eight members present and from Barbara Fraterrigo who e-mailed her comments, reflected the public’s pleas. From a list of 20 options, those garnering the most support were restoring the sixth-grade foreign language program, restoring instrumental lessons for juniors and seniors and restoring co-curricular music programs, restoring high school and middle school clubs, restoring indoor track and fall cheerleading, and restoring a middle-school social worker.

Six board members favored keeping the sixth-grade foreign-language program at a cost of $110,400.

Several board members spoke of the importance of foreign languages in a global economy. “The state is way behind…,” said Gloria Towle-Hilt of not requiring foreign-language study earlier than high school. “Why should we go down to that level?”

Restoring music lessons for 11th and 12th-graders would cost $34,500. Several board members distinguished between clubs and co-curricular activities and most supported restoring the music programs.

Ski Club is extra-curricular, said Colleen O’Connell, while music ensembles are co-curricular. “We have to make that distinction very clear,” she said. O’Connell also said it helps reduce the drop-out rate if kids feel connected to school.

Weisz said co-curricular activities that serve as apprenticeships for careers, as in music or media, should be supported.

Restoring middle-school clubs would cost $50,890 and restoring high-school clubs would cost $69,7000. These funds pay for advisors’ salaries.

Emilio Genzano, who headed Friends Of Guilderland Athletics (FOGA) last year, which raised funds from the community to restore the cut freshman and repeat sports, suggested joining co-curricular and athletic programs together and, using FOGA as a model, fund part of the costs through the school budget and part through community fund-raising. No other board member even alluded to funding freshman sports for next year.

Five board members favored re-instating what had been called “repeat sports” — fall cheerleading and indoor track — for a cost of $19,970. Many indoor track athletes had addressed the board, not only speaking for the value of their sport but also stating it was very different from outdoor track.

Six board members said the social worker in the middle school, slated to be cut, should be kept for $74,000.

Denise Eisele spoke passionately about the need for a social worker to support a program with 26 students, whom she described as “the most fragile students at the middle school.” She went on, “If you don’t feel safe, you can’t learn.”

Eisele also said that parents will broach difficult subjects — like sexual abuse, attempted suicide, and sampling drugs — with the social worker whom they trust, which they wouldn’t discuss with a teacher.

“This is the last program in our district before these kids have to be put in outside placements,” said Eisele. “Outside placements are very, very expensive.”

Fraterrigo wrote that she had been assured that removing the social worker wouldn’t hurt the special-education program; if it would, she would restore the post.

Vice President Catherine Barber referred to a report the board had hired a consultant to do, looking at the district’s special-education program and finding ways to make it more efficient and cost-effective. The report noted there was no criteria for referring students to social-work services and that the district had 11 social workers — twice as many as needed, she said.

District committees reviewing the report had found criteria was lacking, but, said Barber, “made no budget recommendations whatsoever.” She asked, “How do we know who needs to be referred without specific criteria?” She also asked, “How are these inefficiencies going to be addressed?”

Weisz pointed out that, from the list of possible cuts, the social worker was the one thing the staff agreed should be kept.

Just two board members spoke up for integrated classes ($124,200) and for teaching Spanish in the elementary schools ($72,000).

Barber said it took a generation to get the teaching of foreign language back into the elementary schools. “If we let it go,” she said, after all the research on how much better it is to learn a language at a young age, “we’ll skip another generation…If you let it go, it’s not coming back any time soon.”

No mention was made of a half-dozen other proposed cuts, ranging from field trips and one day’s late-bus run to a half-time private-school nurse and decreasing Regents class size at the high school.

Full-day kindergarten remained controversial, with three board members (Barber, Fraterrigo, and Allen Simpson) advocating a return to a half-day program for a savings of $605,000, and five wanting to continue the two-year-old full-day program.

“We knew three years ago we had a fiscal crisis on the horizon…and chose to put in full-day kindergarten,” said Simpson who was not on the board at the time.

Towle-Hilt, on the other hand, described the full-day program as an investment in the future. “My dad told me as a little kid, even if you made a dollar…put something aside,” she said. “Sometimes it hurts.”

Looking for clarity on setting the tax rate

After the board members had finished giving their views, Wiles asked for “clarity” from the board. She wanted the “bottom line on where we need to end on the tax rate.”

Genzano and Simpson advocated for close to 3 percent while the others said that would be impossible if items were to be restored, and favored a 3.5- or 3.7-percent hike.

“A lot of community members are taking a big hit,” said Genzano.

“We’re all in this together,” agreed Simpson, noting he was disappointed in the unions’ concessions. “If you’re in education and kids are hurt,” he said, you have to be willing “to make a couple of sacrifices.”

Keeping the tax rate down, Simpson said, would “stiff arm” the unions to concede.

“To say ‘stiff arm,’ no,” said Judy Slack.

Weisz said he didn’t want to punish kids by lowering the rate and thereby cutting programs.

Towle-Hilt, a retired teacher, said she had come to Guilderland in the 1970s and talked about how supportive the community has been for decades. Now, she said, it’s reaching a point where people just can’t pay more as they are getting no raises themselves or even losing their jobs. “We need help,” she said.

Barber pointed out that, without restoring any cut programs, the tax-rate increase would be at 3.01 percent. “We’ve heard clearly from the community,” she said on what people consider critical.

Genzano suggested cutting things within the budget while still making the additions.

“But what?” asked an exasperated Towle-Hilt, raising her hands in the air.

“We need to look a little closer,” replied Genzano.

Weisz said that would mean making “aggressive assumptions” about the cost estimates for items and asked: What happens if you run out of money before the end of the year?

Sanders said that now any surplus goes into the fund balance and is used to lower taxes; if that’s depleted, he said, it couldn’t be tapped the next year.

Weisz then re-iterated his concerns the state may impose a 2-percent tax cap next year that, along with rising pension costs, would mean the district would have to make even more severe cuts.

Simpson, who joined the board this year, recommended looking at health-care costs.

“Allan, we have,” said Towle-Hilt.

Barber noted that returning to half-day kindergarten would lower the tax rate by 1 percent.

“There’s no question we can save money by offering less to kids,” replied Weisz.

With Simpson and Genzano advocating a 3-percent hike and the others clustered at 3.5 to 3.7, Wiles asked, “Should I average?”

“It takes five to pass a budget,” replied Weisz.

“Any other questions?” he asked Wiles.

“No!” she exclaimed.

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